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Introduction to Philippians




Philippians is Paul’s most warmly personal letter. After initial difficulties in the city of Philippi (Acts 16), a strong bond developed between Paul and the converts there. Paul wrote to thank the church for a gift it had recently sent him in prison and to inform them of his circumstances.

Philippi’s acropolis seen from the hill where Cassius’s forces camped in 42 BC. The Battle at Philippi was one of the strategic engagements between Julius Caesar’s assassins, Brutus and Cassius, and his avengers, Mark Antony and Octavius. The victory of the latter forces was a critical step toward Octavius becoming Caesar Augustus.

Philippi’s acropolis seen from the hill where Cassius’s forces camped in 42 BC. The Battle at Philippi was one of the strategic engagements between Julius Caesar’s assassins, Brutus and Cassius, and his avengers, Mark Antony and Octavius. The victory of the latter forces was a critical step toward Octavius becoming Caesar Augustus (Lk 2:1).


AUTHOR: Paul the apostle wrote this short letter, a fact that no scholar seriously questions.

BACKGROUND: The traditional date for the writing of Philippians is during Paul’s first Roman imprisonment (AD 60-62); few have challenged this conclusion.

Paul planted the church at Philippi during his second missionary journey (AD 50) in response to his “Macedonian vision” (Ac 16:9-10). This was the first church in Europe (Ac 16).

The text of this letter from Paul suggests several characteristics of the church at Philippi. First, Gentiles predominated. Few Jews lived in Philippi, and, apparently, the church had few. Second, women had a significant role (Ac 16:11-15; Php 4:1-2). Third, the church was generous. Fourth, they remained deeply loyal to Paul.

Philippi, the ancient city of Krenides, had a military significance. It was the capital of Alexander the Great, who renamed it for his father Philip of Macedon, and it became the capital of the Greek Empire (332 BC). The Romans conquered Greece, and in the civil war after Julius Caesar’s death (44 BC), Antony and Octavius repopulated Philippi by allowing the defeated armies (Brutus and Cassius) to settle there (eight hundred miles from Rome). They declared the city a Roman colony. It flourished, proud of its history and entrenched in Roman political and social life. In his epistle to the Philippians, Paul alludes to military and political structures as metaphors for the church.

Paul thanked the church for their financial support (4:10-20). He also addressed disunity and the threat of heresy. Disunity threatened the church, spawned by personal conflicts (4:2) and disagreements over theology (3:1-16). The heresy came from radical Jewish teachers. Paul addressed both issues personally and warmly.

The church at Philippi sent Epaphroditus to help Paul in Rome. While there he became ill (2:25-28). The church learned of Epaphroditus’s illness, and Paul wished to ease their concern for him. Some people possibly blamed Epaphroditus for failing his commission, but Paul commended him and sent him home. Perhaps Epaphro-ditus carried this letter with him.


One purpose of this letter was for Paul to explain his situation at Rome (1:12-26). Although he was concerned about the divided Christian community at Rome, his outlook was strengthened by the knowledge that Christ was being magnified. Paul’s theology of life formed the basis of his optimism. Whether he lived or died, whether he continued his service to others or went to be in Christ’s presence, or whether he was appreciated or not, he wanted Christ to be glorified. Within this explanation are several messages.

UNITY: Paul exhorted the church to unity (1:27-2:18). Two factors influenced him. The church at Rome was divided, and he lived with a daily reminder of the effects of disunity. Further, similar disunity threatened the Philippian church as two prominent women differed with each other. Selfishness lay at the heart of the problems at Rome and Philippi. Paul reminded the believers of the humility of Jesus. If they would allow the outlook of Christ to guide their lives, harmony would be restored. The hymn to Christ (2:5-11) is pivotal to the epistle.

Christian unity results when individuals develop the mind of Christ. In more difficult situations, the church collectively solved problems through the involvement of its leadership (4:2-3). Harmony, joy, and peace characterize the church that functions as it should.

FREEDOM FROM LEGALISM: Paul warned the church to beware of Jewish legalists (3:2-21). Legalistic Jewish teachers threatened to destroy the vitality of the congregation by calling it to a preoccupation with external religious matters. Paul countered the legalists with a forceful teaching about justification by faith. He chose to express his theology through his personal experience. He had personal experience with their message and found it lacking.

SALVATION: Salvation was provided by Christ, who became obedient to death (2:6-8). It was proclaimed by a host of preachers who were anxious to advance the gospel. It was promoted through varying circumstances of life—both good and bad—so that the lives of believers became powerful witnesses. Finally, salvation would transform Christians and churches into models of spiritual life.

STEWARDSHIP: Paul thanked the Philippian believers for their financial support. The church had sent money and a trusted servant, Epaphroditus, to care for Paul. Their generosity encouraged Paul at a time of personal need, and he took the opportunity to express the rewards of giving and to teach Christian living.

The church at Philippi had reached a maturity regarding material possessions. It knew how to give out of poverty. It knew the value of supporting the gospel and those who proclaim it, and it knew that God could provide for its needs as well. Paul also demonstrated his attitude toward material things. He could maintain spiritual equilibrium in the midst of fluctuating financial circumstances. Christ was his life, and Christ’s provisions were all he needed. In everything, Paul’s joy was that Christ was glorified in him.

IMITATION: The epistle abounds with Christian models for imitation. Most obviously, the church was to imitate Jesus, but other genuine Christians also merited appreciation. Paul, Timothy, and Epaphroditus embodied the selflessness that God desires in his people.


Paul’s letter to the Philippians teaches us much about genuine Christianity. While most of its themes may be found elsewhere in Scripture, it is within this letter that we can see how those themes and messages impact life. Within the NT, Philippians contributes to our understanding of Christian commitment and what it means to be Christlike.


Philippians can be divided into four primary sections. Paul had definite concerns that he wanted to express, and he also wrote to warn about false teachers who threatened the church. Many of Paul’s letters can be divided into theological and practical sections, but Philippians does not follow that pattern. Paul’s theological instruction is woven throughout the fabric of a highly personal letter.


I.Salutation (1:1-2)

II.Explanation of Paul’s Concerns (1:3-2:30)

A.Paul’s thanksgiving and prayer (1:3-11)

B.Paul’s joy in the progress of the gospel (1:12-26)

C.Exhortation to Christlike character (1:27-2:18)

D.Paul’s future plans (2:19-30)

III.Exhortations to Christian Living (3:1-4:9)

A.Exhortations to avoid false teachers (3:1-21)

B.Miscellaneous exhortations (4:1-9)

IV.Expression of Thanks and Conclusion (4:10-23)

A.Repeated thanks (4:10-20)

B.Greetings and benediction (4:21-23)

500-31 BC

Settlers from Thasos occupy what would later be called Philippi and named it Krenides. 500

Philip II of Macedon invests in the development of the area and so the city was named in his honor. 358

The Romans win an overwhelming victory over the Macedonians at the battle of Pydna, after which Philippi came under Roman control. 168

The Battle of Philippi, a strategic turning point in Roman history, is fought between the army of Cassius and Brutus against that of Octavius and Mark Antony. 42

31 BC-AD 49

A decade later Octavius (Augustus) prevails against Mark Antony in the Battle of Actium, after which Philippi became a colony where veterans of the Roman civil war were settled and enjoyed the privileges of those who lived in Rome. 31 BC

Jesus’s trials, death, resurrection Nisan 14-16 or April 3-5, AD 33

Pentecost AD 33

Saul’s conversion on the Damascus Road October AD 34

Paul, Barnabas, and John Mark make first missionary journey. AD 47-49

Paul and Silas begin second missionary journey overland through Cilicia to Derbe, Lystra, Iconium, and Pisidian Antioch. AD 49

AD 49-52

Paul, Silas, and Timothy continue through North Galatia to Troas. 49

Paul and his companions arrive in Philippi and plant the first Christian church in Europe. 50

Paul’s ministry in the Macedonia cities of Thessalonica and Berea 50

Paul plants the church at Corinth. 50-51

Paul concludes second missionary journey, returning to Antioch of Syria. 52

AD 54-140

Paul’s third missionary journey takes him to Ephesus. 54

Paul’s extended ministry in Ephesus 54-56

Paul likely revisits Philippi collecting funds for the church at Jerusalem. 57

Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome 60-62

Paul writes his letter to the church at Philippi. 62

Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians 110-140