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New Testament Lesson 40 (KD): Philippians

Posted by Karl D. on October 25, 2011

Gospel Doctrine
Lesson: Philippians
Reading: Philippians

PDF version of the lesson notes.

I. Introduction

A. Notable

One feature that stuck out to me was the personal nature of the letter. Paul talks of his personal struggles and the possibility of facing death (Phil 1:21-26):

(21) For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (22) But if I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labour: yet what I shall choose I wot not. (23) For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better: (24) Nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you. (25) And having this confidence, I know that I shall abide and continue with you all for your furtherance and joy of faith; (26) That your rejoicing may be more abundant in Jesus Christ for me by my coming to you again.

B. Paul

The traditional view is that Paul wrote this letter from Rome as a prisoner or maybe under house-arrest (Acts 28:30). Traditionally, the mention of the imperial guard in Phil 1:13 is seen as evidence of imprisonment in Rome. Many scholars don’t see the imperial guard reference as definitive because there is some evidence it could also refer to provincial government and not just Rome.[1] Thus, Many scholars today favor an earlier writing date while imprisoned in the mid 50s (this would imply that it was written around the same time as 1 and 2 Corinthians and Romans). Ephesus has been proposed as a possible location.[2] Ephesus has the advantage of being much closer geographically to Phillipi and hence communication would be much easier.

C. Audience

Philippi was a city in northeastern Macedonia; it was named after the father of Alexander the Great.[3] Paul’s visit to Philippi is recounted in Acts 16:12-40 (including the conversion of Lydia). Paul seems to have a strong relationship with the congregation.

D. Unity

Some scholars have questioned the unity of the letter. Could Philippians be a composite of more than one Pauline letter? There is no manuscript evidence to support this hypothesis, but the letter does seem to abruptly change at 3:1.[4] Additionally, Polycarp (an early second century Bishop) makes reference to the existence of multiple letters to the Philippians.[5]

II. Love May Overflow

Read Philippians 1:1-11:

1 Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: 2 Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

3 I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, 4 Always in every prayer of mine for you all making request with joy, 5 For your fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now; 6 Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ:

7 Even as it is meet for me to think this of you all, because I have you in my heart; inasmuch as both in my bonds, and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel, ye all are partakers of my grace. 8 For God is my record, how greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ.

9 And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment; 10 That ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ; 11 Being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God.

  • What do we learn about Paul in these verses? What do we learn about his reasons for writing the letter? What do we learn about his relationship with the saints at Philippi?
  • Paul’s mentions “fellowship in the gospel” in verse 5. What do you think of that phrase? What does it mean in this context?
  • The NIV translates the underlying Greek as “partnership in the gospel:”

    3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

    What do you think fits better in the context of these verses and the rest of letter?

  • NT Wright explains some of the backdrop to these verses and the letter as follows:[6]

    Now, in prison — almost certainly in Ephesus, since he speaks coming to see them again (1.26), and in his other imprisonments he had no intention of returning to Greece — the Philippian church have sent him a gift of money. One of the reasons he’s writing is so say a heartfelt ‘Thank you’.

    When people were put in prison in Paul’s world, they were not normally given food by their captors; they had to rely on friends helping them. Since Paul probably couldn’t carry on his tent-making business in prison, he was completely dependent on support like this. The fact that people from a different country would raise money, and send one of their number on the dangerous journey to carry it to an imprisoned friend , speaks volumes for the esteem and love in which they held him. People sometimes speak today as though Paul was an awkward, difficult, unpopular sort of person, but folk like that don’t normally find this kind of support reaching them unbidden from friends far away.

    What do you think of the preceding quote? How does the preceding affect your understanding of these verses? Does it affect the partnership versus fellowship issue?

  • What do you think of verse 9? How can love overflow in knowledge and in all judgment? Does Paul use the word “love” differently than we do today?
  • In this context what are the “fruits of righteousness?”

III. Unity (A different Kind)

Read Phillippians 2:1-4:

1 If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies, 2 Fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.

3 Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. 4 Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.

  • How does Paul talk about unity in these verses? Can you infer why achieving unity is important to him? Why should Christians want to be united?
  • How should we read the series of if clauses and the connecting verses? Should we read the argument as the following: “if x means anything to you, then prove it now?”[7] Is that the point or is it something else?
  • Are you surprised that Paul immediately follows the if clauses with the statement, “Fulfill ye my joy” or “make my joy complete” (NRSV). Why does Paul refer to himself in this situation and why would it be important that his joy be made complete?
  • What do the desired responses have in common? Do these desired responses give us insight into what it means to be a Christian?
  • Is there a pattern to the desired responses and attitudes in verses 3-4?
  • Do you think these verses give us insight into some of the problems in the Philippian congregation? Or do you think that this theme is very important because of his recent suffering?

IV. A Hymn

Read Philippians 2:5-11:

5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:

6 Who, being in the form of God,
      thought it not robbery
      to be equal with God:

7 But made himself of no reputation,
    and took upon him the form of a servant,
    and was made in the likeness of men:

8 And being found in fashion as a man,
    he humbled himself,
and became obedient unto death,
    even the death of the cross.

9 Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him,
    and given him a name
    which is above every name:

10 That at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bow,
    of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;

11 And that every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

  • Many scholars accept these verses as a hymn and consequently in modern translations they are displayed as poetic verses. At the very least there is a rhythmic quality to the verses. Additionally, the use of parallelism is also prominent. One possibility is that Paul is quoting from one of the earliest Christian hymns.[8]
  • What are the main parts of the hymn? do you see main sections or themes?
  • At the very least it seems like the hymn splits into two parts: Christ’s abasement (vv. 6-8) and his triumph (vv. 9-11).

A. Form of God

What is verse 6 saying? Is it saying that Christ dared to claim he was like God or something else? The NRSV for verse 6 is the following:

“who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited.”

  • Does this change how you understand the verse? Does this translation make more sense given the context?
  • What does it mean that Christ was in the form of God? What does the hymn emphasize about Christ’s relationship with God?
  • Some scholars suggest that verse 6 is implicitly contrasting Christ with Adam? What do you think of that possibility?

B. He Emptied Himself

An alternate translation of verse 7 is the following:[9]

But rather he emptied himself
adopting the condition of a slave,
taking on the likeness of human beings.

  • What do you think of the phrase, “he emptied himself?” Do you think it is equivalent to the the KJV phrase, “made himself of no reputation?” Does the parallel line, “adopting the condition of a slave,” help us understand what is meant?
  • Does verse 6 help us understand what is meant by “he emptied himself?”
  • The KJV translated the underlying Greek as “servant” but many translations use “slave?” Which word do you think makes the most sense in this context? Does verse 8 help us understand the intended contrast better (NT Wright’s translation?

    And then having human appearance,
    He humbled himself and became
    Obedient even to death,
    Yes, even the death of the cross

  • Is it important that crucifixion was a form of execution usually reserved for slaves?
  • NT Wright suggests the following backdrop and context for these verses:[10]

    When people in the ancient world thought of heroic leaders, rulers and kings they often thought of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) … By the time he died at the age of 33 he had succeeded to such and extent that it made sense, within the thought of the time, for him to be regarded as divine. (He had himself suggested this.) In Paul’s world the closest equivalent to Alexander was the emperor Agustus, who had put an end to the long-running Roman civil war and had brought peace to the whole know world. It wasn’t long before many grateful subjects came to regard him, too, as divine. The power of military might and the immense organizational skills required to hold the empire together made this, for them, the natural conclusion. Other rulers did their best to copy this model. This was what heroic leadership looked like in that world.

  • How does the preceding affect your understanding of the hymn and gospel message as taught by Paul? Was there something radical and subversive about the gospel? That the true king is a slave?
  • Is Paul arguing that Alexander and Augustus are caricatures of King Jesus?[11]

C. Wherefore God

  • Are you surprised that the resurrection is not mentioned in verses 9-11?
  • What is the connection between Christ’s humiliation and his exaltation?
  • Do these verses give us insight into how Paul and the first Christians understood Christ’s role in the plan of God?
  • What is the connection between Paul’s advice and exhortation at the beginning of the chapter and the hymn? How are they connected? How does the hymn reinforce Paul’s point?

V. Working Out Salvation

Read Phillippians 2:12-18:

(12) Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. (13) For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.

(14) Do all things without murmurings and disputings: (15) That ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world; (16) Holding forth the word of life; that I may rejoice in the day of Christ, that I have not run in vain, neither laboured in vain. (17) Yea, and if I be offered upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I joy, and rejoice with you all. (18) For the same cause also do ye joy, and rejoice with me.

  • How are these verses connected to the hymn?
  • Are you surprised to see a phrase like, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” given Paul’s emphasis on grace in other letters?
  • Is Paul emphasizing that they need to work out their own salvation because he can’t be with them?
  • Is it important to read verses 12 and 13 together? Do they balance each other?
  • How are verse 14-18 related to the idea of working out your own salvation with fear and trembling?


  1. Oxford Bible Commentary, 1179.
  2. Oxford Bible Commentary, 1179.
  3. The HarperCollins Bible Commentary, 1121.
  4. Oxford Bible Commentary, 1180.
  5. The HarperCollins Bible Commentary, 1122.
  6. Wright, NT, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters. 84.
  7. Oxford Bible Commentary, 1183.
  8. The New Jerome Bible Commentary, 794.
  9. The New Jerome Bible Commentary, Prentice Hall, 794.
  10. Wright, NT, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters. 101.
  11. Wright, NT, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters. 101.

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