Overview of the Book of Philippians


Overview of the Book of Philippians

Author: The author is the Apostle Paul.


To thank the Philippians for their solidarity with him while he was in prison and to encourage them to unity and humble service toward each other in Christ.

Date: c. A.D. 61

Key Truths:

  • The gospel of Christ will go forward, even in the face of persecution.
  • Suffering for Christ is a joy and leads to glory for believers.
  • Believers are to display the Gospel in their lives by serving each other in imitation of Christ.
  • Believers are to hold fast to the truth and avoid the extremes of legalism and antinomianism (the belief that the Christian is not subject to the moral law of God).
  • Supporting others in ministry is an important Christian practice.


The author identified himself as Paul (Phil. 1:1). This explicit claim is confirmed by the fact that the early church unanimously attributed this letter to Paul, based on its many personal references and its similarity to the other Pauline writings.

Paul's initial involvement with the Church at Philippi is recorded in Acts 16. Prompted by a vision (Acts 16:6-10), Paul and his colleagues traveled to Philippi (Acts 16:12). During their brief visit, God did mighty works and a church was established (Acts 16:40), Paul's first on European soil. Paul returned on at least two other occasions to strengthen the believers there (Acts 20:1-6; 2 Cor. 2:13).

Time and Place of Writing:

Paul wrote from prison (Phil. 1:12-30), but the location of the imprisonment is uncertain. Some interpreters think he wrote from Ephesus, but Acts 19 says nothing of his being imprisoned during his lengthy Ephesian ministry. It has also been suggested that he wrote this letter during his imprisonment in Caesarea (Acts 23:23-26:32). It is most likely, however, in accordance with long-standing tradition, that Paul wrote Philippians while imprisoned in Rome (Acts 28) and that he did so toward the end of that period, around A.D. 61. Philippians 1:13 and 4:22 accord best with a Roman setting, and the language of Philippians 1:7-26 suggests legal proceedings at the highest level-proceedings that were similar to those Paul faced in Rome. Finally, Acts 28:16-31 (see also Phil. 1:12-14) speaks of Paul's freedom to preach during this confinement.

Original Audience:

The city of Philippi was named for Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great. One reason for its importance is that it lay on the Via Egnatia, the main road between the eastern provinces and Rome. As a Roman colony populated in part by retired Roman soldiers, its inhabitants enjoyed the privileges of Roman citizenship. The absence of Old Testament quotations and Jewish names indicates that the church of Philippi was largely Gentile.

Purpose and Distinctives:

Paul wrote this letter to express both joy and concern. The epistle rings with gratitude for the way God was carrying forward his saving work among the Philippians and for the special bond that existed between Paul and his readers. At the same time, there is a gravity to the letter. The Philippians faced persecution (Phil.1:27-30) and pressures from false teachings (Phil. 3:2-21). Moreover, conflicts within the Church jeopardized the ministry in Philippi (Phil. 1:27-2:18; 4:2-3). Paul wrote both to convey his joy and to give instruction to the Philippian believers. He focused particularly on the following topics:

  • (1) Paul's Affection for His Readers. This epistle amply attests to the special bond of love Paul felt toward the Philippians (Phil. 1:3-8; 4:10-19). They had been faithful in their support of Paul's ministry, and their willingness to suffer with him for Christ's sake was a source of encouragement for Paul.

  • (2) Joy. Despite the circumstances of his imprisonment, Paul's letter resounds with the theme of joy. Different expressions point to joy at least 16 times in the letter. Paul's joyfulness stemmed largely from the faithfulness of the Philippians, and he wanted the same for them as an antidote to all anxiety (Phil. 4:4-7).

  • (3) The Example of Christ's Humility. Philippians focuses much on the humble state of Jesus' incarnation. The majestic "hymn to Christ" (Phil. 2:6-11) offers a model for believers. In his preincarnate state, Christ Jesus was "in very nature God" (Phil. 2:6). Nevertheless, he took the form of a slave and made himself nothing by taking on human nature and subjecting himself to his own creatures. Yet even in this state of humiliation, Christ did not cease being fully divine. See "Jesus Christ, God and Man: How Can a Man Be God?."

  • (4) Justification by Grace Through Faith. Against those who enjoined obedience to the Old Testament law as a condition for meriting salvation, Paul stressed that God has willed for his people to be saved by receiving his righteousness rather than by striving to establish their own. Although Paul had been scrupulous in his obedience to the law, he came to realize that his confidence in such obedience was a great sin, for it kept him from trusting God. Paul viewed his former boasting with disgust (Phil. 3:7-8) and embraced Christ alone as his source of confidence (Phil. 3:3, 9).

  • (5) The Christian Life. This epistle is filled with instruction on practical Christianity. Just as Christ became a servant, so also the Christian becomes the servant of Christ (Phil. 1:1). Only the person enslaved to Christ is free to love and serve others (Phil. 2:3-5).
Paul stressed the importance of identification with Christ in his death and resurrection. As with Christ, the believer's suffering is the prelude to resurrection (Phil. 3:10-11). For the present, it is in the midst of the ongoing struggle that the Christian experiences joy and empowerment (Phil. 3:10; 4:13).

Paul highlighted the importance of striving toward the goal of final salvation. Confident in God's calling, the apostle pushed forward toward the heavenly prize (Phil. 3:13-14). Only as Christians work do they realize that God is working in them (Phil. 2:12-13). Human effort is precisely the area in which the power of God is manifested.

Notes from the NIV Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, Dr. Richard Pratt, ed. (Zondervan, 2003).

Introduction Material:

The Epistles of the New Testament


Copyright, Authors, and Theological Editors of the SORSB

Answer by Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr.

Dr. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. is Co-Founder and President of Third Millennium Ministries who served as Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary and has authored numerous books.