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Philippians Bible Study, Week 1

Getting Started

  1. Give yourself plenty of time and read the entire letter in one sitting. It should only take you 15-20 minutes.
  2. Imagine that you are one of the original recipients of the letter. Imagine what it would have been like to receive this letter from Paul. How would it have felt, reading that letter? What were Paul’s instructions? What were his commendations? What did you learn?
  3. Read Philippians again and highlight, or write down, repeated words or concepts. What are the keywords in this letter? What are Paul’s concerns for the Philippians?
  4. What prompted Paul to write this letter?  (What was the occasion?)
  5. Read about how the Philippian church began. See Acts 16:9-40.

It would be very helpful to record your findings, insights and questions in a notebook. You don’t have to be clever or eloquent or detailed; no one will read it but you.


Paul’s Ministry Commission

Paul had received his commission to be an apostle (missionary) to the Gentiles (the non-Jews) personally from Jesus Christ in a spectacular vision. (You can read about Paul’s conversion and commission on the road to Damascus in Acts 9:1-19.) Paul was zealously committed to his commission and made three missionary trips, taking the Gospel into new territory, including parts of Asia Minor and Europe. Wherever he travelled, Paul sought to establish churches—communities that would encourage and nurture new Christian converts. Leaders were chosen from among the local believers, to oversee the new churches. Establishing churches and appointing leaders[1] appears to have been an important strategy for Paul’s missionary work (Acts 14:23; 1 Tim. 4:14; Titus 1:5). Paul also sent people from his network of colleagues as apostolic envoys to provide extra assistance to a new church, especially if the church was going through difficulties (Phil. 2:21-24).[2]

Persecution and Opposition

Paul’s missionary work brought him into conflict with three main groups of people. He wrote: “I have been… in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles . . .  and in danger from false brothers.” 2 Corinthians 11:26b

Paul’s fellow Jews who did not accept Jesus as the Messiah opposed Paul’s ministry and teaching. And local Gentiles sometimes felt threatened by the introduction of Paul’s new faith into their society, a faith which had nothing in common with the expressions of pagan religious ideas (cf. Acts 19:23ff). The biggest problem to Paul and his ministry, however, was the opposition of the Judaisers.

Judaisers were Jewish Christians who insisted that Gentile Christian converts essentially become Jewish also. They taught that male Gentile Christians should be circumcised.[3] The Judaisers were a constant annoyance and hindrance to Paul who consistently taught that salvation comes through faith and God’s grace, and that following the Law of Moses and circumcision were not necessary for salvation or entry into the church.

Paul experienced an amazing amount of persecution and hardship because of his ministry (2 Cor. 6:4-10; 11:23b-28). The church at Philippi was also experiencing opposition and conflict (Phil. 1:28-30; 3:2).

An Introduction to Paul's Letter to the Philippians

Paul’s Second Missionary Journey © Tyndale House Publishers (Source: Visual Bible Alive)

The Beginning of the Church in Philippi

Paul visited Philippi a few times. His first visit was during his second missionary journey. This is recorded in Acts 16:9-40.

Compelled by a vision, Paul travelled to Philippi in Macedonia (in Northern Greece). This was the first time the gospel of Jesus was being taken into Europe. As was his custom, Paul went on the Sabbath to look for a Jewish community, with the intention of sharing the gospel message. In each new city Paul travelled to, he offered the gospel to the Jews first (Rom. 1:6). Paul went to the river in search for a Jewish proseuche, or “prayer house”.[4] Here he found a group of devout Jewish women. Paul had no hesitation in sharing the message of salvation with these women. One woman named Lydia was a “God-fearer” or “God-worshipper”, a Gentile convert to Judaism. Lydia accepted the message that Paul brought, and she became the first Christian convert in Europe.

Lydia was a wealthy businesswoman who dealt with expensive purple cloth. Women in Macedonia, in general, held a high status in society when compared with women in other societies of that time.[5] It is apparent that Lydia was the mistress of her home, and through her influence, her entire household (which may have included extended family, servants and other dependants) became believers and were baptised (Acts 16:15).

Acts 16 also records Paul encounter with a demon-possessed slave girl. He delivered the girl from demon-possession which landed him in trouble with her owners (Acts 16:16-18). Paul and his ministry companion, Silas, were then imprisoned in Philippi, but their imprisonment led to the salvation of the prison guard and his family (Acts 16:19-34). Lydia invited the new, growing group of believers to meet in her home.[6] This was the beginning of the Philippian church (Acts 16:40).

Paul was no snob. He had little regard for social distinctions. Whether it was a wealthy businesswoman, a demon-possessed slave girl or a Roman prison guard, salvation and deliverance through Jesus was freely offered to all (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11).

The City of Philippi

Philippi was one of the major cities of Macedonia. Philippi had been a relatively wealthy city, situated near gold and silver mines which, in Paul’s day, had become almost exhausted. The city was also a centre of agriculture. The Philippian congregation, as a whole, however, was not wealthy.

Philippi was a Roman colony within the province of Macedonia. In 30 BC, Octavian (later Emperor Augustus) had made Philippi into a Roman colony to commemorate the defeat of Anthony, and “he distinguished it by conferring the Jus Italicum, the privileges of a Roman city.”(Bornkamn 1995:50) Octavian used the city as a place to settle his veterans. Philippi’s full Latin name was Colonia Augusta Julia Philippensis.

As well as being governed by Roman Law, the city of Philippi was modelled on Rome and laid out in similar fashion, and its style and architecture was Roman. The Via Egnatia, a major Roman road, formed the main axis of the city. Philippi was never large, however. The city was not more that six to eight hundred metres from wall to wall along its east-west axis. (Meeks 2003:46)

Most of the populace were Roman citizens and they did not have to pay taxes. The citizens dressed as Romans and many spoke Latin. Roman citizenship was highly prized in the Roman world and afforded the citizen many rights (cf. Phil 3:20). Paul himself was a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37-39).

There was a range of ethnicities and religions at Philippi. Many veterans, especially from Asia Minor, were continually being settled at Philippi with gifts of farmland. Native Greek Macedonians were a minority. There was also a small Jewish community with their own prayer house.

Paul’s Prison Letters

Paul was imprisoned several times during his ministry, but he did not allow it to hinder his evangelistic mission (Acts 28:31). In fact, his letters were a powerful evangelistic tool. Paul wrote many letters to individuals and to churches while imprisoned. Some of these letters have made it into the New Testament. These so-called “prison-letters” are Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon. The early church father, Polycarp (c. 69-155), whose own Letter to the Philippians still survives, notes that Paul actually wrote letters (plural) to the Philippians.[7]

We cannot be sure whether Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea or Rome, or even Ephesus, when he wrote his letter to the Philippians. However, because Paul mentions the “whole Praetorian guard” (Phil 1:13) and “Caesar’s household” (Phil 4:22) in his letter to the Philippians, it seems likely that Paul wrote this letter towards the end of his imprisonment in Rome. Paul speaks of the real threat of his execution, which also seems to indicate that he is writing from Rome. There is no further appeal once someone has been tried by Caesar in Rome. Paul’s appeal to Caesar is his last resort and could quite possibly result in his execution.[8] Despite his situation, Paul communicates confidence and joy throughout his letter to the Philippian church.

A Thank You Letter 

Paul wrote this letter as a thank you letter because he had been visited by Epaphroditus who had brought a gift from the Philippians. The Philippian church were generous givers, despite their poverty, and had helped Paul materially several times (Phil. 4:14-18; cf. 2 Cor. 8:1-5). While visiting Paul, Epaphroditus became gravely ill. However, he recovered, and Paul sent him back to the Philippians with this letter (Phil. 2:25-27).

There is no censure or reprimand from Paul towards the Philippians. His personal warmth and affection for them is evident throughout his letter. He is very expressive in his deep, heartfelt love and hopes for them (Phil 1:6-8). He refers to the Philippians as: “. . . you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown . . .” (Phil. 4:1). Still, we can see that there were a few issues that were of concern to Paul. From your reading of the letter, can you determine what these issues may have been?  (These issues will be discussed during the course of the sessions.)


Endnotes

[1] Church leaders, “elders” or “overseers”, is always plural in the New Testament. (cf. Phil 1:1)

[2] For example, Paul later commissioned Timothy and Titus as apostolic envoys to Ephesus and Crete respectively (1 Tim. 1:3; Tit. 1:5).

[3] Judaisers required that Gentile Christians effectively become Jewish first in order to become Christian. For the first few decades, Christianity was regarded as one of several Jewish sects.

[4] The Jewish custom in later centuries was that a synagogue needed to have at least ten adult Jewish male heads of families, possibly so that the synagogue could materially support a rabbi. This custom may have already been in place in the first century. If so, it is possible that the Jewish community at Philippi which seems to have consisted mostly of women, could not form a synagogue. But they did have their own building. Like at Philippi, synagogue buildings in Egypt were called  “places of prayer”. Moreover, archaeological evidence has shown that the synagogue in the town of Stibo, not far from Philippi, was not called a synagogue but a “place of prayer”. (More on this here.)

[5] W. Tarn and G.T. Griffith in Hellenistic Civilisation, 3rd Edition, 1952, pp89,99; quoted by Martin (1983:16):

“If Macedonia produced perhaps the most competent group of men the world had yet seen, the women were in all respects the men’s counterparts; they played a large part in affairs, received envoys and obtained concessions for them from their husbands, built temples, founded cities, engaged mercenaries, commanded armies, held fortresses, and acted on occasion as regents or even co rulers.”

[6] The new Christians are referred to as “brothers” in Acts 16:40. This common term typically included male and female believers. For the first couple of hundred years, churches usually met in homes that were large enough to accommodate a group. Many wealthy women were patrons, hosts and leaders to such churches (Acts 12:12; Rom 16:3-6; 1 Cor 1:11; Col 4:15).

[7] Several Pauline scholars identify three letters which, combined, form the canonical letter to the  Philippians. They believe that Philippians 4:10-20 is the original letter of thanks. Philippians 3:2-4:3 with 4:21-23 is a polemical letter written in response to Judaisers who were adversely influencing the Philippian Christians. Philippians 1:1-3:1 with 4:4-9 is Paul’s “farewell” letter. Polycarp in his own Letter to the Philippians (3:2) mentions that Paul wrote letters (plural) to the Philippian church.

[8] Christian tradition holds that Paul and Peter were martyred for their faith at around the same time (64-67 CE) in Rome, during Nero’s reign. Paul is thought to have been beheaded, while Peter was crucified upside down. Paul was a Roman citizen and Roman citizens were not crucified.

© 13th of May, 2010; Margaret Mowczko


> > > Week Two: Paul’s Greeting to the Philippians

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