This month we begin our study of Philippians, the last letter that we are studying in our yearlong look at Paul’s Prison Epistles. We have done our best to examine these letters according to the order in which the apostle likely wrote them. Many scholars believe that Paul wrote Philippians last, after writing Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians. This would put the composition of Philippians around AD 62, but it is impossible to be certain about this. The date of writing does not actually make a difference in interpreting the epistle, and the other three Prison Epistles were probably not written long before Philippians in any case.
As far as the place of Paul’s imprisonment when he wrote to the church at Philippi, the city of Rome is perhaps the best candidate. References to the imperial guard (Phil. 1:13) and greetings from Caesar’s household (4:22) point us in this direction, although the place of writing is likewise not essential to understanding the message of the letter. In any case, if the apostle wrote to Philippi while in Rome, then he did so during the Roman imprisonment recorded in Acts 28:16–31. Early church tradition tells us that Paul was eventually released from this imprisonment and then ministered for several more years, wrote letters to Timothy and Titus, and was finally arrested again and beheaded in Rome. The apostle’s expectation of a speedy release in Philippians 1:25–26 and 2:23–24, and his view of his impending death in 2 Timothy 4:6–8, apparently confirm this traditional sequence of events.
Unlike the epistle of Philemon, written to encourage the release of Onesimus, it is hard to nail down any single reason why Paul was compelled to send a letter to the Philippians. There do not seem to have been many problems in Philippi, although passages such as Philippians 2:1–4 and 4:2 may indicate that some believers were having trouble getting along and serving one another. If so, Paul wrote to address these concerns, but he also sent his letter to thank the Philippians for a gift they sent him (4:14–18), update them on his condition in prison (1:12–18), and assure the church that Epaphroditus’ return to Philippi was due to a serious illness and not because he was unreliable (2:25–30). As the apostle wrote to address these concerns, the Holy Spirit inspired him to give us the very Word of God.
Philippians is well known for its exhortations that we might rejoice always. Take some time today to read quickly through Philippians in preparation for our study. Note how the personal concerns Paul addresses in the letter reflect the joy he had in his relationships with other believers. Ask the Lord that He might deepen your bonds with fellow Christians and that He will help us hear the message of Paul’s letter to Philippi.