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Alternate Lecture on: NT 600 New Testament Survey - The Letter to the Philippians

Alternate Lecture on: NT 600 New Testament Survey

The Letter to the Philippians

by Timothy Kenney, PhD

This beautiful epistle is only four chapters and 104 verses in length. Yet Paul's Letter to the Philippians is amazingly profound. On one level it is a poignant epistle from a jailed apostle to a beloved supporting church. On another level it contains an exhilarating hymn of Christ's humility and exaltation, a glimpse into Paul's intense passion to know Christ, and a discerning reflection on prayer and the peace it brings.

The Gospel came to Philippi sometime around 49 to 52 AD. On the Second Missionary Journey, Sts. Paul and Silas were "kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia" (Acts 16:6). They tried to go into Bithynia, "but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them" (Acts 16:7). They finally reached the coast at Troas, where St. Paul had a vision of a Macedonian begging him, "Come over to Macedonia and help us" (Acts 16:9). St. Paul took this as God's call.

In this letter, St. Paul exposes the most personal feelings of his mind and heart as he sees the approaching end of his life. He also praises the Philippian Church as a model Christian community in every way, encouraging and inspiring its beloved members whom he calls his "joy and crown" (4:1) with prayers that their "love may abound more and more with knowledge and all discernment," so that they "may approve what is excellent, and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with all the fruits of righteousness which come through Jesus Christ for the praise and glory of God"(1:10-11). He mentions "bishops and deacons" (1:1), which hints at the developing structure of the Church. The crown jewel is St. Paul's famous passage about the self-emptying (kenosis) of Christ which is the epistle reading for the feasts of the Nativity and Dormition of the Theotokos in the Orthodox Church, and which has been so influential for Christian spiritual life, particularly in Russia.

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St. Paul presses to more immediate concerns in writing this letter:

1. To recommend to the Philippians one of their number, Epaphroditus, who had come to help him in prison, but had fallen ill and was being sent home.

2. To let the concerned Philippians know about the current state of St. Paul's welfare.

3. To prevent the Judaizers from persuading the Philippian Christians to submit to circumcision.

4. To encourage the Philippian believers to quiet their dissention and be united.

St. Paul does so much more than this. He provides the inspiration and encouragement of a friend, mentor, and fellow believer who finds Christ's strength and peace while struggling with opponents, anxiety, physical needs, and fear for his life. To see how a man, an apostle, meets obstacles and overcomes them in Christ, makes this letter very relevant for our day, too.

Like all Pauline epistles, the letter to Phillipians has its place in the Church's normal lectionary.

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A general outline is provided below:

1:1-1:2 ----------- Salutation
1:3-1:11 ---------- Paul's Prayer for the Philippians
1:12-1:30 --------- Paul's Present Circumstances

2:1-2:11 ---------- Imitating Christ's Humility
2:12-2:18 --------- Shining as Lights in the World
2:19-2:29 --------- Timothy and Epaphroditus

3:1-3:11 ---------- Breaking with the Past
3:12-4:1 ---------- Pressing toward the Goal

4:1-4:9 ----------- Exhortations
4:10-4:20 --------- Acknowledgment of the Philippians' Gift
4:21-4:23 --------- Final Greetings and Benediction

We now turn to St. Paul's letter to the Colossians in our next article.

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