Paul wrote this short letter to thank the Philippian church for a gift it had sent him. It exudes joy and teaches many valuable lessons for the Christian life.
Philippians is not a doctrinal treatise, like Romans or Ephesians, but a personal and affectionate address to believers who were dear to Paul’s heart (1:8; 4:1), as well as an expression of thankfulness for their generous gift sent by Epaphroditus (4:10-20). There is not a single Old Testament quotation in the letter. Paul’s willingness to express affection is an example for all to follow. How often do we neglect to show our appreciation for others? Although no false teaching needed correction at the time of writing, Paul, as a skillful shepherd – ever watchful for God’s people – noticed imminent danger on the horizon, and warned against it (3:2). The absence of erroneous teaching may be associated with the fact that there was no synagogue in Philippi, for many errors come in the guise of religion. Paul’s love for them was seen practically in his prayers for them (1:9), by explaining his own situation, so they would not worry (1:12), exhorting them to live godly lives (1:27), and his longing to know their “state” (2:19). Philippi was approximately 600 miles from Rome, but Paul’s deep interest in the Philippian believers willed him to send Timothy all that distance. He wished to be with them (2:24), courageously warned them of spiritual dangers (3:2), provided a good example for them to follow (3:17), and delighted in their spiritual fruit-bearing (4:17). These also amply proved his love for them. Thus, in this letter we learn that the apostle dearly loved these Christians, that he was not ashamed to express his affection for them, and that he found many ways in which to manifest such love.
Several subjects recur throughout the letter, the main one being the importance of continually rejoicing in the Lord regardless of circumstances – the words “joy” and “rejoice” occur seventeen times. Since Christ is also central to the letter – mentioned 51 times – it is obvious where the source of such perennial joy lies. Although the Philippians held the privileged position of Roman citizens, far more valuable was their heavenly citizenship (1:27; 3:20). Sadly, disharmony had arisen between two godly sisters, and Paul gently reminded them of the importance of unity (1:27, 2:2), until finally he hit the nail on the head and addressed them by name (4:2). The power of Christian example is another feature of this letter. The Lord Jesus is the ultimate example (2:5-8), while Paul and others provide further examples to imitate (3:17).
Christ is the supreme subject of the letter. Each chapter has a key verse relating to Him (see the table above).
The Apostle Paul, together with his beloved son in the faith Timothy, wrote the letter (1:1). New Testament letters divide into those written by Paul and those that were not. His letters subdivide into early ones – written during his missionary journeys, – and later ones – written subsequent to his arrest at Jerusalem (Acts 21). This latter group further subdivides into those written during his first imprisonment in Rome (recorded in Acts 28) – referred to as the prison epistles (Colossians, Ephesians, Philemon, and Philippians probably the last to be written) – and those letters written to Timothy and Titus during a second imprisonment.
Much can be learned from the apostle’s thought processes as he expressed the burning desires of his heart. Paul, in prison at the time of writing this epistle, was unable to do the things he had such zeal for, such as preaching the gospel and visiting saints to encourage them. There was uncertainty regarding his future as he awaited sentence. On occasion he appeared quite confident of release (1:25; 2:24), but at other times expressed an awareness of possible execution (2:17). His confinement and uncertainty were made more unpleasant as a result of some who preached the gospel with the sole motivation of adding affliction to his bonds. Despite this, no matter where we turn in this epistle, Paul is full of joy, because the Lord enables us in deepest trials to have joy in our hearts that would not naturally be there.
As Philippi was a Roman colony its inhabitants enjoyed, and were proud of, having all the privileges of Roman citizenship. Paul needed to remind them that far excelling this was their heavenly citizenship. At the time of writing, the church at Philippi was approximately ten years old, the first converts being Lydia and the local jailor along with their households. Since the establishment of the church, Paul had visited them twice, once at the beginning of his third missionary journey (2Cor 8:1-5), and the second time near its end (Acts 20:6). If not at the time of writing, certainly initially, the church met in Lydia’s house. European believers, if not those of North America, can certainly feel much in common with this church, for it was the first in Europe. By this time a clear organizational structure of overseers and deacons had developed in the church (1:1, NASV).
In summary, just as this little letter is brimming over with joy, we too should constantly rejoice in the Lord.