LETTER TO THE PHILIPPIANS
Introduction, Salutation, and Report on Paul's Circumstances
When you come to Paul's Letter to the Philippians, you see Paul addressing a church which was a source of great blessing to Paul. With the Philippian church you don't see a church with the troubles of Corinth (divisions, immorality, serious doctrinal questions, worship abuses), of Galatia (flirtation with legalism), Ephesus (disunity), Colossae (angel worship), or of Thessalonica (immaturity). Instead you encounter a church which is doing well in her relationship with the Lord and with her apostle. [There is a problem between 2 women in the church (Euodia and Syntyche); however, the problem seems to be a minor one at best.]
Why then does Paul take the time and effort to address a letter to this church? First, there is the practical reason of reporting to this generous church regarding his personal circumstances in Rome. At the moment Paul is engaged in his first Roman imprisonment (ca. 61 AD) which we read about at the end of Acts (28:16-31). For a period of 2 years Paul is under house arrest in Rome, waiting for his hearing before the emperor (or the imperial court). The church at Philippi has sent to him a generous donation to assist him during this time. (The money would have been needed because the Romans demanded that prisoners pay for their own upkeep.) Paul simply appears to be giving them a report of his circumstances.
Another more important reason though seems to be motivating Paul to write to the Philippians. Although the Philippians are a wonderful church, in fact a model church for most of the Pauline churches, the truth is that they have not yet arrived. It would be easy to see them becoming satisfied with the stage at which they have arrived in their Christian lives. Yet for Paul there is no arriving until the day Christ returns. There is always a need to strive for excellence in the Christian life (see 1:10; 3:12-14; 4:8). Too many Christians have the attitude that who they are is what you get and you had better just learn to live with it. That may be their attitude; however, it is not Paul's.
How then does Paul appeal to them to strive for excellence? Paul knows what makes each one of his congregations tick. If you want to motivate me, you need to appeal to me on the basis of my being a son. I love the concept of sonship since I have been blessed to have been the son of wonderful parents. Others can be motivated by appealing to their sense of mercy. They may have had a traumatic childhood; by appealing to the need to be merciful to children, you will tap into who they are. For the Philippians Paul will appeal to their status of being citizens. While they value their status as citizens of the Roman empire, he will point them to a higher status as being citizens of the kingdom of God.
Sometimes it is hard for us to be proud of being Americans. Too often we hear that we treated the American Indians horribly or that we only liberated Iraq in order to get their oil, while the truth is that the American experiment has been the greatest success in the history of the world. The Romans felt no ambivalence about who they were. Surpassed only by the British Empire 1800 years later, it was the greatest empire the world has ever know. It united not simply a host of lands, it brought together some of the greatest civilizations in the ancient world: Egypt, Greece, and Israel. The world of communication reached new heights because of the roads and the shipping which crisscrossed the Mediterranean world. It was both exciting and ennobling to be part of the Roman experience.
Philippi especially had every reason to be glad it was part of the Roman empire. Philippi benefitted by being a part of the Roman empire because of her role in two major historical events. In 42 BC the city of Philippi wisely sided with Marc Antony and Caesar Augustus in their wars with Cassius and Brutus (Julius Caesar's assassins) at Philippi. In 31 BC they likewise wisely sided with the victorious Caesar Augustus in his war against Antony and Cleopatra at Actium near Philippi. Because of Philippi's shrewd choices Augustus not only awarded her the status of Roman colony, he developed Philippi into a retirement center for his Roman soldiers. Being a colony (which also meant she was a free city), she enjoyed the same privileges and status of cities which actually were in Italy. (Even just a cursory reading of Acts 16 will reveal how heady an experience it was for the citizens of Philippi to be a part of the Roman empire.)
As honorable it was though to be a Roman, how much more honorable and ennobling it is to be a part of a greater kingdom, the kingdom of God. As great as the Roman empire was, it basically encircled just the Mediterranean Sea, while the kingdom of God is universal. Whereas the Roman empire was ruled by the great Caesars and their legions, they do not begin to compare with the King of the Universe and His hosts which rule from the throne of heaven. Numerous peoples composed the Roman empire, while representatives from every family in humanity make up the kingdom of God. The Roman empire would prove to be transitory, while the kingdom of God would prove to be eternal. Now that they have become citizens of this greater kingdom, Paul will urge them to live lives worthy of this kingdom. We are part of something marvelous. We need to live up to it. As Elton Trueblood, the great Quaker theologian of the 20th century, said, "[In light of what we're involved in,] mediocrity is a heresy and a sin." Paul calls us to excellence by living under the leadership and power of the Holy Spirit.
At the beginning of Philippians Paul follows the customary format of letter writing used in the first century. First comes the greeting in which the writer is mentioned followed by the names of the recipients. Next comes a short greeting, either "joy" (chara) in Greek letters or "peace" (shalom) in Jewish letters. After the short greeting comes a note of thanksgiving followed by a prayer. Paul employs all three elements in this letter.
Although Paul is using the customary form of letter writing, he does modify it to a certain degree. First, he combines the Greek greeting of "joy" with the Jewish greeting of "peace." Instead of "joy" (chara) though, he writes "grace" (charis). By "grace" Paul means all the favor God has bestowed on us in Christ Jesus which we did not merit. He follows grace with "peace" because peace is the natural result of a person entering into a gracious relationship with God through Jesus Christ. (Note that God's grace always precedes peace. You can't have peace without God's grace.)
Notice that Paul does not call himself an apostle as he does in several others of his letters (e.g. Galatians, Ephesians, and most notably the Corinthian letters). He may have foregone this title because the Philippians completely accepted his apostleship. Instead he uses the title "bond-servant." By calling himself "a bond-servant," Paul is signaling at the very beginning of this letter one of the key characteristics of a citizen in the kingdom of heaven--humility. This characteristic of a citizen of the kingdom of God differed radically from characteristics of citizens of the Roman empire. The ancient world despised the attribute of humility. The proud, self-sufficient person was the ideal man in the Roman empire. "Crush your opponents, never consider defeat!" These were the mottos of the ancient Roman empire. This attitude contrasted sharply with the Christian attitude that people were to humble themselves towards others. It is a characteristic Paul exhorts them to live up to in their lives. It is the characteristic which will show that they are indeed living the excellent life worthy of the kingdom of God.
Paul reinforces this characteristic by addressing this letter to both the overseers (bishops) and the deacons. The term translated "overseers" (episkopoi) refers to the pastoral office in the church. (See comments on Acts 20:17-35 for a fuller discussion on this topic The Third Missionary Journey--Farewell Address to the Ephesian Pastors (Acts 20:17-35). The concept of a board of elders governing the church is foreign to the NT concept of the church.) The deacons, on the other hand, translates a term which literally means "to serve so much that you stir up dust." It like the term "minister" points to humility on the part of the church leadership. Church leaders are to be humble, servant-leaders. Injecting power into the equation perverts the NT concept of church leadership.
Next Paul thanks God for the Philippian congregation. Paul informs them that whenever he thanks God for them, he always does it with joy. Why? Because all his memories of them are positive. They are positive because the Philippians had participated with him in spreading the gospel from the first day they had heard it until this very moment. Right after Lydia had been converted, she insisted that the 4 preachers stay with her. In fact she said that if they truly believed she had converted to Christianity then they would prove it by allowing her to extend hospitality to them. Later after Paul had to hightail it to Thessalonica, the church sent money to support him in his mission efforts. They had even sent money to him while he was in Corinth (Acts 18:5; 2 Cor. 11:9); it was such a substantial amount that he was able to quit working on tent-making and to devote himself completely to preaching. They had also in fact just sent him another offering while he was in prison (Phil. 4:10-18). From a human perspective they had nothing to gain by sending him money because he was ministering to other churches when they sent it to him. Yet their continued devotion to him was evidence that Jesus had truly come into their lives and begun the process of transforming them into His image.
This leads Paul to the bigger topic of God working in them. The fact that the Philippians had given him these offerings proved that God had begun the work of transforming them into the image of Jesus, the goal of salvation. Now that this process had begun in them, Paul was confident that it would continue to operate in them until it was completed at the coming of Christ. What was the basis of his confidence? The fact that they were not ultimately responsible for the success of this work. God was the One working in them by means of His Spirit, and God was going to see this thing through. When it is all said and done I am going to make it spiritually because of God's commitment to me when I gave my life to Jesus.
Paul defends his right to feel the way he does towards the Philippians and to express these feelings towards the Philippians. They had supported him in his defense of the gospel even before the Roman courts ("defense" and "confirmation" being legal terms used to describe a person defending or promoting something in a court of law). Even though they put themselves in peril by supporting a person falsely accused of treason, they nevertheless still supported him not simply with their words and prayers but with action.
Paul's affection for the Philippians does not result simply from human emotions but from the working of God in his life: "I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus." Now if Paul were going to have natural affections for anybody, you would think it would be for the Philippians. They were not a problem church; they had contributed substantially to his upkeep. Yet he did not entrust himself to human emotions even towards people who are easy to love. Instead he chose to love them with the love of Christ, that is, he relied upon the Spirit loving them through him.
This is most instructive for us as Christians. We restrict the love of Christ in our lives towards those people hard to love, e.g. our enemies. Our children and spouses though should experience Christ loving them through us also. As good as your marriage is, it will be a whole lot better if you let Christ love your spouse through you. You may be a model parent to your children; however, the quality of your parenting will skyrocket if you allow Christ to love your children through you.
Paul concludes his salutation with the customary prayer for the Philippians. He does not upbraid them for any sin in their lives. Instead he exhorts them to excel in the very areas they are already doing well in: "that your love may abound still more and more." They are demonstrating love towards one another; yet they like the rest of us have not "arrived." There is always room for growth, and the Christian should always commit himself to growing until Christ returns.
Notice that this love is to be with real knowledge and all discernment so that they may approve the things that are excellent. Today's culture teaches us that if we do not accept and even promote every kind of lifestyle imaginable, then we are full of hate. Paul rejects that argument. There is a vast distinction between indulgence and love. Indulgence allows people to do any and everything they want to do even if it harms them. Love though wants only what is the best for people. A homosexual lifestyle according to the Bible destroys a person emotionally, psychologically, and ultimately spiritually. To approve such a lifestyle would mean that I did not love that person. Love discerns.
Most Christians though are not battling homosexuality. That's the reason they condemn it so vociferously. Yet we allow things into our lives which are not excellent. Are the movies you watching or letting your kids watch excellent? How about the TV shows or commercials you allow into your home? Your talk? Is it off-color? If these things do not measure up to the standard of excellence, then they have no place in your life.
(Paul once more reminds us that this does not result from human effort. Instead because the Spirit Himself lives in us, these things should naturally result from our following the Spirit: "having been filled with the fruit of righteousness.")
A REPORT ON PAUL'S CIRCUMSTANCES (1:12-18a)
When the Philippians sent the offering to Paul, they must have surely thought: "Poor Paul! Sitting there alone and dejected in that apartment. Not being able to do what he loves to do the most--preach the gospel!" The Philippians were in a surprise when they got the letter though. Far from being dejected, Paul is filled with joy (1:4). Far from being stymied in his efforts to save others, Paul reports that his imprisonment has actually led to the further progress of the gospel. Things are actually better because he is in prison. How?
First, the whole praetorian guard is being evangelized. The Praetorian guard was a large contingency of the Roman army assigned as Caesar's personal body guards. Since Paul is a prisoner of the state accused of treason, he is being guarded by soldiers from the Praetorian guard. Every 4 to 6 hours the guards would have rotated. Paul took the opportunity to share Christ with each one of them personally, or if he was restrained from doing this, he would make sure that whenever he spoke with somebody else about Christ he spoke out extra loudly so that the soldiers would hear what he was saying. As a result not only would the guard personally hear the story of Christ, the rest of the guard would too whenever that guard returned to the barracks and shared with his fellow soldiers what Paul had just said.
Second, Paul's imprisonment was actually emboldening the Christians in Rome to become more aggressive in evangelizing others. Many times we fear the unknown, and yet once we actually experience what we feared, we find out it was not as bad as we previously thought. Before Paul's imprisonment many of the Roman Christians might have thought that imprisonment was the worst thing possible. Yet when they actually saw Paul imprisoned and how he responded to it, they realized how baseless their fears had been. As a result of Paul's imprisonment they actually become more aggressive in sharing Jesus with others.
(A third way Paul's imprisonment led to the further progress of the gospel was that it resulted in Paul writing letters to the Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, and Timothy. If Paul had not been imprisoned, he most likely would have traveled to these churches and shared with them face to face the messages of these letters. His imprisonment forced him to communicate with them by letter which the churches preserved for us. A wealth of teaching would have been lost forever if not for the Roman imprisonment.)
None of this should surprise us. Many have reduced God's sovereignty to Him being a puppet master who pulls all the strings in our lives. That is not the Biblical view of God's sovereignty. The Bible teaches that God is so powerful that He can and does take the most negative circumstances in life and uses them for incredible good. (Death always precedes resurrection.) Whereas Paul's imprisonment is a fine example of this, the cross is the supreme example. There we see the worst that man can do. Yet God takes man's worst and uses it for the salvation of billions. Now that is sovereignty.
Paul then makes the parenthetical comment that not all of the Roman Christians are preaching out of pure motives. While many are preaching Christ out of love for Christ, Paul, and lost souls, others have baser motives. They are preaching in order to make Paul jealous. Maybe they had been jealous of his influence over the Roman church which had come at their expense. His imprisonment gave them a chance to enlarge their sphere of influence. Maybe people would now look up to them and not to Paul.
Paul most likely was laughing with glee over this. They thought that they were hurting Paul, and they would have been if Paul's attitude was "It's all about me!" Yet for Paul it was NOT all about him. For Paul it is all about Jesus (1:21). Far from hurting Paul, they were actually giving him great joy because no matter what their motives were they were bringing more and more people beneath the lordship of Christ. For this Paul says: "I rejoice!"
The challenge for us today is that it not all be about us! It is to be about Jesus. If it is all about us, we are going to be severely disappointed in life because God is not going to order the universe in order to support our self-centeredness. If, on the other hand, we make it all about Jesus, we are going to find great joy because God will actually order the universe in order to support this. Is my family about me or Jesus? Is my job about me or Jesus? Is my ministry about me or Jesus? Is my money about me or Jesus? Is my life about me or about Jesus?