Introduction to Philippians

The primary purpose of this introductory chapter is to help the reader approach exegetical problems in the Epistle to the Philippians by providing a broad interpretive framework. No textual detail ought to be interpreted in isolation from the larger context of which it is a part, yet it would be tiresome and impractical to review such broader concerns at every relevant point in the commentary. This chapter should thus be regarded as an intrinsic part of the exposition.

On the other hand, this material represents, for the most part, conclusions drawn from the exegesis. The summary that follows, therefore, is deliberately brief and seldom accompanied by substantive argumentation. The reader is referred to the relevant sections in the commentary itself for further detail.

Historical Context

When we insist that exegesis, to be valid, must pay attention to the context, we usually mean the literary context—and, in particular, the material that immediately precedes and follows the passage in question. We are seldom aware, however, that the life-setting of the document is just as important for proper interpretation. The Epistle to the Philippians did not appear out of a time-space vacuum; it was written by a historical person to a historical church in a particular historical period, and every effort must be made to identify those historical features as precisely as possible.

A number of those features are not in dispute. The document was certainly written by Paul of Tarsus to a Christian church in the city of Philippi, province of Macedonia. This church had been founded by Paul himself in the early 50s of the first century (Acts 16). At the time of writing, in the late 50s or early 60s, Paul was in prison, and he had just received a monetary gift from the Philippians through their emissary, Epaphroditus.

These facts, though important, are few. Beyond them, there is wide disagreement among students of the epistle. Before we consider the areas of dispute, however, it may be helpful to summarize the viewpoint that serves, tentatively, as the basis for this commentary.

Reconstruction of Events

In AD 51 Paul, in obedience to a vision, made the momentous decision of leaving the Middle Eastern setting of Asia Minor. With Silas, Timothy, and Luke, he set sail for what we now call Europe. His first stop was the Roman colony of Philippi, a city of considerable importance in the ancient world. Meeting a group of faithful Jewish women, he proclaimed the Christian gospel, found a receptive audience, and established his first Christian congregation in Europe. (See Acts 16:1-15).

Young Timothy appears to have played a significant role in this work, and a natural bond was created between him and the Philippians. Among the first believers who struggled along with Paul in his ministry were several women—Lydia, Euodia, and Syntyche—along with an important figure named Clement, and other laborers. Paul’s experiences in that city were not all pleasant; they included conflict and imprisonment. Even his jailer was converted, however, and presumably joined the congregation (Acts 16:16-34; Phil. 2:19-22; 4:2-3).

Having been asked by the authorities to go away, Paul left Luke in charge of the congregation and headed west toward Thessalonica. During the three weeks of difficult ministry in this city, Paul several times received material assistance and thus spiritual encouragement from the believers in Philippi. Forced to flee, Paul went on to Berea, then to Athens, and finally to Corinth, where he stayed for a full eighteen months before returning to Antioch. During his prolonged stay in Corinth he again received assistance from the Philippian church (Acts 16:35-18:22; 2 Cor. 11:7-9; Phil. 4:15-16).

Eventually, perhaps a year later, Paul set out on another trip (the so-called third missionary journey), a major purpose of which was the raising of money from among his Gentile churches to meet the needs of the poor Jewish church in Jerusalem and Judea (Acts 18:23; Rom. 15:25-26; 1 Cor. 16:1-4; 2 Cor. 9:1-2, 12-13). There was a theological as well as a practical reason behind this effort. Paul’s emphasis on the gospel of grace entailed accepting Christian Gentiles without their being required to fulfill any Jewish ceremonies (cf. Gal. 5:2-6). This approach raised a few eyebrows in some Jewish circles, created serious tensions even among moderate groups, and provoked furious opposition elsewhere (cf. Acts 15:1-5; Gal. 2:1-16).

The Judaizers—as members of this last group are usually referred to—began a campaign of their own, designed to lead Paul’s converts to accept circumcision and the law as essential complements to their Christian confession (e.g., Gal. 1:6-9; 3:1-5; 5:7-10; 6:12-13). Because many perceived Paul’s missionary work to be an abandonment of his Jewish heritage, the apostle felt constrained to clarify his position. The bringing in of the Gentiles through faith apart from works was not a contradiction but a fulfillment of the Scriptures (e.g., Rom. 3:21, 29-31; 4:9-16). To show in a very concrete way that his work did not entail separation from the Jewish Christian church, Paul determined to raise a significant contribution motivated by love; after all, the Gentile churches owed at least this much to the Jews (Rom. 15:26-27).

As Paul traveled through Macedonia during his third journey (Acts 20:1-2), he would surely have warned the Philippians of the Judaizing threat (cf. below, the exegesis of Phil. 3:1), which had created havoc in Galatia and would no doubt spread to Philippi. Because the Philippians were in financial straits, and because they had already shown great generosity on several occasions, Paul was not intending to request that they contribute to this present project. As soon as they heard of it, however, they insisted on having a share; indeed, their poverty welled up in magnanimity (2 Cor. 8:1-5).

Paul completed his project and eventually brought the offering to Jerusalem (Acts 21:17-19; Rom. 15:25-32). Jewish opponents, however, managed to get him imprisoned, and for two years he awaited his fate in Caesarea (Acts 21:27-24:27). During this time the Philippians felt a responsibility to help Paul, but their own difficult circumstances, along with uncertainty about Paul’s status, prevented them from sending any assistance (Phil. 4:10). At last the apostle appealed to the emperor himself, and in the year 59 or 60, under guard, he sailed for Rome (Acts 25:10-12; 27:1). Word of this turn of events must have spread quickly through the Gentile churches, and the Philippians determined to have a share in Paul’s struggles as soon as they had the necessary information.

The apostle’s experience in Rome was mixed. He found opportunities to proclaim and defend the gospel among Jews, and his message spread through the praetorian guard and beyond; moreover, his boldness encouraged many Roman Christians to speak God’s word (Acts 28:16-31; Phil. 1:12-14). But his imprisonment was also a time of affliction, filled with uncertainties, needs, and discouragement. Adding to his anguish was the presence of Jewish Christians who sympathized with many of the Judaizers’ concerns. Rejecting the distinctive elements of Paul’s preaching, these men were engaged in the proclamation of the gospel. Though they did not embrace the more objectionable elements of the Galatian heresy, their motivation was not pure; they aimed to undermine the work of the apostle for the sake of their own advancement (see the exegesis of Phil. 1:15-17).

Within a few months of Paul’s arrival in Rome, the Philippians had become aware of his worsened situation. They therefore mounted their efforts and raised a large monetary gift (Phil. 4:18). The Philippians themselves, however, were undergoing some serious difficulties. Opponents of the Christian community were causing great alarm in the congregation, and the Judaizing threat was beginning to make itself felt (Phil. 1:27-30; 3:2, 18-19). Physical needs were producing anxiety among the members, who had begun to wonder whether their Christian faith was capable of sustaining them (Phil. 4:6, 19). All of those factors combined to create disagreements, distrust, and a poisonous spirit of self-seeking (Phil. 2:1-4). The leadership of the church, particularly in the persons of Euodia and Syntyche, had fallen into the sin of dissension, and the general health of the church had deteriorated considerably (Phil. 2:14-16; 4:2-3).

Conscious of how much they were in need of spiritual help and guidance, they dispatched Epaphroditus with the gift and asked Paul to keep him as his assistant but to send their beloved Timothy back to Philippi. On the way to Rome, Epaphroditus fell gravely ill and was unable to fulfill his mission speedily. A report of this setback reached Philippi, causing great consternation. Eventually, however, God spared Epaphroditus, who, at the risk of his life, continued on to Rome. By the time Epaphroditus reached Rome, Paul had been in prison perhaps for one year. The Philippians’ offering therefore was truly a God-given blessing, and the apostle was at a loss how to express his thanks to a church that had given so sacrificially. The news of the problems in Philippi required immediate attention, but their request that Timothy be sent to them could not be granted. More and more people had deserted Paul, and Timothy alone could minister to him in this dark hour (Phil. 2:19-30).

Aware that the Philippians would be deeply disappointed to see Epaphroditus rather than Timothy return, Paul was faced with a serious challenge. How would he cushion this inevitable disappointment? Might Epaphroditus become the object of undeserved criticism? How could he convey his great joy for the church’s continual participation in his apostolic ministry while at the same time rebuking them unambiguously for their grave lapse in sanctification? Would he be able to express his heartfelt thanks for their costly offering and yet discourage them from doing it again? And how would he report truthfully his own troubles without intensifying their spirit of discontent? How to help them in this great hour of their need!

The very difficulty of the task that was before the apostle would draw from him, under divine inspiration, a message full of comfort and joy, rebuke and encouragement, doctrine and exhortation. Quite beyond Paul’s own powers of anticipation, the letter he was about to dictate would speak to the hearts of countless believers for many centuries to come.

For a discussion of the details in this reconstruction, the reader is referred to the relevant sections of the commentary. Two topics, however, require attention here: the provenance of the letter and the opponents faced by the apostle.

Provenance

The most controversial element in our summary is, no doubt, the place of writing. That Paul was in Rome when he wrote Philippians is the traditional view, but in modern times strong arguments have been set forth in favor of Caesarea and Ephesus (less commonly Corinth). This is a matter of some consequence for exegesis. A different geographical (and therefore chronological) setting will, for example, affect our identification of Paul’s opponents, and hardly anything is more important to understand a polemical passage than to know what the writer is polemicizing against.

One important factor supporting the traditional view is precisely the fact that it is the only tradition that has survived. Whereas every other argument consists of inferences drawn from internal evidence, early tradition provides external attestation—presumably less ambiguous and therefore more “objective.” Most scholars would probably recognize, in principle, the wisdom of an old rule-of-thumb: go along with the external evidence if internal considerations are at least compatible with it. (To put it differently, we should not dismiss external attestation unless the internal evidence against it is very clear and persuasive.)

Unfortunately, the external evidence in favor of a Roman provenance is not all that strong. We cannot even be sure that it really qualifies as “external” evidence, because the earliest statements may themselves have been inferences drawn from the text of Philippians! Given these circumstances, it is not fair to demand that alternate theories be supported by conclusive arguments; internal considerations that merely tip the scales may be sufficient reason to adopt a different view.

A common argument against the traditional view stresses the geographical distance between Rome and Philippi. Since the epistle assumes that several communications have already taken place between Paul and the Philippians, many scholars argue that the evidence does not allow for all the time required to complete the necessary travels. If, on the other hand, Paul wrote this letter from Ephesus during the third missionary journey, the length of travel could be dramatically reduced. In my opinion, commentators have greatly overestimated the weight that can be placed on this argument. The reconstruction suggested above makes clear that only three communications are required:

  1. The Philippians hear that Paul is imprisoned in Rome. (It may well be, however, that the Philippians became aware of the circumstances even before Paul actually reached Rome.)
  2. Paul receives a gift through Epaphroditus.
  3. The Philippians receive news that Epaphroditus has fallen ill. (However, if this incident took place during the journey, the distance involved would be reduced considerably.)

It is quite possible to fit those three journeys into a period of four to six months. But even if we allow a very generous two months for each of these journeys, far less than a year is necessary to account for them (and nothing in the data requires us to say that less than a year must have elapsed from Paul’s arrival in Rome to his writing of Philippians). It is very difficult to understand why this argument against a Roman origin continues to be taken seriously. The matter should be dropped from consideration. If we do so, however, then the only clear argument against the traditional view disappears. In other words, all other available internal evidence is at the very least compatible with a Roman imprisonment as the context for Philippians.

This conclusion affects how we evaluate alternate views. A competing theory, even though it may be plausible, can hardly be accepted simply on the grounds that the traditional position is deficient; rather, a persuasive positive case must be made for the new one. The case for an Ephesian origin rests on the relative geographical proximity of Ephesus to Philippi, but we have already suggested that the issue of distance is a pseudo-problem. The Ephesian theory, in any case, labors under two serious disadvantages: we have no positive evidence either for an imprisonment of Paul in Ephesus or for the presence of a praetorian guard in a senatorial province (see the second additional note on 1:13). To be sure, no one disputes the likelihood that Paul may have been imprisoned during his lengthy stay in that city; and the possibility that a praetorian guard could have been stationed in Ephesus must be left open. One must wonder, however, how much weight can be placed on a theory that builds possibility upon likelihood.

Some other scholars—uncomfortable with both the Roman and the Ephesian theory—opt for a Caesarean origin. This theory cannot appeal to the long distance separating Rome from Philippi, since Caesarea is not any closer; it can, however, build on the unquestioned fact that Paul spent two years imprisoned in this Palestinian port city. Moreover, one can argue with some plausibility that the presence of an imperial palace in Caesarea accounts for Paul’s reference to the praetorian guard. The question is then whether we can identify any positive evidence that would lead us to favor this theory over that of a Roman origin. No such evidence is forthcoming. The argument rests completely on the ability of some scholars to construct a Caesarean setting that makes sense out of the data in Philippians. The line of reasoning is plausible and may be correct—it certainly cannot be disproved. But it cannot be said to hold a higher status of credibility than the Roman theory.

In short, a Roman setting fits the data at least as well as competing views, and it has the added (though admittedly weak) advantage of being supported by some early tradition. Since alternative theories are based on plausible, but not compelling, arguments, we are left without a reason to abandon the traditional view. I shall, therefore, in this commentary assume a Roman origin for Philippians and allow it to serve us as a tentative framework for the discussion of exegetical problems, such as the identification of Paul’s opponents. On the other hand, it remains little more than a theory, and any exegetical conclusions that lean heavily on it must be regarded as methodologically weak or even invalid.

Paul’s Opponents

Apart from the question of the place of origin, other debatable issues regarding the historical context of Philippians are best treated as they come up in the text itself, since the exegesis of the text is our primary tool for resolving such problems. Only one additional question requires preliminary discussion at this point, and that is the identification of the opponents to whom Paul alludes in the letter. The relevant passages are 1:15-17; 1:27-28; 3:2; and 3:18-19 (though we also detect hints of this problem in 2:14-16 and 3:12-16).

It would be possible to see a distinct group of opponents in each of those four passages. Only the first one refers specifically to individuals with whom Paul himself was having to deal while he was in prison: they were “brethren” who preached the gospel with the impure motive of harming the apostle. The warning in 1:27-28 could reflect opposition from Gentiles. The reference in 3:2 is clearly to legalists, whether we regard them as unbelieving Jews or as Christian Judaizers. Finally, the “enemies of the cross” described in 3:18-19 sound like morally loose teachers (libertines or, more specifically, antinomians).

Such a wide diversity of references is unlikely, and most scholars detect no more than two or three distinct groups. The present commentary is rather unusual (though hardly unique) in arguing that all of the passages in question refer to groups that shared some fundamental concerns. Although it is obvious that Paul’s attitude as he writes 1:15-17 is quite different from that which he reflects in 3:2, and that therefore the two groups must certainly be distinguished in some way, there is much to be said for the view that both groups objected to Paul on the same or very similar grounds. My thesis is

•   that 3:2 describes Judaizers such as are explicitly opposed in Galatians;

•   that just as the Judaizing heresy, strange as it may sound, led to antinomianism and perfectionism in Galatia (cf. Gal. 5:13-21; 6:1?), so it may have happened in Philippi;

•   that such a front of opposition may account for the words in 1:28-29 and so there is no need to postulate yet another group (though nothing prevents us from thinking that the Philippian believers did suffer persecution from Gentiles);

•   that the conduct of the “brethren” described in 1:15-17 cannot be accounted for satisfactorily unless they had some disagreements of substance with the apostle, and our knowledge of conflicts in the early church suggests strongly that they may have objected to some of the distinctive features of Paul’s preaching to the Gentiles.

Scholars rarely point out that among Jewish Christians in the early church one surely could have found the whole range of possible responses to Paul’s preaching—from full sympathy to minor reservations, then on to explicit opposition and even vicious hostility. The reservations, whether minor or major, would have focused on where the line was to be drawn regarding the status of, and requirements for, Gentile Christians. The desire to draw that line tightly would often, but not always, reflect theological opposition to the gospel of grace. It is not difficult to imagine how, in any early Christian community, unworthy and jealous leaders might have capitalized on these conflicts. Without necessarily preaching a message of works righteousness, they may have simply hoped to advance their own cause at the expense of Paul’s reputation.

A Roman setting is naturally compatible with this description. The Epistle to the Romans makes clear that Christians in Rome were aware of and concerned about the Judaizers’ attacks on the integrity of Paul’s gospel. Some of those believers may indeed have been disposed to raise the very objections that Paul addresses in Romans (e.g., 3:1, 5; 6:1, 15; 9:6, 19). On the other hand, we have no evidence that the full-blown Judaizing heresy had yet manifested itself in the capital of the empire; Paul therefore, as he described his opponents in Rome (Phil. 1:15-17), would have seen no need to utter the anathema of Gal. 1:8-9.

On the other hand, an extreme form of Jewish Christianity was very likely making its presence felt in Macedonia by the late 50s. Most commentators, quite rightly in my opinion, see this heresy reflected in Phil. 3:2. What is not so clear is whether the same or a very different kind of opposition forms the background for the second part of that chapter. The evidence is ambiguous, and I refer the reader to the exegesis of 3:12 and 3:17-19 for the details. While a definitive conclusion is not within our reach, I shall argue that chapter 3 of Philippians is a coherent passage and that there are no insuperable objections to identifying “the enemies of the cross” (3:18) as heterodox Jewish Christians or their disciples.

Literary Context

In the broadest sense, the literary context of Philippians consists of the whole range of ancient literature that is part of Paul’s cultural milieu. Different scholars, depending on their interests and expertise, may legitimately appeal to a wide variety of parallels in expounding this epistle. Naturally, those writings closest to the thought of the apostle (contemporary Christian documents, that is, the NT) are bound to be particularly helpful. Our primary source, however, is the Pauline corpus itself. And while one runs the danger of blunting the distinctiveness of Philippians by appealing to the rest of the epistles, it would be a grave mistake to treat this letter in isolation from the rest. Accordingly, the present commentary makes abundant use of parallels in the Pauline writings to interpret the Philippians text.