THE EPISTLE OF PAUL TO THE
O U T L I N E
Historical Context. Philippi was a major city in Macedonia in the first century. Acts 16 records how Paul was directed to Macedonia. First, he was “forbidden of the Holy Ghost to preach the word in Asia”, and then “they assayed to go into Bithynia: but the Spirit suffered them not”, and finally, “a vision appeared to Paul in the night; There stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed him, saying, Come over into Macedonia, and help us” (Acts 16:6-7, 9). God was leading Paul to open a new frontier of the gospel in the West, and Paul obeyed. The work began in Philippi which was “the chief city of that part of Macedonia” (Acts 16:12). Paul started by preaching by a river to those who were believing Jews or proselytes in that region. Lydia, a seller of purple cloth, believed the gospel and was baptized. But it was not without opposition from the enemy. Paul then cast out a demon from a possessed woman who was enslaved to a couple of men that were profiting from her abilities. Her masters were furious with Paul and Silas, and dragged them before the magistrates where they were accused, beaten with many stripes, cast into prison, and held in the stocks. Then unfolded the well known story of the Philippian jail, the midnight praises of Paul and Silas, the earthquake, the conversion of the jailor, etc. The house of Lydia and others converted at that time, including the jailor and his family, were the beginning of the work of God in that place. The assemblies of Macedonia were noted in 2 Corinthians as being poor, and yet generous with what they had. This was in contrast with the wealthy Corinthians to the south. Who were the assemblies of Macedonia? Philippi, Amphipolis, Apollonia, Thessalonica, and Berea were all cities of Macedonia, and we know there were assemblies in at least Philippi and Thessalonica, and believers in Berea. If anyone had an excuse not to give it would be the Macedonians, because they were in “a great trial of affliction” and “deep poverty” (2 Cor. 8:2). They gave out of the riches of their liberality, not out of the greatness of their resources. The epistle to the Philippians was written from Rome where Paul was under arrest; therefore it is one of the so called “prison” epistles, along with Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon. In the epistle to the Philippians, Paul thanks the saints in Philippi for their generosity. They were an assembly that that had partnered with Paul in the work of the gospel. Their “fellowship in the gospel” (Phil. 1:5) was that of supporting the apostle Paul in his missionary labors. This was a work they were engaged in from the moment they were converted up to the time of Paul’s writing the epistle. It was generally a happy assembly, where the brethren were going on well together. Perhaps the greatest threat to the assembly in Philippi was a lack of unity, manifested by a disagreement between two sisters.
Reasons for Philippians. The epistle to the Philippians was written as a letter of acknowledgment by Paul for the fellowship which the Philippians had sent to him to aid in his missionary efforts (Phil. 1:5; 4:14-17), a gift which was carried to him by a local brother named Epaphroditus. The letter was written by Paul and sent back to Philippi with Epaphroditus. Secondly, as it often happens with letters of acknowledgment, Paul takes the opportunity to give the Philippians an update on his state, especially regarding his imprisonment at Rome, and how God was using that to further the work of the gospel. Paul reveals his own personal feelings and motives in Philippians more than in any other epistle. He lets them know how he is feeling about his likely martyrdom; i.e. a desire to depart and be with Christ, but at the same time a desire to stay for the blessing of the saints. A third reason for the epistle is to warn the saints of the dangers that faced them. Paul addressed one danger from without, and one from within. He warns the saints in ch.3 to “beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision”. This is a reference to the Judaising teachers that were constant seeking to get the saints onto the ground of the law, or mix Judaism and Christianity. The second danger had to do with disunity in the assembly. Two sisters, Euodias and Syntyche, had a disagreement. In ch.4 Paul exhorts them to be “of the same mind in the Lord”, and in chapter 2 he explains how to do that; “let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus, etc.”. A fourth reason for the epistle is to encourage the saints. Joy or rejoicing is mentioned fifteen times in the epistle! The news of Paul’s imprisonment would no doubt naturally tend to discourage the saints, and so Paul writes to encourage them. This shows that, even in the most difficult circumstances, the Christian has every reason to rejoice! To summarize, the epistle was written: (1) to thank the Philippians for fellowship, (2) to update the saints regarding Paul’s state and God’s work in the gospel, (3) to warn the saints of the dangers facing them from without and within, and (4) to encourage their hearts in the face of adversity.
Themes of the epistle. Philippians is a profoundly practical book. There is very little doctrine in Philippians. The only doctrine we have is Philippians 3:3; “For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh”, and also Phil. 3:20-21; “our commonwealth has its existence in the heavens, from which also we await the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour, who shall transform our body of humiliation into conformity to his body of glory, etc.” As we already noted, Paul reveals his own personal feelings and motives in Philippians more than in any other epistle. As a result of this, a strong theme throughout the epistle is “normal Christianity”, the normal motivations, desires, and goals of a healthy Christian, as exemplified in the life of the apostle Paul. He even refers to himself as “an example” (Phil. 3:17). We could summarize this by saying that Philippians gives us healthy Christianity in practice. A second theme is that of joy. As we already mentioned, the words joy and rejoicing occur many times in the epistle. Joy is the inevitable mark of a healthy Christian life. A third theme in Philippians is the centrality of Christ in our practical walk. In the first chapter, we find that Christ is our life, our whole motive for living on earth; “for to me to live is Christ” (Phil. 1:21). In the second chapter, we find that Christ is our example in perfect humility; “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus…” (Phil. 2:5). In the third chapter, we find that Christ is our object or goal in life; “that I may win Christ” (Phil. 3:8), “I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14). In the fourth chapter, we find that Christ is our strength for the pathway; “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Phil. 4:13).
Applicable to a Day of Ruin. This epistle is remarkable also in that it was written to those who had been deprived of the physical presence of the Apostle Paul. The challenge to the Philippians was not necessarily to lay hold of more doctrine, but to walk in what they had. The epistle presents to us a motive, a pattern, an object, a strength, that is sufficient to lift us above any circumstance. As such, the epistle to the Philippians is very applicable to the day we live in, where the outward testimony of the Church is in ruins. We no longer have Paul or the other apostles with us. But we do have their writings, as the Philippians had Paul’s letter, and we have all the resources – in Christ – that are needed to overcome even the darkest scene we may be found in. Although we live in a day of ruin, we are not condemned to live an inferior brand of Christianity. What an encouragement!1
A Wilderness Book. It can be helpful to view the epistles of the New Testament in the typical teaching of Israel’s journey from Egypt to Canaan. The deliverance from Egypt (Passover and Red Sea) is typical of what we have in Romans, where justification by faith and deliverance from sin are unfolded. Philippians is a “wilderness epistle” like Colossians, Hebrews, and 1 Peter. The wilderness pathway pictures the believer’s life on earth. The believer is seen walking through this world, with the difficulties on every hand. This is why we read of “ifs” and “whens” in Philippians, Colossians, and Hebrews. Our success in the pathway is conditional upon obedience, and upon the power of the Holy Spirit. Contrast this with Ephesians where everything we have is settled “in heavenly places”. The conquest of Canaan is a type of the truth of Ephesians. It is a matter of laying hold of that which is already ours in Christ. In wilderness epistles, salvation is at the end of the pathway, and the Christian life is viewed as a race.
Canonical context. This epistle is well placed between Ephesians and Colossians. The preceding and following epistles take up the truth of the mystery; the union of Christ and the Church. Ephesians and Colossians contain much doctrine in addition to practical exhortations, while Philippians contains almost no doctrine at all. Philippians gives us the practical experience of a believer who is living in the good of the truths disclosed in Ephesians and Colossians.
Kinds of Joy in Philippians.
- Joy in thinking of our brethren, especially in prayer (Phil. 1:4)
- Joy in seeing God use difficult circumstances to further the gospel (Phil. 1:18)
- Joy of Christian fellowship (Phil. 1:25)
- Joy of seeing our brethren go on in one mind (Phil. 2:2)
- Joy of giving oneself to the service of Christ (Phil. 2:17, 18)
- Joy of seeing a brother who was sick Phil. 2:28.
- Joy in the Lord – independent of circumstances (Phil. 3:1; 4:4).
- This epistle was not written as looking back upon the day of Pentecost, but for a time when the Apostle was cut off from helping the churches, and when the saints were warned that they must work out their own salvation with fear and trembling. But the trial is yet sharper for the spirit, if not bodily, for those who would walk with the Lord now. Let us not doubt His love, but be sure that God is above all circumstances. If God has cast our lot in these days, let us not doubt His goodness, but know that we may have as deep and even deeper joy because the joy is less in saints, less in circumstances, and more exclusively in Christ. – Kelly, William. The Epistle of Paul to the Philippians.