Introduction to the Epistle to the Philippians

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Pastor Scott L. Harris

Grace Bible Church, NY

February 4, 2004

Introduction to the Epistle to the Philippians

This morning we begin our study of Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians. This is a study that I have been looking foreword to for quite some time, yet I am glad that I was not able to start it sooner. As I began preparation for this new sermon series, I started with examining and outlining the text as well as reading through several commentaries. I also started reading another book at about the same time as part of my general reading that was not related to my study of Philippians. Yet, as it is turned out, this book has been very helpful in giving me additional understanding of the joy that God desires us to have in our lives and its source in Him. That is also the theme of the book of Philippians.

That Jesus is a central theme of Philippians is easily seen in that Paul refers to him a total of 56 separate times in the 104 verses of the book. That joy is also a theme of Philippians is seen in that the word joy or rejoice occurs 16 times in 14 different verses.

In the United States, “the pursuit of happiness,” (which occurs in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence), is considered to be a fundamental right. Americans, like most people, pursue happiness as best they know how. The economic prosperity of our nation and our political freedoms make us the envy of most of the world. But that prosperity and freedom has not translated into Americans being a happy people. In fact, I think to be safe to say that a large portion of our population is not happy.

The problem is that happiness is like chasing the end of a rainbow. About the time you think you have reached it, it shifts and moves away. Happiness, like the wind, may blow through but it cannot be captured and held. Happiness is totally dependent upon circumstances and state of mind regarding those circumstances. For the most part, Americans have bought into the lies of materialism and/or hedonism. We think we will be happy by getting more stuff or by making our lives more comfortable and experiencing maximum pleasure. We think that if we can just do that one more thing, we will be happy. It is now five weeks since Christmas. How many of you are still has happy today as you were then because of what you received on that day? How many of you have already broken or lost what you received? How many of you already take for granted or are bored with what you received? Material things simply cannot provide long-term happiness.

The same is true for pleasure. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a good meal, and there are special meals each of us will look forward to, but the meals are soon consumed and the pleasure soon passes. The same is true for any physical pleasure. Mental and emotional pleasures also quickly fade. Fame and power rise and fall quickly and with them the pleasure they bring. Many people will be very happy about whoever wins the Super Bowl tonight, but how long will that last for anyone? Those that win the game will soon be looking for happiness in something else. What do you do after you have reached the top? Will even Disney World satisfy?

My purpose is not to disparage the pursuit of happiness, nor to even suggest that enjoying the pleasures that life can bring is all bad. My point is simply to show that these are not enough to satisfy the soul. It is fine to be happy, but the soul needs something that is more stable. The soul needs joy that can exist in any circumstance. The soul needs joy that is present regardless of economic condition and even in the midst of physical or emotional pain. Paul explains this kind of joy and its source in the book of Philippians.

In order to understand and gain the full impact of all that Paul says in this book, we need to know something about the circumstances in which Paul is writing this letter, and something about the condition of the people he is writing to. This morning I will be giving you this background as well as a brief overview of Philippians.


There is no doubt that the Apostle Paul is the writer of this epistle, for he so states in the very first verse of the letter. “Paul and Timothy, bond servants of Christ Jesus, to all the Saints in Christ Jesus who were in Philippi.” This letter reflects Paul’s style, mind, and character, and there could be no motive for anyone else to forge it.

Place of Writing and Date

The first thing to note in determining when and where Paul wrote this letter is to take note of the fact that he is writing from prison (1:12). While there have been proposals that Paul may have written this letter from either Caesarea or Ephesus, there is no strong evidence for these ideas while the overwhelming evidence is that Paul wrote from Rome.

Why was Paul in prison? The book of Acts tells of several times that Paul was thrown into prison. In fact, he had been put into prison in Philippi because he had cast out the demon from a fortune telling slave and her master reacted to the loss of her value to them by dragging Paul Silas before the authorities and lying about them (Acts 16). The Lord opened the jail that night and then used these circumstances to bring the Philippian jailer and his household to salvation in Christ through Paul’s preaching. Some have thought that Paul may have been put into prison in Ephesus, but there’s no strong evidence for this.

The circumstances that led to the imprisonment mentioned in this letter occurred when Paul returned to Jerusalem after his third missionary journey. When Paul went to the temple to fulfill a vow he had made, his enemies caused a riot seeking to kill him. Roman soldiers rescued Paul and held him in prison to find out the accusations. He was moved to Caesarea for his safety after a plot to murder him was discovered. He remained there for more than two years because Paul would not pay a bribe to Felix, the Governor. The next Governor, Festus, also kept Paul in prison as a favor to the Jews, and Paul finally appealed his case to Caesar. He was then eventually sent to Rome by ship where he was in prison for two more years awaiting trial.

Several statements in Philippians indicate that Paul was writing from Rome. First, Paul’s states that his imprisonment had an impact on the praetorian guard (1:13). This is the guard unit that was charged with protecting Caesar. He also sends greetings from the saints of Caesar’s household (4:22). Both of these groups would have been Rome. Paul’s statements in Philippians show that he knew that death was a possibility (1:20-23), though he was confident he would be set free to continue ministry including coming to them again (1:24-26). This better fits the situation in Rome where the outcome would be final, rather than Caesarea where he could have still appealed to Caesar. In addition, while Paul would have guards watching him in any prison, he apparently had a lot of freedom while writing Philippians to receive visitors and to preach. This better fits Rome where he stayed in his own rented quarters and was welcoming all who came to him, preaching the kingdom God and teaching (Acts 28:30-31). The year would be about 61 A.D.

It is very important to keep Paul’s circumstances in mind throughout the study of this book. Here is a man who has been unjustly put in prison, and he may have already been in prison for up to four years. While he believes that he will be released, he is also acutely aware that the judgment could go against him and he could die. Yet, this man is full of joy. That is one of the reasons Philippians is such a powerful book in expressing how to have joy in all circumstances.

The Philippians

It is also important to note the relationship and condition of the Philippians Church. Some nine or 10 years earlier, Paul’s first trip to Philippi was on his second missionary journey. The events are recorded in Acts 16. Paul had been visiting the churches in central Asia Minor (modern Turkey) that he had established on his first missionary journey. He desired to go to Bythinia to the north but the Holy Spirit was not permitting it. God then gave Paul a vision directing him to go to Macedonia. Paul did this and landed at Neapolis and from there went to Philippi.

It was Paul’s practice to first go to the synagogue and present the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Jews in that city, but there was no synagogue in Philippi indicating there were few if any Jews there. Paul went out by the riverside supposing he would find a place of prayer and began speaking to the women who were assembled there (vs. 13). It was here that the first European convert to Christianity was made when the Lord opened the heart of Lydia and she responded to the gospel preached by Paul (vs. 14). Her household also responded and they were all baptized (vs. 15). Soon the Philippian jailer and his household were also saved and apparently others as well (Acts 16:40). It is possible that Paul’s companion, Luke, stayed in Philippi for some period of time. If true, this would explain their maturity and the closeness between them and Paul. (Luke stops using the pronoun “we” from chapter 17 through 19. It is picked up again in 20:6 as Paul departs from Philippi). About five years later, Paul was again in Philippi as one of his stops during his third missionary journey. It does not appear that he spent much time there on his first visit there on this journey, though he did “give them much exhortation” (Acts 20:1). He appears to have spent more time there on the return trip since he waited there until after the days of Unleavened Bread before sailing from Philippi to Troas (Acts 20:6).

One other thing we should also note about the Philippians is that they were both poor and generous. Lydia, who was a seller of purple, and therefore relatively wealthy, would have been an exception to the general economic status of the Philippian Christians. Paul comments in 2 Corinthians 8:1,2 that the churches of Macedonia joyfully gave out of their deep poverty beyond their ability to relieve the poor in Jerusalem. Paul had also been the recipient of their generosity (2 Cor. 11:9; Phil. 4:15).


The city of Philippi itself was very strategic in reaching Macedonia and all of Europe. It was founded by the great Macedonia King Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great. It was on or near the site of an older Thracian settlement, Crenides, so named for its springs. It was located on the alluvial plane of Gangites river that flowed out of a pass through the Balkan mountains. Though the plane was fertile and there were gold and silver mines in the vicinity, it was this pass through the mountains that gave the city its importance for the great high road between Europe and Asia passed through it. At that time of the Romans it was called the Egnatian road. The same thoroughfare could become a “gospel Highway” by establishing a church there.

It was at this location and 42 B.C. that the Romans republic forces under Brutus and Cassius were defeated by the Roman Imperial forces under Marcus Antonius and Octavian (who became Caesar Augustus). Antonius and Octavian then established Philippi as a Roman colony. In a real sense, this made the city an outpost of Rome itself. The Philippian citizens were also Roman citizens. The city used the Latin language and coinage, its civil leaders were appointed from Rome, they were independent of the provincial government, and they were exempt from certain taxes. They were very proud of this status. It is with this in mind that Paul makes reference to Christians having their citizenship in heaven (3:20).


The particular occasion for Paul writing this letter to the Philippians is to thank them for their generosity in supporting him both financially and with the ministry of the Epaphroditus. He had been sent by the Philippians to minister to Paul in his Roman imprisonment, but he had become very sick, even to the point of death (2:27). This news had gotten back to the Philippians and it caused Epaphroditus distress. He had recovered and Paul was sending him back with the thank you letter.

But Paul sent back more than just a thank you, for he desired to minister to them and let them know how God was using even his difficult circumstances for good. This would then enable them to rejoice with him. He also encouraged them to continue in their faithful walk with the Lord as well as be watchful for dangers that would disrupt its unity including interpersonal conflict.


What can we expect to learn over the next seven or eight months as we study the book of Philippians?

The major lesson that we will learn will be the practical application of our relationship to the Lord to daily life. The book of Philippians shows that Christians should live joyfully in peace because of Christ regardless of any particular circumstance. Even as Christians, it is easy for us to get caught up in our circumstances and lose the proper perspective much like Peter in Matthew 14.

In Matthew 14 we are told the story of when the disciples were in a boat on the sea of Galilee during a storm and they saw Jesus walking on the water toward them. Jesus told them to, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered, Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” Jesus told him to, “Come,” and Peter got out of a boat and started walking on the water to Jesus. Peter was doing great until he took his eyes off Jesus and started looking at the circumstances again. The wind was blowing and he became afraid and then started to sink. Jesus rescued him and said, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” The circumstances had not changed, but Peter’s perspective did, which is why he doubted and began to sink.

Through our study of Philippians we will learn the principles we need to apply to keep the proper perspective as well as see them being lived out in the examples of Paul, Timothy and the Philippian believers. As we follow those examples and apply the principles in our own lives we will become more joyful and peaceful regardless of whatever particular circumstances we might find ourselves in. That does not mean we will not have negative emotions, but it does mean that we can work through them as we see God’s hand at work. We do not have to live in depression or on the emotional roller coaster that characterizes so many in our society. Our joy and peace will be deep and abiding instead of the false face put on by many to hide how they really feel.

For example, in chapter one we find that Paul is joyful even though he is in prison. It is not that he is happy about being in prison, but rather he sees how God is using it for the greater progress of the gospel (1:12). There are those that are preaching specifically thinking they will cause Paul distress in his imprisonment, but Paul is joyful simply that Christ is being proclaimed even if the motives are bad (1:15-18). It is this kind of perspective that enables Paul to encourage the Philippians that he was confident that God who had begun a good work in them would complete it until the day of Christ Jesus (1:6).

Here are some of the rest of the things we will learn in each chapter of our study of Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

In Chapter 1 we will first learn a lot more about Paul and Timothy. Paul included Timothy in the greeting, and we will do a brief biographical sketch of both so we might better understand them. Both of these men were greatly used by the Lord and are excellent examples for us in how to live and follow the Lord. These heroes of the faith stand in stark contrast to those our society generally considers to be heroes – sports figures, actors and actresses, politicians, etc. – simply because they are famous or powerful. Heroes should be people of integrity and character worthy of emulation. Paul and Timothy are such people.

Chapter 1 also introduces us to proper church structure. The letter is addressed to saints, overseers and deacons. Tragically there is much confusion in this area in many churches because they follow traditions developed by men rather than the Scriptures themselves. Roman Catholicism has elevated the term “saint” to refer to someone who passed the qualifications for canonization as pre-eminent for holiness. We will see that “saint” actually refers to any true Christian. The term “overseer” or “bishop” has been elevated in many denominations to someone who oversees many churches whereas it is actually, as we shall see, an equivalent term for a pastor or an elder. Many groups also elevate “Deacon” to an office of power whereas it is actually an office of service. These may seem like minor issues until you find out that they change not only how a church operates, but also the perception of the church’s purpose.

Other things that we will learn in chapter 1 include how to participate with missionaries in their ministry; how God’s sovereignty increases ourtrust and confidence in the future; how to pray properly for those you’re ministering to; and how to be joyful when persecuted. Paul was able to do these things because of how he understood his life and its purpose.

People generally live for themselves. They will extend themselves for those they love such as family members and those that love them, but that is usually the limit. People are also generally very protective of their life because they fear death. Paul was different on both accounts. His life was so wrapped up in serving Christ that he states in verse 21, “for me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” He not only does not fear death, but looks forward to it because he knows he would then be with Christ. At the same time, he desires to serve Christ and remain in the flesh in order to have a continuing ministry to other people. We will learn how we can also gain this perspective in our own lives.

Finally, in chapter 1 we find that Paul gives a challenge to the Philippians that they stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel. This unity was necessary for many reasons including being able to endure in the same manner as Paul the persecution that was to come upon them. It is no different for us. We also need to stand firm in one spirit to and with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel, for we can be sure that we will also face persecution. That is not said to be an alarmist, but it is the reality that Jesus warned all his followers. In John 16:33 Jesus said, “In this world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” We have seen an incredible loss of religious freedom in the United States in the last generation with a corresponding increase in anti-Christian sentiment and actions in society and in government. How severe future persecution may become in this nation is an unknown, but you should be aware that Christians have already been thrown into jail for the sake of righteousness and for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. But even if physical persecution does not occur in the immediate future for Christians in the United States, all of us will experience verbal persecution. Jesus prepared us for this by what he said Matthew 5:11-12, “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in Heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” We will learn how to do this from the book of Philippians.

In chapter 2 Paul explains that the basis of being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, being united in spirit, and intent on the same purpose is our humility. We are to regard one another as more important than ourselves and lookout for the interests of others rather than just our own. Paul then uses the supreme example of humility which is Jesus Christ who set aside His glory in Heaven to become a man and die on the Cross. Jesus did this with full expectation of God highly exalting Him afterward. Every knee shall bow and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father. From this example we not only learn extremely important theological truths about Jesus, but the pattern is set for us to follow in how we are to deal with one another.

God is also doing His work in us. Therefore, there is no reason for us to grumble, complain, or dispute with one another. Instead, our godly behavior is to appear as lights in the world in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation. This is also a cause for rejoicing. The examples of Timothy and Epaphroditus flesh out the reality of these truths.

In chapter 3, Paul warns about the “dogs,” “evil workers, ” and the “false circumcision,” all references to false religious leaders. We also must beware of such people. We should not be impressed by a person’s self acclaimed religious credentials. Paul counted his own as rubbish. The only genuine credential is found in a life that presses on for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. This is a life lived as a citizen of Heaven while here on earth.

We will learn not only how to recognize such false religious leaders, but also how to avoid the trap they have fallen into. We need to make sure we are living our lives for the right purpose, and that we’re reaching for the correct prize. We will also learn how to keep from becoming self-righteous ourselves, but rather tender hearted even toward those who become apostate.

Finally, in chapter 3, we will find out what it means to have our citizenship in heaven and the wonderful hope we have in the return of the Lord Jesus Christ from Heaven. It is always encouraging to consider the promises God has made to us for our eternal future, and what that will be like.

In chapter 4, Paul encourages two women who are in conflict to live in harmony in the Lord. We will spend some time in learning how to work through interpersonal conflict so that we might glorify our God. Often it takes help from others, just as it did for these two women.

We will also learn in chapter 4 about proper prayer. Too many people treat prayer as a wish list because they really do not understand the purpose of prayer. And the reason they do not understand the purpose of prayer is that they really do not understand God. He is not a cosmic Genie who exists to grant our every whim of desire. He is the self-sufficient God that created all things for His own glory, and yet desires for his adopted children to talk with Him. We will learn how to properly talk with Him.

Paul also addresses having a proper mindset. Christians wonder at times why they struggle so much in living the Christian life and lack peace. We will learn how to control our minds and gain the peace of God which surpasses all comprehension.

We will also learn the secret of contentment in all circumstances. It is important to note that Paul learned it. It did not come automatically, but was gained over time in the midst of the things that he experienced, both good and bad.

And finally we will learn the importance of giving with graciousness and receiving with thankfulness. Both are important lessons in living a joyful life in the Lord.

I am looking forward to this study, for I know there is much I still have to learn about being truly joyful in all circumstances and expressing that joy in a way that will glorify God. I trust that you are also looking forward to this study, and that God will use it in a similar way in your own life.

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