Bibliotheca Sacra 141 (July 1984) 234-254.
Copyright © 1984 by
The Theme and Structure
Robert C. Swift
Among exegetes, Philippians has been sort of a "Rubik's
Cube" of the Pauline literature. Many times it has been twisted,
turned, and rearranged as scholars have attempted to make the
best sense they could of it. They have sensed that the book has no
central theme systematically developed in a logical argument
throughout the epistle. "Since the early days of historical critical
research, exegetes have had difficulty finding any main theme or
a line of argument in Philippians."1
While there have been exceptions,2 this difficulty has gener-
ated three responses among interpreters.3 With the exception of
Lohmeyer,4 most interpretations of the epistle can be categorized
First, many commentators hold that because of the emotion-
al and hortatory nature of the letter, no central idea or inner
logical coherence is really necessary. Being a personal and friend-
ly letter, Paul skips from one subject to another as various topics
come to mind.
To anyone reading this epistle as a familiar letter of Paul to a greatly
beloved church, intended to inform them concerning his own cir-
cumstances, to thank them for their generous care for him, and to
give such counsel as his knowledge of their condition might sug-
gest, its informal and unsystematic character and its abrupt tran-
sitions from one theme to another will appear entirely natural.5
The Theme and Structure of Philippians 235
Eadie suggests, "The transitions depend upon no logical
train as the thoughts occurred they were dictated. And we can
never know what suggested to the apostle the order of his
A more recent advocate of this same view is Hendriksen.
Attempts have been made repeatedly to construct a formal oudine
for Philippians, a central theme with its subdivisions. . . . But such
themes either lack distinctiveness . . . or comprehensiveness . . . .
What we have here is a genuine letter from Paul to his beloved
just as we do today in writing to friends . . . . What holds these
subjects together is not this or that central theme, but the Spirit of
God, mirrored forth, by means of a multitude of spiritual graces and
virtues, in the heart of the apostle, proclaiming throughout that
God, the apostle, and the believers at
blessed bond of glorious fellowship.7
Most commentators who maintain that "joy in Christ" is the
main theme also view the epistle as an "informal letter." This is so
because few, if any, really seek to structure the epistle systemati-
cally around the concept of joy.8 It is more accurate to maintain
that joy is the prevailing mood of the epistle, not its central
A second group of interpreters has difficulty accepting that
the letter's "abrupt transitions from one theme to another . . .
appear entirely natural." The epistle, they say, is best explained
as the result of two or more documents being combined into one.9
If it could be shown that Philippians truly is unified by a
central theme whose development generates a coherent struc-
ture, then this view would be difficult to maintain.10 The reason
that such a "conflated-letter" view has arisen in the first place is
because most exegetes have despaired of ever finding inner
coherence in the epistle.
A third approach to the problem of the epistle's structure has
been proposed by Ralph P. Martin.11 In a form-critical approach
he follows the results of research done by John Lee White.12
White, in turn, follows with some refinements, the lead of his
teacher, Robert W. Funk.13 Martin concludes that Philippians is a
unit as it stands and feels that the overall structure of the letter
displays the characteristic structural elements of the Pauline
Though this view is innovative, it too fails to solve the prob-
lem of the structure of Philippians. Three criticisms may be
236 Bibliotheca Sacra July-September 1984
noted. First, the method accounts for the structure of the epistle
by conforming it to an external set of formal criteria, not by
discovering an inner thematic development and line of argu-
ment. Thus it bypasses the issue that has led to the Philippian
problem in the first place. Martin holds that the epistle is a unit,
but he does not see it unified internally. Second, the form critical
tradition, to which Martin appeals in defense of the integrity of
the epistle, has largely viewed the letter as a composite docu-
ment. White, for instance, believes that 4:10-20 was originally
another letter.15 Schubert also has doubts about chap-
ter 3.16 Third, exegesis fails to support the scheme Martin pro-
poses. Whether one agrees with the exegesis in this paper, it is
unlikely that many will agree entirely with Martin.17 The epistle
simply does not unfold according to that scheme. In fact Martin's
outline of the epistle makes little attempt to follow the "overall
structure" of the letter he suggests.18
All three of these approaches to the book seek to explain the
structure of the epistle based on something other than the
systematic development of a central theme in a point-by-point
By contrast the contention of this paper is that (1) Philip-
pians has one central theme that is broad enough to explain the
details of the entire epistle, and that (2) the development of this
theme follows a literary structure that is as systematic, coherent,
and logical as that of any New Testament epistle.
The overall structure of the epistle is this. After the saluta-
tion in 1:1-2, the first major division is the prologue (the opening
thanksgiving and prayer; 1:3-11). These verses are a true episto-
lary prologue because they not only introduce the central theme,
but they also foreshadow all the other significant motifs that are
developed in the letter.
The biographical prologue follows in 1:12-26. It is "bio-
graphical" because it discusses Paul's personal circumstances. It
is "prologue" because in the argument of the book it has close
conceptual ties with both the prologue proper (1:3-11) and with
the body of the epistle which begins at 1:27. Thus it serves as a
conceptual link between the prologue and the body of the letter,
though it is much more than a mere transition section.
The body of the epistle extends from 1:27 through 4:9. The
contents of this section are systematically and logically arranged.
The epilogue (4:10-20) balances the prologue (1:3-11). The book
then closes with the salutation and benediction in 4:21-23.
The Theme and Structure of Philippians 237
The Prologue (1:3-11)
As stated previously, these verses serve as an epistolary pro-
logue. What Schubert says in regard to the Pauline thanksgiv-
ings generally, is particularly true with regard to Philippians.
Generally speaking it may be said that the Pauline thanksgiv-
ings . . . serve as a rather formal introduction to the body of the
letter.19 More explicitly he later states, "Their province is to indi-
cate the occasion for and the contents of the letters they
introduce."20 Conzelmann sharpens the point even further. "It is
important to show that the epistolary thanksgiving is already
part of the context and can even serve to usher in the main
This is exactly the case in Philippians. For the purpose of
thematic analysis, it is convenient to look at each of the three
major syntactical units of the prologue separately.22
THE THANKSGIVING: THE THEME INTRODUCED (1:3-6)
In this opening thanksgiving, the main theme of the entire
letter is introduced and summarized. Paul joyfully thanked God
for the Philippians (vv. 3-4).23 However, in all his fond memories
of them, one particular feature is highlighted in verse 5. Later
Paul developed this as the central theme of the epistle: the Philip-
pians' partnership in the gospel.
Verse 6. when properly interpreted in relation to verse 5,
provides a summary statement of the entire epistle.
Having spoken of their partnership in the gospel (koinwni<%
... ei]j to> eu]agge<lion) in the past and present (v. 5), Paul then
expressed his confidence that God would continue His work in
them so that they might become even more effective partners. His
confident hope was that God would perfect (e]pitele<sei) them in
their work for the gospel and that it would bear fruit from then till
the day of Christ. In brief, verse 6 speaks of the perfecting of the
Philippians' koinwni<a ("partnership") and of them as koinwnoi<,
("partners") in the gospel.
The e@rgon a]gaqo>n ("good work") in verse 6 must be inter-
preted by the koinwni<% of the previous verse. This exegetical point
is frequently noted by commentators, though few of them consis-
tently restrict it enough to this sense.24 This writer holds that
verse 6 refers restrictively to the perfecting of the Philippians as
workers for the gospel, and to the perfecting of their works in the
cause of the gospel. Many exegetes, failing to note this, have thus
238 Bibliotheca Sacra July-September 1984
failed to see that verses 3-6 contain a thematic summary of the
entire epistle. When the first half of verse 6 is taken as suggested,
then the rest of the verse ("perfect it until the day of Christ
Jesus") should be seen as a reference to the outcome at the
judgment seat of Christ, an interpretation fully in harmony with
the eschatological reference in verses 10-11.
Verses 3-6, then, are a cameo of the entire epistle. They
introduce the main theme, the Philippians' partnership25 in the
gospel. This theme is developed in the direction of God's perfect-
ing of both them and their works for the gospel. All the rest of the
letter is concerned primarily with their development as koinwnoi<
so that they may be blessed with a temporally fruitful, eternally
rewardable partnership in the gospel.
Following Schubert, Jewett correctly suggests that this
thanksgiving is "a formal device serving to announce and to
introduce the topics of the letter. The epistolary thanksgiving is
intimately connected with each succeeding section of the
THE BASIS FOR CONFIDENCE IN THEM: THE THEME EXPANDED (1:7-8)
These verses give a "subjective justification of the confidence
expressed in verse 6.27 They also relate to the theme of part-
nership in the gospel. Paul associated himself with the readers as
sugkoinwnou<j ("fellow partners"). They partake together of the
special enabling grace that God supplies to those who confirm
and defend the gospel.28
In addition, several subthemes are introduced in verses 7-8
that are developed later.
1. Verse 7 includes the first occurrence of the verb frone<w, an
important concept further developed in 2:1-5; 3:15 (and v. 16 if
the reading of the majority of the Greek manuscripts is
accepted), 19; 4:2, 10. Frone<w refers to holding a mind-set that
expresses itself in right action. For partners in the common
cause of the gospel who are to progress toward perfection (1:6),
nothing less would be appropriate. This attitude supplies the
basis for the exhortation to unity through humility in
2. The work of the gospel normally involves the endurance of
difficulty, hardship, and persecution. Paul's present bondage as
well as the numerous times he had to confirm and defend the
gospel (e.g., Acts 16) prove this. In Philippians 1:7-8 (and 2:30)
Paul likened the Philippians' struggles in this regard to his. Also
The Theme and Structure of Philippians 239
the phrase e]n t^? a]pologi<% kai> bebaiw<sei tou? eu]aggeli<ou clearly
announces the contents of chapter 3, where both the true gospel
and the true gospel lifestyle are defended against false teachers
and false teaching.29
3. The concept of God's enabling grace for their labors is
introduced here in 1:7-8 and expanded in 1:29-30. The adequacy
of this grace is the main presupposition of and the basis for the
exhortations to rejoice, given in 3:1 and 4:4.
4. Paul's desire for and joy at their progress is also seen This
motif is expressed frequently throughout the rest of the epistle
(1:9-11, 25, 27-28; 2:2, 12-18; 3:16-17; 4:17).
These motifs are each related to the main theme like spokes
of a wheel to their hub. They are bound together and find their
meaning in the relationship they sustain to the main theme of
partnership in the gospel.
THE PETITION: THE THEME APPLIED (1:9-11)
The contents of this prayer stand in close unity with the
thematic statement in 1:5-6.30 The passage moves from the
general to the particular. Generally speaking, God will continue
to work in them in order to perfect both them and their works for
the gospel. But in response to God's work in them, it is impera-
tive that they continue growing in the specific qualities of Chris-
tian virtue that Paul now prayed for.
His petition was for one specific thing that they might
develop an intelligent, discerning love. Their work on behalf of
the gospel is true koinwvi<a with God only to the degree that it is
motivated by a]ga<ph ("self-sacrificing love")."31 If koinwni<a de-
scribes their activity, a]ga<ph is to be the motive behind the
activity. In contrast are the self-seeking Christian preachers
mentioned in 1:15-18, while the proper attitude and motive is
exemplified by the brethren who preach Christ from correct
This love must be growing in knowledge and discernment.
Brethren who are abounding in love but lacking in these two
qualities can often hinder a cause. ]Epi<gnwsij probably means
practical wisdom or applied knowledge. Ai@sqesij denotes correct
insight that helps one assess circumstances and people rightly.
The idea of the necessity of continuing progress ("abound
still more and more") is picked up from the notion of progress
clearly implied in verse 6 ("He who began" and "will perfect it").
240 Bibliotheca Sacra July-September 1984
Divine sovereignty is emphasized in verse 6, and human respon-
sibility is seen in verse 9.
Paul gave two reasons why the Philippians ought to develop
an intelligent, discerning love (v. 10). First, this will enable them
to "discern (dokima<zein) what is best" (ta> diafe<ronta) (NIV). In this
context, ta> diafe<ronta must be taken as the apprehending of
what is the good, better, and best thing to do for the advancement
of the gospel in any given set of circumstances. Ta> diafe<ronta
refers to the ability of the informed, insightful koinwno<j ("part-
ner") to act in a true a]ga<ph manner as he works to extend the
gospel. In short, ta< diafe<ronta gathers into one word all that is
expressed and implied in verse 9 about correct attitude and
correct conduct for the koinwno<j. In verses 12-26 Paul gave con-
crete examples of the need to "discern what is best."
Ultimately they will be judged "sincere (pure) and blameless
in the day of Christ" (v. 10b). This parallels the thought of verse 6
and further defines it. Ei]likrinei?j ("sincere, pure") refers to mor-
al and spiritual purity (in contrast to the motives of selfish
Christian preachers [1:15-18] and false teachers [chap. 3]).
]Apro<skopoi ("blameless") is best taken in the active sense of "not
causing stumbling,"32 referring to their effect on others. Taken
this way, it clearly foreshadows the theme of Christian unity
which is so important in the body of the epistle, especially in
In 1:11 Paul focused on the ultimate outcome for those part-
ners whom God perfects unto the day of Christ. "Filled with the
fruit of righteousness," they glorify God and contribute to His
The prologue concludes with an eschatological climax. Paul
and the Philippians have long passed from the earthly scene. But
their works on behalf of the gospel are bearing fruit even to this
day. And if Paul is to be believed, God will see to it that the
partnership begun by those faithful partners will continue to
bear fruit until the day of Christ, when its full harvest of righ-
teousness is revealed to His own glory and praise.
CONCLUSION AND SUMMARY
This prologue is a true "epistolary table of contents."33 It
introduces the main theme of the epistle, indicates the manner of
its development, and includes foreshadowings of the impor-
tant subthemes that will be developed in relation to the main
The Theme and Structure of Philippians 241
The Biographical Prologue: The Theme Exemplified (1:12-26)
This section of the letter is entitled "biographical prologue"
for two reasons. First, it is obviously a biographical narrative,
dealing with Paul's own circumstances. Second. it is closely re-
lated to the prologue proper in 1:3-11, in that almost every state-
ment of this section has its conceptual genesis in 1:3-11 and
expands on or illustrates an idea introduced there. In 1:12-26
Paul demonstrates how those principles for effective partnership
in the gospel were working out to further the gospel in his own
trying circumstances (cf. v. 7).
In the overall structure of the epistle this section bears strik-
ing resemblance to what Greco-Roman rhetoricians refer to as
the narratio of an epistle. This is a section in which the writer
stated his interest in or defended himself in relation to the sub-
ject he was writing about. This subject is introduced in an ex-
ordium, or epistolary introduction, which immediately preceded
the narratio.34 If this observation is valid, it is another indication
of true epistolary structure and style in Philippians.
It is not surprising, then, to find the passage opening with a
reference to the advancement of the gospel in verse 12, the topic
sentence of the section. Ei]j proskoph>n tou? eu]aggeli<ou ("for the
greater progress of the gospel") reflects the idea of the progress of
the gospel introduced in verses 5-6. The second occurrence of
prokoph>n in verse 25 draws the entire section to a well-structured
conclusion. In the verses in between, Paul exhibited the specific
virtues mentioned in verses 9-11 and showed the readers how
those virtues applied to his circumstances of imprisonment
for the gospel (cf. "imprisonment," lit., "my bonds." in vv. 8
In verses 12-18, the apostle "discerned what is best" (cf. v.
10) in regard to the advancement of the gospel. Rather than
hindering the spread of the gospel, imprisonment had actually
resulted in its progress. Among his unbelieving captors (v. 13),
the reason for his bondage had become widely known. And be-
sides the gospel having gained a wider audience, it also gained
many more courageous preachers (v. 14)! Because of Paul's be-
havior in prison (which was "pure and blameless," v. 10) the
majority of the believers, rather than becoming discouraged,
gained a fresh confidence to speak the Word boldly. However, not
all those Christians who were preaching Christ were operating
from the best of motives (contrast a]ga<ph, v. 9). In verses 15-17 he
242 Bibliotheca Sacra July-September 1984
wisely perceived (with e]pi<gnwsij and ai@sqesij, v. 9) the motives
and the intentions of both groups. In one group there was true
koinwni<a in the work of the gospel because their work was based
on love (v. 14). The other group had the opposite of the purity and
blamelessness (v. 10) that Paul desired for the Philippians.
Having looked at these circumstances and persons, he dis-
cerned what was of chief importance (v. 18). What mattered most
was that Christ was proclaimed and nothing could rob him of the
joy of that.
Next (vv. 18b-26) Paul "discerned what is best" with regard to
his own desires and with regard to what was most necessary for
the Philippians' progress in faith. The near future held only
prospects of joy for Paul (karh<somai, "I will rejoice" v. 18b).
Whatever the outcome of his imprisonment whether life or
death it would be an experience of "salvation" (swthri<an, "de-
liverance") for him. As Hendriksen observes, "by reading not only
verse 19 but also verse 20 it will be seen that for Paul salvation
consisted in this in his own words that Christ be magnified
in my body whether by life or by death.''35 Paul's "deliverance,"
whether death or release from prison, would result in Christ
being glorified.36 The means to bring this about are the Holy
Spirit and the prayers of the Philippians, who were his fellow
partners (v. 7).
For Paul personally, he preferred to be with Christ. However,
if he continued to live he had the prospect of more fruit in his
ministry. And this is what finally settled the matter for him: it was
more needful that he remain alive to help in their joy and pro-
gress in the faith (v. 25). The words "convinced of this" indicate a
settled conclusion reached. Again this deliberation shows that
Paul was exemplifying the ability to "discern what is best" (v. 10).
Accepting what was "more necessary" (a]nagkaio<teron) for the
readers' progress (v. 24) rather than what was "very much better"
(poll&? . . . ma?llon krei?sson) for himself alone (v. 23) also reflects
his ability to "discern what is best." Throughout this paragraph,
Paul's desire to glorify Christ kept him spiritually pure (v. 10). His
putting the needs of others above his own desires, even when
those desires were entirely proper (to be with Christ!), served to
keep him from any action that would stumble others (cf.
a]poro<skopoi, v. 10). This could not be said of insincere preachers
(vv. 17-18). In addition, the mutual fellowship pictured in verses
25-26 reflects motifs prominent in verses 5-6 and verses 7-8.
In summary, then, the apostle showed that he practiced (vv.
The Theme and Structure of Philippians 243
12-26) what he preached (vv. 3-11, esp. 9-11) concerning effective
expansion of the gospel.
Verses 12-26, besides linking with the prologue, also point
forward to succeeding sections in the epistle. Verses 23-26, for
example, clearly foreshadow 2:5-11. Following Christ's example,
Paul released any claim on privileges he rightly possessed in
order to serve the needs of others more effectively. In that way, as
well as by the mention of his anticipated coming to thern (1 :27;
2:24), this section points to what lies ahead in the epistle. These
verses form a smooth and natural transition to the body of the
letter which begins at 1:27.
The Body: The Theme Particularized (1:274:9)
The body of the epistle has three well-balanced sections: (a)
an introductory and summary paragraph (1:27-30), (b) a central
section (2:14:1), and (c) a concluding hortatory paragraph (4:2-
9). In each of these sections, the same two subjects unity and
steadfastness are discussed.
WALK WORTHY OF THE GOSPEL (1:27-30)
This paragraph begins with the topic sentence for the entire
section of 1:274:9. This topic sentence is "Only conduct
yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ."37 The
subject of what constitutes a worthy walk occupies the body of
This worthy walk consists of unity (1:27c) and steadfastness
(1:28-30). Standing in one spirit, and as with one soul, they are
to strive as members of the same team (sunaqlou?ntej) for the
furtherance of the gospel.
When they encounter opposition and persecution they must
remain courageously steadfast. Such courageous "striving
together for the faith of the gospel" is possible because of the
provision of grace mentioned in verses 29-30 (e]xari<sqh; cf. v. 7).
Just as Paul could be joyful and confident of a "salvation" (deliver-
ance) despite his unpleasant circumstances, so also could the
readers experience salvation ("deliverance," v. 28).
A "worthy walk," then, means specifically the achievement of
true Christian unity among themselves, and steadfastness
against enemies of the gospel. Later it will be shown that this
passage is important in properly interpreting 3:1, which most
interpreters regard as the most problematic verse in the entire
244 Bibliotheca Sacra July-September 1984
epistle (excluding 2:5-11). Also, 1:30 proves that the particular
cause and type of suffering in view is suffering encountered
because of their partnership in the gospel. This kind of trial they
had seen Paul previously face in Acts 16 (the "conflict you saw in
me") and this is the kind he faced now (you "now hear to be in
me"). That the Philippians were his sugkoinwnoi< in this kind of
suffering for the advancement of the gospel is made clear by the
words to>n au]to>n a]gw?na e@xontej ("experiencing the same conflict").
This again is a development of the thematic statement in 1:5-6.
Paul expressed confidence there that God would perfect both
them and their works for the gospel. This may involve suffering,
but where there are trials there is grace (1:7). But if their Chris-
tian character as partners blooms with the virtues mentioned in
1:9-11; then like Paul (1:12-26), they could expect the hardships
they suffered for the sake of the gospel to be a "salvation" for them
as well (1:29-30)!38 In their trials this was to be a continuous
source of joy for them (3:1; 4:4).
This paragraph (1:27-30), then, introduces the general topic
of walking worthily of the gospel. If the readers are to become
more effective partners of the gospel they must walk in unity
with one another and in steadfastness against opponents of
WALK IN UNITY AND STEADFASTNESS (2:1-4:1)
This central section of the epistle takes up again the two
topics of unity and steadfastness. Chapter 2 discusses unity, and
3:14:1 is concerned with steadfastness.
Walk in unity (chap. 2). From a structural point of view, a
problem in this chapter is whether verses 19-30 are in any way an
extension of the line of argument in verses 1-18. Many commen-
tators see a major break in the letter at 2:19.39 Martin, following
the form-critical tradition mentioned earlier, states that this sec-
tion of the letter fits a standardized form known as a "travel-
ogue."40 In it Paul discusses his future travel plans and how the
readers fit into them. While such a section may have some transi-
tional links with what precedes, rarely is it taken as tied closely in
thought with it.
However, evidence indicates that verses 19-30 are more
closely connected with verses 1-18 than that. While verses 19-30
may be a "travelogue," they are more. They also advance the line
of argument that runs in the preceding verses. Structurally
The Theme and Structure of Philippians 245
chapter 2 is a unit. And while there is a break at 2:19, it is not a
break in the argument of the chapter; it is simply a transition to
another link in the chain of reasoning that supports that
The chapter develops as follows.
2:1-4. The readers are urged to achieve a unity based on true
humility. Each one is to be concerned for the needs of others, not
merely his own. This thought of self-sacrificial regard for others'
needs has already occurred in 1:22-26 and will be contrasted
with the attitude mentioned in 2:21. The obvious contrast be-
tween verse 4 ("look out for . . . the interest of others") and verse
21 ("they all seek after their own interests") is a link between the
sections that would be difficult for a Greek reader to miss.
2:5-11. In spite of Martin's opinion to the contrary,41 this
writer is convinced that Christ is presented here as an example
for the believer to follow. Christ emptied Himself of any claim to
glory; He humbled Himself in order to meet the needs of helpless
people. For this sacrifice God honored Him above all else in the
universe. It is this humble, self-emptying, self-sacrificing mind
after which the Philippians are to pattern their relationships.
2:12-18. In the light of the preceding commands (vv. 1-4) and
example (vv. 5-11), the readers are instructed to "work out" their
own "salvation" (v. 12). God is the One who enables the willing
and the doing of this (v. 13). What does "salvation" mean here?
Positively it means achieving a unity based on imitation of the
mind of Christ (vv. 1-11). Negatively it is further defined as doing
"all things without murmuring and disputing" (v. 13; cf. 2:3).
This is consistent with the two previous occurrences of swthri<a
in the book where the context suggests "deliverance" (1:19, 28).
If believers do this, they will be pure and spotless (cf. 1:10)
and their testimony will shine like a lamp in a dark world (2:15).
In verse 16, Paul seems to take a turn in thought away from the
figure suggested in 1:15. ]Epe<xontej almost certainly must mean
"hold fast" rather than "hold forth." Rather than saying they will
shine as they hold forth the Word of life, he said they will shine as
they hold fast the Word of life. This is related to the subject of
walking worthily of the gospel. To prevent disunity from extin-
guishing the testimony of a church, believers must "hold fast the
Word of Life." That is, they must obediently achieve the sort
of unity described previously. A true gospel witness demands a
true gospel lifestyle. Only this wins approval in the day of
246 Bibliotheca Sacra July-September 1984
2:17-18. These verses are a hinge, a transition between
verses 12-16 and verses 19-30. Here Paul himself exemplified the
attitude he encouraged in verses 1-11. He was ready and willing
to be poured out like a drink offering in order to further his
readers' growth in faith. Paul rejoiced and invited them to do so
as well (v. 18).
2:19-24. Like Paul (vv. 17-18), Timothy and Epaphroditus
were worthy examples of the courageous, humble, others-serving
mind of Christ.
Verses 19-24 include some exegetical connections with the
immediately preceding context and with the beginning of the
chapter. The eu]yuxw? verse 19 ("be encouraged") is natural after
the xai<rw and sugxai<rw in verses 17-18. Paul wished to be made
glad when he heard how things were with them. He desired to
hear that they were "holding fast the Word of life" and that he had
not labored in vain (v. 16). Paul sent Timothy because, like
Christ, Timothy had true concern for them; he was not con-
cerned merely for himself (v. 20). (Cf. i]so<yuxon here with
su<myuxoi in v. 2.) Verse 21, as mentioned, contrasts clearly with
verse 4. Verse 22 mentions Timothy's proven character as shown
by the fact of his sugkoinwni<a ("fellow partnership") with Paul in
the gospel. Thus Timothy also is an example of one who truly
works out his "salvation" based on service to the Lord and to
others. Timothy's service, in addition to illustrating the thought
of verse 16a, also reflects the controlling idea of the body of the
letter in 1:17a.
2:25-30. Like Timothy, Epaphroditus was commended be-
cause of his sacrificial service for the gospel (v. 30). That his
character as a gospel worker was in view is brought immediately
before the readers in verse 25 where Paul called him his "fellow-
worker" and "fellow-soldier." They were to hold men such as him
in the highest regard (v. 29).
In this epistle every single reference Paul makes to another
person is made in connection with that person's xomuvia, his
partnership in the gospel. Timothy and Epaphroditus, except for
Paul himself, stand as the most prominent of these.
Walk in steadfastness (3:14:1) Though chapter 3 has been the
traditional battleground for critics who see Philippians as a com-
posite work, it presents almost no difficulties for the view presented
here. Chapter 3 is clearly concerned with one subject--the Philip-
pians' steadfast stance against false teaching. Verse 1 of chapter 4 is
obviously a summarizing exhortation to close the section.
The Theme and Structure of Philippians 247
Paul now turned to discuss the second major topic intro-
duced in 1:27-30, the topic of steadfastness in the face of their
opponents in the faith. This has been foreshadowed clearly in
1:7, 28-30 (esp. v. 28). If this writer has been correct in interpret-
ing 1:27-30 as an introduction and summary statement of
the subjects to follow, then chapter 3 is both natural and neces-
sary. Paul is merely following the literary blueprint sketched
Pollard has convincingly argued that chapter 3 is closely
associated with chapter 2, because of parallels in terminology
and concept.42 Pollard's arguments have never been disproven
despite attempts such as Martin's to weaken their relevance.43 So
both structurally and verbally chapter 3 finds a comfortable fit-
ting in the overall arrangement of the epistle.
Three other matters must be briefly mentioned.
First, the view presented here requires that to> loipo>n ("final-
ly," 3:1) be taken as transitional.44 This is no problem, for this
usage is well attested in Greek literature and is paralleled in the
New Testament (cf. 1 Thess. 4: 1).
Second, the supposed roughness of transition between Phi-
lippians 3:1 and the rest of the chapter almost vanishes when it
is realized that the ideas of joy and standing against opposition
to the gospel have already been associated with one another
earlier in the epistle. In 1:19, 28-30; 2:17-18 joy is presented as
the proper reaction to such circumstances. So the readers are
already prepared for the association of joy and hardship again at
this point. The asyndeton of 3:2 maybe striking, but the readers
have already been primed to expect what follows.
Third, notice must be taken of what is probably the most
serious objection to the structural scheme presented here. As
stated, this writer sees chapter 3 as the fuller discussion of the
second topic (steadfastness) introduced in 1:27-30. The first
topic (unity) is dealt with in chapter 2. However, in 1:28-30
the emphasis is on the persecution the Philippians could
expect from their enemies, not on the seductions presented by
their false teachings which is clearly the emphasis of chapter
3. Two things may be said in response. (a) It may be assumed
that the opponents of the gospel had something to substitute in
its place. Persecution was not only physical. (b) How to face overt
persecution is discussed in 4:4-9, where Paul gives a fuller exposi-
tion of how to rejoice in the Lord and the anxieties of
248 Bibliotheca Sacra July-September 1984
WALK IN UNITY AND STEADFASTNESS (4:2-9)
This concluding paragraph to the body of the letter again
takes up the same two topics as the previous two sections unity
Restore unity (4:2-3). Reflecting the earlier emphasis in 1:27
and 2:1-4, Paul instructed the two women mentioned here., with
the help of a co-worker, to be united in the Lord. The theme of the
epistle partnership in the gospel is mentioned in 4:3. The
terms parakalw? ("I urge," v. 2), to> au]to> fronei?n ("to live in
harmony," v. 2), and the phrase e]n t&? eu[aggeli<& sunh<qlhsa<n
moi ("have shared my struggle in the gospel," v. 3) clearly reflect
ideas introduced in 1:27-2:4.
Maintain tranquility (4:4-9). Martin is among the few
commentators who recognize that this section does not address
the subject of peace and freedom from anxiety in general, but in
connection with the persecution and opposition the Philippians
faced. He states, "The background is clearly that of a congregation
facing opposition and threatened by danger from the hostile
world. Paul proceeds to describe all the resources by which the
Philippian Christians may win through."45
The details of the text support this. Xai<rete e]n kuri<& ("Re-
joice in the Lord," v. 4) recalls 3:1. Here, however, the emphasis is
on the oppression caused by opponents of the gospel, not on their
teaching. The term to> e]pieike>j ("gentleness, forebearanee," v. 5)
presupposes pressured circumstances where the opposite re-
sponse might be expected. The reference to the nearness of the
coming of the Lord (v. 5) is intended as a comfort to them. This is
a clear reference back to 3:20-21 where the relief and the benefits
waiting for the faithful are stated. In 4:6-7, the references to
anxiety and the peace of God presuppose circumstances that
would normally rob them of peace and cause anxious care. The
image in verse 7 is that of an armed sentry, ready to fight off any
hostile intruder. Also this segment may recall 1:28-30. The pros-
pect of "salvation" (1:28) should be a joy to them and they need
not be frightened out of their composure (cf. mhde>n merimna?te, "be
anxious for nothing" [4:6], with mh> pturo<menoi, "in no way
alarmed" [ 1:28]). If so, this is further evidence that the subject of
steadfastness is once again brought before the readers by Paul.
This is not in regard to false teaching as in chapter 3, but in
regard to inner anxiety and fear.
Philippians 4:8-9 serve as a conclusion to the paragraph
beginning in verse 4. The reference to the God of peace reflects
The Theme and Structure of Philippians 249
"the peace of God" (v. 7). To> loipo<n is best translated "finally" (cf.
3:1). However, to> loipo<n also concludes the entire epistle from
1:12 up to this point. Thus the body of the epistle which began
with a topic sentence in 1:27a is drawn to a summary and a
well-structured close. Philippians 4:8-9, then, is a double conclu-
sion, concluding 4:4-9 and then also summarizing all the
admonition in the letter back to 1:27a. Chapter 4, verse 9 makes
it clear that Paul's conduct in 1:12-26 is also to be taken into
CONCLUSION AND SUMMARY OF' THE BODY
The body of the letter begins with a topic sentence in 1:27a.
The Philippian Christians, to be perfected in their partnership
for the gospel, were to conduct themselves worthy of the gospel.
Specifically two things are in view unity with one another and
steadfastness against their opponents. They need not fear, for
God will supply grace (1:27-30). Chapter 2 takes up the unity
motif, and chapter 3, steadfastness. The main body of the epistle
then concludes with a hortatory paragraph which again ad-
dresses the same two subjects. All this is freed from any topical
"loose ends" by the summarizing double conclusion of 4:8-9,
Is it true, as Eadie suggested, that "we can never know what
suggested to the Apostle the order of his topics"?46 Emphatically
not. Certainly Philippians is one of the most systematically struc-
tured epistles in the New Testament.
The Epilogue (4:10-20)
The evidence of careful structure does not end with the body
of the letter. Verses 10-20 of chapter 4 form an epilogue to the
epistle, balancing the prologue in 1:3-10.
In general, the prologue began broadly, with Paul's remem-
brance of all they had done in every way to share in the work of the
gospel. The epilogue is more specific, mentioning their most
recent financial gift to Paul.
prologue to the epilogue.
. . . we seem to have evidence of an inclusion which binds the whole
letter into one unit. First of all, the idea of partnership is strongly
expressed at the beginning and the end. Thus in 1:5 Paul is "thank-
ful for your partnership (koinwni<a) in the gospel"; and in 4:15 he
records that "no church entered into partnership in giving and
receiving except you only." This partnership is reiterated in another
250 Bibliotheca Sacra July-September 1984
parallel: in 1:7 the Philippians are sharers (sugkoinwnou<j) of grace
with Paul; in 4:13 they are sharers (sugkoinwnh<santej) with him in
his trouble. At both beginning and end we have the same idea
expressed in different ways: the longstanding partnership of the
Philippians with Paul: "from the first day until now" (1:5), and "in
the beginning of the gospel" (4:15). And finally the reciprocal atti-
tude of sympathy between Paul and the Philippians is expressed in
the same phrase: in 1:7 he says "it is right for me to feel this about
you" (tou?to fronei?n u[pe>r pa<ntwn u[mw?n), and in 4:10, "You have
revived your concern for me" (to> u[pe>r e]moi? fronei<n).47
Thus the beginning and the ending of the letter have four
common elements. It does seem fitting that the central idea
should be that of partnership, since in fact this theme dominates
the whole text.
Following the epilogue are the closing greetings (4:21-22)
and benediction (4:23).
If the above analysis is correct, then Philippians must be
considered as a masterly example of epistolary literature. A for-
mal prologue introduces the main theme and foreshadows its
development. This is followed by a biographical narrative (1:12-
26) in which Paul exemplified certain qualities he had recom-
mended to the readers in 1:3-11 and especially in verses 9-11.
The body of the epistle begins with a topic sentence (1:27a) and
then discusses the topics of unity and steadfastness three times.
The body concludes with a summary statement in 4:8-9. The
epilogue (4:10-20) artfully balances the prologue, and the closing
salutation (4:21-23) balances the opening greeting in 1:1-2.
But if Philippians is an epistle with structure, this is because
it is primarily an epistle with a message, a message that calls all
Christians to a walk worthy of the gospel if they expect to further
the work of the gospel. The power of such a walk, combined with
such a message, can make an immeasurable impact in the world.
world but later from
went out to conquer the Western world of Paul's day. The Philip-
pians' koinwni<a ei]j to> eu]agge<lion is still bearing fruit today.
1 Robert Jewett, "The Epistolary Thanksgiving and the Integrity of Philip-
pians," Novum Testamentum 12 (1970):49.
The Theme and Structure of Philippians 251
2 For instance, Jewett sees each section of the letter bound to the other by an
apocalyptic conception of a suffering messianic apostle and community whose
composure in persecution heralds the coming destruction of their enemies at the
nagovola as well as their own perfected salvation in that day (ibid., p. 51).
3 Some popular works have suggested Christian unity as the main theme:
Robert Gromacki, Stand United in Joy (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980);
Stagg, "Philippians," in The Broadman Bible Commentary, ed.
Allen, 12 vols. (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1972), 11:178-216; and Howard Vcs,
Philippians: A Study Guide (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1975).
See also Gerald Blazek, "Unity through Humility in Philippians" (Th.M. thesis.
while unity is an important subtheme, it is not comprehensive enough to unify
the entire epistle. This is most obvious in chapter 3 where the threat to the
congregation is not presented as a threat primarily to their unity. Rather, the
threat is to the maturity and perfection of the
this threat would render them unable "to walk worthy of the gospel of Christ"
(1:27). Also this view fails to note the thematic statement in the prologue of the epistle.
4 Ernst Lohmeyer, Der Briefe an die Philipper (
Ruprecht, 1954). His attempt to unify the epistle around the theme of martyrdom
has been criticized both theologically and exegetically and has attracted almost no
5 Marvin Vincent, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistles to the
Philippians and to Philemon (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1897), p. xxxi (italics added).
6 John Eadie, A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Epistle of Paul to the
Philippians (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1896), p. xxxi.
7 William Hendriksen, Exposition
of Philippians (
House, 1962), pp. 37-38.
8 Note, for example, Ralph P. Martin's first commentary on Philippians (The
Epistle of Paul to the Philippians: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale
Testament Commentaries [
and to Philemon (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955), p. 21;
and H. A. W. Meyer, Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Epistles to the
Philippians and Colossians, and to Philemon, 4th ed., trans. John C. Moore, rev.
and ed. Wm. P. Dickson, preface and supplementary notes by Timothy Dwight
(New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1889), p. 4.
9 The various forms this view has taken over the years are summarized concise-
ly by Jewett ("The Epistolary Thanksgiving," pp. 40-49). Ralph P. Martin in his
most recent commentary covers the same ground and updates his discussion of
the book (Philippians,
New Century Bible [
10 While the issue is much too complicated to be discussed fully here, this writer
feels that all these theories are subject to one basic criticism: they fail to explain
the final form of the letter. The structure is a problem if the letter is a unit and is
Pauline. The structure is still a problem if it is the work of an editor. What motive
doctrinal, practical, or ecclesiastical can account for an editor's pasting it
together the way he has? To say that it is all right for an editor to construct a
document with an enigmatic structure, but not for an original author to do so, is
not acceptable reasoning. H. A. A. Kennedy's observation is still valid today:
"There must be some strong basis for such an hypothesis [i.e., as editorial
redaction] derivable from the Epistle itself" ("The Epistle to the Philippians," in
The Expositor's Greek
5 vols. [
Publishing Co., 1951], 3:409).
11 Martin, Philippians (1976), pp. 10-22.
12 The Form and Function of the Body of the Greek Letter: A Study of the
252 Bibliotheca Sacra July-September 1984
Letter-Body in the Non-Literary Papyri and in Paul the Apostle, Society of
Biblical Literature Dissertation Series (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1972).
13 Robert W. Funk, "The Letter: Form and Function", in Language. Hermeneu-
tic, and the Word of God (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), pp. 250-74. White
basically accepts Funk's categorization of the structural elements of a Pauline
letter ("Form and Function," pp. 43-45). His subsequent conclusions refine some
of Funk's observations, but do not really modify them greatly.
14 Martin notes his acceptance of White's scheme and its adaptation to the
"overall structure" of Philippians (Philippians [19761, p. 63). The form criticism of
Paul's letters began with Adolf Deissmann's comparisons of Paul's epistles to the
common letters of the papyri. Deissmann was emphatic that the letters of Paul
were in every way "common letters" and not to be considered "epistles" or "episto-
lary." Paul Schubert reacted against Deissmann's absolute dichotomizing of "let-
"epistle" (Form and Function of
the Pauline Thanksgivings [
Topelmann, 1939]) and this same direction is followed by Funk and White. See
also J. T. Sanders, "The Transition from Opening Epistolary Thanksgiving to Body
in the Letters of the Pauline Corpus," Journal of Biblical Literature 81 (1962):348-62.
15 White, Form and Function, p. 75.
16 Schubert, Form and Function, p. 77, ns. 1 and 2.
17 For instance, Martin, following White, breaks up the close-knit argument
and unity of 1:12-26 in a way few if any exegetes would agree with. Also the
labeling of 1:19b2:18 as "theological argument" and chapter 3 as "paraenesis"
seems arbitrary. A good deal of paraenesis is in 1:19b2:18 as well as theological
argument in chapter 3. Further evidence that Philippians defies this scheme is
seen in the fact that scholars who basically accept Funk's schema cannot agree on
what is "hortatory" and what is not. With Martin, Ronald Russell sees chapter 3 as
paraenetical ("Pauline Letter Structure in Philippians," Journal of the Evangeli-
cal Theological Society 25 [September 1982]:303-5). However, W. G. Doty feels
that no exclusively "hortatory" section can be identified in the letter, whether in
chapter 3 or elsewhere (Letters in Primitive Christianity [
Press, 1973], p. 43, chart).
18 Martin, Philippians (1976), pp. 57-58, 63.
19 Schubert. Form and Function, p. 24.
20 Ibid., p. 27.
21 Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, s.v. "eu]xariste>w,
eu]xaristi>a. eu]xa<ristoj," by Hans Conzelmann, 9 (1974):412.
22 Schubert contends that this type of Pauline thanksgiving characteristically
is made up of seven formally constructed cola (Form and Function, pp. 56-62).
However, it seems that Schubert must stretch the syntax too far to support this.
23 This writer does not agree with Martin (Philippians [19761, pp. 63-64), who
like Schubert sees u[mw?n as a subjective genitive. Seen this way, it is the Philip-
pians' remembrance of Paul, not his remembrance of them which is the basis of his thanks.
24 Good examples are J. B. Lightfoot, St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians
(London: Macmillan and Co., 1913), p. 84; Martin, Philippians (1959), p. 61;
Eadie, Philippians, p. 11; Vincent, Philippians, p. 8; Meyer, Philippians, p. 14.
But see Dwight's notes for conclusions approaching those drawn in this paper (in
Meyer, Philippians, pp. 47-48).
25 The reference to koinwni<a should not be restricted to the gift the readers had
sent to Paul. Nor does it here mean "fellowship" in the personal and subjective
sense. That motif is not referred to until in verses 7-8. Here the term should be
taken in the sense of "partnership" in a common enterprise. This usage is well
attested and is well suited for use in a prologue where general topics were intro-
duced which were more fully developed later in the epistle. For a defense of a view
very similar to the one presented here, see George Panikulam, Koinonia in the
The Theme and Structure of Philippians 253
New Testament A Dynamic Expression of Christian Life (
Institute Press, 1979), pp. 80-86. Both in his view of the scope of the term koinwni<a
and in his view of the relationship of verse 6 to verse 5, Panikulam is close to the
view suggested here.
26 Jewett, "Epistolary Thanksgiving," p. 53.
27 Meyer, Philippians, p. 14.
28 Meyer's exegesis of verses 7-8 is enlightening, especially his recognition that
grace here is grace to defend, confirm, and suffer for the gospel (Philippians,
p. 16). See also Dwight's comments about the particular force of the verses (in
Meyer, Philippians, pp. 48-49).
29 How Schubert could miss this borders on the incredible (Form and Function, p. 77, n. 2).
30 From a form-critical point of view Schubert also argues for the close connec-
tion of verses 9-11 with the verses before (ibid., p. 67, 71).
31 Dwight catches the precise meaning of a]gaph< in this context: "The meaning
of a]ga<ph is, accordingly, love as connected with xoinwni<a, that love which brought
the Philippians into fellowship for the furtherance of the gospel. The reference
does not seem to be . . . simply to their love to one another, but to Christian love
which, existing as a power in each individual soul, led them to work together as
the opportunity and call for such working came to them" (in Meyer, Philippians, p. 49).
32 Dwight perceptively comments, "The prominence of the thought of koinwni<a
ei]j to> eu]agge<lion in the paragraph . . . favors though it does not fully prove the
transitive sense" (ibid., p. 50).
33 Jewett, "Epistolary Thanksgiving," p. 53.
34 See H. Betz, Galatians: A Commentary on Paul's Letter to the Churches in
35 Hendriksen, Philippians, p. 74.
36 Taken this way, swthri<an bears the meaning it frequently has in the LXX -
the general sense of "deliverance." The context must then supply the modal
definition of the deliverance. For a view almost identical to this writer's view, see
Zane C. Hodges, The Gospel under Siege (Dallas: Redencion Viva, 1981), pp.
90-94. The view of Meyer (Philippians, pp. 29-30) is, as far as it goes, compatible
with the view presented here. It might also be noted that if the clause is a
quotation from Job 13:16, then further support is given to this view.
37 T. E. Pollard sees 1:27a as stating Paul's primary concern in writing to the
Philippians ("The Integrity of Philippians," New Testament Studies 13
38 Again Dwight notes, "pa<sxein and the 30th verse . . . make it clearly manifest
that the writer has especially in mind the furtherance of the gospel by the
Philippians, in, and notwithstanding, experiences similar to his own, i.e.,
persecution, etc." (in Meyer, Philippians, p. 58); cf. Martin's comments on v. 30
(Philippians , p. 85).
39 For example, Hendriksen, Philippians, p. 39; Lightfoot, Philippians, p. 69;
Muller, Philippians, p. 18; Vincent, Philippians, pp. 72, 75; and Martin, Philip-
pians (1976), p. 57.
40 Martin, Philippians (1976), pp. 116-17.
41 Ibid., pp. 91-93. In this commentary Martin's entire discussion of 2:5-11
reveals that he has not changed his opinion since the publication of his major
work Carmen Christi: Philippians ii. 5-11 in Recent Interpretation and in the
Setting of Early
42 Pollard, "The Integrity of Philippians."
43 See Martin, Philippians (1976), p. 18.
44 See C. F. D. Moule, The Epistle to
the Philippians (reprint,
Baker Book House, 1981), p. 56. Moule notes that to> loipo<n marks the transition
254 Bibliotheca Sacra July-September 1984
between the two major topics of the epistle unity and a firm stance for the
45 Martin, Philippians (1976), p. 154.
46 Eadie, The Epistle to the Philippians, p. xxxi.
47 William J.
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