Joyous Jail Bird

Joyous Jail Bird

The occasion, purpose, recipients, and opponents of Philippians

Philippians is easily Paul’s most joyful letter… even though he’s writing from behind bars. How joyful? Well, the Greek noun  χαρά [chara, “joy”] occurs five times, and the verb χαίρειν [chairein, “to rejoice”] occurs nine times in this short letter; only Luke with twelve has more occurrences of the verb—that Christians are a rejoicing people must be pretty important, huh? (Carson, 512)

Paul is joyful for many reasons: He’s writing to a church he knows. It’s the first church he ever founded (Acts 16:6-40). And its a church whom he loves dearly (1:7-8). Paul is writing to let them know that he is OK (even though imprisoned). He is also writing to say thanks for a gift and that Epaphroditus (a native Philippian sent to assist Paul) is doing fine after a near-fatal illness and should be commended for a job well done. However, this is much more than an extended, “Thank You” letter! Just as any true friend would, Paul points out some problem areas for the members of Philippi. It is a scary thing to be as bold as to correct someone you love, but not saying anything at all (although safer) doesn’t demonstrate pure Christian love.

The chief theme is encouragement. “Paul wants to encourage the Philippians to live out their lives as citizens of a heavenly colony, as evidenced by a growing commitment to service to God and to one another.”[1] However, encouragement is just the beginning. Paul is concerned that the Philippians continue to make progress in their faith as well.[2] He then shows what spiritual progress looks like and offers himself as a model (while also commending Timothy and Epaphroditus). Yet, he is quick to point out that the supreme example of living the Christian life is Jesus. By following Christ’s example they have hope that God will vindicate them and thus they can rejoice (1:18, 3:1, 4:4).[3]

There is not enough evidence to prove where Philippians was written. Although it is speculated that Paul wrote this letter from Caesarea or Ephesus, Black leans towards Rome as “the traditional location for the provenance of the captivity epistles.”[4] Paul spent two years imprisoned in Rome, which is “a sufficient length of time for Paul to have authored all four epistles.”[5] Paul’s traveling companions are mentioned in the letters, Luke’s presence in Rome is evident by the “we” passages in Acts 28. Luke is also named in Philemon 24 and Colossians 4:14 as being with Paul while he wrote the captivity epistles.[6] Even though Rome can’t be fully proven, there is more evidence for it as the location than any other location.

Who were Paul’s opponents? I think an easier question would be: who was not an opponent of Paul in Philippians? Paul has trouble with the Jews (even though when he first arrived at Philippi there weren’t enough Jews to constitute a proper synagogue),[7] the Judaizers, and early Gnosticism. He was fighting trouble from within and without. To sum it up: Paul’s fight was of more than one kind.[8] There were false teachers and legalists. Paul really had his work cut out for him! Even so, Paul remains upbeat and strenuously promotes unity. Paul even includes a hymn (2:6-11). Whether this hymn was written by Paul or was popular at the time is unknown. But the fact that this is the only time Paul encourages through poetry is noteworthy.

It is possible that the reference to libertarianism “”their god is their stomach” and perfectionism point some critics to a pre-gnostic teaching.[9] Paul warned against the legalism of the Judaizers, who emphasized circumcision and fleshly ordinances (3:1-3).[10] Paul responded to each of his critics by trying to gain clarity regarding the opponents he was confronting. Paul called for the maturity of the letter’s recipients and called for them to do as he did: admitting you are not perfect, forgetting past mistakes, and pressing towards the goal (3:12-16). Paul warned against troublemakers and appealed for unity, prayer, and high-mindedness (4:1-9). Paul saw disunity as a kind of sin.[11] Finally, he urged the Philippians to have noble, pure, and praise-worthy thoughts.

One last thought on the purpose of the letter:

Could it have been that Paul was just checking in? Is there anything wrong with that? Just checking in because you are aware that someone might be worried about you? Of course not. We all do that! Also, the members at Philippi may have now questioned Paul’s credibility. Imagine today if something similar happened to any one of us: We started going to a church and then the guy who planted it moves on to plant another one. Then, shortly later, we hear that he has been arrested and is in jail! What would we think? Had we been duped? Was this guy a con-artist? Obviously he is a criminal or he wouldn’t be in jail, right? Well, I think some (if not all) of those thoughts would come to mind in even the most devout Christian. So, Paul is letting them know that he is fine and that he is ministering now even in captivity. In fact, Paul is now able to reach people he could never access specifically because of his time in jail. All appointments are God-ordained, even the ones we may not understand or think are appropriate.

Philippians is an easy church with which to identify: they have problems too. What church doesn’t? Sometimes we are too hard on ourselves thinking that other churches do not have problems to sort out. Nothing could be further from the truth. Churches are made of people and people are fallible. If a church planted by Paul has trouble, then you can expect any church to have trouble. But that is why we look to the Lord for guidance, wisdom, discernment, and love!

[1] Crossway Bibles, The ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 2,275.

[2]Ibid., 2,276.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Thomas D. Lea and David Alan Black, The New Testament Its Background and Message. 2nd ed. (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2003), 435.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] F. F. Bruce, Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free, (Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Paternoster Press, 2000), 219.

[8] D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament. 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 511.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 447.

[11] Ibid., 448.


Bibles, Crossway The ESV Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008.

Bruce, F. F. Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free. Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Paternoster Press, 2000.

Carson, D A., and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2005.

Lea, Thomas D., and David Alan Black. The New Testament, Its Background and Message. 2nd ed. Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2003.

Submitted to Liberty University Baptist Theological Seminary in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the completion of the course NBST 520 New Testament Orientation II

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