(An earlier version of this essay was published in Voice: An Independent Church Journal, March/April 2017 (96:2), 20-21.

Philippians is one of Paul’s most well-loved letters, and many of its statements have become well-known memory verses. Expositors have often suggested that the primary them of Philippians is Christian joy. While the terms for “joy” appear often in the book, several propositional and corrective statements suggest that the theme is more specifically about joyful partnership in the gospel (1:27; 4:2-5).

Paul founded the church in AD 49 (Acts 16:8-40), and some 11 years later the church learned about his imprisonment in Rome (Phil 2:25-28). They sent a financial gift to Paul through Epaphroditus who unfortunately had become deathly sick. Paul penned this letter to apprise them on Epaphroditus’ recovery and to address some issues in the church about which he’d heard. Paul is concerned about a small fissure in the church. Overall, the Philippians had a very healthy church, and Paul had a uniquely warm relationship with them marked by love and mutual trust (1:3-8; 4:15-18). Nonetheless, Paul knew how little issues can become big problems. Near the end of the letter, Paul mentions the dispute that seems to have provoked his writing. Two key women in the church were at odds with each other (4:2). While the underlying issue was neither doctrinal nor moral, it was thorny enough that it required the mediation of another Christian coworker (4:3).

Before Paul addresses that specific issue, he expounds the virtues of godly unity in the gospel. The introduction to the letter (1:1-11) opens with Paul’s characteristic prayer for grace to the recipients (1:1-2) followed by an exposition of Paul’s regular prayers for them (1:3-11). He prayed that they would discern the matters that mattered most and emphasize the things that were most important so that their love would flow unhindered (1:9-11).

The body of the letter (1:12 – 4:9) consists of 4 major segments. In the first (1:12-26), Paul updates the church on his legal proceedings. He is very optimistic, but whatever the outcome he is glad to serve the Lord sacrificially. Even during his captivity, the gospel was making progress in Rome though not without some controversy. Paul knew first-hand the problem of misunderstandings in ministry.

In the second segment (1:27 – 2:30), Paul addressing the Philippians’ situation directly. He urges them to have Christ-like humility in their service together. The hallmark of heaven’s citizens on earth (1:27-30) is their humility (2:1-4), the kind of humility most wonderfully displayed in the incarnate Christ (2:5-11). Their humble unity in the gospel would empower them to fulfill their mission as bright lights in a dark world (2:12-16). While the Philippians had never seen Christ, they did know men who were Christ-like examples in the path of joyful, humble service (2:17-30).

In the third segment (3:1 – 4:1), Paul cautions the church about the disruptions that false teaching could have on their fellowship. The Judaizers were often lurking around Paul’s churches (3:2-3), and their errors were fatal. Paul urges the church to follow his example of wholly focusing on Christ and the gospel (3:4-16). The Judaizers claimed to be Christian, but their teachings were fundamentally opposed to the gospel. As the church stood united in gospel service and joy, they would be able to withstand the allure of fatal falsehoods.

In the fourth segment (4:2-9), Paul makes his most direct application about the principles of togetherness he’d discussed. While he addresses two women by name (4:2-3), the principles are for the whole church (4:4-9). The peace they need will flow out of joy focused on the Lord, a commitment to gentleness, devotion to prayer and right thinking, and godly imitation.

In the conclusion to the letter (4:10-23), Paul thanks them for their generous gifts while also explaining his practice of contentment through the power of Christ (4:10-20). He bids farewell with greetings from believers in Rome (including some servants recently won from Imperial house!) and a prayer of blessing.