Introduction to the Bible - 50 - Philippians

The Epistle to the Philippians

by Louis Berkhof


 In the Epistle to the Philippians we may distinguish five parts:

 I. Pauls Account of his Condition, 1: 1-26. The apostle addresses the  Philippians in the usual way, 1, 2; and then informs them of his  gratitude for their participation in the work of the Gospel, of his  prayer for their increase in spiritual strength and labor, of the fact  that even his imprisonment was instrumental in spreading the Gospel,  and of his personal feelings and desires, 3-26.

 II. His Exhortation to Imitate Christ, 1: 27--2:18. He exhorts the  Philippians to strive after unity by exercising the necessary  self-denial, 1: 27--2: 4; points them to the pattern of Christ, who  humiliated himself and was glorified by God, 2: 5-11; and expresses his  desire that they follow the example of their Lord, 12-18.

 III. In formation respecting Paul's Efforts in behalf of the  Philippians, 2:19-30. He intends to send Timotheus to them that he may  know of their condition, and therefore commends this worthy servant of  Christ to them, 19-23; and though he trusted that he himself would come  shortly he now sends Epaphroditus back to them, and bespeaks a good  reception for him, 24-30.

 IV. Warnings against Judaeism and Antinomian Error, 3:1-21. The apostle  warns his readers against Judaeistic zealots that boasted in the flesh,  pointed to his own example in renouncing his fleshly prerogatives that  he might gain Christ and experience the power of His resurrection, and  in striving after perfection, 1:15. By way of contrast this induces him  to warn them also for the example of those whose lives are worldly and  licentious, 16-21.

 V. Final Exhortations and Acknowledgment, 4:1-23. He urges the  Philippians to avoid all dissension, 1-3; exhorts them to joyfulness,  freedom from care, and the pursuit of all good things, 4-9; gratefully  acknowledges their gifts, invoking a blessing on their love, 10-20; and  closes his Epistle with salutation and benediction, 21-23.


 1. The Epistle to the Philippians is one of the most personal of Paul's  letters, resembling in that respect II Corinthians. It has been called  the most letter-like of all the writings of Paul, and may be compared  in this respect with I Thessalonians and Philemon. The personal note is  very marked throughout the Epistle. There is not much dogma, and what  little is found is introduced for practical purposes. This holds true  even with reference to the classical passage in 2:6-11. The apostle,  with the prospect of an early martyrdom before him, yet not without  hope of a speedy release, opens his heart to his most beloved  congregation. He speaks of the blessings that attend his labors at  Rome, of the strait in which he finds himself, and expresses his desire  to remain with them. He manifests his love for the Philippians, shows  himself concerned for their spiritual welfare, and expresses his  profound gratitude for their support. Though in bonds, he rejoices, and  bids the readers be joyful. The tone of joyous gratitude rings through  the entire Epistle.

 2. The letter is in no sense a controversial one. There are in it no  direct polemics; there is very little that has to any degree a  polemical character. The apostle warns against errorists that are  without the church, but might disturb its peace, and forestalls their  attacks; he hints at dissensions, most likely of a practical nature, in  the congregation, and admonishes the readers to be peaceful and  self-denying; but he never once assumes a polemical attitude, like he  does in Corinthians or Galatians. Stronger still, the Epistle is  singularly free from all denunciation and reproof; it is written  throughout in a lauditory spirit. The apostle finds little to chide and  much to praise in the Philippian church.

 3. The address of the Epistle is peculiar in that it names not only,  "the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi," but adds, "with the  bishops and deacons." In that respect it stands in a class by itself.  The greetings at the end of the Epistle are also unique. On the one  hand they are very general, while, on the other, "the household of  Caesar" is singled out for special mention.

 4. As to style, Alford reminds us, that this letter, like all those in  which Paul writes with fervor, "is discontinuous and abrupt, passing  rapidly from one theme to another; full of earnest exhortation,  affectionate warnings, deep and wonderful settings-forth of his  individual spiritual condition and feelings, of the state of the  Christian and of the sinful world, of the loving councils of our Father  respecting us, and the self-sacrifice and triumph of our Redeemer."  Prolegomena Sec. IV. There are constant expressions of affection, such  as agapetoi andadelphoi. Notice especially 4:1, "Therefore my brethren,  my dearly beloved and longed for, my joy and crown, so stand fast in  the Lord, my dearly beloved."


 The Pauline authorship of this Epistle is established as well as  anything can be. We probably find the first reference to it in the  epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians, where we read: "The glorious  Paul who, being personally among you, taught you exactly and surely the  word of truth; who also, being absent, wrote you letters (or, a letter)  which you have only to study to be edified in the faith that has been  given you." The passage does not necessarily refer to more than one  letter. Our Epistle formed a part of Marcions collection, is mentioned  in the Muratorian canon, is found in the Syriac and old Latin Versions,  and is quoted by Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian and many  others.

 And this testimony of antiquity is clearly borne out by the evidence  furnished by the Epistle itself. It is self-attested and has, at the  beginning, the usual Pauline blessing and thanksgiving. Above all,  however, it is like II Corinthians in that the personality of the  apostle is so strongly stamped on it as to leave little room for doubt.  The historical circumstances which the Epistle presupposes, the type of  thought which it contains, the language in which it is couched, and the  character which it reveals,--it is all Pauline.

 The evidence in its favor is so strong that its authenticity has been  generally admitted, even by radical critics. Of course, Baur and the  majority of his school rejected it, but even Hilgenfeld, Julicher and  Pfleiderer accept it as Pauline. The great majority of New Testament  scholars regard the objections of Baur as frivolous, as f. i. that the  mention of bishops and deacons points to a post-Pauline stage of  ecclesiastical organization; that there is no originality in the  Epistle; that it contains evident traces of Gnosticism; that the  doctrine of justification which it sets forth is not that of Paul; and  that the Epistle aims at reconciling the opposing parties of the second  century, typified by Euodia and Syntyche.

 Of late Holsten has taken up the cudgels against the genuineness of  this letter. Dismissing several of the arguments of Baur as irrelevant,  he bases his attack especially on the Christological and Soteriological  differences that he discerns between this Epistle and the other  writings of Paul. The most important points to which he refers are  these: (1) The idea of the pre-existent Christ in 2: 6-11 does not  agree with that found in I Cor. 15 : 45-49. According to the first  passage the manhood of Christ begins with his incarnation; according to  the second, He was even in his pre-existence "a heavenly man." (2)  There is a glaring contradiction between 3 : 6, where the writer says  that he was blameless as touching the righteousness which is in the  law, and Rom. 7: 21, where the apostle declares:--when I would do good,  evil is present." (3) The doctrine of forensic, imputed righteousness  is replaced by that of an infused righteousness in 3: 9-11. (4) The  writer shows a singular indifference to the objective truth of his  Gospel in 1: 15-18, an attitude which compares strangely with that of  Paul in II Cor. 11:1-4, and especially in Gal. 1: 8, 9.

 But these objections are not of sufficient weight to disprove the  Pauline authorship. In I Cor. 15 the apostle does not speak of the  pre-existent Christ, but of Christ as he will appear at the parousia in  a glorified body. With what Paul says in 3: 6 we may compare Gal. 1:  14. In both places he speaks of himself from the standpoint of the Jew  who regards the law merely as an external carnal commandment. From that  point of view he might consider himself blameless, but it was quite  different, if he contemplated the law in its deep spiritual sense. It  is not true that Paul substitutes an infused for an imputed  righteousness in this Epistle. He clearly speaks of the latter in 2: 9,  and then by means of an infinitive of purpose passes on to speak of the  subjective righteousness of life. The persons spoken of in 1:15-18 are  not said to preach a Gospel different from that of the apostle; they  preached Christ, but from impure motives. Hence they can not be  compared with the adversaries of whom Paul speaks in Corinthians and  Galatians. To these he probably refers in 3: 2. Schurer says: "The  arguments of Holsten are such that one might sometimes believe them due  to a slip of the pen."


 The city of Philippi was formerly called Crenides, and derived its  later name from Philip, the king of Macedonia, who rebuilt it and made  it a frontier city between his kingdom and Thrace. It was situated on  the river Gangites and on the important Egnatian highway that connected  the Adriatic with the Hellespont. After the defeat of his enemies  Octavius about 42 B. C. determined on Philippi as one of the places,  where Roman soldiers who had served their time were to dwell. He  constituted it a Roman colony, with the special privilege of the jus  Italicum, which included "(1) exemption from the oversight of the  provincial governors; (2) immunity from the poll and property taxes;  and (3) right to property in the soil regulated by Roman law." These  privileges, no doubt, attracted many colonists, so that Philippi soon  became a city of considerable size. It is described in Acts 16:12 as,  "the chief city of that part of Macedonia and a colony."

 To that city Paul first came, when about the year 52, in obedience to  the vision of the Macedonian man, he passed from Asia into Europe. This  was in harmony with his general policy of preaching in the main centers  of the Roman empire. Apparently the Jews were not numerous in Philippi:  there was no synagogue, so that the small band of Jews and proselytes  simply repaired to the river side for prayer; and one of the charges  brought against Paul and Silas was that they were Jews. At the place of  prayer the missionaries addressed the assembled women, and were  instrumental in converting Lydia who, with characteristic generosity,  immediately received them in her house. We read no more of the  blessings that crowned their labors there, but find that on their  departure there was a company of brethren to whom they spoke words of  comfort.

 Little can be said regarding the composition of the Philippian church.  In the narrative of its founding we find no specific mention of Jews,  although the assembly by the river points to their presence. However  the fact that there was no synagogue, and that the enemies  contemptuously emphasized the Jewish nationality of the missionaries  leads us to think that they were few and greatly despised. It may be  that those who did live there had, under the pressure of their  environment, already lost many of their distinctive features. The  presumption is that some of them accepted the teaching of Paul and  Silas, but we cannot tell how large a proportion of the church they  formed. In all probability they were a small minority and caused no  friction in the congregation. Paul does not even refer to them in his  letter, much less condemn their Jewish tenets, like he does the errors  of the false brethren at Corinth and in the Galatian churches. The  adversaries of whom he speaks in 3: 2 were evidently outside of the  church. On the whole the Philippian church was an ideal one, consisting  of warmhearted people, diligent in the work of the Lord, and faithfully  devoted to their apostle.


 1. Occasion and Purpose. The immediate occasion of this Epistle was a  contribution brought by Epaphroditus from the Philippian church. They  had often sent the apostle similar tokens of their love (cf. 4:15, 16;  II Cor. 11:9), and now, after they had for some time lacked the  opportunity to communicate with him, 4:10, they again ministered to his  wants. From over-exertion in the work of Gods Kingdom their messenger  was taken sick at Rome. On his recovery Paul immediately sends him back  to Philippi, in order to allay all possible fears as to his condition;  and utilizes this opportunity to send the Philippians a letter.

 His purpose in writing this Epistle was evidently fourfold. In the  first place he desired to express his gratitude for the munificence of  the Philippians, especially because it testified to the abundance of  their faith. In the second place he wished to give utterance to his  sincere love for the Philippian church that constituted his crown in  the Lord. In the third place he felt it incumbent on him to warn them  against the dangers that were present within the fold, and the enemies  that were threatening them from without. Apparently there was some  dissension in the church, 1: 27--2:17; 4: 2, 3, but, in all probability  this was not of a doctrinal character, but rather consisted of personal  rivalries and divisions among some of the church members. In 3 : 2 the  apostle most likely referred to the Judaeizing Christians that traveled  about to make proselytes, and also threatened the church of Philippi.  Finally he desires to exhort his most beloved church to be joyful,  notwithstanding his imprisonment, and to lead a truly Christian life.

 2. Time and Place. Like the Epistle to the Ephesians that to the  Philippians was written at Rome. While several scholars assign the  former to the Caesarean captivity, very few refer the latter to that  period. The apostles evident residing in some great center of activity,  the many friends that surrounded him, his joyful expectation of being  set free soon, his mention of the pr~torium, 1:13, which may be the  praetorian guard (so most commentators), or the supreme imperial court  (so Mommsen and Ramsay), and the greetings of Caesars household,--all  point to Rome.

 The Epistle was written, therefore, between the years 61-63. The only  remaining question is, whether it was composed before or after the  other three Epistles of the captivity. The prevailing view is that  Philippians is the last of the group. This view is supported by the  following arguments: (1) The apostles words in 1: 12 seem to imply that  a long period of imprisonment has already elapsed. (2) A rather long  time was required in the communications between Rome and Philippi  indicated in the letter. The Philippians had heard of Pauls  imprisonment, had sent Epaphroditus to Rome, had heard of the latters  illness there, and of this their messenger, in turn, had received  intelligence. Four journeys are, therefore, implied. (3) Paul  anticipates that his case will soon come up for decision, and although  uncertain as to the outcome, he somewhat expects a speedy release.  These arguments are not absolutely conclusive, but certainly create a  strong presumption in favor of dating the Epistle after the other  three.

 Bleek was inclined to regard Philippians as the earliest of the  Epistles of the captivity. This view found a strong defender in  Lightfoot, who is followed by Farrar in his St. Paul. Lightfoot defends  his position by pointing to the similarity of this Epistle to Romans,  which implies, according to him, that it immediately follows this in  order of time; and to the fact that in this Epistle we have the last  trace of Paul's Judaeistic controversy, while in Ephesians and  Cobssians he begins to deal with an incipient Gnosticism, and his  teachings respecting the Church bear a close resemblance and are  intimately related to the views presented in the pastorals. These  Epistles, therefore, represent a further developmnt in the doctrine of  the Church. But these proofs do not carry conviction, since the  character of Paul's Epistles was not necessarily determined by the  order in which they were written, and the apostle did not write as one  who is presenting his system of thought to the world in successive  letters. His Epistles were called forth and determined by special  situations. And the question may be asked, whether it seems plausible  that any considerable development of doctrine should take place within  the course of at most a year and a half.


 The Epistle to the Philippians is not quoted as much as some of the  preceding ones, which is probably due to the fact that it contains  little doctrinal matter. Notwithstanding this its canonicity is well  established. There are traces of its language in Clement of Rome and  Ignatius. Polycarp, addressing the Philippians, speaks more than once  of Pauls writing to them. The Epistle to Diognetus, Justin Martyr and  Theophilus contain references to our letter. In the Epistle of the  churches of Vienne and Lyons Phil. 2: 6 is quoted. Marcion has it and  the Muratorian canon speaks of it. And it is often directly quoted and  ascribed to Paul by Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian.

 Though the Epistle is primarily of a practical nature, it has also  great and abiding dogmatic significance. It contains the classical  passage on the important doctrine of the kenosis of Christ, 2:6-11.  Aside from this, however, its great permanent value is of a practical  character. It reveals to us the ideal relation between Paul and his  Philippian church, a relation such as the church of God should  constantly seek to realize: he, sedulously seeking to promote the  spiritual welfare of those entrusted to his care, even in a time of  dire distress; and they, though possessing no great wealth, willingly  and lovingly ministering to the natural wants of their beloved apostle.  It points us to Christ as the pattern of that self-denial and  humiliation that should always characterize his followers. It comes to  us with the grand exhortation, enforced by the example of the great  apostle, to press forward for "the prize of the high calling of God in  Christ Jesus." And finally it pictures us the Christian satisfied and  joyful, even when the shades of night are falling.