The Epistle of Paul to the Philippians is one of the Prison Epistles. Paul wrote four epistles when he was in prison, and we have labeled them Prison Epistles. They are Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and the little Epistle to Philemon.
The Epistle of Paul to the Philippians was written to the believers in Europe in the city of Philippi. This letter came out of a wonderful relationship that Paul had with the Philippian church. It seems that this church was closer to Paul than was any other church. Their love for him and his love for them are mirrored in this epistle. This epistle deals with Christian experience at the level on which all believers should be living. It is not a level on which all of us are, but it is where God wants us to be.
Paul visited Philippi on his second missionary journey. You will recall that he and Barnabas went on their first missionary journey to the Galatian country, where they had a wonderful ministry and founded many churches in spite of the persecution they encountered. Paul wanted to visit these churches on his second missionary journey. He wanted to take Barnabas with him again, but Barnabas insisted on taking his nephew, John Mark, who had been with them at the beginning of the first missionary journey. This young fellow, John Mark, you may remember, turned chicken and ran home to mama when they had landed on the coast of Asia Minor. Therefore, Paul did not want to take him the second time. So this split the team of Paul and Barnabas. Barnabas took John Mark and went in another direction. Paul, with Silas for a companion, retraced his steps into the Galatian country, visiting the churches which they had established on the first missionary journey.
It would seem that Paul intended to widen his circle of missionary activity in that area, because a great population was there, and it was highly civilized. Actually, Greek culture and Greek learning were centered there at this particular time. Dr. Luke in recording it says that Paul attempted to go south into Asia, meaning the province of Asia, of which Ephesus was the leading city. But when he attempted to go south, the Spirit of God put up a roadblock. Since he wasn’t to go south, Paul thought he would go north (where Turkey is today), but when “… they assayed to go into Bithynia … the Spirit suffered them not” (Acts 16:7).
Now he can’t go south, he can’t go north, he has come from the east, there is but one direction to go. So Paul went west as far as Troas. That was the end of the line. To go west of Troas he would have to go by boat. So Paul was waiting for instructions from God.
Sometimes we feel that God must lead us immediately, but God can let us wait. I think He lets us cool our heels many times, waiting for Him to lead us. If you are one who is fretting today, “Oh, what shall I do? Which way shall I turn?” Wait, just wait. If you are really walking with the Lord, He will lead you in His own good time.
So Paul continued to wait in the city of Troas (we know it as Troy) for orders, and he got them finally. He was given the vision of the man of Macedonia, recorded in Acts 16:9–10.
Paul and his companions boarded a ship that took them to the continent of Europe. To me this is the greatest crossing that ever has taken place because it took the gospel to Europe. I am thankful for that because at this particular time my ancestors were in Europe. One family was in the forests of Germany. I am told that they were as pagan and heathen as they possibly could have been. Another branch of the family was over in Scotland. And they, I am told, were the filthiest savages that ever have been on the topside of this earth. Now don’t you look askance at me, because your ancestors were probably in the cave right next to my ancestors and they were just as dirty as mine were. I thank God today that the gospel went in that direction, because somewhere down the line some of these ancestors heard the Word of God, responded to it, and handed down to us a high type of civilization.
So Paul crossed over into Europe, and his first stop was Philippi. “And on the sabbath we went out of the city by a river side, where prayer was wont to be made; and we sat down, and spake unto the women which resorted thither. And a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, which worshipped God, heard us: whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul. And when she was baptized, and her household, she besought us, saying, If ye have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house, and abide there. And she constrained us” (Acts 16:13–15).
Paul, you see, found out that the man of Macedonia was a woman by the name of Lydia, holding a prayer meeting down by the river. That prayer meeting probably had a lot to do with bringing Paul to Europe. I’m of the opinion there were many people in Philippi who saw that group of women down there by the river praying and thought it wasn’t very important. But it just happened to be responsible for the greatest crossing that ever took place! And Lydia was the first convert in Europe.
Now Lydia was a member of the Philippian church to which Paul wrote this epistle. We know something about some of the other members of this church also. There was a girl who was delivered from demon possession. “And it came to pass, as we went to prayer, a certain damsel possessed with a spirit of divination met us, which brought her masters much gain by soothsaying: The same followed Paul and us, and cried, saying, These men are the servants of the most high God, which shew unto us the way of salvation. And this did she many days. But Paul, being grieved, turned and said to the spirit, I command thee in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her. And he came out the same hour” (Acts 16:16–18).
Also the Philippian jailer and his family were members of this church. You recall that Paul and Silas were thrown into jail at the instigation of the masters of the demon–possessed girl who had been deprived of their income. God intervened for Paul and Silas in such a miraculous way that their jailer came to know Christ. “And [the jailer] brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved? And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house…. And when he had brought them into his house, he set meat before them, and rejoiced, believing in God with all his house” (Acts 16:30–31, 34).
There were, of course, other members of this Philippian church whose stories we do not know. They were a people very close to the apostle Paul. They followed him in his journeys and ministered to him time and time again. But when Paul was arrested in Jerusalem, they lost sight of him for two years. They did not know where he was. Finally they heard that he was in Rome in prison. The hearts of these people went out to him, and immediately they dispatched their pastor, Epaphroditus, with a gift that would minister to Paul’s needs.
So Paul wrote this epistle to thank the church and to express his love for them. He had no doctrine to correct as he did in his Epistle to the Galatians. Neither did he have to correct their conduct, as he did in his Epistle to the Corinthians. There was only one small ripple in the fellowship of the church between two women, Euodias and Syntyche, and Paul gave them a word of admonishment near the end of his letter. He didn’t seem to treat the matter as being serious.
His letter to the Philippian believers is the great epistle of Christian experience. This is Paul’s subject in his epistle to the Philippians.
(McGee, J. Vernon. Thru the Bible Commentary, Vol. 48: Philippians & Colossians. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1991.)