The chief theme of Philippians is encouragement: Paul wants to encourage the Philippians to live out their lives as citizens of a heavenly colony, as evidenced by a growing commitment to service to God and to one another. The way of life that Paul encourages was manifested uniquely in Jesus Christ; it was also evident in the lives of Paul, Timothy, and Epaphroditus.
The church at Philippi had a special significance for Paul, since it was the first church he founded in Europe (see Acts 16:6–40). The first convert was Lydia, a seller of purple goods, and women continued to have a prominent role in the Philippian church (e.g., Phil. 4:2). Paul and Silas were imprisoned there for exorcising a demon from a fortune-telling slave girl, but God miraculously delivered them, and they proclaimed the gospel to the Philippian jailer. Paul likely visited the Philippians a few times after his initial departure, and they maintained active support for his ministry (Phil. 4:15–16).
Paul wrote to the Philippians from prison (see above), prompted in part by his reception of their latest gift, sent with Epaphroditus (himself a member of the Philippian congregation). But the letter is far more than an extended thank-you note. Paul wanted to pass along the important news that Epaphroditus had recovered from a serious illness (Phil. 2:25–30), and that he was sending him along to them with the hope that soon he might also send Timothy for a visit (Phil. 2:19). Timothy and Epaphroditus were also mentioned because they exemplified the Christ-centered, gospel-focused life Paul wanted the Philippians to live.
Paul himself also wanted to encourage the Philippians in their faith, and his imprisonment meant he could do that only through a letter. Even a house imprisonment (assuming Paul was in Rome, Acts 28:16) could have been a source of great anguish, particularly with the possibility of execution looming, and so Paul wanted to assure the church that he was still in good spirits through his faith in Christ (Phil. 1:12–18). He was also eager to thank them for their continued support: imprisonment carried with it a social stigma, and it would have been easy for the Philippians to turn their back on Paul at this point. But they had remained faithful to him.
Yet Paul’s purpose in writing goes even further. He is above all concerned that the Philippians continue to make progress in their faith (Phil. 1:25). While there were no doubt conflicts within the congregation (notably that of Euodia and Syntyche, Phil. 4:2), the Philippians appear to be a healthy congregation, in contrast to the troubled groups in Corinth and Galatia. Can they then relax and rest? Paul’s answer is an emphatic no. The world is too perilous, and the gospel too glorious, for them to be content with past achievements (Phil. 3:12–16). They must follow Paul’s example and “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14).
Paul explains what spiritual progress will look like. Christian maturity does not come through special mystical insights available to only a few, but rather through the patient practice of the familiar virtues of love and service to others. Paul presents himself as one model for such a lifestyle (Phil. 1:12–18; 3:17; 4:9), and he commends Timothy and Epaphroditus in similar terms (Phil. 2:19–30). But the supreme model for progress in faith is Jesus himself, and the centerpiece of Philippians is the magnificent “hymn of Christ” in Philippians 2:5–11. Jesus willingly let go of the privileges of divine glory to take up the form of a servant, and even embraced the ultimate humiliation of the cross, in order to liberate the world from sin. He is thus accorded the highest glory, receiving universal worship as God’s Messiah.
Those who follow Christ’s example have the hope that God will also vindicate them on the day of Christ, and thus they can rejoice (Phil. 1:18; 3:1; 4:4). They can also be confident that God will not leave them alone to make their way through the world as best they can. Spiritual progress involves effort: they are encouraged to “work out [their] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). But they can do so knowing that “it is God who works in [them], both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).