In order to understand the historical background of this charming little epistle, we must go to the inspired record in the Acts of the Apostles, where in chapter 16, verses 12 to 40, we are given the history of what happened about ten years before the writing of the letterto the Philippians.
For reasons unknown to us, the Holy Spirit had forbidden Paul and Silas to preach the gospel in Asia, hindered their going to Bithynia (16:6-7), but sent a special vision to beckon them to come to Macedonia. Without benefit of organization, publicity committees, advance men or advertising in the news media, Paul and his companions began the first “evangelistic crusade” on the continent of Europe.
This campaign consisted of a meeting with a few devout Jewish women in a rural area outside the city of Philippi. Apparently even the Jewish population in this pagan city was small, for Jewish tradition required that any city with ten or more Jewish families must have a synagogue.
Imagine how these three Christian men must have felt when they realized they were in a metropolis with no other Christians and with fewer than ten families (because there was no synagogue) who knew the God of Israel; we say three Christian men, for it is apparent from the “we” in Acts 16:10 that Luke joined them at this point. What did these men do? They PREACHED THE WORD. What did the Lord do? He opened the heart of Lydia, a wealthy woman who had moved to Macedonia from Asia, and she received the Lord Jesus as her Savior. She then opened her home to the evangelists and it became the center of Christian witness in the city of Philippi. Other notable converts during Paul’s visit were the poor demonpossessed girl who made a living for her masters through her fortune telling, and the jailer who almost committed suicide. What a strange nucleus for a new Christian church: a wealthy Jewess who had migrated from Asia; a poor Greek slave girl from the lowest socioeconomic level, probably a worshiper of the pagan god, Python; and a Roman jailer from the middle class, one who probably had been a worshiper of the Emperor. Truly, God was about to demonstrate our oneness in Christ Jesus.
Persecution caused the Apostle Paul to spend only a short time in Philippi. He did not see his beloved fellow-Christians in this city for another five years. His second visit was brief (Acts 20:1-6), and still another five years rolled by before he wrote this inspired letter to the Philippians.
Many Bible teachers have called attention to the treasures contained in the epistle to the Philippians. We quote from a few in the hope this will stimulate the reader to dig deeply into the little letter and make these riches their own.
Dr. John Walvoord, President of Dallas Theological Seminary, wrote:
Although not the longest or the most important of the Pauline epistles, the letter to the Philippians has its own peculiar charm and important place among the epistles of Paul. Written with Ephesians, Colossians and Philemon as one of the prison epistles, it breathes the rare perfume of Christian joy and peace in a context of suffering. Combining the practical with the theological, the triumph of the life in Christ—even for one who is in great suffering—is offered for those who have the life of Christ.
In a modern world overrun by secularism, unbelief and materialism, and too often satiated with the unparalleled luxuries of modem life, a letter written by a prisoner in chains may seem at first glance to be irrelevant to our contemporary scene. A careful study of this epistle, however, revealing the amazing triumph of the apostle even though in great suffering, soon removes the veneer of modern superficiality from our present world, and brings the reader face to face with ultimate spiritual values, which satisfy the heart and bring joy and peace in a way that no modern convenience or pleasure could duplicate. For those seeking depth in spiritual things, a real intimacy with Jesus Christ, and a life that counts for eternity, this epistle offers infinite treasures (TRIUMPH IN CHRIST, pp. 7 and 8).
Dr. W. Graham Scroggie says: “The Epistle is about the Christian life as God intends it normally to be lived, life by Christ, in Christ, and Christlike. This is a life joyful, lofty, devout, and unique; it is a life restful, steadfast, energetic, and serene” (UNFOLDING DRAMA OF REDEMPTION, Volume III, p. 207).
Dr. J. Sidlow Baxter concludes his notes on Philippians with the following statement:
What a triumphant little document this Philippian epistle is! Chains are clanking on the writer’s wrists and ankles, but he makes them sound like bells of heaven! In the very first paragraph he speaks of “grace”, “peace”, “joy”, “love”, “glory”, “praise”! And the bells ring right through all four chapters until they give a triumphant final peal in the last paragraph: “But my God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus.” What more need be said after that? All that is needed is a doxology; and that is just what Paul adds in verse 20: “Now unto our God and Father be the glory unto the ages of the ages. Amen” (EXPLORE THE BOOK, Volume VI, p. 194).