Paul’s imprisonment may have been controversial, allowing an opportunity for rivals to “afflict” Paul. When your rival in business has troubles, you benefit. When Toyota recalls a million cars, other car companies benefit because Toyota’s public image is shamed. So it is with some Christians. When one denomination gets caught in a scandal, the rest of us like to snicker and point judgey fingers and claim to be better than them. This is not the case for Paul. If the Gospel is preached, he glorifes God even if his opponents are successful! So who are the opponents of Paul in Philippians?
First, Paul’s rivals preach the gospel out of envy and strife, not good will. Envy or jealousy (φθόνος) usually appears in vice lists along with strife (ἔρις, Romans 1:29, 1 Cor 3:3). This word is always negative, there is another word for zealous/jealous. Strife (ἔρις) is a rare word, but in the wisdom literature it is the opposite of wisdom (Wisdom 6:23) “Strife” describes the Corinthian church (1 Cor 1:11, “quarreling”). The Romans could think of themselves (ideally) as ruling without “jealousy or strife” (1 Macc 8:16). 3 Macc 6:7 describes Daniel as subject to “jealous (φθόνος) slander.”
Second, they preach out of selfish ambition (ἐριθεία), thinking to afflict Paul, not out of sincerity. Ambition is not bad, but this word refers to a self-seeking ambition and usually has the sense of a “feeling of hostility or opposition” (LN 39.7). The word originally referred to a day-laborer and became associated with the “attitude or disposition of the day laborer” (TDNT 2:660). In Philippians 2:3 Paul will encourage the congregation to do nothing out of self-ambition, but rather seek the needs of others first. Someone who is a “team player” is usually respected because they are willing to sacrifice their own honor and statistics in order to help the team win. Someone who only tries to increase their own honor often hurt the team. In contrast, the idea preacher of the Gospel does so out of sincerity. This adverb refers to purity of motives. Think of a kid who gives his parent a gift totally unexpected; the first thought might be, “what do you want?” For Paul, there is no ulterior motive for the preaching of the Gospel, he is not trying to build his own reputation or personal wealth.
Third, the rivals preach out of pretense, not from love and truth. A pretense or pretext (πρόφασις) is the reason someone has for doing something. There is a difference between “a reason” and an “excuse.” This word has a little bit of a negative connotation carried by the English word excuse. Perhaps they have some sort of a hidden agenda, some other reason for preaching the Gospel other than the advance of the gospel. This pretense may not be particularly bad or sinful. There are other places where Paul attacks a false teacher for their greed (such as opponents in 1 Timothy, for example).
Who are these rival preachers? Paul does not identify them, other than saying they preach the genuine gospel. These rivals are not the same as his opponents in Galatia who do not preach the gospel at all, or like the opponents in Colossae who have such theological errors that they cannot really be considered “Christian” anymore. These rivals are at least preaching the Gospel, even if their motivations are wrong.
Paul concludes by saying he rejoices in the successes of his rival preachers while he is in prison! It is a wonderful thing that they are bringing the Gospel to new parts of the world, planting churches and training leaders.