Ordinary Time Bible Study
Philippians: Friends in the Gospel
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
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THE BACKGROUND OF PHILIPPIANS
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.
THE CITY OF PHILIPPI
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 CHURCH IN PHILIPPI
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….”
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).
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Ordinary Time Bible Study
Philippians – Friends in the Gospel