Introducing the New Testament, 2nd Edition

A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey

Materials available for professors by request only


18. Philippians


This chapter should enable the student to

  • summarize what modern scholarship has to say regarding the historical background for Philippians, including information about the city and church to which this letter was addressed, the possible date of its composition, and the circumstances that prompted Paul to write the letter.
  • describe the significance of the Philippian “Christ hymn” for Christian theology, relating its message to the doctrines of incarnation and preexistence.
  • indicate how Paul uses the “Christ hymn” in this letter as an encouragement to humility and recognize how that theme is developed throughout other parts of the letter as well.
  • explicate the themes of suffering (its inevitability and potential value) and fellowship developed in Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

Pedagogical Suggestions

1. Friendship Then and Now

Have students define “friendship” today. What are the ideal characteristics of a good friend? What causes problems for friendships, particularly among a group of friends?

Have students read Philippians closely, looking for the language and themes of ancient friendship (1:3, 7–8; 2:1–5; 4:1–15). What is the same in Paul’s language for friendship and in ours? What is different? What problems between “friends” does Paul address in Philippians? Where do these occur in the text?

Finally, how does Paul relate his friendship with the Philippians to their friendship with Christ?


The language of friendship proliferates in this letter (see William S. Kurz, “Kenotic Imitation of Paul and of Christ in Philippians 2 and 3,” in Discipleship in the New Testament, ed. Fernando Segovia [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985]; and Luke T. Johnson, “Philippians” in The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation, 3rd ed., [Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001] for further reading) and offers a single theme entry into the argumentative structure of the letter. Students understand friendship and can quickly enter the discussion. For these reasons and because the single theme entry accomplishes a thorough discussion of Philippians in 30–60 minutes, this is a good way to approach the letter.

2. The Politics of Religion

Have students write their definitions of citizenship. How is a good citizen expected to behave?

Look closely at Philippians 1:27 and 3:20. In 1:27 Paul exhorts the Philippians to “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” and in 3:20 Paul reminds the Philippian believers that their “citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Often political rulers (e.g., Ptolemy Soter of Egypt and Caesars of Rome) took the title “Savior” (Soter) when they came to power.

How is Paul redefining the Philippians’ citizenship from political and social responsibilities to religious ones? What will this new definition mean for their life in the town of Philippi, their loyalties to the Roman Empire, for their ethical relationships with one another?


In this exercise students begin to see how Paul uses political metaphors, as well as financial (4:15–18), cultic (4:18–20), and social metaphors (1:15–18), to help the Philippians understand the role of Christ in their community and the ethical expectations that follow from being citizens of Christ the Savior. If Paul’s citizenship is in Christ, this may offer some insight as to why he is in prison and what the social and political ramifications were for first-century followers of Christ who were vocal about their “citizenship” loyalties to Christ over Rome and Caesar. This easily leads to a discussion of the relationship between politics and religion today.

3. Letters from Prison

Assign students a reading from another “prison letter” for homework. For example, one might use “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr. or Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison” (London: Collins Fontana Books, 1953, pp. 122–25) with the letter from July 24, 1944, being a good starting point. Another possibility is to have students look for letters from political prisoners (Iran, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Russia, Japanese internment camps in the US, etc.) online.

Compare and contrast Paul’s letter to the Philippians with another (historical) prison letter. What does the comparison show us about each prisoner’s self-understanding and relation to the community to whom they write? What is the core of their message, and how does each letter writer communicate that message?

How does the additional letter illumine our understanding of Paul’s letter and of Paul’s concern for his friends in Philippi?


“Rhetoric” refers to the way we use language with respect to an audience. This exercise gives students a sense of how the rhetorical shape of letters functions to encourage a community, address problems, provide guidance, etc. In addition, by reading Paul side by side with another “prisoner,” students can imagine Paul in a more concrete, historical context. In other words, he becomes more “real.”

4. Ancient Travel and the Pauline Network

Focus on Philippians 1:1–11; 2:19–30; and 4:10–20. Have students (singly or in groups) sketch, draw, or map the travel and exchange of people and gifts between Paul in prison and the community of believers in Philippi. Remind them that this New Testament letter we have is part of the communication under examination. Discuss how letters moved from place to place. (Although an extensive Imperial postal route existed, Paul sent his letters by personal courier [Phil. 2:19] as, it appears, did the Philippians [Phil. 2:25; 4:16–18]).

Ancient prisons did not often supply the needs of the prisoners. Friends from outside brought food, extra blankets, writing materials, or medication for the one in prison. Thus Paul was dependent to a degree on both Timothy and Epaphroditus. What do we learn about Paul’s network of ministry and modes of communication between early Christ followers?


This is a 30-minute exercise that encourages students to read carefully and teaches them to do preliminary socio-historical analysis of ancient texts. With this exercise, students build a deeper and broader understanding of ancient patterns of travel, communication, and relationships between Paul, his churches, and his co-workers. Additionally, students begin to see that Paul did not work alone, but wrote, thought, and ministered side by side with a vast network of people.

Discussion Prompts

  1. What specific words and conceptual themes are repeated in this letter? (Students can do this in small groups, one group working on each chapter, or for homework if class time is short.) What kind of tone does the repetition create?
  2. How does Paul minister to the Philippians through the letter? What actions or kinds of language reflect his pastoral concerns?
  3. How do the Philippians minister to Paul?
  4. For what reason does Paul tell his own story? (Examine one or two of these passages: Phil. 1:12–26; 3:2–11; 3:12–4:1; 4:10–20). Is Paul illustrating a particular ideal? How does his biographical report explain the exhortation “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us” (Phil. 3:17)?
  5. How are we to understand the discussion of money in chapter 4?