BTG Philippians: Pursuing Spiritual Maturity: Introduction
Paul authored Philippians during his imprisonment in Rome around AD 60-62. Internal evidence of Paul’s authorship includes his name being in the introduction (Phil 1:1) and the writing of the letter in general—“the entire style and wording ring with Pauline tones.”[i] Commentator H.A.A. Kennedy sums up the internal evidence saying, “Perhaps no Pauline epistle bears more conclusively the stamp of authenticity. There is an artlessness, a delicacy of feeling, a frank outpouring of the heart which could not be simulated.”[ii]
External evidence for Pauline authorship consists of:
Those who quote the Letter early—often specifically mentioning it as by Paul—include Ignatius, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian. Both Marcion’s “canon” and the Muratorian Canon ascribe the book to Paul. [iii]
It was the unanimous testimony of the early church that the apostle Paul wrote Philippians.[iv]
In addition, Paul wrote Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians during his imprisonment. These four books, what theologians call the Prison Epistles, “were almost assuredly written and sent at nearly the same time (about A.D. 60).”[v] Most scholars, however, give Philippians a later date of A.D. 61.[vi] The reasons for this include “Paul’s belief that his case would soon be decided (Phil 2:23-24).”[vii] This points to Philippians being written towards the end of Paul’s two year imprisonment in Rome. In addition, the time needed for letters, visits, and gifts of money to be exchanged with the Philippians also supports a later date.
Some question whether Paul wrote Philippians during his Roman imprisonment in lieu of his two-year Caesarean imprisonment or a possible Ephesian imprisonment (for which no clear evidence exists). However, “the most natural understanding of the references to the ‘palace guard’ (1:13) and the ‘saints … of Caesar’s household’ (4:22) is that Paul wrote from Rome, where the emperor lived.”[viii] Also, the details in Philippians best fit with Paul’s Roman imprisonment. For instance, Paul was guarded by Roman soldiers (cf. Acts 28:16, Phil 1:13-14), permitted to receive visitors (cf. Acts 28:30, Phil 4:18), and had opportunities to preach the gospel (cf. Acts 28:31, 1:12-14). This fits perfectly with him being under house arrest in Rome as mentioned in the book of Acts. If he was in Caesarea or Ephesus, this would have been unlikely.
The Philippian church was the first church established in all of Europe. The city of Philippi was part of Macedonia which is modern day Greece. Consider Macdonald’s thoughts about this momentous occasion in the history of missions:
How Christians in the West should rejoice (and even non-Christians, if they knew of the blessed by-products of Christianity they enjoy) that Paul heeded “the Macedonian call” and turned west, not east, in his evangelization of the Roman Empire! Perhaps the continent of Asia would today be sending Christian missionaries to Europe and North America instead of vice versa, had not the gospel taken hold in Europe.[ix]
Philippi was named after Alexander the Great’s father, Philip of Macedon, who captured the city in 360 BC.[x] It became part of the Roman Empire in 167 BC and existed in relative obscurity for the next two centuries.[xi] In 42 BC the Battle of Philippi unfolded, marking one of the greatest events in Roman history.
The forces of Antony and Octavian defeated those of Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Philippi, thus ending the Roman Republic and ushering in the Empire. After the battle, Philippi became a Roman colony (cf. Acts 16:12), and many veterans of the Roman army settled there.[xii]
Caesar Augustus made Philippi a Roman colony—making it “Rome in miniature.”[xiii] As a Roman colony Philippi had the same rights as cities in Italy. It used Roman law; the residents were exempt from some taxes and had Roman citizenship.[xiv] This also allowed them freedom from scourging and arrest and gave them the right to appeal to Caesar.[xv] Latin was their official language,[xvi] and their coins bore Latin inscriptions.[xvii] From their model of government to the clothes they wore, they embodied Roman custom and practices. This brought great civic pride to the Philippians. Throughout the letter, Paul alludes to this Roman pride and loyalty, as he calls for them to similarly live as citizens of heaven on earth (cf. Phil 1:27, 3:20). Philippians 1:27 says this: “Above all, you must live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ” (NLT).
The church of Philippi was founded by Paul on his second missionary journey (Acts 16:12-40). While in Troas, Paul received a vision of a Macedonian man saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9). Immediately, Paul sailed to Macedonia with Timothy, Luke, and Silas. While in Philippi, Paul first met with women gathered at a river praying (Acts 16:13). Paul preached the gospel to them, and as a result, Lydia, a wealthy seller of purple dyed goods became a believer. Later, the Philippian church probably gathered at her house for worship (cf. Acts 16:40).
Paul encountered opposition in Philippi. While walking through the city a young lady possessed by a spirit of divination continually cried out, “These men are the servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved” (Acts 16:17). After many days of this, Paul became so troubled that he cast the demon out. This enraged her masters because they had lost their ability to earn a profit. Therefore, they dragged Paul and Silas to the marketplace to face the magistrates of Rome. Without a trial, they were stripped, beaten, and thrown into prison (Acts16:22-23).
While in prison, Paul and Silas were worshiping the Lord when a great earthquake shook open the doors of their jail cell. Thinking they had escaped, their jailer nearly killed himself before Paul reassured him they had not fled. Then the jailer cried out, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And Paul answered back, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).
The next day the local authorities urged Paul and his companions to leave town—but, Paul refused. When the authorities learned of Paul’s Roman citizenship, they were afraid because it was illegal to flog a Roman citizen. But, after another appeal from the magistrates, Paul and his companions visited Lydia’s home and then left the city (Acts 16:40).
Sometime after, Paul apparently visited the Philippians twice during his third missionary journey (cf. 2 Cor 8:1-5, Acts 20:6), and throughout his ministry the church regularly supported him (Phil 4:15-16). On his journey to see Paul, Epaphroditus became sick, but God healed him. Paul wrote this epistle, in part, to thank the Philippians for their support and acknowledge Epaphroditus’ faithful ministry to him (Phil 2:25-30).
What was Paul’s purpose in writing the letter? There are several: (1) Paul wrote to inform the Philippians of his imprisonment and how God was using it to further the gospel (1:12). (2) He thanked them for their gracious gift delivered through Epaphroditus (4:10-18). (3) He acknowledged Epaphroditus’ faithful service in case they thought he failed (2:30). (4) He encouraged them to be unified (1:27, 2:2), and (5) he warned them of false teachers and carnal believers (3:2, 18-19). In Philippians we see Paul’s most personal and affectionate epistle. Clearly, the Philippians held a special place in his heart.
As he shares these truths, several themes arise from the letter. One of them is joy. The tone of Paul’s epistle, though he was in prison, exudes joy. Paul uses forms of the words “joy” and “rejoice” more than twelve times in the book.[xviii] In the very beginning of the letter, Paul says how he always prays with joy for them (1:4). He commands them several times to rejoice in the Lord (Phil 3:1, 4:4). In Philippians 4:4 he says, “Rejoice in the Lord. Again, I say Rejoice.” As we study this epistle, we learn something about having joy regardless of our circumstances.
Another theme is unity. Several times Paul calls for this church to be unified. In Philippians 1:27, he calls for them to “stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel.” In Philippians 2:2, he again calls for them to be “one in spirit.” The Philippians faced many threats to their unity such as persecution (1:29-30), false teachers (Phil 3:2, 18-19), and discord (4:2). Therefore, Paul encourages them to live in unity by practicing humility and serving one another (Phil 2:1-4). As we study this epistle, we will learn something about humbling ourselves and working for unity in our daily relationships and in the church.
In addition, a major theme of the book is the pursuit of spiritual maturity. Paul prays for them to grow in spiritual maturity in Philippians 1:9-11. He prays for their love to abound in “knowledge and depth of insight” so they could discern what is best, becoming blameless, and abounding in fruit until the day of Christ. He calls for them to have the mind of Christ in Philippians 2:5 and gives Christ’s humiliation—his incarnation and death for the sins of the world—as a model to follow. Then in Philippians 3, he describes his own pursuit of knowing and being like Christ as he counts everything as nothing and makes Christ his one pursuit in life. Studying the epistle to the Philippians inspires spiritual growth.
Finally, Paul focuses on the second coming of Christ. J. A. Motyer said this:
With six references to the Lord’s coming ‘day’, universal exaltation and near personal return, Philippians is in line with the emphasis of the whole New Testament on the importance of this delightful expectation.[xix]
Philippians 3:20 says, “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Philippians 4:5 says, “Let your gentleness be evident to all, the Lord is near.” Our study of Philippians will whet our appetites for the coming of our gracious Lord. Come Lord, Come!
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[i] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1957). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
[ii] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1958). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
[iii] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1957). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
[iv] MacArthur, John (2003-08-19). The MacArthur Bible Handbook (Kindle Location 9913). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
[v] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1958). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
[vi] MacArthur, John (2003-08-19). The MacArthur Bible Handbook (Kindle Locations 9932-9934). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
[vii] MacArthur, John (2003-08-19). The MacArthur Bible Handbook (Kindle Locations 9932-9934). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
[viii] MacArthur, John (2003-08-19). The MacArthur Bible Handbook (Kindle Locations 9916-9921). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
[ix] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1957). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
[x] Motyer, J. A. (1984). The message of Philippians (p. 15). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
[xi] Martin, R. P. (1987). Philippians: An Introduction and Commentary (Vol. 11, p. 18). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
[xii] MacArthur, John (2003-08-19). The MacArthur Bible Handbook (Kindle Locations 9938-9941). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
[xiii] Motyer, J. A. (1984). The message of Philippians (p. 15). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
[xiv] MacArthur, John (2003-08-19). The MacArthur Bible Handbook (Kindle Locations 9941-9944). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
[xv] Motyer, J. A. (1984). The message of Philippians (p. 15). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
[xvi] MacArthur, John (2003-08-19). The MacArthur Bible Handbook (Kindle Locations 9941-9944). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
[xvii] Motyer, J. A. (1984). The message of Philippians (p. 15). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
[xviii] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1957). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
[xix] Motyer, J. A. (1984). The message of Philippians (p. 21). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.