By Joel Ryan, Crosswalk.com
The book of Philippians is one of Paul’s four epistles written during his imprisonment in Rome. In it, Paul thanks the Philippian church for their continued support and encourages his fellow believers to love one another in unity, rejoice in the eternal hope of salvation, and find joy and strength in Jesus Christ no matter their circumstances.
Who Wrote Philippians?
The book of Philippians was written as a letter to the church in Philippi by the apostle Paul, one of the most influential writers and important apologists of the Christian faith. Though Paul was also the most prolific New Testament writer and a beloved leader in the early church, his initial relationship with the church was far from amicable. As a young man, Paul went by his Jewish name Saul. Unlike the loving Christian, dedicated apologist, and bold missionary we read about throughout the New Testament, at the time, Saul was an enemy of the church and an agent of persecution against Christians in the first century. Luke first mentions Saul’s presence in Acts 7 at the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr (Acts 6:5-7:60). As the Pharisees and crowd began to stone Stephen for proclaiming Jesus Christ as the Son of God, Luke tells us that “the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:58). Acts 8:1 goes on to say that “Saul was in hearty agreement with putting Stephen to death.” Why was Saul filled with such disdain for Stephen and the early church?
We know that Saul was proud of his Hebrew heritage and a devoted student of the Old Testament and Jewish tradition (Philippians 3:5-6). As a young man, he was raised in Jerusalem and studied under Gamaliel, one of the most respected rabbis of his time (Acts 5:34). Like many of the Pharisees, Saul was fastidious in his adherence to the Law (Acts 22:3). The early church and the message of the gospel, therein, threatened all that Saul held dear, in the same way that Jesus had challenged the legalism and authority of the Pharisees and religious leaders of His day. Following the death of Stephen, a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, scattering believers across the region (Acts 8:2). And where was Saul during this time? Luke tells us that “Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put in prison” (Acts 8:3). Paul would later confess in his letter to the Galatians that he had “persecuted the church beyond measure” and even “tried to destroy it” (Galatians 1:13).
So what changed? From working to destroy the church to then committing the rest of his life to building it up, what happened in the heart of Saul to convert his relentless hatred into incessant love?
The answer is simple: Jesus Christ. At the height of his anti-Christian rampage, Saul was confronted by the risen Jesus Christ (Acts 9:1-9). Face to face with the glory of Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus, Saul was met with the undeniable truth. Jesus was in fact the prophesied Messiah and Son of God, Saul’s persecution of Christ’s church had been an attack on Christ Himself, and the law he held to so firmly could not justify or save him from his sin. Only Christ could do that (Philippians 3:9). Thus, Saul went from outright enemy to sold-out believer and from one who persecuted the church to one willing to endure immense persecution and suffering for the name of Jesus Christ.
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Saul would dedicate the rest of his life to growing and encouraging the church, teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, the power of God’s grace over the law, and God’s ultimate plan of salvation for both the Jews and Gentiles wherever he went. As his ministry led him throughout the Gentile world and Roman Empire, Saul would begin using his Latin name “Paul,” an appropriate name for one who now considered himself an “apostle of Gentiles.” (Romans 11:13)
Why Did Paul Write Philippians?
Around A.D. 60, Paul arrived in Rome and was soon imprisoned. For the next two years, sometime between A.D. 60 and 63, Paul lived under house arrest awaiting the final verdict of his case (Acts 28:30-31). Here, Paul encouraged local believers and wrote to churches and his brothers and sisters in Christ via letter. His letter to the Philippians was one of four “Prison Epistles” written during this time.
We know from the book of Acts that Paul founded the church in Philippi during his second missionary journey (Acts 16) and visited again on his third trip through the region (Acts 20:1-6). Even after he departed, Paul continued to enjoy a warm relationship with the Philippians, who were diligent in providing financial support to Paul during his ministry. In fact, upon learning that Paul had been imprisoned in Rome, the church in Philippi sent Epaphroditus to Rome with financial aid for their brother. Epaphroditus later returned to Philippi with a letter from Paul letting them know he had received their aid and was in good spirits.
This was a church that had gone out of its way to take care of Paul, and he wanted to thank them for their continued support.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians doesn’t address any major behavioral or theological concerns. It’s more personal and practical than some of his other letters. However, the church in Philippi had faced opposition from the outside as well as a fair amount of strife, false teaching, and division from within. This is why Paul devoted portions of his letter to addressing the importance of unity within the body of Christ and finding joy, strength, and contentment in Christ, no matter the circumstances. As someone living under house arrest at the time, Paul was uniquely situated to address these topics with both authority and grace.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians may have been written to a specific audience at a specific time in history for a specific reason. However, there are several key lessons from Philippians that should encourage and instruct believers of all generations.
Here are six:
1. Jesus Christ Is the Ultimate Source of Joy
If anyone had reason to feel discouraged, depressed, or defeated, it was Paul. However, imprisoned, Paul took joy in his relationship with Jesus Christ, relationship with his brothers and sisters in Philippi, and the work God was doing to spread the gospel throughout the world.
Paul had been beaten, whipped, imprisoned, and slandered in every way possible during his ministry, and yet, no amount of pain or persecution could rob him of the joy he had in Jesus Christ. In fact, no obstacle could stop him from continuing to speak about his risen savior and the gospel that had transformed his life. If anything, his imprisonment strengthened his faith and even inspired fellow believers to become even more courageous in sharing the gospel with others (Philippians 1:12-14).
Paul grieved, felt pain, and experienced frustration and disappointment like anyone else. However, circumstances did not determine or dictate his joy. Why? Because his joy was not temporary or circumstantial. It was firmly rooted in his eternal salvation and relationship with Jesus Christ, which no one could take from him. The threat of death was real to Paul; however, equipped with the knowledge of his salvation, Paul wrote, “to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). This was the unique spring of joy out of which “the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension” flowed and “guarded his (Paul’s) heart and mind.” (Philippians 4:7)
No matter the circumstances, Paul encouraged believers to “rejoice in the Lord always!” (Philippians 4:4)
In the end, nothing compared to the joy of knowing Jesus Christ. “More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,” Paul writes, “for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ.” (Philippians 3:7-8)
2. Where the Gospel Is Preached, We Have Reason to Rejoice
As a well-known evangelist, Paul had his fair share of detractors and critics; those in the church were jealous of Paul’s authority and influence.
Opposition and criticism can rob many believers of their joy and focus. Though many preached with improper, selfish motives, seeking fame over God’s glory and even slandering Paul while he was in prison, Paul found joy in knowing that the gospel was being preached, regardless of who was preaching (Philippians 1:18).
For Paul, the gospel message was far more important than the messenger himself, and receiving credit for Christ’s work was of no interest to the author of Philippians.
3. Rejoice in the Well-Being of the Church
Throughout the book of Philippians, Paul’s love for the church in Philippi is evident, and the apostle took great joy in knowing that his brothers and sisters were doing well and serving the Lord in faith and unity.
Furthermore, though Paul eagerly awaited the day he would reunite with Jesus Christ in eternity, he was committed to remaining on earth for the well-being of the church (Philippians 1:23-25). His life was no longer in his hands but God’s, and as long as he was still breathing, he would continue to encourage the church.
In this way, Paul taught the church in Philippi to “stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for faith of the gospel.” (Philippians 1:27)
Where the church of Christ is unified, alive, and well, believers have reason to rejoice.
4. For Believers, Our Citizenship Is in Heaven
The people of Philippi were known for being proud of their Roman citizenship, as Paul was proud of his Jewish heritage. Knowing what it meant to be a citizen of Rome, Paul appealed to the Philippians’ sense of national identity by reminding them of their eternal identity and ultimate, cherished citizenship. “For our citizenship is in heaven,” he writes, “from which we also eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20). Reuniting with Christ and inheriting the full benefits of this citizenship can provide proper motivation, courage, and strength to endure any hardship in life (Philippians 3:12). Paul understood this better than most.
5. Set Your Mind on All That Is Good and Pure
Though times were tough and his situation dire, Paul reminded believers to look to the goodness of God for perspective and hope, writing, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)
6. Jesus Christ Is the Ultimate Source of Strength
While the Philippians’ financial support was appreciated, Paul used his time in prison to remind his fellow believers that financial well-being and physical circumstances are not indicative of one’s spiritual health and well-being (Philippians 4:11-12). Though Paul had learned to be content in all circumstances, when times are tough, and things aren’t going the way we plan, this is often the place where frustration, despair, and discouragement begin to take root. That is why, as Matthew Henry writes, “we need his (Christ’s) strength to teach us to be content in every condition.”
In Philippians 4:13, Paul provided the reason for his uncommon sense of hope, joy, and strength. “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” In this instance, Paul looked to the spiritual provision of Jesus Christ to find strength, hope, joy, peace, and contentment in even his darkest situation.
This message is just as true for believers today, who can be strengthened and encouraged by the words of Paul and the joy of Jesus Christ, no matter their circumstances.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/pcess609
Joel Ryan is an LA-based children’s author, artist, professor, and speaker who is passionate about helping young writers unleash their creativity and discover the wonders of their Creator through storytelling and art. In his blog, Perspectives off the Page, he discusses all things story and the creative process.