To Live in a Manner Worthy of Christ: a Study of Philippians

We are beginning our study of the book of Philippians, and I must tell you, this is one of my favorite books in the Bible (are we allowed to have favorites?). Philippians was the first book of the Bible that I undertook to memorize in its entirety. Many of the passages in Philippians have been my go-to when I need encouragement, joy, peace, courage, or hope. As I meditated upon Philippians, Paul taught me how to pray for others, whether I have specific supplications for them or not. In this letter, I find purpose and motivation to follow after my Lord Jesus Christ with all the strength the Spirit gives me. Finally, herein is found the good news that everyone needs to hear—that I still need to hear every day—for, “Philippians burns with the blazing centrality of the gospel of Christ.”[1]

I’m sure you too, as you read through this book, find many of your favorite passages. I’m excited to study this together with you all. In this grace-laden book we will discover Paul’s (and therefore our) secret to joy in the midst of hard providence, most of the major doctrines of our faith, and many profound and practical statements of Christian love, hope, aspiration, joy, and confidence. The key verse to the book of Philippians weaves doctrine and practice as we seek to understand and apply it to our lives now:

Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel

— Philippians 1:27

Before we dive into the details, we ought to look at the letter as a whole. When and from where did Paul write? What was the cultural environment in which the Philippian Christians lived? Why did Paul write to the Philippians? And what, therefore, is the message for us, from God by his Spirit, in the book of Philippians?

We can reasonably expect every biblical text to speak to us today, two—or even six—thousand years after it was written, because we share with the original hearers and readers the same fallen human condition. Bryan Chapell emphasizes that when we study Scripture, we must look for the “Fallen Condition Focus as we move from exegeting the text’s meaning and purpose in its original historical context to expositing and applying it in our contemporary setting.” That is, we should search out “The mutual human condition that contemporary believers share with those to or about whom the text was written that requires the grace of the passage for God’s people to glorify and enjoy him.”[2] So, as we study Philippians, we will take time to ask, How does the grace of this passage meet my fallen condition and thereby enable me to glorify God and enjoy him forever?

Background: Setting the Context

Paul wrote this letter to the church at Philippi around A. D. 61 – 62, approximately 10 years after he founded the church. Philippians is one of his “prison epistles,” written most likely during his imprisonment at Rome. Philippi was an important city in the Roman Empire, located in eastern Macedonia, and founded four centuries earlier by King Philip II of Macedonia, father of Alexander the great. A Roman colony, the citizens of Philippi enjoyed the same legal rights and privileges as citizens of Rome, and many Army veterans retired there.

Think of the area where we live, right next-door to San Antonio, aka: Military City. Not only do we have many military bases, and therefore thousands of active-duty families serving and living here, but we have a large population of retired military, from every service branch. This is one of the most patriotic places I’ve ever lived. Likewise in Philippi. From its architecture, to its language (Latin), to its pluralism of pagan deities—including Emperor worship—Philippi was thoroughly and proudly Roman to its core.

Fast-forward to 51-ish A. D.: “The Messiah has come—living righteously, dying sacrificially, and rising victoriously.”[3]  The new covenant for the people of God has superseded the old, and the apostles, as well as all the followers of Christ, are going forth to the nations, bringing with them the gospel, in obedience to their Risen and Ascended Lord, making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything Jesus commanded them (Matt. 28:18–20). The Pharisee who most zealously persecuted the fledgling church [thereby initiating the first wave of evangelism to Judea and Samaria, and to the rest of the world (Acts 1:5), Saul, has been converted in a blinding flash of light by the Lord himself and commissioned to take the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 9). Renamed Paul, this newest apostle begins traveling wherever the Spirit sends him, in unity with the remaining original apostles, sharing the gospel, planting churches, opposing those who would add works of the law to the pure gospel, and training shepherds for the flock of God.

Whenever the Apostle Paul entered a new city to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, he always began in the local synagogue. Yet when he went to Philippi, he began outside the city gates at the riverbank, so there may not have been enough Jewish men living in Philippi to make up the required minimum quorum (10) to form a synagogue. Rome had expelled the Jews living there, so why wouldn’t this proudly Roman colony do likewise?

The first Philippian convert to Christ was a woman named Lydia, a “seller of purple goods,” whom Paul met at the riverbank (Acts 16:11–15). Later, when Paul exorcised an evil spirit from a slave girl, thereby enraging her owners who then gathered a mob and began a riot (16:16–21), he was beaten and imprisoned. During the night, an earthquake gave Paul the opportunity to share the gospel with his jailer, who, together with his family were awakened to spiritual life from the darkness of unbelief (16:25–34). At its birth, the Philippian church included among its core membership a Gentile businesswoman, a formerly demon-possessed slave-girl[4], and the warden of the local prison.

Soon after the conversion of the Philippian jailer, Paul left Philippi, leaving Luke to oversee the fledgling congregation. Considering the pride of the Roman citizenry, followers of Christ who refuse the cult of emperor-worship will soon find their faith challenged. Not only that, but it seems the Judaizers followed Paul and attempted to infiltrate every new church and impose Jewish law on the newly-converted Gentiles. Suffering looms on the horizon for the Philippian church. Approximately ten years later, Paul is imprisoned at Rome, and the believers of the church at Philippi send Epaphroditus to him with aid to support him in his imprisonment and ministry, as well as news of his church family to cheer Paul’s heart.

The Content of the Letter

Paul writes this letter to the Philippian church in part to thank them for their kindness and to reassure them that Epaphroditus, whom they heard was ill, has recovered. Epaphroditus likely was intended to stay longer to assist Paul in his ministry, but would carry the letter home himself, as he was anxious to see his people and rejoice with them in his recovery. Timothy would soon follow.

So Paul is writing not a systematic theology, like Romans and Ephesians, nor is he writing a stern rebuke for misbehavior or crooked theology, like 1 Corinthians and Galatians. He is writing a letter of fond affection to a congregation he loves and longs to see, people who have loved and supported him from their founding. There may be a couple of areas of concern, which he gently addresses, but it’s closer to a “family letter” than most of his other writings.

Now, the fact that it differs from his more systematic writings does not mean there’s no doctrine here. This letter to the Philippians includes many of the major doctrines of our faith. In fact, while encouraging believers to gospel-humility (2:1–4), Paul gives us one of the greatest Christological passages in all of Scripture (2:5–11). But the letter isn’t arranged like Romans and Ephesians with Doctrine up front: “here’s what God has done for us through Christ,” and Practical Application behind: “here’s therefore how you are to live.” In this letter, the doctrine and the application weave in and out from beginning to end. Paul can’t help but write doctrine—the rhythm of the gospel was his very heartbeat, and it flowed out of his fingertips into his every thought and action. His greetings, his prayers, his hopes, his encouragements, and his gentle (and not-so-gentle) admonishments, were all gospel-saturated to their core.

I could keep going, but I see that I’m already way past a reasonable word-limit, and we will be studying Philippians in detail. So I’ll close with this thought. The mutual human condition that we share with the believers in Philippi two thousand years ago includes suffering of varying kinds, illness, anxiety, the dangers of false doctrines, disunity, and always—always—the need for our love for Christ, his word, and one another to abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that we may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Christ, to the glory and praise of God. I pray that through our study of this magnificent book, God will indeed bestow upon us the grace that we need to meet us where we are, to cause us to grow in love and holiness, and thereby enable us to glorify and enjoy him forever.

SDG

__________________________________________________


[1] Jason C. Meyer, Philippians, from the ESV Expository Commentary Volume XI: Ephesians – Philemon, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018), 123.

[2] Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 50. Quoted by Dennis E. Johnson in Philippians: Reformed Expository Commentary,  (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2013), xvi.

[3] Ryan Kelly, Philippians, A 12-Week Study, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014), 8.

[4] Some commentators assume this girl became a follower of Christ and member of the church after Paul, in the name of Jesus, released her from her spiritual bondage. See James Montgomery Boice, Philippians: An Expositional Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1971), 20.; Dennis E. Johnson, Philippians; Reformed Expository Commentary, 6.; Ryan Kelly, Philippians, A 12-Week Study, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014), 8.

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