Paul wrote his letter to the church at Philippi for three main reasons:
- As a Newsletter to inform them about his circumstances and his decision to send Epaphroditus back to them.
- As a Pastoral Letter to encourage them to be strong in their faith in spite of opposition, to have confidence that Paul is in God’s hands and whatever happens will advance the cause of Christ, to be united by being humble and thinking of others.
- As a Thank-you letter for a gift they sent him.
The most likely setting is the house arrest in Rome, as described in Acts 28. Paul is under constant guard by Roman soldiers, but he is free to receive guests. In this way Paul continues his ministry of teaching and writing letters. He also has a unique opportunity to share the Gospel with Caesar’s Imperial guard.
Philippi is on the main highway going east from Rome, about 800 miles. Despite the distance, there was evidently quite a bit of communication back and forth between Paul and the community of believers. The church at Philippi sent Epaphroditus to deliver a financial contribution to Paul’s ministry and to stay and serve as his personal attendant. His duties would include doing mundane things like going into town to buy groceries for Paul, paying the rent on Paul’s house, arranging meetings with church leaders in Rome, and helping Paul in other ways.
When Epaphroditus arrived he brought Paul news of the congregation back in Philippi. The news was mostly positive, but Paul learned of a few problems: There were some quarrels among members, in particular two women named Euodia and Syntyche. There was also anxiety about Paul’s fate and also some concern for their own future if their founder was to be condemned as a criminal. They were also experiencing some opposition from their neighbors.
Epaphroditus became seriously ill while with Paul. When the church back home heard about it they became anxious for him. When he learned of their concern it broke his heart. Paul prayed for him, and God graciously healed him, but now Epaphroditus was now desperately homesick so Paul made the decision to send him home, bearing Paul’s letter in his hand.
Paul’s mission to Philippi is described in Acts 16. There were evidently fewer than 10 Jewish men living there when Paul arrived. Women played a prominent role in the society of Macedonia (the region of which Philippi was the most important city). Women formed the core of the church and continued to have leadership roles in the church. A girl whom Jesus delivered from demon possession through Paul’s ministry, Lydia, a wealthy business woman, and the Philippian jailor’s family are the first people described in Acts as becoming followers of Jesus.
The city of Philippi was founded by Philip, king of Macedon and father of Alexander. Later it became a Roman Colony and was settled by retired Roman soldiers. Influenced by their soldier neighbors, the people of the city were strong, independent, ambitious, and patriotic. Emperor worship and recognition of the gods of Rome would be a part of civic life in the city, creating tension between the Christ followers in the city and their neighbors.
The letter was preserved by the early church because of Paul’s importance as the Apostle to the Gentiles; and so it was incorporated into the New Testament Canon. Although it was written to one specific church, it has significance for followers of Christ at all times and places.
Philippians is one of the most positive and joyful letters in the Bible. It doesn’t teach positive thinking in general, but confidence in Christ. It is not wishful thinking, it recognizes suffering and opposition but also expresses confidence based on what Christ has already accomplished and on what he has in store for those who love him.
In Philippians we see Paul’s personal devotion to Jesus Christ and Paul’s Christology. Jesus is the one who left a position of equality with God to become a servant and die for us on the Cross. He is also the one who was exalted and given the “Name above every name” and the one to whom every knee will bow. For Paul he is the meaning of life and the hope beyond death.
As Christians live out their life of faith and gratitude to Christ they experience confidence through facing opposition, they experience fellowship with Christ through suffering, and are daily filled with joy.