2. Preaching Outlines
3. Key Themes and Motifs
4. Problem Passages
5. Commentaries and Resources
6. Preaching Christ from the Book
7. Why You Should Preach This Book
8. Downloadable PDF Version (Coming Soon)
In Philippians, we encounter the unconquerable joy that comes from knowing Christ. Maybe more than any other letter in the New Testament, this epistle showcases individual lives that were changed by the Gospel. The story of God’s work in Philippi begins with radical life change. In Acts 16, Luke tells us that through a vision, God opened the door to a new area of ministry. Philippi was one of the first cities Paul visited in Macedonia. When they arrived in town, Paul and his team went to a place of prayer and found Lydia, a seller of purple dye, and later, a fortune-telling slave girl who had a spirit of divination. Through the course of their conversations, both of these women’s lives were changed by their encounter with the Gospel and the church in Philippi was born.
One of the distinct marks of this transformation is the ability to be joyful in the midst of suffering. Because of the disruption they had caused, Paul and Silas were thrown in prison. God had brought them there to preach the Gospel to the other prisoners and to the man guarding them. As they were singing songs of praise near midnight, God shook the prison and jarred the doors open. Thinking that the prisoners had escaped, the guard prepared to take his life in shame. That’s when Paul and Silas shared the words that would change his life forever.
These are just a few of the stories in the background of the letter. While Philippians is packed with joyful encouragement, pastoral wisdom, and rich theology, it is also a tender and personal glimpse into the lives of Paul, Timothy, Epaphroditus, and a church they dearly loved.
2. Preaching Outlines
Click to view outline:
Ligon Duncan | Ben Stuart
Ligon Duncan – “Fighting for Joy, Growing in Humility, Knowing Christ and the Peace that Passes Understanding: A Study of Philippians”
As the outline shows, this is an example of a long expository series through Philippians. Ligon Duncan is an excellent expositor. Each week his sermons focused on explaining the meaning of the text, the background and theology of the letter, and applying it to the Christian life. During this year-long series on Philippians, Duncan used a helpful technique for preaching longer series. In key sections like 1:27-28, 2:1-2, 3:1-11 he organized his sermons into smaller series within the series. In such a long series, Duncan was able to home in on specific topics and continue engaging the congregation by highlighting the themes in the letter.
- Greetings from Paul – 1:1-2
- I Thank God for You – 1:3-5
- He Finishes What He Starts – 1:6
- Love Abounding – 1:7-11
- For the Greater Progress of the Gospel – 1:12-20
- Life = Christ, Death = Gain – 1:21
- Living Out Philippians 1:21 – 1:21
- Dying to Live – 1:21
- The Gain of Death – 1:21
- To Be or Not To Be – 1:21-26
- Progress, Joy, and Confidence – 1:25-26
- Living in a Manner Worthy of the Gospel (1) – 1:27-28
- Living in a Manner Worthy of the Gospel (2) – 1:27-28
- Living in a Manner Worthy of the Gospel (3) – 1:27-28
- Not Only to Believe, But to Suffer – 1:29-30
- The Gift of Suffering for Christ’s Sake – 1:29-30
- Complete My Joy – 2:1-2
- Complete My Joy, with Unity – 2:1-2
- Complete My Joy, with Humility – 2:1-3
- Complete My Joy, with Helpfulness – 2:1-4
- Song of Christ – 2:5-11
- The Divinity of Christ – 2:5-6
- The Ungrasped Equality of Christ – 2:5-6
- The Emptying of Christ – 2:7
- The Humanity of Christ – 2:7-8
- The Obedience of the Death of Christ – 2:8
- The Exaltation of Christ – 2:9-11
- Live Life in Light of the Humiliation and Exaltation of Christ – 2:12-13
- Sanctification 101 (and Missions!) – 2:12-13
- Do What Israel Didn’t Do – 2:14-15
- Hold Fast to the Word of Life – 2:16-18
- He Came Close to Death for the Work of Christ – 2:19-30
- Knowing the Power of Christ’s Resurrection – 3:1-11
- Rejoice in the Lord, Put No Confidence in the Flesh, Count Gain as Loss to Gain Christ – 3:1-11
- Put No Confidence in the Flesh – 3:1-6
- When Gain Is Loss, and Loss Means Greater Gain – 3:1-11
- The Christians Triple Gain – 3:7-11
- What We Desire, How We Receive It, and How We Live – 3:7-11
- Pressing on Toward the Goal – 3:12-16
- Two Ways to Live – 3:17-4:1
- The Shalom of God – 4:2-7
- Do as I Do – 4:8-9
- Content in Every Situation – 4:10-20
- Grace, with Your Spirit – 4:21-23
At Breakaway Ministries at Texas A&M, Ben Stuart spent the semester walking through the book of Philippians with thousands of college students. Stuart approaches each section through the lens of a single topic found in the text, beginning with identity and belonging and including humility, spiritual growth, and anxiety through the course of the series. Through this shorter approach, Stuart is able to exposit bigger portions of the text each week and focus on very practical takeaways.
- Home Team – 1:1-8
- A Wiser Love – 1:9-11
- The World in Checkmate – 1:12-26
- Focus and Unity – 1:27-30
- A Humble People – 2:1-11
- Working Out What Was Worked In – 2:12-13
- Lights in the World – 2:14-30
- True Religion – 3:1-16
- Releasing Anxiety – 4:6-9
- Contentment – 4:10-13
- Funding the Mission – 4:10-23
3. Problem Passages
One of the wonderful things about preaching the book of Philippians is that there are very few problematic texts. There are no significant textual issues in the letter and no doubt about its author or audience. Commentators are divided over the location of Paul’s imprisonment, which is a valuable discussion, but in this case, it makes little difference in the interpretation of the letter. There are a few texts that require deeper study to understand which can be broken down into two categories, exegetical and theological.
1. “You also, true companion” – 4:2
In 4:2, Paul encourages two women, Euodia and Syntyche to agree in the Lord. We have no context for who these women were, but because of their prominent place in the letter and his description of their work in the kingdom in 4:3, it’s likely they were leaders in the church. Then Paul makes an unassuming but confusing comment; “Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women.” Who is this true companion? Paul clearly expects that someone will have both the maturity and the standing to mediate this dispute. The Greek allows a few different interpretations. It’s possible that the word translated “companion,” which can also mean “yokefellow,” is actually a person’s name, “Syzygos.” This is unlikely because this name has never been found in the ancient world.
Others, including some of the early commentators, have proposed that syzygos which can mean “wife” might indicate that Paul is referring to his spouse. This is also unlikely since the modifying adjective is masculine. The most probable explanation is that Paul was referring to one of his associates who was either in Philippi or delivering the letter. If this were the case, the members of the church likely would have known who Paul was referring to. Based on the circumstances, Epaphroditus is the most likely candidate, but we can’t be sure.
2. “He emptied himself” – 2:7
The “kenosis” passage in 2:6-11 is one of the most recognizable passages in this letter and in the New Testament. Paul’s stunning description of Christ humbling and emptying himself, being put to death on a cross, and being raised and exalted above every name is as beautiful as it is mystifying. This passage presents one of the clearest and most powerful descriptions of the gospel in all of Scripture.
From a theological standpoint, though, these verses bring along some complicated Christological issues. Beginning in 2:6, there are several words worth studying to make sense of this passage. Paul says that although Jesus was in the form (morphe) of God, he did not consider equality something to hold onto (harpagmon), but emptied himself (ekenosev), taking the form (morphe) of a servant, being born in the likeness (homoiomati) of men. Each of these words is important to study to understand the central clause of this passage, “he emptied himself.”
Commentators can be especially helpful in surveying the range of interpretations that have been given for each of these terms. As to the central question, what does it entail for Jesus as a man and a person of the trinity to empty himself?
Some commentators and theologians have speculated about what Jesus left behind at the incarnation. Did he resign his divine power and foreknowledge to the control of the Spirit? Did he embrace the limitation of being a human being? This approach is difficult to square with verses like Colossians 2:9, “for in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” Though there may be some value in thinking about how the eternal Son became a man, it is more profitable for preaching to step back and reframe the question. Does this passage mean that he emptied himself of something?
Many commentators, looking at the context of this passage and the way Paul uses this same verb in other places, have concluded that Christ does not empty himself of something but that in becoming a servant and dying on the cross, he empties himself. Gordon Fee suggests that emptying should be read as a posture or a metaphor, in the same way that Paul describes Jesus humbling himself to die on the cross. Paul is describing Jesus giving all of himself. Jesus does not give up any of his divinity; he shows the nature of his divinity through his sacrifice and resurrection. He emptied himself, not by losing any of his divinity but by becoming a servant.
In the midst of these important theological questions, it’s easy to lose sight of the way Paul uses this example in the context of the letter. This is not a static Christological point. Christ is the ultimate model of humility. How can it be that Jesus, being fully and continuously God, became “nothing” so that he could die for us on the cross? He did not hold onto something that was rightfully his so that he could serve others. “He made himself of no reputation,” as the King James put it, so that he could be exalted to the highest glory and admiration at his resurrection. This is the example of selflessness and humility we have all been called to in Christ.
3. “Work out your own salvation” – 2:12-13
Paul’s exhortation to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” in 2:12-13 may set off alarm bells on the first pass. The key to this verse is found in the following phrase, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” We’re free to work out our salvation because we know that God is working in our hearts through his Spirit.
Paul asks the Galatians a helpful question on this point, “Having begun by the Spirit are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (3:3). The answer to this rhetorical question is a resounding no. It’s Spirit all the way through. But Paul is also sensitive to the fact that our effort is necessary for sanctification and obedience.
In this context, Paul’s encouragement here reads a lot like what he says in Ephesians 2:10, Romans 8:16 and 26, Colossians 1:29 and even earlier in this letter in 1:6. There is a beautiful and mysterious fusion between the work the Spirit does in our hearts and the work we undertake out of love and obedience to God. The order is important here, but so is the follow-through. We work out what God has worked in, as some have said. The Spirit guides and transforms us and we walk in his power. Our wills and our works transform each other as we walk in a manner worthy of Christ.
4. Key Themes and Motifs
- Transformation – To be in Christ means to be transformed. As Paul demonstrates using examples from his own life, following Christ means our desires, priorities, and motivations change. Many of the things we valued before lose their appeal in comparison to knowing Christ. In 1:27, Paul reminds us to live in a manner that is worthy of the Gospel. The gradual movement of our life follows Christ’s example.
Our inner transformation serves the outward purpose of fulfilling our calling to preach the gospel and disciple the nations. Our transformed lives should shine like lights in the world and testify to our heavenly citizenship as we await the second coming. This eternal perspective also reminds us that change is gradual. 1:5-11; 2:1-11, 12-13; 3:7-21; 4:8-9.
- Joy – Joy is one of the most familiar themes in Philippians, and for good reason. Because of his imprisonment, Paul shows us that joy can be found even in the direst circumstances. From Acts, we know that the church in Philippi had witnessed this joy. When Paul was imprisoned there, he and Silas sang hymns of praise in a midnight worship service. After God freed them from the prison cell, they had the awareness to see an opportunity for evangelism. Their jailor that night was just one of many people who saw the unique joy that Paul and his associates had in their hearts. 1:12-26; 2:14-15; 4:4-7.
- Christ-Like Thinking – It’s easy to downplay the role of thinking in a letter like Philippians, but a quick word study reveals how prominent the mind is in this book. Paul hits this theme in every chapter and almost every pericope. How we think influences the way we act, discern, and understand God’s Word and the world around us. Two of the marks of maturity that Paul stresses in this letter are right and unified thinking. Believers should imitate both the actions and the mindset of Christ. 1:7, 9-10; 2:2-5; 3:15-16; 4:2-3, 8-9.
- Community – The Christian life cannot be lived in solitude. God has designed us so that we need other people and we are needed by other people. Koinonia is the word Paul uses for this partnership and it is one of the most prominent terms in this letter. Paul speaks of the fellowship we have in the gospel, in giving, and in suffering. 1:3-11; 4:2-3, 10-19.
- Generosity – In the background, one of Paul’s reasons for writing the letter is to thank the church for their financial partnership and to encourage them to continue supporting his work in the future. This reason is occasioned by Epaphroditus’ arrival with a gift from the church and his return with the letter. In thanking them for their support, Paul teaches that the heart of generosity flows from contentment. God is the fountain of every gift and every blessing. He will provide for us. Many times, he does that through the faithfulness and generosity of other people. Paul expresses his confidence in God’s provision and also his gratefulness to the church. 1:5; 4:10-20.
5. Helpful Commentaries and Resources
- Gordon Fee – Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, New International Commentary on the New Testament (NICNT), 1995.
Fee is one of the premier Pauline scholars and commentators in the world and this commentary is the gold standard of exegetical studies.
- J.B. Lightfoot – St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, 1913.
Lightfoot’s work is dated but his exegesis and original language work are still unparalleled. In this commentary, he gives some wonderful pastoral insights and a few excurses on the similarities and differences between Paul and the first-century Greco-Roman philosophers.
- Mark Keown – Philippians, Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (EEC), 2017.
Keown’s commentary is as exhaustive as Fee’s but slightly less technical. He covers the major issues and positions of the commentators on each word of the text.
- Douglas Magnum and Derek R. Brown – Philippians, The Lexham Research Commentary, 2013.
The Lexham Research Commentaries summarize and compare various commentaries from many different perspectives. If you want to read one commentary and get the highlights from a dozen others, this is your pick.
- Ralph Martin – Philippians: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentary (TNC), 1987.
Martin’s work in the Tyndale series combines scholarly research with pastoral insights.
- Frank Thielman – Philippians, The NIV Application Commentary (NIVAC), 1995.
While Thielman’s volume is aimed at a less scholarly level than some of the other commentaries, Thielman is a top-notch Pauline scholar and he offers preachers a unique combination of depth and application.
- Matt Chandler – To Live Is Christ, To Die Is Gain, 2012.
For a devotional and applicational look at Philippians, check out this book from Matt Chandler. It offers his characteristic challenging insights on the major themes of Philippians.
- Steven J. Lawson – Philippians for You, 2017.
Steven Lawson is one of the finest living expositors and in this devotional and group guide, he provides summaries and questions for reflection on the text.
6. How to Preach Christ from Philippians
Jesus Christ is the center of the letter to the Philippians. Paul references Christ, his work, example, and the relationship we have with him 51 times in 104 verses. Here are a few of the ways to magnify Christ in this epistle.
Connect transformation to relationship. We become like Christ by being with Christ. Paul captures some of the most profound truths of sanctification in 3:8, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,” 3:9, “and being found in him,” and in 3:12, “I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Stop to think about those statements. The foundation of preaching Christ in Philippians is that if you are a Christian, Christ Jesus has made you his own. Could there be a more wonderful motivating truth?
In Philippians, Paul gives fewer direct commands and more personal examples than he does in letters like Ephesians and Galatians. In the broader scope of Scripture, this letter is one of the clearest examples of how to teach on sanctification. Our lives change because of our relationship with Christ and by following the examples of other believers.
Gospel preaching means we pay close attention to the direction of our exhortations; from relationship to action, from our new identity to our new choices, from God’s love to the love of others, from the inner work of the Spirit to the outer work of what is true, honorable, excellent, and worthy of praise. Paul models this in his own life and in the direction of his logic throughout Philippians.
Call the church to unity. There could hardly be a more prescient topic to apply today. The church at Philippi was struggling to stay united. What was once a close-knit family-oriented community was beginning to strain at the seams. Even as Christians, when we live in the kind of close community we were designed for, we’re going to experience some friction. The only source of true unity comes through our shared commitment to Christ.
Notice the way Paul calls the church to unity. He begins the letter with prayer, as he often does, about the very issues he intends to write about in later chapters (1:3-11). He holds up examples of people who model the qualities that lead to healthy and Christ-centered unity (1:12-2:30). He reemphasizes the difference between Christian and worldly priorities; the difference between worldly achievement and godly success (3:1-11), the slow and ongoing work of spiritual growth against the ever-pervasive culture of immediacy (3:12-21), the centrality of contentment in getting along with others and finding our ultimate satisfaction in Christ (4:4-7; 10-13). Some of these emphases are more subtle than others, but they all lead to a strong, unified, sanctified church.
Don’t skip over the sidebars. There are so many opportunities to expand the vision of the congregation as you exposit the text. Take the opportunity to bring in theological and historical sidebars to show the richness of Christ in this letter. In the introduction, explain the business ramifications of Paul’s work in the city. Between the conversions of Lydia and the slave girl who prophesied in Acts 16, the financial sector of the city was radically changed. Do any of the business owners in our cities see the impact of the way our lives have been changed? In 2:4-11, take some time to talk about the importance of our Christology. Why is it so important that Jesus was both fully God and fully man? How does that affect our faith today? In 2:19-30, do character studies of Timothy and Epaphroditus. Empower your staff and volunteers by painting a picture of the team that Paul assembled and led to take the gospel all over the world. In 4:2-3, emphasize the prominence and importance of women in Paul’s ministry. In preaching about unity, remind the church now that the church then wasn’t perfect and that God has always used imperfect people to advance his kingdom.
Don’t shy away from suffering. Philippians is a letter about joy that grows in the seedbed of suffering. The letter opens with Paul’s imprisonment and closes with a reminder that he’s being held by the power of Rome. In the midst of this, Paul reminds the Philippians that their joy is not dependent on their circumstances. Suffering is an opportunity. Paul sees open doors for sharing the gospel, empowering other church leaders, renouncing worldly gain, and looking to God for provision. But don’t jump to the joy too early.
Sometimes preaching about suffering can sound hollow when we apply the remedies but don’t apply the circumstances. Suffering then was just as real as it is now. The church was shaken by Paul’s imprisonment. His reputation was assaulted, his conditions were poor, and his mission seemed thwarted. The uncertainties of suffering, though they fade in the perspective of hindsight, racked the congregation as they listened to Epaphroditus read the letter aloud. Some of those same uncertainties, hardships, sicknesses, and struggles have made their way into our own lives. Every row and every pew in our churches have seen similar kinds of suffering. When you preach about the joy we have in Christ, make it clear that these were not super Christians, unphased by their trials, these were people just like us. They trusted God with many of the burdens we carry today and he showed himself faithful.
7. Why You Should Consider Preaching Philippians
A quick read through Philippians shows the unique tone that Paul employs in speaking to a beloved group of people. Many of the commentators suggest that Philippians reads like a “family letter,” an intimate and personal style of communication in the ancient world. With that in mind, you can almost feel the affection Paul has for this church emanating off of the page. In the opening verses, he reminds his friends in Philippi that he yearns for them with Christ’s own affection (1:8). As Paul understood so well, affection should fill our preaching and leadership. The tone of this letter can be the perfect touch in the life of a church.
On a practical level, Philippians is short enough to preach in a few weeks and rich enough to spend an entire year covering every word. It allows for a great flexibility of themes, serves as a great introduction to Paul’s life and ministry, and to the first-century church.
One of Paul’s enduring concerns in ministry was to do everything in his power to present his churches blameless at the day of Christ Jesus, filled with the fruit of righteousness, for the glory of God (1:10-11). This meant teaching them to discern God’s will for them, both corporately and individually. Our task today hasn’t changed. Preaching Philippians gives every pastor the opportunity to pursue this same goal in his local church.