New Testament Introduction

Louis Berkhof

The Epistle to the Philippians


In the Epistle to the Philippians we may distinguish five parts:

I. Pauls Account of his Condition, 1: 1-26. The apostle addresses the Philippians in the usual way, 1, 2; and then informs them of his gratitude for their participation in the work of the Gospel, of his prayer for their increase in spiritual strength and labor, of the fact that even his imprisonment was instrumental in spreading the Gospel, and of his personal feelings and desires, 3-26.

II. His Exhortation to Imitate Christ, 1: 27—2:18. He exhorts the Philippians to strive after unity by exercising the necessary self-denial, 1: 27—2: 4; points them to the pattern of Christ, who humiliated himself and was glorified by God, 2: 5-11; and expresses his desire that they follow the example of their Lord, 12-18.

III. In formation respecting Paul’s Efforts in behalf of the Philippians, 2:19-30. He intends to send Timotheus to them that he may know of their condition, and therefore commends this worthy servant of Christ to them, 19-23; and though he trusted that he himself would come shortly he now sends Epaphroditus back to them, and bespeaks a good reception for him, 24-30.

IV. Warnings against Judaeism and Antinomian Error, 3:1-21. The apostle warns his readers against Judaeistic zealots that boasted in the flesh, pointed to his own example in renouncing his fleshly prerogatives that he might gain Christ and experience the power of His resurrection, and in striving after perfection, 1:15. By way of contrast this induces him to warn them also for the example of those whose lives are worldly and licentious, 16-21.

V. Final Exhortations and Acknowledgment, 4:1-23. He urges the Philippians to avoid all dissension, 1-3; exhorts them to joyfulness, freedom from care, and the pursuit of all good things, 4-9; gratefully acknowledges their gifts, invoking a blessing on their love, 10-20; and closes his Epistle with salutation and benediction, 21-23.


1. The Epistle to the Philippians is one of the most personal of Paul’s letters, resembling in that respect II Corinthians. It has been called the most letter-like of all the writings of Paul, and may be compared in this respect with I Thessalonians and Philemon. The personal note is very marked throughout the Epistle. There is not much dogma, and what little is found is introduced for practical purposes. This holds true even with reference to the classical passage in 2:6-11. The apostle, with the prospect of an early martyrdom before him, yet not without hope of a speedy release, opens his heart to his most beloved congregation. He speaks of the blessings that attend his labors at Rome, of the strait in which he finds himself, and expresses his desire to remain with them. He manifests his love for the Philippians, shows himself concerned for their spiritual welfare, and expresses his profound gratitude for their support. Though in bonds, he rejoices, and bids the readers be joyful. The tone of joyous gratitude rings through the entire Epistle.

2. The letter is in no sense a controversial one. There are in it no direct polemics; there is very little that has to any degree a polemical character. The apostle warns against errorists that are without the church, but might disturb its peace, and forestalls their attacks; he hints at dissensions, most likely of a practical nature, in the congregation, and admonishes the readers to be peaceful and self-denying; but he never once assumes a polemical attitude, like he does in Corinthians or Galatians. Stronger still, the Epistle is singularly free from all denunciation and reproof; it is written throughout in a lauditory spirit. The apostle finds little to chide and much to praise in the Philippian church.

3. The address of the Epistle is peculiar in that it names not only, “the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi,” but adds, “with the bishops and deacons.” In that respect it stands in a class by itself. The greetings at the end of the Epistle are also unique. On the one hand they are very general, while, on the other, “the household of Caesar” is singled out for special mention.

4. As to style, Alford reminds us, that this letter, like all those in which Paul writes with fervor, “is discontinuous and abrupt, passing rapidly from one theme to another; full of earnest exhortation, affectionate warnings, deep and wonderful settings-forth of his individual spiritual condition and feelings, of the state of the Christian and of the sinful world, of the loving councils of our Father respecting us, and the self-sacrifice and triumph of our Redeemer.” Prolegomena Sec. IV. There are constant expressions of affection, such as ἀγαπητοί andἀδελφοἰ. Notice especially 4:1, “Therefore my brethren, my dearly beloved and longed for, my joy and crown, so stand fast in the Lord, my dearly beloved.”


The Pauline authorship of this Epistle is established as well as anything can be. We probably find the first reference to it in the epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians, where we read: “The glorious Paul who, being personally among you, taught you exactly and surely the word of truth; who also, being absent, wrote you letters (or, a letter) which you have only to study to be edified in the faith that has been given you.” The passage does not necessarily refer to more than one letter. Our Epistle formed a part of Marcions collection, is mentioned in the Muratorian canon, is found in the Syriac and old Latin Versions, and is quoted by Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian and many others.

And this testimony of antiquity is clearly borne out by the evidence furnished by the Epistle itself. It is self-attested and has, at the beginning, the usual Pauline blessing and thanksgiving. Above all, however, it is like II Corinthians in that the personality of the apostle is so strongly stamped on it as to leave little room for doubt. The historical circumstances which the Epistle presupposes, the type of thought which it contains, the language in which it is couched, and the character which it reveals,—it is all Pauline.

The evidence in its favor is so strong that its authenticity has been generally admitted, even by radical critics. Of course, Baur and the majority of his school rejected it, but even Hilgenfeld, Julicher and Pfleiderer accept it as Pauline. The great majority of New Testament scholars regard the objections of Baur as frivolous, as f. i. that the mention of bishops and deacons points to a post-Pauline stage of ecclesiastical organization; that there is no originality in the Epistle; that it contains evident traces of Gnosticism; that the doctrine of justification which it sets forth is not that of Paul; and that the Epistle aims at reconciling the opposing parties of the second century, typified by Euodia and Syntyche.

Of late Holsten has taken up the cudgels against the genuineness of this letter. Dismissing several of the arguments of Baur as irrelevant, he bases his attack especially on the Christological and Soteriological differences that he discerns between this Epistle and the other writings of Paul. The most important points to which he refers are these: (1) The idea of the pre-existent Christ in 2: 6-11 does not agree with that found in I Cor. 15 : 45-49. According to the first passage the manhood of Christ begins with his incarnation; according to the second, He was even in his pre-existence “a heavenly man.” (2) There is a glaring contradiction between 3 : 6, where the writer says that he was blameless as touching the righteousness which is in the law, and Rom. 7: 21, where the apostle declares:—when I would do good, evil is present.” (3) The doctrine of forensic, imputed righteousness is replaced by that of an infused righteousness in 3: 9-11. (4) The writer shows a singular indifference to the objective truth of his Gospel in 1: 15-18, an attitude which compares strangely with that of Paul in II Cor. 11:1-4, and especially in Gal. 1: 8, 9.

But these objections are not of sufficient weight to disprove the Pauline authorship. In I Cor. 15 the apostle does not speak of the pre-existent Christ, but of Christ as he will appear at the parousia in a glorified body. With what Paul says in 3: 6 we may compare Gal. 1: 14. In both places he speaks of himself from the standpoint of the Jew who regards the law merely as an external carnal commandment. From that point of view he might consider himself blameless, but it was quite different, if he contemplated the law in its deep spiritual sense. It is not true that Paul substitutes an infused for an imputed righteousness in this Epistle. He clearly speaks of the latter in 2: 9, and then by means of an infinitive of purpose passes on to speak of the subjective righteousness of life. The persons spoken of in 1:15-18 are not said to preach a Gospel different from that of the apostle; they preached Christ, but from impure motives. Hence they can not be compared with the adversaries of whom Paul speaks in Corinthians and Galatians. To these he probably refers in 3: 2. Schurer says: “The arguments of Holsten are such that one might sometimes believe them due to a slip of the pen.”


The city of Philippi was formerly called Crenides, and derived its later name from Philip, the king of Macedonia, who rebuilt it and made it a frontier city between his kingdom and Thrace. It was situated on the river Gangites and on the important Egnatian highway that connected the Adriatic with the Hellespont. After the defeat of his enemies Octavius about 42 B. C. determined on Philippi as one of the places, where Roman soldiers who had served their time were to dwell. He constituted it a Roman colony, with the special privilege of the jus Italicum, which included ”(1) exemption from the oversight of the provincial governors; (2) immunity from the poll and property taxes; and (3) right to property in the soil regulated by Roman law.” These privileges, no doubt, attracted many colonists, so that Philippi soon became a city of considerable size. It is described in Acts 16:12 as, “the chief city of that part of Macedonia and a colony.”

To that city Paul first came, when about the year 52, in obedience to the vision of the Macedonian man, he passed from Asia into Europe. This was in harmony with his general policy of preaching in the main centers of the Roman empire. Apparently the Jews were not numerous in Philippi: there was no synagogue, so that the small band of Jews and proselytes simply repaired to the river side for prayer; and one of the charges brought against Paul and Silas was that they were Jews. At the place of prayer the missionaries addressed the assembled women, and were instrumental in converting Lydia who, with characteristic generosity, immediately received them in her house. We read no more of the blessings that crowned their labors there, but find that on their departure there was a company of brethren to whom they spoke words of comfort.

Little can be said regarding the composition of the Philippian church. In the narrative of its founding we find no specific mention of Jews, although the assembly by the river points to their presence. However the fact that there was no synagogue, and that the enemies contemptuously emphasized the Jewish nationality of the missionaries leads us to think that they were few and greatly despised. It may be that those who did live there had, under the pressure of their environment, already lost many of their distinctive features. The presumption is that some of them accepted the teaching of Paul and Silas, but we cannot tell how large a proportion of the church they formed. In all probability they were a small minority and caused no friction in the congregation. Paul does not even refer to them in his letter, much less condemn their Jewish tenets, like he does the errors of the false brethren at Corinth and in the Galatian churches. The adversaries of whom he speaks in 3: 2 were evidently outside of the church. On the whole the Philippian church was an ideal one, consisting of warmhearted people, diligent in the work of the Lord, and faithfully devoted to their apostle.


1. Occasion and Purpose. The immediate occasion of this Epistle was a contribution brought by Epaphroditus from the Philippian church. They had often sent the apostle similar tokens of their love (cf. 4:15, 16; II Cor. 11:9), and now, after they had for some time lacked the opportunity to communicate with him, 4:10, they again ministered to his wants. From over-exertion in the work of Gods Kingdom their messenger was taken sick at Rome. On his recovery Paul immediately sends him back to Philippi, in order to allay all possible fears as to his condition; and utilizes this opportunity to send the Philippians a letter.

His purpose in writing this Epistle was evidently fourfold. In the first place he desired to express his gratitude for the munificence of the Philippians, especially because it testified to the abundance of their faith. In the second place he wished to give utterance to his sincere love for the Philippian church that constituted his crown in the Lord. In the third place he felt it incumbent on him to warn them against the dangers that were present within the fold, and the enemies that were threatening them from without. Apparently there was some dissension in the church, 1: 27—2:17; 4: 2, 3, but, in all probability this was not of a doctrinal character, but rather consisted of personal rivalries and divisions among some of the church members. In 3 : 2 the apostle most likely referred to the Judaeizing Christians that traveled about to make proselytes, and also threatened the church of Philippi. Finally he desires to exhort his most beloved church to be joyful, notwithstanding his imprisonment, and to lead a truly Christian life.

2. Time and Place. Like the Epistle to the Ephesians that to the Philippians was written at Rome. While several scholars assign the former to the Caesarean captivity, very few refer the latter to that period. The apostles evident residing in some great center of activity, the many friends that surrounded him, his joyful expectation of being set free soon, his mention of the pr~torium, 1:13, which may be the praetorian guard (so most commentators), or the supreme imperial court (so Mommsen and Ramsay), and the greetings of Caesars household,—all point to Rome.

The Epistle was written, therefore, between the years 61-63. The only remaining question is, whether it was composed before or after the other three Epistles of the captivity. The prevailing view is that Philippians is the last of the group. This view is supported by the following arguments: (1) The apostles words in 1: 12 seem to imply that a long period of imprisonment has already elapsed. (2) A rather long time was required in the communications between Rome and Philippi indicated in the letter. The Philippians had heard of Pauls imprisonment, had sent Epaphroditus to Rome, had heard of the latters illness there, and of this their messenger, in turn, had received intelligence. Four journeys are, therefore, implied. (3) Paul anticipates that his case will soon come up for decision, and although uncertain as to the outcome, he somewhat expects a speedy release. These arguments are not absolutely conclusive, but certainly create a strong presumption in favor of dating the Epistle after the other three.

Bleek was inclined to regard Philippians as the earliest of the Epistles of the captivity. This view found a strong defender in Lightfoot, who is followed by Farrar in his St. Paul. Lightfoot defends his position by pointing to the similarity of this Epistle to Romans, which implies, according to him, that it immediately follows this in order of time; and to the fact that in this Epistle we have the last trace of Paul’s Judaeistic controversy, while in Ephesians and Cobssians he begins to deal with an incipient Gnosticism, and his teachings respecting the Church bear a close resemblance and are intimately related to the views presented in the pastorals. These Epistles, therefore, represent a further developmnt in the doctrine of the Church. But these proofs do not carry conviction, since the character of Paul’s Epistles was not necessarily determined by the order in which they were written, and the apostle did not write as one who is presenting his system of thought to the world in successive letters. His Epistles were called forth and determined by special situations. And the question may be asked, whether it seems plausible that any considerable development of doctrine should take place within the course of at most a year and a half.


The Epistle to the Philippians is not quoted as much as some of the preceding ones, which is probably due to the fact that it contains little doctrinal matter. Notwithstanding this its canonicity is well established. There are traces of its language in Clement of Rome and Ignatius. Polycarp, addressing the Philippians, speaks more than once of Pauls writing to them. The Epistle to Diognetus, Justin Martyr and Theophilus contain references to our letter. In the Epistle of the churches of Vienne and Lyons Phil. 2: 6 is quoted. Marcion has it and the Muratorian canon speaks of it. And it is often directly quoted and ascribed to Paul by Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian.

Though the Epistle is primarily of a practical nature, it has also great and abiding dogmatic significance. It contains the classical passage on the important doctrine of the kenosis of Christ, 2:6-11. Aside from this, however, its great permanent value is of a practical character. It reveals to us the ideal relation between Paul and his Philippian church, a relation such as the church of God should constantly seek to realize: he, sedulously seeking to promote the spiritual welfare of those entrusted to his care, even in a time of dire distress; and they, though possessing no great wealth, willingly and lovingly ministering to the natural wants of their beloved apostle. It points us to Christ as the pattern of that self-denial and humiliation that should always characterize his followers. It comes to us with the grand exhortation, enforced by the example of the great apostle, to press forward for “the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” And finally it pictures us the Christian satisfied and joyful, even when the shades of night are falling.