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NEW TESTAMENT SURVEY NewTestament Survey


STUDY 16 - THE PRISON EPISTLES: PHILIPPIANS


For this study see: M.C.Tenney, pp.324-330; R.H.Gundry, pp.402-408. Further reading: D.A.Carson, et al., An Introduction to the New Testament, pp.317-329.

1. AUTHORSHIP AND DESTINATION

"Philippians is the most personal of all the epistles of Paul that were not written to individuals. In the four pages that it occupies in an ordinary-size Bible there are no less than one hundred uses of the first person pronoun" (M.C.Tenney). [1]

The church at Philippi
The story of how Paul ministered in Philippi is told in Acts 16:11-40.  He had reached this leading city and Roman colony by way of the Macedonia vision with a party that included Silas and Luke.  Those who came to Christ through his ministry included Lydia, a slave girl who was a clairvoyant, and a jailer. [2] A church was established in the home of Lydia, which was to include many women who laboured with the apostle (Phil.4:3). Paul names Syntyche and Euodia in the epistle (4:2).  Paul writes to a church he had founded.

Background to the letter
Paul was supported at the beginning of his ministry in Macedonia by the church at Philippi, but as the apostle travelled farther afield he seems to have been forgotten.  However,

"The news of the disaster in Jerusalem and his consequent imprisonment in Rome had revived their sympathetic interest (4:10-14), and they had again made a contribution to his need.  Epaphroditus, their messenger, had brought to Paul their gifts, and had been taken seriously ill.  Paul counted his recovery an answer to prayer (2:25-27), and sent him back to Philippi with the letter that he wrote (2:28-29).  He stated that Epaphroditus had risked his life to bring the gifts, though the nature of the danger was not revealed.  Perhaps he incurred the disease through his travels and contacts; perhaps he laid himself open to suspicion by communicating with a man who was a political prisoner". [3]

Date of writing
The date of Philippians may be put towards the close of Paul's two years in Rome as last of the prison letters.  Time must certainly be allowed for Paul to arrive at Rome, for the news to reach Philippi, for the church to send Epaphroditus with the gift, and for them to hear of his illness and recovery.  Time is also needed for the apostle's reputation to spread among the Praetorian Guard (1:13) and for the gospel to penetrate Caesar's household, that is, the civil service (4:22).  J.B.Lightfoot thinks that it may be dated earlier than the Asian epistles as its language has greater affinity with that of the Travel Epistles than with that of the others. [4]

2. CONTENT

A number of themes are evident in the letter.  M.C.Tenney sees 'gospel' and 'joy' as the epistle's two keywords or topics.  Other NT scholars hold that Jesus Christ is the central message of the letter.  Unity is also a concern of Paul's pen.

The word 'gospel'
The word 'gospel' is mentioned nine times (1:5,7,12,16,27(2); 2:22; 4:3,15).  Tenney makes the following suggestion:

"Paul used the term as denoting a body of faith, a message, and the sphere of activity bounded by preaching.  No definitions of the gospel is given in Philippians, but the heart of the gospel is contained in two phrases that give respectively the historical and the personal aspects: he became 'obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross' (2:8), and 'having a righteousness... which is through faith in Christ' (3:9).  The former is good news that Christ died for men; the latter assures men that they can possess his righteousness before God. These are the two aspects of the gospel". [5]

The word 'joy'
Paul was not in a dark, damp, dismal prison when he penned this epistle, nevertheless his situation was far from pleasant.  He was awaiting trial and possible death.  Yet, in spite of this he exhorted the church to rejoice in the Lord.  To put it another way:

"His outlook in Rome was unpleasant, since his enemies were seeking to undermine his work, and sudden execution was a possible outcome of the trial. Philippians is anything but pessimistic. Paul rejoiced in every remembrance of the Philippians (1:3) because Christ was preached, whether sincerely or hypocritically (1:18), in the growth of humility in his followers (2:2), in his personal sacrifice for Christ (2:17), and in the gifts and goodwill of his friends (4:10). All through the epistle the brilliant joy of faith is contrasted with the sombre background of unto ward circumstance and impending disaster" (M.C.Tenney). [6]

Note these verses on the subject of joy: the believers' progress and joy in the faith (1:25); overflowing joy in Christ Jesus (1:26); an exhortation to be glad and rejoice with the apostle (2:18); "Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord!" (3:1); Paul's converts are his 'joy and crown' (4:1); "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!" (4:4). 

The appeal to unity
Paul writes to thank the Philippian believers for their generous gift and to deal with dissension which had arisen within the church.  Epaphroditus would have shared the news of this.  Paul addresses the need for unity in the use of 'you all' and 'all' (1:1,4,7,8,25; 2:17,26).  One of the greatest Christological passages in the NT is used to exhort the believers to humility and unity (see 2:1-11 and the Carmen Christi of vv. 6-11). H.F.Vos comments:

"Consider also references to his desire for unity, as expressed in the words 'one' or 'same' (1:27; 2:2; 3:16; 4:2) and his command in 2:14, 'Do all things without murmurings and disputings'.  A passage which, probably more than any other, expresses the thought of the entire letter and therefore serves as the key is 2:1-5.  There one finds the basis for unity - the blessings of the Christian life; the exhortation to unity - 'be of the same mind'; and the means of unity - humility and the consideration of the needs of others". [7]

The opponents of Paul
Another theme is Paul's relationship to his opponents.  Their attitude to the apostle causes him to defend himself and to urge his readers to see his life as an example (3:2-11).  Tenney sees the Judaisers as a potential threat, rather than a present danger, but 1:15, 27-30 needs to be considered.  What is certain is that internal strife is more of a threat to the life of the church than external persecution.  A united church can stand any outside pressure.

3. OUTLINE

M.C.Tenney's outline is aware of the personal nature of the epistle:

  • Philippians: The Personal Epistle

  • Salutations (1:1-2)

  • Thanksgiving for personal fellowship (1:3-11)

  • Encouragement in personal circumstances (1:12 - 2:18)

  • Personal relations with messengers (2:19-30)

  • Personal warnings against legalism (3:1-4:1)

  • Concluding counsel and greetings (4:2-23).

 
4. EVALUATION

Practical nature of the epistle
As with other Pauline letters Philippians blends doctrinal affirmation with practical instruction.  Paul himself is an example of Christian living.  Tenney senses Paul's devotion:

"Philippians 3 provides an insight into the driving motive in the life of Paul.  His amazing devotion and unflagging zeal place him among the great leaders of history who have devoted their lives to a cause in which they believed utterly.  To him, however, all of life was summed up in Christ.  To 'gain' him, to 'know' him, to 'be found' in him, to attain the goal set in him engaged all of Paul's attention.  Philippians depicts a totalitarian life in Christ". [8]

The christological hymn
"Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant".  The Christ-hymn of Phil.2:6-11 is one of the most elevated christological passages in the New Testament and compares with Jn.1:1-18; Col.1:15-20; Heb.1:1-14 (see also Rev.5:1-14).  It may be Pauline or pre-Pauline.



ENDNOTES

1. M.C.Tenney, p.324.

2. M.C.Tenney, p.280f. These conversion stories are shared as examples of the gospel's power.

3. M.C.Tenney, p.324f.

4. See the discussion in: J.B.Lightfoot, St.Paul's Epistle to the Philippians, 8th edition, London, Macmillan, 1888, pp.30-46.

5. M.C.Tenney, p.326.

6. M.C.Tenney, p.327.

7. H.F.Vos, Beginnings in the New Testament, p.82.

8. M.C.Tenney, p.328.



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