Preaching on Philippians
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Preaching on Philippians
This ancient letter of Paul to the Philippians is unlike the letters of the day, which were brief and to the point. This letter is longer. It speaks not only to the church and individuals, but is also for the rest of the church to overhear! The letter encourages readers toward progress in their faith, all the while addressing specific issues.
Philippi was a Roman city built and fortified by Philip, the father of Alexander the Great in 358-357 BCE, founded on Roman law, culture, and practice. Eight miles from the sea, Philippi became a strategic stopping place for the Roman army. The city was rebuilt as a military outpost (42 BCE) and made a colony with the highest recognition outside Italy, having strong links to Rome.
Paul’s encounter with the Philippian church is found in Acts 16:11-39. There he found no synagogue in the city, which had a small Jewish population, and on the Sabbath met a group of worshiping women outside the city. He preached Christ, and Lydia, a leading business woman, was converted and the church was established.
This personal letter was written in response to the gift sent to Paul while in prison, by the hand of Epaphroditus, from the Philippian church. Before his return to Philippi Epaphroditus took ill, almost dying. Now recovered Epaphroditus is commended to the Philippians by Paul for his dedication in fulfilling the task he was assigned by the church.
Epaphroditus carried Paul’s Philippian letter on his return to Philippi. In the letter Paul thanks them for the gift, he provides information about his own circumstances, he commends Timothy to the church in anticipation of Paul visiting them again, and addresses various pastoral concerns.
I was serving as pastor at a small neighborhood church when I first preached this series. This church values solid biblical preaching. But they were on their knees—down because of struggles that blindsided them. Preaching through Philippians was a series to encourage this faithful congregation in their healing, giving them hope for the next phase of ministry. I divided the letter into the following fourteen-week series. One could split the fourteen-week series into two seven-week series, with a break in the middle. The book is easily split into various shorter series, if desired.
Text: Philippians 1:1-2
- Title: How Do We Begin?
- Exegetical Idea: Paul and Timothy greet the Philippian church and desire them to have grace and peace from God and Christ Jesus.
- Big Idea: Good beginnings start with grace and peace.
Text: Philippians 1:3-11
- Title: Thank God!
- Exegetical Idea: Paul is grateful with joy to God for the Philippian church for their faithful partnership in the gospel and he prays that they will grow in knowledge, discernment, and blamelessness in Christ, so that they may glorify God in their lives.
- Big Idea: Thank God that he does what he does in us and we do what we do—for him.
Text: Philippians 1:12-26
- Title: A Matter of Life and Death
- Exegetical Idea: Paul says the result of his being imprisoned for Christ is that the gospel is being preached with courage—some preach competitively while others for good—and he rejoices that Christ is preached and that Christ will be exalted in his body for to him to live is Christ and to die is gain for the joy of the Philippians’ faith.
- Big Idea: For me living is Christ and dying is gain.
Text: Philippians 1:27-30
- Title: The Sign of Sainthood
- Exegetical Idea: Paul instructs the Philippian Christians to live their lives in light of his commitment to Christ, to them, and his imprisonment, to conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, not being afraid of opposition and confident that God will save them even though they too will suffer because of the gospel.
- Big Idea: Suitable saints may suffer and struggle but this is a sign of salvation.
Text: Philippians 2:1-11
- Title: Attitude Adjustment
- Exegetical Idea: Paul tells the Philippian Christians to conduct themselves with each other as a church that they be like-minded and humble like Jesus Christ who humbled himself even to death on the cross and is exalted to the highest place as Lord, who will humble all in heaven and on earth to the glory of God the Father.
- Big Idea: Christ shows us how to be humble when we stumble and bumble.
Text: Philippians 2:12-18
- Title: What Others See
- Exegetical Idea: Paul means, when he tells the Philippian Christians to work out their salvation with fear and trembling as they trust God to work in them for his good will and purpose is, that they are to do everything without complaining so that they can be pure children of God in the midst of a depraved generation and therefore live lives that shine, enabling Paul to boast and rejoice in what God is doing in and through them.
- Big Idea: Carefully live your life so you can carefully shine your light.
Text: Philippians 2:19-30
- Title: Christian Connections
- Exegetical Idea: Paul wants to send Timothy, his son in the faith, to report on the Philippians’ welfare in hopes of his own coming to them and he intends to send back to them Epaphroditus his brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier in the faith as he was sent to him by the Philippians and almost died for the work of Christ and he wants the Philippians to honor him upon his return as he represented them to Paul.
- Big Idea: Christians care for each other like family.
Text: Philippians 3:1-11
- Title: Looking Good
- Exegetical Idea: Paul tells the Philippian Christians to rejoice in the Lord in the midst of people who twist the truth and are confident in who they are because it is a safeguard for them as they encounter opposition and Paul, as he compares himself with them, says that he has a flawless resume but that means nothing compared to knowing Christ for everything is by faith and his desire is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, and share in his suffering, becoming like him in his death so that he might attain to the resurrection from the dead.
- Big Idea: There’s no comparison: we can only be content when we have Christ written all over our resume.
Text: Philippians 3:12-4:1
- Title: Making Progress!
- Exegetical Idea: Paul says in light of his desire to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, that he’s not obtained it perfectly, but he presses on to do so and he wants the Philippian Christians to live and act maturely by following his and others’ example because there are those who don’t and are enemies of Christ and they are headed to destruction. Christians await the return of Christ who has power over all and will transform their lowly bodies into glorious ones—and if they hold to these truths, they will stand firm in the Lord as Paul’s brothers and sisters whom he loves and considers his joy and crown.
- Big Idea: Mature Christians model and move forward in faith, while standing firmly in Christ.
Text: Philippians 4:2-3
- Title: Fit for What?
- Exegetical Idea: Paul begs Eudoia and Syntyche to make peace with each other with Syzygus’ help because they helped Paul and Clement and others in the cause of the gospel and such discord doesn’t befit those whose names are written in the Book of Life.
- Big Idea: Make peace with each other for fighting doesn’t fit those who are fit for heaven.
Text: Philippians 4:4-7
- Title: Bits and Peaces
- Exegetical Idea: Paul tells the Philippian believers that as they rejoice and demonstrate gentleness to each other they do so recognizing that the Lord is near and that because he is near, they can pray with thanks no matter the circumstance and the result is the guarding peace of God in their hearts and minds.
- Big Idea: Praise and prayer go together with God’s peace.
Text: Philippians 4:8-9
- Title: Thinking and Doing
- Exegetical Idea: Paul instructs the Philippian Christians to occupy their thinking with that which is praiseworthy and in their doing they are to model themselves after Paul and God’s peace will be with them.
- Big Idea: Good thinking leads to good doing.
Text: Philippians 4:10-20
- Title: The Call to Commitment
- Exegetical Idea: Paul rejoices in light of the generosity extended to him by the Philippian church, the only church that cared for him in Thessalonica and now in prison. That despite his circumstances he is content because of Christ’s strength and that he recognizes their gifts as offerings pleasing to God and he prays that God would meet their needs in Christ—to the glory of God.
- Big Idea: Contentment in Christ is a generous gift that glorifies God.
Text: Philippians 4:21-23
- Title: Encouragement for the Long Haul
- Exegetical Idea: Paul encourages the Philippian Christians with greeting from other Christians who are with him in prison and that they are sustained by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.
- Big Idea: Saints: encourage each other because saints are sustained by grace.
Sermon Outline Example:
Text: Philippians 4:2-3
Subject: Why does Paul beg Euodia and Syntyche to make peace with each other with Syzygus’ help?
Complement: Because they helped Paul and Clement and others in the cause of the gospel and such discord doesn’t befit those whose names are written in the book of life.
Exegetical Idea: Paul begs Euodia and Syntyche to make peace with each other with Syzygus’ help because they helped Paul and Clement and others in the cause of the gospel and such discord doesn’t befit those whose names are written in the book of life.
Homiletical Idea: Make peace with each other for fighting doesn’t fit those who are fit for heaven.
Purpose: As a result of hearing this sermon, I want my listeners to make peace with God and each other.
Title: Fit for What?
I. Make peace with each other.
- Agree with each other in the Lord.
- Christians throughout the centuries have fought.
- We need help to agree with each other in the Lord.
- Make peace with each other.
(Transition: Why are we to live at peace with each other? Because…)
II. Fighting doesn’t fit those who are fit for heaven.
- When we fight we don’t reflect Christ.
- The history of the church is littered with fights that have fractured the witness of the church.
- Some of us would rather fight than make peace.
- Fighting doesn’t fit those who are fit for heaven.
(Transition: So, what is this text telling us?)
III. Make peace with each other for fighting doesn’t fit those who are fit for heaven.
- Discord doesn’t suit us as Christians.
- Fighting clothes don’t fit, either.
- Our inclinations may be to fight but internally we have to fight our inclinations and submit ourselves to Christ who is the Prince of Peace.
- Make peace with each other for fighting doesn’t fit those who are fit for heaven.
Philippians is an up close and personal letter. From beginning to end Paul’s words are ancient but very much contemporary. Paul’s opening words to the Philippians apply the effective work of grace to them—grace and peace are foundational for belief in Christ and for the life of the church. Grace and peace set a tone for the letter, a backdrop of application that runs throughout. For, without grace and peace with God through Jesus Christ, there isn’t the expression of thanksgiving that follows (1:3-11), nor is there the ability for Paul to proclaim the gospel and for the Philippians to suffer for it (1:12-30), or humility in Christ (2:1-11), and so on.
This theme of grace and peace is found in the sermon above from Philippian 4:2-3. One can imagine the letter being read aloud to the congregation with all eyes on Euodia and Syntyche when Paul says, “I plead with Euodia and Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord.”
Application for this sermon calls the preacher to be aware of the skirmishes and tensions in the church—even the most perfect church, which the Philippian church seems to be. When preaching this text, the preacher wants to be sensitive to the power of rebuke. Paul hit the situation straight on, naming names. That might not be the first option for us as we preach, but we do want to provide opportunities for listeners to consider seriously their role in church conflict. One might have listeners write on their worship folders the names of people with whom they want to make peace. Perhaps a time of prayer for bold peace-making could follow the sermon, even inviting public commitment for peace-making during the singing of song. This text requires palpable application—attitudes and actions.
Next, in chapter 4:4-7 grace and peace are spotlighted again when Paul concludes, “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Here, like the Roman sentinels surrounding the city, God’s grace and peace will surround them—and us, who are Christ’s. These words of grace and peace are not simply introductory prose, but have real theological and practical implications for the readers then and today.
When preachers preach on this small but powerful book, keep in mind what Paul is trying to apply to the lives of his readers—grace and peace because of the person and work of Jesus Christ.
The church at Philippi is believed to be Paul’s favorite church. He invested greatly in them and they invested in him as their founder and pastor. Throughout this compact letter there are a number of theological themes that emerge as the apostle addresses the issues before him that confronted the church, all the while encouraging their spiritual growth.
The doctrine of the grace of God
Paul begins in Philippians 1:1-2 introducing the grace of God and, almost like an inclusio, concludes the letter emphasizing the grace of God (Phil. 4:21-23).
The role of thanksgiving in the life of the believer
In the beginning of the letter Paul writes in Philippians 1:3-11 that thanks is a component of Christian character. Paul thanks God for them and prays that the Philippians would grow in love and discernment, enabling them to praise God.
The doctrine of providence
Paul recognizes that in the proclamation of the gospel, God is the One who oversees his kingdom plan (see Phil. 1:12-26). Paul may be in chains, but he reminds the Philippians that the gospel is not in chains. God uses even the unexpected person to proclaim the gospel—because of God’s providence.
The doctrine of sanctification
In Philippians 1:27-30, Paul speaks of the importance of sanctified living.
The kenosis of Christ
The result of Christ’s coming in human flesh, his kenosis (Phil. 2:1-11), results in Godly conduct in light of Christ’s self-emptying.
Paul writes in Philippians 2:12-18 of the power of Christian witness, and that this witness has an impact in the lives of others.
The church as family
For Paul, the church—the called-out-ones—are a new family. In Philippians 2:19-30, Paul details the nature of this family in the lives of Timothy and Epaphroditus.
Becoming like Christ
The Christian is called to become like Christ. Paul demonstrates in Philippians 3:1-11 that knowing Christ helps believers to become like Christ.
The matter of Christian maturity is always on the apostle’s mind as he writes to these young churches. In Philippians 3:12-4:1, Paul details that becoming like Christ means investment in moving towards maturity.
Paul addresses a controversy in the church between two members at Philippi. In Philippians 4:2-3, Paul notes that a mark of the church is living in peace with each other.
Prayer and praise
In Philippians 4:4-7, Paul encourages the Philippian church about the power of praise, prayer, and petition, and the assuring presence of God.
Paul details in Philippians 4:8-9 the peace of godly wisdom gained from godly examples.
Through an autobiographical statement, Paul demonstrates to the Philippians the sustaining power of Christ (Phil. 4:10-20).
My Encounter with Philippians
The challenge in preaching Philippians is passing carelessly over the rich theological and practical instruction that this letter provides for the congregation sitting before him or her. Since it is a letter, theology is made practical, personal, and accessible. With careful study of the text, ancient context, and the pastor’s present church context, connections can be made with listeners to encourage them to become the people God has called them to be with each other and with those found in the nooks and crannies of their everyday lives.
When I first preached this series it provided the foundation for turning around a church that was struggling. Paul’s letter is driven by encouragement and the series served as a solid beginning for the things that were to come, for which I’m grateful to the Lord!
Going forward, Paul’s letter to the Philippians has had a special place in my heart. Not only have the words of this letter encouraged me, but it’s one that gives me confidence that the Lord uses his Word to accomplish his purposes. The themes in this short letter are themes that I need in my personal life, as a preacher, and as a pastor. I shall not tire of preaching this letter again—and again!
Three Favorite Commentaries
Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin, Philippians: Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 43: Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018).
Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, eds., Ephesians-Philemon: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 12 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006).
Ralph P. Martin, Philippians: Tyndale New Testament Commentaries Book 11 (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015).
Scott M. Gibson is the Professor of Preaching and holder of the David E. Garland Chair of Preaching at Baylor University/Truett Seminary in Waco, Texas. He also served as the Haddon W. Robinson Professor of Preaching and Ministry at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, where he was on faculty for twenty-seven years.