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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” (Phil.1.1).

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. Phil.4.14-Phil.4.15). The events leading to the founding of the congregation are related in Acts.16.9-Acts.16.40. The great apostle, accompanied by his co-workers Silas, Timothy, and Luke, was on his second missionary journey through Asia Minor. Forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach in Asia and in Bithynia to the north, they made their way to Troas, farthest port of Asia on the Aegean Sea. In Troas Paul received a vision from the Lord to take the gospel to Europe. A man stood before him, a Greek of Macedonia, begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (Acts.16.9). Paul and his companions immediately answered this divine call and set sail for the nearest port—Neopolis of Philippi, named for Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great.

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” (Acts.16.12). It is not unusual, therefore, that Paul’s first convert there was a merchant woman named Lydia, a seller of purple. Her whole household was baptized and became the nucleus of the new church (Acts.16.15). The remarkable conversion of the jailer with its accompanying miraculous events also took place in Philippi (Acts.16.25-Acts.16.34). There was, therefore, a very intimate relationship between the apostle and this church. No doubt this was true also because the congregation consisted mainly of Gentiles and Paul saw in them the real future of the church. They were poor, but the fruits of faith were abundant. On several occasions they collected funds for Paul and also aided him while he was in prison (Phil.4.10-Phil.4.16). He had visited this favorite congregation whenever possible. He has no rebuke for it in this letter. The members are his “joy and crown” (Phil.4.1).

Before 1900 it was universally accepted that the Letter to the Philippians was written at Rome where Paul was in prison after his third missionary journey. In recent years, however, scholars have developed the hypothesis that it was written during Paul’s imprisonment in Caesarea, but still more recently from the prison in Ephesus. The main reason for their hypotheses is that the old arguments for Roman authorship no longer fit the Roman situation alone. The problem of distance; the travels mentioned in Philippians itself; and the similarity to the earlier letters to Thessalonica, Galatia, and Corinth make us believe it is more likely that the letter was written from Ephesus. Although no specific imprisonment of Paul is mentioned in Ephesians, it is possible Paul was in prison in Ephesus (cf. 1Cor.9.23; 1Cor.15.32).

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 Acts 16:12-40. They began the mission in the province of Macedonia with the assurance that God had specially summoned them to work there (Acts 16:9-11). Commencing work on European soil, the missionaries were conscious that they were bringing the Gospel to a new province of the Rom. world, but the distinction between Europe and Asia was not as sharply drawn then as today.

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 (Phil 4:2, 3) were also won at this time is not certain. The membership was apparently heterogeneous in character and predominantly Gentile in origin. Philippi did not have enough Jews to form a synagogue. The prominence of women in the Philippian church from the first is consistent with conditions that prevailed in Macedonia generally.

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 (4:15f.; 2 Cor 11:9) as well as from the contents of this letter.

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. (1:3) and so continues throughout. The plurals that occur most naturally relate to Christians generally and are not to be restricted to Paul and Timothy only. In 2:19-23, Timothy is mentioned quite objectively and is not even named in the final salutation (4:21). Clearly, Philippians is a personal letter from Paul himself. Its biographical references are distinctly Pauline and its entire contents bear the stamp of Pauline authorship.


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” (1:1) as evidence of a post-Pauline date; traces of Gnostic ideas in it; doctrinal discrepancies between the epistle and “authentic” Pauline letters. The arguments used are superficial and are no longer taken seriously. The artless contents of the epistle offer no obvious motive for a forgery. Modern scholars unhesitatingly accept Philippians as an authentic letter from Paul.

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 ch. 3. This change is asserted to be so harsh that only the view of two separate compositions can explain it. The preparation for a serene epistolary conclusion in 3:1 is suddenly broken by a ringing warning against opponents, which is completely different in tone from the preceding chapters. This sharp warning must have arisen out of a situation distinct from the remainder of the epistle.

F. W. Beare regards the present epistle as a composite of three elements: a letter of thanks for the gift brought by Epaphroditus (4:10-20); a letter sent with Epaphroditus upon his return (1:1-3:1; 4:2-9, 21-23); and 3:2-4:1 as a long interpolation in the second letter. The view that 4:10-20 is a separate letter arises out of the assumed inconceivability that Paul should delay his thanks for the gift until the end of the letter. Such a further partition is unnecessary if he had already sent his thanks to the Philippians (see section V below). If not, why should he not be allowed to express his gratitude in connection with the loosely connected epistolary conclusion? Is it probable that a later editor would have delayed the insertion of such an earlier letter of thanks until the end? Many leading scholars hold that the evidence offers no valid proof for any partition theory and strongly maintain the unity of the epistle.

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 3:1 (“to write the same things to you”) and 3:18 (“of whom I have often told you”). If so, these other letters have not survived.

Place and date of origin


Acts speaks of only two possible imprisonments, at Caesarea (Acts 23:33-26:32) and at Rome (28:16-31), but from 2 Corinthians 6:5 and 11:23, it is clear that Paul experienced a number of brief imprisonments elsewhere during his ministry. Three views concerning the place of origin are advocated.


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 Acts 28. He has liberty to receive companions, carry on correspondence with his churches, and arrange for the travels of assistants. Above all it explains the decisive character of the verdict being awaited. Having appealed his case to Caesar, no further appeal was possible.

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 Acts 28:30, it may be granted that during the trial Paul was taken into custodia militaris instead of custodia libera. This, however, is not certain.

Certain difficulties are urged against acceptance of this time-honored view. From Rome Paul planned on going to Spain (Rom 15:24, 28), but here he is making plans to visit Philippi (Phil 2:24). The reply is that the plan to visit Spain was announced before his arrest, but after nearly four years of imprisonment the former plan was postponed or abandoned. In view of the great distance between Rome and Philippi, it is difficult to conceive of all the travels between the two cities that would be required. The long journey was apparently made four times (news of Paul’s arrival in Rome reaching Philippi; Epaphroditus sent to Rome with the gift; news of his sickness reaching Philippi, and report of their concern for Paul again brought to Rome). The proponents reply that by placing Philippians near the end of the two year imprisonment there is ample time for these communications. The situation does not actually demand four consecutive trips because the Philippians may have heard of Paul’s going to Rome before he got there.

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 (2:19). If he expected him to return to Rome, this would be a serious difficulty, but Paul does not say where he expected to meet Timothy with his cheering news.

The polemic against the Judaizers in ch. 3 is similar to that in Galatians and 2 Corinthians, and points to a time earlier than Paul’s Rom. imprisonment. The similarity is admitted, but that does not prove that it would not be timely when Paul was in Rome. Any effort to promote law and works as opposed to salvation by grace through faith aroused Paul’s warm protest. Touches of it are seen in the pastorals (1 Tim 1:12-17; Titus 3:4-7).

If Paul wrote from Rome, the period during which the generous Philippians had “no opportunity” to send him an offering is difficult to conceive (Phil 4:10). Paul, however, had requested that the Philippians participate in the relief offering raised during his third journey (2 Cor 8:1-9) and may well have suggested that they suspend any gifts to him; but now that the relief collection was completed, they used their first opportunity to revive their concern for him.


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” (1:14 KJV) than the Rom. detention where he had considerable freedom. The “praetorium” can equally well mean the palace of Herod at Caesarea and “Caesar’s household” can well refer to the imperial slaves stationed at Caesarea. The plan to revisit Philippi thus blends smoothly with the plans to visit Spain. The sharp controversy in ch. 3 is best understood if written at Caesarea and directed against the Jews who caused Paul’s imprisonment.

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 ch. 3 is debated, but there is no clear proof that the reference is to Paul’s Christ-rejecting Jewish enemies.

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 (Acts 21:8) is inexplainable; Caesarea does not suit the final nature of the verdict expected. Under Felix, he could not have expected release without a bribe (24:26) and with the coming of Festus, Paul appealed to Caesar (25:6-11).


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 (20:1); would enable Timothy to go to Philippi and return before Paul left there; makes the controversy in ch. 3 more timely and pointed; and accounts for the omission of any mention of Luke in Philippians, since Luke was at Philippi during that time.

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 (2:25-30). His return gave Paul the opportunity to commend this co-worker to the Philippian saints and to write them concerning a variety of matters.

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 2:25, it seems clear that Epaphroditus had been commissioned not only to take the money to Paul but also to stay and assist him. For safety, he presumably was accompanied by several brethren from the Philippian church. If so, Paul certainly sent his thanks back with the returning brethren. If Epaphroditus did come alone, Paul doubtless used the services of some traveler to dispatch his thanks to the church.


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 (2:25-30).


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 1:16, 17 and the variant readings in 2:5; 3:3, 16). The style and vocabulary present no special obstacles.

Special problems

Much discussion centers around the origin and interpretation of 2:5-11. Following the lead of Lohmeyer, it is now widely regarded as an early hymn or Christian confession that Paul quoted in support of his appeal for humility. This view is part of a wider movement to find fragments of hymnic or liturgical compositions embodied in the NT writings. As to its origin, the passage has been regarded as an early pre-Pauline hymn (Lohmeyer), a hymn by an unknown disciple written under the influence of Paul’s teaching (Beare), or a hymn composed by Paul, presumably before this epistle was written (Martin). That Paul when writing his letters was capable of exalted poetic composition is evident from 1 Corinthians 13, Romans 8:31-39, and 11:33-36. If the original composition is regarded as non-Pauline, which is by no means certain, there is no reason to doubt that 2:5-11 formed a part of the epistle as originally composed by Paul.

The unique mention of “the bishops and deacons” in the salutation (1:1) has evoked much discussion. Needless difficulty has been created by interpreting the terms in the light of later ecclesiastical developments.

The identity or precise rendering of Paul’s reference to his “true yokefellow” (4:3) remains a puzzle to the commentators.


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 2:5-11, Paul introduced a passage of profound theological significance to undergird a practical appeal for humility. It is the locus classicus of Paul’s doctrine of the Person of Christ Jesus. It is of fundamental importance for the doctrine of the incarnation of the Son of God. It tersely sets forth His preexistence, incarnation, and exaltation. It presupposes a highly developed Christology, yet the full significance of this terse formulation is implicit rather than explicit. The interpretation of its full significance, although beset with difficulty, has challenged theologians through the centuries. The mention that Christ “emptied himself” (v. 7) has been the springboard for the kenosis controversy.

Paul’s reference to his desire “to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (1:23) has theological significance as indicating that the condition of departed saints is one of conscious bliss.


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, Pauline Epistles, NT Introduction (1961), 140-160; W. G. Kümmel, Introduction to NT (1965; Eng. trans., 1966), 226-237. On Philippians 2:5-11: A. B. Bruce, Humiliation of Christ (1892); E. Lohmeyer, Kurios Jesus (1928); E. Käsemann, “Kritische Analyse von Philippians 2:5-11,” Zeitschrift für Theol. und Kirche, XLVII (1950), 313-360; V. Taylor, The Person of Christ (1958); R. P. Martin, An Early Christian Confession (1960); J. F. Walvoord, “The Humiliation of the Son of God,” BS, CXVIII (1961), 96-106; A. Fluillet, “L’hymn Christologique de l’Épitre aux Philippians” (II. 6-11), RB, LXXII (Mar., 1965), 352-380; LXXII (Apr., 1965), 481-507; R. P. Martin, Carmen Christi: Philippians ii. 5-11 in Recent Interpretation and in the Setting of Early Christian Worship (1967). Special Studies: K. Lake, “The Critical Problems of the Epistle to the Philippians,” EXP (June, 1914), 481-493; G. S. Duncan, St. Paul’s Ephesian Ministry (1929); L. Johnson, “The Pauline Letters from Caesarea,” ExpT, LXVIII (1956-1957), 24ff.; A. F. J. Klijn, “Paul’s Opponents in Philippians iii.” Nov Test, VII (Apr., 1965), 278-284.