Why Did the Philippians Send Paul a Gift?

ZA Blog on February 12th, 2019. Tagged under .

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One of the reasons why Paul wrote Philippians was to thank them for supporting his ministry—not just in prayer, but with a financial gift. He specifically mentions their gift towards the end of his letter, in Philippians 4:15–18:

“Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid more than once when I was in need. Not that I desire your gifts; what I desire is that more be credited to your account. I have received full payment and have more than enough. I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.”

When Paul first visited Philippi, these people gave him a place to stay (Acts 16). But why did they later send him the gift Paul mentioned in the letter?

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Paul was likely awaiting trial

Paul was imprisoned multiple times, so when he says, “It has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ” (Philippians 1:13), we know that he was writing from Ephesus, Caesarea, or Rome. Scholars can’t be sure where Paul was when he wrote Philippians, but he was most likely under house arrest in Rome.

This would have been a transition period, after he’d been charged with a crime but before he was convicted of anything. While waiting to plead his case before the emperor, Paul likely wrote several other letters, which scholars refer to as the Prison Epistles: Colossians, Ephesians, and Philemon. In each of these letters he asks the recipients to support him in prayer.

We don’t know how the Philippians knew about Paul’s situation, but they sent him a gift because they knew he was imprisoned—and that meant something very different than it does today.

Ancient prisons didn’t feed their prisoners

The Roman prison system didn’t give prisoners meals or provide them with a clean, safe place. In ancient Rome, friends, family, and humanitarians had to care for prisoners, or they would go hungry and dwell in increasingly harmful quarters.

As a Roman citizen, Paul was better off than someone in a lower social status (a slave could simply be thrown in a dungeon), but he still needed help. After learning about Paul’s situation, the Philippians decided to send Paul money, which he could use to buy food and meet basic needs.

But there was still a lot that Paul couldn’t do for himself, so the church didn’t just send him money.

The gift came with a helper

In order for Paul to receive the Philippians’ gift, someone had to physically bring it to him. The church sent Epaphroditus as their official messenger, with the additional charge to care for Paul’s needs while he is imprisoned (Philippians 2:25).

Epaphroditus appears to have been a tremendous help to Paul, and somehow, possibly as a result of caring for Paul (Philippians 2:30), Epaphroditus gets sick and nearly dies. In his letter thanking the Philippians, Paul makes a point of telling the church that Epaphroditus recovered (Philippians 2:27), and that he would return to them soon.

The Philippians’ gift was twofold: they supported Paul financially, and they sent him a helper. Both pieces of the gift were intended to provide for him during his time of need. This act of generosity is part of the reason why Christians can still benefit from Paul’s powerful teachings today.

Learn more in Lynn H. Cohick’s Philippians online course.

  • Jeff Martin 2 months ago

    No footnote proving that Roman citizens didn’t get fed? Never heard this before