Rethinking the Scriptures

Decoding Philippians 3

I. Background

A. The city of Philippi

  1. Before we can begin a proper exegesis of any New Testament letter, it is important that we know the background and the culture of the recipients. Though in the Macedonian region, the city of Philippi had been declared a Roman colony by the Roman Empire in memorial of the civil war victory of Octavian and Antony. To be Roman colony was to have particular privileges and culture which set it apart from other cities in the region.
  2. As a Roman colony, Philippi was first and foremost a military city. Philippi was a strategic military location of the Romans, as the city sat on the great Egnatian Road which linked the western and eastern parts of the empire. A Roman army could be dispatched from Philippi and quickly reach eastern or western edges of the empire and help maintain its borders. Philippi was called a miniature Rome, even its form and appearance. The city had its own Senate and reported directly to Rome and was not subservient to any local power like the other cities and provinces.
  3. As an inhabitant of Philippi, one was considered living in Italy itself. The Romans divided mankind into citizens and strangers. An inhabitant of Italy was a citizen; an inhabitant of any other part of the empire was a peregrinus, or stranger. The colonial policy abolished this distinction so far as privileges were concerned (Vincent). Inhabitants of a Roman colony were not subject to taxation and were afforded every right under Roman law.

B. Inhabitants

  1. The dominant inhabitants of the city of Philippi were Romans (Acts 16:21). Since Philippi was a military city and not a commercial city, there were not many Jews who lived in Philippi. In fact, there was no synagogue in Philippi because there were so few Jews. Instead, there was a place of prayer near the Gangites River, outside the city walls (Acts 16:13). Paul and Silas established a local church in Philippi on their second missionary journey (Acts 16:11-40).
  2. This background information leads to a problem in understanding the third chapter of Paul’s letter to Christians in Philippi. There is nothing in the first two chapters of Philippians that indicates that there was a Jewish persecution of Christians in the city. The problems Paul and Silas had in Philippi had nothing to do with the Jews, but everything to do with the pagan gods the Romans were worshipping in the city. The third chapter of Philippians sounds like the problem of the Galatian churches, were the Jews were convincing Jewish Christians to keep the law of Moses as means of salvation. If this third chapter were in the Galatian letter, we would not have any difficulty.
  3. But why would Paul write this third chapter about Judaism when there was such a small smattering of Jews in Philippi that they did not even have a synagogue? According to N.T. Wright, “We have…no hard evidence that this danger [the problem of Christians following the law of Moses for salvation] threatened the churches in Greece as it had those in Asia.” The assumption has been made that the Jews had followed Paul to Philippi to cause trouble to those Christians. But Acts 16 reveals no such problem, as Acts reveals in other cities Paul visited. Further, the nature of the city leads us to believe that the majority of the church was Roman and not Jewish. The two women mentioned as part of the church in Philippians 4:2 were Greek names. Clement, in Philippians 4:3, is a Latin name, all of which shows the Roman nature of the church in Philippi.

II. Paul’s Message in Philippians 3

A. “Safe” message

  1. The first verse should signal to us that something different is happening in Paul’s discussion. Paul says, “It’s no trouble for me to write the same things to you, and it’s for your safety.” This the only time Paul or any New Testament writer uses this word translated “safety” or “protection.” Paul says that writing this does not cause him any trouble but what he says will be a protection to them. What I believe Paul is saying, and I hope to prove through this lesson, is that he going to write some important things down in such a way so they will be protected when reading this message. Thus, the language is “coded” if you will, and they must take the message and understand the code for themselves.
  2. Paul says to watch out for dogs. This was a common reference for those unclean by the Jews, or more generally, those outside the covenant relationship with God. Paul continues by warning them to watch out for evil workers and to watch out for the mutilation. This statement concerning the mutilation of the flesh seems to be a parody on the Jews insistence of circumcision being a required part of salvation. Thus, Paul continues, “we are the circumcision, the ones who serve by the Spirit of god, boast in Christ Jesus, and do not put confidence in the flesh” (3:3).
  3. In verses 4-6 Paul describes all the privileges he had in Judaism. He had every privilege that one could desire as a Jew, full of zeal, a Pharisee, and an influential person in the Jewish nation. In verses 7-11 Paul describes his own personal sacrifices. He considered all these privileges to be loss. He considered his advantages to be meaningless in light of the privilege and advantage of knowing Jesus Christ. In fact, Paul considered his advantages to be trash so that he could gain Christ and know the power of His resurrection.
  4. Paul says in verses 12-14 that he has not attained the goal yet. He continues to press forward to the goal of knowing Him to receive the prize of the heavenly call. He continues to forget the privileges and advantages of his former life and presses forward in Christ.

B. Imitate me

  1. But in verses 15-21 Paul makes his example binding. Paul is not merely recounting all the things he gave up as a means of boasting or to show the Philippians how great he is. Rather, Paul is teaching the Philippians to follow his example.
  2. Notice verse 15: “Therefore, all who are mature should think this way.” Paul is telling the Philippians to adopt this same way of thinking that he has concerning their advantages and privileges. In verse 16 Paul tells the Philippians to be of the same mind and live by the same rule. This standard that guides Paul’s life should also guide the lives of the Philippians. The pinnacle of the teaching is in verse 17: “Join in imitating me, brothers, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.
  3. Now we must ask an important question: how could the Philippians imitate Paul in these matters? What exactly is Paul calling on the Philippians to do? Is Paul telling them to renounce Judaism? Of course not for the Philippians are Romans, not Jews. Is Paul calling on the Philippians to renounce their Jewish privileges just as he had? No, because again they did not have these privileges which Paul speaks about.
  4. Paul is telling the Philippians to rethink their Roman allegiance just as Paul had to rethink his Jewish allegiance. In the same way that Paul sacrificed the advantages and privileges of being a Jew, Paul is telling these Christians to sacrifice their advantages and privileges of living in Philippi. Paul is not warning the Philippians against Judaism; he is warning them against the Caesar worship and the paganism demanded by living in this “miniature Rome.” Paul tells the Philippians his own story of how he had abandoned his status and privileges in order to find the true status and privilege in Christ and encourages them to do the same in regards to their Roman status. Paul is challenging the Philippians to give their allegiance to the true king, Jesus, and not the puppet king, Caesar. Paul is telling the Philippians to not go along with the Caesar cult religion.

C. Be prepared for suffering

  1. Notice how this passage parallels what Paul described concerning Jesus in Philippians 2:5-11. Paul describes how Jesus renounced his privileges, status, and advantages and was made to suffer. But by doing so, he was glorified by the Father.
  2. Paul is warning the Philippians to not compromise their allegiance to Jesus, and to be prepared, by refusing to take part in cultic and other activities, to follow their Messiah along the path of suffering. In the same way, where is Paul when he writes this letter to the Philippians? He is imprisoned in Rome. We see this fact in Philippians 1:13 where Paul says his imprisonment for the gospel is known throughout the whole imperial guard. Similarly, Philippians 4:22 gives a greeting to the Christians in Philippi from the house of Caesar.
  3. Paul is imprisoned for the gospel and the Caesar’s imperial guard knows about it. Thus, Paul writes to the Philippians: “imitate me.” To not go along with all the paganism, rituals, and Caesar worship in Philippi would cause immediate problems for the Christians. They would be made to suffer for such a decision. Paul reminds the Philippians of his own suffering for the gospel and the suffering of Christ, both of which turned over their privileges in obedience to the Father.
  4. Paul then ensures that the Philippians understand what he is saying in verse 18: “For I have often told you, and now say again with tears, that many live as enemies of the cross of Christ.” Essentially, the Christians at Philippi are surrounded by enemies of the cross of Christ.
  5. This is why Paul said that this was “safe” to the Philippian readers. If Paul had written to them in direct words to rethink their allegiance to Caesar, to revoke the privileges of Rome, and to live as foremost with their allegiance to the true Lord, trouble would have immediately begun for them and for him. He could not openly speak in such a way because it was very counter-imperial. For their safety, Paul speaks in terms of his own life, as a living parable, and they were to do as Paul had did, not toward Judaism, but toward Rome as they live in a Roman colony. If Paul can renounce his unrivaled privileges for the name of Christ, they can also.

D. Heavenly citizenship

  1. Thus, Paul concludes his discussion with verse 20, “But our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Remember that all of this language was commonly used of the emperor. The Roman emperor was considered the savior of the world and of the earth. The Roman emperor was called “lord” and called himself “son of god.” Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not. Caesar’s empire, of which Philippi is a colonial outpost, is the parody; Jesus’ empire, of which the Philippian church is a colonial outpost, is the reality.
  2. N.T. Wright says, “The point of having ‘citizenship in heaven’ is not that one might eventually go home to the mother city; Rome established colonies precisely because of overcrowding in the capital, and the desire to spread Roman civilization in the rest of the empire. The point was that, if things were getting difficult in one’s colonial setting, the emperor would come from the mother city to rescue and liberate his loyal subjects, transforming their situation from danger to safety.” For our citizenship to be in heaven is not about us looking to go God, but that our King, Jesus Christ, is going to come for us. When he comes for us, “he will transform the body of our humble condition into the likeness of His glorious body, by the power that enables Him to subject everything to Himself” (Philippians 3:21). Before Paul gets to his final greetings, he concludes with powerful words to the Philippians: “So then, in this way, my dearly loved brothers, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord, dear friends” (4:1).
  3. Perhaps this context and background helps us see the meaning of these words of Paul: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made know to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses every thought, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (4:6-7). Again, Paul’s words, “Do what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you” (4:9).


It is evident that Paul was not telling the Philippians that they could no longer be Romans nor use their privileges. We know that Paul exercised his right as a Roman to make an appeal to Caesar. But it is interesting that while in Philippi, Paul and Silas were beaten and imprisoned, which was not allowed for uncondemned Roman citizens. But Paul did not stop the beatings by claiming Roman citizenship.

The point is that we must see that we are citizens of God’s kingdom first. If there is anything that causes us in our citizenship with our nation to go against the word of God, we cannot submit. Even if it caused suffering and death, Paul was ready for the cause of Christ and commanded the Philippians to be ready. The Philippians could not worship Caesar as king and lord. They could not worship the pagan gods and idols in that city. They could not do these things just to avoid mistreatment.

For us to be citizens of heaven means we will not go along with the immorality of this country. To be citizens of God means that we cannot go along with any act that God condemns. In fact, we must be ready to renounce our wealth and our privileges for the gain that is Christ. Will we count all this in this country as trash if it means being with God? This is our call.

Lesson adapted from sermon by Brent Kercheville

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