Ordinary Time Bible Study: Philippians – Friends in the Gospel (2)

Mamertine Prison, Rome. Traditional site of Peter & Paul’s imprisonments

Ordinary Time Bible Study
Philippians: Friends in the Gospel
Study Two

This commentary takes the…view: that the letter as it has come down to us makes sense as a [single] letter, written by Paul, probably from Rome in the early 60s, to his longtime friends and compatriots in the gospel who lived in Philippi, a Roman military colony on the interior plain of eastern Macedonia.

• Gordon Fee

• • •


Paul’s epistle to the Philippians is relatively uncontroversial with regard to background issues.

• Authorship: A great majority of scholars conclude that the apostle himself wrote it. However, it is possible that Paul used other materials in composing the letter, such as the “Christ-hymn” of 2:6-11.

• Integrity as a Single Letter: Some see “seams” in the letter and a lack of clear organization, which has led them to propose that Philippians is a composite document made up of two or three different letters. However, as Gordon Fee argues, the various parts of the letter can be easily understood as portions of one letter, and the thanksgiving section at the beginning anticipates material in all three of the alleged separate documents said to be patched together.

• Paul’s Circumstances: The other main question is where Paul was when he wrote the epistle. The three main theories are Rome, Ephesus, and Caesarea. It is traditional to think that Paul wrote from a Roman prison, and Gordon Fee accepts this as the best option. In his view the internal evidence favors Rome, and compelling reasons for rejecting it are lacking. The primary reason scholars question Rome is that it is about 800 miles from Rome to Philippi, and Paul seems to propose a number of journeys between the two cities that would have been difficult to achieve. For this reason, N.T. Wright favors Ephesus. Gerald Hawthorne favors Caesarea, even though it was farther from Philippi than Rome.


Philippi was an important city in the Roman Empire. Located on the major east-west road, the Egnatian Way, it angled south from the city to the port of Neapolis. Two major battles had been fought on the nearby plain in 42 BCE: between Cassius and Brutus (who assassinated Julius Caesar) and Octavian (Augustus) and Mark Antony. Octavian, the victor named Philippi a “colony,” and its population thus became citizens of the empire. Over the years, he populated the town and surrounding areas with war veterans, ensuring a loyal citizenry. It is possible that the “sufferings” of the Philippian Christians mentioned in this letter had something to do with the fact that they bowed the knee before Jesus as “Lord” (2:9-11) in a community where Caesar was firmly revered as Lord.

Fee notes that “By the time Paul came to the city in 49 CE (Acts 16:11-15), Philippi was the urban political center of the eastern end of the plain.”


The story of Paul coming to Philippi and founding the church there is one of the most familiar and beloved in the book of Acts (16:11-40). One interesting facet of that story is that it underscores the prominent place women played in Macedonian life and how that influenced the nature of the congregation from the beginning. In the light of this, Gordon Fee notes: “It is not surprising that the core group of first converts consisted of women, nor that the location of Macedonia’s house church was the home of a woman merchant. That Paul and his entourage also accepted patronage from Lydia, including becoming temporary members of her household, also is significant for some of the matters in our letter….”

Paul’s Second Missionary Journey

One other text that shows something of the character of this group of believers and their relationship with Paul is found in 2Corinthians 8:1-5 —

We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints— and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us

Note the same notes in this passage that we see in Philippians: affliction, joy, poverty, generosity, eagerness to give. Further evidence of their joyful willingness to serve involves Epaphroditus, the one who was carrying this letter from the apostle back to the church. He had apparently traveled to be with Paul and minister to him in prison. Paul is effusive in describing his appreciation for this man, calling him “my brother and co-worker and fellow-soldier, your messenger and minister to my need.” No wonder Paul had such a special place in his heart for these sisters and brothers.

The troubles in Philippi, mirrored in the letter, appear to have been threefold.

First, they were facing opponents (1:27-30) that were probably pagan opponents in the city. Paul notes that the congregation was facing “the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.”

Second, Paul warns them to beware of certain “dogs” whom he describes in terms of Jewish opposition to Paul’s law-free gospel (3:1-4). But there is no indication that chapter three’s warnings are anything but general in nature and that the Philippian believers were actually being subjected to an assault of false teaching at the time of this letter.

Third, what Paul writes indicates that the congregation was showing some signs of growing internal strife. How this relates to their other circumstances is unclear, and the language Paul uses seems to imply that the conflicts had not become too severe. Nevertheless, the reports are troubling enough that Paul exhorts them in no uncertain terms, naming the kinds of attitudes that are deadly to harmonious relationships (2:3-4), and going so far as to call out some individual members of the congregation and urging them to “be of the same mind in the Lord” (4:2).

Even in the midst of these troubles, Paul expresses his absolute confidence in God’s work in these precious friends: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” (1:6).

• • •

Ordinary Time Bible Study
Philippians – Friends in the Gospel

22 thoughts on “Ordinary Time Bible Study: Philippians – Friends in the Gospel (2)

  1. Well the only thing I would have added to my above comment was and correct me if I’m wrong but Paul actually met the apostles at one time. I’m almost sure their favorite topic could have been Jesus. Paul strikes me as a man that was addictive in nature and had to learn and later considered it rubbish considering what he had in Christ Jesus.


  2. “Fact” was indeed a poor choice of words. My friend’s comment just made me kinda marvel at how different things were back then, without Bible or scrolls readily available for immediate “look-up”.

    Thanks for the push-back and resulting discussion.

    Peace and blessing to you!


  3. Rick, you are usually very careful with your words and if you had not used the word “fact” we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation. You know as well as I that there is widespread variance of opinion on the dates of both the Gospels and Paul’s letters. Not everyone even agrees that all of the letters attributed to Paul were authored by him, so what we end up, even throwing out the outliers, is a range of possible dates using educated guesses with some overlap. I don’t object to your main point, that Paul taught and wrote what he did without the benefit of a printed and bound copy of the King James Bible, but taking into account what both Dana and CM contribute, there’s nothing really remarkable going on here, especially when you take into account that Paul also was working with the help of God’s Spirit and possibly Jesus in person. It would not surprise me if Paul had antagonistically heard the Word of Jesus about loving our neighbor along with others before he set out for Damascus and I’ll bet some of Jesus’ sayings made it to Tarsus early on. But we don’t know and it doesn’t matter in the end.

    There is the very real likelihood that many or all of Paul’s letters were written before many or all of the Gospels were widely available in their final form, and this should be taken into account in studying the New Testament writings. It is also likely that Paul knew much of what we call the Old Testament by heart, as did many at this time, and no reason why he couldn’t have known the Gospel stories in the same way as well. Me, I would have real trouble memorizing a paragraph, and even verses are shaky ground. So much for the “literate” mind.


  4. Hey Rick, What’s up. The world back then was closely knit and news traveled fast. It is like the fisherman Jesus talked to and said follow me. They didn’t just hear of him for the first time and their fathers would have loved the fact that they got to have a chance to learn from a teacher. It would have been an honor.

    Today we seem to equate that time with ours. Paul certainly knew who Jesus was and being a quite learned man would have needed the Damascus experience to turn around to see what he had heard to be true. He was perfect for his mission handed to him. I guess particulars in how things actually went down are really just a trail off to some other place. In context as best we can is eye opening. With eyes wide open is what I see in you. I try to but many times I have to rethink my thoughts.


  5. Amazing grace was penned along time ago and was just a quick writing to be shared at a Bible study that night. Some one later added music to it. It was never meant to be a great work of art. Fast forward a couple hundred years and the Bikers I know belonging to Clubs tied into 12 steps and Christian based riders just fall all over it. I don’t think it should be played at funerals. The last verse as far as I know was added but I could be wrong. Numo might know she likes her music. When we’ve been there ten thousand years…. I always liked it…..It has to do with hope for me though.

    My funeral song if I have one is going to be that song that says I’m so alive and be contemporary rock


  6. Read the article you pointed me to. Interesting, but I don’t think he “felled” those two birds in this piece. That’s not the purpose of the article; he’s discussing the deficiencies of the approach of one particular scholar to the subject of religion, specifically Christianity and Buddhism, and he mentions the two birds in passing on his way to its conclusion. Those are two mighty and malicious birds that cannot be brought down in the space of two paragraphs.


  7. If you read the first article in Dr Hart’s bibliography at the foot of the article, something about someone ‘going East’, there was a masterly takedown of the whole ‘angry god eternal torment imputed righteousness’ constellation of foolishness, followed a couple of paragraphs later by a dismissal of genital hedonism as an engine of human development. Two nasty birds felled, as it were, with one well-aimed stone.


  8. Off topic: CM, thanks for including the sidebar link to the David Bentley Hart article in First Things. It’s great to have such a profoundly insightful theologian theologizing in support of universal reconciliation. The article made my heart sing as I read it.


  9. There’s a woman at my church who can’t stand “Amazing Grace”. But unlike you, Susan, she says it’s a dirge, and should only be played at funerals, where she’d be willing to accept it.


  10. Wow. A bit touchy, eh?

    How about this re-wording then:

    There is the very real possibility that Paul’s letters were written before the gospel accounts had been written.


    Even if the gospel accounts had already been recorded in some form, they likely weren’t in widespread distribution when Paul was writing his letters, and there is a real possibility he didn’t have them in hand.

    Does that satisfy your critique?


  11. My own thinking (rusty at best) is that there certainly were Gospel stories and sayings that Paul would have been familiar with, as Dana’s comment shows. Whether the Gospels were in their final form to Paul is debatable and probably unlikely. The common interpretation is that there was some sort of “Q” document from which the Synoptics drew as well as the oral tradition and the “kerygma” (proclamation) of the apostles and early church.

    Here’s how Michael Bird puts it in his recent book, The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus:

    I have thus far argued that the Gospels constitute a strong continuity with the oral gospel, different only by virtue of development of the content by augmentation from the Jesus tradition, overlaid with interpretation of the Old Testament, and placed in the literary form of a biography. The Gospels signify the victory of God in the mission, passion, and resurrection of Jesus. They announce this victory in a biographical narrative. Mark’s achievement was not to combine the Jesus tradition with the kerygma, for the Jesus story was always part of the kerygma; rather, his achievement was to put the gospel of Jesus into a biographical medium to which it was already well suited. The fact that this was seized upon by others and emulated shows that a biographical Jesus book met a deep and universal need among Christian groups.

    Bird, Michael F. (2014-08-22). The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus (p. 20). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.


  12. –> “Just because the Gospels were written later doesn’t mean that their source material emerged later.”

    Oh, I realize that, and that oral tradition was as valid as “text.” It was just that the realization that Paul had no formal “written” Gospel document to go from was a semi-revelation/epiphany. I’m guessing the Spirit was whispering to him quite often…LOL.


  13. >>A friend recently pointed out this interesting fact to me: all of Paul’s letters were written before the gospel accounts had been written.

    Rick, if I had been in your class and you presented this as a “fact” I would have gone ballistic. On the basis of whose authority? Your friend? Some old codger from the Princeton Divinity School? I think you would be hard pressed today to get any kind of consensus on the dates of both Paul’s letters and the Gospels because opinions vary widely. It is possible that the letters to the Thessalonians were early on, but even that is not certain. My own opinion is that the whole New Covenant writings were all written before the fall of Jerusalem, but that’s certainly neither an accepted fact nor a majority opinion. Who is to say that some of the Gospel accounts were not written in part first hand during the ministry of Jesus as they occurred? Who is to say that Jesus did not spend a lot of time out in the desert with Paul instructing him? I’m with Dana on this one


  14. >> It is possible that the “sufferings” of the Philippian Christians mentioned in this letter had something to do with the fact that they bowed the knee before Jesus as “Lord” (2:9-11) in a community where Caesar was firmly revered as Lord.

    This ties in with yesterday’s discussion of civil religion. To a limited extent this correlates with reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and standing for the National Anthem. In the past year a major league athlete caused a big uproar by refusing to stand for the National Anthem tho there is no law against this. I personally have trouble with the National Anthem and don’t sing it, as many do not, but I don’t object to standing out of respect and consideration. Same with the Pledge of Allegiance, which if it was mandatory to recite I probably would go to prison. I read a report that in the Phillipines now, the islands, not our Philippians, you can go to prison for not singing the National Anthem in a “spirited” manner, leaving aside what manner of spirit that might be. It has always struck me as strange that those early Christians prayed for their government leaders as a Christian act we might do well to follow, but apparently were willing to die before “bowing the knee” to the same leaders. I can somewhat grasp the distinction but have always wondered what Jesus might have advised.


  15. Rick,

    “Written evidence” was not as important in the ancient world as it is to us. People in the ancient world understood about forgery of texts. Oral transmission was the most common way to hand on information, and was more highly regarded than writing, being viewed as more accurate – because theoretically one could trace it back to the source. Consider this:

    1Cor. 11.2: “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain [those things that are handed on] just as I handed them on to you.” [This] is usually translated “traditions”, but it’s simply the noun form – paradoseis – of the verb “hand on” or “hand over” – same word used to describe the Lord’s betrayal. We see the same thing in English, from its Latin side: tradition and traitor are related words from the root “to hand over”.

    1Cor. 11.23: “I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you…”
    1Cor. 15.3: “I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you…”
    2Thess 2.15: “Stand firm and hold fast to the [things that are handed on] that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter. [Again, paradoseis.]

    Of course Gal 5.14 will match what Jesus said. Christians were very careful about what they handed on, mostly orally. It wasn’t an ancient version of the telephone game, because the message about Christ was a matter of life and death. Just because the Gospels were written later doesn’t mean that their source material emerged later. See this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ay_Db4RwZ_M



  16. This letter is such an encouraging letter. As is pointed out, even the issues Paul addresses appear to be rather minor quibbles. For the most part, the church at Philippi was firing on most, if not all, cylinders.

    A friend recently pointed out this interesting fact to me: all of Paul’s letters were written before the gospel accounts had been written. (Indeed, according to my quick research, he was DEAD by the time the first gospel was written.) He didn’t have any of the texts of Jesus’ life and death available to him like we have. I just kinda marvel at that, especially when considering how closely a line like Galatians 5:14 (“For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’) matches what Jesus said.


  17. Appreciate the mention of the three different viewpoints of Fee, Wright, and Hawthorne. It is good to acknowledge the existence of various perspectives and avoids the dogmatism expressed in some venues.


  18. My maths was never my strong point, my confirmation was 58 years ago.
    Grey matter is shrinking fast. There should be another ‘shade of grey’, – shrinking.
    I think it might be a grubby smudge.
    However, if I should drop of this mortal coil soon, which is highly likely considering my maths deficiency, do not sing or play, particularly on the bagpipes, “Amazing Grace”. I have a cousin who plays the pipes and has threatened to play this at my funeral. Should he do so I will come back to haunt him and all present. IMonkers humming this may be haunted by default.
    I have a different interpretation of what God’s Grace means to me. I guess it is different to all Christians. Just don’t sing it in my presence, alive or dead.
    I have to attend the funeral of a long time friend tomorrow, I just bet there will Amazing Grace.
    I think it is the default hymn when most of the mourners are not church goers.
    I will my cats a quick pat and then retire.
    “Have a nice day”.


  19. For me Philippians holds a great place in my Christian life.
    I was confirmed 54 years ago and was given Philippians 1 v21 as my confirmation verse.
    “For me to live is Christ.”
    I have this verse on display in all the places I have lived.
    I see it now as I write.
    Confirmation was a commitment I made when young and the vows I made I have never had any need to put aside.
    Through all life’s battles Christ is always the Redeemer through whom I live and have my being both in this earthly plain and I hope in His Glorious Kingdom.
    Although I have studied Christianity for many years (and have a diploma to prove it, – Golly Gosh), I don’t have the academic skills of many of our fellow IMonkers.
    I find by reading and examining, pondering on and at times wondering what the ………… they are saying, my Christian faith may be broadened. I hope we all can learn and continue to contribute to this site.
    Well done Chaplain Mike.

    I can’t resist the urge to give you my haiku of the day.It is so cold and wet and dismal.

    Cats stretch by the fire
    Solomon in his glory
    envies their beauty

    Blessing to all early risers!


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