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Bible Commentaries

Dummelow's Commentary on the BibleDummelow on the Bible

- Philippians

by John Dummelow


1. Writer and Readers. The community of ’the saints in Christ Jesus’ at Philippi had existed ten years or more when this letter was addressed to them, in 61 or 62 a.d. It was founded by the two ’servants of Christ Jesus’ whose names head the letter, along with St. Silas (Silvanus, ITh Philippians 1:1, etc.), St. Paul’s colleague on the second of his great missionary journeys (49-53 a.d.: see Acts 15:36 to Acts 18:21).

The graphic story of the coming of the gospel to Philippi in Acts 16 is from the pen of an eyewitness; from Acts 16:10 to Acts 16:16 the narrative runs in the first person plural, which reappears in Acts 20:5-6 at a point six years later, when St. Luke, presumably, rejoined the Apostle at Philippi.

Philippi (in form a Gk. plural)—earlier Crenides—bore the name of Philip, father of Alexander the Great, who gave the place importance. It guarded the eastern frontier of Macedonia, and commanded the pass leading from the interior plains to the Ægean Sea at Neapolis (Acts 16:11). This was the first station for a traveller from the E. along the Via Egnatia, the Roman highway across the Balkan peninsula; here St. Paul first halted in his invasion of Europe, and the Philippian Church was the earliest fruit of his labours in our continent. The town had given its name to the famous battle, fought in 42 b.c., in which Antony and Octavian crushed the Republicans of Rome under Brutus and Cassius. In commemoration of that victory Philippi was raised to the rank of a military ’colony,’ a body of discharged soldiers being settled there. The colonists were free citizens, enjoying exemption from poll-tax and tribute, and the right of holding the land in full ownership. Such communities were regarded as detached portions of the Roman State, and took no little pride in their connexion with the imperial city. The Philippian officials are designated, in Roman style, ’prætors’ and ’lictors’ in Acts 16 (AV ’magistrates’ and ’Serjeants’) they beat the prisoners with the Roman ’rods.’ ’Being Romans,’ the people of Philippi resent the introduction of ’unlawful’ Jewish ’customs’ (Acts 16:20-21), Hence also the emphasis and effect with which the Apostle and his companion assert here their Roman citizenship. Though but a fraction of the Church may have belonged to the privileged class holding the Italian franchise, the civil status of the ’colony’ affected all its inhabitants; the meanest Philippian was sensible of the dignity of his city. Twice in this letter St. Paul describes the Christian status as a ’citizenship’ (Philippians 1:27; Philippians 3:20 see RV, and mg.). The ’colonial’ sentiment of Philippi doubtless heightened the interest with which the readers watched the course of their Apostle’s trial and entered into his experiences at Rome.

Behind the offended civic pride of Philippi there lay the vulgar motive of ’gain’ (Acts 16:19), which in the first instance awakened hostility to the Christian teaching in this place. Wherever the gospel won heathen converts, it injured the vested interests of paganism. In Philippi St. Paul silenced a soothsaying slave-girl, and her masters, seeing their unholy property spoilt, dragged the offenders before the rulers and roused the populace against them. The indignities which SS. Paul and Silas suffered under this attack (cp. 1 Thessalonians 2:2 with Acts 16), were the beginning of a persecution that has continued to the time of writing; in such experience the Church is identified with its Apostle: see Philippians 1:5, Philippians 1:29-30; Philippians 2:15, and cp. 2 Corinthians 8:1, 2 Corinthians 8:2. From the first it has had to ’struggle for the faith of the gospel’ (Philippians 1:27).

Judaism counted for little in Philippi. Instead of a synagogue, there was only a proseucha (’praying-place’)—probably a retired open air resort—by the river-banks outside the town, where the missionaries found a company of women assembled on the sabbath (Acts 16:13). Out of this band the first Christian disciple, Lydia of Thyatira, was gained, and probably the women named in Philippians 4:2-3; (see note). The circle, it may be presumed, was Jewish only in part. St. Paul gathered his converts and helpers largely from the constituency of intelligent and pious Gentiles (more often women than men) who frequented Jewish worship as ’proselytes’ or ’fearers of God,’ and had been grounded in the OT. Women took a leading part in the Philippian Church at the outset; Macedonia was distinguished in Greek society by the greater freedom and influence allowed to their sex.

Since the events of Acts 16, 17, St. Paul had twice traversed Macedonia, and accordingly visited Philippi: first on his way from Ephesus, through Troas, to Corinth toward the end of the Third Missionary Tour in the spring of the year 56 (1 Corinthians 16:5); and again on leaving Corinth in the following spring, when he kept Easter there (Acts 20:1-6), From 2 Corinthians 1:8-11; 2 Corinthians 2:12-13; 2 Corinthians 7:4-12; We gather that the Apostle was at the period of the former of these two visits in great trouble, suffering from prostrating bodily sickness and from anxiety about the Corinthian and (probably) the Galatian Churches, whose loyalty at that juncture hung in doubt: see Galatians 1:6-9; Galatians 3:1, Galatians 3:4, Galatians 3:20; Galatians 5:2 cp. 2 Corinthians 11:28. Arriving in such a plight in Macedonia, Philippi would be his harbour of refuge; there, we imagine, he passed the crisis of his illness, under St. Luke’s skilful care (see par. 2 above). These intervening visits, though not recalled in the Epistle, help to account for the intimacy it reveals between writer and readers; they serve to justify the words of Philippians 1:5 implying a continuous intercourse, and give a fuller meaning to the language of Philippians 2:1, which speaks of mutual ’consolation’ and ’compassions.’ Although ’Timothy’ figures along with ’Paul’ in the Address—for the former is with the Apostle at the time of writing and is well known to the readers (Philippians 2:22), and therefore shares in the Salutation—the letter proceeds from St. Paul alone, running in the first person singular throughout (otherwise than in 1 Th and 2 Corinthians 1-7); St. Timothy is referred to in the course of the letter (Philippians 2:19-23), just like Epaphroditus, in the third person.

The writer is a prisoner awaiting trial, and at Rome; he is in sight of the end of his captivity there, which extended over two years (62 a.d.: see Acts 28:30-31). His ’appeal to Cæsar’ is at last to be decided (Philippians 1:20; Philippians 2:23-24). The Apostle has been long enough in Rome, and free enough despite his ’bonds’ (as Acts 28:15-16, Acts 28:30-31 intimates), to make his influence widely felt in various directions (Philippians 1:12-16; Philippians 4:22). If ’in the prætorium’ (Philippians 1:13 see note) means ’amongst the prætorian troops,’ the impression made on the army is accounted for by the succession of guards put in charge of the prisoner at his lodging; if it means, as Sir W. M. Ramsay suggests, ’in the prætorian court,’ then the judicial trial is proceeding, and the accused has been removed to prison-quarters.

2. Occasion of the Letter. Beyond others, the Philippians were grateful and devoted to the Apostle Paul (Philippians 1:5; Philippians 4:15). Lydia’s insistent hospitality at the beginning (Acts 16:15) was typical of this Church’s character: cp. 2 Corinthians 8:1-4. Twice it had sent aid to St. Paul in Thessalonica on his first departure, and subsequently when he left Macedonia for Achaia; now their care for him has ’blossomed anew’; Epaphroditus had been dispatched with a sum of money for his necessities, under instructions to stay and assist the Apostle in Rome (Philippians 2:25, Philippians 2:30; Philippians 4:10-18). The good man fell dangerously ill upon his errand, and after his recovery is longing for home; St. Paul sends him back therefore, and this letter with him. Epaphroditus brought tidings from the Philippians in conveying their gift; and further communications had taken place since his arrival, for the Philippians have heard of the illness of their deputy and he is informed of their grief over this (Philippians 2:26). They seem to have written quite recently to St. Paul, expressing their anxiety about his trial, betraying also—to judge from the tone of his reply—some despondency under the protracted afflictions falling on themselves, and some concern about the manner in which their present had been received: see on 2 Corinthians 4:10.; We must bear in mind that the extant Epistles are extracts from a larger correspondence; to read them properly, we need to hear the other side and to reproduce by imagination, between the lines, the messages and requests to which the writer is replying.

There was no error of doctrine, no grave faultiness of life to reprove in this Church—only a certain want of harmony amongst its leading members (Philippians 4:2-3); the removal of this defect will ’fill up’ the Apostle’s ’joy’ (Philippians 2:2-5). The prayer of Philippians 1:9-10 and the exhortation of Philippians 4:8; (see notes) hint at a deficiency in moral enlightenment and appreciation, such as not unfrequently accompanies religious zeal and lively affections. The warning against Jewish intriguers in Philippians 3:2-11 was prompted by the writer’s present experience and by the general peril from this cause, rather than by any Judaising tendency on the part of the readers: see on Philippians 3:1.

3. Contents of the Letter. The Epistle to the Philippians was strictly a letter, the unconstrained outflow of St. Paul’s heart. Hence its delightful desultoriness. It has no burning controversy, no absorbing doctrinal theme, no difficult moral problems to deal with. The recent communications from Philippi supply the starting-point, and are glanced at as occasion serves; but they scarcely control the composition. The Epistle does not admit therefore of formal analysis; its links of association are those of feeling and of memory, not of logic.

The opening phrase of Philippians 3 divides the writing into its two parts—principal (Philippians 1, 2) and supplementary (Philippians 3, 4). The latter section runs, beyond the writer’s intention, to a length equalling that of the former: the repetition of the ’Finally’ of Philippians 3:1 in Philippians 4:8 indicates that his thought has made an excursion.

The division of the first and main half of the letter falls at Philippians 1:26 of Philippians 1. After the prefatory thanksgiving and prayer (Philippians 1:3-11), the Apostle begins by reassuring the Philippians about his own situation (Philippians 1:12-26); with Philippians 1:27 he turns from himself to them, exhorting them to the behaviour that will cheer him, and ensure their victory in the common conflict. The above three divisions—Philippians 1:3-11; Philippians 1:12-26; Philippians 1:27 to Philippians 2:18;—are linked by the thought of ’the gospel,’ which is the ground of union between writer and readers: see Philippians 1:5, Philippians 1:12, Philippians 1:27; Philippians 2:16; (’word of life’).

Having told the Philippians what they wish to hear about him (Philippians 1:12-26), and what he wishes to see in them (Philippians 1:27 to Philippians 2:18), the Apostle further states what he intends to do for them, by sending Epaphroditus, and then Timothy, hoping himself to come ere long, so that their hearts and his may be mutually refreshed (Philippians 2:19-30).

At Philippians 3:1 the Epistle seems to be concluding. Had the writer proceeded at once from this point to Philippians 4, Philippians 3:2-21 would never have been missed. This long passage is an unpremeditated outburst—by a few critics mistakenly regarded as an editorial interpolation from another letter, by others attributed to some provocation that interrupted the Apostle in the act of writing. Three distinct classes of errorists appear to be stigmatised in Philippians 3—the first and last being of a virulent type. Philippians 3:2-3 denounce St. Paul’s old enemies, the zealots for Jewish Law; Philippians 3:17-21 combat the Gen-the tendency to sensual licence. The common reference to the writer’s personal example binds these denunciatory paragraphs together (see also Philippians 4:9): against legalist pretensions he sets forth his experience as a Jewish Christian believer (Philippians 3:4-11); the sensualists are shamed by the purity and loftiness of the Christian life exhibited in himself and those like-minded (Philippians 3:17-21). The bearing of the intervening paragraph (Philippians 3:12-16) is more difficult to seize: the Judaists are, seemingly, forgotten, the Antinomians not yet in sight; the Apostle at this point is contrasting himself with pretenders to perfection, with Christians who deem themselves already at the goal, denying the future resurrection (Philippians 3:11), and renouncing the aspirations after the heavenly state that were so strongly cherished by St. Paul: see on Philippians 3:3, Philippians 3:12, Philippians 3:15. Nothing could show more affectingly the Apostle’s deep communion with the readers and the ascendency of his character, than this frank unlocking of his heart to them and the use he makes for their benefit of his most sacred experiences. So the after-thought forms the most precious part of this Epistle.

The actual conclusion in Philippians 4 consists of a brief homily, partly personal, partly general in scope (Philippians 4:4-9); followed by an acknowledgment of the Philippian bounty (Philippians 4:10-20)—probably the chief subject in the writer’s mind when he intended finishing the letter at Philippians 3:1 and the final good wishes (Philippians 4:21-23). The scheme of the Epistle on which this exposition is based is as follows:—§ 1. Address and Salutation (Philippians 1:1-2).

I. Act of Praise and Prayer.

§ 2. Thanksgiving for Fellowship in the Gospel (3-8). § 3. Prayer for the perfecting of Love in Knowledge (9-11).

II. About Paul’s Affairs.

§ 4. The Gospel furthered by his Troubles (12- 18a). § 5. The Twofold Issue confronting him (18b-26).

III. How Paul’s Comrades may support Him.

§ 6. By brave Loyalty in face of Persecution (27-30). § 7. By a self-effacing Love to each other, fashioned after that of Christ (Philippians 2:1-11). § 8. By working out in his Absence their Salvation, so that his Ministry may be crowned with Joy (12-18).

IV. The Approaching Visits.

§ 9. The speedy Coming of Timothy—probably of Paul himself after a while (19-24). § 10. The immediate Return of Epaphroditus (25-30).

V. Interjected warnings.

§ 11. St. Paul and his Jewish Rivals (Philippians 3:1-6). § 12. Losing all, to win Christ (7-11). § 13. The Christian Goal (12-16). § 14. The earthward and the heavenward-bent Mind (17-21).

VI. Closing Exhortations.

§ 15. Personal Differences in the Church (Philippians 4:1-3). § 16. The Christian Temper (4-7). § 17. The Largeness of Christian Ethics (8, 9).

VII. Acknowledgment of the Contribution from Philippi.

§ 18. A Bounty welcome to the Apostle, notwithstanding his Independence (10-16). § 19. St. Paul’s Reflexions upon the Gift (17-20). § 20. Salutations from Rome, and Benediction (21-23).

4. Character of the Letter, and its place among St. Paul’s Writings. This Epistle is a letter of friendship, full of affection, confidence, good counsel and good cheer. It is the happiest of St. Paul’s writings, for the Philippians were the dearest of his children in the faith: ’Summa epistolæ,’ writes Bengel, ’Gaudeo, gaudete’ (One word sums up the Epistle: I rejoice; do you rejoice!). ’From the first day until now’ the communion between the writer and his ’beloved and longed-for’ has been unbroken and unclouded.

The letter is, therefore, one of self-revelation; it is a classic of spiritual autobiography. St. Paul writes here at his ease; he makes those spontaneous disclosures of the inner self which only the tenderest sympathy can elicit. While 2 Corinthians displays the agitations which rent the Apostle’s heart in the crucial conflict of his ministry, Philippians reveals the spring of his inward peace and strength. It admits us to St. Paul’s prison meditations and communings with his Master. We watch his spirit ripening through the autumn hours when patience fulfilled in him its perfect work. This Epistle holds a cardinal place in the history of St. Paul’s character, such as Galatians holds in the history of his doctrine. It exhibits an unsurpassed picture of selfless devotion, manly fortitude, and joyous Christian hope; well may the writer say, ’I can do all things in Him that enables me!’ While kindred in language and thought to the other Letters of the First Roman Captivity—Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon—Philippians stands somewhat apart from these three; the question of priority as between it and them is disputed. From the fact that it was written toward the close of the imprisonment when the Apostle had been for a considerable time in Rome (see last par. of I above), and from other indications, we judge that Philippians was the latest of the group. The opening prayer recalls those of Ephesians and Colossians, which also turn on the connexion of knowledge and love Philippians 3:12-16 of ch. 3 (see notes) are best understood as alluding to notions kindred to the Colossian error. The Christological passage of Philippians 2:5-11 comes from a mind full of the grand conception of the glory of Christ that St. Paul has developed in Colossians. This paragraph, and the sentence concerning Justification by Faith in Philippians 3:9, go to show that the characteristic doctrines of St. Paul’s Epistles were as far as possible from being abstract theorems or passing phases of thought due to controversial exigencies. The ideas they express present themselves in a spontaneous, unstudied fashion; for they belonged to the staple of the writer’s thought, and were the outcome of his vital experience of salvation through Christ.

Philippians 3 reminds us rather of the Letters of the Second Group: Philippians 3:14, Philippians 3:17-18, Philippians 3:21 of 1 Cor; Philippians 3:4-6 of 2 Cor; Philippians 3:2, Philippians 3:16 of Gal; and, above all, Philippians 3:9-11 of Ro. It is for this reason chiefly that some leading scholars place Philippians first in the Third Group of the Epistles, nearest to those just mentioned. The resemblance is explained by the consideration that when touching upon Judaistic questions St. Paul’s mind inevitably fell into the vein of Romans and Galatians.

The expressions of Philippians 1:23 and Philippians 2:16-17, anticipating the writer’s death, are in the vein of 2 Tim, the Apostle’s farewell letter; while the simplicity and cordiality pervading Philippians recall the strain of his earliest, the First to the (Macedonian) Thessalonians. Thus Philippians combines traits of most of the other Epistles; it mirrors the whole Paul. At once it touches the summits of his loftiest doctrine, and sounds the depths of his mystic consciousness.

The writing and the man are inseparably one. By a consent in which the severest criticism shares, Philippians is ranged with the great quaternion of the Second Group (Romans , 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians) as amongst the things most certainly genuine and Pauline. Erasmus’ sentence is a sufficient verdict on opinions to the contrary: ’Nemo potest Paulinum pectus effingere’ (One cannot feign a heart like Paul’s!).

5. St. Polycarp and St, Paul. Some fifty years later the Philippian Church received a letter, that it has preserved, from Polycarp, the martyrbishop of Smyrna, in which this remarkable testimony is found (Philippians 3:2): ’Neither I nor any one like me can follow up the wisdom of the blessed and glorious Paul, who when he was amongst you, confronting the men of that day, taught with exactness and sureness the doctrine concerning truth; who also when absent wrote [a] letter[s] to you, by the close study of which you will be able to build yourselves up in the faith that was given you,’ St. Polycarp seems to refer, in speaking of letters. to more than one Epistle of St. Paul as then extant and used at Philippi—though it is possible, grammatically, that the Gk. plural bore (like litterœ in Latin) a singular sense. It is more than likely that the Apostle wrote repeatedly to the Philippians; and if so, several of his letters may well have survived into the 2nd cent., though but one of these found a place in the canonical collection. More important is it to observe the reverence paid to St. Paul by one whom tradition associates with the school of the Apostle John, and whose cast of mind was far from Pauline, and the sense diffused through the Church in the generation following St. Paul of the unique inspiration and authority that attached to his written word: cp. 2 Peter 3:15-16 also the Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, Philippians 6 and 47 of Ignatius to the Ephesians, 12.2, and to the Romans, 4. 3. Polycarp’s gracious Epistle to the Philippians reads like an echo of the NT.; Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians breathes in every line the freshness and power of the original Christian inspiration.

[Note. The writer comments usually on the revised Text, which is accordingly printed in heavy type.]

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