Letter to the Philippians: Overview & Chapter 1


Philippians:  Overview and Chapter 1

Let us pray…

Glorious Saint Paul, most zealous apostle,
Martyr for the love of Christ,
Give us a deep faith, a steadfast hope,
A burning love for our Lord,
So that we can proclaim with you,
“It is no longer I who live,
But Christ who lives in me.”

Help us to become apostles,
Serving the Church with a pure heart,
Witnesses to her truth and beauty
Amidst the darkness of our days.
With you we praise God our Father:
“To him be the glory, in the Church
And in Christ, now and forever.”  Amen


Philippians is undoubtedly a letter that Paul actually wrote.  It was on his second missionary journey, about the year 52AD.  He had been urged by the vision of a man in Macedonia to come and help, so he sailed from Alexandrian Troas in Asia Minor.

The story of Paul’s stay in Philippi is told in Acts 16.  Paul is illegally imprisoned because of an encounter with a slave girl with an oracular spirit.  He has to leave the city, but a bond of friendship develops between him and the Philippian community unlike any other (Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series, p. 4-6).


  • A prominent town in the Roman province of Macedonia
  • The Via Egnatia is the road constructed by the Romans in 2nd Century BC. Paul would have used this road when leaving Philippi to Thessalonica.
  • Agricultural plains and gold mines nearby. On those plains Oct 42 BC Antony and Octavian defeated Brutus and Cassius (slayers of Julius Caesar).  Octavian made Philippi a Roman colony
  • Mimicked Rome in having forums, theaters and coinage inscriptions.
  • Strategic site in all of Europe. There is a range of hills which divides Europe from Asia, east from west and just at Philippi there is a dip into a pass.  That city commands the road (Barclay, p.3)
  • First “church” on European soil, birthplace of Western Christianity (Powell, Introducing the New Testament, p. 346).
  • 100 years later, Polycarp speaks of the firmly rooted faith of the Philippians (Brown, An Intro to the New Testament, p. 484).

Structure of Letter

  • Prison letter, possibly from when he was in Rome
  • Divided in 4 parts
    • Thanksgiving
    • Epaphroditus: The Philippians sent him to be a personal servant to Paul, but he got sick and had to go back.  Paul wanted to be sure they knew he wasn’t a quitter and praised him for his work  (while in prison himself!).
    • Encouragement
    • Appeal for Unity
  • At 3:2 there is an extraordinary break in the letter, suggesting the possibility of it being 2 separate letters (some say 3). This may be because of fresh news in Philippi, or simply that it’s a personal letter and those are never logically ordered  (Barclay, p. 7).
  • An upbeat letter, could have been an early Christian hymn. Topics range from friendship, contentment, thanksgiving, peace, joy, unity, spiritual growth, perseverance and the certainty of answered prayer (Powell, p. 343). This community must have been great consolation to Paul to bring up all of these reflections while in prison.

Chapter 1

Greeting and Thanksgiving

In other Pauline letters, Paul has to explain why he is writing or the right he has in writing to them.  Not so with the Philippians because of how well they know each other.  How wonderful to have close spiritual friends!  Do you have any, and what joy do they bring to you?

What of the term slave?  Paul (and Timothy) are bound to Christ Jesus.

Note that Paul calls all of them saints, or holy ones WITH the overseers and ministers.  The Greek for overseer is episkopos, which later came to be a bishop.  The Greek word for minister is diakonoi, which later would be a deacon.  But ALL are holy and called to serve the Lord.

Paul speaks of joy.  The whole point of the letter is I rejoice…do you?  Ask yourself what brings you joy in your faith.  Prayer?  Mass?  Being with others in belief?  Working towards a mission?  Doing what is right?  The person of Jesus?  The free gift of it?  All of this is described in this letter  (Barclay, p. 13-15).

Progress of the Gospel

In Paul’s eyes, all publicity is good publicity!  Whether Christ is preached with bad motives or not, Christ is proclaimed and that is the mission.  The only mission for Paul.  He willingly devotes his life to this man he has never met, except in the risen encounter.  It is the singularity of Paul’s purpose in life that gives him so much passion, hope, courage and strength.  We can learn so much from Paul’s example!

He completely believes and spreads the news of the resurrection.  You can hear his inner conflict that he is at peace with dying because he wants to be in the fullness of God; but, he is happy to stay and help his friends in faith too.  He knows he will help them on the other side of life too.  His conviction is so strong considering how soon this is after Jesus’ death.

Instructions for the Community

In Paul’s mind, oneness in spirit is what holds us strong in our faith.  Paul knows that there will be struggle, but there is also hope in the Lord!  What does this oneness mean?  Richard Rohr uses the term “Oneing,” which he got from Julian of Norwich.  She used this term to describe what was happening between her soul and God, “By myself I am nothing at all, but in general, I AM in the oneing of love.  For it is in this oneing that the life of all people exists,” (Oneing Vol I No I, p. 12).  This oneing can overcome all divisions, dichotomies and dualisms in the world at every level:  personal, relational, social, political, cultural, in inter-religious dialogue and spirituality.  Richard Rohr says it is the unique and central job of healthy religion (re-ligio = to re-ligament!).  What would this oneness look like in your life?  How might it help in your struggles?

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