Paul’s letter to the Philippians is believed to have been written while Paul was imprisoned in Rome. One of the striking pictures in this letter is the amount of joy and encouragement he has despite enduring adverse circumstances.
Structure of New Testament Letters
Knowing the form of a typical letter will help us find the key themes and key purpose for the writing of the book. The form of a first century letter had this look typically:
- Author and rank
- Body of letter
Let us examine Paul’s letter looking for these elements to determine the overall message of the letter.
Structure of Philippians
This letter to the Philippians was written by Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus. The recipients of this letter from Paul and Timothy are the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons. This is the only place in Paul’s writings where the leaders of a local church are singled out as recipients of a letter. In verse 2 Paul gives the standard Hebrew and Greek salutation, "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."
Thanksgiving is the next section commonly found in a first century letter. Paul’s thanksgiving section is found in verses 3-11 of the first chapter. Verse 3 begins, "I give thanks to my God for every remembrance of you, always praying with joy for all of you in my every prayer, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now." (1:3-5). One can see the emotional heart as Paul writes, "It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because I have you in my heart, and you are all partners with me in grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and establishment of the gospel" (1:7). Paul prays that the Philippians’ love will keep growing in knowledge and discernment, being filled with the fruit of righteousness.
Typically, we would expect to move into the body of the letter where we would be able to determine the thesis of the letter. However, Paul now describes to the Philippians about his circumstances in Rome in verses 12-26. Paul begins this section with words of encouragement describing how Paul’s circumstances have led toward the advancement of the gospel. In fact, the whole imperial guard knows that Paul is imprisoned for the cause of Christ. Further, Paul’s imprisonment seems to have given courage to others to proclaim boldly the gospel message. Paul continues by describing the various motives of people who proclaim Christ. Paul’s motivation is clear: "For me, living is Christ and dying is gain" (1:21). Paul continues forward with this motivation knowing that the confidence of the Philippians is growing because of Paul’s work.
Paul comes to the thesis and purpose of writing his letter after describing his circumstances to the Philippians. "Just one thing, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ" (1:27). The rest of the letter seems to be a message of encouragement to the Philippians to live their lives in a proper way. In the first four verses of chapter 2, Paul exhorts the readers toward godliness. Paul encourages the Philippians to be of the same mind, same love, united in one spirit, and intent on one purpose. Further, a Christian is to do nothing from selfishness or conceit. Christians must consider the interests of others more important than our own interests. Paul is going to describe how the Christian ought to live by using a variety of examples. The first and ultimate example we are to look to is Jesus.
The Example of Jesus (2:5-18)
Verse 5 says, "Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus…" Jesus is the first example that the Philippians are encouraged to look toward to live their lives worthy of the gospel. Notice the specific points that Paul makes concerning the life of Jesus.
- Christ did not use his position for his own advantage. Though God and equal with God, Jesus did not take the position he held and use it for selfish gain. Instead, he sacrificed his position, taking on the likeness of men.
- Jesus humbled himself (a characteristic that Paul just commanded in 2:3). Jesus’ humility was seen through his actions. Jesus did not go around saying, "I am a humble person." Jesus showed his humility by submitting himself to death on a cross. Because of his sacrifice and selflessness, God highly exalted Jesus so that every knee must bow to him. Therefore, Paul sets Jesus forward as the example to be followed. In light of Jesus’ sacrifice, Paul declares "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling." We are to do everything without grumbling and arguing, so that we will be blameless and pure (2:14).
The Example of Timothy (2:19-24)
Paul now states that he hopes to send Timothy to the Philippi soon. Timothy is coming as Paul’s messenger to so that Paul can be encouraged at the continued good news concerning the work of the Philippians. Notice that the theme of selflessness continues in the example of Timothy. Paul says, "For I have no one else like-minded who will genuinely care about your interests" (2:20). Timothy’s character was proven and the Philippians knew that Timothy was genuinely concerned about the gospel and about the Philippians’ welfare.
The Example of Epaphroditus (2:25-30)
We would love to know more about Epaphroditus. Paul sent him to the Philippians as another instrument of encouragement. While Epaphroditus was with Paul, he became extremely sick, ill to the point of death. But God had mercy on Epaphroditus. Therefore, Paul sent him to the Philippians so that they could also share in the rejoicing concerning his condition. Verses 29-30 are very important words concerning Epaphroditus: "Therefore, welcome him in the Lord with all joy and hold men like him in honor, because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up what was lacking in your ministry to me." We do not know the nature of Epaphroditus’ illness. All that we can surmise from these verses is that in the process of coming to Paul or helping minister to Paul, he became very sick. Paul says that Christians should welcome and hold in honor people who are willing to work to the death for the cause of Christ. Epaphroditus’ actions were to be praised and exemplified.
The Example of Paul (3:1-21)
To see that Paul is speaking to the Philippians about modeling his example, we must look at 3:17, "Join in imitating me, brothers, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us." So we need to read chapter 3 carefully to determine what aspects of Paul’s example the Philippians were to follow. Chapter 3 begins in a very cryptic way: "Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you" (3:1, ESV). What Paul is about to write will not bring any trouble to Paul and will be safe for the Philippians to receive and read.
In verse 2 Paul tells the Philippians to watch out for dogs, that is, the evil workers in that day. We have commonly understood this text to be speaking about Judaizers who wanted the Gentiles to become circumcised. The problem with this interpretation is that history and the scriptures show that there was not a Jewish influence in Philippi. Philippi was a Roman colony, a military city, not commercial. When Paul went on his missionary journeys, he would stop in the synagogue and teach to the Jewish people about Jesus Christ, unless there was not a synagogue. In reading Acts 16 we are able to see that there was not a synagogue, which suggests that there were not enough male Jews in the city to establish a synagogue. Rather, Paul finds some women who were assembled at the river praying. Paul preaches to them about Jesus. The reason for Paul and Silas’ arrest in Philippi was not from a Jewish persecution, but because the Romans who lived in the city declared that Paul’s teachings were unlawful because they declare Jesus to be the emperor and Son of God, not Caesar (Acts 16:21). So why is Paul talking to the Philippians about Judaizers when there is no evidence that the Jews were a threat to the Gentile Christians?
I believe Paul is speaking about his own personal example. This transition is made in verse 4 where Paul says that he also was concerned about circumcision and boasting in the flesh. In fact, Paul declares that he was the best of the best when it came to Judaism. Verse 7 is an important key sentence: "But everything that was a gain to me, I have considered to be a loss because of Christ." Paul goes on further, "Because of Him I have suffered the loss of all things and consider them filth, so that I may gain Christ" (3:8). Paul is saying that he enjoyed great privileges within Judaism but decided to consider it nothing to be a follower of Christ. Paul sacrificed all that was important to a Jew so that he could be a disciple of Jesus. Paul then writes to the Philippians, "Join in imitating me, brothers, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us" (3:17). Is Paul telling the Philippian Christians to renounce Judaism? No, since they did not have a Jewish background, but were Romans. But Philippi was called "little Rome" and being a colony of Rome meant that the inhabitants of the city enjoyed special privileges that were only extended to those who lived in the city of Rome. Paul is telling the Philippians to give up their privileged status within the Roman Empire to be a follower of Jesus.
This is the continued theme of Philippians. The example of Christ was that he did not allow his position and status to be something used for selfishness. Rather, Christ sacrificed it to the point of death on the cross. Timothy exemplified this attitude, showing more concern for the interests of the Philippians than all others. Epaphroditus also exemplified this attitude of sacrifice, nearly losing his life for the work of Christ. Paul also exemplified this sacrificial attitude, giving up the privileges he had in Judaism to be a disciple of Jesus. Now Paul tells the Philippians to be imitators of his example. The Philippians are being asked to make the same sacrifice. Position and privilege is not to be used for selfishness but for continuing the work of Christ. Knowing the implications of asking the Philippians to make this sacrifice, Paul says that he writes with tears because too many are focused on the earthly privileges. "But our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ" (3:20). We are to renounce the privileges of the world so that we can find our citizenship in heaven with all of its privileges.
Stand Firm (4:1-9)
Paul has just gave the Philippians a difficult command. Therefore Paul calls for the Philippians to stand firm in the Lord. The Philippians are to continue working for the Lord and rejoicing in the Lord in all things. Even though the Philippians lived in a city nicknamed "little Rome," Paul tells them to not worry about anything but to put their lives in God’s hands. Finally, as they serve the Lord they must continue to keep their minds on the things of God. If we are going to make this great sacrifice for the Lord, we cannot have our minds on the things of this world. We have to look at our privileges and position and give them up for the cause of Christ.
Paul begins closing the letter in verse 10. No matter the situation, Paul says that he knows the secret of being content in any circumstance: "I am able to do all things through Him who strengthens me" (4:13). Paul praises the Philippians for their wonderful giving as he preached the gospel from city to city. One can see the emotion in Paul’s words as he thanks the Philippians for make the financial sacrifice to take care of Paul’s needs (4:17-18). Because the Philippians were joyful givers, Paul prays that God will supply all of their needs according to the riches of God’s glory found in Christ Jesus.
Most letters in the Roman world ended with the greeting. Paul also ends his letter to the Philippians with various greetings. Paul first wants all the saints in Philippi to receive a greeting from Paul. Second, those brothers who are with Paul also greet the saints in Philippi. A very interesting note that there are even some in Caesar’s household who offer their greetings to the saints.
Paul has written a powerful letter expressing joy in the midst of suffering. Paul calls for disciples to follow the examples of Christ, Timothy, Epaphroditus, and Paul in that we willfully renounce the privileges we enjoy in this life to fully submit and follow the Lord. This is the cost of discipleship that we must count if we want to be His disciple. Discipleship calls for sacrifice and only those who are willing to make that sacrifice will be found in His image.