Philippians is one of the four “prison epistles,” written when Paul was under house arrest in Rome (Acts 28:30-31). Unlike Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, which do not indicate how long he had been there, Philippians seems to show that Paul thought he would be released soon (Philippians 1:19-26). Though it contains Paul’s typical mix of doctrine and practice, Philippians is also a personal note to his dear friends. They had supported him financially for quite some time, including sending one of their own members to minister to his needs while imprisoned. This was a missionary’s report to let them know how he was doing.
The theme of Philippians is often thought to be about joy, and this is certainly a major part of the letter, but the concept of correct thinking, with a special focus on unity, seems to outweigh joy by a little bit. Both are immensely important to Paul’s point, though.
Chapter one includes an interesting greeting that is different from all of Paul’s other letters. Normally he greeted the saints as a whole in a particular city or region, but in verse one he singled out “the overseers and deacons.” It is possible that he referred to them because of the thanks he would give for their financial support, something overseen by the elders and probably distributed by the deacons. It is noteworthy as well that he did not refer to his apostleship in his opening. There is nothing in his letter that required him to assert this role, so he used only the title “slaves of Christ Jesus” for Timothy and himself.
His prayer of thanksgiving included his most common lines, but it quickly moves into specific reasons he thought of and prayed for them often (Philippians 1:3-11). A look at Acts 16 reveals a strong congregation “from the first day” Paul arrived in Philippi. His “imprisonment” certainly referred to his stay in Rome, but it also reminded them of his imprisonment in Philippi as well, when the prison warden came to faith and joined their ranks. No matter where he was or what situation in which he found himself, they were always ready to help him as “partners in God’s grace.” Because of their obvious growth, he knew that God would certainly finish the spiritual work that he started in them. His prayer was that their love would continue to grow as they gained more insight into God’s will and work.
Although they were certainly concerned for his well-being, he had good news to report: he had become well-known among the imperial guard as his only “crime” was preaching Christ (Philippians 1:12-18). Additionally, many other believers had begun to use his imprisonment as an opportunity to preach the gospel. Certainly, some were trying to build their own names, but Paul did not mind, as long as the gospel message was pure. He also seemed to think that he would be released soon, although that was not guaranteed (Philippians 1:19-26). He honestly was not sure what to think about that. After 30 years of traveling and ministry in some horrific conditions (see 2 Corinthians 4:7-12; 11:23-27), he was ready to go home to be with his Savior. However, if his work was not yet finished, he was content to stay alive, preach the gospel, and reconnect with his friends.
He urged them, though, that they would “conduct [themselves] in a manner worthy of the gospel” that he continually put himself in danger to preach and that they funded (Philippians 1:27-30). They could do this by standing strong in the face of growing persecution that was headed their way.