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Introduction, Background, and Outline to Philippians

A Map of Philippi and Surrounding Regions

The City of Philippi and the Origin of the Church There

The city of Philippi, as one can see from the map, is located in north eastern Greece (Macedonia). The city was already ancient by the time Paul arrived there around 49 CE (Acts 16:11-40). In fact, its beginnings go back to the fourth century BCE when it was occupied by the Thracians. In 356 BCE, however, Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, took over the city and named it after himself. He eventually established it as a military stronghold in order to protect the lands he had already acquired and the nearby gold mines which yielded him yearly a thousand talents. It was also important as a land route across Asia.1 In 168 BC Philippi became part of the Roman empire when the latter defeated the Persians at the battle of Pydna and Macedonia was divided into four districts, Philippi belonging to the first.

Philippi is famous for one particular event. In 42 BCE Mark Antony and Octavian defeated Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar, in a battle at Philippi. Later in 31 BCE when Octavian defeated Antony and Cleopatra at Actium, he assumed the named Augustus and rebuilt the city of Philippi. He placed retired soldiers there to ensure loyalty to Rome and established it as a military outpost. He also gave the new colony the highest privilege obtainable by a Roman provincial municipality—the ius italicum. Colonists could buy, own, or transfer property and maintained the right to civil lawsuits. They were also exempt from the poll and land tax.2

When Paul came to the city around 49 CE, Philippi was an urban center at the eastern end of the plain, a few miles northwest from Neapolis. The people there were both Romans and Greeks and spoke predominantly Greek even though Latin was the official language.3

The church in Philippi was founded by the apostle Paul on his second missionary journey, recorded in Acts 16:1-40. Paul originally went to Macedonia because of a night vision described for us in Acts 16:9. In it Paul saw a man of Macedonia standing and asking that he come over to help them. Paul responded and so the gospel went triumphantly westward beginning in Philippi as the first city to be evangelized in Europe.

When Paul arrived in the city of Philippi he stayed there several days (Acts 16:12). The religious life of those in Philippi was marked by very syncretistic practices including the worship of the emperor (Julius, Augustus, and Claudius), the Egyptian gods Isis and Serapis, as well as many other deities. When the Sabbath came Paul went outside the city to the river looking for a place of prayer. The Greek text of Acts 16:13 is somewhat uncertain, but it seems that there were not enough men (i.e., 10) practicing Judaism in Philippi to have a synagogue. This being the case, Paul probably went to the Gangites River (or the Crenides river), approximately 1.5 miles away, in hopes of finding a Jewish “meeting place.” Perhaps it was near a river so that water was accessible for Jewish ritual purifications,4 though this is uncertain.

Paul spoke to the women who had gathered there, including a woman named Lydia (or perhaps the Lydian lady) who was a dealer in purple cloth and a proselyte to Judaism (Acts 16:14). She had probably converted to Judaism (since her name is a Gentile name) when living in Thyatira and brought her faith with her to Philippi. As she listened to Paul speak, the Lord opened her heart to respond. Evidently her entire household responded as well, since all of them were baptized together (Acts 16:14-15). Both the reference in Acts 16:15 to “the members of her household” and the fact that Paul and his companions stayed with her, together may indicate that Lydia was a woman of some means. This, then, is the rather auspicious beginnings of the Philippian church.

We must also note the rather lengthy section Luke devotes to Paul’s encounter with the slave girl in Philippi and the events that ensued. In Acts 16:16-18 Paul encountered a slave girl with a demonic spirit which could foretell the future and by which she earned her masters a great deal of money. Paul eventually rebuked the spirit and it left her. As a result she also lost the ability to foretell the future which created no little anger on the part of her owners. So they took Paul and Silas and brought them before the magistrates (Philippi was like a “little” Rome), charging that the missionaries were forcing them, as Roman citizens, to follow customs which were unlawful. The result was that Paul and Silas were thrown into prison after being stripped, beaten, and severely flogged (Acts 16:20-24). Around midnight there was an earthquake and all the prison doors flew open. Paul and Silas did not flee, but instead stayed and shared the gospel with the jailer who subsequently—both he and his entire family—came to the Lord (Acts 16:25-34). After Paul had made a point about his Roman citizenship5 to the magistrates who were wishing simply to release them, the missionaries went to the home of Lydia (Acts 16:35-40) and then departed for Apollonia and Thessalonica (Acts 17:1). We are uncertain as to the exact amount of time Paul stayed and ministered in Philippi on this first visit, but it is clear, nonetheless, that he had developed a deep love for them (cf, Phil 1:7). Thus we have Luke’s description of the events of the mission in Philippi—a strategic inroad for the gospel in Europe.


There has never been any serious doubt as to the authorship of the letter to the Philippians. Paul claims to have written it (1:1; on the relationship of Timothy to the writing of the letter see, “Lesson 2: The Greeting”) and when compared to say Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Galatians, all the internal characteristics of language, style, and historical facts, confirm this. The early church also speaks consistently about Pauline authorship and authority. Hawthorne comments:

Echoes of Philippians may be heard in the writings of Clement (ca. AD 95), Ignatius (ca. AD 107), Hermas (ca. AD 140), Justin Martyr (d. ca. AD 165), Melito of Sardis (d. ca. AD 190) and Theophilus of Antioch (later second century). Polycarp of Smyrna (d. ca. AD 155) addresses himself to the Philippians and directly mentions Paul as having written them (3.2). Irenaeus (d. ca. AD 200). Clement of Alexandria (d. ca. AD 215), Tertullian (d. ca. Ad 225) and the later fathers not only quote from Philippians, but assign it to Paul as well. Philippians appears in the oldest extant lists of NT writings—the Muratorian Canon (later second century) and the special canon of Marcion (d. ca. AD 160). There apparently never was a question in the minds of the Fathers of the Church as to the canonical authority of Philippians or about its authorship.6

The authorship of the book, then, according to most scholars is fairly certain: Paul wrote it. There are, however, questions about whether the letter as a whole is unified or a composite of Pauline letters sent to the Philippian church and later grouped together by an editor. These literary questions are complex and cannot be delved into here. Suffice it to say that no two scholars agree on what the various letters are within the “letter.” And, if the seams are indeed as noticeable as one would expect (e.g., there is a disjunction of sorts between 3:1 and 2) why didn’t the so-called redactor or editor do a better job of smoothing them out. In an intensely personal letter—of the sort like Philippians—there is nothing to suggest that a composite is necessary. This commentary will proceed according to the conviction that while there is some disjunction in the letter it is nonetheless a literary whole and makes good sense as such.

Date and Place of Writing

The particulars surrounding the place of writing, and also the date, are not as straight forward as the question of authorship. It is, however, obvious on a casual reading of Philippians that Paul is in prison (1:7, 13, 17) and that the Philippians know where this is since they had sent Epaphroditus to him (4:18). But the question remains as to what imprisonment is being referred to. Typically, one of three solutions is advanced: (1) Rome; (2) Ephesus; or (3) Caesarea. Once we have answered this question with a reasonable degree of certainty we can postulate a date for the book.

The traditional answer is that Paul wrote Philippians from Rome during his imprisonment there (cf. Acts 28:30). While there are many factors which contribute to a Roman provenance for the letter, there is are difficulties with this solution. Indeed, some scholars feel, on the basis of these difficulties, that another solution should be sought. The problems revolve around the length of time Paul was in Rome (2 years) and the number of visits to and from Philippi during that period—not to mention the visits Paul was planning, according to Philippians. For example, there must be enough time to have: (1) someone sent from Paul to inform the Philippians that he was in prison; (2) the Philippians send Epaphroditus to Paul with their gift for him (2:25); and (3) someone dispatched to Philippi with the report about Epaphroditus’s health. There are also three other visits mentioned in letter: (1) Epaphroditus takes the letter to Philippi (2:25); and (2) Timothy is to make a round trip to Philippi and back to Rome (2:19)7. Some scholars argue that in the ancient world this itinerary would have been impossible to complete in two years.

Motivated in part by the problems with a Roman provenance and the difficult travel schedule this creates, some scholars have argued that the letter was written from Ephesus during Paul’s ministry there (Acts 19:1ff). First, it seems that the Philippian church had helped Paul financially at the outset of his ministry around 49 CE (Phil 4:15-16). If the letter had been written from Rome, then over ten years had passed since they’d helped him again, which seems a bit long according to some scholars—especially for a church that shared such a good relationship with him (see Phil 4:10ff). Thus, they argue, it is unlikely that it was during the Roman imprisonment of 60-62 CE that Paul wrote the letter. But just because Paul mentions their renewed interest in giving (i.e., in 4:10) does not necessarily entail the idea that they had not helped him over the previous ten years.

Other scholars also argue that Paul’s desire to send Timothy with the hope of receiving him back with news from the Philippians (2:19)—even though he believes there will be a verdict soon that might end his life—is a bit strained because of the distance between Rome and Philippi. Paul’s words make more sense, scholars argue, if Timothy was to be sent from Ephesus. But this really presents no problem for the Roman imprisonment since Paul, even though he knew that there was the possibility of death, actually believed that he was going to live and be freed (Phil 1:25).

Another objection raised by certain commentators is that Paul’s opponents in 3:1-3 are most likely Judaizers—a fact which lends itself more easily to the Ephesian imprisonment where Paul is known to have had problems with the Judaizers (cf. Acts 19:8-9, 33). But as Guthrie points out, there were undoubtedly pockets of resistance sometime after the main issues were settled in Jerusalem.8 Though Paul mentions the fact that he had been in prison on many occasions (2 Cor 11:23), there is no record in Acts that he was ever imprisoned in Ephesus. Finally, against the Ephesian imprisonment is the lack of reference in Philippians to the collection for the poor in Jerusalem, though it is mentioned in every letter known to have been written around the time of Paul’s Ephesian ministry (Rom, 1 and 2 Cor). This is strange, and even more so, when one considers the fact that Paul was, on the other hand, willing to receive financial assistance from the Philippians. It seems better to interpret Phil 4:10 and the Philippian’s renewed interest in giving to Paul as a reference to their desire to help him after they had given to the saints in Jerusalem.

Other scholars have argued for a Caesarean imprisonment. Paul was imprisoned, according to Acts 24:27, for two years in Caesarea and there is the chance that the palace guard mentioned in Phil 1:13 may be the same as that mentioned in Acts 23:35, i.e., Herod’s palace guard. But the chief problem of the Caesarean view is the fact that it too, like Rome, is a considerable distance from Philippi. Apart from the fact that we know that Paul was actually imprisoned there, there is little else to commend this view.

The information we have makes it impossible to be dogmatic on this question, but the strongest view may still be Rome. If the journeys described in Philippians can be fitted in the two year imprisonment9 there is evidence that (1) there was a palace guard in Rome (Phil 1:13); (2) Paul was free to send and receive friends (Phil 2:19-30; Acts 28:30); (3) the reference to “Caesar’s household” fits well with a Roman imprisonment (Phil 4:22); (4) “most of the brothers in the Lord” (Phil 1:14) may indicate a well established church which fits well with the Roman church (and not so well with what we know about the church in Caesarea); (5) the fact that Paul was faced with the possibility of death fits best with Rome since had he been elsewhere he could have always appealed to Caesar; (6) the Marcionite prologue indicates that Rome was the site for the writing of the letter.

If the place of writing is indeed Rome, the date of the letter is probably sometime between 60-62 CE, perhaps toward the end of his imprisonment since he seems to allude to a speedy release (Phil 2:24).

The Purpose of Philippians

There is no need to assume up front that there must have been only one purpose in the writing of Philippians. In fact, as we read the letter, several objectives seem to be in the mind of the apostle. First, it is clear that Paul wanted the church to know how things were going for him in his imprisonment (1:12-26) and what his plans were should he be released (Phil 2:23-24). Second, there appears to have been some discord and division in the church and so the apostle writes to encourage humility with a view toward unity (2:1-18; 4:2-3). Third, Paul, the pastoral theologian, writes to head off the negative teaching and consequences of certain false teachers (3:2-3ff.). Fourth, Paul wrote to commend Timothy to the church as well as to give the church a report about the health and plans of Epaphroditus (2:19-30). Fifth, Paul also wrote to thank the church for their concern for him and the gifts they had given (4:10-20).

Outline of Philippians

    I. (1:1-11)

      A. Salutation 1:1-2

      B. Thanksgiving and Prayer 1:3-11

        1. Thanksgiving (1:3-8)

        2. Prayer (1:9-11)

    II. Paul’s Circumstances and Encouragement for the Church (1:12-2:30)

      A. Paul’s Circumstances and Attitude (1:12-26)

      B. Paul’s Encouragement for the Church (1:27-2:30)

        1. Concerning Humility and Obedience (2:1-18)

          a. A Call to Humility (2:1-4)

          b. The Example of Christ’s Humility (2:5-11)

          c. A Call to Obedience (2:12-18)

        2. Concerning Timothy (2:19-24)

        3. Concerning Epaphroditus (2:25-30)

    III. Warnings Against the False Teaching of the Judaizers (3:1-4:1)

      A. The Warning: Steer Clear of the Judaizers and Their Legalism (3:1-2)

      B. The Solution: Follow the Example of Paul (3:3-4:1)

    IV. Final Exhortations (4:2-9)

      A. Concerning Disputes (4:2-3)

      B. Concerning Joy and Prayer (4:4-7)

      C. Concerning How to Think and Live (4:8-9)

    V. A Word of Thanks (4:10-20)

      A. Paul’s Contentment (4:10-13)

      B. The Philippians’ Gift (4:14-20)

    VI. Final Greetings and Closing (4:21-23)

Outline of Series

Lesson 1: Introduction, Background, and Outline
Lesson 2: The Greeting (1:1-2)
Lesson 3: Thanksgiving and Prayer for the Philippian Church (1:3-11)
Lesson 4: Paul’s Circumstances: Perspective, Joy, and Mission in Life—Part I (1:12-18a)
Lesson 5: Paul’s Circumstances: Perspective, Joy, and Mission in Life—Part II (1:18b-26)
Lesson 6: Exhortation to Unity—Part I (1:27-30)
Lesson 7: Exhortation to Unity—Part II (2:1-4)
Lesson 8: Exhortation to Unity—The Example of Christ (2:5-11)
Lesson 9: Exhortation to Unity—A Final Word Concerning Obedience (2:12-18)
Lesson 10: Timothy and Epaphroditus— Two Examples of Humility and Unity (2:19-30)
Lesson 11: True Righteousness (Part I)— A Study in Contrasts: The Judaizers and Paul (3:1-8)
Lesson 12: True Righteousness (Part II)— A Study in Contrasts: The Judaizers and Paul (3:9-11)
Lesson 13: The Nature of Paul’s Pursuit of Christ: Living in the “Now/Not Yet” (3:12-16)
Lesson 14: The Exhortation to Imitate Good Examples (3:17-21)
Lesson 15: General Exhortations (4:1-9)
Lesson 16: Thanksgiving for the Philippians’ Gift and a Final Greeting (4:10-23)

1 See Peter T. O’Brien, Philippians, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 3.

2 Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians, WBC, ed. Ralph P. Martin, vol. 43 (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983), xxxiii.

3 See Gordon D. Fee, Philippians, NICNT, ed. Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 26.

4 See I. Howard Marshall, Acts, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, ed. R. V. G. Tasker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 266-67; Richard N. Longenecker, “Acts” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 9 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 460.

5 It is not certain as to why he did not make these rights known earlier since they would have protected him from being tried, beaten, and imprisoned by the Philippian magistrates. In any case he eventually appealed to them, probably in the hope of protecting Lydia, the jailer, and the new Philippian church from legal action taken by the magistrates.

6 Hawthorne, Philippians, xxviii.

7 Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, rev. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1990), 548.

8 Guthrie, Introduction, 553. A late date for Galatians would prove this to be true.

9 For example, Epaphroditus may have been dispatched before the news of Paul’s imprisonment ever reached them, simply because the Philippians had heard that the apostle was going to Rome.

Related Topics: Introductions, Arguments, Outlines

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