Philippians – General Introduction to the Prison Epistles

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The WELS Mission for the Visually Impaired presents The Peoples Bible – Philippians.

By Harlyn J. Kuschel.

Published by Northwestern Publishing House, Copyright 1986, Second edition, 2000.


Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon, together with Ephesians, form a group of the apostle Paul’s epistles collectively designated as the “prison epistles” or “captivity letters.” Paul writes all four epistles while in prison. He speaks of his bonds and his unique calling as the Lord’s “ambassador in chains” (Ephesians 6:20). These common expressions, the similarity of the various personal remarks the apostle makes in all four epistles, and the fact that three of the four were delivered to their destinations by one man, Tychicus, lead us to the conclusion that all four of these letters were written during the same period of confinement.

Paul was imprisoned in Rome. He was awaiting the hearing of his appeal to the emperor and then the emperor’s verdict that would follow. This was probably a period of about two years, from A.D. 61 to 63. This particular imprisonment is sometimes referred to as Paul’s first Roman imprisonment. He was also imprisoned in Rome a second time, just before his death.

In Acts chapters 21 to 27, Saint Luke tells in great detail how it happened that Paul appealed to the emperor and consequently journeyed to Rome for the hearing. Because these events have a direct bearing on all three epistles, it is worthwhile to review some of them here.

During the apostle’s mission journeys, Jews in various places resisted and rejected the gospel message. On occasion this resistance became violent. Many of these unbelieving Jews brought false reports back to Jerusalem concerning Paul and his gospel proclamation. They stirred up the resentment of their fellow Jews by accusing Paul of teaching the Jews to turn away from Moses and encouraging them not to circumcise their children or live according to Jewish customs.

This smoldering Jewish resentment was fanned into flame when Paul returned to Jerusalem after his third mission journey and appeared in the temple. There a group of Asian Jews incited a riot by publicly accusing Paul of forsaking the Law of Moses and of polluting the temple by bringing a Gentile into the area of the temple that was reserved exclusively for Jews. The charges were false, but they were enough to arouse the whole anti-Christian element in Jerusalem. Paul would doubtless have been stoned to death on the spot had the Roman garrison commander not intervened and brought a detachment of soldiers to stem the murderous fury of the mob.

When an attempt by the apostle to defend himself before his Jewish accusers resulted in another near riot, the commander detained Paul. Hoping to have the charges against the apostle clarified, he called an informal meeting of the Jewish council (Sanhedrin), but that meeting also degenerated into a shouting match. Meanwhile, Paul assured humane treatment for himself by informing the commander that he was a Roman citizen. When a plot on the apostle’s life was discovered, the commander decided to have Paul removed to the seat of the imperial government at Caesarea.

With his arrival at Caesarea, Paul began an almost fiveyear period of unjust and unwarranted captivity, hearings, and appeals. It must have been a difficult and discouraging time for the apostle, but Paul did not lose heart. He continued to glorify Christ in his chains and even by means of them. It was during these years that the apostle would optimistically write, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (Philippians 4:11).

The first two years of Paul’s imprisonment took place in Caesarea under the weak but vicious procurator Felix. Shortly after the apostle’s arrival in Caesarea, his enemies appeared. They accused him of being a “troublemaker, stirring up riots among the Jews all over the world . . . and even [trying] to desecrate the temple” (Acts 24:5,6), but Paul eloquently defended himself against the charges. Felix, however, did not release Paul, probably because he feared the Jews. He also hoped for a bribe from the apostle.

When Festus replaced Felix as governor, the Jewish leaders renewed their accusations against Paul. Again, no charges worthy of imprisonment could be proven, but Festus also wanted to maintain the favor of the Jews. So he suggested that Paul go to Jerusalem and stand trial there. By this time Paul was convinced that he could never receive a fair trial in either Jerusalem or Caesarea. So Paul exercised the right that every Roman citizen had and appealed his case directly to the emperor, secure in the Lord’s assurance that he would testify about Jesus also in Rome. Festus, though somewhat unwilling, granted the appeal. And events were set in motion that brought the apostle to Rome. Acts chapters 27 and 28 describe Paul’s long and perilous journey to Rome.

At Rome, the appeal process dragged on for over two years. All the while, Paul was considered a prisoner. The terms of his imprisonment, however, were quite lenient. Though he was continually fastened to a soldier/guard with a light chain, the apostle was permitted to carry on a fairly normal schedule of activity. He lived in his own rented dwelling in Rome. He received his friends and coworkers—including Timothy, Tychicus, Luke, Epaphroditus, and others—without hindrance and sent them on various errands to extend his ministry.

In general, he continued to proclaim the gospel joyfully and vigorously to all with whom he came in contact. The preaching and the attitude of the Lord’s “ambassador in chains” encouraged the Christians who were already at Rome and resulted in the conversion of members of the Praetorian Guard and members of Caesar’s household.

At the conclusion of the book of Acts, we find Paul preaching and teaching the gospel quite openly in Rome. How wonderfully the Lord had fulfilled his promise that Paul would testify about him in the foremost city of the first-century world!

We don’t know why Paul’s hearing was delayed so long in Rome. No doubt the Roman justice system, like our own, was somewhat cumbersome. Perhaps the apostle’s opponents despaired of obtaining his condemnation and resorted to delaying tactics, as desperate lawyers often do today. Or perhaps the whole matter of the free teaching of a foreign religion by a Roman citizen had to be thoroughly investigated by the emperor’s advisors.

In his epistle to the Philippians, which we take to be the last of these four captivity epistles, the apostle informs us that his first hearing had taken place and had gone well. Though he does not foolishly ignore the possibility that the emperor might still rule against him, Paul is optimistic that he will be acquitted and set free.

Based on what the apostle says in Philippians, most Bible scholars assume that Paul was set free and continued to work until he was imprisoned again in the general persecution of Christians that took place under Emperor Nero in A.D. 65/66. During this second imprisonment, Paul wrote 2 Timothy, which is clearly the last testimony of a man facing his earthly end.

Paul did not lose heart during his years as a prisoner, for he realized that his imprisonment, with all its attendant frustrations and inconveniences, was an essential and fruitful part of his ministry for Christ. In the captivity letters the apostle speaks of his own sufferings as an extension of Christ’s sufferings, borne for the sake of Christ’s church. He regarded his hearing before the imperial court as an opportunity to witness for the defense and confirmation of the gospel.

Yes, his sufferings remained sufferings, and he felt them keenly, but Paul knew that even these sufferings were part of the grace bestowed upon him in his ministry. His immediate purpose in being in Rome was to appeal to Caesar, but his higher objective was to continue to proclaim the gospel. This he did, to the Jews and to the Gentiles. Ever hopeful and energetic, he “boldly and without hindrance . . . preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 28:31).

The most far-reaching fruits of the apostle’s ministry in chains are his captivity letters. From the inspired pen of the Lord’s captive ambassador, the church has received a wonderful proclamation of the all-embracing significance of Christ (Colossians), a testimony of how the gospel can transfigure even the darkest aspects of human life (Philemon), a remarkable portrait of the nature of the church (Ephesians), and a letter whose dominant note of hope and joy even in the midst of discouragement and suffering (Philippians) has kept the church of every age optimistic and hopeful.

Philippians is probably the last of Paul’s captivity letters. When Paul wrote Colossians and Philemon, Luke and Aristarchus were still with him. When Philippians was written, both had been sent out on apostolic missions. Philippians also contains the latest information we have on the progress of Paul’s appeal and implies that the final verdict would be expected at any time.

We conclude, therefore, that all four of the prison epistles were written during Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome during the years A.D. 61–63. Colossians was probably written first, followed by Philemon, Ephesians and, finally, Philippians. The church has always accepted these letters as authentic messages from the hand of the apostle Paul, the Lord’s inspired “ambassador in chains.”