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An Introduction to the New Testament



Occasion. Paul was in prison. His years of free wandering about the eastern Mediterranean, carrying the Christian gospel far and wide, were over. His apprehensions about the perils that might await him in Jerusalem, Rom. 15:31, had been only too well founded; compare Acts 20:25, 38; 21:4,13. He had been mobbed in Jerusalem, arrested there, and transferred to Caesarea, and finally, when he appealed as a Roman citizen to the emperor's court, had been removed to Rome for trial.

All this came to the ears of his faithful friends, the Philippians, and they prepared to stand by him as usual. They had been his partners in this gospel business, Phil. 4:15,17, ever since he had first come among them. Even when he was at Thessalonica, his next stopping place after leaving Philippi, they had sent money more than once for his needs, Phil. 4:16, and after he left Macedonia and went on to Athens and Corinth, no church but theirs had helped him, 4:15. Indeed, this willingness of his to accept Macedonian—that is, Philippian—aid had been one of the grievances of the Corinthians, II Cor. 11:9. It seems to have made them jealous of the Philippians.

It is clear that the Philippians were a very practical


group, and news that Paul was a prisoner and on his way to Rome, or already there for trial, would stir them at once to aid him. If he had needed their help before, when he was an able-bodied artisan busy at his trade, how much more he must need it now that he was shut up in prison. Ancient prisoners needed money, especially prisoners awaiting trial, for they must have counsel, and the Philippians evidently resolved that what money could do should be done for Paul. So they raised a fund and sent one of their number, a man named Epaphroditus, to wait on Paul, attend to his various wants, and stay with him until his matters were settled. Acts says that Paul lived in Rome for two full years in rented lodgings of his own (28:30), and it is very likely that the rent was paid by the Philippians.

It has been assumed that the Philippians would not know of Paul's being dispatched to Rome until he had arrived there, but of course this is not necessarily true. They may have known of it very soon after he did and have made their arrangements for helping him during the winter that he and his companions in shipwreck spent on the island of Malta, Acts 28:1, 11. It is not at all impossible that Epaphroditus was already in Rome when Paul reached the city, and that the deputation that went out from Rome as far as Appius' Forum and Three Taverns (Acts 28:15) to meet Paul as he approached the city included him; he may even have been their leader. Someone in Rome knew that Paul was coming, and Epaphroditus is the likeliest person we know of to have been informed.


These observations are made because some have sought to date Philippians by calculating how long it would take news of Paul's presence in Rome to reach Philippi, how long it would have taken the Philippians to raise their money and find their man, how long it would have taken him to reach Rome, etc.[1] But when we consider that some time elapsed after Paul's appeal to the emperor's court before he actually started for Rome, and what a slow and unfortunate voyage he had, being shipwrecked and delayed for three months on Malta, Acts 28:1, 11, it is clear that such calculations are futile. The Philippians had begun to help Paul with money immediately after he left their town for Thessalonica, years before, Phil. 4:15, 16. They were prompt in taking action. They would not have waited now to hear that Paul had actually arrived in Rome before taking measures for his relief.

Problems. The problem of Philippians is its unity. Considered as a single letter, it presents a most disorderly series of materials—teachings, warnings, news about himself, acknowledgments, accounts of Epaphroditus. In chapter 1 he is making the best of his imprisonment; in chapter 2 he is sending Epaphroditus back to them; in chapter 3 he bursts forth against the Judaizers; in chapter 4 he acknowledges the gift Epaphroditus has brought him. Paul is usually much more orderly than this.

Moreover, there is between 3:1 and 3; 2 a break so harsh as to defy explanation. In 3:1 all is serene; they

[1] J. B. Lightfoot, St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians (4th ed.; London, 1878), pp. 36 f.


must not mind Paul's repeating himself, for it is for their good. But in the next verse he breaks out against the Judaizers with an intensity unsurpassed even in Galatians.

Look out for those dogs, those mischief-makers, with their amputation! We are the true circumcision who worship God by his spirit. .... If anyone thinks he can rely on his physical advantages, still more can I! I was circumcised when I was eight days old, I am a descendant of Israel. I belong to the tribe of Benjamin. I am a Hebrew, and the son of Hebrews.

It reminds one of II Cor. 11:22: "If they are Hebrews, so am I! If they are Israelites, so am I! If they are descended from Abraham, so am I!"

This sharp change after 3:1 (where Paul seems to be closing his letter and saying goodbye) raises the question whether our Philippians does not break at this point into two letters: 1:1-3:1 and 3:2-4:23. This division would entirely relieve the disorder of treatment we have noted. 3:2-4:23 reflects the coming of Epaphroditus with the Philippians' gift, 4:10-19, which Paul gratefully and somewhat playfully acknowledges. The Philippians are his partners in the gospel enterprise, entitled to the profits—of course, spiritual—that it will produce. It is a long time since he has needed their help, but he welcomes it now as an expression of Christian interest. The tone of the paragraph suggests that Epaphroditus has only recently come.

He seems to have brought bad news of the activities of the Judaizers at Philippi, so that Paul bursts out in


condemnation of them with his first words, 3:2, 3, just as he does in Gal. 1:6. We must suppose the salutation of this letter was omitted when it was combined with 1:1-3:1. If so, the parallel to Gal. 1:6 is complete.

The idea that our Philippians combines two letters of Paul to Philippi finds some corroboration in the fact that Polycarp of Smyrna, writing to the Philippians some fifty years later, reminds them of the blessed and glorious Paul, "who when he was among you in the presence of the men of that time taught accurately and steadfastly the word of truth, and also when he was absent wrote letters to you, from the study of which you will be able to build yourselves up into the faith given you," 3:2.[1] Some knowledge or consciousness that Paul had written more than once to Philippi may have lingered in Asia, where the Pauline letters were first collected and published. It is of course possible that Polycarp is speaking generally; he knew Philippians and supposed that Paul wrote more than once to the Philippian church. But he clearly implies that the Philippians still have the letters and can study them, though he probably knew very well that they had only the published collection of Paul's letters. On the whole, the more closely one examines the passage, the more it seems to favor the recognition of two letters in our Philippians. Certainly this first direct allusion to our Philippians in Christian literature speaks of it as "letters."

Contents. We may, therefore, regard 3:1-4:23 (or 4:20, if vss. 21-23 be grouped with 1:1-3:1) as

[1] K. Lake, Apostolic Fathers (London, 1912), I, 287.


Paul's letter of thanks to the Philippians, written on receiving their gift through Epaphroditus. It opens with a vigorous denunciation of the Judaizers, contrasting their legalistic attitude with Paul's reliance upon Christ and his aspiration toward Christian perfection through him, 3:2-16. On the other hand, the Christian profession must not be made a mask for passion and vicious self-indulgence; we belong to a higher realm, 3:17-21. Personal instructions, crisp admonitions, and farewells follow, 4:1-7.

In the disappointment and bitterness of his imprisonment, Paul had learned the great lesson of directing his thoughts. He might so easily have fallen into resentment, discontent, and despair. Here he was, the most competent missionary of the new cause, shut up in a meaningless imprisonment, while less capable men quarreled over the missionary task. That way madness lies! Instead, he tells the Philippians what he had found out himself, in the hardest possible school:

"Let your minds dwell on what is true, what is worthy, what is right, what is pure, what is amiable, what is kindly—on everything that is excellent or praiseworthy. Do the things that you learned, received, and heard from me, and that you saw me do. Then God who gives peace will be with you," 4:8, 9.

He goes on, in conclusion, to acknowledge what the Philippians had sent him. Not that he really needed anything; he can adjust himself to short rations or long; he can do anything through him who gives him strength. "But it was very kind of you to share my difficulties." It reminds Paul of the repeated help they had given him in former years. They have been his


business partners in this gospel enterprise. "I am fully supplied with what I have received from you through Epaphroditus," 4:10-20.

Paul must have written the Philippians a letter of acknowledgment of their gift when he received it, and this must be either that letter of acknowledgment or a repetition of it. But there is no suggestion of the latter; it is altogether more probable that this is the original letter sent to Philippi to acknowledge the coming of Epaphroditus with the fund they had provided for Paul's needs and trial.

There is nothing improbable in the idea that two short notes to Philippi should have been combined into one longer letter; we have already seen the same thing done in II Corinthians and in Romans—two letters joined together or a short letter appended to a long one. The men who first assembled and published the letters of Paul were more interested in a few long units than in a long series of short notes. They were practical men with immediate religious uses in mind, perhaps occasional church reading, not as Scripture but as preaching; they were not scholars or pedants, absorbed in the technique of publication.

So Paul condemns the Judaizers and thanks the Philippians. Time goes on and Epaphroditus, who has become very useful to Paul, falls sick. Rome is not a very healthy place, and Epaphroditus may have had the Roman fever, still so familiar. At any rate he is very sick and at death's door. News of his illness reaches Philippi, and the Philippians are greatly distressed. Their representative, who they had hoped


would be so useful to Paul, has now become an added care to him. But at length Epaphroditus recovers, at least sufficiently to be sent home. And then lest, when he reappears on the streets of Philippi, the Philippians blame him for leaving Paul still a prisoner. Paul puts into his hand a letter which will silence any criticism of him and make the Philippians respect what he has done for Paul. This second letter is preserved in Phil. 1:1-3:1, to which some think may be added 4:21-23. It begins with an expression of his deep attachment to the Philippians, who certainly seem from first to last to have been the most loyal and understanding friends he had, 1:3-11. He tells them reassuringly of the effect his arrest and imprisonment have had in rousing the courage of Christian preachers. He is clearly facing his trial and confidently hopes that his courage may be equal to the occasion, 1:1220. He is fully reconciled to his fate whatever it may be. Yet he believes that he will live to be of further service to them. They for their part must not waver, 1:21-30. They must make Christ and his humility and obedience their model. They must be all the more harmonious and obedient now that Paul cannot come and train them. If his life is to be a sacrifice, he is glad to have it so, 2:1-18.

He means to send Timothy to them soon, but now he is sending back Epaphroditus, who has been so very sick but is now able to travel back to Philippi. He calls him his fellow-laborer, his fellow-soldier, and says he had risked his life to serve Paul. "So give him a hearty Christian welcome." And so goodbye, 2:19-3:1.


Since the letter of 3:2-4:20 seems rounded out by the doxology in verse 20, verses 21-23 probably belong to the other letter and should be read immediately after 3:1.

What we possess in Philippians is, therefore, not just a single letter but a section of Paul's correspondence with Philippi, covering two situations: the coming of Epaphroditus with their gift and the return of Epaphroditus weeks or months later, after he had been incapacitated by illness. Some time certainly elapsed between these two situations, perhaps a year, for news has gone to Philippi that Epaphroditus is sick and word has come back that Epaphroditus has heard of this, 2:26. The two letters may have been written as much as a year apart. As they now stand, the later one precedes the earlier, just as is the case with the two letters preserved in II Corinthians.

The Philippian letters were probably written from Rome about A.D. 59, or 59 and 60, respectively. (The question of their origin in an imprisonment at Ephesus will be considered among the "Problems" of Colossians.) They give us significant glimpses of Paul in his relations with the one of all his churches which seems to have stood nearest to him and done most to support and cheer him in his missionary journeys and in his subsequent imprisonment.


Lightfoot, J. B. St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians (4th ed.; London,1878).

Vincent, Marvin R. The Epistles to the Philippians and to Philemon (New York, 1897).

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