Letter to the church in Philippi
From Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles
This little letter has had a big impact on the church in Paul’s day and ours. At the heart of it is Paul’s consistent plea that the Philippians “rejoice in the Lord.” For Paul, joy is not a good feeling based on favorable happenings; it is a decision, a deliberate choice to celebrate God’s work through Jesus in any and every circumstance.
Ironically Paul writes this letter from a prison probably in Rome or Caesarea; no one knows for certain. What is certain is that, despite his chains, Paul is content where he is, in part, because he sees the gospel progressing. As a servant and prisoner of the Lord Jesus, that thrills and satisfies him.
Act of generosity
Paul writes this letter to thank the Philippians for a gift he just received and to announce some travel plans, assuming he’d be freed from prison. For years he has enjoyed a warm and intimate friendship with the believers of this little Roman colony, the first church in Europe.
From the moment he first preached Jesus’ message in Philippi, the church there has supported and encouraged Paul in ways no other church has. Now they have renewed their concern for him with another act of generosity. No wonder the emissary feels closer to them than to any other church he has founded!
The Lordly example of humility
One of the most beautiful moments in this letter is a hymn to the Anointed, the Liberating King, in 2:6–11. Whether Paul has composed this hymn himself or quotes it from another source, no one knows.
Nevertheless this hymn recounts a beautiful story of love and humility as Jesus descends into the world to serve humanity and face the horrors of the cross; then He is exalted by God, given a unique name, and declared “Lord” by all creatures to the glory of God.
Paul makes Jesus the lordly example of humility and urges others to follow Him and adopt His attitude. As disciples of Jesus, Paul, Timothy, and Epaphroditus demonstrate that same spirit of service as they pour themselves out for the gospel and for the Philippians.
Even in difficult times, Paul remains faithful because he realizes that the kingdom and the message of the Anointed One are more important than any one messenger. Paul uses his own willingness to sacrifice himself as a model for believers to follow. He directs them to be good and faithful citizens of the heavenly kingdom, no matter what opposition they receive.
Paul describes a community where every person considers the needs of others first and does nothing from selfishness; it pulls together rather than pulls apart, and it is a body that knows its purpose and lets nothing interfere with it. It is an extended spiritual family where others line up to become part of this sacred assembly and to make it their home because they feel encouragement and know they are truly loved.
So Paul urges the Philippians to strive for this radical unity and fulfill his joy by having the mind of Jesus who humbled Himself, became a servant, and suffered the death of the cross. Jesus becomes the example of humility and service, leading to the kind of unity Paul imagines.
Circumcision has become a flash point for the early church. Some are teaching that non-Jews have to become Jews to follow Jesus completely, including circumcision, dietary regulations, keeping weekly and annual holy days, and other Jewish practices. Since the time of Abraham, circumcision has been the mark of the covenant with Abraham’s spiritual children. Things are changing: outsiders, non-Jews, are entering into the new covenant.
Do they enter by faith alone, or is it faith plus following God’s law for Israel? Paul’s answer is clear: it is faith alone that makes Jews and outsiders right with God. So he cautions the Philippians to watch out for those who would chastise them into a false circumcision. Real followers of Jesus know that salvation doesn’t come from the blade of a knife but from His cross.
True contentment is the result of a heart committed to the risen Lord. Think of all the sins, pain, and brokenness that come from coveting. Adultery, murder, stealing, and lying can all be traced directly to a prior condition when hearts and minds are frustrated and discontent.
Notice what Paul says doesn’t come naturally; it is learned. The normal, natural state of humanity is discontent and quiet desperation. It takes a powerful, spiritual presence to transform anxiety into joyous satisfaction. Ironically, it may be the shackles more than his freedom that schools Paul in the art of contentment. Despite the chains, Paul discovers this beautiful state of inner peace through the power of Jesus residing in him.