Darren L. Slider
In about A.D. 49-50, on his second missionary journey, accompanied by Timothy and Silas, the apostle Paul helped to establish a church in Philippi, a leading city of Macedonia.
In A.D. 60, about ten years later, Paul was under house arrest in Rome, awaiting a trial before Caesar Nero, to whom he had appealed his case. He wrote his letter to the church at Philippi, also known as the book of Philippians, at this time.
To help support Paul in his ministry, the church at Philippi had sent him gifts (Philippians 4:18) with Epaphroditus, who thereafter became sick and nearly died (Philippians 2:27). He did, however, recover, and Paul sent him back to Philippi with his epistle to that church.
The very first words after the salutation of the epistle testify to the apostle’s close relationship with and strong affection for the Philippian Christians: “I thank my God every time I remember you.” Philippians 1:3. He devotes nine verses to the expression of this affection, before going on to discuss his own circumstances.
Paul associates his memories of and prayers for the Philippians with the emotions of thanksgiving and joy because of their “partnership in the gospel.” Philippians 1:5. In so doing, he illustrates the unity that should flourish among all Christians, who have in common the most important factor in their lives: a relationship with Jesus Christ. In I Corinthians 12, Paul likens this unity to the body of Christ, of which all Christians are members, and states the ideal in these words: “There should be no division in the body, but its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” I Corinthians 12:25,26. He applies the former to his relationship with the Philippians in Philippians 1:7: “Whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me.”
In Philippians 1:6, he links this empathy with his confidence the author of the “good work” (their salvation Philippians 2:12,13), namely Jesus Christ (Hebrews 12:2), would “carry it on to completion.” He explains the “how” of this process, which we call “sanctification,” in his prayer that their “love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight.” Philippians 1:9. Their love for God, indicative of a growing relationship with Him, would purify their tastes (cf. Philippians 4:8) and result in the increased production of “the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ,” which is “the fruit of the Spirit.” Galatians 5:22,23.
In Philippians 1:12-30, Paul discusses his next topic: his own situation as a prisoner under house arrest in Rome. Being of an active and adventure-loving disposition (Tim LaHaye, in Your Temperament: Discover Its Potential, aptly describes him as a choleric-melancholy), having undertaken three long missionary journeys with all of the concomitant dangers that he listed in II Corinthians 11:23-28, his natural reaction to this situation would have been to become bitter and vindictive, to complain against God’s leading, to feel sorry for himself.
Quite to the contrary, he rejoiced. For he did not have himself in mind, but rather the “glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:11), the greatest of all motives, and the motive to which he pointed the Philippians in his prayer for their sanctification.
With this in mind, he rejoices because he can see that his situation is contributing to the advance of the gospel by encouraging others to preach it “more courageously and fearlessly.” Philippians 1:14. He further rejoices that even if others preach the gospel for the wrong reasons (“out of envy and rivalry,” “out of selfish ambition,” Philippians 1:15,17), the gospel still spreads, and God is still glorified.
Emotionally, Paul was torn between the desire to live and to continue to preach the gospel and minister to the churches, and the desire to die, to rest from his labors, and to be with Christ in his next conscious moment. He considered the former best for the sake of his readers, but the latter preferable to himself. In one of the greatest statements of personal testimony to be found in all of Scripture, Paul applies his statement in Romans 8:28 to his own life, reconciling himself to God’s will as revealed by circumstances, whatever it may be. His words, in Philippians 1:19-21, truly speak for themselves: “I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
Having thus spoken, Paul goes on to exhort the Philippians: “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” Philippians 1:27. He explains that if they do so by the power of God (Philippians 2:13) they will experience the unity that Paul mentioned previously. He desires them to persevere against opposition, and to consider it a privilege to suffer for Christ’s sake, as well as to believe in Him.
As Christians, we need to apply all of these points to our own experience. The greatest lesson we can learn is to rejoice, to praise the Lord no matter what happens in our lives because God will be glorified nonetheless, and because we ourselves will receive a blessing. To this end, we need to claim Paul’s words in Philippians 1:19-21, Romans 8:28, and similar passages, by faith, trusting God to implant in us the motive to glorify Him, and to make it overcome all others. It will then follow that we will experience greater unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ, and that we will fulfill God’s purpose for our lives, and be truly happy.
Paul once again uses Christian unity as a transition to his next theme: humility and unselfishness (Philippians 2:1-18). He exhorts the Philippians to live this unity, as evidence of “encouragement from being united with Christ,” “comfort from His love,” “fellowship with the Spirit,” and “tenderness and compassion” (the latter of which leads to mutual forgiveness Colossians 3:12,13). He tells them that this oneness “in spirit and purpose” will manifest itself through humility, as opposed to “selfish ambition,” which motive led some to preach the gospel to “stir up trouble” for Paul (Philippians 1:17). They were to put the interests of others before their own, even as Jesus told the disciples that the greatest among them was to be “last, and the servant of all.” Mark 9:35.
To illustrate his point, Paul refers this time not to his own experience, but to the example that Jesus gave, the ultimate example. Paul points out that even though Jesus was equal to God Himself (John 1:1,2), He left the perfect atmosphere of heaven to become a human being, to be tempted and harassed by Satan for thirty-three years, and finally to die on a cross the most shameful and ignominious death possible in the days of the Roman Empire. Why? So that each member of the human race would have the possibility of reconciliation with God and forgiveness for sin, of bypassing his/her deserved fate eternal death (Romans 6:23). According to His principle as expressed in Mark 9:35, God, Paul states, has “exalted Him to the highest place” (Philippians 2:9), the position of authority over all God’s creatures.
The Philippians must surely have wondered how their attitude could be “the same as that of Christ Jesus,” not to mention their conduct, when their natural motivations were selfish to the core. Paul did not, however, lead them to believe that they could change this on their own strength. They were to “work out” their salvation “with fear and trembling” (that is, to treat it as a matter of the utmost gravity), but ever with the realization that only God could provide them with the proper motivation and the ability to do His will (Philippians 2:13).
Then, and only then, could they “do everything without complaining or arguing,” like Jesus, who thus endured the most cruel and degrading treatment possible. Paul points out that in so doing, the Philippians would fulfill God’s “good purpose” that they should act as “the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14), “blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation” (Philippians 2:15). Again, only as they represented the attitude of Christ in humility and unity with one another, could they effectively witness for Christ. Paul longed that they might attain to this ideal, primarily for the glory of God, but also that he might experience the fulfillment of seeing God bring an even greater success out of the work which God had used him to start (Philippians 2:16). Seeing this by faith, he rejoiced, encouraging the Philippians to do likewise.
By way of application: given that Jesus humbled Himself from the highest position to the lowest position, accepting without complaint the worst possible treatment from His enemies, and that He had to rely upon God’s power for willingness (in Gethsemane, He did not want to undergo what He was about to undergo Matthew 26:39) and ability even as we do, it follows that we have no excuse for not living in perfect harmony as Christian brothers and sisters, for not imitating Christ’s example, and for not representing His life to the world as He would have us to do so. We do not have initially to feel like doing God’s will, but only to desire to feel like doing God’s will, in order for Him to empower us to do it. Since God wants us to feel like doing His will, He will enable us to do so if we ask in faith (I John 5:14,15). It is thus that we can accomplish all these goals even when we have no motivation or the wrong motivation initially.
In Philippians 2:19-30, Paul mentions two further illustrations of the principle of unselfishness, with whom his readers were more immediately familiar: Timothy and Epaphroditus.
Timothy, whom, at the time of writing, he hoped to be able to send to them, he commended to them as he would have his own son. “I haev no one else like him,” writes Paul, “who takes a genuine interest in your welfare. For everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.” Philippians 2:20,21.
Epaphroditus, the bearer of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, had borne the church’s gifts to Paul and stayed to minister to him. He had also, as mentioned previously, become sick and nearly died in the process. Paul exhorts the Philippians not only to rejoice that God had healed Epaphroditus, but to “honor men like him, because he almost died for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for the help you could not give me.” Philippians 2:29,30.
While sadly acknowledging, in his commendation of Timothy, that the vast majority failed to live up to Christ’s ideal of unselfishness, Paul rejoices for those he knows that glorify God by living up to it. We, too, should greatly appreciate and praise the Lord for those Christians we know whose unselfish example is an inspiration to us.
Warning his readers against false apostles, to whom he refers as “dogs,” “men who do evil” (cf. II Corinthians 11:13), and “mutilators of the flesh,” Paul goes on, in Philippians 3:1-11, to assert the superiority of righteousness by faith over righteousness by works from his own experience.
In Philippians 3:3, Paul identifies with the Philippians as one of those “who are the circumcision, . . . who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Jesus Christ, and who put no confidence in the flesh.” He describes the term “confidence in the flesh” with his own pre-conversion spiritual state, a salvation-by-genealogy-and-by-works Pharisaism. From a righteousness-by-works perspective, Paul says in so many words, I had much whereof to boast.
He goes on to say, in Philippians 3:8, that he considers all of his former attainments “rubbish” of no value whatsoever. Employing the technique of superlative comparison, Paul assigns infinite value to what he has since found: “The surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus” and “the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.” Philippians 3:8,9. He considers a relationship with Jesus Christ immeasurably superior to any “righteousness” that he could himself manufacture.
In this relationship-context, Paul wants to become like Jesus in His death, and thus to “attain to the resurrection of the dead.” By the former, Paul means the process of sanctification, the process by which we are freed from the power of sin (Romans 6:5, 6). The latter refers to eternal life, which Jesus equated with a relationship with Him (John 17:3).
Paul readily admits, in Philippians 3:12-14, that he has not yet attained to either ideal. He does, however, “press on toward the goal to win the prize,” “forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead.” That is, he continues always to trust in God to give him the willingness and the power to overcome sin in his life, refusing to allow past failures to intimidate him.
In Philippians 3:15-17, Paul commends his viewpoint to them as “mature,” pointing both to his own example and that of “those who live according to the pattern we gave you.” “Let us live up,” he further exhorts them, “to what we have already attained.” He wants to see them make progress, and he certainly doesn’t want to see them backslide.
In an effort to inspire them to “press on,” he points their attention to the glory of the “prize” that awaits them at their goal, contrasting it with the degradation and imminent destruction sure to come upon the “enemies of the cross of Christ,” in Philippians 3:18-4:1. “Their destiny,” he says of the wicked, “is destruction” as the natural result of their own course of action (Romans 6:23; Galatians 6:7,8). “Their god is their stomach,” or their appetite (NASB), “and their glory is their shame,” or the disgustingly unrestrained indulgence of their appetite. “Their mind is on earthly things,” which leads automatically to death (Romans 8:5-7).
His readers are not thus, however, and Paul fixes their minds on their “citizenship . . . in heaven,” reminding them of the day on the which their omnipotent Savior will “transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body,” the day of His second coming (I Corinthians 15:51-54).
In applying Paul’s words to our experience, we should make our relationship with Jesus Christ the number one priority, as well as the greatest joy, of our lives, trusting Him, and not our own works, to save us from our sins. We should not be intimidated by memories of times when we have yielded to temptation, for our sins can be forgiven (I John 1:9) and Christ can enable us to overcome them (Philippians 2:13). Like the apostle Paul, we should “press on” in our Christian experience, and also like the psalmist David, who wrote in Psalm 63:8, “My soul followeth hard after thee: thy right hand upholdeth me” (KJV). We need to keep our eye on the goal and the prize, and on the unsurpassed love of God (I Corinthians 2:9) of which they are evidence.
After giving his advice to two certain individuals named Euodia and Syntyche, who apparently had trouble getting along, Paul commences his final exhortation (Philippians 4:4-9) with the exultation motif: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” Philippians 4:4. He recalls to their minds the lesson from his experience in Philippians 1: Praise the Lord under all circumstances and at all times, because no matter what the circumstantial outcome of any given situation, God will be glorified and we will be blessed. Paul also exhorts them to “gentleness.”
Paul goes on: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6,7.
Since rejoicing in spite of the outcome and worrying about the outcome are mutually exclusive, Paul directs the attention of his readers to another of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22,23): peace. If they would only trust God with the outcome of their uncertain situations, praying in a spirit of thanksgiving, they would experience an inner peace which is extraordinary because of its independence from outward circumstances. Isaiah, making the same point, labels it “perfect peace” (Isaiah 26:3).
Furthermore, continues Paul, certain attitudes and thought patterns are conducive to this peace. To keep their “minds stayed” on God, they would need to meditate upon “true,” “noble,” “right,” “pure,” “lovely,” “admirable,” “excellent,” “praiseworthy” themes.
Since peace is a fruit of the Spirit, and we are commanded to be filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18), it must be God’s will that we have this peace. Thus, in any given situation, no matter how stressful, we may ask in faith for this peace, according to the principle expressed in I John 5:14,15, and we will receive it. It will enable us to better represent Jesus, who maintained it throughout the entire ordeal of His trial, torture and crucifixion.
As for our thoughts, we must, with God’s help, control them. This means not only that we are to reject negative, sinful thoughts as soon as they enter our minds, but that we are to fill our minds so full of positive, elevated thoughts that no room for the former exists.
When rejoicing (as always) for the generosity of the church at Philippi in so freely sacrificing in order to support his ministry, Paul mentions one more virtue that he had learned to exercise “whatever the circumstances”: contentment (Philippians 4:10-13). Being a choleric-melancholy, Paul had a strong natural tendency to impatience, yet he learned to be content “whether well-fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” Paul answers the unspoken question, “How?” in Philippians 4:13: “I can do everything through Him who gives me strength.”
The application for us is obvious, but is not easy. Yet if we consistently claim this promise, along with Philippians 2:13, then patient and contented behavior in any situation become as natural and as easy as impatience and discontent are otherwise.
Before rounding off his letter with a doxology and final greeting (Philippians 4:20-23), Paul returns to the subject of the generosity of the Philippian Christians, recounting their history of faithful, sacrificial giving for the advance of the gospel through Paul’s ministry. At the last, in thanking them for their most recent gift, he finishes with the promise: “My God will meet all your needs according to His glorious riches in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:19.
Even so, as we give of our time, our means, our talents and ourselves to the Lord’s service, we may rest assured that God will always provide for any lack thus incurred.
As he has throughout the book of Philippians, Paul emphasizes the limitless power of God, leaving us no doubt that God is able to motivate and empower us to reach the ideals He has set for us. The choice remains with us.
God, The Holy Bible
LaHaye, Tim, Your Temperament: Discover Its Potential, Tyndale, 1985
Background information taken from the NIV Pictorial Bible, Zondervan, 1981
All Scripture quotations are taken from the New International Version unless otherwise indicated
Author’s Note: I wrote this exegesis in December, 1985, as my major paper for a religion course entitled “Principles of Biblical Interpretation” while a freshman at Andrews University. It is a relatively straightforward exposition of the Epistle to the Philippians.