Philippians is one of the prison epistles. And if you turn with me in your Bibles, you’ll find that there are several places here where Paul mentions his bonds or his imprisonment:
• 1:7, “It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.”
• 1:13, “What has happened to me has served to advance the gospel so that it has become known throughout the whole Praetorian Guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.”
• 1:17, “The former proclaim Christ out of partisanship, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment.”
• Colossians 4:18, “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my bonds. Grace be with you.”
• Ephesians 3:1, “For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles ….”
• Ephesians 4:1, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you ….”
• Ephesians 6:20, “For which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.”
• Philemon v. 1, “Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus ….”
• Philemon v. 9, “Yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you – I, Paul, an ambassador now also a prisoner for Christ Jesus.”
All of these refer to Paul being a prisoner. The question is: where was Paul during this imprisonment? There essentially have been three suggestions to answer this question.
• One is Caesarea. Remember, Acts tells us that Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea for two years. If you’re looking for a place where Paul was imprisoned, this would be a good possibility – Paul was in prison Caesarea – we know that for sure.
• Some have suggested Ephesus, although there is no distinct, clear reference to Paul having been imprisoned in Ephesus. There are some statements, like in 1 Corinthians 15:32, “What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised ….” Some have suggested that Paul was forced to fight as a gladiator against the wild animals at Ephesus. The problem with this, though, is that no Roman citizen would ever be forced to do that. And he also uses the phrase “humanly speaking” -- he’s using figurative language here, not literal language. Something did happen in Ephesus that was serious, 2 Corinthians 1:8, “We do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.” Now, some have concluded from this statement that he was imprisoned. In 2 Corinthians 6:5 he refers to “frequent imprisonments”, and in 11:23, that he’s had “far more imprisonments”, etc. But none of these specifically say that he was imprisoned in Ephesus. So it seems strange to me in some ways that Ephesus has received such a strong hearing.
• The Book of Acts ends with Paul being imprisoned in Rome. And he’s there at least some two years. In favor of the Rome theory are a couple of statements he makes. In Philippians 1:13 he refers to his imprisonment “… being made known to the Praetorian Guard ….” There was a sense in which the guards in any of the governor’s areas could be titled as “the Praetorian Guard”, but the first place you think of when you hear of the Praetorian Guard is Rome, where you had the emperor’s guards there. In Philippians also he talks about the possibility of dying. In 1:22-23, “If it is to be life in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh on your account is more necessary.” If he could always appeal to the emperor, to Caesar, the ultimate time when he would have to worry about questions of life and death would be his time in Rome; not in sub-imprisonment in someplace like Caesarea. In 2:17, he talks about himself being “… poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith.” That also looks like it talks about the possibility of death. And then, in 4:22, “All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household.” You could use that in a broader sense, but in the norms of language, Caesar’s household would most commonly refer to Caesar’s household in Rome. So I don’t see any real reason why one should question that the prison epistles are written from imprisonment in Rome, as opposed to some hypothetical imprisonment in Ephesus or the imprisonment in Caesarea that we know very little about.
The greatest argument against this being written from his imprisonment in Rome is supposedly the great distance between Philippi and Rome. There is a good distance between them, and this letter has to envision several journeys back and forth. For instance, they [i.e., the church in Philippi] have to find out that Paul is in Rome. Someone from Rome would have to be in Philippi, and tell them that Paul is in Rome. The Philippians have to send Epaphroditus to Rome, where he gets ill. Then, word has to go back to Philippi that Epaphroditus is almost dying. And then, they have to get word in Rome from Philippi that the Philippians have heard about this, and they’re grieving a great deal. But Paul’s stay in Rome was at least two years, and sea journeys are much more rapid than we imagine. A journey from Philippi via Corinth to Rome would probably not take more than two weeks if you went by ship. And I don’t think the problem of distance is that great, especially since we’re talking about two years of time. Would it be even less time, for instance, from Caesarea, when Paul was about to go to Rome? It’s possible that somebody left Caesarea and immediately went to the churches, and before Paul even went to Rome, the churches knew that he was being brought to Rome to be imprisoned there. They could have sent somebody ahead to meet him, or to meet him very shortly thereafter. So, to me, this looks like this letter was written from Rome. I see no reason to argue against that.
Its format is very straightforward: a salutation, thanksgiving, a normal body, some exhortations, concluding thank you and conclusion. If you want to know what Philippians is, it is essentially a missionary newsletter. It’s a very good missionary newsletter, both as a pattern, and in its content. There’s a normal salutation, “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
He has this thank you for them, “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, [I think he can do that to Philippi a lot more easily than he can to Corinth, and note that he even can thank God for the Corinthians!] always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership with me in the gospel from the first day until now.” They have been partners with him. And then he talks about that partnership further if you go to 4:10, ff.,
“I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
In this context, that statement, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” means “I can abound, or I can go hungry. I can do all these things through Christ who gives me strength.” It doesn’t mean “Anything I ever want to do I can do.” It doesn’t mean that we could go to the weight room and bench 300 pounds, because we “can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”. We might find that this crushes our chest. It doesn’t mean that we can do all things, but rather that regardless of what state we might be in, we can live with it. We can learn to adjust. But he says in v. 14,
“Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again. Not that I seek a gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit. I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.”
Now in contrast, remember what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 11, where he talks about not having accepted anything from the Corinthians. So he has a love affair with the Philippians -- it’s the one church that he accepts support from.
He goes on in v. 12 to talk about the news, “What has happened to me has served to advance the gospel.” He’s saying that what has happened to him is better, because he has a great opportunity to preach there in Rome. To continue in v. 12, “So that it has become known throughout the whole Praetorian Guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more boldly speaking about the Lord.” It’s been an opportunity to witness, and they do so without fear.
Now in v. 15 he says that some speak of Christ “…from envy and rivalry, but some from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.” This is not the same as what happens in Galatia. These people are not preaching false doctrine – they’re just preaching out of bad motives. The result is that, some preaching is going on perhaps to usurp Paul’s place of leadership or something like that. Whatever it is, Paul basically says, “They’re preaching Christ, so that’s great.” But there’s not a heretical issue. If there’s a doctrinal, heretical issue, Paul’s not like this. In Galatians, he doesn’t have the same attitude at all – he doesn’t say, “At any rate, Christ is proclaimed, and therefore I rejoice.” No, he doesn’t quite say that; he says in that case that the other preachers are anathema. He doesn’t say that here, because it’s the motive issue, not the content that’s being referred to.
He tells the Philippians to rejoice. Needless to say, whenever he tells them to rejoice (which he does often in this letter), you have to keep in mind where Paul is. He’s saying this in prison, on trial for his life. And he’s trying to encourage the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord. It’s very interesting.
After giving various news of what’s going on there, he starts giving some instructions in chapter 2. He wants them to be (v. 2) of one spirit, “… complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Sometimes people say that doctrine is sterile, and doesn’t have much to do with life. But you have this great Christological section in 2:6, ff., and that section is here not to teach Christology, but to teach humility. In other words, he teaches ethics through his theology. He tells us about Jesus in order to teach us about humility.
So he sees doctrine as being very practical in that regard, and he says (v. 5), “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” And now you have beginning in vv. 6-11, probably an early confession or hymn. I don’t think there’s any English translation that marks this off as poetry. The Greek texts, though set this up in poetic form, in stanzas. And we’re going to look at Colossians after our break, which does the same. So, again at v. 5 we start with “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped ….” In v. 6, he thought equality with God was not something that needed to be grasped. And ‘grasped’ is a great word to use in this translation, because the Greek, like that English word, can be understood in two ways. Is equality with God something Jesus thought didn’t have to be “grasped after” – he didn’t have to long for it, or try to grab it? Or, it could mean equality with God was something that didn’t have to be grasped in a sense of “held on to”. I think it means the latter – that he already has equality with God and he doesn’t have to hold on to it. But on the contrary, he “… emptied himself [and if you ever hear of the kenosis understanding of Christology, it comes from this word], by taking the form of a servant.”
Think of the Christology here. Paul, by the way, has often been called the Great Perverter of Christianity. He changed the religion about God to a religion about Jesus. But here, and in Colossians 1:15-20, Paul seems not to have made this up, but is quoting something – something that he inherited. So that, before Paul, this high Christology exists, in which Jesus exists in the form of God. And Jesus thinks not that this form of God was something that he had to hold on to at all costs, but he emptied himself. He didn’t think his equality with God a thing to be grasped, but he emptied himself and took on the form of a servant – the incarnation. To continue, v. 7b,
“… being found in the form of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Equality with God was not something he had to maintain or hold on to. He emptied himself, and in that emptying of himself, the question is: what did he empty himself of? Theologians talk about that, but Paul just goes on, and doesn’t say anything in that regard. As a biblical theologian, you could certainly say that one of the things of which he emptied himself was omniscience (Mark 13:32) “… of that day … no one knows, not even the Son.” So that, when he was asked the question about the end of history, he says, in essence, “Even I don’t know.” Understand that he emptied himself also of omnipresence, and those divine qualities, etc. But what’s so fascinating about this, is that Paul is quoting a creed not that he made up, but that he inherited, and is sharing with them. And it is used incidentally to teach Christology. It’s meant to teach humility, and an ethical stance on how to live.
In 3:1, ff. he has some warnings, “Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you. Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship God in spirit ….” One of the questions that always comes up is, when you have warnings like this, should we practice a “mirror-reading” of that? It’s always a question as to whether we should assume when we read this that it indicates a problem that the Philippians were facing. Alternatively, it could be that Paul is not dealing with a present problem, but providing a prophylactic to head off any future problems along these lines. Paul has had a great deal of contact with people like this – he’s written of them in Galatians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Romans; he’s met them in Jerusalem, in the Galatian churches, etc. Perhaps he’s just telling the Philippians to prevent this – watch out for this problem. Is it a mirror-reading, or is it a future problem? It’s not easy to make decisions on that. If you attend a church that you’ve never visited this coming Sunday, and the preacher is preaching on “thou shalt not commit adultery”, should you practice a mirror-reading and deduce that adultery must be a real problem in this church? It’s hard to know. Now if, in the sermon, he might as an aside say something like, “If we we’d been practicing this teaching, we wouldn’t be going through some of the problems that we’re going through”, then you know it’s a present problem for that church. But there’s nothing like this statement here in Philippians, so we don’t know if it’s a mirror-reading or not. It may just be a command to prevent that kind of problem.
Then he goes on in his exhortations to Euodia and Syntyche, to agree with one another (women who had been working with him). Rejoice again given as a command in v. 4, “Rejoice! …have no anxiety about anything.” It’s interesting to note again that he writes this in prison. He says again in v. 10, “I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that you have revived your concern in me.” In contrast look at 1 Corinthians 11:7-11.
Then he brings his letter to a conclusion in v. 21-23: “Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brethren who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” The purpose of the letter is again, as I suggest, somewhat like a missionary newsletter that brings them up to date as to Paul’s situation. The main theological emphasis is probably this incidental reference to Christology in 2:6-11, a very crucial, important, and widely-discussed Christological section. That’s all we’re going to go over with Philippians. We’ll spend a little more time on Colossians because there’s an authorship problem associated with it. If you’re ever missionaries and you need to write news back home, read Philippians before you do it. It’s a great newsletter.