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History of the Christian Church, Volume I: Apostolic Christianity. A.D. 1-100.
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§ 97. The Epistle to the Philippians.


The Church at Philippi.


Philippi was a city of Macedonia, founded by and called after Philip, the father of Alexander the Great, in a fertile region, with contiguous gold and silver mines, on the banks of a small river and the highway between Asia and Europe, ten miles from the seacoast. It acquired immortal fame by the battle between Brutus and Mark Antony (b.c. 42), in which the Roman republic died and the empire was born. After that event it had the rank of a Roman military colony, with the high-sounding title, "Colonia Augusta Julia Philippensis."11771177    Augustus conferred upon Philippi the special privilege of the "jus Italicum," which made it a miniature likeness of the Roman people, with "praetors" and "lictors," and the other titles of the Roman magistrates. Under this character the city appears in the narrative of the Acts (16:12 sqq.), where "the pride and privilege of Roman citizenship confront us at every turn." See Lightfoot, pp. 50 sqq., Braune, and Lumby. Hence its mixed population, the Greeks, of course, prevailing, next the Roman colonists and magistrates, and last a limited number of Jews, who had a place of prayer on the riverside. It was visited by Paul, in company with Silas, Timothy, and Luke, on his second missionary tour, in the year 52, and became the seat of the first Christian congregation on the classical soil of Greece. Lydia, the purple dealer of Thyatira and a half proselyte to Judaism, a native slave-girl with a divining spirit, which was used by her masters as a means of gain among the superstitious heathen, and a Roman jailer, were the first converts, and fitly represent the three nationalities (Jew, Greek, and Roman) and the classes of society which were especially benefited by Christianity. "In the history of the gospel at Philippi, as in the history of the church at large, is reflected the great maxim of Christianity, the central truth of the apostle’s teaching, that here is ’neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, neither male nor female, but all are one in Christ Jesus.’ "11781178    Lightfoot, l.c., p. 53. Here, also, are the first recorded instances of whole households (of Lydia and the jailer) being baptized and gathered into the church, of which the family is the chief nursery. The congregation was fully organized, with bishops (presbyters) and deacons at the head (Phil. 1:1).

Here the apostle was severely persecuted and marvellously delivered. Here he had his most loyal and devoted converts, who were his "joy and crown." For them he felt the strongest personal attachment; from them alone he would receive contributions for his support. In the autumn of the year 57, after five years’ absence, he paid a second visit to Philippi, having in the meantime kept up constant intercourse with the congregation through living messengers; and on his last journey to Jerusalem, in the spring of the following year, he stopped at Philippi to keep the paschal feast with his beloved brethren. They had liberally contributed out of their poverty to the relief of the churches in Judaea. When they heard of his arrival at Rome, they again sent him timely assistance through Epaphroditus, who also offered his personal services to the prisoner of the Lord, at the sacrifice of his health and almost his life. It was through this faithful fellow-worker that Paul sent his letter of thanks to the Philippians, hoping, after his release, to visit them in person once more.


The Epistle.


The Epistle reflects, in familiar ease, his relations to this beloved flock, which rested on the love of Christ. It is not systematic, not polemic, nor apologetic, but personal and autobiographic, resembling in this respect the First Epistle to the Thessalonians, and to some extent, also, the Second Epistle to the Corinthians. It is the free outflow of tender love and gratitude, and full of joy and cheerfulness in the face of life and death. It is like his midnight hymn of praise in the dungeon of Philippi. "Rejoice in the Lord alway; again I will say, Rejoice" (Phil. 4:4).11791179    χαίρετε "combines a parting benediction with an exhortation to cheerfulness. It is neither ’farewell’ alone, nor ’rejoice’ alone" (Lightfoot). This is the key-note of the letter.11801180    Bengel:"Summa Epistolae: Gaudeo, gaudete." Farrar (II. 423): "If any one compare the spirit of the best-known classic writers in their adversity with that which was habitual to the far deeper wrongs and far deadlier sufferings of St. Paul—if he will compare the Epistle to the Philippians with the ’Tristia’ of Ovid, the letters of Cicero from exile, or the treatise which Seneca dedicated to Polybius from his banishment in Corsica—he may see, if he will, the difference which Christianity has made in the happiness of man." It proves that a healthy Christian faith, far from depressing and saddening the heart, makes truly happy and contented even in prison. It is an important contribution to our knowledge of the character of the apostle. In acknowledging the gift of the Philippians, he gracefully and delicately mingles manly independence and gratitude. He had no doctrinal error, nor practical vice to rebuke, as in Galatians and Corinthians.

The only discordant tone is the warning against "the dogs of the concision" (κατατομή, 3:2), as he sarcastically calls the champions of circumcision (περιτομή), who everywhere sowed tares in his wheat fields, and at that very time tried to check his usefulness in Rome by substituting the righteousness of the law for the righteousness of faith. But he guards the readers with equal earnestness against the opposite extreme of antinomian license (3:2–21). In opposition to the spirit of personal and social rivalry and contention which manifested itself among the Philippians, Paul reminds them of the self-denying example of Christ, who was the highest of all, and yet became the lowliest of all by divesting himself of his divine majesty and humbling himself, even to the death on the cross, and who, in reward for his obedience, was exalted above every name (2:1–11).

This is the most important doctrinal passage of the letter, and contains (together with 2 Cor. 8:9) the fruitful germ of the speculations on the nature and extent of the kenosis, which figures so prominently in the history of christology.11811181    The kenosis controversy between the Lutherans of Giessen and Tübingen in the early part of the seventeenth century, and the more extensive kenosis literature in the nineteenth century (Thomasius, Liebner, Gess, Godet, etc.). It is a striking example of the apparently accidental occasion of some of the deepest utterances of the apostle. "With passages full of elegant negligence (Phil. 1:29), like Plato’s dialogues and Cicero’s letters, it has passages of wonderful eloquence, and proceeds from outward relations and special circumstances to wide-reaching thoughts and grand conceptions."11821182    Dr. Braune, in Lange’s Com., p. 4.

The objections against the genuineness raised by a few hyper-critical are not worthy of a serious refutation.11831183   The arguments of Baur and Swegler have been set aside by Lünemann (1847), Brückner (1848), Resch (1850), Hilgenfeld (1871), and Reuss (1875); those of Holsten (1875 and 1876) by P. W. Schmidt, Neutestam, Hyperkritik, 1880. Comp. Holzmann in Hilgenfeld's "Zeitschrift für wiss. Theol.," 1881, 98 sqq.184


The Later History.


The subsequent history of the church at Philippi is rather disappointing, like that of the other apostolic churches in the East. It appears again in the letters of Ignatius, who passed through the place on his way to his martyrdom in Rome, and was kindly entertained and escorted by the brethren, and in the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians, who expressed his joy that "the sturdy root of their faith, famous from the earliest days, still survives and bears fruit unto our Lord Jesus Christ," and alludes to the labors of "the blessed and glorious Paul" among them. Tertullian appeals to the Philippian church as still maintaining the apostle’s doctrine and reading his Epistle publicly. The name of its bishop is mentioned here and there in the records of councils, but that is all. During the middle ages the city was turned into a wretched village, and the bishopric into a mere shadow. At present there is not even a village on the site, but only a caravansary, a mile or more from the ruins, which consist of a theatre, broken marble columns, two lofty gateways, and a portion of the city wall.11841184    Dr. H. B. Hackett, who visited the spot, corrects the false statement of Meyer and other commentators that there is still a village (Felibah, or Filibidjek, as Farrar says) on the former site. See his translation of Braune on Phil., p. 6. "Of the church which stood foremost among all the apostolic communities in faith and love, it may literally be said that not one stone stands upon another. Its whole career is a signal monument of the inscrutable counsels of God. Born into the world with the brightest promise, the church of Philippi has lived without a history and perished without a memorial."11851185    Lightfoot, p. 64. But almost the same sad tale may be told of the churches of Palestine, Syria, and Asia Minor, under the withering rule of the Mohammedan Turks. Even Ephesus, where both Paul and John labored so successfully, is little more than a heap of ruins.

But in Paul’s Epistle that noble little band of Christians still lives and blesses the church in distant countries.


Theme: Theological: The self-humiliation (κένωσις) of Christ for our salvation (Phil. 2:5–11). Practical: Christian cheerfulness.

Leading Thoughts: He who began a good work in you will perfect it (1:6). If only Christ is preached, I rejoice (1:13). To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain (1:21). Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who emptied himself, etc. (2:5 sqq.). God worketh in you both to will and to work (2:13). Rejoice in the Lord alway; again I will say, Rejoice 3:1; 4:1. I count all things to be loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ (3:8). I press on toward the goal unto the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus (3:14). Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honorable, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things (4:8). The peace of God passeth all understanding (4:7).



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