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Letter to the Philippians
PHILIPPIANS, LETTER TO THE (fĭ-lĭp'ĭ-ănz). One of the most personal of all the apostle Paul’s letters. It was written to “all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi” (
The church at Philippi in ancient Macedonia was the first European church founded by Paul and thus represents the first major penetration of the gospel into Gentile territory (cf.
Philippi had been thoroughly colonized by the Romans after 30 b.c., but the city was still more Greek in culture than Roman. Also the city was the first station on the Egnation Way and was the gateway to the East. Luke describes the city as follows: “From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days” (
Before 1900 it was universally accepted that the
Very few scholars—mostly extreme radicals—have said Paul did not write the letter. Today it is almost universally believed that the apostle Paul is the author. Some scholars also believe the letter is made up of two or three smaller letters of Paul, but the best scholars now proclaim that Philippians is a single document, written wholly on one occasion.
The letter was occasioned by the gift of funds and clothing that Epaphroditus brought to Paul in prison. Paul took the opportunity to thank the Philippians for this and other favors. In doing so, as was his custom, Paul added practical Christian admonition to humility, joy, and steadfastness, which a reading of the letter will reveal. The main emphasis is joy; the concept “rejoice” appears no fewer than sixteen times in the letter. It also is a theological letter. The doctrines of the person and work of Christ, justification by faith, and the second coming of Christ are found among the practical admonitions.
General outline of contents of Philippians:
I. Chapter 1
Greetings and thanksgiving (1:1-11).
Progress of the gospel (1:11-20).
On remaining in the world and working and suffering for Christ (1:21-30).
II. Chapter 2
Exhortation to humility based on the humiliation and exaltation of Christ (2:1-13).
Exhortation to the Christian life (2:14-18).
Personal remarks involving Timothy and Epaphroditus (2:19-30).
III. Chapter 3
Warning against false teachers (3:1-3).
Paul’s mighty confession of his faith (3:4-14).
The Christian’s hope of heaven (3:15-21).
IV. Chapter 4
“Rejoice in the Lord always” (4:1-7).
Admonition to Christian virtues (4:8-13).
Paul’s confidence in divine providence (4:14-19).
Final greeting (4:20-22).
Bibliography: J. B. Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, 1881 (on the Greek text); F. W. Beare, The Epistle to the Philippians (HNTC), 1959; R. P. Martin, Philippians (NCB), 1976, and Carmen Christi: Phil 2:5-11 in Recent Interpretation and in the Setting of Early Christian Worship, 1983; F. F. Bruce, Philippians (GNC), 1983.——LMP
PHILIPPIANS, LETTER TO THE fĭ lĭp’ ĭ ənz (Φιλιππήσιοι, people of Philippi; see Philippi). A letter written by Paul to the church in the city of Philippi, the first Christian church in the province of Macedonia; the eleventh book in the NT canon.
Paul and the Philippian church
The church in Philippi was founded by Paul and his party on his so-called second missionary journey as related in the eyewitness account (a “we-section”) in
The number of converts initially made is not certain, but apparently it was not very large. Luke’s account centers on representative conversions—Lydia the business woman, the soothsaying slave girl (her conversion is not actually asserted), and the Rom. jailer. The first and the third of these involved a number of others (two households). That Clement as well as Euodia and Syntyche (
Luke apparently remained in Philippi to aid the young church; this is implied by the cessation of the “we” upon completion of his account of the Philippian mission. That strong ties were forged between Paul and his converts is evident from their monetary gifts to him while he was working at Thessalonica and Corinth (
Authorship and authenticity
The opening salutation names “Paul and Timothy” as the writers of the letter, yet it is clear that Paul alone is responsible for its composition. He begins at once with the sing. (
The authenticity of this letter was never questioned until the middle of the 19th cent. The traditional view was first assailed in 1845 by F. C. Baur (Paulus), followed by other representatives of the Tübingen school. The grounds of attack were its claimed lack of originality and its traces of imitation; the mention of “bishops and deacons” (
The external evidence for it is early and clear. The first external confirmation comes from the letter of Polycarp to the Philippians. Writing about a half cent. later, he refers to “the blessed and glorious Paul...who wrote letters to you.” That Polycarp knew this epistle seems clear from the distinct echoes of it in his letter. Irenaeus in his work Against Heresies (c. 182-188) quotes from every ch. of Philippians and unhesitatingly ascribes it to Paul (III. xii. 9; IV. xxiv. 2).
Since the beginning of the 19th cent., efforts have been made to establish that the present epistle is two or more letters fused together, although their Pauline authorship is usually admitted. Such attempts find no support from the textual history of the epistle, which has uniformly been transmitted as a complete whole.
Efforts to find external confirmation for such theories from Polycarp’s reference to Paul’s “letters” (ἐπιστολαί) are indecisive. The pl. may denote more than one letter but may have been used to designate a single dispatch or have been intended to include the Thessalonian epistles, which the Philippians certainly possessed.
Views contesting the unity of Philippians spring mainly from the abrupt change of tone and contents at the beginning of
F. W. Beare regards the present epistle as a composite of three elements: a letter of thanks for the gift brought by Epaphroditus (
That Paul actually wrote more than one letter to the Philippians is in itself altogether probable. This would be in harmony with his remarks in
Place and date of origin
Acts speaks of only two possible imprisonments, at Caesarea (
The traditional view, as old as the Marcionite prologue of the 2nd cent., has confidently accepted Rome as the place of origin. Only since 1800, has this view been brought into question. It continues, however, to receive the strong support of many scholars today.
This view gives “the praetorium” its most natural meaning as denoting the “praetorian guard,” since the added phrase, “and to all the rest,” refers to people rather than buildings. It also gives a natural explanation to “Caesar’s household” as designating the slaves and freedmen of the emperor’s palace in Rome. The increased preaching activity stimulated by Paul’s presence best suits a city like Rome where a considerable church already existed. The implied situation of the imprisoned apostle agrees with that of
Lightfoot sought to place Philippians early in the Rom. imprisonment because of its affinity to Romans and to avoid placing it after Colossians and Ephesians with their new trains of thought. Such arguments from literary relations are indecisive. Advocates of the Rom. imprisonment generally agree that Philippians must be placed near the close of that imprisonment. This allows sufficient time for the indicated developments—the coming of Epaphroditus, his sickness and recovery, the passing of news between Rome and Philippi, as well as the widespread impact of Paul’s presence. It is demanded by the fact that the verdict is impending. If it is argued that Philippians reveals a stricter custody than that indicated in
Certain difficulties are urged against acceptance of this time-honored view. From Rome Paul planned on going to Spain (
Paul’s plans for journeys in the near future offer difficulty for the Rom. view. Timothy was to be sent to Philippi as soon as he learned of the verdict of the court, yet Paul expected him to come back with news from Philippi (
The polemic against the Judaizers in
If Paul wrote from Rome, the period during which the generous Philippians had “no opportunity” to send him an offering is difficult to conceive (
The Caesarean provenance of Philippians was first propounded by H. E. G. Paulus in 1799, and subsequently received the support of a number of scholars. Today it has few advocates (among them Lohmeyer and L. Johnson). It is asserted that the military custody in Caesarea better agrees with Paul’s “bonds” (
In reply it is held that reference to his “bonds” applies equally to Rome where he was chained to Rom. soldiers guarding him. The praetorium and Caesar’s household have a more natural explanation if applied to Rome. The exact identity of the opponents in
The view offers serious difficulties. Caesarea does not afford opportunity for the extensive preaching that Paul’s imprisonment had evoked; the failure to mention Philip the evangelist whose hospitality at Caesarea Paul enjoyed before his arrest (
This alternative, first suggested by H. Lisco in 1900, has received the support of a good number of scholars and has enjoyed increasing popularity. Proponents point out that this view makes the journeys between Philippi and the place of Paul’s imprisonment more easily conceivable; more readily explains the close connection between Philippians and Romans; gives a natural meaning to the praetorium and Caesar’s household; makes the proposed trip to Philippi agree with his journey into Macedonia upon leaving Ephesus (
Opponents raise serious objections to this view. Acts mentions no imprisonment at Ephesus and rather implies a continuous ministry there; any imprisonment suffered there must have been of brief duration, quite inadequate for the developments that Philippians suggests. The absence of any mention of the relief offering that filled Paul’s mind at this time cannot be accounted for. He would not need an offering from the Philippians while surrounded by many friends at Ephesus, and to have accepted an offering from them at the time he desired them to participate in the relief offering would have exposed him to a charge of covetousness. The final nature of the verdict being expected tells heavily against the Ephesian hypothesis. If he faced death at Ephesus, why did he not extricate himself by appealing to Caesar? Any suggestion that Paul would voluntarily accept martyrdom is contrary to what we know he did do. That no mention is made of an appeal to Caesar is best explained by the fact that such an appeal had already brought him before the court at Rome.
All three views are attempts to explain the indecisive evidence in the epistle, and all contain some difficulties. The Rom. origin of the epistle may be accepted as the most probable. Neither of the alternative views offers evidence sufficiently strong to overturn this long established view.
If written at Rome, the date of Philippians falls in the early 60s, prob. during the early part of a.d. 63. If an Ephesian origin is accepted, it must be placed near the end of Paul’s ministry there since he was planning a change of field. Supporters suggest a date between 54 and 57, prob. a.d. 56.
Occasion and purpose
The immediate occasion for the writing of Philippians was the return home of Epaphroditus following his recovery from a serious illness (
The popular view that the letter was written to thank the Philippians for their recent gift to him is unlikely. This assumption has caused much trouble in trying to explain why his thanks was delayed until the very end. It further makes it difficult to explain why Paul let some months pass before even acknowledging their gift. Such a delay in sending them his thanks cannot be due to lack of opportunity, since news had already reached the Philippians that Epaphroditus had fallen ill. From
Paul’s immediate purpose apparently was to assure an appropriate welcome for the returning Epaphroditus. His valiant service as their representative merited a warm welcome (
The canonicity of Philippians has never been disputed. It was included in all the early canons of the Church as well as in the Apostolicum of Marcion. At the beginning of the 4th cent., Eusebius recorded his investigations of the NT canon and indicated that Philippians was accepted by the entire orthodox church as among the undisputed books (Euseb. Hist. III. iii).
The text of Philippians raises no serious problems. The variants from the TR in the Nestle text are of minor significance for interpretation (but note the inversion of
Much discussion centers around the origin and interpretation of
The unique mention of “the bishops and deacons” in the salutation (
The identity or precise rendering of Paul’s reference to his “true yokefellow” (
The epistle is distinctly a friendship letter. It is the spontaneous expression of Paul’s strong esteem for the readers, wholly devoid of official stateliness. The tone is warmly personal and an undertone of deep joy runs through the whole. This springs partly from Paul’s deep satisfaction with the readers and their fellowship with him in the Gospel, but esp. from his personal consciousness of the sufficiency of Christ. His emphasis throughout is Christocentric. All of life is viewed in relationship to Him.
The letter is primarily concerned with personal matters. He spoke of his own affairs, his plans for his companions, and his concerns for the readers. Doctrinal formulations are at a minimum and where doctrinal points are touched they have a practical or polemical purpose.
The artless arrangement of its contents, incapable of logical analysis, testifies to the character of Philippians as a true letter. The outline serves to relate the different parts to each other.
Although Philippians is practical in intent and purpose, it is of great importance theologically. In
Paul’s reference to his desire “to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (
Commentaries: J. B. Lightfoot (1868; 1898); M. R. Vincent, ICC (1897); H. A. A. Kennedy, EGT (1903); M. Jones, WC (1918); J. H. Michael, MNT (1928); E. Lohmeyer, Meyer Kommentar (1930); R. C. H. Lenski (1937); K. Barth (1947; Eng. trans., 1962); E. F. Scott, IB (1955); J. J. Muller, NICNT (1955); F. W. Beare, Harper’s NT Commentary (1959); W. Hendriksen, Epistle to the Philippians (1962); J. A. Motyer, Philippian Studies (1966). Introductions to Philippians: J. Moffatt, Introduction to Literature of NT (1918), 165-176; D. Guthrie,