Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians sometime between 60 and 62 AD. So who exactly were the Philippians, and what was Paul’s relationship to them? According to the IVP Dictionary of Paul & His Letters:
Philippi was already a very old and historic city when Paul arrived and later wrote his letter to the Christians there. Philip of Macedon had built it in 358-57 BC. on the site of an ancient Thracian city located eight miles from the sea in a spring-filled, fertile region. He fortified it and named it after himself. Later Philippi became part of the Roman Empire and was made one of the stations along the main overland route connecting Rome with the East. Destroyed by wars, it was rebuilt by the Emperor Octavian, who established it as a military outpost, populated it with veterans of his wars, made it a Roman colony and gave it the…highest privilege obtainable by a provincial municipality. Consequently, as the citizens of Rome, so the citizens of Philippi could buy and sell property, were exempt from land tax and the poll tax and were entitled to protection by Roman law.
Google Maps places the ancient city of Philippi about 6 hours north (by car) of Athens. Romans predominantly inhabited it, but many Macedonian Greeks, along with a strong Jewish population, lived there as well. Its people were proud of their city and its ties with Rome.
Philippi is the primary setting for the events recorded in Acts 16, which takes place early in Paul’s second missionary journey (likely 49 AD). While in Philippi, Paul and Silas are dragged before the local magistrates after some claimed that they were disturbing their city (vs.19-20). The two were then put in jail, but while they were praying, an earthquake occurred and the prison doors were opened. This caused the Philippian jailer to ask of Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they answered him, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (vs. 29-31). According to Acts 17, when they arrived in neighboring Thessalonica, Paul reasoned with the Jews in the synagogues. Some of the unbelieving Jews formed a mob, which set the city in an uproar (1-5).
Interestingly enough, we know from a secular source that something identical to this happened in the city of Rome during this same year. The historian Suetonius records that in 49 AD, Jews were expelled from the capitol city of Rome for a time because they “caused continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus” (Life of Claudus 25). According to many of the early church fathers, it was common for Romans to mistake Christus for Chrestus, since the latter was a common Roman name. For example, Lactantius writes, “But the meaning of this name must be set forth, on account of the error of the ignorant, who by the change of a letter are accustomed to call Him Chrestus.” Similarly, Turtullian complained to one of his opponents that it is merely “by a faulty pronunciation that you call us ‘Chrestians.’” It is for reasons like this that there is general consensus among historians that the expulsion of the Jews from Rome under Claudius in 49 AD was a result of the chaos that resulted in the Jewish community as people were beginning to take different sides on the question of Jesus’ identity. Was he the messiah, or wasn’t he?
In other words, exactly what we read from Acts 16 & 17 in the cities of Philippi and Thessalonica is also happening in the capital city of Rome itself. Jews from Rome, you will recall, were present on the day of Pentecost some two decades earlier. No doubt by this time word about him had spread throughout Jewish communities that were longing for the fulfillment of OT promises. Suetonius says these particular disturbances among the Jews in Rome were continuous, so that the Emperor Claudius himself had to be called in to arbitrate. Luke records this same event in Acts 18:1-2, saying that when Paul arrived in Corinth, “he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome.”
Thus the overall picture we discover is one of tremendous upheaval in the middle of first century Judaism throughout the Greco-Roman world. All of it centers on Jesus’ famous question to Peter, “Who do men say that I am?” If we fast-forward another decade to around 59 AD, we discover that Jews had been allowed to return to Rome and that Paul is with them, though in prison. It is from here that he writes his letter to the Philippians.
In the opening lines of his epistle Paul writes to the Philippian congregation, saying, “To the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.” So right off the bat we discern a particular ecclesiastical structure. This structure is discovered when we focus on the words saints, elders, and deacons. In other words, it wasn’t simply every believer for himself. There were teaching elders who were called to look after the sheep, and there were deacons who were appointed to serve. But even more importantly, whether they were Jews or Gentiles, they were all referred to as saints. They were pure, consecrated, holy, sanctified, purified.
It is common for Paul to use the word “saints” in the introductions of his epistles, so it’s easy to overlook. However, we should stop and think about the significance of this word for a moment. Needless to say, it was uncommon for first century Jews to refer to a group of uncircumcised Gentiles “saints.” One would more likely hear the word “dogs.” We even get a hint of this in an analogy that Jesus himself uses, saying to a Gentile woman, “It’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
So what happened? Why does this particular Pharisee refer to a congregation made up of mostly of uncircumcised gentile “dogs” as “saints”? He explains in verses 2-5. In Christ Jesus they have grace and peace. So whether they are Jews or Gentiles, these believers together have a partnership in the Gospel. This gospel is not about new resolutions, ethnic identity, social justice, or anything that any of us can invent. Rather, it is about the good news concerning the events in the life of one particular man who “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but he emptied himself by taking the form of a servant” (2:6-7). This is substance of the Christian gospel that Paul goes on to outline in his letter to the Philippians.
In the next 3 installments of this blog series, we’ll focus primarily on Paul’s arguments in Philippians chapter 3 about his own background as a “Hebrew of Hebrews” and why he came to the conclusion that all of his righteousness was rubbish.