Introducing Paul's Letter to the Philippians
Updated: Aug 26, 2022
Today we begin a new sermon series. We will spend the next few months walking through Paul’s letter to the Philippians. This is a glorious little letter. Of all of Paul’s letters, this is many people’s favorite. For many Christians, this is their favorite book in all of Scripture. It’s short, only 4 chapters, and it has a powerful and positive message. It’s not heavy into theology, like Romans, for example. And it’s not shot through with controversy, like Galatians or the Corinthian letters are. Bursting with hope and joy Philippians, as a result, has also become a favorite place to mine quotes of Scripture from. Odds are, that if you know a half dozen different bible verses by heart one of them will be from Philippians. I’d be surprised, even if you have never personally read Philippians, if you are not familiar with some of the one-liners that come out of this glorious little letter.
I want to begin by reflecting on a few of these famous lines from Philippians. First, we’ll rehearse a few of what I’m going to call the Hallmark statements from Philippians. These are sayings you might expect to find on the front cover of a greeting card down at the local Christian book store. In our culture when momentous events arrive, often a friend will show up with a card in hand that attempts to communicate that we are not alone. Whether we are celebrating or mourning, or whether we just need a little inspiration, often the words we hear from our friends come to us via greeting cards. In a Christian context, Philippians is one of the favorite places where designers of such cards have found just the right words for the occasion.
For example, to somebody that means the world to you:
I thank my God
every time I remember you.
Or to a friend enduring a great trial:
Do not be anxious about anything,
but in everything, by prayer and petition,
with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
Or for someone who has stood by your side through a very trying time:
Yet it was good of you
to share in my troubles.
Or to someone you just want to speak a blessing over someone:
And my God will meet all your needs
according to his glorious riches
in Christ Jesus.
Who composed these lovely, warm, sentimental words? Each one of these is found in Paul’s letter to the Philippian church. Even when we don’t hear these words in their larger context they’re overflowing with love. How much more powerful would these words become if we could hear them as a personal letter written by Paul to some dear, dear friends in Christ?
Sometimes the Paul in our bibles is perceived to be a rather rigid character, someone we might just as soon avoid. Some perceive Paul as hard-nosed and legalistic, someone who would be more prone to chew you out for some minor moral infraction than to offer words of encouragement like these. We need to get over that perception. Some of the most lovely, encouraging, and heartfelt things that have ever been written come from the pen of the apostle Paul. In our journey through Philippians, we’ll get a glimpse into the heart of this man who has been captured by the love of Christ.
Some of the most lovely, encouraging,
and heartfelt things that have ever been written
come from the pen of the apostle Paul.
But not everything Paul writes in Philippians is fit for a greeting card. Philippians also contains some of the most profoundly challenging and moving statements we know from Scripture. We might call these Words to Live By, statements that capture the essence of Christian living for us, words that are worthy to be hung on our walls, or stamped on our coffee cups to remind us of who we are, who God is, and what’s most important in life.
Here’s a one to grace your front room:
For to me, to live is Christ
and to die is gain.
Or, how about this one to set the tone for your home:
Rejoice in the Lord always.
I will say it again: Rejoice!
Here’s a short one that says it all:
I want to know Christ
Do you need a few words for the kid’s room?
Do everything without complaining or arguing,
Who hasn’t heard this one?
I can do everything through him who gives me strength.
Here’s one for the study:
Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right,
whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable
—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—
think about such things.
You haven’t lived long as a Christian if none of these are familiar to you. All of them are from Paul's letter to the Philippians. We hear Paul with his heart full of warmth and compassion; clearly, he cherished those he wrote to. And we also hear Paul bursting with inspiration, a master exhorter who is capable of moving his readers to deeper and richer faith.
My aim for us in our time together in Philippians is to have these words – these lines many of us already know from Philippians – fleshed out in our lives in such a way that they’re more than words written on our coffee cups or wall hangings. I want them to be a part of who we are at the core of our beings. I want them written deep in my heart in ways that equip me to live gloriously for Christ. I want that for me, and I want that for you.
One of the key ways in which we will succeed in having holy texts like these transform us is through our full embrace of the context in which they were written. This means not only becoming familiar with the letter itself as we attempt to think Paul’s thoughts after him, but it also means attempting to gain an appreciation for the historical context that gave rise to the letter. What was going on in Paul’s world; what was going on in the world of the Philippians? Where was Paul when he wrote these majestic and powerful lines? Was he perched high on some rocky outcrop overwhelmed with the glorious view? Was he sitting with his feet in the sand of the Mediterranean somewhere as he put pen to paper? What was the context that equipped Paul to write as he did? We know who Paul would credit with his inspiration – our Lord Jesus Christ! Paul had met the risen Jesus on the Damascus road and that encounter radically altered his life. But what was the specific circumstance that gave birth to this letter we know as Philippians?
Paul is celebrating as he’s writing and he’s calling the Philippians to celebrate with him, but he didn’t write these words from a comfortable study overlooking the Mediterranean. Paul was not celebrating financial success, good health, or a life unhindered by trials. Paul wrote from prison; he was in chains as he wrote. Life didn’t look lovely from where he sat – at least not as we often define lovely. He wasn’t comfortable, he wasn’t at ease; Paul wrote from the type of place where people are often full of despair and loneliness, a place where depression resides and fear dominates. Paul wrote from prison; most people think from Rome where he was awaiting a trial before Caesar. He’d already spent years in prison in Palestine, which we might compare to a provincial jail, and now had been transferred to a federal institution awaiting trial. And a favorable outcome was by no means assured! This letter, which contains some of the most encouraging and inspiring words we have from the pen of the apostle Paul, was written from a prison cell!
Paul didn't write these words from a
comfortable study overlooking the Mediterranean.
That one simple contextual truth has the power to change how we hear all of the lovely sayings we find throughout the letter. Suddenly they come alive in a new way and challenge us on a different level. When somebody writes, “Rejoice and again I say rejoice!” from the comfort of a warm study against the background of a life of prosperity and blessing, it means one thing. But when somebody writes the very same words while chained to a Roman guard awaiting a court date with Nero, it’s quite another matter altogether. If Paul, in his context, can find reason to celebrate what does that mean for us?
If a man who had never known hardship wrote to us urging us to rejoice in our great trials we’d be more apt to burn his letter than place it alongside our sacred texts. But when Paul writes words of such profound hope, encouragement, and challenge from prison… then they become words that we cherish and come to again and again to draw hope from. That’s what happened to this letter. The Philippians cherished it; they went to it often for inspiration and hope, and as time unfolded they began to believe that this letter from Paul in prison was infused with the power of heaven. And the church has cherished it ever since.
So Paul was in prison. How did he get there? Why was he awaiting trial before Nero? Knowing this story will only help us to appreciate these words from Paul.
We shouldn’t imagine that Paul spent his whole life in and out of jail for the cause of Christ. On the contrary, there was an earlier time in Paul’s life when he was instrumental in seeing to it that believers in Jesus ended up in prison or worse. We’re first introduced to Paul by Luke in the book of Acts. The Christian faith has just gotten off the ground. That moment in the Garden of Gethsemane, the trial before Pilate, the ring of the hammer against the spikes at Golgotha are recent memories. The women at the tomb and the news they brought to the huddled disciples, “He is risen!” is a recent scene that has radically altered the lives of those early disciples and was radically altering the lives of many who heard the message, “God has made this Jesus both Lord and Christ!” Some 50 days after the cross the Holy Spirit of God fell upon the believers in Jerusalem and the gospel was proclaimed. Thousands heard and believed. Three thousand on the day of Pentecost alone were baptized into Christ. The good news of Jesus was radically altering the landscape of the day, in particular the Jewish landscape. Many celebrated and said, “Yes!” to Jesus. But not all were celebrating!
Those who hated Jesus hated his followers as well. For them faith in Jesus was a disease that needed to be eradicated; for them, faith in this Jesus of Nazareth was a threat to all things Jewish and consequently, they did everything in their power to destroy it. The same council that convened to render the verdict against Jesus hauled Peter and John before them in an attempt to silence them. But they would not be silenced.
Trouble intensifies in the book of Acts and in chapter 7 we reach a climax of sorts. Luke records there the message of a believer named Stephen, a powerful proclaimer of the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ. He was a man filled with the Spirit of God. He was seized by the Jewish authorities and hauled before the Jewish Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish court. Before this council, he is charged with crimes very similar to those which were read against Jesus. “This man speaks against the temple and the Law.” In Acts 7 Stephen addresses the Sanhedrin but their hearts are hard. He infuriates them by turning the tables and accusing them of being unfaithful to the Lord, standing against him and with those who killed his prophets and his Christ. The highest Jewish court in the land, in a fit of rage (gnashing their teeth in the words of Luke), forgoes any semblance of justice and rushes Stephen as he speaks, stoning him to death on the spot. And this is where we first meet Paul, known at this point in the story by his Hebrew name, Saul. When those who took up stones disrobed for the occasion, Paul held their coats, heartily approving of their rage against Steven and the message he proclaimed. Our Paul stood there cheering them on.
Inspired by Stephen’s execution, widespread persecution breaks out against all who belong to Jesus. And Paul was at the center of it all. Outstripping his companions in zeal he takes the persecution beyond Judea and north to Damascus. (This is Acts 9) With letters of authority in hand from the chief priest, Saul, or Paul heads north intent on stamping out the rapidly spreading Christian faith. This is the famous Damascus Road moment in Paul’s life. This would prove to be the moment when Paul’s life was radically altered. Jesus met him there on that road. In a flash of blinding light, Paul falls to the ground. And then the voice, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you Lord?” he asks. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Led by the hand, the once proud and persecuting Paul, now blinded by Jesus, enters Damascus. There the Lord arranges that he meet a believer by the name of Ananias who will tell Paul what he must do; what his appropriate response to this Jesus encounter ought to be. Ananias touches him. Scales fall from Paul’s eyes. “What are you waiting for?” asks Ananias, “Get up and be baptized and wash away your sins.”
Paul’s experience on the Damascus road radically altered his life. The verdict was in, Jesus indeed is both Lord and Christ, and Paul at the urging of Ananias begins life anew in Christ. The former Paul was a zealous advocate for all things Jewish, he had utterly dedicated his life to the service of God; this was what compelled him to put an end to this dangerous movement centered on Jesus of Nazareth. With this one encounter Paul, like the other disciples before him, was forced to rethink all that he thought he knew. If Jesus was indeed the Christ, this meant a radical course correction for Paul; and radical it was. Overnight Paul goes from the persecutor to the persecuted. He boldly proclaims Christ in the very place where he had previously determined to stamp out any reference to him. Instead of threatening the lives of believers his life as a believer is threatened. And instead of boldly marching Christians out of Damascus in broad daylight Paul sneaks out of town as a believer himself, barely escaping with his life. He is let down in a basket over the city walls of Damascus. That’s quite a reversal.
Twenty years of Christian living later, Paul, in his second letter to the church in Corinth will recount this over-the-wall-in-a-basket moment along with a long list of other experiences that testify to his allegiance to Jesus. There’s been a lot of water under the bridge since the Damascus road, and Paul compelled by the cross of Christ has spilled his blood all across the Roman Empire in his zeal to proclaim the good news. And in 2nd Corinthians, he rehearses these trials.
Paul finds himself defending his authority to the Corinthian believers who have become persuaded that Paul simply doesn’t measure up to their standards of Christian leadership. They’re accustomed to authority the way Rome does it: strutting, arrogant, authoritarian, manipulative, leadership. And Paul’s example in comparison is, weak and pathetic. Paul taunts them in response, “I guess I was too weak for that!” Then in this astounding moment in 2 Corinthians 11 Paul, in effect, stands before them, takes off his shirt, bares his back, and says, “Let me show you what authority looks like in Christ!” Paul’s back was riddled with the scars of multiple beatings. To have seen his bared back would have taken your breath away.
To have seen his bared back
would have taken your breath away.
2 Corinthians 11:23–33
Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?
If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying. In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands.
Real soldiers, real men, those who served in Caesar’s army, for example, would boast of being the first over the wall in the conquest of a city under siege. Paul boasts of just the opposite; going over the wall in a basket, fleeing for his life. Our Paul is boasting about all the wrong things. He boasts of his weakness. But he does more than boast about it; he glories in it. The scars on his back speak to his identification with the good news of Jesus.
It is this Paul, and not some other, who writes to the church in Philippi. It is his writings that we hang on our walls and emblazon on our coffee cups. And it is he who from prison writes to the Philippians who were facing a tough time of their own. “Rejoice, and again I say, rejoice!” Was he insane? Who talks that kind of talk with a back that looks like that? Only someone who has learned fully what it means to identify with Jesus! What has shaped Paul’s thinking over the last decades that would lead him to this place? In Paul’s mind, the cross of Christ has utterly redefined everything. Victory has been redefined. Life itself has been redefined. The cross, for Paul, was the moment when evil was utterly defeated, and the resurrection is what assured him of that truth. Armed with these convictions Paul is eager to not only believe in Jesus but to suffer on his behalf. Talk about embracing the gospel!! Paul did more than preach the gospel, he acted it out in his own life.
In Paul’s mind, the cross of Christ has
utterly redefined everything.
The book of Acts does not give as a full account Paul's sufferings in the service if Christ but it does include the account of his stoning at Lystra in Acts 14; he was dragged outside of the city and left for dead. But the Lord had other plans. Paul got up and walked back into that very city. That was on his first missionary journey. He went on at least two more. You might think that after Paul would prefer an easier life. But that’s not who Paul was. On his second missionary journey, things don’t get any easier. As Paul crosses over to continental Europe, where he will eventually reach Corinth, he first takes the gospel message to an influential city of Macedonia, a Roman colony by the name of Philippi. A Roman colony was a city that was settled with retired Roman soldiers and whose chief role as a Roman colony was to bear witness on the far reaches of the Roman Empire to all things Roman. Philippi was such a place.
Paul walks into Philippi; Luke, Timothy, and Silas accompany him. Things begin beautifully. On the Sabbath, they encounter a handful of women down by the river praying – God-fearing women. They speak to them about Jesus and God opens the heart of a woman named Lydia. She and her whole household are baptized on the spot and her house becomes home base for the gospel in Philippi.
But trouble soon brews. The good news of Jesus elicits more than warm fellowship and river baptisms. Some can’t bear to have their lives interrupted with the good news of Jesus. Paul ends up encountering a young slave girl who was possessed by an evil spirit and was being exploited by her owners as a fortune teller. She was their meal ticket. When Paul cast the evil spirit out of the girl they lost their income and that didn’t sit at all well with them. They hauled Paul and Silas before the local authorities and accused them of being Jews who were stirring up trouble in Philippi. A crowd soon gathered and sided with those who had exploited the slave girl. The local magistrate, in response, had Paul and Silas stripped and severely beaten with rods. They were then thrown in prison and placed in the stocks.
I’m sure Paul and Silas would much rather have enjoyed a peaceful riverside time of fellowship with Lydia and the others that night. What Paul and Silas do next though sounds like something you would do down by a river and not in a jail cell. In the stocks, with their backs still bleeding they began to sing their songs of worship. What’s wrong with this picture? Who sings in a moment like this? Can you dare to believe that if you knew what Paul knew, that if you saw what he saw, that you would be singing along with him on this occasion? What was it that compelled Paul and Silas to sing? Wouldn’t you like your faith anchored where theirs was?
What was it that compelled
Paul and Silas to sing?
God intervenes in that moment of singing. Sometimes heaven just can’t sit and watch any longer. This was one of those moments. The jailhouse shakes, the prison doors fly open, and everyone’s chains fell off. The jailer, thinking that all had escaped, is about to take his own life when Paul intervenes. “Don’t harm yourself. We’re all here!”
The jailor comes forward, trembling on his knees before Paul and Silas. “What must I do to be saved?” He asked the right question. The Lord had opened the jailhouse along with the jailer's heart. “Believe in the Lord Jesus!” was the reply. And that very hour of the night the jailer and his whole house were baptized into Christ.
Some ten or twelve years after this incident Paul is in jail again as he writes his letter to the Philippians. And if you listen carefully you'll hear him singing again. He writes a letter bursting with love and affection for his brothers and sisters; it arrives by the hand of a man named Epaphroditus. He arrives from the long journey, the congregation assembles – perhaps in Lydia’s house for all we know. Somewhere the Philippian jailor sat with his family and Paul’s letter was read…
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.
Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.
It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.
Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me.
Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God. For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.
I hope this leaves you hungry. Hungry for a little taste of what it was that compelled Paul to speak like this in this while in chains for Christ. Stay with us on this journey, open your heart wide like Lydia, receive the good news of Jesus. Your life will never be the same.