This prized letter of Paul from prison, filled with resilience and reassurance, reveals a remarkable combination of consolation and congratulations, on the one hand, and challenge and admonition, on the other. In some ways it has a strong edge as a sort of underground political tract: Paul’s main persuasive concern is that this “assembly” (congregation) of Jesus loyalists remain steadfast and united in the context of a massive assault against them by the powers of imperial Rome in Philippi. At the same time, the letter exhibits own Paul’s deep piety and spiritual vitality in extreme hardship as a kind of political prisoner for the cause of Messiah Jesus, and it is infused with the warm and intimate relational bonds he shares with his similarly beleaguered “partners” in Philippi.
For Anabaptists, this letter has been decisive for calling the community of Jesus loyalists/believers (the Greek pisteuō implies “trust,” “loyalty,” and “conviction” at the same time) to a kind of alternative citizenship allegiance (Phil 3:20) that relativizes all other identities or loyalties. Accordingly, it has been used to caution Christians from serving as magistrates in a national state. Furthermore, the way that it highlights resilience in suffering (e.g. Phil 1:29) has been prized by those suffering persecution throughout the centuries. Many Anabaptist writers who similarly wrote from prison took great comfort in Paul’s example. Finally, Paul’s emphasis in Philippians on a life of deliberate striving (“works”) toward ethical maturity in contrast to merely resting on God’s grace (Phil 1:6; 2:12–13; 3:12–17) inspired Anabaptist writers as they articulated a middle pathway in their theological debates with Protestants and Catholics.
Date, Setting, and Author
Paul wrote the letter to the assembly in Philippi while he was imprisoned on a capital charge by Roman imperial authorities, most likely in Ephesus, the leading city and capital of the Roman province of Asia (western Asia Minor), sometime in the months of July–October, in the year 55 or 56 CE. It was written just before his departure for Macedonia (Acts 20:1–2), a trip he anticipates in the letter should he be released instead of executed (Phil 2:19–24). This would mean that Philippians was written a few months before 2 Corinthians (later that winter) and around six months before Romans (early spring the following year), both of which reflect retrospectively on the extreme hardship, both physical and mental, that he experienced during his imprisonment (2 Cor 1:3–11; 2:14–16; 4:7–5:9; 6:4–10; 11:21–12:10 ; Rom 5:1–5; 8:17–39).
Paul says in the letter that both he and his “partners” in Philippi are involved in “the same kind of struggle”—a struggle of the same kind that they earlier witnessed him going through when he founded the assembly five years earlier (Phil 1:29–30; Acts 16:10–40). Paul acknowledges that there are “adversaries” committed to the community’s “destruction” and that his readers are “suffering” and experiencing considerable “fear” (1:27–30), at the hands of those Paul calls a “crooked and twisted nation” among whom they live missionally as shining lights (2:15–16). He characterizes these opponents further in coded language as “dogs, evildoers, and butcherers” (3:2–3), taking up a three-fold image derived from Psalm 22:16 (following a textual tradition preserved in the Greek translation of the OT and the Dead Sea Scrolls): “Dogs have surrounded me; a gang of evil doers has encircled me; they have gouged my hands and my feet.” While Christian interpreters have traditionally claimed that these opponents are “Jews” or “Jewish-Christian judaizers,” it is much more likely that Paul is alluding in coded language to the Roman imperial and social order and its accompanying violence.
The crisis the Philippian assembly has everything to do with the social and political character of Roman Philippi. Though demographically diverse, the city of approximately 10,000 or 15,000 inhabitants was dominated by a small Roman elite class descended from original veteran settlers, following the Battle of Philippi in 42 BCE, when Philippi become a kind of extension of Rome itself as a “colony.” This elite class of Roman citizens with their proud and patriotic Roman-ness controlled a mini-empire of around 700 square miles (the extent of the colony) with at least 40,000 subjects.
Immediate practical concerns provide the occasion for the letter, following Paul’s decision to send Epaphroditus, the community’s emissary on his behalf, back to Philippi along with a letter:
- (a) Paul needs to acknowledge their assistance during his ordeal formally (4:10-18; cf. 1:5-7; 2:25-30);
- (b) He desires to explain the situation regarding Epaphroditus, offering words of commendation and gratitude (2:25-30);
- (c) He wishes to provide an update on his own circumstances, especially on his own mental-emotional disposition (1:12-26; 2:17-18);
- (d) Finally, Paul aims to set the stage for the imminent visit by Timothy (2:19-23) and indeed for his own reunion with his partners (1:25-26; 2:24).
But these immediate purposes are subordinate to Paul’s chief persuasive concern: that the assembly remain steadfast and united in the context of a massive assault against them by the powers of Rome in Philippi. Philippians is a forceful challenge on the “practice of messianic citizenship” (1:27–2:16; 3:1–4:9). Paul’s key interest is to enliven patriotic loyalty to Lord Jesus Messiah alone. To this end, Paul engages in both consolation and reassurance in light of Messiah’s imminent, final, and global victory (2:9-11; 3:20-21). And he directly addresses the internal, common “political” life of the assembly. He warmly urges it to retain the messianic citizenship virtues of lowliness, neighborliness, and unity, and to resist the contrasting Roman patterns of consumerism, status-pursuit, and self-promoting glory, along with its general immorality (2:14-16; 3:2-3, 18-21).
But in Paul’s perspective, the political is never separated from the spiritual, even though Paul’s striking and deep personal and relational expressions, have often blinded Western readers to the profoundly political, even subversive dimensions of his rhetoric (“religion” and “politics” were not separate spheres in the ancient world). The expressions of Paul’s deep piety and personal relationship with Christ, with powerful words of assurance, are everywhere apparent, and claimed by many throughout the centuries (see 1:21, 23; 2:17; 3:10; 4:4, 6, 13, 19). Still, in the midst of his resilience and optimism, there is also a foreboding anxiety (1:19-24; 2:17, 23-24) and an acknowledgement of deep pain (2:27). Most strikingly, Paul consoles when he is the one who himself should be consoled, and he draws attention to unfailing divine resources in suffering that he himself no doubt has relied upon (2:1; compare 2 Cor 1:3-11).
Form and Rhetoric
Philippians is both a letter of warm friendship and a letter of bold exhortation. As a letter of friendship it seeks to celebrate and solidify relationship bonds through, for instance, conveying personal information and sharing feelings of separation, longing, mutuality, distress, pain, and joy. As a letter of exhortation it displays features of deliberative rhetoric, a kind of persuasion designed to effect a change among hearers.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians is carefully crafted in word and structure. The letter is bracketed by the salutation (1:1–2) and closing (4:21–23). The opening thanksgiving and prayer (1:3–11) also correlates with a concluding thanksgiving and acknowledgement of their assistance (4:10–20), both of which coalesce around the theme of “partnership” between Paul and the congregation. The letter also has two segments of disclosure: the first focuses on Paul’s circumstance in prison (1:12–26) while the second summarizes imminent travel plans and the return of Epaphroditus to Philippi (2:19–30). The main body of exhortation comes in two parts, focusing around the theme of being Christ’s citizen community (1:27–2:28; 3:1–4:9). The centerpiece of the first is a tribute in honor of Messiah as model and deliverer (2:6–11) while in the second Paul’s puts forward his own citizenship account as a model (3:4–17) while emphasizing Messiah’s imminent global victory (3:20–21).
In Philippians, Paul exhorts and argues mainly through paradigmatic example, following a long-standing pattern of using exemplary models (paradeigma) as proofs for an argument in persuasive rhetoric (e.g. Aristotle).
Paul makes his case for the “practice of messianic citizenship” by reference primarily to two exemplary models: Messiah (2:5-11, the centerpiece of the letter) and Paul (3:4-17; 4:9). Even where not explicit, Paul’s explanation of his own disposition or conduct is clearly intended as a model for others to follow (1:12-26; 2:16-18; 4:10-13). Of course, Messiah as exalted slave is in his own special category as both model and deliverer (2:5-11; 3:10-11, 18-21; 4:5). Even lesser figures, such as Timothy and Epaphroditus, are presented and commended in such as a way as to provide further examples of these two primary models (2:19-22, 25-30; cf. 3:17). As it is today, patriotic loyalty is best enlivened not by abstract, logical argument, but by the celebration and honoring of exemplary heroes.
Summary and Comment
- Sender, Addressee, Grace and Peace Blessing
Thanksgiving and Prayer, 1:3-11
- Themes: Partnership in Generosity, Maturation in Love and Righteousness-Justice
Disclosure of Paul’s Circumstances, 1:12-26
- Theme: Imprisonment on Behalf of Messiah: The Advance of the Gospel and Paul’s Confidence despite Adversity
Exhortation, Part I, 1:27–2:18
- Theme: Being Messiah’s Citizen Body
- Centerpiece: Messiah Jesus as Model and Deliverer (2:6-11)
Disclosure of Travel Plans, 2:19-30
- Commendations: Timothy and Epaphroditus as Model Citizens
Exhortation, Part II, 3:1–4:9
- Theme 1: Being Messiah’s Citizen Body, Continued, 3:1–4:1
- Core Theme: Paul as Citizenship Model (3:4-17)
- Climax: Messiah’s Global Victory (3:20-21)
- Theme 2: Concluding Exhortations, 4:2-9
Thanksgiving and Receipt for Assistance, 4:10-20
- Theme: Celebrating Partnership and God’s Rich Provision
Four interrelated themes recur in a profound way in the letter and deserve careful attention by any reader: citizenship, partnership, high-low inversion, and joy-gladness.
Citizenship. Drawing on the language and imagery of Greek political theory, the body of the letter (1:27–4:9) is carefully developed around the theme of a devoted, singular messianic citizenship. Messiah’s assembly is presented as a kind of polis (“citizen body, city-state”) that has both a social form and distinctive practice (1:27, politeuomai), in alignment with a regime (politeuma) that is now secured in heaven but to be realized soon throughout the whole world (1:9-11; 3:20-21). As soon as this citizenship theme is put forward in the thesis statement of 1:27, Paul elaborates by employing the military imagery of a citizen-state (polis, city-state) that is defending itself against a siege: (a) ”standing firm as one” in military alignment; (b) ”contending/fighting together with a unified zeal,” oriented to loyalty to the city constitution proclaimed by Messiah; and (c) refusing to be affected by the “terror” waged by adversaries.
The centerpiece of the letter takes the form of a political encomium (public tribute) to the savior and deliverer of this regime of citizens, whose regime of humiliation will one day be victorious throughout the whole world, and whose self-sacrificing pattern of life poses a model for all who would claim allegiance to him (2:5-11).
When the main exhortation comes to a close, Paul comes back to these same themes: Messiah’s saving work has inaugurated a new regime of citizens now secured in heaven, along with a corresponding alternative citizenship (3:20-21). The notion of a “regime-citizenship in heaven” clarifies the security of Messiah’s regime (for now in a kind of exile), and the source of Messiah’s reclaiming of the entire world. It does not indicate the ultimate location of Messiah’s regime or the final destination of the faithful. Paul’s theological vision consistently focuses on the arrival of the age to come, a transformed world under Christ’s lordship, not on a retreat or escape to heaven. The repeated call to stand firm is the primary implication of the declaration of Messiah’s final, global victory, involving the subjection of all things, including the Roman regime (4:1). Thus the faithful must contend or fight together in a posture of unified messianic disposition (4:2-3). Still, merciful forbearance (nonretaliation) even to hostile opponents can and must be displayed, because final vindication through Messiah is near, to whom claims for justice can be deferred. And anxiety (4:5; cf. fear or terror of 1:14, 28) can be abandoned in recognition of guarding hearts and minds by the peace of God (4:6-7), another military image, and parody-like word play on both the imperial pax Romana (peace of Rome) and the Roman military garrison guarding the city itself. Finally, the pursuit of civic virtues must continue through a discernment ever aware of their messianic redefinition, as mediated by Paul (4:8-9).
Partnership. Drawing further on Greek political imagery, Messiah’s assembly is characterized as a partnership (koinōnia). Major Greek political thinkers, including Plato and Aristotle, similarly stress that koinōnia, or “that which is in common,” is one of the primary features of any worthy polis, citizen community. But Paul takes this even one notch forward in explaining what this means concretely in the practical mutual aid of nonhierarchical generosity (grace), and that this partnership extends to solidarity in the midst of suffering (1:30–2:1; 2:17-18), and indeed specifically to partnership in the very suffering of Messiah (3:10). Paul’s vision of partnership is posed as a direct challenge to the prevailing sociocultural system of “patronage” (1:5-7; 4:10-20).
High-Low Inversion. Images of social inversion are scattered throughout the letter and explain the distinctive feature of Messiah’s community as both a polis (citizen-community) and a koinōnia (partnership). We see this in the language of high status and low rank, honor and shame, lowliness and glory, humiliation and exaltation, losses (divestment) and gains (achievements), selfish ambition vs. watching out for others, destruction and defeat vs. prizes and victory wreaths, and slaves and lords. At the center of this motif is the humiliation-exaltation drama of Messiah himself, both Lord-Deliverer and model hero of God’s ever-expanding polis in the world (2:5-11). Paul is carefully deconstructing and reconstructing prevailing norms for honor, status, virtue, victory, and the good life in Roman Philippi, a society deeply preoccupied with status, honor, and rank.
Joy-Rejoicing. Words for joy and rejoicing are so common in Philippians that this letter is often described as the letter of joy. But even this repeated motif is closely tied to the call to singular and devoted allegiance to Lord Messiah Jesus alone. Paul’s language of joy or gladness (chara) is best understood in light of the long-standing discussion about civic happiness (eudaimonia) in Greek political discourse, in the same way that the notion of the pursuit of happiness has become a key political ideal in American consciousness. Where one might have expected Paul to say (with Greek theorists) that the core political ideals are justice, peace, and civic happiness, he instead highlights justice, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit as the markers of the kingdom of God (Rom 14:17). Paul uses the language of joy as a way to stress the distinctive feature of “the pursuit of happiness” in Messiah’s spiritual-political community. The pursuit of happiness in the community of Christ is not determined by the prevailing measures of success and upward mobility, whether in politics or in business, but in an inversion of those standard notions of value. For this reason there can even be joy in suffering. In Philippians, the practice of citizenship specifically takes the posture of celebrative rejoicing “in Messiah”—that is, in the deliverance that Messiah has secured and will secure—in direct contrast to the celebratory rejoicing in civic imperial festivals that proclaim the glories of Caesar and the “salvation” that Rome has given the world. In Philippians, “rejoicing in Messiah” is parallel to “boasting in Messiah” (1:26; 3:3) or “putting one’s confidence in Messiah” (1:14; 3:3), and has a strong counter-imperial edge.
As one of Paul’s treasured letters from prison, Philippians is a remarkable letter of comfort and consolation in the midst of suffering and hardship, while celebrating the bonds of partnership in Christ, along with a bold call that the community of Christ’s faithful remain steadfast and united as a citizen community with an undivided loyalty to their savior and model, the exalted slave, Lord Jesus Messiah.
Recommended Essays in the Commentary
Circumstance of the Messianic Assembly (Church) in Philippi
Citizenship, Ancient and Modern
Critical Questions regarding Philippians 2:6-11
Date and Place of Writing
History of the Assembly in Philippi
Literary Integrity of Philippians
Love of Honor in Roman Society
Opponents in Philippians
Profile of the Assembly in Philippi
Roman Imperial Cult
Roman Imperial Propaganda: The Gospel of Augustus
Bockmuehl, Markus. The Epistle to the Philippians. Black’s New Testament Commentary 11. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1998.
Flemming, Dean. Philippians: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition. New Beacon Bible Commentary. Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill, 2009.
Fowl, Stephen E. Philippians. The Two Horizons New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005.
Hellerman, Joseph H. Reconstructing Honor in Roman Philippi: Carmen Christi as Cursus Pudorum. Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 132. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005 .
Oakes, Peter. Philippians: From People to Letter. Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 110. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Peterman, G. W. Paul’s Gift from Philippi: Conventions of Gift-Exchange and Christian Giving. Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 92. Cambridge University Press, 1997.
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