How to Read the Bible Book by Book: Philippians
Philippians 2:12-13: “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.”
In most of the towns where Paul preached the gospel, he began by going to the local synagogue. There he would preach how Jesus is Israel’s true Messiah and that Jesus fulfilled all of the promises of the Hebrew scriptures. Paul would always find believers among the Jewish people. More often than not, however, after spending a few weeks teaching in the synagogue, opposition would be stirred up against him and Paul would be forced to take his message elsewhere. It was then that Paul would preach among the Gentiles, and he often found a more receptive audience among them than he did among those who were supposed to be the people of God.
In the city of Philippi, however, Paul encountered a unique situation. There was no synagogue in that city. Philippi was founded by Alexander the Great’s father, king Philip of Greece. In Roman times, it became a popular city for retired members of the army to settle and make a comfortable home. There was only a small Jewish population which accounts for why there was no synagogue. So, when Paul came into the city of Philippi, he could not follow his normal course of action. Rather, he found a common place of prayer located by the river. It was there that Paul converted the first member of the Philippian church—a woman named Lydia.
It was from this small beginning that the church in Philippi got its start. Later, Paul converted the jailor who oversaw his and Silas’ imprisonment after unintentionally stirring up a riot. We don’t know much beyond this, but it is clear that Philippi was a unique stop in Paul’s missionary journeys and has an interesting back story.
The occasion for this letter is the Philippian church’s concern for Paul’s imprisonment. Most scholars think that this letter was written while Paul was imprisoned in Rome, although there are some who think it may have been written during that mysterious time in Ephesus where he also may have been in prison. Whatever the case may be, the young church in Philippi is facing several challenges. First, they are concerned for Paul who is their father in the faith. He is in prison and is unable to come to them, and they desperately miss his presence. Secondly, there seems to be conflict taking place in the church. In 4:2, Paul pleads with two sisters in the church named Euodia and Syntyche to put aside their conflict and to come to peace with one another. This conflict may account for the strong emphasis on humility and service in the letter. Third, Paul once again faces the challenge that he faced in almost every place he preached. Men had come behind him who were trying to enforce the Mosaic law on new Gentile Christians. Paul minces no words when he calls such people “dogs” and “mutilators of the flesh.”
The letter opens in 1:1-11 with a note of thanksgiving for the church and a prayer for them. Paul is thankful for their partnership in the gospel and prays that their love may abound more and more with knowledge and depth of insight. He wants them to be able to discern what is true and right and to be filled with the fruit of true righteousness.
In 1:12-30, Paul then reassures them about his own circumstances. Two things are relevant here. One, Paul is in prison and is not able to do the work that he would like to do. But secondly, there are rivals of Paul who are taking advantage of his imprisonment to advance their own work. It is obvious that such people do not have pure motivation when it comes to preaching the gospel. However, Paul does not despair about this, and he does not want the church in Philippi to be concerned either. Paul’s imprisonment has served to advance the gospel. And even if there are those who are preaching out of a sense of rivalry and competition, Paul is not worried. In either case, Christ is being proclaimed and people are benefiting. He is not jealous about who does the work or who gets the credit. His primary concern is with the spread of the gospel. In the meantime, whatever may happen to him in prison, he wants the Philippians to live a life worthy of the Gospel they have been called to. If they will do this, Paul will be reassured about their position in the Lord.
The heart of the letter comes in 2:1-18. There Paul encourages the church to have the same attitude as Christ, who did not take advantage of his true identity and nature as God, but instead humbled himself and took on the nature of a servant. Perhaps this is meant to address the conflict that has developed between the two sisters in chapter 4 and has threatened to pull in the whole church. Paul reminds them that the call is to be a servant like Christ. And just as God exalted Christ after he was obedient to the point of death, so also will he exalt us with Christ when the time is right. In the meantime, humility is the natural posture for the Christian.
In chapter 3 Paul addresses two temptations for the church—legalism and lawlessness. As in so many of the places where Paul preached, people influenced by the old Jewish traditions and assumptions tried to bind the rituals of the law on new Christians. These people had put their confidence in the wrong place. Paul will make the point that if anyone should have confidence in the flesh, he would be foremost among them. He has an impeccable pedigree. But Paul considers all those things as garbage compared to the greatness of knowing Christ.
Along with the danger of legalism is also the danger of living an expressly godless life. Paul grieves over the fact that many people are slaves to their flesh and live as enemies of Christ and of his cross. Christians are not to live in such way. Our citizenship is in heaven, not on the earth, and we are eagerly awaiting our savior to return and gather us home.
Chapter 4 ends the letter with several admonitions. First there is the specific plea that Paul makes to Euodia and Syntyche to reconcile and get along with one another in the Lord. Then there is an admonition to rejoice in the Lord and to cast all their anxieties upon God. There is an encouragement to set their mind on things that are true, good, noble, and right. And finally, Paul asks them to put into practice all the things that they have learned from him.
Even though Philippians deals with real problems, it is one of the more upbeat and encouraging letters of the New Testament. It teaches us to rejoice in the Lord always. Christ is our example who became a servant on behalf of God’s people for their salvation. Paul’s call is for us to live lives worthy of the gospel and to imitate the humility and service of Christ.