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Bible Commentaries

The Biblical IllustratorThe Biblical Illustrator

- Philippians

by Editor - Joseph Exell



The circumstances of the writer--Julius (Acts 28:16) having given up his prisoner to Burrus the Praetorian Prefect, whose duty it was to keep in custody all persons who were to be tried before the Emperor, that official, instead of confining Paul within the walls of the Praetorian Barrack, indulgently permitted him to reside in his own hired house. We must not forget, however, that he was still a prisoner under military custody, chained by the arm day and night to one of the imperial bodyguard--and thus subjected to the rudeness and caprice of an insolent soldiery. This severity, however, was indispensable according to Roman law; and he received every indulgence which it was in the power of the prefect to grant (Acts 28:30-31). In the absence of his accusers the progress of the apostle’s trial was necessarily suspended, for the Roman courts required the personal presence of the prosecutor; and the trial itself, from the distance from which the witnesses would have to be summoned, the nature of Roman legal procedure, and the adjournments to suit the Emperor’s convenience might well occupy a period extending from August A.D. 61 to the beginning of A.D. 63. Meanwhile the prisoner had a wide sphere of action. Not only “the crowd which pressed upon him daily,” but “the care of all the Churches” demanded his constant vigilance. Though tied down to a single spot he kept up a constant intercourse, by his delegates, with his converts throughout the empire, and with other Gentile Churches who had not seen his face in the flesh. Luke, his fellow traveller, remained with him during his bondage; Timotheus, his beloved son in the faith, ministered to him at Rome, as he had done in Asia, Macedonia, and Achaia. Tychicus, who had formerly borne him company from Corinth to Ephesus, is now at hand to carry his letters to the shores they had visited together. Mark it is delightful to find now ministering obediently to the very apostle who had once repudiated his services, and persevering in his fidelity to the end. Demas, on the other hand, is now a faithful “fellow labourer” of the apostle, but in a few years we shall find that he had “forsaken” him, “having loved this present world.” Among the rest of St. Paul’s companions there were two whom he distinguishes by the honourable title of “fellow prisoners.” One of these is Aristarchus, the other Epaphras. With regard to the former we know that he was a Macedonian of Thessalonica, whose life was endangered by the mob at Ephesus, and who embarked with St. Paul at Caesarea. The other was a Colossian who must not be identified with the Philippian Epaphroditus, another of St. Paul’s fellow labourers. But of all the disciples now ministering to St. Paul none has a greater interest than the fugitive slave Onesimus who was returned to his master as a “brother beloved.” (Conybeare and Howson.)

The epistles of the first Roman captivity--

1. Their character and order. The characteristic features of this group are less strongly marked in the Epistle to the Philippians than in the others. In style, tone, and prominent ideas, it bears a much greater resemblance to the earlier letters than do the Epistles to the Colossians and Ephesians. Thus it forms the link which connects these two Epistles with those of the third apostolic journey. It represents an epoch of transition in the religious controversies of the age, or a short breathing space when one antagonistic error has been fought and overcome, and another is dimly foreseen in the future. The apostle’s great battle hitherto had been with Pharisaic Judaism; his great weapon the doctrine of grace. In the Epistle to the Philippians we have the spent wave of this controversy (see ch. 3)

. But of all the earlier letters it most nearly resembles the Epistle to the Romans, to which it stands next in chronological order. At least I do not think that so many and so close parallels can be produced with any other Epistle as the following:-- Philippians 1:3-4; Philippians 1:7-8 with Romans 1:8-11; Philippians 1:10 with Romans 2:18; Philippians 2:8-11 with Romans 14:9; Romans 14:11; Philippians 2:2-4 with Romans 12:16-19; Philippians 3:3 with Romans 2:28; Romans 1:9; Romans 5:11; Philippians 3:4-5 with Romans 11:1; Philippians 3:9 with Romans 10:3; Romans 9:31-32; Philippians 3:10-11; Philippians 3:21 with Romans 6:5; Romans 8:29; Philippians 3:19 with Romans 6:21; Romans 16:18; Philippians 4:18 with Romans 12:1. Several verbal coincidences might also be pointed out. But if these resemblances suggest as early a date for the Epistle to the Philippians as circumstances will allow, there are cogent reasons for placing the others as late as possible. The letters to the Colossians and Ephesians exhibit an advanced stage in the development of the Church. The heresies which the apostle here combats are no longer the crude, materialistic errors of the early childhood of Christianity, but the more subtle speculations of its maturer age. The doctrine which he preaches is not now “the milk for babes,” but the “strong meat” for grown men. He speaks to his converts no more “as unto carnal” but “as unto spiritual.” In Ephesians especially his teaching soars to the loftiest height as he dwells on the mystery of the Word and of the Church. Here, too, we find the earliest reference to the Christian hymn (Ephesians 5:14) showing that the devotion of the Church was at length finding expression in set forms of words. In both ways these Epistles bridge over the gulf which separates the pastoral letters from the apostle’s earlier writings. The heresies of the pastoral letters are the heresies of the Colossians and Ephesians grown rank and corrupt. The solitary quotation already mentioned is the precursor of the not unfrequent references to Christian formularies in these latest of the apostle’s writings. And then the directions relating to ecclesiastical government which are scattered through the pastoral Epistles are the outward correlative, the practical sequel to the sublime doctrine of the Church first set forth in its fulness in the Epistle to the Ephesians. (Bishop Lightfoot.)

2. Their value. Truly, prison literature has an imperishable interest and an enduring lesson clinging to it. John, in the exile and slavery of the lonely rock of Patmos, around which the storm winds of persecution are raging, giving forth a solemn voice of comfort and warning and direction to the universal Church, as “the awful vision of coming destiny” is unfolded before his view--Paul, here, in the restraints and bonds of the Roman Praetorium penning his Epistles--Luther in his chamber in the Wartburg, translating them--Bunyan in his prison at Bedford, “for the Word of God and testimony of Jesus Christ,” commencing his immortal allegory with an allusion to his personal trials, brief, artless as this, “As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den, and laid me down in that place to sleep,”--these and many similar cases prove to us that prison walls, to the inner eye of the believer, may dilate in ever-widening vistas into the world unseen. They give eminent illustration of this truth, that “the mouth which persecution closes God opens, and bids it speak to the world.” (J. Hutchinson, D. D.)

The Philippian Church--

1. Its establishment and early history. In Acts 16:1-40 we learn that Paul and his travelling companions were directed away from Asia to the Macedonian city of Philippi. On arriving there they repaired to the oratory “by the river side,” where a few women were in the habit on the Sabbath of worshipping God. It was not in the synagogue, as at Thessalonica, but in the free air of heaven that the gospel was here first proclaimed. During this apostolic visit of “certain days” extent, this earliest European Church was formed. As this city was more than usually representative of varied nationalities and modes of life, so was the infant Church which arose within its walls. We are familiar with the first three converts. Lydia, the seller of purple, whose business had brought her from her native city of Thyatira, heard the apostle’s message, and the Lord opened her heart to receive it. Alongside of this Asiatic convert there stands conspicuous the Greek female slave--the girl with the Pytho-spirit, herself superstitious, and ministering, under avaricious masters, to the degrading superstition of others--she too, cleansed and in her right mind, became henceforth a willing servant of Christ Jesus. Once more, we see the Roman jailor, bearing, doubtless, in his character and conduct all the marks of pride of race and supercilious contempt of others, it may be, hardened by official duties, and utterly unspiritual in his personal thoughts and actions, brought suddenly to exclaim, “What must I do to be saved?” and in the heart acceptance of the answer, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house,” at length rejoicing,--“believing in God with all his house.” When we contemplate these three converts, so different in nationality, in social position, in the occupations of daily life, in mental training, henceforth one in sentiment and work, we see even thus early in the progress of Christianity its adaptation to universal needs, and its claim to universal dominion. The Church, whose beginnings we can so clearly trace, grew and multiplied, and mightily prevailed. Almost at once, at least long before this Epistle was addressed to it, it had become a vigorous, because a united company--a visible corporation, completely equipped and organized. (J. Hutchinson, D. D.)

The accusation levelled against St. Paul was one which was intimately connected with the peculiar position of Philippi as a Roman colony--a fragment, as it were, of the imperial city itself. We note, indeed, that at this very time (Acts 18:2)

“Claudius had commanded all Jews to depart from Rome,” and it is at least probable that this decree of banishment might extend to the Roman colonies as distinguished from the ordinary provincial cities. Accordingly, in the accusation stress is laid on the fact that the accused were “Jews.” The Church was, therefore, mainly a Gentile Church, and its attachment to the Apostle to the Gentiles was especially strong and fervent. The foundation of the Church had been laid amidst a persecution in which the Roman magistrates simply played into the hands of mob violence, and we gather from the Epistle that the Church had still to undergo “the same conflict” of suffering from “their adversaries” “which they had seen in him.” It grew up under the bracing air of trial, with a peculiar steadfastness, warm heartedness, and simplicity, apparently unvexed by the speculative waywardness of Corinth, or the wild heresies of Ephesus or Colossus. Of St. Paul’s subsequent visits we have no full record. We cannot doubt that he visited the city on his way from Ephesus to Macedonia and Greece (Acts 20:3). The common tradition dates 2 Corinthians from Philippi on that occasion. We know (Acts 20:6) that it was from Philippi that he started some months after, on his last journey to Jerusalem. At a period subsequent to this Epistle we learn (1 Timothy 1:3) that St. Paul, apparently after a visit to Ephesus, “went into Macedonia” after his first captivity, and so no doubt fulfilled his hope of revisiting this beloved Church. (Bp. Barry.)

2. Its later history. A whole generation passes away before the name of Philippi is again mentioned. Early in the second century Ignatius, now on his way to martyrdom at Rome, is kindly entertained here and escorted on his way by members of the Church. This circumstance seems to have given rise to communications with Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, in which the Philippians invite him to address to them some words of advice and exhortation. Polycarp responds and congratulates them on their devotion to the martyrs, and rejoices that “the sturdy root of their faith, famous from the earliest days, still survives and bears fruit unto our Lord Jesus Christ.” He, and such as he, cannot “attain unto the wisdom of the blessed and glorious Paul,” who taught them in person, and wrote to them instructions which they would do well to study. He offers many words of exhortation, more especially relating to the qualifications of widows, deacons, and presbyters. He warns them against those who deny that Christ has come in the flesh, against those who reject the testimony of the Cross, against those who say there is no resurrection or judgment. He sets before them for imitation the example “not only of the blessed Ignatius, and Zosimus, and Rufus, but also of others of their own Church, and Paul himself, and the other apostles,” who have gone to their rest. There is, however, one cause for sorrow. Yalens, a presbyter, and his wife have brought scandal on the gospel by their avarice. From all participation in their crime Polycarp exonerates the great body of the Church. He trusts the offenders will be truly penitent: and he counsels the Philippians to treat them, not as enemies, but as erring members. They are well versed in the Scriptures and will not need to be reminded how the duty of gentleness and forbearance is enforced therein. With this notice the Philippian Church may be said to pass out of sight. From the time of Polycarp its name is very rarely mentioned; and scarcely a single fact is recorded which throws light on its internal condition. Here and there the name of a bishop appears in connection with the records of an ecclesiastical council. On one occasion its prelate subscribes a decree as vicegerent of the metropolitan of Thessalonica. But though the see is said to exist in the present day, the city itself has long been a wilderness. Of its destruction or decay no record is left; and among its ruins travellers have hitherto failed to find any Christian remains. Of the Church which stood foremost among all the apostolic communities in faith and love, it may be literally said that not one stone stands upon another. Its whole career is a signal monument of the inscrutable counsels of God. Born into the world with the brightest promise, the Church of Philippi has lived without a history and perished without a memorial. (Bishop Lightfoot.)

3. Its characteristics. Its members were chiefly Gentile. There is not a single Old Testament quotation or allusion in the Epistle addressed to it. It is exposed to persecution from without, and there are tendencies on the part of a few to disunion within, but there is much calm and joyful service. The apostle finds little to reprove and much in the warmest terms to commend. It is perhaps quite justifiable to institute a comparison between this European Church of Philippi and the Asiatic Church of Thyatira. The first convert, Lydia, at once suggests this. We may regard her as in some respects the actual founder of both. We know that at Philippi her house became the centre of Christian influences, and when, therefore, she returned to her own home in Thyatira, she would certainly not be less active and zealous there than she had been in the city of her casual or occasional abode. In the circle of her friends, and probably these were many, for her position seems to have been one of affluence and influence, she would be a loyal witness for Christ. The truth thus proclaimed by a woman’s lips, and illustrated and enforced by a woman’s life, could not fail to leave its deep and abiding impress upon the Christian communities of both these heathen cities. And so, indeed, we find it to have been. The love and faith exhibited in ministering works which in our risen and glorified Lord’s message to the angel of the Church of Thyatira receive their due award of praise, these are equally prominent, indeed more so, in Philippi. The Philippian Church on three separate occasions sent subsidies to relieve Paul’s necessities. We may therefore be warranted in tracing the character as well as the origin of these two Churches to the one source--the impress of an ardent and organizing female influence, an impress visible in the benevolent forms which their faith so readily assumed. (J. Hutchinson, D. D.)

The Philippian Church was eminently free from errors of doctrine and irregularities of practice. No schism seems to have divided it; no heresies had crept into its faith; no false teachers had perverted its allegiance. One fault alone seems to have needed correction, and this was of so personal and limited a character that, instead of denouncing it, Paul only needs to hint at it gently and with affectionate entreaty. This was a want of unity between some of its female members, especially Euodia and Syntyehe, whom Paul begs to become reconciled to each other, and whose feud, and any partisanship which it may have entailed, he tacitly and considerately rebukes by the constant iteration of the word “all” to those whom he can only regard as one united body. In fact, we may say that disunion and despondency were the main dangers to which they were exposed; hence “all” and “rejoice” are the two leading words and thoughts. (Archdeacon Farrar.)

The epistle to the Philippians--

1. Its occasion. It arose directly out of one of the few happy incidents which diversified the dreary uncertainties of St. Paul’s captivity. This was the visit of Epaphroditus, a leading presbyter of the Church of Philippi, with the fourth contribution by which that loving and generous Church had ministered to his necessities. At Rome St. Paul was unable with his fettered hands to work for his livelihood, and it is possible that he found no opening for his special trade. One would have thought that the Roman Christians were sufficiently numerous and wealthy to render it an easy matter to supply his necessities; but the unaccountable indifference which seems to have marked their relations to him, and of which he complains both in this and in his later imprisonment, shows that much could not be hoped from their affection, and strangely belied the zealous respect with which they had come thirty or forty miles to greet him. It is of course possible that they may have been willing to help him, but that he declined an assistance respecting which he was sensitively careful. But the Philippians knew and valued the privilege which had been accorded them by their father in Christ by helping him in his need. It was the custom throughout the Empire to alleviate by friendly presents the hard lot of prisoners, and we may be sure that when once the Philippians had heard of his condition, friends like Lydia and other converts, who had means to spare, would seize the earliest opportunity to add to his comforts. Epaphroditus, flinging himself into the service of the gospel, had succumbed to the unhealthiness of the season, and been prostrated by an all but fatal sickness. The news of this illness had reached Philippi, and caused great solicitude (ch. 2:26). Paul had many trials to bear, and the death of his “brother” would have plunged him in yet deeper distress. We cannot doubt that he pleaded with God for his sick friend, and God had mercy upon him. Epaphroditus recovered; and deeply as Paul in his loneliness and discouragement would have rejoiced to keep him at his side, he yielded, with his usual unselfishness, to the yearning of Epaphroditus for his home and of the Philippians for their absent pastor. He therefore sent him back, and with him the letter in which he expressed his thankfulness for that constant affection which had so greatly cheered his heart. (Archdeacon Farrar.)

2. Its date and place. The indications of these are unusually clear. It is written “in bonds” (ch. 1:7-13)

; in the Praetorium (1:13); it sends greeting from the “saints in Caesar’s household” (4:21); it expresses an expectation of some crisis in his imprisonment (1:20-26); and a confident hope of revisiting Philippi (1:26, 2:24). All these indications place it in the Roman imprisonment of St. Paul, which we know to have lasted without trial or release for “two whole years,” and which certainly began about A.D. 61. The date therefore must be fixed about the year A.D. 62 or 63. (Bp. Barry.)

3. Its genuineness.


External evidence. This is very strong. In all the ancient catalogues from the Muratorian (A.D. 170), in all ancient versions it is placed amongst the undoubted Epistles of St. Paul. In the Christian writings before the end of the second century, knowledge of it may be distinctly traced; after that time it is quoted continually. Thus, in the Apostolic Fathers, to say nothing of slighter indications, Polycarp, in his Epistle to the Philippians, expressly declares its Pauline authorship and quotes from it, as does the “Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs” dating early in the second century. Perhaps the earliest direct quotation of it is in the Epistles of the Churches of Lyons and Vienne (A.D. 177), where we find the great passage, “He being in the form of God,” etc. Then, as in other cases, the habit of quotation begins in Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian, and continues afterwards unbroken.

(2) Internal evidence. This rises almost to demonstration. The strong marks of personality which we trace in every line, the unstudied frequency of historical allusion and of undesigned coincidences with historical records, the simple and natural occasion of writing, in the reception of the offerings and the illness of Epaphroditus, the absence of all formal doctrine or ecclesiastical purpose, the fulness and warmth of personal affection--all are unmistakeable marks of genuineness, and are inconceivable on the supposition of forgery. The character of St. Paul, as unconsciously drawn in it, is unquestionably the same character which lives and glows in the Corinthian and Galatian Epistles; and yet there is in it an indescribable growth into greater calmness and gentleness which corresponds remarkably with advance of age and change of circumstances. There are also marked similarities both of style and expression with the earlier Epistles, and that mingling of identity and development of idea which is notable in all the Epistles of the captivity. It is therefore not surprising that even in the freest speculation of the higher criticism there are but few examples of scepticism as to the genuineness of this Epistle. (Bp. Barry.)

4. Its character. It is not a trumpet note of defiance, like the Epistle to the Galatians. It is not the reply to a number of questions, like the First to the Corinthians. It is not a treatise of theology, like the Epistle to the Romans. It has more of a personal character, like the Second Epistle to the Corinthians; but it is poured forth, not to those towards whom he had little cause for gratitude and much need for forbearance--not to jealous critics and bitter opponents--but to the favourite converts of his ministry, to the dearest children of his love. It is a genuine and simple letter--the warm, spontaneous, loving effusion of a heart which could express itself with unreserved affection to a most kind and a most beloved Church. (Archdeacon Farrar.)

5. Its relation to the gospel. It may be taken to exhibit the normal type of the apostle’s teaching when not determined and limited by individual circumstances, and thus to present the essential substance of the gospel. Dogmatic forms are the buttresses or scaffold poles of the building, not the building itself. But in the reaction against the excess of dogma there is a tendency to lay the whole stress of the gospel on its ethical precepts. For instance, men will assume and even avow that its kernel is contained in the Sermon on the Mount. This conception may seem healthy in its impulse and practical in its aim, but it is dangerous to morality; for when the sources are cut off the stream will cease to flow. Certainly this is not St. Paul’s idea of the gospel as it appears in this Epistle. If we would learn what he held to be its essence, we must ask ourselves what is the significance of such phrases as “I desire you in the heart of Jesus Christ,” “For me to live is Christ,” “That I may know the power of His resurrection,” “I have all strength in Christ who giveth me power.” Though the gospel is capable of doctrinal exposition, and is eminently fertile in moral results, yet its substance is neither a doctrinal system nor an ethical code, but a Person and a Life. (Bishop Lightfoot.)

6. Its analysis.

The first section (original letter?)


1. Introduction.

(1) Salvation (1:1-2).

(2) Thanksgiving for their fellowship in the work of the gospel, specially shown towards himself (3-8).

(3) Prayer for their fuller knowledge and increase of fruitfulness to the end (9-11).

2. Declaration of the position at Rome.

(1) The progress of the gospel through his bonds. Stimulating preaching of the gospel, partly in good will, partly in strife, but in any case a cause of joy (12-18).

(2) His own division of feeling, between a desire to depart and a willingness to remain for their sakes, which he knows will be realized (19-26).

3. Exhortation.

(1) To steadfast boldness under persecution (27-30).

(2) To unity of spirit in the humility and self-sacrifice of the mind of Christ Jesus (2:1-4).

4. The doctrine of Christ.

(1) His humility in the Incarnation (5-7).

(2) His humility in the Passion

(3). His exaltation (9-11).

5. Original conclusion of the Epistle.

(1) Final exhortation to obedience, quietness, purity, joy with him in sacrifice (12-18).

(2) Mission and commendation of Timotheus as St. Paul’s forerunner (19-24).

(3) Mission and commendation of Epaphroditus (25-30).

(4) Final “farewell in the Lord” (3:1).

The second section (postscript?).

1. Practical warnings--

(1) Against Judaism, by the example of his own renunciation of all Jewish privileges (2-10).

(2) Against claim of perfection, again enforced by his own example (11-16).

(3) Against Antinomian profligacy, as unworthy of the “citizens of heaven” (17-21).

2. Exhortations renewed--

(1) To unity (4:1-3).

(2) To joy, thankfulness, and peace (4-7).

(3) To following of all good in the fulness in which he had taught it (8-9).

3. Acknowledgment of offerings.

(1) Rejoicing in their renewed care for him (10-14).

(2) Remembrance of their former liberality (15-17).

(3) Thanks and blessing (18-20).

4. Concluding salutation and blessing. (Bp. Barry.)

Thoughts suggested by the epistle--This Epistle is not only the noblest reflection of St. Paul’s personal character and spiritual illumination, his large sympathies, his womanly tenderness, his delicate courtesy, his frank independence, his entire devotion to his Master’s service; but as a monument of the power of the gospel it yields in importance to none of the apostolic writings. Scarcely thirty years have passed since one Jesus was crucified as a malefactor in a remote province of the empire; scarcely ten since one Paul, a Jew of Tarsus, first told at Philippi the story of His cruel death; and what is the result? Imagine one, to whom the name of Christ had been hitherto a name only, led by circumstances to study this touching picture of the relations between St. Paul, his fellow labourers, his converts; and pausing to ask himself what unseen power had produced these marvellous results. Stronger than any associations of time or place, of race or profession, stronger than the instinctive sympathies of common interest or the natural ties of blood relationship, a mysterious bond unites St. Paul, Epaphroditus, the Philippian converts; them to the apostle, and him to them, and each to the other. In this three-fold cord of love the strands are so intertwined and knotted together, that the writer cannot conceive of them as disentangled. The joy of one must be the joy of all; the sorrow of one the sorrow of all. The apostle’s language furnishes the reply to such a questioner. This unseen power is the “power of Christ’s resurrection.” This mutual love is diffused from the heart of Jesus Christ, beating with His impulses and living by His life. When the contemporary heathen remarked how “these Christians loved one another,” he felt that he was confronted by an unsolved enigma. The power which wrought the miracle was hidden from him. It was no new commandment indeed, for it appealed to the oldest and truest impulses of the human heart. And yet it was a new commandment; for in Christ’s life and death and resurrection it had found not only an example and a sanction, but a power, a vitality, wholly unfelt and unknown before. To all ages of the Church--to our own especially--this Epistle reads a great lesson. While we are expending our strength on theological definitions or ecclesiastical rules, it recalls us from these distractions to the very heart and centre of the gospel--the life of Christ, and the life in Christ. Here is the meeting point of all our differences, the healing of all our feuds, the true life alike of individuals and Churches. (Bishop Lightfoot.)


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