At the time of writing this letter, Paul was being held prisoner (Phil 1:13), but the letter does not specify the location of his imprisonment. Over the course of his Christian service Paul was imprisoned many times (2 Cor 11:23), though the only places of imprisonment mentioned in the biblical record are Philippi (Acts 16:23), Jerusalem (Acts 22:23-30), Caesarea (Acts 24:23-27) and Rome (Acts 28:16,30). Paul could have written his letter to the Philippians from one of several places, but if that place was one of the cities mentioned above, the most likely is Rome. (See map located in the commentary on Acts.)
Paul and the Philippian church
Philippi was an important city in the province of Macedonia in the north of Greece. It was one of the select cities that the Romans established as colonies, which were centres of Roman life in a non-Roman world (Acts 16:12). Paul first visited the region during his second missionary journey, and the church in Philippi was the first church that he established in Europe (Acts 16:11-40). He visited it twice during his third missionary journey (Acts 20:1-6), and seems to have retained a special affection for it (Phil 1:8; 4:1,18).
After his third missionary journey and subsequent arrest in Jerusalem, Paul was sent to Rome to present his case to Caesar. He was imprisoned in Rome for two years (Acts 28:16,30), and possibly wrote his letter to the Philippian church towards the end of that time.
Paul was visited in his imprisonment by a Christian from Philippi called Epaphroditus, whom the church had sent as its representative to give Paul whatever help he needed. Epaphroditus brought news of the church in Philippi, together with a gift of money and goods from the Philippian believers (Phil 4:18). While with Paul, Epaphroditus became seriously ill. News of his illness travelled back to the Philippians, and news of their concern travelled back to Paul (Phil 2:25-27). With travel being slow in those days, this would have taken some time, indicating that Epaphroditus must have stayed with Paul several months.
The letter to the Philippians in our Bible is the letter that Paul sent back to Philippi, probably with Epaphroditus (Phil 2:28). Paul uses the letter to thank the Philippians for their gift, to put right some minor disorders that had arisen in the church, and to encourage the Christians to live the truly Christian life. A spirit of warmth and optimism runs through the letter.
Paul told the Philippians not to be discouraged because of his imprisonment, for he had plenty of opportunity to spread the gospel and teach believers (Phil 1:12-14). He enjoyed good fellowship with the Christians in Rome, and some Christians in the government service were able to visit him and help care for him (Phil 4:21-22). Timothy also was with him (Phil 1:1). Although execution was always a possibility (Phil 2:17), he was optimistic that he would be set free and so be able to visit the Philippians again (Phil 1:27; 2:24).