By Alfred Bouter
This wonderful epistle, or letter, is linked to several people in Philippi, a city in Macedonia just north of Greece. These individuals had identified with the gospel of God’s grace, had accepted it and become true Christians.
The first was Lydia, a merchant of purple who had come from the city of Thyatira, in present day Turkey. Then a former Roman army officer, in charge of the local jail, believed. Both of them had a number of servants in their households who also became believers (Acts 16:13-15,23-34). Soon these new believers had others added to them, several of whom may have come to know the Lord through Paul’s coworker, Luke, who stayed in the area after Paul, Timothy and Silas traveled on to Thessalonica (16:10,40, 17:1).
It seems that Luke must have helped these believers to function as an assembly, with elders, or overseers, and deacons (Phil. 1:1). From then on, the believers in Philippi supported Paul with great zeal (Phil. 1:5-7, 4:15-16; 2 Cor. 8:1-6), and they continued to do so while he was in Rome as a “prisoner of Christ Jesus” and “the prisoner of the Lord” (Eph. 3:1, 4:1 NKJV). The financial support they had sent to Paul in Rome and the way it was sent, through the care of Epaphroditus1 (Phil. 2:25-30, 4:18), was evidence that God not only had begun a work in them, but He continued it. Paul wrote: “Being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (1:6). The apostle was sure that God would continue the work He had started and would bring it to completion, as will be demonstrated in the day of Christ’s public appearance.
During the day of grace in which we live, we may apply the same point to believers who have started to follow the Lord Jesus in this world where He is still despised and rejected. Also today, His disciples are subjected to all kinds of hardships, rejection and persecution, yet they faithfully follow Him.
A Few Ways To Summarize Philippians
|How To Live
The Message And The Author
Paul started many of his epistles by presenting himself as an apostle of God, sent by Christ Jesus who is in heaven. His title of apostle emphasized the authority God had given him with regard to the new revelations and doctrines that he was called to make known. The teachings were opposed and rejected by many – and even corrupted as far as man’s efforts may go. In Philippians, however, Paul introduced himself together with Timothy as bondmen (slaves) of Jesus Christ. This was in the first place, I believe, because this remarkable epistle presents the Lord Jesus Christ as God’s Bondservant (2:7).
The servant character Paul took when writing Philippians is contrasted by his authority, which he emphasized in other letters. For example, Paul used it to support the authenticity in Ephesians of the new revelations (Eph. 3:1-4:2) and in Galatians as to the gospel message. In Romans, God’s new message was fully expounded by His apostle, Paul, to whom He had given such authority. This authority that Paul received was given to no one else on earth, ever.
One of the themes in Philippians is that the believers “down here” are to represent the Lord Jesus in heaven, “up there.” In fact, our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20-21), and we may represent Him in this world, here and now. Soon we will reign with Him, but that time has not yet come.
Just as the city of Philippi was built as a miniature Rome to represent the Roman capital as closely as possible, so the believers on earth are Christ’s ambassadors to represent Him in heaven. What a privilege and challenge at the same time! Therefore Paul prayed for the progress of the new believers (1:9-11), a prayer that demands much attention for further practice and growth.
Another prominent topic in Philippians is the issue of the human mind, in this case our mind as Christians, meaning what we think and the way we do so as we follow Christ in true humility. The ten references about the mind2 highlight our responsibility as Christians, since the number ten is associated to human duty and obedience. Even though we are not under the Mosaic law, we are under the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2), and we belong to a new order, to serve and represent Christ and to honor God in this world that dishonors both.
Sacrifices Of Joy
“Sacrifices Of Joy” is the title of Bible studies on this epistle in a book written by a former missionary to China, G. Christopher Willis. He worked there sometime after Hudson Taylor (1832-1905) and partly during the days of Watchman Nee (1903-1972), a well-known Chinese evangelist and teacher who suffered much for the Master.
The concept of sacrifices highlights the tremendous price paid by faithful Christians, serving and representing Him with much joy despite trials. How important it is for Christians to be full of joy as the apostle himself was, even in very difficult circumstances. Paul explained that his captivity was used by God to further the cause of the gospel and promote the interests of his Master (Phil. 1:15-20). He had a great desire that Christ would be magnified (compare Jn. 3:30) – so others might see more of Him as through a magnifying glass. In other words, Paul wished that his Master would be seen greater and more wonderful through his own body in which he endured sufferings, to show more of Christ through the process of his sufferings, whether in this life or in death (Phil. 1:20). The Lord Jesus on earth is the great example for all believers (2:5), but He is now in heaven and sustains us through His Spirit and Word to be His followers as well as followers of Paul (3:17; 1 Cor. 11:1).
God’s purpose for every believer from the moment there is any evidence of a true conversion is that he or she may live with this joy. Not a man-made, forced, imitated, feel-good or hyped-up joy, but a true joy3 given by God’s Spirit (Gal. 5:22) and in tune with the wisdom from above (Jas. 3:17). Paul is an example of a true overcomer who kept going against all odds. Even though living under tremendous burdens, he was not discouraged or depressed. Rather, he was riding as it were on top of the waves of the tempest, carried and directed by the Lord Himself. This servant had learned to be content and to rely on God in all things (Phil. 4:11-13) a real example for all believers.
The Greatness Of Christ’s Person
Philippians presents our Lord Jesus Christ as God’s true Bondservant. Adam should have been God’s servant, but he failed miserably, and consequently the whole human race failed (Rom. 5:12-21). However, in the fullness of time God sent His Son (Gal. 4:4), the Lord Jesus Christ, to earth and to His people to accomplish God’s will (Jn. 4:34; Heb. 10:5-10). God had prepared Him a body for His coming (Ps. 40:5-8), and in it He the Creator and Sustainer of this vast universe was trained by God to be the true Disciple (Isa. 50:3-5). Then, as the true Israelite Bondman (Ex. 21:6) He became obedient to death, the death of the cross (Phil. 2:6-8). We may discern seven steps in His humiliation (vv.6-8), followed by seven steps of His exaltation (vv.9-10).
Christians are identified with the Lord Jesus, the great Overcomer (Jn. 16:33) now at God’s right hand, and thereby we are greatly privileged. The immensity of our privileges brings great responsibilities (read Phil. 1:27-30, 2:2-5). Without God’s help we cannot do anything (2:12-13), but with it we may represent Christ here on earth! For this we need seven qualities (2:14-16): doing all things (1) without grumbling or (2) disputing, as (3) blameless and (4) innocent (5) children of God, (6) without blemish, (7) shining as lights in the world. All this is implied in Christ’s magnificent example as our supreme Model.
Philippians 2 also shows three wonderful examples of Christians: Paul (vv.17-18), Timothy (vv.19-24) and Epaphroditus – the man who had brought the special gift from Philippi to Rome (vv.25-30). We can follow these examples with the help of our glorified Lord and of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us. It is not possible through human efforts, law-keeping, self-improvement or religion. On the contrary, “we are the circumcision” (3:3), meaning that we are here on earth before God in a position where the flesh, even the religious flesh, has been completely set aside. Only thus will we be able to worship in the power of the Holy Spirit and boast, or glory, in our Lord Jesus Christ, without any confidence in the flesh. Paul’s own example illustrated this in a marvelous way, and it is a challenge to all believers to “be thus minded” (v.15).
Sustained By God
The enemy is dead-set against the true Christian position just described, which is not a religious one according to man’s thinking. Instead it is truly spiritual, in total dependence on the Lord in glory and practiced with the help of the Holy Spirit. In the assembly in Philippi, the adversary was trying to use disagreements between two devoted sisters in Christ who had been close co-workers of Paul to sow discord among the believers (4:2-3). Thus, they were in great danger of losing the enjoyment of the beautiful relationship that characterized these young believers.
In this context the apostle gave godly counsel which is still valid and useful for all believers. It tells us to rejoice in the Lord always, to be in His presence and to rely on Him in everything. The purpose of these instructions is that we can be a blessing for those around (4:4-7) as we allow Christ to fill us with His peace. Paul also indicated how to achieve and keep such a good relationship, namely by keeping our mind filled with the eight things4 mentioned in verse 8 and by following Paul’s example (v.9). May we be doing so today!
1. Paul called him a “brother,” “fellow-worker” and “fellow-soldier,” and described the extraordinary commitment of this brother toward the apostle in Rome and the believers at Philippi, through serious illness and healing (Phil. 2:25-30, 4:18).
2. The Greek verb phroneo (“to think,” “to mind”) is found 10 times: Phil. 1:7; 2:2 (twice),5, 3:15 (twice),19; 4:2,10 (twice).
3. The nouns “joy,” “thanksgiving” and “grace,” as well as the verbs “to rejoice,” “give thanks,” “grant,” “bestow” and “be glad” are all from the same Greek root: 23 references in Philippians: 1:2-4 (3 times),7,18 (twice),25,29; 2:2,9,17-18 (four times),28-29 (twice); 3:1; 4:1,4 (twice),6,10,23.
4. The number eight represents a new order. The Lord desires us to be filled with the things linked with Him – true, noble, just, pure, amiable, good report, virtue, praise – while we are in an environment where He is still rejected.