Paul’s Letter to the Jesus Community at Philippi
Traveling north from the city of Ephesus to Macedonia in the first century CE and you find the city of Philippi. It was a leading city in the Roman province of Macedonia and located on a major east-west road linking Rome with Byzantium. The city of Philippi was founded by Philipp of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, in 356 BCE. As a Roman colony, its citizens were granted Roman citizenship. It was also a commercial center, not only because of its location, but because of nearby gold mines.
No serious scholar disputes that Paul was the author of this letter. He had established the Christian community, the Jesus community, at Philippi in about 50 CE. It was the first church he established in what is modern Europe. When the letter was written, from where it was written, and why it was written are all questions that are open for some discussion. There are a number of possibilities for the where and when of the letter. It is a letter written from prison. Many argue that Paul was in prison in Rome when he wrote, and thus the letter would have been written between 60 and 62. If Paul was in prison in Ephesus, the letter would have been written in 54-55, though a lengthy imprisonment in Ephesus is not recorded, only hinted at (I Corinthians 15:32). If the imprisonment was in Caesarea, the letter would have been written in 57-59. For the most part, such questions are most important to those who trace the developments of Paul’s thought as one compares this letters with others written by Paul.
There are a number of reasons behind Paul’s correspondence here. Epaphroditus, a Philippian Christian, had delivered a gift to Paul and Paul was sending him back to Philippi with words of gratitude. He was also allaying concern for Epaphroditus’ health. In addition, he wanted to reassure the community of his own well-being, even as he is in prison. He hopes for a positive outcome in his situation and hopes to visit soon. Paul’s letter is warm and affectionate. There are also some concerns that seem to be behind this letter. Paul sends warnings about some troublemakers disturbing the life of the church, though the exact nature of these troublemakers is unclear. Others challenge the assumption that these warnings were directed against persons actually threatening the faith of the church. They suggest instead that Paul mentions these people as part of his rhetorical strategy – familiar in the moral exhortation of the time – of contrasting the behavior of friends (such as himself) and enemies for the church’s edification and motivation. The way the references to these people appear in the letter, and the absence of sustained arguments against them and their theology lend strong support to this interpretation. (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). The church was also probably experiencing some persecution, and Paul wanted to be encouraging. In addition, given the emphasis on overcoming conflict and sharing one mind, suggests some internal disputes within the leadership of the congregation that may have also been a problem Paul wanted to address.
The emphasis throughout on virtues like affection, loyalty, sharing, harmony, and reciprocity suggests that the letter can best be understood as a letter of friendship, an established type of correspondence in the Greco-Roman world. In that world, friendship had a contractual quality well as a competitive one, and concern for friends included concern about – and reference to - one enemies. (New Interpreter’s Study Bible)
This is Paul’s happiest letter. And the happiness is infectious. Before we’ve read a dozen lines, we begin to feel the joy ourselves – the dance of words and the exclamations of delight have a way of getting inside us. (Eugene Peterson, The Message)
Philippians 1:1-2: “In contrast to the modern letter form that has the addressee at the beginning and the writer’s signature at the end, letters in the first-century Graeco-Roman world began with a standard form ‘A to B,’ greeting” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Paul took this form and often elaborated it to offer perspectives on his ministry or to introduce themes for his letters. Here Paul does not recite his credentials as he has in some other letters, indicating that his ministry is not an issue of contention here. The theme of “servanthood” will pervade the letter so Paul identifies himself as a servant of Christ Jesus. The terms “bishop” and “deacon” don’t have the specific meaning given them in later church history. This is the only place in the undisputed letters of Paul where these terms are used. The terms used were rather common secular terms. Bishops were overseers or superintendents, and deacons were servants. Paul’s greeting is warm and inclusive, to all the saints who are in Christ Jesus and in Philippi – God’s people in Christ have a location in which to live out their Christian faith.
Philippians 1:3-11: Paul’s letters tend to open either with a prayer or a report of a prayer. Here Paul reports on his prayers for the Philippians - prayers of gratitude for the past, thanks for their care for him in the present, and for their future. Paul’s prayers for them are full of joy, and filled with confidence “that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion.” Paul is grateful for the way this church has been a partner with him in the gospel since the beginning of his ministry there. They share in God’s grace with Paul, even as he is in prison. Paul prays that their love “may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight.” Love and knowledge fit together. “So this is my prayer: that your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well. Learn to love appropriately.” (The Message) Again, we might use Paul’s prayer as a model for our own prayer – we would do well to pray that we might love much and well.
Philippians 1:12-26: Paul is reporting on his own condition to a supportive community. They care about how he is doing and he doesn’t take much time before telling them. His focus, however, is not simply on his own condition, but on how his circumstances have allowed him to share the gospel in new ways to new people. Paul’s imprisonment has given him new opportunities for ministry and others, seeing his ministry, are encouraged in their own. While we ought not neglect caring for ourselves in adverse circumstances, we should not neglect to see how we might share love in such situations. Paul sees some using his imprisonment to share the gospel out of envy, to better Paul. Given what Paul has written elsewhere, you might expect him to chide such teachers and preachers. He does not, though he does not fully approve of them either. Apparently they are preaching the gospel well, even if for poor reasons, and as long as people receive the message and are touched by God’s Spirit in Christ, the motive of the preacher is less important. In our highly competitive church environment today, perhaps we might learn something from Paul’s attitude here.
Paul rejoices that the gospel is being shared in new ways with new people and he is filled with joy knowing that he is being prayed for. While he has some confidence that he will get out of prison, he is also feeling certain that no matter what the circumstance, he will experience God’s grace and will be able to demonstrate Christ’s love. Paul goes on to reflect on the very real possibility that he may die. He would rather live, but he trusts his death to Christ as well, feeling that in death he will be brought closer to Christ. This is not an abstract discussion about the relative merits of life and death, but a real reflection in the midst of an imprisonment that may lead to death. Life is to be preferred, for there is God’s work to be done. But when faced with the possibility of death, Paul is able to continue to see how he can love and serve God rather than fret unnecessarily over his fate.
Paul may seem too sanguine about his circumstances. Are we really to emulate his feeling that it does not matter all that much whether we live or die? I don’t think so. Life is precious and should be seen as such. It is a gift of God and is where we share God’s love in word and deed with others. The better lesson we might draw from Paul’s words is that when we have few other choices about life, we can choose our attitude. Paul has no control over his imprisonment or sentence. Well, he could probably turn from his faith, but that would be to lose his integrity. He will not do that. So he has no choice about his sentence. Yet he can choose how he will respond to his circumstances. Will he complain and feel sorry for himself, or will he seek to do what good he can? Paul chooses to do the latter. Trusting God leads him to adopt the attitude of making the best out of difficult circumstances - - - and beyond that seeking the good and finding what joy he can find.
Philippians 1:27-30: Having reflected some on his own predicament, Paul offers words of encouragement and exhortation to the community at Philippi. “Live your life in a manner worth of the gospel of Christ.” Philippi was a place suspicious of any whose ultimate loyalty was not with Caesar, thus it could be very anti-Jewish as well as making it difficult for the followers of Jesus. “Paul knows this firsthand and uses the local term for living out one’s citizenship” (People’s New Testament Commentary). Just as Roman citizens were to live in a manner worthy of that status, Paul tells the community to live in a manner worthy of their status as part of God’s kingdom. This is a way of life distinct from the Roman imperial way. Paul is trying to do this in his challenging circumstances. The Philippians are encouraged to do that regardless of what happens to Paul. How do we live in a way worthy of the gospel today? How does this contrast with some of the ways our culture might encourage us to live? Part of the way the Philippians are to live this out is by working together side by side, especially in the face of opposition.