Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi is one of the four so-called “prison epistles,” penned while he was imprisoned at Rome. (He was there because of his legal appeal to Caesar, Acts 25:9-12). Philippi was located in eastern Macedonia (modern -day northern Greece), a mountainous region known for its poverty (cf. 2 Corinthians 8:1-3). Paul had experienced notable success with the gospel while there (Acts 16:9-40), even though he and Silas had been falsely arrested and imprisoned.
Unlike most of Paul’s letters, there are no words of correction or condemnation in this letter; instead, it is filled with love, gratitude for the faithfulness of the Philippian saints, and encouragement to “press on” (chapter 3:14) in the Christian life. The late brother Avon Malone often outlined the book of Philippians as follows:
- The Christian’s purpose, chapter 1:21
- The Christian’s pattern, chapter 2:5f
- The Christian’s prize, chapter 3:13-14
- The Christian’s provision, chapter 4:13.
Four important facts stand out in chapter one, beginning with Paul’s declaration in verse 6 that the Philippian Christians were not “alone” or “on their own” as they struggled to grow in the faith and conquer sin. He credits God with having begun (initiated, started) the “good work” (beneficial, or useful task) within them, and uses this fact as the basis for his confidence (conviction, certainty) that God will complete what He had begun in them (finish, see through to its end). As we read through the book of Philippians, it is obvious that their growth in the faith gave Paul plenty of reason for such confidence!
The exhortation for the Philippians to “approve” things that are “excellent” stands out in verse 10. These words are important because they teach us to be “discriminating” saints (but not in the sense of excluding others, such as on the basis of race or gender). The point of Paul’s words here is for the Philippians to learn to recognize that some actions or motives are superior to others because they mirror those of God Himself. The word “approve” means to examine closely, to put to the test. Christians should not accept a doctrine “at face value,” but measure against God’s word, to see if it agrees. “Excellent” things are ideas, doctrines, actions, or teachings that have greater value – which are more useful or more important – because they agree with the bible (cf. Matthew 6:26).
Verses 21-23 reveal an attitude about life in the present world that many people (even some Christians) find “uncomfortable.” Paul is not embracing the idea of dying for dying’s sake (he was not suicidal or depressed!): Rather, he is showing the Philippians that his ultimate goal in this life did not lie in this world. Like Paul, each of us needs to realize that our purpose as Christians reaches beyond our existence here, into eternity! This is why he would later write of his own accounting of what it “cost” him to be faithful to the Lord (chapter 3:7-11).
Last, in Philippians 1:27, Paul urges these Christians to live so that their lives would “complement” the gospel (be consistent with it). James would later write about those who are of “two minds” (James 1:8), and Jesus had forcefully and repeatedly challenged the Pharisees about their hypocrisy (Matthew 23). Paul’s appeal here is simple and direct; “live up to the standard of what you hope to receive in heaven!”