There are many good commentaries on Philippians which makes it hard to narrow down the top 5. I’m sure there will be some reading the list that disagrees with several commentaries left off the list, but these were the commentaries that I found to be most useful in my study of Philippians. If you are a teacher/preacher in some capacity and know Greek then I recommend you purchase Hellerman, Fee, and one other from the list. If you are a teacher/preacher who does not know Greek then I recommend you purchase Fee and then two others (excluding Hellerman and Rueman b/c of their focus on the Greek text). If you desire help in your personal study/devotional time then I’d go with either Garland or Thielman. I hope this list will help your study of God’s Word!
Before ranking the top 5 I have to mention an outstanding resource for studying Philippians.
Philippians: Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament by Joseph Hellerman
This series has been very impressive. Hellerman’s work on Philippians was the first of this series that I purchased and I’m so glad that I did. In fact, this work was so exceptional that I purchased two other books in the series. This exegetical guide is detailed in exegetical analysis (as expected), but Hellerman also adds his own commentary that is often very insightful. He has worked on the letter to the Philippians for many years and has a strong grasp of the Philippian culture, making this exegetical guide stand above the rest. Every paragraph is analyzed through a structural layout diagram and then each Greek phrase is discussed in detail. This discussion focuses mainly on grammar, syntax, and exegetical problems. Each paragraph unit ends with a “For Further Study” section that lists several resources that would aid further research of the topic at hand. Additionally, each paragraph unit ends with a section titled “Homiletical Suggestions” which gives a short outline that would be helpful for the pastor/teacher. This is a must-buy resource for the student or pastor that has studied or is studying Greek.
1. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (New International Commentary on the New Testament) by Gordon Fee
Possibly the best commentary I have ever read. Fee is an outstanding scholar whose love for the Lord oozes out in his writing. His writing is not only doxological but engaging and easy to read. Furthermore, his exegetical skill and ability to follow Paul’s train of thought are masterful. He takes Paul to be the author of the letter and sees the purpose of the letter to “[lie] with the phrase ‘your progress in the faith’ (1:25), which for Paul ultimately has to do with the progress of the gospel, both in their lives and in their city.” 1 The introduction to the letter is well worth your time, especially the section titled “Theological Contributions” (which may be worth the price of the book by itself). The commentary proper includes introductions to the text being discussed, translation with textual notes, and verse by verse commentary on the text. The footnotes are a treasure trove of technical, detailed exegetical discussion, while the main text is accessible to both laymen and scholar alike. I’ll end this brief review with a quote from the “Theological Contributions” section: “The fact that the future has already begun with the coming of God himself (through Christ and the Spirit) means two crucial things for Paul: that the consummation is absolutely guaranteed, and that present existence is therefore altogether determined by this reality. That is, one’s life in the present is not conditioned or determined by present exigencies [urgent needs], but by the singular reality that God’s people belong to the future that has already come present. Marked by Christ’s death and resurrection and identified as God’s people by the gift of the Spirit, they live the life of the future in the present, determined by its values and perspective, no matter what their present circumstances.”2 Amen! I highly recommend this commentary for anyone reading, teaching, or preaching the letter to the Philippians.
2. Philippians Revised Expositor’s Bible Commentary by David Garland
David Garland is an accomplished New Testament scholar and commentary writer who has now written a fantastic commentary on Philippians. If you purchase this book you also get a commentary on Ephesians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon by several different authors (some of which are highly respected scholars). Quite the deal! The REBC series ranges from semi-technical to devotional in its commentary content. I classify Garland’s commentary as semi-technical. Garland sees several problems that Paul is addressing in the letter, but “The main problem at Philippi is the believers’ discord stemming from pride and hurt feelings, and in this passage Paul broaches this issue of their mutual relationships. His treatment of the topic will climax in his poignant call for unity in 4:1–3.”3 The strengths of this commentary are three-fold: (1) Garland’s knack for following the flow of the letter, (2) Garland’s knowledge of the Greek culture in Philippi which often illuminates the text, and (3) the “Reflections” sections in the commentary that make theological and applicational reflections on the text. This commentary is semi-technical, so there is not a lot of technical exegetical discussion, but when Garland does he is often incisive. These discussions can be found in the “Notes” section of the commentary. Overall, this commentary is easily accessible and yet, full of deep insights. I highly recommend this commentary for the scholar, teacher, and laymen.
3. Philippians (2nd Edition) Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament Moises Silva
This is a very well-rounded commentary in an exceptional series written by a knowledgeable New Testament scholar and skilled exegete. Silva’s introduction to the letter is short(ish) but solid. Don’t miss his discussion of the “Exegetical History” of Philippians where he dives into a fascinating discussion on the expositions of Chrysostom, Aquinas, Calvin, and others. Silva’s strengths are his exegetical insights and alongside that, his theological insights. This commentary might be the strongest on the list in theological reflection (Fee is strong here too). The only downside to the exegetical insights is that most of these strong insights are placed at the end of each section in the “Additional Notes” and not found within the verse by verse commentary on the text. If these notes (they are at times quite substantial) were included with the main commentary, this commentary would rival Fee as top on my list. Unfortunately, it’s quite tedious to flip back and forth between the two sections if the reader wants to read Silva’s detailed exegetical comments while reading the commentary section. Regardless, if you know Greek then these notes are a must-read! This is probably the best bang-for-your-buck commentary available on Philippians. It’s detailed, deeply theological, yet very readable. Highly recommended!
4. Philippians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Yale Bible Commentary by John Ruemann
A treasure trove of information, but sometimes you must really dig! Ruemann is a Lutheran scholar with a liberal leaning who has written the most detailed commentary on Philippians to date. Essentially, the information in this commentary is massive and it’s a reference that a scholar or seminary student must use when studying Paul’s letter, but it is not as useful for the pastor or laymen (partly because the discussion is so technical and also because of the sheer time it takes to get through it all). Ruemann does think that Paul wrote the letter, but he argues idiosyncratically that Philippians is actually a combination of three separate letters that Paul had written to the churches in Philippi. At times, this view jumbles up his exegesis of the letter and can certainly make the commentary hard to follow. Additionally, the way the commentary is formatted makes it difficult to use quickly. Ruemann gives his own translation, then there are dense and very technical notes that go verse by verse through the text, next there is a section that goes over the form and traditions of the text, and lastly Ruemann gives the “Meaning and Interpretation” which at times jumps all around the passage at hand. Overall, there are several negatives to this commentary, but the amount of information available makes this commentary valuable for the scholar or student.
5. Philippians The NIV Application Commentary by Frank Thielman
The shortest commentary on the list (under 250 pages), but there is still a lot of great material here. Thielman is a well-respected New Testament scholar and someone I really enjoy reading (his Ephesians commentary is one of the best). The NIVAC series is meant to be less technical in nature compared to the other commentaries on the list. The series says this of itself, “The primary goal of the NIV Application Commentary Series is to help you with the difficult but vital task of bringing an ancient message into a modern context.” 4 There you have it, more time is spent on bridging the gap from ancient to modern context than on the original meaning of the text. Therefore, this makes the commentary valuable for devotional use and for pastors. I should say though, Thielman is no slouch exegete and though there is definitely a focus on the application of the text in this series, each chapter still begins with the “Original Meaning” section, and these sections are very good. Additionally, the second section of each chapter, “Bridging Contexts” is mostly theological reflection on the text and is also very good. All in all, the reader will undoubtedly get helpful application of the text from this commentary, but they still don’t necessarily lose all of the exegetical gems and theological reflections that other technical commentaries have because Thielman will have none of that! I highly recommend this commentary for personal study, small groups, or pastors looking for helpful application to teach.
- Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 39.
- Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), 51.
- Garland, D. E. (2006). Philippians. In T. Longman III (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, p. 207). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
- Frank Thielman, Philippians, ed. Terry Muck, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1995), 7.