Introduction to Philippians

The City of Philippi and the Founding of the Church

The Location and History of the City

Philippi was located in the Roman province of Macedonia about ten miles north of the shores of the Aegean Sea. (Note: The ancient city of Philippi was situated in what today is that portion of northern Greece that extends across the southern border of Bulgaria.) The city, originally called Krenides (“Little Fountains”), was re-named for Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. About the year 358 B.C. Philip enlarged the old town and fortified it in order to protect the frontiers against invaders from Thrace (modern day Bulgaria.) At that time he named it after himself, calling it “Philippi,” in commemoration of the addition of a new province to his empire (J. Eadie, p. xiv.)

The city’s natural advantages were considerable. In the vicinity were gold and silver mines that had been worked in very early times by the Phoenicians. (Note: By the time the Apostle Paul visited the city its mineral wealth was almost, if not completely, drained.) In addition to its mining operations, the plain on which the city was situated, washed by the waters of the Gangites River, was remarkable for its fertility. But that which was most significant about the city was its geographical position, commanding the great high road between Europe and Asia. The almost continuous mountain barrier between the East and West is depressed in this region so as to form a gateway for intercourse between these two great continents. It was this advantage of strategic geographical position that led Philip to fortify the site (J.B. Lightfoot, pp. 47-48.)

Philippi came under Roman rule about 168 B.C. when the province of Macedonia was subjugated by the expanding Roman Empire. In 42 B.C. the city was made a Roman colony in honor of the victory of Antony and Octavian over the forces of Brutus and Cassius, thereby avenging the assassination of Julius Caesar (F. Davidson, p. 1031.) A Roman colony was described by one ancient writer as a miniature likeness of the great Roman people. Indeed, the political atmosphere of Philippi was thoroughly Roman. The chief magistrates assumed the lofty Roman title of praetors (the literal translation of the term found in Acts 16:19.) The city’s pride in its distinguished status as a Roman colony is also evidenced in the charge that was brought against Paul and Silas: “These men … (are) advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice” (Acts 16:20-21.) But, as we learn from Acts 16:37-39, it was also the citizens’ commitment to Roman law that enabled Paul and Silas to obtain redress from their unlawful imprisonment and demand an apology from the chief magistrates (J.B. Lightfoot, pp. 51-52.)

The Gospel Comes to Philippi

While on his second missionary journey, Paul received his “Macedonian vision” (Acts 16:6-10.) During this great missionary venture, the apostle and his companions had traveled through a large portion of Asia Minor, and, according to Acts 16:7, they now intended to bring the gospel to the northwestern part of that region, namely, Bithynia (located in what is today northern Turkey.) But, as Acts 16:7 goes on to report, the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to do so. Therefore, they journeyed westward, arriving at the seaport of Troas (located in modern day Turkey on the eastern shores of the Aegean Sea.) That night, in a vision, Paul was confronted by a man from Macedonia who implored the apostle to come over and help them (Acts 16:9.) Concluding that God had now called them to preach the gospel in the Roman province of Macedonia, Paul and his companions set sail across the Aegean, landing at the port of Neapolis. The next day they traveled to Philippi (Acts 16:10-12.) Thus it was that, through the Apostle Paul’s ministry at Philippi, the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ came to Europe.

As E. Harrison points out (p. 319), Philippi presented a somewhat unusual situation in that Jews were too few in number to have a synagogue. (As Luke, the writer of Acts, reports [Acts 16:13,] “On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer.”) For the most part, the Christian community that came into being in Philippi was composed of Gentile converts. (The names mentioned in the Epistle are Gentile, mostly of Greek origin, such as Epaphroditus, Euodia, and Syntyche.) It is significant that Luke makes no mention of opposition from Jewish sources, in contrast to the usual experience of the missionaries, and what they would soon encounter on their next stop in the city of Thessalonica (see Acts 17:1-9.)

In addition to it being mainly composed of Gentiles, another notable characteristic of the Philippian congregation was its loving devotion to the Apostle Paul, a devotion demonstrated by their financial support. Paul gives thanks to God for the Philippians’ partnership with him in the gospel “from the first day until now” (Phil. 1:3-5.) He fondly brings to their attention the fact that in the early days of their acquaintance with the gospel, when he set out from the province of Macedonia, not one church shared with him in the matter or giving and receiving, except the Philippian congregation (Phil. 4:15.) Even when he was in Thessalonica, they sent him aid again and again when he was in need (Phil. 4:16.) Their generosity was not merely the overflow of their abundant prosperity; on the contrary, it was an expression of their loving devotion to Christ and their heartfelt appreciation for the apostle’s ministry of the gospel. Far from being wealthy, the churches of Macedonia (of which the Philippian congregation was one) are described as exhibiting “rich generosity” despite “their extreme poverty” (2 Cor. 8:1-2.)

One further observation to be made about the Philippian congregation is its diversity. The two converts who are especially mentioned in Acts 16 stand in marked contrast to each other. In the relations of everyday life they have nothing in common: the one (Lydia) is a wealthy business woman, the owner of a prestigious business; the other (the jailor), is a low ranking civil servant, conversant with, and no doubt having been hardened by, the most degraded elements of society. Yet, both of them have come to Christ, albeit in strikingly different ways. Now, together with their households, they are numbered among “the saints in Christ Jesus that are at Philippi” (Phil. 1:1.)

The Occasion and Purpose of the Epistle

The Apostle in Roman Custody

When Paul was brought before the new governor of the province of Judea, Porcius Festus, he appealed his case to Caesar (Acts 25:9-11.) This was his right as a Roman citizen. Festus, being obligated to grant the request, declared, “You have appealed to Caesar; to Caesar you will go” (Acts 25:12.) Acts 27 narrates the apostle’s journey to Rome in the custody of a Roman centurion. Upon his arrival in Rome, Paul was delivered over to the commander of the imperial guards (the prefect of the praetorians), under whose charge he would remain for the duration of his captivity.

As J.B. Lightfoot points out (p. 7), the degree of restraint put upon a prisoner was determined by various considerations: the nature of the charge brought against him; the rank and reputation of the accused; the degree of guilt presumed against him. Those prisoners who were deemed worthy of lenient treatment were handed over to their friends who were willing to become surety for the prisoner and guarantee his appearance at trial. Those prisoners who were considered too dangerous or too untrustworthy to be dealt with by the lenient form of captivity, were thrown into prison and loaded down with chains. The former type of confinement described above was known as custodia libera; the latter was called custodia militaris (J.J. Muller, p. 23.)

Based upon the record provided in Acts 28, the Apostle Paul’s custody was rather unique: it was more severe than the usual custodia libera, but it was not as severe as the custodia militaris. We read in Acts 28:16 that Paul was permitted to live by himself, in his own rented house (28:30), with a soldier to guard him. This condition continued for two full years, during which time he was permitted to entertain guests and was free to preach and teach without hindrance (28:30-31.) Apparently, because Paul had been delivered to them by the governor of Judea, the Roman authorities hesitated to place too much confidence in this unknown stranger. At the same time, in light of the non-violent charge against him, and perhaps the positive testimony of the centurion who delivered him to Rome, the authorities saw no reason to subject him to custodia militaris.

It was during these years of his Roman captivity that the Apostle Paul wrote the four New Testament Epistles that have become known as “The Prison Epistles.” Some prefer to describe them as “The Captivity Epistles,” since Paul was in detention at the time of writing, but not necessarily confined to prison (as noted above.) These four Epistles include Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, and Philippians. Of these four Epistles, the first three are so closely linked together that they must be assigned the same time of writing, namely, during the two-year period of Paul’s “house arrest.” Both Ephesians and Colossians indicate that the apostle had some degree of liberty, as he requests prayer that he may make the most of his opportunities to proclaim the gospel (Eph. 6:19-20; Col. 4:3-4.)

It is clear from Colossians 4:7 and Ephesians 6:21 that Tychicus was the messenger designated to carry these two epistles to their respective destinations in Asia Minor. Moreover, from Colossians 4:9 we learn that Tychicus had as a companion on this journey a certain man named Onesimus. (Note: Onesimus had been a runaway slave who was converted to Christ while in Rome and who was now returning to his master, Philemon, who was a member of the church in Colossae.) Since in his epistle to Philemon the apostle informs him that he is sending Onesimus back, and that Philemon should receive him as a brother in Christ, it becomes evident that all three of these Epistles (Ephesians, Colossians and Philemon) were dispatched from Rome at the same time.

But the case is different with the Epistle to the Philippians. As Paul describes his present circumstances to the Philippian congregation he indicates that, while many others are preaching the gospel, he is not free to do so (1:12-18a.) Furthermore, Paul anticipates that his case is soon to come to trial for a final verdict. He is quite confident that it will result in his release (1:25-26), but he does not dismiss the possibility that the final outcome may be martyrdom (2:17-18.)

What may account for this change in the apostle’s circumstance? A change from a very mild form of incarceration to a much more restrictive and severe form, one in which he appears to be confined in the praetorian precinct? Some have suggested that the change in circumstance is due to the fact that Paul’s trial was now imminent. But this does not seem to provide a satisfactory answer. Why would a prisoner need to be confined to a much more restrictive imprisonment simply because his trial was about to begin, especially if the anticipated outcome was acquittal and release?

Perhaps the change of circumstance was due to events that took place within the Roman government at this time. According to J.B. Lightfoot (pp. 5-6), events occurred in Rome that shock society to its foundation. The political horizon was growing darker every day. These events were set in motion by the death of the emperor Nero’s most trusted advisor, Burrus, the prefect of the praetorian guard. This “noble Roman” was replaced in the office of prefect by Tigellinus, a man who would become known for his cruelty and licentiousness. Furthermore, with the death of Burrus, the wise influence at court of the Roman philosopher, Seneca, was severely curtailed. No longer restrained by the influence and guidance of Burrus and Seneca, Nero’s guilty career began to escalate out of control. There would soon come his divorce from Octavia; then the cruel and shameless Poppea would become the emperor’s escort. As Lightfoot states it, “With a strange inconsistency of character, that would atone for profligate living by a fervor of religious devotion … [Poppea] had become a proselyte of Judaism, and more than once advocated the cause of her adopted race before the emperor with zeal and success.” These changes of circumstance in the Roman court may account for the change of circumstance in the apostle’s confinement, as well as his apprehension that the final outcome of his trial might, indeed, be martyrdom.

Re-constructing the Occasion for Writing the Epistle

Based on the biblical data, we may tentatively re-construct the reason for which the apostle wrote the Epistle to the Philippians as follows: The Philippian church received word of the apostle’s imprisonment at Rome. Apparently, by the time they received the news Paul had already been transferred to the more restrictive and severe form of confinement. This news stirred the Philippians’ concern for Paul and they therefore determined to send him aid by the hand of one of their own members, Epaphroditus. The church not only commissioned Epaphroditus to deliver their gift to the apostle; they also instructed him to remain with Paul at Rome and minister to him in any way he could.

Upon receiving the Philipians’ gift and the gracious service of Epaphroditus, Paul determined to send back to the church a message of gratitude and appreciation. We may conjecture that he did so by means of a personal letter, (in distinction from the New Testament Epistle of Philippians), in all probability to be delivered by one of his companions who were with him at Rome, (maybe Luke, who would have been very familiar with the Philippian congregation, having been there with the apostle on his initial visit to their city.) Before the messenger departed for Philippi, however, Epaphroditus became gravely ill. Thus, the messenger now conveyed to the Philippian church not only the apostle’s gratitude for their gift, but also informed them of the condition of their beloved brother, Epaphroditus.

This news caused the congregation to become greatly distressed for the welfare of their brother. Upon returning to Rome, the messenger notified Paul and Epaphroditus of the great concern expressed by the Philippian congregation over Epaphroditus’ condition. This in turn caused Ephphroditus to become greatly concerned over the anxiety and grief his beloved brethren back in Philippi were now experiencing. Consequently, the Apostle Paul determined it best to send Epaphroditus back to Philippi, exhorting the church to receive him and honor him who had risked his very life for the cause of Christ (Phil. 2:25-30.) No doubt Epaphroditus himself was the bearer of this epistle to the church at Philippi.

In addition to reporting the church’s concern over the welfare of their brother, Epaphroditus, the unknown messenger also reported some other matters that had arisen in the congregation and that were of concern. Now, in addressing his epistle to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul takes the opportunity to address these other issues.

First, he exhorts the church to practice Christian unity. A spirit of strife had sprung up in the church; there were no open feuds or factions (as was the case in the Corinthian church), but there was a dispute involving two devout Christian women (Phil. 4:2-3.) The apostle takes this opportunity to address this matter and to urge reconciliation. At the very outset of the epistle he introduces the theme of Christian unity: he offers prayer and thanksgiving for all; he looks upon all the Philippian Christians as fellow partakers with him of the grace of God; his heart yearns for all of them in Christ Jesus (1:3-8.) He goes on to entreat them to “stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel” (1:27.) He implores them by all their deepest Christian experiences to be “like-minded,” doing nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit; but, rather, each viewing themselves as servants of the others (2:1-4.) The apostle then proceeds to present to the church “the mind of Christ” as it was exhibited in His self-renouncing humility, and he urges them to bring their own attitude into conformity with that of Christ (2:5-11.) Toward the close of the epistle he once more returns to this subject and addresses the two ladies, Euodia and Syntyche, directly and requests a fellow believer, Syzygus, to aid them in reconciling.

Second, in writing this epistle to the Philippians, the apostle seeks to encourage the church in the midst of adversity. The Philippian Christians were experiencing a great deal of suffering for their allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ in the city that was a microcosm of the imperial capital that gave its allegiance to Caesar. Now, in addition to their own suffering, they receive word that their beloved Paul has been imprisoned in the capital city of Rome. In the face of such discouraging circumstances they may have feared that the pagan empire of Rome would have the ultimate victory. Thus it is that the Apostle Paul joyfully informs them that the things that have happened to him have actually served to advance the gospel (1:12-21.) He also explains to them that the unusual degree of suffering they are presently experiencing is, in fact, a gracious gift from God, and the faithful endurance of it supplies them with an exceptional measure of assurance that they belong to Christ and partake of His ultimate victory (1:28-30.)

Third, the apostle takes this opportunity to remind the church as to both the means and the purpose of our salvation, doing so in order safeguard them against the various forms of false teaching with which they may be confronted (3:1-4:1.) His main concern is to warn the church against the possible arrival of legalistic Judaic heresy (3:2-11.) Such heretical teaching, propagated by zealous legalistic Jews and originating from Jerusalem, had followed the apostle throughout his missionary labors. Although there was only a negligible Jewish presence in Philippi, there were sizable Jewish communities in Thessalonica and Berea. Should these heretical teachers venture into these centers, where Jews had accepted Jesus the Messiah and Christian congregations had been formed, and seek to dissuade the new converts from the faith, they might well venture over to Philippi as well. The other error against which the apostle seeks to safeguard the church is anti-nomianism; the false understanding of the gospel that entertains the notion that salvation by grace implies a freedom to continue to practice a lifestyle of sin without suffering the consequence of judgment. The apostle urges the believers to press on in their Christian faith toward the goal of spiritual maturity (3:1-21; note, also, 2:12-16.)


Davidson, F.; “Philippians,” The New Bible Commentary, Edited by Prof. F. Davidson; The Inter-Varsity Fellowship, London, Reprinted October 1967.

Eadie, John; A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Epistle of Paul to the Philippians; James & Klock Christian Publishing, Minneapolis MN, 1977 Reprint.

Guthrie, Donald; New Testament Introduction; Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove IL, Eighth American Printing, January 1979.

Harrison, Everett F.; Introduction to the New Testament; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI, 1964 (Third printing, October 1968.)

Lightfoot, J.B.; St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians; Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids MI, 1953 Reprint.

Luter, A. Boyd, Jr.; “Philippians,” Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, Edited by Walter A. Elwell; Baker Book House, Grand Rapids MI, 1989.