Although they have existed through the centuries, partnerships between missionaries and churches have recently become a topic of greater interest both in church and in mission circles. Churches and mission leaders are increasingly aware of how they need each other to accomplish the tasks God has given them. Different forms of that partnership are being discussed and worked out.
As popular as this theme is becoming, and as well developed as it is in Paul’s brief letter to the congregation in Philippi, it is ironic that so few understand how central the missionary-church partnership is in Philippians. The Apostle Paul’s relationship with that young congregation is an outstanding example of how a partnership between a missionary and a church ought to be built. As we will see in the following commentary, this issue is Paul’s central concern in his letter to the congregation in Philippi.
Many churches, especially in the West, want to supplement the traditional partnership role of praying for and financially supporting their career missionaries, but they are unclear about what sort of new partnerships they might build in order to increase their involvement in missions and in the lives of their missionaries.
Many missionary candidates find the idea of developing missions partnerships with local churches overwhelming. They should read Philippians carefully, and see what a high privilege it is for a church to be a part of a missions partnership! Without any sense of embarrassment or apology, Paul tells the congregations that the gifts they have sent him are “a soothing aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.” These are not the words of a poor orphan going from church door to church door, hoping for a few handouts. These are the words of the Apostle Paul, giving full endorsement to a partnership between churches and missionaries, in which, as the church gives to the missionary, it is as though it were giving holy sacrifices to the sons of Aaron in the Temple of God in Jerusalem! Missionaries today that are supported by local churches give those churches the privilege of participating in the ongoing worldwide ministry of missions, in obedience to the Great Commission.
In this letter we read of a partnership in which missionary and congregation care deeply for one another. This theme of love and concern is expressed explicitly in at least eight verses, and it is implied in others. Growing out of that loving concern, they pray diligently for each other. This “good work” that this partnership produces together is a work of great significance. It is a work that God will continue to the end of the age, and it is a work that will bring great reward from the Lord, if it is done well. It is a work that will be halted neither by Roman chains nor by the whim of popular fashion. The partners of this ministry partnership put the interests of others first and thus imitate our Savior. Both missionary and congregation continue in the “good work” through suffering, and thus participate in Christ’s sufferings. Some workers in this partnership do well, like valued Timothy; others like Epaphroditus, unable to contribute to the work, are sent back to the church. Issues like this are communicated with grace and honesty. The missionary models his deep dependency upon the Lord, not merely for finances, but also for his identity, value, sense of righteousness and ongoing purpose. It is without apology a partnership of giving and receiving, but no manipulative means are ever to be employed. The financial gifts that are a part of that partnership are figuratively referred to as soothing aromas and acceptable sacrifices, just like the animal sacrifices in the Book of Leviticus. It is a partnership which above all brings glory to God, forever and ever.
This study is broken up into several sections. There is a brief section about the city of Philippi, followed by a discussion of Paul and his relationship with the church in Philippi. After that, the place and date of the writing of the letter are briefly discussed, and the purpose of the letter is given. Then this author’s own translation of the letter is presented. It differs in some places from other translations. Sometimes this is simply a different choice of similar words, sometimes because this author has a slightly different understanding of Paul’s intention, and eleven times1 it is because this author accepts the Majority Text view rather than what is called the Critical Text to determine which Greek words were original in the few place the existing Greek manuscripts of Philippians differ from one another.2
After the translation, there is a section titled “Synthesis: How the Letter Unfolds.” Each book of the Bible is great literature (of course, it is much, much more than great literature), and, as great literature, its parts are not arranged in a haphazard way. Each paragraph is tied into the previous one, and each leads on the next. Sometimes these connections are obvious, and sometimes they are more difficult for us to perceive. Sometimes they are marked with a helpful “therefore” or “but,” and sometimes they are not explained at all. The synthesis section attempts to make this flow of thought more clear. It shows how all the paragraphs relate to each another. Understanding the whole flow of thought will deepen our understanding of each individual sentence, just as each sentence must contribute to the overall flow of thought. After the synthesis, the commentary begins. The synthesis and the translation are repeated as the commentary goes through each verse of the letter. Some readers may be interested in the details and comments on Greek words that have been placed in the endnotes.
The four centuries between the day Philippi was founded and the day Paul's letter to the church there was first read were filled with a rich history of springs, gold, battles, and political privilege.
The village of Krenides,3 meaning “Springs,” was located on a fertile plain in northeastern Greece. Mount Pangaeus provided protection to the north and northeast, as did the rivers Strymon and Nestos on either side. Likewise a very rocky ridge protected the village from the sea. Those were all good characteristics for a settlement, so it was not surprising that 420 years prior to the writing of Paul's letter to the congregation that would live there, Greek settlers, led by an Athenian, took over the place from local residents.
Four years later, Philip of Macedon conquered Krenides. As pleased as he may have been with the lay of the land, it was the gold and silver mines nearby that attracted him. He fortified the settlement, and renamed it after himself. Krenides became Philippi. Philip of Macedon's miners extracted the huge sum of a thousand talents4 a year from those mines. Since Philip's son, Alexander, conquered so much of that part of the world and brought Greek culture to the whole region, it may not be too much to say that the gold of the Philippian mines bankrolled the Hellenization of the known world. The “goat” prophesied in Daniel 8:5-8 used gold from Philippi for his conquests.
About 230 years before Paul’s letter was written, Rome conquered the area. Then 100 years before Paul’s letter, Mark Antony and Octavian defeated Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar, in the Battle of Philippi.5 That battle brought fame to Philippi, and many of the victors' army veterans were rewarded with retirement there. Their retirement “pension” would have included tracts of valuable land.6 All that also brought Philippi the elevated status of being a Roman colony, with the high privilege of ius Italicum, or “Italian Law.” This meant that the laws of Rome applied in Philippi, and citizens of Philippi automatically possessed Roman citizenship with all its valuable legal privileges. It meant that the Macedonian provincial government had no authority there, and Philippi was directly under the control of Rome. When Philippi was granted ius Italicum it meant that legally Philippi may as well have been physically located in Italy.
We may think it a shame to be a colony of any empire, but in that day practically the whole known world of the West was a part of the Roman Empire. As a colony enjoying Roman citizenship, “Italian Law,” many tax exemptions, and direct Roman rule, they would perceive themselves with some pride as a branch of victorious Rome rather than a conquered territory. The architecture of Philippi’s buildings, the plan of the city, and the dress of its inhabitants were carefully copied from Rome. They spoke Latin. Doubtless at the time Paul’s letter was written, the children of Philippi knew by heart many stories that began, “When your great-grandfather was an officer under Caesar Augustus he led his men along this path right here and stormed the gates of Brutus' camp – you can still see the ruined gates there….”
Philippi's history produced a mix of cultures and ethnicity, with a strong component of loyalty to Rome. The Philippian congregation, especially the citizens in the congregation, lived with this high status. Their city also enjoyed good agriculture, strategic location and travel routes,7 and a famous school of medicine. In Acts 16:21, when the owners of the slave girl that had been delivered from a demon bring Paul and Silas to the authorities, accusing them of “proclaiming customs that are not lawful for us to receive or practice, we being Romans,” we may detect a bit of the local pride of being a Roman colony. The magistrates' alarm upon learning that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens (Acts 16:38) gives us insight into the protection and privilege of Roman citizenship.
This history of the city of Philippi reaches back to unknown springs, once fabulously rich gold mines, battles between defenders of the Republic and founders of the Empire, and pensioned soldiers.
On his second missionary journey, in about ad 49, Paul and his team8 brought the Gospel to Philippi, as is recounted for us in Acts 16. The congregation in Philippi was the first in Europe of which we have certain knowledge.9 As he left that area, the church helped him financially, according to Philippians 4:15.
While he was in Thessalonica, the Philippian church sent Paul at least two financial gifts according to Philippians 4:16. Later while he was in Corinth some brothers from Macedonia (most likely from Philippi) sent more aid according to 2 Corinthians 11:7-9.
Acts 20:1-6 records two later visits to Macedonia and Philippi at about ad 55-57 on the way to Greece and then on the return trip which ended in Jerusalem. 2 Corinthians 8:1-5 tells is that during this trip the Macedonian believers, again probably in Philippi, made unsolicited contributions to the collection for the believers in Jerusalem. It was in Jerusalem of course that Paul was arrested, an arrest that finally put him under house arrest in Rome. There he probably wrote his letters to the Ephesians, the Philippians, the Colossians, and Philemon, as will be discussed below. While under arrest there, the Philippian congregation sent him a financial gift and the services of Epaphroditus, according to 2:30 and 4:18. Thus they sent Paul at least five gifts, and contributed to the needs of the saints in Jerusalem through him. Even in its purely financial aspects, (though we will see that there were several other aspects as well) this was a serious Gospel partnership.
Tradition10 and the consensus of scholars agree that Paul wrote the Prison Epistles (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon) from the house arrest in Rome that is described in Acts 28:16-31 sometime in ad 60-62. It has also been suggested that he wrote them during his imprisonment in Caesarea (Acts 23:33–27:1), or during an unrecorded imprisonment in Ephesus.
The tone of optimism of possible release (Philippians 1:19 and 25) does not fit with the imprisonment in Caesarea, nor does the possibility of execution (1:20), because he knew he could always appeal to Caesar. Also, 1:13-17 imply that there was a considerable number of Christian workers preaching the Gospel in town, which is inconsistent with what we know of Caesarea, but consistent with Rome. Furthermore, there would be nothing noteworthy about the whole imperial guard11 of Caesarea knowing that Paul was in chains for Christ (1:13) because in Caesarea the imperial guard was a small group of men. In Rome the term would refer to a group of 9000 men, a remarkable audience. Likewise the “household of Caesar” in 4:22 would seem to point to Rome.
While Ephesus has also been proposed as the location where Paul wrote Philippians, there is no record of Paul ever being imprisoned there. As discussed above, if he were, he would not fear execution in Ephesus because as a Roman citizen he had the right to appeal to Caesar. The one advantage Ephesus has is that it would make the several journeys between the city of origin and Philippi easier to fit into the required time frame.
Between the time Paul was imprisoned to the writing of the letter, the following journeys had to take place:
1. Someone brought the news to Philippi that Paul was imprisoned again.
2. Epaphroditus had to travel from Philippi to Paul with the gift.
3. Someone brought the news to Philippi of Epaphroditus' illness.
4. Someone brought the news to Epaphroditus of how worried the congregation was about him.
Nevertheless there was frequent travel between the Philippian colony and the center of the Empire. The journey from Philippi to Rome could take as little as ten days, and the journey from Rome to Philippi as little as twenty days.12 While it is not a certainty, it does seem most likely that the letter was written while Paul was under house arrest in Rome, in ad 60-62. To allow for those journeys, for the situation of 1:12-18 to develop, for Paul to give up hope that Epaphroditus would recover from his excessive worry, and for the impending judicial decision for or against Paul, the letter would have been written late in that period.
The Philippian congregation has become partners with Paul in his missionary work, as manifested by their recent generous giving. Paul writes to thank them and to ensure that they will be the best partners in Gospel ministry they can be, as they make others more important than themselves as Christ did and as they make Christ and His grace their boast and their joy in life.
1 Critical Text vs Majority Text
2 The reader may want to read the introductions to the New King James Bible or Zane Hodges' The Greek New Testament for more details about the Majority Text position.
4 The weight of a talent varied between 26 and 36 kilograms, or 57 and 80 pounds. At today's gold price one thousand talents of gold would cost about US$560,000,000.
5 Brutus and Cassius had assassinated Julius Caesar in defense of the Roman Republic. Mark Antony and Octavian set out to destroy them and their armies to avenge Julius Caesar's death and to ensure their own takeover of the Roman Republic. It is estimated that both sides threw 100,000 men into the conflict.
6 Eleven years after the Battle of Philippi Mark Antony and Octavian, former allies, fought it out between themselves at the strange naval Battle of Actium, off the western shore of Greece. In the heat of that battle, Antony inexplicably abandoned the fight and followed his famous lover, Cleopatra, with her treasure laden ships, to open sea. Octavian was victorious, the Republic would never be restored, and he was the uncontested Emperor of Rome. He stripped Mark Antony's allies of their estates in Italy, but allowed them to relocate in Philippi. A side note of interest is that it was this Octavian, known also as Caesar Augustus, that supported Herod the Great, confirmed his title of “King,” and expanded his kingdom’s territory.
7 The Roman road that served as the main route from Asia to the west, the Via Egnatia, ran right through Philippi.
8 From the use of the first person plural, it seems that Luke joined Paul's team in Troas (Acts 16:10) and stayed with the team until the team left Philippi. Then he seems to rejoin the team when the team left Philippi on its way to Jerusalem (Acts 20:6). It is reasonable to guess that Luke remained to serve in Philippi for several years, later rejoining Paul's team.
9 From Acts 2:10 we know that some visitors from Rome became believers on that Day of Pentecost in Jerusalem. Hopefully some of them returned to Rome and started a congregation there, but we do not know that for certain. Also, Acts 18:2 indicates that Aquila and Priscilla had come from Rome at about the same time as Paul's initial visit to Philippi. Hopefully they came from a congregation in Rome, but again there are no statements in the NT about their congregation there.
10 The earliest of those traditions is the second century Marcionite Prologue, which says Paul wrote to the Philippians “from prison in Rome.”
11 See the discussion of 1:13.
12 Casson, Travel in the Ancient World, pp. 151-153.