Philippians – Introductory Material


Paul. So much could be said about him. Paul is his Greco-Roman name (Saul was his Jewish name). From this correspondence we learn that Paul is clearly of Jewish descendent (3.5): an Israelite, a Hebrew, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Pharisee who had been circumcised on the eighth day (cf. 2 Cor 11.22; Rom 11.1). He was an educated man who perhaps had elementary education growing up in Tarsus (cf. Acts 22.3) and received secondary education as a Pharisee under Gamaliel. Thus, his claim “under the law blameless” (Phil 3.6). He excelled past his fellow countrymen in his orthodox observance of the Law. Prior to his conversion, he was a church persecutor (see 3.6). During a trip to Damascus he has an encounter with the resurrected Jesus and is struck blind (Acts 9). A man named Ananias explains to him how to obey the gospel (Acts 22.16) and he is converted. “This experience had dramatic consequences, changing his entire life, self-understanding, theological views, and goals.”[1] He went from being a persecutor of the church to a propagator of Christ.

His letters reflect a brilliant intellect, skillful in rhetoric, careful in composition, and elaborate in theological argumentation. Indeed, Paul was competent to defend himself in court while his opponents, Jewish priests, needed an orator (Acts 24.1). Through his letter writing he codified much Christian doctrine and beliefs of the church concerning Christ and Christian conduct. Through this medium he became a prominent champion for orthodox Christian theology. Often his zeal and passion for true Christology, orthodoxy, or orthopraxy comes through the page of Scripture.

From later Christian sources we know that Paul was martyred for his faith. 1 Clement 5.5-7 records that Paul “showed the way to the prize for patient endurance” and that he “departed from the world and went to the holy place.” Tradition holds that he was beheaded in Rome in AD 69 with the exact site of the beheading and subsequent burial being disputed.

Paul writes this epistle to a church he helped establish in Philippi (Acts 16). Some time has passed since first preached the gospel in Philippi.


Caffin (Pulpit Commentary) says this epistle was written about 30 years after the ascension of Christ and about decade since Paul established the church in Philippi. This places the epistles composition around AD 63-64 during Paul’s Roman (Neronian) imprisonment. However, there is a school of thought which argues for an earlier composition during Paul’s Caesarean imprisonment (Acts 23.33-35).[2]



Originally founded as Krenides (or Crenides) by residents of the nearby island of Thasos in 360-59 BC, Philippi is a city in E Macedonia, NE Greece. Philippi was named after Philip II of Macedonia who was the father of Alexander the Great. Philip enlarged the city and renamed it in 356 BC. It is located on a plain surrounded by mountains about 10 miles from the Aegean Sea. The main route of trade between Asia and the West called the Egnatian Way ran through the city. Philippi was made into a Roman colony when Marc Anthony and Octavian (who would later become Augustus Caesar) defeated Brutus and Cassius there in 42 BC. This entitled the residents to the rights and privileges that were specially reserved for residents of Italy. Along with this came the settling of veterans in the town, giving it a Latin military heritage which would last into Paul’s day. The city of Philippi was the urban political center of the colony and with its proximity to the Via Egnatia also dominated the colony’s commercial life.[3] Thus the historian Luke is right in calling Philippi “a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony” (Acts 16.12).

Philippi was the site of Paul’s extensive missionary activity in Europe. He walked into a town which hosted a sanctuary for Egyptian gods and a cult which was considerably popular. In fact, the sanctuary enjoyed a prominent place in the town and was probably supported by some of the wealthy members of the city based on the costly marble used in its construction. Other inscriptions show that many gods were prominent in Philippi and that most of religious activity surrounded the cultic activities of women (cf. Acts 16.16ff). “Roman gods such as Jupiter and Mars had their cults, but the Thracian goddess Bendis remained very popular, and sanctuaries to gods from Egypt and to Cybele, a Phrygian goddess, are also known.” [4] Paul set foot into this unique polytheistic culture on his second missionary journey (c. AD 49). Perhaps aware of the high percentage of women involved in religious duties, he found a group of women praying outside the city and upon converting one lady (Lydia) and her family, they became the core group of the church. Some suggest that the reason starts by the river is because there were no synagogues because they didn’t even have the necessary number of males (ten) to form one.[5] However, some argue that the women were meeting at a synagogue located outside the city (Harper).

Neverthless, Paul visits Philippi on his second missionary journey, establishes a congregation and proceeds from there to Thessalonica, leaving Luke in Philippi (from 1st person to 3rd). Paul and Silas (probably with Timothy also though he is not mentioned) will not return to Philippi until Acts 20.5 when they are reunited with Luke (3rd to 1st person). The time span is one of about 5 years and no doubt the presence of Luke helped to strengthen and mature that congregation. This may help explain why Paul’s letter is not harsh and corrective as some of his other works.

Occasion & Purpose

Lenski points out that neither the dispute between sisters (4.2) nor the gift from the Philippians (4.18) prompted this letter. Lenski says the two-fold occasion for writing is the recovery of Epaphroditus (who Lenski says became sick when he delivered the Philippians’ gift to Paul) and the positive progress of his case in the imperial court (including those in the imperial court hearing the gospel). Paul isn’t correcting grave error or developing a theme – he is simply writing a letter.

Muller agrees: “The frank, hearty tone, the artless form, the cheerful mood even under oppressive circumstances, the practical purport – these all bear a very personal stamp, and make it – to a measure surpassing any other of the apostle – a letter, the effusion of the heart to a Church he loved.”[6] It was written for personal reason without dogmatic intention. Those personal reasons include the gift from the Philippians: “For this token of love he wished to express his thanks.”[7]

Martin offers a couple occasions for writing: 1) recognition of the generosity of the church in their gift (monetary support, 1.3, 5; 4.10, 14ff), 2) Epaphroditus, very much acquainted with the church, informs Paul of various troubles within the body (2.2-4, 14; 4.2; possibly 1.27) – there may have been divisions and certainly were quarrels and possibly a “perfectionist faction” to which Paul explains that not even has arrived and those who “think otherwise” (i.e. that they have arrived) are not mature in their thinking.

Barclay offers four (4) reasons for Paul’s writing: 1) thanksgiving for the gift sent, 2) information about Epaphroditus who became sick, 3) encouragement for the Philippians during trials, 4) appeal for unity in the body.

Paul writes to a group of Christians who are at a crossroads. They are beset by Judaizer teachers who no doubt want them to adopt into their Christian walk the Law and Jewish customs. The pure practice of the Christian is thereby threatened. Their faith also needs refining in certain fine points of following Christ and how to be a Christian. Further, the minds of the Philippians are troubled over Paul and Epaphroditus, one imprisoned and the other ill. Their joy has been threatened by all of these besetting factors.

The purpose of this book is to stimulate the Philippian Christians to live a life worthy of the gospel.


Paul seeks to remind his brethren that God empowers servants (slaves) to rejoice regardless of circumstances.

[1] Hans Dieter Betz, “Paul (Person)”, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992). 187.

[2] See Ralph Martin, Phillipians, Tyndale New Testament Commentary, 26-28.

[3] Holland L. Hendrix, “Philippi (Place)”, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday, 1992). 314.

[4] Paul J. Achtemeier, Harper & Row and Society of Biblical Literature, Harper’s Bible Dictionary, 1st ed. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985). 786.

[5] Ronald F. Youngblood, ed., “Philippi,” New Illustrated Bible Dictionary, (Nashville: Nelson, 1995). 984.

[6] Jac. Muller, The new International Commentary on the New Testament. Philippians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1955). 20-21.

[7] Ibid. 14