Philippians: What Is Paul’s Letter About? (PLUS Key Verses)


Written by Joshua Schachterle, Ph.D

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Date written: June 20th, 2024

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily match my own. - Dr. Bart D. Ehrman

For New Testament scholars, Paul’s relatively short letter to the Philippians (not to be confused with “Phillipians” — a common misspelling) is extremely informative. Paul wrote this epistle to a community he had founded in the Greek city of Philippi, and it contains information about his circumstances, his theology, and even some broader early Christian ideas.

Why did Paul write Philippians? What is Philippians about? What can this epistle teach us, not just about Paul, but about what early Christians believed? I’ll answer these questions and more in this article.

Philippians

Basic Summary OF PHILLIPIANS

Scholars agree that Philippians was absolutely written by Paul. However, according to Philip Sellew, there is a high likelihood that it consists of not one but two letters. It was composed in the late 50s or early 60s CE.

Paul makes it clear that he is writing from prison (Phil. 1:7, 13). However, he never says where he is imprisoned. Scholars have speculated that he might have been in Rome, but he could just as easily have been in Caesarea or some other place we don’t know about.

Either way, the church Paul started at Philippi, a major ancient city in northwestern Greece, had sent one of their members named Epaphroditus with gifts for Paul to sustain him during his imprisonment. However, after arriving and giving them to Paul, Epaphroditus fell ill, almost dying, according to Paul (2:27).

He did eventually recover and was about to return to Philippi, presumably with Paul’s letter in hand. Paul gives thanks for the Philippian church and says he is content with his imprisonment, even making progress in converting some of his prison guards.

Below, I’ll briefly summarize each of the four chapters of Philippians, first in a table, and then providing a bit more detail about each chapter below.

Chapter

Theme

Key Verse

Philippians 1

Paul's joy and thanksgiving despite imprisonment

Phil. 1:6
“I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.”

Philippians 2

Emulating Christ’s humility

Phil. 2:5-11
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…”

Philippians 3

Perseverance toward the goal

Phil. 3:14
“ I press on toward the goal, toward the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Philippians 4

Paul’s contentment

Phil. 4:13
“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

Philippians 1: Summary and Key Verse

The book of Philippians begins with a warm greeting from Paul and Timothy — Paul’s  fellow missionary — to the church Paul had established at Philippi. Paul clearly holds these people dear and says he frequently thanks God for them.

In this friendly context, in our key verse Philippians 1:6, Paul says “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete [or perfect] it until the day of Jesus Christ.”

This is an important verse for this chapter. Paul is saying that while he began the work of bringing the Philippians to Christ, he doesn’t have to be there physically for that work to continue and thrive.

Accordingly, Paul prays in the letter that the Philippians might increase in love and insight, valuing what is truly important so that they’ll be pure enough to be worthy of salvation when Jesus returns.

Paul then acknowledges that he is imprisoned, but says it’s actually a good thing, as he’s been able to preach to his guards and inspire other Christians in the area to preach more boldly. He even says that if he dies in prison, it will only be to his benefit, while if he continues to live, he will be able to continue preaching.

Suffering for Christ, says Paul, is a privilege — one that he partakes in daily. Therefore, the Philippians should be thankful for every suffering they experience for Christ’s sake, not fearing those who persecute them since their torment is earning them salvation.

Philippians 2: Summary and Key Verse

Philippians 2 begins with Paul exhorting the members of the Philippian church to be humble in imitation of Christ. This leads to an important set of key verses in Philippians 2:5-11, often called the Philippian hymn since it appears to be an already-established hymn that Paul is just quoting in his letter:

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he existed in the form of God,    did not regard equality with God    as something to be grasped,
7 but emptied himself,    taking the form of a slave,    assuming human likeness.And being found in appearance as a human,
8 he humbled himself    and became obedient to the point of death—    even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God exalted him even more highly    and gave him the name    that is above every other name,
10 so that at the name given to Jesus    every knee should bend,    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess    that Jesus Christ is Lord,    to the glory of God the Father.

This hymn is an important piece of early Christology – theology about the nature of Jesus. Since Paul wrote this letter in the 50s or early 60s, it shows that at least some very early Christians believed Christ to be an eternal being who was incarnated in the person of Jesus.

However, Bart Ehrman says it’s important to note that the hymn does not say that Jesus was God in his pre-existent state. Instead, Ehrman says the hymn portrays this pre-existent Jesus as “as a divine being, an angel – but not as God Almighty. He is not the Father himself, since it is the Father who exalts him. And he is not – most definitely not – “equal” with God before he becomes human.”

Therefore, when the hymn says that Jesus was “in the form of God,” it means that he was some kind of lower divine being, not God himself. How do we know? Because in verse 9, we are told that God exalted Jesus. As Ehrman says, how could he be exalted if he were already God?

Some might wonder how Jesus could be seen as divine but not equal with God. The reason, Ehrman points out, is that in the ancient world, there was a continuum of divinity. For Jews and Christians, for example, God Almighty was at the top, but there were lower diving beings, such as angels, who were divine but perhaps less so than God. This is what the hymn indicates about the pre-existent Jesus.

After the humility shown by Jesus in his voluntary incarnation, death, and resurrection, however, God did exalt him to a higher level of divinity, perhaps even equal to God. As Stanley Saunders writes in his commentary Philippians and Galatians, Paul invokes this hymn to show the Philippians that they too should be willing to humble themselves in imitation of Jesus. (Affiliate Disclaimer: We may earn commissions on products you purchase through this page at no additional cost to you. Thank you for supporting our site!)

In verses 2:12-17, Paul encourages his flock to behave morally even though he is not there to guide them as he was in the past. He says that he rejoices in their faith.

In the last verses of chapter 2, Paul says he is planning to send Timothy to them, presumably as a stand-in for himself. He also says that Epaphroditus, having recovered from his life-threatening illness, will soon return to them. Paul praises him for almost dying for his faith.

Philippians 3: Summary and Key Verse

The majority of scholars say chapter 3 is actually the beginning of a different letter, one which a later editor tacked on to the end of chapter 2. This is fairly clear, by the way, when you read the end of chapter 2, where Paul is writing about good news and rejoicing in the Philippian community, and the beginning of chapter 3, where he quickly shifts to angrily warning them about his enemies, those other apostles who say Gentile Christians must be circumcised.

In verse 2, Paul writes “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh!” This “mutilation” is circumcision. Paul makes it clear that these other apostles are Jews who have told the Philippians they must be circumcised, something that Paul is entirely against. To bolster his argument, Paul lists his own bona fides as a Jew, writing that he was

circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

In other words, Paul argues that he is an even more committed Jew than those other apostles, and, therefore, has at least as much authority to prescribe correct behavior to the Philippians as they do. He emphasizes, though, that Gentiles will not be made righteous by following the Jewish law, but by faith in Christ (the phrase here can also be translated as “the faith of Christ,” indicating Jesus’ sacrifice which atones for the world’s sins).

The rest of the chapter can be summarized in the key verse of Philippians 3:14:

I press on toward the goal, toward the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

The goal Paul speaks of is ultimate salvation, since he believes that Jesus will return any minute to start the end of the present world. Paul goes on to say that he is leaving the past behind, presumably his former life persecuting the church, and is forging ahead to his (and the Philippians’) salvation.

Accordingly, he asks the Philippians to behave morally, in imitation of Paul himself, to be worthy of being saved when Jesus returns.

Book of Philippians

Philippians 4: Summary and Key Verse

The fourth and final chapter of the Epistle to the Philippians (again, this is part of the separate letter which began in chapter 3) gives some specific exhortations to the church. First, Paul encourages two women, Euodia and Syntyche, to “be of the same mind in the Lord.” It seems these two have been feuding, and Paul wants them to resolve their fight. He asks the other church members to help them with this process.

He goes on to tell the Philippians to “rejoice in the Lord always” and to pray about their problems rather than being anxious. Finally, he encourages them to use their minds wisely:

whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

In the final section of chapter 4, Paul says that he has learned to be content with whatever circumstances he’s presently experiencing, including his imprisonment. He is able to do this, he says, because, in the key verse of Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Paul has relinquished his life to Christ and, thus, trusts that whatever befalls him is what is best for him at that moment.

He ends by thanking the Philippians for the gifts they sent through Epaphroditus. However, while in chapter 2, Paul says that, after a long convalescence, Epaphroditus is finally ready to return to Philippi. Conversely, at the end of chapter 4, Paul writes as if Epaphroditus has just arrived with the gifts. This is another clear indication that Philippians consists of two letters. The letter in chapters 3 and 4 was likely written first.

Conclusion

While Philippians is a relatively short letter compared with Romans or 1 Corinthians, it is undeniably significant for understanding Paul’s thought. While it is actually made up of two separate letters, both were likely written from the same prison. We don’t know where Paul was imprisoned at this time, but he says that it was due to his preaching and there is no reason to doubt this.

Nevertheless, chapter 1 finds Paul in a jubilant mood, happy to have received gifts from the Philippians through their emissary Epaphroditus, and happy that the Philippians are continuing the work of salvation he started among them.

In chapter 2, Paul quotes an early Christian hymn explaining that while Jesus was a pre-existent divine being, he was only exalted to equality with God after his incarnation, death, and resurrection. This is important in that it shows that some early Christians believed in Jesus’ eternal nature.

Chapter 3 starts a different letter which argues against requiring Gentile Christians to be circumcised. Paul believes that faith in Christ alone is sufficient for these converts’ salvation and proves that he has the authority to say this by showing his status as a good Jew.

Finally, in chapter 4 Paul exhorts the Philippians to rejoice in God and behave morally so that they will be worthy of salvation when Jesus returns. The reference in this letter to Epaphroditus having just arrived, whereas in chapter 1 he is just about to leave, shows that this second letter was probably written first.

Josh Schachterle

About the author

After a long career teaching high school English, Joshua Schachterle completed his PhD in New Testament and Early Christianity in 2019. He is the author of "John Cassian and the Creation of Monastic Subjectivity." When not researching, Joshua enjoys reading, composing/playing music, and spending time with his wife and two college-aged children.

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