Bibliotheca Sacra 141 (July 1984) 234-254. 

          Copyright © 1984  by Dallas Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.

 

 

 

                      The Theme and Structure

                                 of Philippians

 

 

                                                 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

as follows.

            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

 

                                                234

 



            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

topics."6

            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

            church at Philippi. The writer passes from one subject to another

            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

            between God, the apostle, and the believers at Philippi there exists a

            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

theme.

            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

letter form.14

            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

argument.

            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

letter19 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

theme."21

            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

letter."26

 

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

chapter 2.

            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

motives.

            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

chapter 2.

            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

praise.

            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

theme.

 



            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

and 13).

            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 (1:27–4:9)

 

            The body of the epistle has three well-balanced sections: (a)

an introductory and summary paragraph (1:27-30), (b) a central

section (2:1–4:1), 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 1:27–4:9. 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

the epistle.

            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

the faith.

 

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

3:1–4:1 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

argument.

            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

Christ (2:16).

 



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 (3:1–4:1)  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

in 1:27-30.

            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

persecution.

 



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

and steadfastness.

            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

account.

 

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.

            Dalton has superbly summarized the relationship of the

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).

 

                                                Conclusion

            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.

Out of Macedonia, Alexander the Great once went to conquer the

Eastern world but later from Macedonia the power of the gospel

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.

 

                                                Notes

 

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);

Frank Stagg, "Philippians," in The Broadman Bible Commentary, ed. Clifton J.

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.

Dallas Theological Seminary, May 1977). The main objection to this view is that

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 believers at Philippi. Failure to meet

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 (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck and

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

scholarly following.

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 (Grand Rapids: Baker Book

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

New Testament Commentaries [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing

Co., 1959], p. 43). See also J. J. Muller, The Epistles of Paul to the Philippians

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 [London: Oliphants, 1976], pp. 10-22).

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 Testament, 5 vols. [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans

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-

ter" and "epistle" (Form and Function of the Pauline Thanksgivings [Berlin:

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 1:19b–2:18 as "theological argument" and chapter 3 as "paraenesis"

seems arbitrary. A good deal of paraenesis is in 1:19b–2:18 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 [Philadelphia: Fortress

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 (Rome: Biblical

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

Galatia (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), pp. 14-15, 58-62.

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

[19661:65).

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 [1976], 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 Christian Worship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,

1967).

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, Grand Rapids:

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

gospel.

45 Martin, Philippians (1976), p. 154.

46 Eadie, The Epistle to the Philippians, p. xxxi.

47 William J. Dalton, "The Integrity of Philippians," Biblica 60 (1979):101.

 

 

 

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