An Encouraging Thank-You: The Purpose of Philippians
I’m not sure what the biblical authors thought when they wrote the books we read today. Maybe they knew we’d all be carrying them around on our phones or reading leather-bound versions at home. But one thing we do know is that they wrote for a specific audience, and the better we understand the setting in which they wrote, the better insight we will have into the book. With that in mind, let’s see what the context of Philippians can tell us about its content.
About the City of Philippi
To begin, we know two things to be fairly certain. Paul introduces himself as the author, and he is writing to the Christians at Philippi (Philippians 1:1). Philippi was a Roman colony re-founded by Marc Antony and Augustus after winning the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC. After this victory, some veteran soldiers were released to colonize the city and establish Roman control, establishing a new patriotic population in the city in addition to the indigenous Greek Hellenistic one.
Philippi was located on a major commercial road, the Egnatian Way (or Via Egnatia), making it a thriving trade city full of activity. Archaeological remains from the time of Paul and shortly after have revealed the existence of a theater, a forum, a sports facility, shops, and pagan temples. While much of the population consisted of poor farmers, the Roman elite likely shaped the culture of the city trying to live up to the image of its big sister Rome.
Paul’s Connection to Philippi
Paul first found himself in Philippi around 50 AD after being called by God through a vision to preach the gospel to them (Acts 16:9-10). Usually, when he arrived in a city Paul would preach to the Jewish community at the local synagogue, but there was not one, presumably because they did not meet the requirement of ten Jewish men needed to establish a place of worship. Because of this, Paul visited a women’s prayer meeting instead where he met Lydia, who became the first believer in Philippi.
The story continues in Acts 16 where we see the salvation of a slave girl and Roman jailer, who help form the foundation of the Philippian church. It’s these connections Paul made that began the special relationship he had with the church, which we see throughout his writing to them. After leaving the newly established Philippian church, Paul likely visited them again and maintained a partnership with them. As Paul went on to other cities, the church continued to support him and his ministry (Philippians 4:15-16).
Why Paul Is Writing
On this occasion around 62 AD, in the book we know as Philippians, Paul is writing to his friends for a couple of reasons. At the time of writing, Paul is under house arrest in Rome and the Philippians had sent one a man named Epaphroditus to deliver a gift to him. Paul is thanking them, but he is also updating them on the situation as it has unfolded. While with Paul, Epaphroditus became sick and almost died, which the Philippians had discovered. Now that he has recovered, Paul is sending him back, hoping that his protege Timothy might visit soon as well (Philippians 2:22-30).
Paul, however, is not one to waste an opportunity to share what’s on his heart and mind, so he uses this occasion to encourage the Philippians. They seem to be a relatively healthy church compared to their brothers and sisters in Corinth and Galatia, so Paul thinks of them fondly, but he wants to urge them to keep fighting the good fight and not become complacent. He does offering some correcting, encouraging two quarreling ladies, Euodia and Syntyche, to set aside their differences for the sake of the gospel. But ultimately, his call is for them to press on, walking with and finding joy in Christ no matter what their circumstances.
It’s this point that you can see fleshed out in some of the most popular verses from Philippians, Philippians 1:21 and Philippians 4:13. Paul himself is in prison as he writes these words, but that does not stop him from exhorting the Christians in Philippi to rejoice in the Lord always (Philippians 4:4). Following his example, they are to focus on what is good at all times and therefore experience the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7).
When reading Philippians, these truths can serve as your guide. Knowing the people Paul is writing to and his desires for them brings a deeper meaning to the words on the page and gives us more to work with when we then look to apply those words to our own lives. Through this kind of study, may we grow closer to Jesus and learn to follow Paul’s example of radical joy in the Lord.