Paul’s letter to the congregation at Philippi is among one of his most positive writings. There is no trace of reproach as in the letter to the Galatians or to the Corinthians. On the contrary, the entire letter exudes joy and gratitude. In this article we will examine the content and lessons of the letter in outline form.
Reason for writing
The congregation of Philippi was of special significance to Paul. It was the first congregation he founded on the European continent. Lydia and the jailer had been converted there (Acts 16). Paul visited the church several times during later trips. He set the church in Philippi as an example for the church in Corinth, among others (2 Corinthians 8:1-2). Paul wrote this letter while imprisoned (1:13), probably in Rome (4:22), while reckoning with an imminent death (1:20). The immediate occasion for taking up the pen was the gift that the congregation of Philippi had sent to Paul through Epaphroditus (4:18). Paul uses that opportunity to encourage the Philippians in the faith.
Salutation and thanksgiving (1:1-11)
As usual, Paul begins his letter with a greeting and a thanksgiving, which refers to the main themes of the letter. Paul thanks God for the connection between him and the Philippians and the connection between the Philippians and the Gospel of God. In addition, he prays that their love will become even more abundant and fruitful, which is to the glory of God.
Paul in prison (1:12-30)
Paul is imprisoned in Rome. But he wants to make it clear to the Philippians that this is no reason for him to be despondent. The most important thing is that the Gospel continues, either through Paul himself or through others. It makes no difference to Paul whether he continues to live or whether he dies, “for life to me is Christ, and death to me is gain … For I am impelled by these two: I have a desire to go and be with Christ, for that is far the best, but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you” (1:21-22). Yet Paul trusts that he will still have time to be of service to the Philippians. Therefore, he also calls them to be worthy and united concerning the Gospel.
Exhortation to humility (2:1-30)
Paul’s exhortation is followed up in the second chapter. Haughtiness always lurks in everyone, but through the example of Christ we are exercised in humility. Paul cites an ancient hymn that sings of Christ’s humility (2:6-11). Humility leads to praise; and that is what the Philippians are called to. This allows them to sincerely shine as lights in a sinful world. Paul then gives the Philippians two more examples of people filling their lives with serving in humility: Timothy and Epaphroditus. Timothy will soon come to the church. Of Epaphroditus, Paul mentions that he has recovered after a serious illness, and that he will also travel to Philippi. That news will be to the delight of the Philippians.
Warning of adversaries (3:1-21)
When things are going well in a congregation or church, it does not mean that one can rest on one’s laurels. Always we must be vigilant for threats. Always we must strive for more. This is what Paul himself did: “One thing I do: forgetting what is behind, reaching out to what is ahead, I pursue the goal: the prize of the calling of God, which is from above, in Christ Jesus” (3:14). He considered his previous life as a Pharisee to be utterly worthless: “But what was profit for me, that for Christ’s sake I have considered as loss. Yes, certainly, I also consider everything to be loss because of the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for Whom sake I have experienced all that as loss. And I regard it as filth, that I may gain Christ” (3:7-8).
Only the righteousness of Christ had any meaning for Paul. Anything that contradicts this he considers a danger, especially people who make a god out of their belly, who seek to honor themselves and devise earthly things. The Philippians should not get involved with such people, but expect the Savior from heaven. As the city of Philippi was a colony of Rome, so the congregation of Philippi is a colony of heaven, where it belongs.
Concluding encouragements (4:1-23)
In the final chapter of the letter, Paul once again calls for unity in the church, for joy in the Lord, and for trust in God’s leading. Paul thanks the congregation of Philippi warmly for the support he has received from them. He is not concerned with money, for he has learned to be content with his circumstances (4:11). “All things I can handle through Christ, Who gives me strength” (4:13), he states. However, the support of the church is a sign of the sincerity of their faith, as an offering pleasing to God. Paul concludes the letter with several greetings and the prayer of blessing, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen” (4:23).
Lessons for us
- Gladness (joy) is not optional, but an essential part of the Christian faith
- Christ teaches us what humility is. We must follow His example in everything, and then God will justify us on the day of Christ’s coming
- Prosperity can cause laziness and indifference, but we avoid that by focusing on Christ
- Earthly circumstances are put into perspective by the all-encompassing salvation of Christ Jesus.