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The Epistle to the Philippians

Updated on March 2, 2010

The Epistle to the Philippians is a letter written by the Apostle Paul to the church at Philippi and now the llth book of the New Testament canon. It is the most personal and least didactic of Paul's letters, revealing the intimate and affectionate relationship that had existed between himself and the first church he had founded on the continent of Europe. It contains passages of rich ethical and religious content and of lyrical beauty (for example, 3:7-16; 4:8 f.). The doctrine of the pre-existence of Christ, possibly implied in I Corinthians 15 :45^-9 and in II Corinthians 8:9, is assumed in the familiar but difficult passage in 2:5-11 about Jesus Christ "emptying"1 himself and taking upon himself the form of a servant. The terms "bishops" and "deacons" occur as ecclesiastical titles in 1:1 for the only time in Paul's writings. In 4:10-14 we see how Paul was influenced by Stoic ideas.


After an opening salutation, thanksgiving, and prayer, Paul gives an account of his imprisonment and asserts the belief that he will be released and enabled to revisit his Philippian converts (1:1-26). He urges his readers to live a life that is worthy of the Gospel of Christ (1 :27-2:18). He expresses the hope that he will soon be able to send Timothy to them. In the meantime he is sending them Epaphroditus, their own messenger, who had risked his life in fulfilling their service to him (2:19-3:1). He makes a bitter attack on some at Philippi whom he calls "enemies of the cross of Christ," and vehemently asserts his own authority (3:2-21). He appeals for unity, offers some advice, gives thanks for gifts that had been forwarded by Epaphroditus, and ends his letter with a prayer, greetings, and a benediction (4:1-23).


Early in the 2nd century, Polycarp, who was bishop of Smyrna, wrote a letter to the Philippian church in which he refers (3:2) to "letters" that the Philippian congregation had received from Paul. There are many today who hold that Paul's letter as we have it in the New Testament is really a composite of two, 1:1-3:1 and 3:2-4:23. Much is made of the fact that 3:1 can be translated (as Edgar Johnson Goodspeed does), "Now, my brothers, goodbye, and the Lord be with you," and attention is drawn to the sharp change of tone in the material that follows. However, there are also other abrupt transitions in the letter, as after 3:16, 4:1, 4:3, 4:7, and 4:9, and the arguments against the integrity of the canonical epistle fall short of demonstration.


Paul's main purpose in writing the letter was to give thanks for a gift of money that the Philippian congregation had sent to him while he was a prisoner, a gift that had been delivered by Epaphroditus as special messenger (4:10-20). Epaphroditus had been taken ill while with Paul, but the apostle rejoices that he has now recovered and sends him back to Philippi, probably as the bearer of the letter (2:25-30). Subordinate purposes were to attack false teachers at Philippi (3 :2 and 3 :18 f.) and to effect a reconciliation between two women who had once been Paul's stanch fellow workers for the Gospel (4:2 f.).

Place of Origin

Paul was a prisoner at the time of writing (1 :7, 13, 17). He expects to regain his freedom and hopes once again to see his Philippian friends (1:19, 25 f.).

It has usually been assumed that Philippians was written during Paul's Roman imprisonment (Acts 28:16, 20, 30). The references in 1:13 to "the whole praetorian guard" (or "the whole praetorium") and in 4:22 to "those of Caesar's household" were believed to demonstrate this assumption. But it is now known that "praetorium" in Paul's day could refer to the official residence of any provincial governor as well as to the emperor's palace, and that "Caesar's household" could refer to imperial slaves and courtiers at any provincial capital as well as at Rome.

In recent times the hypothesis has been advanced that Paul was imprisoned for a period at Ephesus. While there is no mention of this in the Book of Acts, it is a reasonable deduction from Paul's remarks in II Corinthians 1:8-10 and in I Corinthians 15:32. (If Romans 16 was originally a letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul's references to Prisca and Aquila in verses 3-4 as having "risked their necks" for his life and in verse 7 to Andronicus and Junias as his "fellow prisoners" lend the hypothesis even further support.)

If an Ephesian imprisonment is assumed, the suggestion that Philippians was written at Ephesus rather than at Rome is attractive. Before his imprisonment at Rome, Paul had concluded that his work in Macedonia and Achaia was finished and had made up his mind to begin a new ministry in Spain (Romans 15:23-29), but in the Philippian letter he expresses the hope of revisiting the Philippian church (1:23-27; 2 :24). To visit Paul at Rome, Epaphroditus would have had to make a long and difficult journey of almost 800 miles by land and sea, while the journey from Philippi to Ephesus was a relatively short and easy one.


If Philippians was written from Paul's Roman imprisonment, it belongs among the apostle's "later letters" (it may well be the last we possess) and would have to be dated some time after 57 A.D. If it was written at Ephesus, it would be earlier than Romans and II Corinthians and may come from as early a date as 53 A.D.


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