Chapter 6:<B> </B>The Letter to the Philippians

The Story of the New Testament
by Edgar J. Goodspeed

Chapter 6:<B> </B>The Letter to the Philippians

Paul was a prisoner. His liberty was at an end. On the eve of a new missionary campaign in Spain and the West he had been arrested in Jerusalem and after a long detention sent under guard to Rome for trial. At the height of his efficiency the arm of the Roman Empire halted his career and changed the history of western Christianity before it was begun.

It would be difficult to overestimate the bitterness of Paul’s disappointment. The great task of preaching the new gospel in western lands must go undone, or be left to men of far less power and vision, while the one man in all the world fittest for the task wore out his years in a dull and meaningless imprisonment. So it seems to us, and so at least at times it must have seemed to Paul.

Yet in his prison Paul had certain compensations. He could at least talk of the gospel to his guards, and through them reach a wider circle with his message. And he could keep in touch with his old friends and even make new ones by means of an occasional letter to Colossae or Philippi.

The first church Paul had founded in Europe was in the Macedonian city of Philippi, and the Philippians were among his oldest and truest friends. They did not forget him in his imprisonment. Hardly had his guards brought him to Rome when a man arrived from Philippi with funds for Paul’s needs and the evident intention of staying with him to the end, whatever it might be. Nothing could have been more loyal or more practical. Ancient prisoners even more than modern ones needed money if their lot was not to be intolerably hard; and the presence at Rome of one more man to supply Paul’s wants and do his errands must have been a great convenience to the apostle.

Unfortunately this man fell sick. Rome was never a healthful city, and we can easily imagine that his first summer there may have been too much for the Philippian Epaphroditus. His sickness of course interrupted his usefulness to Paul; indeed, it proved so serious and even dangerous that it greatly added to Paul’s anxieties. When at length Epaphroditus recovered it was decided that he ought to return to Philippi, and to explain his return to the Philippians and make fresh acknowledgment of their generous behavior. Paul wrote the letter that has immortalized them.

Paul had of course long since reported to the Philippians the arrival of Epaphroditus and acknowledged the gift he had brought. The news of Epaphroditus’ illness too had gone back to Philippi, and worry over that fact, and a certain amount of homesickness besides, had added to the misfortunes of Epaphroditus. As these facts put very kindly and sympathetically by Paul come out in the letter, we cannot escape the feeling that what Paul is writing is in part an apology for the return of Epaphroditus, who, the Philippians might well have thought, should not have left Rome as long as Paul had any need of him.

Paul’s letter exhibits from the start his cordial understanding with the Philippians. They are his partners in the great gospel enterprise. From the first day of his acquaintance with them they have been so. Again and again in his missionary travels they have sent him money, being the first church of which we have any knowledge which put money into Christian missions. But the Philippians did it quite as much for Paul their friend as for the missionary cause; for, when his missionary activity was interrupted, they continued and increased their gifts. Amid the divisions and differences -- with Barnabas, Mark, Peter, the Jerusalem pillars, the Corinthians, the Galatians and their teachers -- which attended the career of Paul, it is refreshing to find one church that never misunderstood him, but supported him loyally with men and money when he was at the height of his missionary preaching and when he was shut up in prison; one church that really appreciated Paul, and did itself the lasting honor of giving him its help.

Paul is able to tell the Philippians that his imprisonment has not checked the progress of the gospel preaching in the West. Not only has he been able to reach with his message many in the Praetorian guard and in that vast establishment of slaves, freedmen, and persons of every station known as the household of Caesar, but the very fact that he is in prison for his faith has given what little preaching he can still do added power, and inspired other Christians to preach more earnestly than ever. On the other hand, preachers of different views of Christianity have been spurred to new exertions now that their great opponent is off the field. So Paul’s imprisonment is really furthering the preaching of the gospel, and he comforts himself in his inactivity with this reflection.

The Philippians are of course anxious to know what Paul’s prospects are for a speedy trial and acquittal. He can only assure them of his own serenity and resignation. If he is to die and be with Christ, he is more than ready, but if there is still work for him to do for them and others, as he is confident there is, he will be with them again to help and cheer them. Meantime he plans to send Timothy to them to learn how they are, and he hopes shortly to be able to come himself. It would seem that while Paul’s situation is still decidedly serious it is not altogether desperate.

With these references to his own prospects and the progress of the gospel in Rome, Paul combines a great deal of practical instruction. The Philippians are to cultivate joy, harmony, unselfishness, and love. In the midst of his letter some chance event or sudden recollection brings to his mind the peril they are in from the ultra-Jewish Christian teachers who have so disturbed his work in Galatia and elsewhere, and he prolongs his letter to warn the Philippians against them.

Or it may be that Philippians as we have it combines two letters, one warning them vehemently against the Judaizers, and acknowledging the coming of Epaphroditus with their gift (3:2-4: 23), the other, urging them to be harmonious and unselfish, and sending Epaphroditus back to them after his illness. (1:1-3:1).

Paul must have had occasion to write to the Philippians at least four times before Epaphroditus carried this letter back to them. Perhaps those earlier letters were less full and intimate, confining themselves closely to the business with which they dealt. Or perhaps it was the very fact that these were the last letters they ever received from Paul that made the Philippian church preserve and prize them. For out of his narrow prison and his own hard experience Paul had sent them one of his greatest expressions of the principle of the Christian life: "Brethren, whatsoever things are true, honorable, just, pure . . . . think on these things . . . . and the God of peace shall be with you."