BRIEF OVERVIEW OF PAUL'S LETTER TO THE PHILIPPIANS
"Joy in the Midst of Difficulties"
Who were the Philippians?
Paul helped establish the church at Philippi during his second missionary journey. Philippi was a leading city in the district of Macedonia, a Roman colony (Acts 16:8–12). In Paul’s first stay in Philippi he was welcomed by a group of women receptive to his teaching. Among them was a business woman named Lydia, who opened her home to Paul and his coworkers (Acts 16:13–15). A Philippian jailer was also spectacularly converted after an earthquake miraculously broke open the prison (Acts 16:22–34).
Where was Paul when he wrote the letter?
Philippians is one of Paul’s four prison letters, the others being Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon. He likely wrote it around AD 61-62 while serving time as a political prisoner. Claiming that “Jesus is Lord” was an affront to the Roman Emperor, who considered himself to alone be Saviour and Lord. Roman prisons were horrible places - cells were filthy and foul smelling, food was meagre, and military custody required Paul to be chained to a guard. Yet Paul found a way to dictate the letter, which would be delivered to the Philippians by Epaphroditus, who had arrived in Rome with financial help from the church (2:25; 4:18). While in Rome he became seriously ill, which delayed his return home (2:25–27).
Some Key Themes in Philippians
Appreciation, Partnership, Encouragement
The letter to the Philippians – unlike many of Paul’s letters to other churches – was not prompted by serious internal church problems. Instead, Paul wrote it to express appreciation and deep affection for the Philippian believers. He delights in their partnership in the gospel (1:5) and God’s grace (1:7). They had been particularly generous in their material support for his ministry (4:15-18; also see 2 Corinthians 8:1-5). Paul’s love for them is clear throughout the letter, and he particularly delights in the courage and friendship shown by Epaphroditus. He encourages the church to persevere and live out their faith in unity (1:3–5, 25–26; 4:1). He also assures them: “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (1:6).
Joy in the Midst of Difficulties
There were three groups who made life difficult for Paul and early Christians in Philippi. The first was Roman society in general, which Paul describes as “crooked and perverse” (2:15, 3:19). A second was competitive Christian preachers who opposed Paul out of envy (1:15-17). A third was legalistic Christians who polluted the gospel of grace by insisting that Christians must keep old rules and regulations (3:2).
Add to those difficulties the reality that Paul was in prison and that the Philippians were under constant threat of persecution from Roman authorities. Despite these dark circumstances, the letter brims with joy. The Greek root word (chara) for joy or rejoice is found sixteen times in the four chapters. Philippians has been called “The Letter of Joy”.
At the heart of the letter is the portrait of Jesus Christ as the One to worship and imitate (2:6–11). This passage – which was probably a confession and worship hymn sung by early Christians – is a powerful description of the past and ongoing movement of God in the world, in and through Jesus. On either side of this hymn-like portrait of Christ’s movement are strong challenges. In 2:5 the church was urged to “have the mind of Christ”; in 2:12-13 they are not to rest on their laurels, but continue to strive for fullness of salvation in Jesus. This call to Christlikeness – which meant participating in the life of Christ while still living on earth – is repeated in 1:29 and 3:10-11. The Christian life, for Paul, meant moving beyond entry-level faith; it was a call to a maturing faith that required believers to be continually transformed into Christlikeness. This meant even embracing the need to suffer. To this end, it was important to follow human examples such as Paul himself (3:17).
The Gift of Perspective and the Power of Dependence on Jesus
Paul’s perspective on his life of suffering and those who opposed him was both instructive and inspiring (1:18-25). So too was his secret of contentment in ever-changing circumstances (4:11-13). These glimpses into Paul’s life of devotion and maturity would have stimulated the Philippians toward deeper maturity and trust. They can do the same for us today.
BREAKDOWN OF THE LETTER TO THE PHILIPPIANS
Philippians 1:1-11 –greeting, thanksgiving, and prayer
Philippians 1: 12-26 – perspective in times of difficulty
Philippians 1:27-2:4 – call to stand firm in unity
Philippians 2:5-13 – following the way of Jesus
Philippians 2:14-30 – faithful friendships
Philippians 3: 1-11 - true gospel - opposition from legalists and the way of freedom
Philippians 3: 12-21– Paul’s example - opposition from legalists and the way of freedom
Philippians 4:1-9 – striving for excellence
Philippians 4:10-20 – fulfillment in Christ
Philippians 4:21-23 – final greetings
For a detailed 9 minute video overview of the letter to the Philippians, see:
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