Why did Paul write to the Philippians?
In examining Paul’s reasons for writing to the Philippians it is important to place the letter within the context of when it was written and whom it was written. Philippi was an ancient and major city in Macedonia, Greece. It was taken over by Philip of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great. Phillip of Macedonia established the city as a military stronghold in order to protect his surrounding lands which were rich in silver and gold. It was also an important land route ,for travellers from Europe to Asia. This was called the Egnatian Way which was on the great north east-west highway. The Romans later took over the city after Octavian’s battles again Brutus and Cassius and later with Anthony, in around 168 BC. From then on it remained a military stronghold with its citizens enjoying Roman citizenship and all the privileges that went with this. In this city women enjoyed a higher status than was generally seen elsewhere, taking part in public life and business activities. By the time of Paul it had become an important place of trade and commerce as Acts records, ‘A leading city of the district’.i
William Barclay writes, ‘When Paul chose a place wherein to work and to preach the gospel, he always chose it with the eye of a strategist. He always chose a place which was not only important in itself, but which was a key point of the whole area.’ii Philippi was such a place.
Paul was first inspired, or felt called to go to Philippi after receiving a vision of a man from Macedonia begging him to come over and help them there.iii So on Pauls second Missionary Journey He travelled to Philippi. He always began by preaching to the Jews, and secondly to the Gentiles. Pauls first stop in Philippi was to the ‘place of prayer’ by the river where the Jewish people generally met(16:13).There he met a woman called Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth, who it would seem became their first convert along with her household. (Acts 16:14-15). They also experienced prison because Paul had cast an evil Spirit out of a slave girl, whose owners accused him and Silas of inciting unrest and ‘advocating customs unlawful to us Romans.’ (Acts 16:1-24). And finally through his imprisonment, his jailer and all his family were converted. From these, the first church in Philippi was born.
It would seem that Paul visited Philippi three times (acts 16:12; 20:1-2 and 20:6). Paul had spent enough time with the believers there to develop a close bond to them which is seen through his letter to them (1:3-5, 25-26; 4:1)
There appears to be several reasons why Paul wrote to the church in Philippi. Unlike Galatians and Colossians Paul did not write in response to any crisis, but wrote to express his love and appreciation to the believers in the church there. He thanked God and commended them for their partnership and work in proclaiming the Gospel (1: 3-4; ) More than the other churches Paul had founded, Philippi offered Paul material and spiritual support for his ministry (2 Cor 8:11; Phil 4:15-18). Paul commended the believers for their preaching So one of the reasons Paul wrote was to thank them for their giving and support (1:3-8; 4:15-18).
Paul also wanted the believers to have an update on how things were going for him whilst he was in prison and the effect that was having on other believers and the cause of the gospel (1:12-26). It is the general view that Paul was imprisoned in Rome and he tells the believers that the ‘whole palace guard’ know he is in chains for Christ. He also points out that his imprisonment has caused others to be more confident in proclaiming Christ. Although some preach out of wrong motives, Paul rejoices that in whatever way Christ is preached. He also speaks of his plans to come and visit them were he to be released from prison. (2:23-24).
Paul also writes to explain why he is returning Epaphroditus to them. He had been sent by the church with gifts of support for Paul and to help him in his time of need. However Epaphroditus had fallen ill during his time with Paul, in fact had nearly died risking his life for the work of Christ. Paul commends him for the work he has done and that the church were to receive him back with joy and honour him and all others like him. (2:25-30).
As Paul could not come to Philippi, he intended to send Timothy to represent him. The letter was written from Paul and Timothy (1:1). It is clear that Paul is concerned about the believer’s welfare, and commends Timothy to them saying, ‘I have no-one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare’ (2:20). He then then commends Timothy to the church saying how he has proved himself in the work of the gospel as a son proves himself to his Father (2:22).
Paul’s opponents were a group of Judaizers who taught that the new Gentile Christians must be circumcised and keep the Mosaic Law if they were truly to be a part of God’s Covenant people. It is fair to note that the first Christians were Jews, and they saw the Covenant relationship with God as vital and also the importance of keeping loyal to the Mosaic Law. So another reason for this letter is to warn the believers against such teaching and to prevent them from submitting to circumcision because it had no spiritual value (3:1-2). Paul teaches them not to put confidence in the flesh but to boast only in Christ Jesus (3:3). He reinforced this teaching by using his own experience, ‘Circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee, as for zeal, persecuting the church, as for righteousness based on the law, faultless’ (3:4b-6). Paul emphasises that he counts all this, his pedigree as a Jew, as worthless for the sake of knowing Christ. Paul had as Francis Foulkes writes, ‘he had come to see them as a false basis of confidence and even a hindrance to him. He goes on to describe the infinitely better way he had found’iv and that was, ‘to know Christ – yes, to know the power of His resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead’ (3:10). Thus he was encouraging them to follow his example and those others who lived as he did (3:17)
Paul in writing this letter also seeks to quiet the discord and ‘grumblings’ (2:14) and the argument between Euodia and Syntyche (4:2). Paul wanted to teach the believers that it is not so much what you do, but the attitude you did it with. He told them to do ‘everything without grumbling’, so that they could become blameless and pure (2:15). This way they will become brighter witnesses in a ‘warped and crooked Generation’. He encourages the two women and the church to be of the same mind in the Lord, and to follow Christ’s example of humbleness and obedience (2:1-11; 4:2). Paul asks the church in Philippi to help Euodia and Syntyche because they had worked for the cause of the Gospel with Paul. (4:3)
Finally, Paul’s letter was one of encouragement to stand firm in the one Spirit and live a life worthy of the Gospel. He urges them to work together and not be afraid of those who opposed them (1:27-30). The sense of Pauls pastoral care is seen throughout this letter. First he tells them to ‘stand firm in the Lord’, then to ‘agree in the Lord’, and now he tells them to ‘rejoice in the Lord’.v Paul knew that to rejoice in the Lord then would reflect the quality of life in Christ and would permeate the rest of their life and behaviour. (4:4-5). He encourages them in prayer, telling them to worry about nothing and pray about everything (4:6-7). Paul also urges them to have the right quality of mind – thinking on those things that are good and positive and excellent (4:8). Finally Paul encourages the Philippians to put everything they have learned or received from him into practice – saying that in doing so they would know the peace of God. 4:9).
So in conclusion, Paul’s letter was a positive one, written to a church he loved and felt close to. I have in this essay outlined seven reasons that I can identify for his writing of this letter to the Philippian church. This letter not only reveals the love and close fellowship he had with the believers in Philippi and they with him, but also his deep concern for their well-being and his protectiveness against those who would lead them astray by false teaching.