The first mention in Scripture of the city of Philippi is contained in the record given in Acts 16:12-40 which recalls Paul’s ministry there during his second missionary journey. The apostle had the unusual experience of being forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach in the province of Asia and was denied permission to go into Bithynia. While at Troas awaiting guidance from God, Paul had a vision in which he saw a man of Macedonia who besought him to come into Macedonia and help them. Paul and his companions, taking this vision as assurance that God had called them to preach the gospel there, sailed from Troas and eventually came to Philippi, a prominent city of Macedonia and a Roman colony.
The significance of this first invasion of Europe with the gospel is readily apparent. Europe was to be the cradle of Christianity in the centuries to come and the principal springboard by which the gospel was to reach the ends of the earth. In carrying the message of salvation to Philippi, Paul was acting on the express commands of God.
There seems to have been no Jewish synagogue there, and those of the Jews who wished to meet for prayer were allowed to gather in a certain place by the river. Paul used this meeting place to speak to them of the gospel with the result that the first convert, Lydia from the city of Thyatira, believed with her household, and offered her home to Paul as a base for his operations. Paul’s continued testimony brought him into conflict with a demon-possessed damsel out of whom he later cast the demon. The owners of this slave girl accused Paul before the magistrates and Paul and Silas were cast into prison. The well-known story of their song of praise at midnight, even though their feet were in the stocks and their backs bleeding, the sudden earthquake, the loosing of the prisoners, and the resulting conversion of the Philippian jailer and his family form the historical context for the founding of the Philippian church. As indicated in 2 Corinthians 2:13 and 7:5, Paul had renewed his contact with the Philippian church in connection with his third missionary journey. There seems to have been some previous correspondence and contact between Paul and Philippi, the most recent of which was the sending of Epaphroditus to Paul while a prisoner in Rome. The immediate occasion of the Epistle to the Philippians was to express to the Philippian church his thankfulness for their gift and token of love. Epaphroditus who had been seriously ill while visiting Paul in Rome (2:26-27) was now about to return, and this afforded an opportunity for Paul to send them the letter. He therefore grasped the opportunity not only to thank them for their gift but to inform them of his own situation and to exhort them to continued unity and steadfastness.
The most common view of the place of origin and time of the Epistle to the Philippians is that it was written during the imprisonment of Paul in Rome, probably at the close of his two years mentioned in Acts 28:30. The resultant approximate date is generally believed to be 62-63 A.D. Though this point of view has received approval on the part of the large majority of conservative scholars, some have discussed alternative views. The Scriptures record, of course, a number of imprisonments of Paul. The book of Acts speaks of four such imprisonments: Philippi (Acts 16:23-39); Jerusalem (Acts 21:33 ff.); Caesarea (Acts 23:23-35); and his imprisonment in Rome (Acts 28:16-31). As the imprisonments in Philippi and Caesarea were short, the only alternative would be the imprisonment in Caesarea. The references to the characteristics of his imprisonment, especially his testimony to the Praetorian Guard, would seem to eliminate Caesarea. Another suggestion that he might have been imprisoned in Ephesus, even though Acts does not specifically mention such an imprisonment, does not have sufficient solid evidence to support it. Even those who attempt to relate the other prison epistles to Caesarea usually concede that the Philippian epistle came from Rome. On the presumption that this was the first of Paul’s two Roman imprisonments and that he was freed as he anticipated (Phil. 1:25-26), the traditional interpretation has by far superior weight.
The Epistle to the Philippians contains important theological sections, but the predominant theme is that of joyous Christian experience. Though in sharp contrast to Paul’s dismal circumstances as a prisoner, his exulting heart is manifested in constant references to his rejoicing in Christ. Sixteen times in various ways he speaks of rejoicing in the epistle. Other aspects of Christian experience such as love, confidence, and devotion to Christ are frequently mentioned. The letter is one of the most personal of all the epistles of Paul and is written with a fatherly attitude rather than authoritative pronouncement. Looming large also in the epistle is the manifestation of abounding love in Christ and parallel exhortations to unity, oneness of mind, and co-ordination of witness. There is no evidence that serious doctrinal difficulties or moral defection existed in the Philippian church. The pointed exhortation to Euodias and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2) indicates that he had some concern that there might be improvement in the matter of being of one mind. Though the epistle is largely practical, it nevertheless contains one of the great theological passages of the New Testament, in Paul’s delineation of the humiliation, suffering, and death of Christ (Phil. 2:6-8). Likewise the description of the resurrection body of believers as being patterned after the glorious body of Christ is an important detail in the believer’s hope (3:20-21). Most valuable in the epistle, however, is the revelation of Paul’s attitude of devotion and sacrifice illustrating that which Christ demonstrated to the full in His own humiliation.
There is progression in the development of Philippians, chapter one speaking of Paul’s own sufferings as magnifying Christ; chapter two portraying four illustrations of lowly service, namely, Christ, Paul, Timothy, and Epaphroditus; chapter three speaking of the believer’s hope in time and eternity, and his attendant responsibility of pressing on; and chapter four unfolding Christ as the believer’s peace and strength. Few portions of Scripture are richer in their spiritual content than these four chapters.
Except for a few radical critics and the Tubingen school, the integrity of the Epistle to the Philippians has been generally recognized. The epistle itself claims to be written by Paul (Phil. 1:1), and the use of the personal pronoun “I” throughout the epistle makes plain that this is a personal letter. There is little in the letter that would raise questions about its integrity. In the early church it was readily accepted as a letter of Paul, and the early fathers such as Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Irenaeus all allude to this epistle or quote from it. It is also found in the Muratorian Canon and in the Apostolicon of Marcion. Most of the objections to Pauline authorship and the integrity of the epistle are based on trivialities such as Paul’s inclusion of “bishops and deacons” in his address, which some feel point to a later stage in the organization of the church. The fact, however, that Paul had appointed elders in Acts 14 and that deacons are mentioned as early as Acts 6 makes this objection meaningless. Attention has also been focused on the so-called kenosis passage in Philippians 2 as being not Pauline, but rather Gnostic in its background. There is nothing, however, in this passage to indicate Paul’s concurrence with the Gnostic ideas which contradicted Pauline theology nor can it be shown that it opposes any other theological position of Paul as given in his other letters. The unity of the epistle has also been questioned on the ground that chapter three with its attack on false teachers is out of keeping with the rest of the epistle. Numerous instances of sharp change in thought, however, in other Pauline epistles such as the passage in 2 Corinthians 10-13 make this a perfectly normal literary vehicle for the thought of the apostle as he covered various items of instruction for the Philippian church. The evidence for the unity of the epistle far outweighs any arguments against it.
The Epistle of Paul to the Philippians rightfully claims a large part in the revelation given through Paul. In this letter are numerous exhortations to unity, oneness of mind, and abounding Christian love which are central features in the will of God for His church. Theologically, the second chapter of Philippians is an important doctrinal statement of the humiliation of Christ couched in words of tremendous meaning. The largest benefit of the epistle, however, is in the practical and spiritual realm. Its high standard of Christian love, the selfless devotion of Paul, and the high standards of Christian experience continue to provide the contemporary church with divine instruction on these important themes. Not only does every evidence point to its authenticity and inspiration, but the epistle itself is a treasure store of divine truth which has proved of immeasurable benefit to those who have studied its contents.