1902 Encyclopedia > Epistle to the Philippians

Epistle to the Philippians

EPISTLE TO THE PHILIPPIANS. This is one of the most characteristic of the letters of St Paul. It was ad-dressed to the community at Philippi (see above), the first important European city which St Paul had visited, where-he had formed a community with the apparently new organization of "bishops" and "deacons," and with which he had relations of especial intimacy. The immediate occa-sion of his writing the letter was his receipt of money which the Philippians had sent by Epaphroditus to supply St Paul's personal wants. They were probably wealthier than some of the other communities which he had founded, and consequently he had not the reluctance which he felt elsewhere to receive money from them ; the money so sent was no doubt part of the offerings of the community which constituted the Christian sacrifice (iv. 18),—a fund which was administered by the officers of administratipn, i.e., the bishops and deacons. It was consequently to those officers that he specially addressed his acknowledgment of it.

He begins by a warm recognition of their steadfastness in the faith and of their sympathy with him (i. 3-7), and, as he is certain that their steadfastness will continue, so he prays that their love may abound more and more in enlightened well-doing (i. 9-11). He proceeds to tell them about himself and about other preachers of the gospel at Rome: as for himself, he is full of hope because his imprisonment has tended to make the gospel known, and has emboldened others to "speak the word of God with-out fear" ; as for other preachers (probably the Jewish Christians who denied his apostleship and disparaged his special teaching), though some of them preach insincerely and controversially, yet, whatever be their motive, "Christ is proclaimed," and therein he finds cause of rejoicing (i. 12-18). His position is critical, for he may be condemned to death ; but, whether he lives or dies, Christ will be glorified through him, so that he cannot tell which he would prefer; for himself it would be far better "to depart and to be with Christ," but for the Philippians it is better that he should "abide in the flesh" (i. 19-24). Hence he feels confident that he will live, and that he will see the Philippians again ; and hence also he exhorts them not to be discouraged by persecutions, and to be at unity among themselves (i. 25, ii. 2). The reason for this second exhortation is uncertain : it may be that the differ-ences of race at Philippi, the mingling of Romans and Greeks, of Europeans and Asiatics, had led to the factious assertion by each race of its own superiority, or it may be, though less probably, that there as elsewhere the feud raged between Gentile and Jewish Christians. And, since faction comes of self-assertion, he urges as its antidote the cultivation of "lowliness of mind," which he enforces by the great example of Jesus Christ, who, so far from assert-ing the divinity which belonged to Him, emptied Himself of it and took the form of a bond-servant; to this St Paul adds a strong appeal on his own account, that his work among them may not seem to have been in vain (ii. 3-18). He then, with an expression of regret that some of his fellow-workers are no longer with him, announces that he hopes to send Timothy to them as soon as he knows the issue of his coming trial; and he is hopeful that he may be able to go himself; however that may be, he sends back their own messenger, Epaphroditus, who after coming to Rome had almost sacrificed his life in the energy of his work (ii. 19-30). Then follows an.abrupt transition to another subject, which has sometimes been thought to mark the commencement of a new letter. He suddenly begins to warn the Philippians in strong terms against false teachers, either Judaizing Christians, or, more probably, Jews, who were preaching the necessity of circumcision (Holsten thinks that there is a reference to the murder of James the Just); he maintains that, although he was him-self a " Hebrew of Hebrews," and therefore possessed whatever "confidence in the flesh" such a one might claim, yet he counted it all as "loss" in order that he might gain " the righteousness which is of God by faith" ; and borrowing a metaphor from the Greek games he regards this as a prize which has to be won by a continu-ous effort (iii. 2-16). He urges the Philippians to follow him in this struggle towards moral perfection, in contrast either to the Christians who had lapsed into Epicureanism or, as some think, to the antinomian Jews (iii. 17, iv. 1). He then gives some personal messages to Euodia and Syntyche (whom Schwegler considers to be personifications of the Jewish and heathen Christian parties respectively), and to Synzygus (or, if the word be not a proper name, an anonymous "yoke-fellow" who has been variously supposed to be Paul's wife, Clement of Rome, St Peter, Lydia the purple-seller, or Epaphroditus), and mentions " Clement," about whom it has been much discussed, but to little purpose, whether he was a Philippian or a Roman, and, if the latter, whether he was the same per-son who figures in early legends as bishop of Rome, or whether, as Baur thinks, the name is really that of the Flavius Clemens who was condemned under Domitian for "atheism." The personal messages are followed by general exhortations to joyfulness, forbearance, trustful-ness, and steadfastness in Christian virtue; and then comes that which was probably the special occasion of writing, an acknowledgment of the money which they had sent to him (iv. 4-20).

It is the more probable opinion that the epistle was written from Rome, and not from Csesarea; whether it was written in the earlier or the later period of his stay there is a question which has been much discussed, but which the scantiness of the evidence respecting that stay does not allow of being satisfactorily answered; most writers (De Wette, Wieseler, Wiesinger, Meyer) place it in the later period, others (Bleek, Ewald, Beyschlag, Light-foot) in the earlier; the latter view is more probable on account of the general agreement of this epistle with the epistle to the Romans. It throws an interesting light on St Paul's external relations. He was a prisoner, probably in charge of the prefect of the praetorian guard, and conse-quently with opportunities of making the gospel known among the soldiers ; and the mention of Caesar's household, though no doubt that term covered a large number of scattered individuals, makes it possible that he was lodged near the imperial palace on the Palatine.

The genuineness of the epistle was attacked by Bam-on three grounds, which he himself states to be (1) the appearance of gnostic ideas in ii. 6-11, (2) the want of anything distinctively Pauline, (3) the questionableness of some of the historical data. The attack has been re-newed by one section of his followers; but it is generally admitted even by critics who reject the epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians that the attack upon this epistle has failed. The supposed gnosticism of ii. 5-11 is not proved; the supposed identification of Clement (iv. 3) with Flavius Clemens, the cousin of Domitian, is merely an arbitrary guess; and the list of expressions which are not found in other epistles of St Paul is not greater than may reasonably be expected from the differences in the subject-matter.

The doctrinal importance of the epistle is considerable, for it contains a passage which, if it could be certainly understood, would be at once the key and the summary of St Paul's Christology. In 2 Corinthians viii. 9 he had said of Christ that " though He was rich yet for your sakes He became poor"; in Philippians ii. 5-7 this is expanded into the explicit declaration that " being in the form of God He counted it not a prize (?) to be equal with God, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men." Each phrase of the passage is of great significance, but it is also of great uncertainty of meaning : the main points of uncertainty are (1) whether the subject of the sentence is the incarnate or the pre-incarnate Christ; (2) what is implied by the phrase "in the form of God," and what is its relation to the phrase "to be equal with God," some thinking that it implies an identity, others an inferiority of status; (3) what is meant by the word here rendered "prize" (apTtaypov), some thinking that this is the right rendering, and that the meaning is "He did not tenaciously cling to His divinity but surrendered it," others thinking that it should be rendered "an act of robbery," and that the meaning is " He did not think it a usurpation to assert His divinity"; (4) what is meant by "emptied Himself," whether He only divested Himself of the outward sem-blance of divinity, or whether He reduced Himself to the bare consciousness of personality in becoming incarnate; this last question, that of the nature of the Jcenosis, has bearings of especial importance on the general doctrine of the Person of Christ.

Discussions of these questions from various points of view will be found not only in commentaries on the passage (e.g., Lightfoot) and works on New Testament theology (e.g., Weiss), but more particularly in Baur, Paul, E. T., vol. ii. p. 45 (wdio thinks that the conceptions are gnostic and Un-Pauline); Ernesti, in Stadien u. Kritiken, 1848, p. 889, and 1851, p. 602 (who thinks that b\pirayp.bv refers by way of contrast to the first Adam, wdio tried to seize what was not his own) ; Hilgenfeld, in the Zeitsehr. f. wissensch. Thcol., 1871, p. 192, and ibid., 1873, p. 178; Grimm, ibid., 1873, p. 33 ; Hinsch, ibid., 1873, p. 59 ; R. Schmidt, Paulinische Christo-logie, 1870, p. 163 (wdrose explanation deserves especial considera-tion); Pfleiderer, Paulinism, E. T., vol. i. p. 146 ; and more recently Weiffenbach, Zur Auslcgung der Stelle Phil., ii. 5-11, Karlsruhe, 1884. For the question as to the nature of the kenosis, see Gess, Die Lehrevon der Person Christi, Basel, 1856, pp. 81, 294.

The best modern editions of the epistle are those of B. Weiss, Der Philipperbrief ausgelegt, Leipsic, 1859, and Lightfoot, The Epistle to the Pliilippians, 3d ed., London, 1873. (E. HA.)


Paul, E. T., vol. ii. p. 45 ; Theol. Jahrb., 1849, 501, which is partly reprinted as an addendum in Paul, E. T., vol. ii. p. 64.
E.g., Hilgenfeld, Einleitung, p. 333 ; Renan, St Paul, p. 6 ; Pfleiderer, Paulinism, E. T., vol. i. p. 29.
8 Baur was followed in this attack by Schwegler (Das naehapost. Zeitalter, vol. ii. p. 133) and Volkmar (in the Theol. Jahrb., 1856, p. 309); and he was answered by Liinemann (Pauli ad Philipp. Ejoist. . . . defendit, Gottingen, 1847), Bruckner (Epist. ad Philipp. . . . vindicata, Leipsic, 1848), Hilgenfeld (in the Zeitschr. f. wissensch. Theol., 1871, p. 309). A new attack was made by Hinsch in the same Zeitschrift, 1873, p. 59 (criticized by Hilgenfeld, ibid., p. 178), and by Holsten in the Jahrbb. f. prot. Theol. (1875, p. 425 ; 1876, p. 58), which has been met by the important treatise of P. W. Schmidt Neutestamentliche Kyperkritik, Berlin, 1880.

The above article was written by: Rev. E. Hatch, D.D.

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