The Apostle Paul wrote several letters to churches he visited during his three missionary journeys. My year-long journey through an NIV Bible for Men called The MANual, now brings us to another letter Paul wrote from prison; the letter to the Philippians.
As I previously explained in Paul’s Unity Letter to the Ephesians, modern copies of the New Testament generally order Paul’s epistles according to the number of lines of Greek in the original texts. Other scholars posit that Paul’s letters are grouped together to emphasize his imprisonment. Similar to Ephesians, Paul’s letter to the Philippians comes from a prison cell in Rome. While not written during the happiest of circumstances, scholars consider it Paul’s “joy letter” for the Christian life.
Joy > Happiness
Everyone wants to be happy. We chase this elusive ideal: a life-long pursuit; spending money, collecting material things, and searching for new experiences. But happiness depends on circumstances so when the proverbial party is over, happiness flees, and despair sets in.
In contrast, joy runs deeper and stronger. Joy is a constant assurance of God’s love and His work in our lives; that he will be there no matter what, despite our circumstances.
- What makes you happy these days? What brings you joy? Are those reasons the same?
- Why do you think Paul is so joyful while in prison?
Paul and his companions began the church in Philippi on his second missionary journey (see Acts 16:11-40). This was the first church established on the European continent.
During his first journey, Paul and Barnabas visited towns close to their headquarters in Antioch of Syria. On the second journey, Paul traveled with Silas, going farther west to Antioch of Pisidia (modern-day western Turkey), then to the city of Troas (properly called Alexandria Troas); a major port city 10 miles south of the ancient city of Troy.
In Troas, Paul had a vision in the night calling him and his companions to travel to northern Greece (called Macedonia in Paul’s day), having concluded that God was calling them to preach the Good News there. (Acts 16:9-10). They sailed northwest for 100 miles to Neapolis, then traveled 10 miles to the Roman colony of Phillippi, which consisted mostly of Gentile (non-Jewish) believers who were not familiar with the Old Testament writings. As such, Paul did not quote Scripture in this letter but did meet a woman named Lydia, who converted to the faith.
The book of Philippians was written approximately 61 A.D. during Paul’s imprisonment by Nero in Rome, about thirty years after Christ’s ascension and about ten years after Paul first preached at Philippi. Its purpose was to thank the Philippians for the gift they sent Paul and to strengthen the believers by showing them true joy comes from believing in Christ alone.
In dedicating his life to serving Christ, Paul had faced excruciating pain, poverty, abundant wealth, and everything in between. He learned contentment and found real joy by focusing all his attention and energy on knowing Christ and obeying Him.
Although he was writing from prison, Paul writes about the concept of joy or rejoicing 16 times in his letter. The pages of Philippians radiate with positive messages, culminating in the exhortation to “always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again — rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4).
Paul writes each of the 4 chapters around a theme:
- Joy in Suffering (1:1-30)
- Joy in Serving (2:1-30)
- Joy in Believing (3:1-4;1)
- Joy in Giving (4:2-23)
Paul opens his letter with greetings from both him and Timothy as “slaves in Christ” to describe a common relationship that he, Timothy, and the Philippians share with one another. He thanks God every time he remembers the Philippians since their sharing in Christ Jesus forms the foundation of his joyful prayer. Paul finds joy and contentment knowing that the message of Christ is being preached courageously and fearlessly by the local believers.
Paul considered it a privilege to suffer for Christ. He could have become depressed, discouraged, or disillusioned while imprisoned. Instead, he regarded the time as his appointment by God to write letters to his churches and encourage them to keep their faith.
- Do you have trouble accepting your position in life or present circumstances?
- Do you resent where God placed you? Why or why not?
However, Paul never urges Christians to seek suffering, as if there were virtue in pain. When life is comfortable, take a share of someone else’s burden as brothers and sisters in Christ. He calls us to live as citizens of heaven, conducting ourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News of Christ (1:27). When we struggle together, we should view it as a privilege, as hard as that may seem.
Chapter 2 is about finding joy in serving and having the attitude of Christ. Paul encourages us to do nothing out of self-ambition or vain conceit but in humility; considering none better than yourself. We are to seek the interests of others (2:3-4) to become more like Christ.
The Attitude of a Servant
Jesus was humble and willing to give up His rights in order to obey God and serve others. Jesus voluntarily assumed a human body and human nature without giving up His deity (godliness). Yet, Jesus was free from sin, which we as humans can never achieve here on earth.
- What does it look like to “give up your rights and serve others”?
- How can you set aside your sinful nature to develop a different attitude of servanthood?
Paul tells the Philippines that he has been preparing Timothy to carry on his ministry in his absence. He says there is no one else like Timothy who cares for their welfare (2:20) and has proved himself (2:22). Paul was also sending Epaphroditus, a man of devotion, faithfulness, and self-sacrifice. He put “the interests of others” before himself and modeled the mind of Christ. Epaphroditus would deliver the original manuscript to its recipients, the church in Philippi.
Chapter 3 is about the joy that comes from believing in Christ. Paul says he never gets tired of telling people to rejoice in the priceless value of knowing Jesus. He warned of “dogs” who do evil and “mutilators” who say they must be circumcised and follow the Old Testament Jewish laws to receive salvation. At first glance, verses 5-6 may look like Paul was boasting about his achievements but he is actually doing the opposite. He is showing that human accomplishments; no matter how great or impressive, will NOT earn eternal life with God. He says our relationship with Christ is more valuable than anything else. We are to “press on” toward the goal of reaching perfection: a perfection that comes from being mature or complete in Christ; not from trying to be flawless.
Paul concludes this letter with words of encouragement to find joy in giving. He writes, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7).
How do you respond to anxiety? What’s your reaction to bad news? Do your emotions hijack your brain? Lots of men surrender to panic and depression which can often lead to worst-case scenarios. Paul says to think about something altogether different and turn everything over to God.
- In what situations can you turn over your anxieties to God?
- If you did, how might you react differently when under stress?.
Paul finishes his letter to the Philippians by giving thanks for their gifts. He says he has learned how to be content with whatever he has and can live on almost nothing since it is Christ who gives him strength.
God Buddy Focus
Paul challenges the Philippians (and us!) to pursue Christlikeness by following Paul’s own pattern of life. This did not mean copying exactly what Paul did, but living according to Christ’s servanthood and self-sacrifice. Paul’s exhortation, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:13) comes shining through in spite of his persecution and imprisonment. He has found a life of contentment in Christ.
- Where can you find more joy in your life?
- How would you describe contentment in life? Do you feel content with yours?
- Studies show serving others brings most people joy. Get out and serve others with some GodBuddies.
My next post is Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae.