Here is a short summary of Philippians: Philippians was written by the apostle Paul to thank the Philippians for the special offering they had sent him while he is under arrest in Rome and awaiting trial. In addition to thanking them for the gift, he updates them on his circumstances modeling how to evaluate one’s life on the basis of the gospel.
For Paul, what really matters is how the gospel is doing and that he honors Jesus, even while he’s in custody. He calls the Christians in Philippi to deal with their circumstance the same way. So they need to stand together in the face of the opposition they’re experiencing in a manner worthy of the gospel. They need to live together in harmony by being humble, following the example of Jesus. They should follow Paul’s example of considering everything as loss for the sake of Christ. In everything, their life and their joy should be found in Jesus and the gospel.
Backstory to Philippians
It’s the year A.D. 62. The Apostle Paul had been seized in the Jerusalem temple four years earlier and now sits in prison (1:7; 1:14; 1:17), chained to a soldier in an apartment in Rome (see Acts 28:16ff). He is not 100% sure what the outcome of his trial will be, but he’s optimistic (1:20-22, 25; 2:17; 2:23-24).
The apartment situation was better than prison, but the Roman penal system required him to pay for his own room and board even though he was in custody and couldn’t work (Acts 28:30). So that meant he was dependent on the care of his friends.
And that’s where the church at Philippi comes in.
Summary of Philippians: “In custody, Paul was dependent on the care of his friends. And that’s where the church at Philippi comes in.”
Philippi was an important city in Macedonia. It sat on a major east-west highway called the Egnatian Way and it had a special status based on its history. As the Roman civil war neared its climax, the forces of Octavian and Anthony defeated the army of Brutus and Cassius on the plains outside the city. When Octavian later defeated Anthony and became the heir to Julius Caesar’s throne, he settled many veterans in Philippi and gave it the honor of being a Roman colony, even granting it the ius italicum, meaning it was like a little piece of Italy in Macedonia.
Philippi was very proud of this status and it came with certain privileges, ones that favored Roman citizens over other residents of the city. All of this affected Paul’s experience when he first visited the city and it influenced the estimation and social position of the church in town as well.
Paul started the church in Philippi on his second missionary journey about 10-11 years prior to being in custody in Rome. You can read the story in Acts 16:1-40. Paul regularly travelled through Philippi on his journeys and developed a special relationship with the church there which is evident in the warmth of the tone of the letter to the Philippians.
“Paul started the church in Philippi on his second missionary journey about 10-11 years prior to being in custody in Rome.”
Now in the year 62, Paul their beloved apostle and friend sat in custody, dependent on the care of friends like them. So the church in Philippi took up an offering to send Paul a gift. There was no Venmo or PayPal in those days so the gift had to be sent in person, and a man from the church named Epaphroditus took the offering to Paul.
On the way, Epaphroditus became sick, so sick he almost died. Word of this got back to his church family in Philippi, causing them great concern (2:26-27a). Once Epaphroditus had fully recovered, Paul decided to send Epaphroditus back to Philippi with the letter we call Philippians to thank them for their gift and to address a few issues facing the church:
- The church was dealing with opposition which was causing some tension (1:28-29; 3:2)
- The church was experiencing some mild disharmony, and Paul took this opportunity to encourage unity through humility (see 1:27-2:8).
Paul communicates both his thanks and his instructions in terms of participation in the gospel, encouraging the Philippians to make their life all about what’s best for the gospel.
Summary of Philippians: “Paul communicates both his thanks and his instructions in terms of participation in the gospel, encouraging the Philippians to make their life all about what’s best for the gospel.”
Overview of Philippians
On one hand, Philippians is a letter of friendship and thanksgiving. Paul’s dear friends had sent him a gift and he wanted to thank them appropriately and update them on his circumstances. But on the other hand, everything for Paul was theological and so even a thank you note and update provided an opportunity to help his friends view their life more from the perspective of Jesus and the gospel. Therefore, one of the major themes of Philippians is living a gospel-centered life, so that all your circumstances and relationships are viewed through the lens of what’s best for the gospel.
Paul begins the letter by thanking the Philippians and giving an update on his circumstances. But this is no bare news report on his situation. It offers a pattern for how to view your circumstances and where to find your life and joy.
Paul opens the letter in 1:3-11 by thanking the Philippians and recounting how he prays for them. Notice the language Paul uses for what he thanks them for: their participation in the gospel. Their gift represents not merely financial help; it is sharing with him in the gospel. And the Philippians have done this for the entire last decade, from “the first day until now.” In fact, Paul says, they are “partakers of grace with me,” and the word “partaker” is from the same root as participation. Paul wants them to see that their support, their help, their care, their prayers, and their generosity toward him are all about sharing in the work of God’s grace through the gospel.
Summary of Philippians: “Paul wants them to see that their support, their help, their care, their prayers, and their generosity toward him are all about sharing in the work of God’s grace through the gospel.”
Then in 1:12, Paul turns to give them an update on his circumstances, but notice how he interprets his situation. He’s in prison, for sure, but the gospel is not. The gospel is still spreading, and that causes Paul to rejoice. There are even some people who are preaching Jesus in Rome from bad motives towards Paul, but once again, Paul rejoices because what really matters is that gospel is advancing. Paul’s joy is tied up with how well the gospel is doing, not so much how he’s doing.
Why? Because for Paul, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Nevertheless, Paul does want to give some insight into his circumstances and upcoming trial. So he does that in 1:22-26. But even that he explains in terms of Jesus and gospel ministry. He’s not sure what the outcome will be, though he tends to think he’ll be released. But either way—by life or by death—he can’t lose. Death, should that be the outcome, means going to be with Jesus. Release means faithful ministry to them and others.
Summary of Philippians: “Either way—by life or by death—he can’t lose. Death, should that be the outcome, means going to be with Jesus. Release means faithful ministry to them and others.”
So when it comes to Paul’s circumstance, he’s doing well because the gospel is doing well…and that provides an example to the Philippians and us for how to view and evaluate our life and joy.
After updating them concerning his circumstances, Paul turns to matters related to the situation in Philippi, circumstances affecting the church. And Paul wants them to follow his example, so that the way they choose to respond to their circumstances is determined by what’s best for the gospel.
In 1:27-30, Paul calls them to carry out their life in a manner worthy of the gospel and then applies that to the situation they are facing from people outside the church who oppose the gospel. He urges them to remain unified for the gospel’s sake.
Then he points them to what key is to unity and harmony in 2:1-4. That key is humility, which entails considering others ahead of yourself. The ultimate example of that kind of humility is Jesus himself. So in 2:5-11, Paul describes how Jesus lowered himself to serve others and urges disciples of Jesus to have this same mindset of humility.
Summary of Philippians: “Paul describes how Jesus lowered himself to serve others and urges disciples of Jesus to have this same mindset of humility.”
This leads him to call them in 2:12-18 to live out their salvation together, since they are God’s people and he lives in them. In this way, they can shine as lights in the world.
At first, 2:19-30 might feel a bit out of place. Paul talks about his plans to send Timothy to them in the near future and why he sent Epaphroditus back to them. But once again, these are not mere travel updates. The things Paul says about Timothy and Epaphroditus are very carefully chosen to reinforce the way Paul is calling the Philippians to live. Timothy and Epaphroditus provide concrete examples of what it looks like to carry out their life for Christ, others, and the gospel. So just as Paul provided himself and Jesus as patterns for living this way, he now offers two people the Philippians know well so they can see it lived out in clear concrete ways.
In chapter 3, Pauls calls them once again to imitate his example of giving up everything for Christ and the gospel. He describes the privileges and achievements that were his prior to meeting Jesus in 3:1-6. Then he details the total re-orientation of his life that ensued once he met Jesus. Compared to knowing Jesus, everything else is loss and rubbish.
Summary of Philippians: “Compared to knowing Jesus, everything else is loss and rubbish.”
In 4:1-9, Paul wraps up the section about the Philippians’ life and circumstances by giving some final exhortations for fixing their mind on Christ and finding their joy in him.
Just as Paul opened the letter by thanking the Philippians for sharing in the gospel with him, he now concludes the letter by thanking them specifically for the gift they had recently sent him while in prison. He describes it as part of their faithful pattern of sharing in his ministry. Even here, however, he provides a bit of perspective on how he views his circumstances. Whether he has a little or a lot, he can do all things through Christ.
Although Philippians is a very personal letter, the message it conveys is so critical for anybody who is seeking to follow Jesus. Paul communicates clearly and powerfully that the fundamental motivation for followers of Jesus is what’s in the best interest of the gospel. That’s how we evaluate our circumstances. That’s how we determine the best course of action. In short, the message of Philippians is this: find your life and your joy in Christ and the gospel.
Summary of Philippians: “Find your life and your joy in Christ and the gospel.”
Philippians in 10 Passages
1. “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all, in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now.”
2. “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel.”
3. “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
Summary of Philippians: “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
4. “Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I will hear about you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel.”
5. “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility consider one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this mindset in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, as He already existed in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied Himself by taking the form of a bond-servant and being born in the likeness of men.”
6. “For I have no one else of kindred spirit who will genuinely be concerned for your welfare. For they all seek after their own interests, not those of Christ Jesus.”
7. “But whatever things were gain to me, these things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ.”
Summary of Philippians: “Whatever things were gain to me, these things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ.”
8. “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
9. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! Let your gentle spirit be known to all people. The Lord is near.”
10. “I know how to get along with little, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”
For more from John, see johnwhittaker.net.