The Letter of St. Paul to the Philippians
A genuine Pauline letter, the letter to the Philippians is generally dated around 54-55 AD. It mentions “Caesar’s household,” which has led some scholars to believe that it was written from Rome, but some of the news in it could not have come from Rome. It seems rather to date from an earlier imprisonment, perhaps in Ephesus, from which Paul hopes to be released. There is also a likelihood, according to some scholars, that the letter as we have it is a composite from parts of three letters by Paul to the Philippians.
Paul, according to Acts (Acts 16:9–40), established at Philippi the first Christian community in Europe. Philippi, in northeastern Greece, was a city of some importance in the Roman province of Macedonia. Lying on the great road from the Adriatic coast to Byzantium, the Via Egnatia, and in the midst of rich agricultural plains near the gold deposits of Mt. Pangaeus, it was in Paul’s day a Roman town (Acts 16:21), with a Greek-Macedonian population and a small group of Jews (see Acts 16:13). Originally founded in the sixth century B.C. as Krenides by the Thracians, the town was taken over after 360 B.C. by Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, and was renamed for himself, “Philip’s City.” The area became Roman in the second century B.C. On the plains near Philippi in October 42 B.C., Antony and Octavian decisively defeated the forces of Brutus and Cassius, the slayers of Julius Caesar. Octavian (Augustus) later made Philippi a Roman colony and settled many veterans of the Roman armies there.
Excerpts from Philippians:
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The Letter to the Philippians:
12 I want you to know, brothers, that my situation has turned out rather to advance the gospel.
Steadfastness in Faith.
- [1:1] Slaves: Paul usually refers to himself at the start of a letter as an apostle. Here he substitutes a term suggesting the unconditional obligation of himself and Timothy to the service of Christ, probably because, in view of the good relationship with the Philippians, he wishes to stress his status as a co-servant rather than emphasize his apostolic authority. Reference to Timothy is a courtesy: Paul alone writes the letter, as the singular verb throughout shows (Phil 1:3–26), and the reference (Phil 2:19–24) to Timothy in the third person. Overseers: the Greek term episkopos literally means “one who oversees” or “one who supervises,” but since the second century it has come to designate the “bishop,” the official who heads a local church. In New Testament times this office had not yet developed into the form that it later assumed, though it seems to be well on the way to such development in the Pastorals; see 1 Tm 3:2 and Ti 1:7, where it is translated bishop. At Philippi, however (and at Ephesus, according to Acts 20:28), there was more than one episkopos, and the precise function of these officials is uncertain. In order to distinguish this office from the later stages into which it developed, the term is here translated as overseers. Ministers: the Greek term diakonoi is used frequently in the New Testament to designate “servants,” “attendants,” or “ministers.” Paul refers to himself and to other apostles as “ministers of God” (2 Cor 6:4) or “ministers of Christ” (2 Cor 11:23). In the Pastorals (1 Tm 3:8, 12) the diakonos has become an established official in the local church; hence the term is there translated as deacon. The diakonoi at Philippi seem to represent an earlier stage of development of the office; we are uncertain about their precise functions. Hence the term is here translated as ministers. See Rom 16:1, where Phoebe is described as a diakonos (minister) of the church of Cenchreae.
- [1:13] Praetorium: either the praetorian guard in the city where Paul was imprisoned or the governor’s official residence in a Roman province (cf. Mk 15:16; Acts 23:35). See Introduction on possible sites.
- [1:19–25] Paul earnestly debates his prospects of martyrdom or continued missionary labor. While he may long to depart this life and thus be with Christ (Phil 1:23), his overall and final expectation is that he will be delivered from this imprisonment and continue in the service of the Philippians and of others (Phil 1:19, 25; Phil 2:24). In either case, Christ is central (Phil 1:20–21); if to live means Christ for Paul, death means to be united with Christ in a deeper sense.
- [1:27–30] Ethical admonition begins at this early point in the letter, emphasizing steadfastness and congregational unity in the face of possible suffering. The opponents (Phil 1:28) are those in Philippi, probably pagans, who oppose the gospel cause. This is proof . .. (Phil 1:28) may refer to the whole outlook and conduct of the Philippians, turning out for their salvation but to the judgment of the opponents (cf. 2 Cor 2:15–16), or possibly the sentence refers to the opinion of the opponents, who hold that the obstinacy of the Christians points to the destruction of such people as defy Roman authority (though in reality, Paul holds, such faithfulness leads to salvation).
Plea for Unity and Humility.
Obedience and Service in the World.
Timothy and Paul.
- [2:1–11] The admonition to likemindedness and unity (Phil 2:2–5) is based on the believers’ threefold experience with Christ, God’s love, and the Spirit. The appeal to humility (Phil 2:3) and to obedience (Phil 2:12) is rooted in christology, specifically in a statement about Christ Jesus (Phil 2:6–11) and his humbling of self and obedience to the point of death (Phil 2:8).
- [2:5] Have…the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus: or, “that also Christ Jesus had.” While it is often held that Christ here functions as a model for moral imitation, it is not the historical Jesus but the entire Christ event that Phil 2:6–11 depict. Therefore, the appeal is to have in relations among yourselves that same relationship you have in Jesus Christ, i.e., serving one another as you serve Christ (Phil 2:4).
- [2:6–11] Perhaps an early Christian hymn quoted here by Paul. The short rhythmic lines fall into two parts, Phil 2:6–8 where the subject of every verb is Christ, and Phil 2:9–11 where the subject is God. The general pattern is thus of Christ’s humiliation and then exaltation. More precise analyses propose a division into six three-line stanzas (Phil 2:6; 7abc, 7d–8, 9, 10, 11) or into three stanzas (Phil 2:6–7ab, 7cd–8, 9–11). Phrases such as even death on a cross (Phil 2:8c) are considered by some to be additions (by Paul) to the hymn, as are Phil 2:10c, 11c.
- [2:6] Either a reference to Christ’s preexistence and those aspects of divinity that he was willing to give up in order to serve in human form, or to what the man Jesus refused to grasp at to attain divinity. Many see an allusion to the Genesis story: unlike Adam, Jesus, though…in the form of God (Gn 1:26–27), did not reach out for equality with God, in contrast with the first Adam in Gn 3:5–6.
- [2:12] Fear and trembling: a common Old Testament expression indicating awe and seriousness in the service of God (cf. Ex 15:16; Jdt 2:28; Ps 2:11; Is 19:16).
- [2:19] Timothy: already known to the Philippians (Acts 16:1–15; cf. 1 Cor 4:17; 16:10).
- [2:25] Epaphroditus: sent by the Philippians as their messenger (literally, “apostle”) to aid Paul in his imprisonment, he had fallen seriously ill; Paul commends him as he sends him back to Philippi.
Against Legalistic Teachers.
Righteousness from God.
Forward in Christ.
Wrong Conduct and Our Goal.
- [3:2–11] Paul sets forth the Christian claim, especially using personal, autobiographical terms that are appropriate to the situation. He presents his own experience in coming to know Christ Jesus in terms of righteousness or justification (cf. Rom 1:16–17; 3:21–5:11; Gal 2:5–11), contrasting the righteousness from God through faith and that of one’s own based on the law as two exclusive ways of pleasing God.
- [3:2] Beware of the mutilation: literally, “incision,” an ironic wordplay on “circumcision”; cf. Gal 5:12. There may be an association with the self-inflicted mutilations of the prophets of Baal (1 Kgs 18:28) and of devotees of Cybele who slashed themselves in religious frenzy.
- [3:3] We are the circumcision: the true people of God, seed and offspring of Abraham (Gal 3:7, 29; 6:15). Spirit of God: some manuscripts read “worship God by the Spirit.”
- [3:5] Circumcised on the eighth day: as the law required (Gn 17:12; Lv 12:3).
- [3:17] Being imitators of me: not arrogance, but humble simplicity, since all his converts know that Paul is wholly dedicated to imitating Christ (1 Cor 11:1; cf. also Phil 4:9; 1 Thes 1:6; 2 Thes 3:7, 9; 1 Cor 4:6).
Live in Concord.
Joy and Peace
- [4:2] Euodia…Syntyche: two otherwise unknown women in the Philippian congregation; on the advice to them, cf. Phil 2:2–4.
- [4:3] Yokemate: or “comrade,” although the Greek syzygos could also be a proper name. Clement: otherwise unknown, although later writers sought to identify him with Clement, bishop of Rome (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.15.1).
- [4:15] The beginning of the gospel: it was at Philippi that Paul first preached Christ in Europe, going on from there to Thessalonica and Beroea (Acts 16:9–17:14).
- [4:18] Aroma…sacrifice: Old Testament cultic language (cf. Gn 8:21; Ex 29:18, 25, 41; Lv 1:9, 13; Ez 20:41) applied to the Philippians’ gift; cf. Eph 5:2; 2 Cor 2:14–16.
- [4:22] Those of Caesar’s household: minor officials or even slaves and freedmen, found in Ephesus or Rome, among other places.