How I Approach the Study of a Book: Philippians

The Bible is filled with precious gems that await discovery. Its sacred pages are a revelation of Christ and His riches, which are the signature on God’s precious promises to us. “But my God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:19). It is important, in Philippians, as in any book, to approach the study with the expectation of finding treasure uniquely embedded in Christ.

It is first important to appreciate value in the study of an individual book. God has graciously given clear statements of truth through His Word, and expositional study is the key that unlocks this truth. It seems that each generation must discover these timeless gems anew in order to understand their full value, yet sadly, expositional teaching no longer seems the hallmark of assemblies that it once was. While words of encouragement, topical study, and specific practical applications of Scripture are important, there is no question that the increasing neglect of systematic study must weaken our grasp of doctrine and thereby undermine the foundation of our faith. Furthermore the post-modern religious world that surrounds us, questioning whether truth can be known, is inclined to peg those who claim a hold on a truth as being presumptuous. Expositional study, which brings us to a clear understanding of truth, is therefore not only a treasure for the student but is the only preservative against weak theology.

Begin a study by reading and rereading an entire book a number of times to gain a general understanding of its content. I find it helpful to verbalize verses using my own words as a loose paraphrase. If there are difficult verses, try not to get sidetracked into figuring them out. During this beginning time, key words become apparent. For instance, the word “gospel” is recorded six times in chapter 1. The words “joy” and “rejoicing” recur frequently in chapters 2 and 4. “Being of the same mind” is emphasized. Some promises stand out. Our Lord Jesus Christ is prominent throughout the whole book.

Resist the temptation to dissect the passage and assign headings too early. Time is needed for the truth to be absorbed into one’s thinking and heart. During these days I find that further cursory readings of the passage, along with memorizing key verses, help me to become obsessed with the passage so that I find myself meditating on the verses and trying to recall the general content while busy with other things.

Do not read commentaries early in the study because there would be a tendency to simply accept these writings per se rather than listening to what God may be trying to communicate directly through His Word. Later on in the study, I use commentaries and my perception of the passage then is tempered by the valuable observations of others.

Study of the Scriptures absolutely requires that the Spirit of God illumine its pages. “Howbeit when He, the Spirit of truth, is come, He will guide you into all truth” (Jn 16:13). A prayerful and dependent attitude on our part is essential for this work of the Spirit. The saintly Robert Chapman stated this truth so well. “Spread the Bible before the Lord; ask Him what is your ignorance and what is His wisdom.”

It is helpful to ask questions about the historical setting of the book. Who wrote it? To whom? Did he know these people? Why did he write? Some of this information is readily apparent in the text. Paul identifies himself along with Timothy as the author of Philippians (1:1). Much of this letter is written in the first person singular and obviously applies to Paul. He was writing to the saints at Philippi whom he had visited previously (Acts 16). His connection with them is intimate. He has them in his mind (1:3-6), in his heart (1:7-8), and in his prayers (1:9-11). The letter was written while Paul was imprisoned (1:13) probably in Rome.

Why Paul wrote Philippians is the subject of its four delightful chapters. Each chapter describes a different reason for his writing.

Chapter 1 is written to encourage the Philippians in the face of persecution particularly in relation to Paul’s imprisonment. The gospel is his theme. He reminds them of their past fellowship with him (v 5) and speaks confidently of God’s ongoing work in their lives which will reach fruition at the day of Christ (v 6). He then tells them positively of the opportunities his imprisonment has opened and of the boldness that this has given to others to preach the gospel (vv 12-18). He concludes his encouragement by assuring them that Christ will be honored in his body in one way or another and that their manner of life ought also to commend the gospel (vv 19-30).

Chapter 2 is a strong appeal for unity through humility and willing service. Unity is taught by example. Paul starts with what is unquestionably his most powerful example, the willing submission of Christ (vv 5-11). He then describes his own unreserved sacrifice (v 17), the selfless care of Timothy (vv 19-23), and the tireless service of Epaphroditus (vv 25-30).

Chapter 3 warns against the insidious attacks of legalistic teachers who would like to bring believers under the bondage of keeping Jewish ritual. I love how Paul turns this problem into a rich perspective on consecration. The high calling of God in Christ Jesus contains five components. It involves a giving-up of all confidence in the flesh (vv 3-7), a gain through knowing Christ (vv 8-10), a goal of developing a straight course towards the prize (vv 11-14), a guard by disassociating with those who distract (vv 15-19), and a glory that is a future transformed body (vv 20-21).

Paul has still another reason for writing expressed in chapter 4. He wants to thank the Philippians for a gift which was delivered to him by Epaphroditus (4:18). This thank-you is surrounded by exhortations to pursue peace in relation to fellow-believers (vv 2-4), self (vv 5-9), and circumstances (vv 10-23).

I conclude the study of this book, and every book, by thanking God for revealing Christ to me through His Word. Philippians reveals the gospel of Christ producing confidence, the mind of Christ yielding joy, the knowledge of Christ inspiring consecration, and the riches of Christ granting peace. These are precious gems indeed, and I wonder why I allow a thousand other activities to receive higher priority than the study of the Scriptures.