The famous Macedonian call in Acts 16 triggered a pioneer advance of the gospel by Paul and Silas into Greece, along with Timothy, recently recruited to full-time work. The first recorded conversions in Philippi certainly typify the character of both the workers and their converts. Lydia’s conversion typifies the spirit of the Philippian believers. When she was baptized, she constrained Paul and his fellow-laborers to stay with her; she became a supporter and a partner in the work of God. It is evident that this characterized the assembly as a whole (Phil 1:5; 4:3,15-16).
Philippi, though a Greek city, was a Roman colony, and Roman citizenship became an issue in the slander against the gospel of Christ. Ironically, it also precipitated the release of the prisoners when it was discovered that they were also Roman citizens, and that their rights had been violated. Did Paul and Silas wonder what their vision was amounting to when they were beaten and imprisoned? They demonstrated by their behavior a deep confidence in God, as they sang and prayed in the hearing of their captive audience! In the midst of the confrontation and confusion in which they were embroiled, God intervened with a powerful demonstration of His control over all things. The jailor and his family were all converted that night. What cheer it must have brought to the preachers, as well as to the little nucleus of believers! Their behavior and attitude in that initial crisis was foundational to the exhortation and encouragement that Paul, as their father in the faith, and once again in prison at Rome approximately ten years later, is able to give the assembly (1:12-14). He appeals to them to behave as citizens of heaven, faithful to the principles and interests of their coming Savior and Sovereign (1:27-30; 3:20-21).
Reasons for Writing
First of all, Paul is writing to express his gratitude for their generous care shown to him in prison, brought by Epaphroditus (1:5; 4:10-18). Secondly, news had filtered back to the assembly concerning Epaphroditus, who had become deathly ill. It seems evident that he had stayed for a time to care for Paul. Paul intends to send Timothy to strengthen and help them, but feels constrained to immediately send Epaphroditus to allay their concerns, along with his letter to them (2:19-30). Thirdly, Paul seems concerned about their state on two fronts. They have been suffering persecution and affliction from opponents of the gospel (1:28-30) and he is writing to encourage them to steadfastness and unity in facing external opposition. As well, Paul is concerned about internal strife among the believers. With tenderness, yet with honesty, he appeals to them to follow the example of the Lord Jesus, in humility and mutual love and care (2:1-16). There is an obvious mutual closeness and respect between Paul and the believers, as he is able to appeal to them to follow his personal example while with them.
In chapter 4 he specifically appeals to two dear sisters, who had been loyal fellow-laborers with him in the gospel, to be “of one mind in the Lord.” Fourthly, there seems to be some concern about the influence of Judaizers seeking to add circumcision and the law to the gospel. This is refuted vigorously in chapter 3; again, using his own example as a former leader of Judaism, but now depending entirely upon righteousness in Christ. True spirituality is knowing Christ and experiencing His presence and power.
Theme of Letter
Christ is the adequate reason and resource for the challenges of the Christian life. We are challenged to focus our thinking upon Him as our Example, and our Enabler. Any experience is worthwhile, if it brings more of Christ to me. What He is, is the answer to the underlying problems facing the assembly. There is a current of JOY running through the letter, and a confident assurance that God is at work in us, enabling us to overcome every challenge of life and death. The epistle is a challenge to translate Christian doctrine into Christian living. There is an emphasis upon the vital importance of RIGHT THINKING: “Let this mind (thinking) be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (2:5). The superlative declaration that follows, of the deity and glory of Christ, Who humbled Himself to become a servant “obedient unto death,” is really the heart of the epistle. “He humbled Himself … wherefore God also hath highly exalted Him.” As we ponder how far He condescended in humility and suffering on our behalf, we gladly acknowledge His worthiness to be supremely honored in every realm. Christ is the supreme example of self-sacrificing love that puts others first, but also of faith that leaves the recompense in God’s hands. Can we possibly miss the message for our lives? A complementary theme of the epistle is the future “day of Christ” (1:6,10; 2:16) when God’s work in us and through us will be revealed and rewarded in association with the Lord Jesus in His glory. We will discern then that our spiritual gain will also be His gain, His glory, and His joy. The apostle applies the same pattern to himself and the Philippian saints. Are there any fellow-saints, of whom we can say, “my joy and crown” (2:14-17; 4:1)? As we invest our lives in love and care for others, we will joy in their blessing and progress, and ultimately receive His reward for participation in His work in their lives.
Key thought in Philippians: What we focus on eventually controls us.
• Philippians 1 – The Single Mind: Christ – The Passion of My Life; Key Verse: 1:21
• Philippians 2 – The Servant’s Mind: Christ – The Pattern of My Life; Key Verse 2:5
• Philippians 3 – The Spiritual Mind: Christ – The Prize of My Life; Key Verse 3:14
• Philippians 4 – The Secure Mind: Christ – The Power of My Life; Key Verse 4:13