Philippians: Introductory matters

Who wrote Philippians? Undoubtedly, Paul

Date and Place of Writing? Once again, we must decide between Rome and Ephesus as the place of writing.  Tradition says Paul penned this letter during his Roman imprisonment (see Acts 28) in approximately a.d. 61-62.  I’ve always favored this option, mainly due to the references of the Praetorian Guard (Phil 1.13) and Caesar’s household (4.22).  Furthermore, we have no actual evidence that Paul was ever imprisoned in Ephesus.  Nevertheless, these factors are not conclusive, and a strong case can be made in favor of an Ephesian imprisonment during the mid 50’s.[1] Fortunately, a decision one way or the other does not significantly affect the interpretation of the text.

For whom was it written?  Historical Setting:  We can be more certain of the audience and the historical setting: “To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi” (1.1).  The central Macedonian city of Philippi was a Roman Colony (Acts 16.12), and had been since 42 b.c.[2] Roman war veterans were sent there in order to assure the allegiance of the strategically located city.  There were, therefore, many honorary Roman citizens present in Philippi.  And, as a Roman colony, all citizens of Philippi enjoyed the rights and benefits of Roman citizenship: they were governed under Roman law and free from paying taxes.[3] Philippi was essentially a mini-Rome, even resembling the mother city in architecture.  While other religious influences existed in Philippi, “the city’s religious life centered on the worship of the [Roman] emperor.”[4]

This background helps us understand the full significance of Paul’s hope for the Philippian Christians to find their true citizenship in heaven, as well as his proclamation of Jesus as Lord and Savior.  There seems to be several instances in the letter where Paul contrasts Christ’s Lordship and exaltation to the culture of Roman imperial worship.

Take a moment and read Acts 16 (click here).  The stories here shed some light on the cultural makeup of Philippi.  What do you notice about the culture?  Write down and comment on your observations.

Nature, purpose, and occasion of the letter: The letter most closely resembles the Hellenistic form of a “friendship letter.”  There are terms of endearment throughout the letter, and Paul shares news of his circumstances in prison as well as the news about Epaphroditus and Timothy in order to keep his loved ones informed.  Paul assures his readers that they share the same joys and struggles in Christ—they are not alone.  The Letter to the Philippians is one of Paul’s warmest letters.

Yet despite Paul’s positive attitude toward his brothers and sisters at Philippi, the community is not free from concerns.  The problem between Eudia and Syntyche (Phil 4.2), who are most likely female leaders of the church (women appeared to have played a major role in the church at Philippi; recall Lydia in Acts 16), reveals that quarreling and internal division may be plaguing the church.  The letter’s emphases on looking to the interests of others and warnings against selfishness, grumbling, and arguing further confirms that the community needs to establish a more united front, especially amidst the culture that surrounds them.

If the church cannot remain strong and stand together in unity, they will compromise their witness to the unbelieving world and the advancement of the gospel will be impeded.  For this reason, an overarching concern of the letter is to urge the community of believers to be of one mind and one spirit (Phil 1.27, 2.2).[5]

There are several examples that the Letter to the Philippians provides in order to help them achieve this goal (Paul himself, Timothy, and Epaphroditus), but Christ stands out as the most prominent and exemplary model to pattern one’s life after (see on Phil 2).  If the Philippian Christians follow his example of humility and self-sacrifice, they will make a positive impact on the world.

Another concern of the letter is to warn against various opponents that could potentially harm the Christian community.  The believers are clearly undergoing some form of suffering or persecution (1.28-29), and Paul seeks to encourage them in their struggles.  They must press on in the faith; they are not alone in their suffering.  In fact, in their suffering, they participate in the very suffering of Christ (1.29; 3.10). They may also take comfort in knowing that vindication ultimately follows suffering (2.8-9, 3.21).[6] The believers cannot allow the opponents to rob them of their joy.  Instead they must rejoice and give their concerns to Christ (4.4-7).

Finally, Paul writes to express his gratitude for the Philippian community’s faithful service and partnership of the gospel.  He greatly appreciates the generous gift that the Philippian community sent with Epaphroditus (esp. 4.10-20).

I think we’ll be able to relate quite well to this letter. Blessings, NDS


[1] See Hansen, Philippians, 22-25.

[2] Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary, Acts 16:11-12.

[3] Ibid., Acts 16.21.

[4] Hansen, Philippians, 3.

[5] Ibid., 26.

[6] Ibid., 28.

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