On Sunday, we kicked off our new series, Shout Joy! In this series we are walking through the book of Philippians and seeing how, despite his circumstances, Paul continued to shout joy! As we walk through this book together, we want to provide you with resources to help you better understand the book of Philippians. You can find all of the resources for this series, including the sermon video and audio, sermon notes, community group discussion guides, and an introduction to the book of Philippians here. Over the next four weeks we will be sharing segments of our short introduction to Philippians with you. Feel free to download this booklet on our Shout Joy! page or at the bottom of this post. This week we will be looking at the author and genre of Philippians.
Who Wrote Philippians?
Few have challenged the belief that the Apostle Paul wrote the letter to the Philippians. In simply reading the text, it is clear that the author and sender of the letter identifies himself as “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:1).
Paul would have included Timothy in his introduction for two reasons. First, Timothy was with Paul when he wrote this letter. Secondly, the church at Philippi would have been familiar with Timothy because of his work in that region with Paul during their missionary journeys. Beyond the introduction, Paul is also very autobiographical in the book of Philippians. In Philippians 3:4-6, Paul describes himself in vivid detail:
Though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Here Paul makes his past abundantly clear. Early church fathers, Irenaeus (130? - 202), Clement of Alexandria (150-215), and Tertullian (160-220), all considered Paul to be the author of Philippians. Also, around 135 CE, the church father, Polycarp, wrote to the Philippian church reminding them of Paul’s letter to them.1
Polycarp writes in his letter,
“For neither I nor anyone like me can keep pace with the wisdom of the blessed and glorious Paul. When he was with you in the presence of the people of that time, he accurately and reliably taught the word concerning the truth. And when he was absent he wrote you letters . . .”2
All of the evidence seems clearly to point to Paul as the author of the book of Philippians.
What Kind of Book Is Philippians?
Typically, this letter is described as “The Letter of Paul to the Philippians,” “The Epistle to the Philippians,” or simply “Philippians.” Though the title of this New Testament book clearly reveals its genre, other sources also confirm the classification of Philippians. The book of Philippians clearly follows a typical epistle or letter format found throughout the first century Greco-Roman world. The form of letters in the ancient world typically followed a set pattern: (1) name of the writer, (2) name of the recipient, (3) greeting, (4) prayer wish or thanksgiving, (5) body (for Paul this included instruction on doctrine and Christian living), and (6) final greeting and farewell.3
We see all of these elements in Philippians. The name of the writer comes in verse 1: “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus.” The name of the recipients comes at the end of verse 1: “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.” The greeting can be found in verse 2: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Following the greeting comes the prayer wish and thanksgiving in Philippians 1:3-11. The body of the letter consists of Philippians 1:12-4:20. Paul concludes his letter to the Philippians with a final greeting and farewell: “Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brother who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit” (Philippians 4:21-23).
In understanding Paul’s letter to the Philippians, it is also important to understand that this is an occasional letter. “This means that they were occasioned, or called forth, by some specific circumstance, either from the reader’s side or the author’s side.”4
Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians because he had a particular message he wanted to send the church at Philippi. This is important to remember when reading, interpreting, and applying the book of Philippians. However, before considering how Paul’s letter applies to our own lives, we first have to know what exactly he wrote to the church at Philippi.
1 Gary M. Burge, Lynn H. Cohick, and Gene L. Green, The New Testament in Antiquity: A Survey of the New Testament within its Cultural Contexts (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 357.
2 Polycarp, The Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians in the Apostolic Fathers, trans. Michael W. Holmes (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 283, 285.
3 Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 56-57.
4 Ibid., 58.