Paul's first imprisonment in Rome was now drawing to a close (2:24), though as yet he had not stood before the bar of the emperor Nero, to whose judgment he had appealed when arraigned before Festus at Caesarea. Meanwhile the Philippian saints, profiting by the departure of Epaphroditus to Paul, sent him a substantial token of their love and fellowship in the gospel (4:18); and Paul, reciprocating their kindness, not then for the first time manifested (4:15, 16), wrote this letter to be conveyed to them by Epaphroditus, his brother, fellow-workman, and fellow-soldier, but their messenger and minister to his wants. Truly he was not long in their debt; for the return he gave them, all must have felt, far more than compensated for that which they had expended upon him. Each, however, did their part. They ministered to his temporal need; he ministered of Christ to their souls, and described the token of their love as an odour of sweet savour, a sacrifice acceptable, well-pleasing to God. (4:18.) Their ministry to the apostle betokened the activity of Christian life in them. So writing to these saints he dwells on that theme; hence the epistle is hortatory and practical, the affection of his heart for them being plainly manifested. (4:1.) The occasion and probable date of the epistle briefly noticed, let us now look at its contents.
As in the epistles to the Thessalonians, and in that to Philemon, so in this one, Paul does not present himself in his apostolic character; but conjoining Timothy with himself as a servant of Christ Jesus, he writes to all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi with the bishops and deacons, wishing them all grace and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (1:1, 2.) The Philippian assembly was evidently well provided with office bearers; and the mention of bishops here, and in Acts 20:28, proves that the notion of episcopacy current in modem days derives no support from the practice of the apostles. Both in Europe and in Asia there could be more than one bishop in the same assembly. Grace and peace he wished them; for they are always needed. None knew that better than Paul; and the source of grace being opened up to God's saints, and the God of peace being their God, he could express his wishes for the continued outflow to them of grace, and the constant ministry of peace; for the peace here spoken of is not peace of conscience, but peace of heart - the peace of Christ, that which He gave His people, and which, writing to the Colossian saints, Paul desired should rule in their hearts.
But more, he could give thanks for them, and he did. Years had passed since he had seen them, but he had not forgotten them. "I thank my God," he writes, "upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making request with joy, for your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now." Fellowship in the gospel had always characterized that assembly. (4:15.) It characterized it still. (1:7; 4:14.) Now, that fellowship betokened not only love to him, but a real work of grace in their souls - a work commenced, instrumentally, by Paul and his company (Acts 16:13), but really by God, who will perfect in His goodness that which He has begun in His grace. To Him, then, Paul turns for confidence about the saints: "Being confident of this one thing, that He which hath begun a good work in you, will perform it until the day of Christ Jesus." (v. 6.) And to the furtherance of Paul's joy, he had not to rest simply on the remembrance of that which they once had been in the first fervour of their love; for the coming of Epaphroditus with their tribute of affection told him of their continued interest in him, and in the work of God with which he was so closely associated. So he points to that as a further proof of the reality of their conversion. "Even," he writes, "as it is right for me to think this of you all, because you have me in your heart;* inasmuch as both in my bonds, and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel, ye are all partakers of my grace." Happy Paul, to have such continued evidence of the fruitfulness of his labours among them. Blessed too surely they were who furnished such proofs. Deeds, not words merely, was it with them. And what honour was put on them to have fellowship with Paul in the grace of furthering the interests of Christ and the kingdom of God! They were not ashamed of him, the prisoner. They identified themselves with him.
* So we should read the clause.
Thus the energy of Christian life was displayed in them. So he was confident about them, their unabated affection to him confirming it, and his longing desire after them in the bowels of Christ Jesus strengthening it. (v. 8.) And that earnest desire on his part found expression in prayer to God (vv. 9-11), that their love might abound yet more and more in full knowledge, and in all judgment, or perception, so as to approve the things that are more excellent; that they might be sincere* and without offence unto the day of Christ; being filled with the fruit of righteousness, which is by Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God. Nothing short of this would satisfy him. After this he tells them how the work of God was progressing in Rome, and what he was assured was the Lord's mind concerning himself. Then manifesting his interest in them, he turns round to encourage their hearts in the circumstances in which they were placed, and to minister what he saw was the truth suited for them. Such is a brief summary of this short but most valuable letter.
* eilikrines, lit. examined by the sun's light; hence genuine, pure. It occurs also in 2 Peter 3:1.
How refreshing it must have been to him, instead of having to meet something wrong at Philippi, to tell them of that which was going forward in Rome! He would have them know that what had happened unto him had fallen out rather for the furtherance of the gospel. It was seen now in all the Pretorium,* and to all others, that instead of his being a malefactor, he was really a prisoner for Christ. In the camp, in the palace, in the city, it was apparent that a testimony was going forth which had Christ for its subject, and of which Paul was the marked exponent and witness. Besides this, the greater part of the brethren, having confidence in the Lord through his bonds, were much more bold to speak the Word without fear. Thus labourers multiplied, and that in Rome itself, and before any sentence from the emperor had been given in his favour. It was not that a few were emboldened, but the mass of them - the many. They spoke, they preached. If then the apostle's mouth was at present shut, the mouths of many were opened, and Christ was proclaimed.
*The large camp situated outside the city walls.
Yet all were not sincere in this work. Some indeed preached Christ of love, knowing that Paul was set for the defence of the gospel; but others, animated by personal hostility to him, preached Christ of contention, supposing to add affliction to his bonds. Who were these? it may be asked. Their names have for centuries been wrapped in obscurity; whilst he, to whose bonds they sought to add affliction, is widely owned as one of the most devoted and most honoured servants of that Lord, whom they also professed to serve; for it was Christ who was preached. Hence Paul could rejoice, and did rejoice. And looking beyond the motives of those who preached Christ, yet not sincerely, he saw the advancement of God's kingdom, which means the final triumph of Christ. Hence he knew it would turn to his salvation through their supplication, and the supply of the Spirit of Christ Jesus, "according," as he adds, "to my earnest expectation and hope, that in nothing I shall be ashamed; but in all boldness, as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die gain." Yet to live in the flesh was worth the while. Personally, however, he would be a gainer by death. What then should he choose? His gain, or the saints' profit? Coming to that point his choice is made. To abide in the flesh was more needful for them. Hence he knew, and could announce beforehand, the successful issue of his appeal to the emperor, since their joy, and the furtherance of their faith, would be promoted by his being again among them, that their boasting might abound in Christ Jesus through him by his presence with them at Philippi. What unselfishness was this! The interests of Christ, and those of His saints, in this governed him.
How completely was the enemy baffled as regards Paul. The preaching of Christ not sincerely did not oppress him, however much he might have grieved over those who did it. Death in prospect did not trouble him. To live too was for Paul to serve Christ. Over such an one the enemy by these assaults could gain no advantage.
Turning now to the Philippians, Paul would seek in the power of the Spirit to foil the attempts of Satan to dishearten those whom he loved so well. (vv. 27 - 30.) Their interest in him he owned, and had responded to. He would make manifest his unabated interest in them. "Only," he writes, "let your conversation be as becometh the gospel of the Christ." For this he was anxious. There was a manner of life in harmony with it. That he desired they should evidence. But before developing this, he makes plain the satisfaction it would give him, whether of seeing them or hearing of them, to learn that they stood fast in one spirit, with one soul striving together for or with the faith of the gospel. In what nobler contest could they be engaged? How many an ardent person has been nerved to deeds of heroism by the spirit of patriotism? But the love of one's country, unless the interests of Christ are connected with it, can be but of passing importance. A true interest in the gospel and in its conflicts is a very different matter. It was this last that he desired to have strengthened in their souls. And to this end he encouraged them not to be terrified in anything by their opposers, to such an evident token of perdition, but to the saints of their salvation, and that of God. To look around at the trials, like Peter at the waves, would not do. To look up, and to look forward can at such times alone sustain and strengthen. To the future then he turns them. To the end of the conflict he points them, reminding them of the honour put on them, not only to believe on Christ, but also to suffer for Him, having the same conflict which they saw in Paul when scourged and imprisoned at Philippi, and which they heard he had part in, as the prisoner of Christ Jesus in Rome.
What room could there be for the enemy to gain any advantage over them, if such considerations had weight? Their conflict assured them of salvation from God, and reminded them of the honour put on them for Christ's sake. But when force cannot stop God's work, corruption may mar it. Of the enemy's wiles Paul was not ignorant. So he proceeded to exhort them to fulfil, or fill up, his joy by their thinking the same thing, which he explains more at length by the having the same love, being of one accord, or joined in soul, and thinking the one thing. (2:1, 2.) Entering now more at length on the subject of walking worthy of the gospel, he first supplies them with precepts (vv. 3, 4), by which to regulate their conduct toward each other, and then points them to the perfect example, the Lord Jesus Christ (vv. 5-9), who for the glory of God, and the welfare of others, emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, taking His place in the likeness of men, the lowest in rank of God's intelligent creatures. How low had He stooped! yet lower would He go, stooping to death, the death of the cross. His, humiliation thus set forth step by step, from the glory to the cross and to the grave; His exaltation is also described, the attestation of God's marked approval of Him who emptied Himself. Hence the Lord is brought before us as an example, an example none can equal; for no one has come from the height of glory to the death of the cross, and to the grave, but He who voluntarily stooped so low. Now if the Master thus stooped, if He who is our life could thus act, lowly thoughts of self and care for others should be exemplified in each one of us who are His. We learn what He did. We are reminded too in what light God regards it. Never throughout eternity shall any intelligent creature, whether lost or saved, be allowed to forget the humiliation of the Son of God, or to refuse the rendering of homage at the mention of that name given Him before His birth by the angel.
With the example of the Lord thus set before them, these saints were exhorted to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling; for it was God who worked in them the willing and the working effectually of His good pleasure. All the energy came from Him, and He bestowed it on them. Hence there was no reason to slacken their work because Paul was not with them. God worked in them both the willing and the doing, wherever the apostle might be. Thus furnished with all that they needed, they were responsible to use it. (vv. 12, 13.) Further, he reminded them that they were God's children, and fruit of his labour. He would have them therefore to be blameless and harmless, irreproachable children* of God, and really light-bearers in the world, holding forth the word of life, so as to be Paul's boast in the day of Christ that he had not run in vain nor laboured in vain.
* Children (Tekna), not sons (huioi), is the term here employed. He was speaking of the activity of the nature; hence the birth-tie was the thought before him.
What a standard was set before them in the example of the Master! Who can look at it? some may ask. Who has attempted to follow it? others may enquire. We learn as the answer to such questions how Paul, Timothy, and Epaphroditus, each in their own way, had evidently profited by it, the Spirit of Christ being displayed in these devoted servants of God, each of whom traded with the pound entrusted to him, and with the talents given to him. Had God's glory and the welfare of souls moved the Lord to humble Him self even to death? Paul, learning of the Master, was ready to suffer martyrdom if needed (v. 17), and would deprive himself of the comfort of Epaphroditus's presence and service to further the joy of these beloved Philippian saints. (v. 28.) In Timothy was developed the true spirit of service in the gospel. He sought the things of Christ Jesus, and showed a genuine interest in the welfare of the Philippians. (vv. 19-22.) Epaphroditus was characterized by devotion in personal service to Paul (v. 30), and by unfeigned love for his brethren at Philippi. (v. 26.) Thus each of these in their own way illustrated the working of the life of God in the soul. Beautiful pictures of Christian self-denial - making God's interests and those of the saints the real objects.
But further, the circumstances of the saints at Philippi, and the exhortations he had given them, made it very plain that they were in a scene. which was not in order according to God's thoughts. Difficult the path might, and surely would be. Trials too and disappointments might abound, yet they could find in the Lord an unfailing ground of joy. "Finally, my brethren," he writes, "rejoice in the Lord." (3:1.) He had spoken of the Lord in humiliation as the example for us. He had touched on His exaltation. He would now develop how this last can be a help to us, as exemplified in himself. Judaizing teaching was baneful. It was really subversive of true Christian teaching, as he showed the Galatians. Hence he would take every pains to put souls on their guard against it. Dogs, evil-workers, concision, by such terms does he here describe those people, claiming that which now alone could be worthily called circumcision for those who worship by the Spirit of God, and boast in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh. (v. 3.) For in Christ we are circumcised, as he wrote to the Colossians, in putting off the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ. (Col. 2:11.)
At this point he turns to speak of himself (vv. 4 - 16), as an example of the energy of Christian walk displayed in a man born in sin, and thus like one of us; for in truth no Gentile could so fully exemplify it. None but one born a Jew, as Paul was, could so illustrate it. He had much to boast in after the flesh, but surrendered it all for Christ in glory, whom he desired to know and to win. What he had once gloried in after the flesh he tells us. (vv. 4-6.) In what light he had been brought to view it all he goes on to declare. He had counted it loss for Christ, and he still counted it but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus his Lord, for whom he had suffered the loss of all things, and counted them as dung that he might win Christ, and be found in Him, not having his own righteousness which is of the law, but that which is through faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God* by faith, to know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if by any means he might attain unto the resurrection from among the dead. (vv. 7 - 11.) It was Christ in glory he wished to reach. Till that was accomplished he would not be satisfied. Paul would know Him, and would win Him. Whilst here then in the body he never could attain to all that he desired, nor apprehend that for which he had been apprehended. Hence; in the energy of Christian walk he pressed forward to the goal, through whatever might be in his way, for the prize of the calling on high of God in Christ Jesus.
*He contrasts the righteousness which is of the law (ek nomon) with that which is of God (ek Theou). It is the source of the righteousness to which he calls attention.
Now what Paul desired, that the perfect and full-grown Christian should desire likewise. And to any saint otherwise minded God was willing to reveal even that also. "Nevertheless," he adds, whereunto we have already attained, let us walk by the same;" for this it seems he really wrote. (v. 16.) So he would not despise, not withdraw from, any true saint, because such an one had not attained to all that he had. Still he would not be satisfied with such resting where they were, nor, on the other hand, would he surrender one iota of that to which he had himself attained. Hence he presents himself to all as one to imitate (v. 17); for there were many walking in outward fellowship with the saints, who were really enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end was destruction, whose God was their belly, who gloried in their shame, who minded earthly things.
How would he minister to souls to guard them from being thus carried away? He reminds them that the Christian's citizenship is in heaven, from whence we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall change the body of our humiliation that it may be fashioned like to His body of glory. These people were minding earthly things, whereas our citizenship is in heaven. They were enemies of the cross of Christ. But we are to look for the return in power of the crucified One. They made their belly their God. (Rom 16:18.) We await that change in our bodies by which, what governed those people, will from the saints be eliminated for ever. (1 Cor. 6:13.) Our citizenship, our expectation, and the future condition of our bodies, these are the truths by which he would act on every true Christian. "Therefore," he adds, "my brethren dearly-beloved and longed for my joy and crown, so stand fast in the Lord, beloved." (4:1.) What care for them all does he evince? Nothing escapes him. The want of harmony between Euodia and Syntyche concerned him. He exhorts them himself to be of the same mind in the Lord. How could those women resist such an appeal? He would also stir up his true yokefellow to help them, reminding him that they were some of those who had laboured along with him in the gospel, with Clement and the rest of Paul's fellow-labourers, whose names were in the book of life. Then addressing all the Philippian saints he again exhorts them to rejoice in the Lord, adding the word alway, and reiterating his exhortation - "Again I say, Rejoice." Much there might have been which had troubled them - as Paul's continued imprisonment, their own persecutions, the want of harmony between some in their midst, and the presence among them of those whose walk was not such as became the gospel of Christ. But, above all this, and unaffected by it, was this unchanging ground of joy - the Lord. "Rejoice in Him alway," are Paul's words from his prison. How well did he practise what he preached!
Things were not in order upon earth, and they could not put them straight. "Let your meekness," or gentleness, therefore, he writes, "be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand." He is coming, and will vindicate the cause of His people. But they must wait for that. Meanwhile let them not be burdened with care, but commit it all to God, in which case "the peace of God, which passeth all understanding," would guard their hearts and thoughts by Christ Jesus. Then, suggesting what should occupy their. thoughts, whatever is true, noble, just, pure, amiable, and of good report, he exhorts them to do what they had learned, and received, and heard, and seen in Paul, and the God of peace would be with them.
He had nothing more to add respecting the theme which had occupied him; viz., the energy and display of Christian life, but to tell them how he had learned to trust God for everything, content in the circumstances in which he was placed, yet rejoicing at the token of their Christian love, a sacrifice well pleasing to God, who would supply all their need according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus, a measure of supply for us inexhaustible. In the consciousness of this, praise becomes us; and Paul would stir it up as he adds, "To our God and Father be glory to the ages of ages. Amen." Salutations follow, and from those with Paul in Rome, addressed to all the saints in Christ Jesus, a special class of saints; viz., real Christians, but all real Christians. After this he ends with the accustomed mark of the authenticity of his letters: "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen."
Throughout this epistle the Lord Jesus Christ is the theme. In the first chapter for Paul to live was Christ, and to depart to be with Him was far better. In the second Christ is presented as the example. In the third He is the object. In the fourth He is the One in whom under all circumstances the saint should rejoice. And His return is presented to the minds of the saints in each chapter. In the first Paul prays for them to be kept faithful till the day of Christ. In the second hp, reminds them how all intelligent creatures must bow at the mention of the name of Jesus, and how the saints will be Paul's joy and crown in the day of Christ. In the third he speaks of the change which will take place in the bodies of the saints when the Lord comes for His own. In the fourth he bids them wait for His return, who will vindicate His people. In what varied and helpful lights does the Lord's return present itself! C. E. Stuart.
When God comes into a house, people and things fall into their right places.