Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Philippians 1:1-11
In this introduction to Philippians, Paul makes one thing clear: the church in Philippi is a partner with him in advancing the gospel, and he is grateful to God for them. We are given a gorgeous prayer that we would all do well to make part of our prayer life for the people we work with (and support) in advancing the gospel.
3 I give thanks to my God for every remembrance of you,
Getting Started: Things to Think About
Philippians is a thank you letter -- Paul thanking the church in Philippi for being such a good partner with him. That's going to be a key theme that bubbles up, so I recommend starting this quarter off with a discussion of partnerships.
What are some famous partnerships that come to mind, and most importantly, what made them such a great partnership?
(Note: we're going to have multiple opportunities to talk about Southern Baptist partnership through the Cooperative Program, so you don't have to get super-spiritual here at the get-go. I promise to draw plenty of spiritual applications!)
I'm a dog-lover, so I can't help but add Turner and Hooch as a representative of the amazing partnerships history over between a man (or woman) and his dog. If you have a dog, you should be able to rattle off all of the amazing traits of dogs that make them such great partners. And if you come back with "humans are not dogs", I'll counter with "does that excuse humans for being less loyal or loving?"
The Abbott and Costello reference mainly just gives me an excuse to share the timeless "Who's on First?" routine. But I also consider them a living lesson of the possibilities of partnerships: if you commit to making it work, you can accomplish incredible things; and the moment it ceases to be your priority, it will fall apart a lot faster than it took to build. Feel free to do a little reading of their life stories and how they tried to cope with their success.
You might not recognize that right-most picture as the Wright brothers. Their father was a leader in a conservative evangelical Christian denomination, and he taught them the importance of humility, family, and commitment. It took them years of maturity to put all of that together, but it also gave them the stick-to-it-ness necessary for taking on one of the greatest challenges viewed by mankind.
Here's one thing I want to point out about those partnerships, assuming you aren't experts in their histories. (First, don't worry about the Turner and Hooch reference. It's fictional. I just love dogs.) At one point in time, Abbott and Costello were the most-recognized and highest-paid performers in the world. At one point in time, Orville and Wilbur were some of the most-sought-after speakers in the world. Well, Abbott and Costello's partnership dissolved, while Orville and Wilbur's thrived, even through patent wars and international skepticism (through Wilbur's untimely death). I know what I think helped make the one work.
The Power of Teamwork (Bring a Tug Rope!)
If you don't like that topic idea, you can start with this. Ask the question, "Why is it so important to have a good team who partner together well?" That should be a pretty easy question to start some discussion.
Transition out with a statement like "This is very easy to demonstrate" -- and then pick the strongest person in your group and the smallest person in your group, and put them on opposite sides of a rope of some kind. "Who wins in a tug-of-war contest?" Don't actually let them tug! We don't want any silly injuries! And then have five people join the smaller person -- "Who wins in a tug-of-war now?" (And if the strongest person would still win, keep adding people to the other side until the "team" wins. The point is that eventually a team is going to win against an individual.)
The Power of the Christian Church
I told you there would be no shortage of spiritual applications. You can transition into the introduction to Philippians with something like this: "Paul understood and believed in the power of teamwork. And he believed that the Christian church was the greatest team ever created -- not because of the power of the people but the power of God."
4 Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 There are different ministries, but the same Lord. 6 And there are different activities, but the same God works all of them in each person. ... 12 For just as the body is one and has many parts, and all the parts of that body, though many, are one body—so also is Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and we were all given one Spirit to drink.
Each one of us is uniquely created in the image of God, and God brought us together into our church family to work together to accomplish His greater purpose. (According to Philippians, that purpose is working together to advance the gospel.)
As we study this letter, let's always be considering how well we work together as a church family to accomplish our purpose in Christ!
Introduction to Philippians
I took a course in seminary that was solely about Philippians. All semester long, that’s all we studied. And I remember getting to the end of the course and feeling like we had just scratched the surface. It’s an amazing letter, and I’m very excited to be studying it with you (even if it is for just six weeks)!
This quarter combines Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon, and that’s because they were most likely written at the same time. Here’s the background:
Paul visited Philippi on his second missionary journey (Acts 16), around 51 AD. There, he was instrumental in the conversion of Lydia and her family (Acts 16:14-15), and a jailer and his family (Acts 16:33-34). According to Acts 16:40, when they were released from prison, they met with “the brothers and sisters” at Lydia’s house, which means they had planted a church – the first church Paul planted in Europe.
Paul mentions being in prison. Well, he was in prison a lot. He was probably in prison in Ephesus ~55 AD. He was in prison in Caesarea ~57-59 AD (Acts 24). He was in prison in Rome ~60-62 AD (Acts 28). Paul’s reference to “Caesar’s household” and his concern that he might not get out strongly implies that he is in prison in Rome. This would mean that the church is about 10 years old. [For context, think about how much has changed at FBC since 2011!]
When the church in Philippi heard that Paul was in prison, they sent a church member named Epaphroditus to Rome with money for Paul. (Paul was under house arrest, meaning he could entertain guests, and people could bring him food and supplies.) Unfortunately, Epaphroditus got very sick, which made the church very sad. When he got well, Paul sent him back to Philippi (rather than have him stick around to continue to assist Paul) with this letter.
As much as anything, Philippians is a “thank you letter”, and in it Paul points out those excellent traits the church members were expressing – generosity, boldness, courage, responsibility. But he can’t help but use a teachable moment and also weighs in on some things going on in the church (that Epaphroditus probably told him about). It’s the sort of meaningful thank you letter I wish I would write.
Paul mentions that Timothy is with him (again, perfectly allowable under rules of house arrest). In both Colossians and Philemon, Paul says that he is a prisoner and that Timothy is with him, which is why pretty much everyone believes that these three letters were written at the same time.
(Note: some scholars prefer the earlier imprisonment in Ephesus because it was much closer to Philippi, and there seemed to be a lot of travel between Paul and Philippi. Further, Paul talked about visiting Philippi after he got out, and in Romans, he said he planned to travel to Spain after he got out. That makes sense, but I still think the Roman imprisonment fits the picture better.)
Philippi was a Roman colony and a “leading city” in Macedonia, located on the major road that passed through the mountains. There were silver and gold mines there, and Philip of Macedon (Alexander the Great’s father) seized control of it in 400 BC and named it after himself. In 42 BC, one of the most important battles in history took place there. Octavian and Marc Antony defeated Brutus and Cassius (who assassinated Julius Caesar), setting the stage for Octavian to become Augustus Caesar. After becoming emperor, Augustus refounded Philippi as a Roman colony, and he let Marc Antony’s soldiers settle there.
My professor in seminary made a big deal about the fact that Philippi was settled by retired soldiers and that Paul used terms that could be military slang (I’ll mention some examples when we get to them). That’s cool, but Paul wrote this letter 100 years after that battle. That’s like WWI for us; no matter how important the battle was, I find it hard to believe that it was still influencing people’s language in a way unique to the Roman Empire.
But I do want to point this out: Philippians was intended to be read aloud to the church. There are plenty of wordplays and verbal tricks to make the letter memorable and easy to understand. Unfortunately, we lose all of that by reading it privately in English. We'll still be able to learn what everything means, but it will require more work on our part than it did for Paul's original hearers.
As always, I encourage you to start with the Bible Project summary. Even when they go a slightly different direction than I would, everything they say is so well-supported and Jesus-honoring. For example, they see the Jesus hymn as the interpretive center of the letter; I don't completely agree, but I love the idea. Here’s a working outline of the letter:
I. Introduction (1:1-26)
a. Greeting (1:1-2)
b. Thanksgiving prayer (1:3-11)
c. Paul’s situation in prison (1:12-26)
II. Paul cheers on the Philippians (1:27-2:18)
a. Unity (1:27)
b. Courage (1:28-30)
c. Humility (2:1-11)
d. Obedience (2:12-13)
e. Blamelessness (2:14-18)
f. Partnership (2:19-24)
g. Care (2:25-30)
III. Paul warns the Philippians (3:1-4:1)
a. Legalism (3:1-3)
b. Self-confidence (3:4-11)
c. Satisfaction (3:12-16)
d. Opposition (3:17-4:1)
e. Dissention (4:2-3)
f. Being anxious (4:4-7)
IV. Paul shares his heart with the Philippians (4:2-20)
a. Be reconciled with one another (4:2-3)
b. Don’t be anxious about anything (4:4-7)
c. Keep your thoughts on Jesus (4:8-9)
d. Be content in your circumstances (4:10-13)
e. Stay generous (4:14-20)
V. Closing (4:21-23)
This week, the focus is on introducing the letter, setting the stage. Paul also has this amazing letter-writing skill in which he hits all of the highlights of his letter in his greeting. That’s what we’re covering this week, so you'll get to see what I mean.
Part 1: Shared Faith (Philippians 1:1-2)
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus: To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons. 2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul uses a standard greeting. In fact, I've seen strong evidence that we can think of Philippians as a standard "family letter" from that day. Here is a common outline of a family letter (a friendly letter between family members):
Prayer for recipients
Summary of "my affairs"
Request to know about "your affairs"
Information about comings and goings
Greetings for third parties
Wish for health
I simplified that a little, but that's not too far off from the standard "mom phone call" even today. Paul was a gifted communicator, don't you think?
Most scholars have put Philippians into a special category: "hortatory letter of friendship" (meaning a letter from a friend that's encouraging you to do something). My favorite commentary on Philippians (NICNT by Gordon Fee) says that focusing on the friendship part will miss the most important part. Paul and the Philippians aren't just friends -- they're partners in the gospel of Jesus.
That's the critical difference about Christian friendships -- we aren't just "hanging on" to one another; we're "being held together" by the Spirit of Jesus. The Wright brothers had that additional "glue" in their relationship. Paul believes that that "glue" will hold the Philippians together as they undergo trials and opposition. And so Jesus binds together Paul and these Christians in Macedonia. See how Paul describes them to the Corinthians:
2 Cor 8:1 We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that was given to the churches of Macedonia: 2 During a severe trial brought about by affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.
Catch those keywords: trial, joy, poverty, generosity.
Paul says that he is with Timothy. (I'll put more about Timothy at the very bottom if I have space.) The Philippians knew Timothy, and so this would have been a comfort to them. Note that Paul doesn't identify himself as an apostle, meaning that the church has no doubts about Paul's credentials. That means he can put more emphasis on his co-worker Timothy (who probably served as his secretary), which would be important for when Timothy went to Philippi on Paul's behalf.
"Servants" of Jesus is really "slaves" of Jesus. We've said before that Roman slavery was nothing like the chattel, racial, hereditary slavery of old America, but still, no Roman citizen (as Paul was) would identify himself as a slave. Paul's making an important point. Slaves were the humblest position in Roman society. Christians should see themselves as the lowest of the low.
Then, when Christians realize that they have been made "saints in Christ Jesus" (i.e. set apart by Jesus), all the glory goes to Jesus. I don't think it's a coincidence that he immediately singles out the "overseers and deacons" right after calling himself a "slave" -- they'd better not be getting a big head about their position! They are a part of the community ("including"), not above them. But they have an important role (see below).
Paul offers "grace" and "peace". Note that Paul always uses this order, and specifically it's always a variation of "grace to you and peace". It's powerful theology: as a result of God's grace (literally God's gift to us), we can have peace with God.
I'm not sure you'll have time for much extra discussion (considering how much of this week's passage is left), but you might bring up a favorite letter you have received -- who it was from and what made it so special to you.
Aside: Overseers and Deacons
"Overseer" is episkopos (where we get Episcopal, i.e. "bishop", which has proved to be a most unhelpful translation). The irony of the future use of this term is that it's not really an "office" but a function. The episkopos was in charge of something or other. All this means is that someone was in charge (somebody has to be in charge, right?). According to ancient letters, these men were responsible for what we call "pastoral care" and administration. It's not necessarily that they had to do everything, but more that they were responsible for making sure those critical tasks got done.
"Deacon" is diakonos and means "servant". Once again, this is used to identify a function rather than an office. (It was much later when people became obsessed with calling themselves deacons and bishops). The deacons were those who served the needs of the church. It doesn't seem like they were "appointed" in the early days -- everyone just kind of knew who they were.
So, why single these groups out? I think the most likely reason is there is dissention between some of these (Paul will specifically point out a rift between Euodia and Syntyche later in the letter), and he is "subtweeting" them in this greeting, making it clear without being obvious that he has his eye on the relationship between certain leaders in the church.
Part 2: Thankful Faith (Philippians 1:3-8)
3 I give thanks to my God for every remembrance of you, 4 always praying with joy for all of you in my every prayer, 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 I am sure of this, that he who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. 7 Indeed, it is right for me to think this way about all of you, because I have you in my heart, and you are all partners with me in grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8 For God is my witness, how deeply I miss all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
Let's get this out of the way up front: Paul genuinely meant these words. He loved that church and he prayed for them all the time. (Remember, it's Paul who told us to rejoice always, pray continuously, and give thanks in all circumstances.) I wish I were that committed to prayer! Think about other churches you have been a member of in addition to your current church family. How often do you pray for them?
And here's another thought: do you think that Paul's thankfulness was a good combat technique for the potential sorrow that his circumstance could be causing? Goodness, he's in prison and he might be executed! But don't you think his genuine thankfulness helped him see the silver lining [insert saying here]? I do.
"Partnership" is a key word in this letter and for Paul in general. He knew that he could not evangelize the entire empire. In fact, that task would take every Christian alive! And the Christians in Philippi had decided to help in what ways they could. And in this case, Paul could physically see the proof of their partnership: Epaphroditus (now recovered). I'm sure Epaphroditus was a key member of the church, and he would be gone for months; I'm sure he was missed! But the church sent him to help Paul because Paul needed him more than they did. That's partnership!
(Aside: Consider your current workplace. On a scale of "we work together in everything" to "we hunker down in a silo", what's it like? If it's not the way you would like it, what would it take to change it?)
Consider these verses according to this structure:
I thank God with joy every time I remember you
My joy comes from your partnership in the gospel
I know that God will keep our partnership going
My confidence comes from your partnership in the gospel
God knows my great love for you
This makes it clear that the hinge ("glue") for their relationship is God. God (quite literally) started this work in them by opening their eyes to their need for salvation. And then God put it on their hearts that they needed to help Paul in his mission. But it was (and is!) still on the Christians to respond to God's prompting and act. The Philippians have partnered with Paul, and that has enabled him to continue his mission even while in prison.
Note that "imprisonment" would not be an embarrassment to the Philippians, of all people. After all, one of the great miracles in Paul's ministry was the earthquake while Paul was in prison in Philippi, releasing him from his chains! But did Paul escape? No. And who lived because Paul chose to stay in place? The jailer -- who then became a Christian and a founding member of the church in Philippi. We can assume that the jailer (if alive) was one of the people who heard this very letter!
Some comments on the text:
"Always praying" doesn't necessarily mean "constantly" but rather "continuously" in the sense of "over and over", meaning regularly rather than rarely.
"All my prayers", on the other hand, does actually mean "all" -- meaning that every time he prayed for them, he did so with joy and thanksgiving.
Similarly, "all of you" means "all" -- assuming that Epaphroditus has reported a rift between church leaders, Paul wants them to know that he prays for all.
"Joy" is not an emotion but a perspective that transcends circumstances, and it can only truly come from the Holy Spirit.
About verse 6: this is a very well-known verse that can easily be removed from context. Let's go ahead and put this out there: if God begins a good work in you -- any good work -- He will absolutely finish it. The operative word is "good", meaning "from God". We don't get to decide if a work is good or not. If God is doing something good, He will bring it to whatever end He has decided for it. That's all true, and we can take comfort in it.
But Paul had a very specific good work in mind: the Philippians' partnership with Paul in advancing the gospel of Jesus. In this letter, Paul is going to mention things like his imprisonment, the opposition they face, internal dissention -- things that would seem to get in the way of their mission. But Paul wants them to know that God will bring this work to the end. The barriers might seem big to them, but they are not to God.
But why didn't Paul say "a good work through you" instead of "in you"? Well, because God does not create puppets -- He creates ambassadors. The Holy Spirit was at work in their lives, transforming them into true disciples of Jesus, the kinds of disciples that would invest their lives in His Great Commission. God doesn't only work through us (we are more than a tool for God to "use"); He works in us and thus we work with God on God's behalf. Do you see the distinction? Paul can pack a lot into just a few words!
About verse 7: do everything you can to make it clear that Paul's driving purpose is spreading the gospel. I'm sure the church had pot luck dinners (they would have called them "love feasts"). I'm sure they worked hard to make Paul comfortable when he was with them. I'm sure they had excellent and powerful church services. But Paul would have pounded this into them: their purpose as a church was to make disciples and advance the gospel. And Paul praised them for learning that lesson well! My desire is that Paul would feel the same about the churches in our community.
Part 3: Growing Faith (Philippians 1:9-11)
9 And I pray this: that your love will keep on growing in knowledge and every kind of discernment, 10 so that you may approve the things that are superior and may be pure and blameless in the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God.
(I'll admit that I don't totally get the titles Lifeway chose to go with. They don't match the lesson title, and they don't match Paul's outline, especially part 2. They're not wrong; they just don't help us learn the lesson. I would go with Part 1: A Partnership for the Gospel; Part 2: A Partnership Powered by God; Part 3: A Partnership That Will Never End. Something like that. Always feel free to modify titles and headings to help your group the best way possible!)
I really don't have much to say. This is such a beautiful, powerful prayer. Paul explains more about this "good work" God is doing in them -- knowledge, discernment, purity, and righteousness. And as far as Paul is concerned (and God would agree), those characteristics always lead to a life that makes disciples and advances the gospel.
If anything, this prayer should be full proof of Paul's love for them. And what a masterful prayer! Let's break it down:
What does Paul pray for? That their love will keep on growing.
How? In knowledge and discernment.
Why? (1) To know what really matters.
Why? (2) To be pure and blameless when Christ returns.
How? By being filled with the fruit of righteousness.
End result: "The glory and praise of God."
Based on everything else Paul has said, this "love" is "love for one another". But it's not a willy-nilly love, a vague affection. It's a love rooted in knowledge and discernment.
It's a love that truly cares about the individual and wants what's best for that person -- namely salvation (for starters) and then growth in righteousness.
And why does Paul want that for them? Two reasons: so they will know what's really important, and so they will hear "well done, good and faithful servant" when they stand before Jesus. Those are great reasons!
We just got done studying Ecclesiastes. Wouldn't you say that the biggest struggle for Solomon in that book was determining what really matters in life? I know that my discussions kept coming back to what does and doesn't matter, and how much time and energy we waste on things that don't really matter. What conclusions did you come to? What really matters and what doesn't? Well, Paul wants God to help you understand that difference, mainly because he knows what really matters: the salvation of the lost. Paul wants people to be saved and then grow in their faith. Once we settle that in our minds, we can live and act accordingly.
Note about "pure and blameless" -- when Paul uses these terms elsewhere (see 2 Cor 2:17, 1 Cor 5:7), he means "sincere and not causing someone else to stumble". He uses other terms to mean things like "without fault". This makes more sense when realizing that "filled with the fruit of righteousness" means "filled with evidence of Christ's righteousness". Paul is not saying that he wants people to be morally/behaviorally perfect. That leads to the very legalism that he will shred later in the letter. Rather, he wants them to be living for Jesus in such a way that attracts others to Jesus. That's basically what all of this means.
As a teaching wrap-up, I want you to point out that these themes are the very themes that Paul will bring up throughout the letter. Really, we've gotten a preview of the whole letter! (It doesn't take very long to read -- just read the whole letter in one sitting and you'll see what I mean.) And later, when we have questions about what Paul means, we can come back to these verses and get our clarification.
The application this week should be prayer. Pray for your church. Pray for churches you have been a part of in the past. Pray for your Sunday School class. Who are other "partners" you've worked with in the name of Jesus? What, specifically, should you be praying for and about? If you're still not sure, then just pray these verses for them!
Closing Thoughts: About Timothy
Timothy grew up in Lystra. He was probably converted during Paul's first missionary journey (Acts 14). When Paul came back through on his second missionary journey, he asked Timothy to accompany him. That means Timothy was with Paul when Paul first went to Philippi.
Paul lists Timothy as the "co-author" of six letters: 2 Corinthians, Philippians, Colossians, 1/2 Thessalonians, Philemon. In Philippians, Paul says that there is no one like Timothy.