Keith Hunt - Church History #33 - Page Thirty-three   Restitution of All Things

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History of the Church #33

The Epistles of Paul #3


30-100 AD

From "History of the Christian Church " by Philip Schaff



Philippi was a city of Macedonia, founded by and called after
Philip, the father of Alexander the Great, in a fertile region,
with contiguous gold and silver mines, on the banks of a small
river and the highway between Asia and Europe, ten miles from the
seacoast. It acquired immortal fame by the battle between Brutus
and Mark Antony (B.C. 42), in which the Roman republic died and
the empire was born. After that event it had the rank of a Roman
military colony, with the highsounding title, "Colonia Augusta
Julia Philippensis." Hence its mixed population, the Greeks, of
course, prevailing, next the Roman colonists and magistrates, and
last a limited number of Jews, who had a place of prayer on the
riverside. It was visited by Paul, in company with Silas,
Timothy, and Luke, on his second missionary tour, in the year 52,
and became the seat of the first Christian congregation on the
classical soil of Greece. Lydia, the purple dealer of Thyatira
and a half proselyte to Judaism, a native slave-girl with a
divining spirit, which was used by her masters as a means of gain
among the superstitions heathen, and a Roman jailer, were the
first converts, and fitly represent the three nationalities (Jew,
Greek, and Roman) and the classes of society which were
especially benefited by Christianity. "In the history of the
gospel at Philippi, as in the history of the church at large, is
reflected the great maxim of Christianity, the central truth of
the apostle's teaching, that here is 'neither Jew nor Greek,
neither bond nor free, neither male nor female, but all are one
in Christ Jesus.' Here, also, are the first recorded instances of
whole households (of Lydia and the jailer) being baptized and
gathered into the church, of which the family is the chief
nursery. The congregation was fully organized, with bishops
(presbyters) and deacons at the head (Phil.1.1).

Here the apostle was severely persecuted and marvellously
delivered. Here he had his most loyal and devoted converts, who
were his "joy and crown." For them he felt the strongest personal
attachment; from them alone he would receive contributions for
his support. In the autumn of the year 57, after five years
absence, he paid a second visit to Philippi, having in the
meantime kept up constant intercourse with the congregation
through living messengers; and on his last journey to Jerusalem,
in the spring of the following year, he stopped at Philippi to
keep the paschal feast with his beloved brethren. They had
liberally contributed out of their poverty to the relief of the
churches in Judea. When they heard of his arrival at Rome, they
again sent him timely assistance through Epaphroditus, who also
offered his personal services to the prisoner of the Lord, at the
sacrifice of his health and almost his life. It was through this
faithful fellow-worker that Paul sent his letter of thanks to the
Philippians, hoping, after his release, to visit them in person
once more.


The Epistle reflects, in familiar ease, his relations to this be,
loved flock, which rested on the love of Christ. It is not
systematic, not polemic, nor apologetic, but personal and
autobiographic, resembling in this respect the First Epistle to
the Thessalonians, and to some extent, also, the Second Epistle
to the Corinthians. It is the free outflow of tender love and
gratitude, and full of joy and cheerfulness in the face of life
and death. It is like his midnight hymn of praise in the dungeon
of Philippi. "Rejoice in the Lord alway; again I will say,
Rejoice" (4: 4). This is the key-note of the letter. It proves
that a healthy Christian faith, far from depressing and saddening
the heart, makes truly happy and contented even in prison.  It is
an important contribution to our knowledge of the character of
the apostle. In acknowledging the gift of the Philippians, he
gracefully and delicately mingles manly independence and
gratitude. He had no doctrinal error, nor practical vice to
rebuke, as in Galatians and Corinthians.

The only discordant tone is the warning against "the dogs of the
concision" (Greek 3:2), as he sarcastically calls the champions
of circumcision (Greek), who everywhere sowed tares in his wheat
fields, and at that very time tried to check his usefulness in
Rome by substituting the righteousness of the law for the
righteousness of faith. But he guards the readers with equal
earnestness against the opposite extreme of antinomian license 
(3:12-21). In opposition to the spirit of personal and social
rivalry and contention which manifested itself among the
Philippians, Paul reminds them of the self-denying example of
Christ, who was the highest of all, and yet became the lowliest
of all by divesting himself of his divine majesty and humbling
himself, even to the death on the cross, and who, in reward for
his obedience, was exalted above every name (2:1-11).

This is the most important doctrinal passage of the letter, and
contains (together with 2 Cor.8:9) the fruitful germ of the
speculations on the nature and extent of the kenosis, which
figures so prominently in the history of christology. It is a
striking example of the apparently accidental occasion of some of
the deepest utterances of the apostle. With passages full of
elegant negligence (1:29), like Plato's dialogues and Cicero's
letters, it has passages of wonderful eloquence, and proceeds
from outward relations and special circumstances to wide-reaching
thoughts and grand conceptions.

The objections against the genuineness raised by a few
hypercritics are not worthy of a serious refutation.


The subsequent history of the church at Philippi is rather
disappointing, like that of the other apostolic churches in the
East. It appears again in the letters of Ignatius, who passed
through the place on his way to his martyrdom in Rome, and was
kindly entertained and escorted by the brethren, and in the
Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians, who expressed his joy
that "the sturdy root of their faith, famous from the earliest
days, still survives and bears fruit unto our Lord Jesus Christ,"
and alludes to the labors of "the blessed and glorious Paul "
among them. Tertullian appeals to the Philippian church as still
maintaining the apostle's doctrine and reading his Epistle
publicly. The name of its bishop is mentioned here and there in
the records of councils, but that is all. During the middle ages
the city was turned into a wretched village, and the bishopric
into a mere shadow. At present there is not even a village on the
site, but only a caravansary, a mile or more from the ruins,
which consist of a theatre, broken marble columns, two lofty
gateways, and a portion of the city wall. Of the church which
stood foremost among all the apostolic communities in faith and
love, it may literally be said that not one stone stands upon
another. Its whole career is a signal monument of the inscrutable
counsels of God. Born into the world with the brightest promise,
the church of Philippi has lived without a history and perished
without a memorial.
But in Paul's Epistle that noble little band of Christians still
lives and blesses the church in distant countries.

(And so is the working of the Lord Jesus in His church. He leads
and guides, a church congregation dies out, another is raised up.
What once was thriving dies out for one reason or another, and
what was barren comes to life and thrives in another part of the
world. But the promise and truth is as Jesus said, "I will build
my church, and the gates of hell (death) will not prevail against
it" - Keith Hunt)

Theological: The self-humiliation (Greek) of Christ for our
salvation (2:5-11). 
Practical: Christian cheerfulness.

LEADING THOUGHTS: He who began a good work in you will perfect it
(1: 6). If only Christ is preached, I rejoice (1:13). To me to
live is Christ, and to die is gain (1:21). Have this mind in you,
which was also in Christ Jesus: who emptied himself, etc. (2:5
sqq.). God worketh in you both to will and to work (2:13).  
Rejoice in the Lord alway; again I will say, Rejoice (3:1; 4: 1).
I count all things to be loss for the excellency of the knowledge
of Christ (3: 8). I press on toward the goal unto the prize of
the high calling of God in Christ Jesus (3:14). Whatsoever things
are true, whatsoever things are honorable, whatsoever things are
just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely,
whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and
if there be any praise, think on these things (4: 8). The peace
of God passeth all understanding (4:7).


Of the many private letters of introduction and recommendation
which Paul must have written during his long life, only one is
left to us, very brief but very weighty. It is addressed to
Philemon, a zealous Christian at Colossae, a convert of Paul and
apparently a layman, who lent his house for the religious
meetings of the brethren. The name recalls the touching
mythological legend of the faithful old couple, Philemon and
Baucis, who, in the same province of Phrygia, entertained gods
unawares and were rewarded for their simple hospitality and con-
jugal love. The letter was written and transmitted at the same
time as that to the Colossians. It may be regarded as a personal
postscript to it.
It was a letter of recommendation of Onesimus (i.e., Profitable),
a slave of Philemon, who had run away from his master on account
of some offence (probably theft, a very common sin of slaves),
fell in with Paul at Rome, of whom he may have heard in the
weekly meetings at Colossae, or through Epaphras, his
fellow-townsman, was converted by him to the Christian faith, and
now desired to return, as a penitent, in company with Tychicus,
the bearer of the Epistle to the Colossians (Col.4:9).


The Epistle is purely personal, yet most significant. Paul omits
his official title, and substitutes the touching designation, "a
prisoner of Christ Jesus," thereby going directly to the heart of
his friend. The letter introduces us into a Christian household,
consisting of father (Philemon), mother (Apphia), son (Archippus,
who was at the same time a "fellow-soldier," a Christian
minister), and a slave (Onesimus). It shows the effect of
Christianity upon society at a crucial point, where heatbenism
was utterly helpless. It touches on the institution of slavery,
which lay like an incubus upon the whole heathen world and was
interwoven with the whole structure of domestic and public life.
The effect of Christianity upon this gigantic social evil is that
of a peaceful and gradual cure from within, by teaching the
common origin and equality of men, their common redemption and
Christian brotherhood, by emancipating them from slavery unto
spiritual freedom, equality, and brotherhood in Christ, in whom
there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, neither
male nor female, but all are one moral person (Gal.3:28). This
principle and the corresponding practice wrought first an
amelioration, and ultimately the abolition of slavery. The
process was very slow and retarded by the counteracting influence
of the love of gain and power, and all the sinful passions of
men; but it was sure and is now almost complete throughout the
Christian world; while paganism and Mohammedanism regard slavery
as a normal state of society, and hence do not even make an
attempt to remove it. It was the only wise way for the apostles
to follow in dealing with the subject. A proclamation of
emancipation from them would have been a mere brutum fulmen, or,
if effectual, would have resulted in a bloody revolution of
society in which Christianity itself would have been buried.

Paul accordingly sent back Onesimus to his rightful master, yet
under a new character, no more a contemptible thief and runaway,
but a regenerate man and a "beloved brother," with the touching
request that Philemon might receive him as kindly as he would the
apostle himself, yea as his own heart (vers.16,17). Such advice
took the sting out of slavery; the form remained, the thing
itself was gone. What a contrast. In the eyes of the heathen
philosophers (even Aristotle) Onesimus, like every other slave,
was but a live chattel; in the eyes of Paul a redeemed child of
God and heir of eternal life, which is far better than freedom.

(The misunderstood subject of slavery as in ancient Israel gave
rise to a false ideology in the western world for far too long a
time. Slavery, like divorce and remarriage, as Jesus put it was
not from the beginning, but for the hardness of the heart, it was
allowed - see Mat.19:7-8 - Keith Hunt)

The New Testament is silent about the effect of the letter. We
cannot doubt that Philemon forgave Onesimus and treated him with
Christian kindness. In all probability he went beyond the letter
of the request and complied with its spirit, which hints at
emancipation. Tradition relates that Onesimus received his
freedom and became bishop of Beroea in Macedonia; sometimes he is
confounded with his namesake, a bishop of Ephesus in the second
century, or made a missionary in Spain and a martyr in Rome, or
at Puteoli.


The Epistle is at the same time an invaluable contribution to our
knowledge of Paul. It reveals him to us as a perfect Christian
gentleman. It is a model of courtesy, delicacy, and tenderness of
feeling. Shut up in a prison, the aged apostle had a heart full
of love and sympathy for a poor runaway slave, made him a freeman
in Christ Jesus, and recommended him as if he were his own self.


Grotius and other commentators quote the famous letter of Pliny
the Consul to his friend Sabinianus in behalf of a runaway slave.
It is very creditable to Pliny, who was born in the year when
Paul arrived as a prisoner in Rome, and shows that the natural
feelings of kindness and generosity could not be extinguished
even by that inhuman institution. Pliny was a Roman gentleman of
high culture and noble instincts, although he ignorantly despised
Christianity and persecuted its innocent professors while
Proconsul in Asia. The letters present striking points of
resemblance: in both, a fugitive slave, guilty, but reformed, and
desirous to return to duty; in both, a polite, delicate, and
earnest plea for pardon and restoration, dictated by sentiments
of disinterested kindness. But they differ as Christian charity
differs from natural philanthropy, as a Christian gentleman
differs from a heathen gentleman. The one could appeal only to
the amiable temper and pride of his friend, the other to the love
of Christ and the sense of duty and gratitude; the one was
concerned for the temporal comfort of his client, the other even
more for his eternal welfare; the one could at best remand him to
his former condition as a slave, the other raised him to the high
dignity of a Christian brother, sitting with his master at the
same communion table of a com-mon Lord and Saviour. For polished
speech the Roman may bear the palm, but for nobleness of tone and
warmth of heart he falls far short of the imprisoned apostle.

The Epistle was poorly understood in the ancient church when
slavery ruled supreme in the Roman empire. A strong prejudice
prevailed against it in the fourth century, as if it were wholly
unworthy of an apostle. Jerome, Chrysostom, and other
commentators, who themselves had no clear idea of its ultimate
social bearing, apologized to their readers that Paul, instead of
teaching metaphysical dogmas and enforcing ecclesiastical
discipline, should take so much interest in a poor runaway slave.
But since the Reformation full justice has been done to it.
Erasmus says: "Cicero never wrote with greater elegance." Luther
and Calvin speak of it in high terms, especially Luther, who
fully appreciated its noble, Christ-like sentiments... Ewald:
"Nowhere can the sensibility and warmth of a tender friendship
blend more beautifully with the loftier feeling of a commanding
spirit than in this letter, at once so brief, and yet so
surpassingly full and significant." Meyer: "A precious relic of a
great character, and, viewed merely as a specimen of Attic
elegance and urbanity, it takes rank among the epistolary
masterpieces of antiquity." Baur rejects it with trifling
arguments as post-apostolic, but confesses that it "makes an
agreeable impression by its attractive form," and breathes "the
noblest Christian spirit." Holtzmann calls it "a model of tact,
refinement, and amiability."  Reuss: "a model of tact and
humanity, and an expression of a fine appreciation of Christian
duty and genial, amiable humor." Renan, with his keen eye on the
literary and aesthetic merits or defects, praises it as "a verit-
able little chef-d'oeuvre of the art of letter-writing." And
Lightfoot, while estimating still higher its moral significance
on the question of slavery, remarks of its literary excellency:
"As an expression of simple dignity, of refined courtesy, of
large sympathy, of warm personal affection, the Epistle to
Philemon stands unrivalled. And its pre-eminence is the more
remark able because in style it is exceptionally loose. It owes
nothing to the graces of rhetoric; its effect is due solely to
the spirit of the writer."

To be continued


All of the epistles of Paul are expounded for you in the section
"The New Testament Bible Story" on this website. Also on my Youtube

Keith Hunt

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