Main Idea: After planting the church in Philippi, Paul writes exhorting them to advance the gospel with joy in the face of opposition.
Recently our kids (the Merida children) have been reading Scripture every morning and then journaling about their verses. They typically reflect on the passage and sometimes write a prayer. Then they give their journals to their mother, who writes back to them. The other day Joshua wrote a humorous but thoughtful thank-you to his mother, saying, “Dear Mom, thank you for making breakfast. You are a good cooker. I don’t understand what this verse means. But thanks for breakfast, and for making my room look good!”—an honest and sincere thank-you note!
Have you written or received an affectionate thank-you letter lately? We’re about to read one—Paul’s thank-you letter to the church in Philippi. A guy named Epaphroditus brought a gift on behalf of the church to Paul, and Paul writes back to thank them for their support and partnership. He opens the letter, “I give thanks to my God for every remembrance of you” (1:3; cf. 4:14-20). He deeply loves this church. But Philippians is more than a mere thank-you letter. Paul also uses this occasion to encourage the believers to persevere together with joy in spite of opposition. Drawing on known military language of the time, Paul exhorts the Christians to advance the gospel bravely, as fellow servants of the true King, in the face of terrifying opponents. One must not miss this theme of partnership for the advance of the gospel. It’s not just an epistle of joy. It’s about fearlessly advancing the gospel with joy, working together in hardship.
Indeed, Paul’s overarching concern is with the gospel, a word that appears more in Philippians than in any other letter (per hundred words), as scholar Gordon Fee points outs (Fee, Paul’s Letter, 14, 82). Paul writes much about the glorious nature of the gospel that believers must defend and declare. He writes about the sovereignty of God in salvation, the person and work of Christ, the imputed righteousness of Jesus received by faith, sanctification, and our citizenship in heaven. He also touches on doctrines related to the kingdom, unity, generosity, and more. Perhaps you would say about this letter, like my son, “I don’t know what these verses mean.” Or perhaps you’re very familiar with this letter. In either case, I invite you to study it carefully. For this letter isn’t just a message from the ancient past (ca. AD 62). It’s the living Word of God, written by the apostle Paul. It’s only four chapters, 104 verses, and about 2½ pages in most Bibles. But there’s gold here.
Just how relevant is this letter? Let me ask you some questions to demonstrate its relevance. Is it easy to be a Christian in today’s world? No. If we follow Christ, we will encounter opposition. This letter should encourage us to live for Christ courageously. Where are you going for true joy? Paul radiates a contagious joy here. Though he writes from a Roman prison, he can say, “I rejoice, so you rejoice” (paraphrasing 2:17-18). Paul reminds us that ultimate joy isn’t derived from comfortable circumstances, but from a living, vibrant communion with Christ. He doesn’t say, “Look at my house; now rejoice,” or “Look at my wife . . . my kids . . . my bank account.” No, he says, “Look at Jesus, like I am doing, and rejoice with me.” Where will you find meaning and purpose in life? Welcome to Philippians. Paul says, “For me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (1:21). Do you need deep and encouraging Christian friendships? This letter provides marvelous application for building and sustaining true community. Does your church need to grow in unity? What church doesn’t? Then read this letter. Paul loves the church at Philippi and refers to it as his “joy and crown” (4:1), but disunity exists in the body (4:2). He provides wonderful instruction for us as we seek to unite in the gospel. It isn’t hard to understand why this letter is a favorite of many Christians. Just stop and consider how many “life verses” are found in this little book:
I am sure of this, that He who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (1:6)
For me, living is Christ and dying is gain. (1:21)
So then, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence, but now even more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who is working in you, enabling you both to desire and to work out His good purpose. (2:12-13)
My goal is to know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, assuming that I will somehow reach the resurrection from among the dead. . . . Brothers, I do not consider myself to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and reaching forward to what is ahead, I pursue as my goal the prize promised by God’s heavenly call in Christ Jesus. (3:10-11,13-14)
Our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. (3:20)
Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses every thought, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (4:6-7)
I am able to do all things through Him who strengthens me. (4:13)
And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus. (4:19)
I didn’t even mention the amazing Christ hymn in 2:6-11! Many Christians have built their lives on these rock-solid verses in Philippians, and rightly so. Perhaps you’re new to the Bible, and you find some of this difficult to understand. I often tell my kids, “Keep reading. I didn’t say to go understand all of the Bible. I said to go read it.” Paul told Timothy, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Tim 2:7 ESV). If you don’t know what these life verses mean, you aren’t alone. Many struggle to understand the Bible, but the biblical writers teach us that God opens up our minds to understand the message of the gospel. In fact, that’s how it all got started in Philippi—God opened up the mind and heart of a lady named Lydia. Luke writes, “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was spoken by Paul” (Acts 16:14). Our introduction to the book of Philippians is divided into three parts: (1) the back story (Acts 16:6-40); (2) the big picture (of the whole book of Philippians); and (3) the beautiful greeting (Phil 1:1-2).
In his excellent commentary, Peter T. O’Brien summarizes some significant aspects of the background of the city of Philippi, particularly its relationship to Rome:
In 42 B.C. Philippi became famous as the place where Mark Antony and Octavian defeated the Roman Republican forces of Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar. The victors settled a number of their veteran soldiers there and established Philippi as a Roman colony. . . . After the battle of Actium (31 B.C.), in which Octavian defeated Antony, more settlers, including some of Antony’s disbanded troops and former supporters, were settled in Philippi by order of Octavian (Augustus), who renamed the colony after himself, and it finally became Colonia Iulia Augusta Philippensis. These settlers, along with some of the previous inhabitants, constituted the legal citizen body. Philippi was given the highest privilege possible for a Roman provincial municipality—the ius Italicum—which meant that it was governed by Roman law. . . . The citizens of this colony were Roman citizens. . . . Philippi itself was modeled on the mother city, Rome: it was laid out in similar patterns, the style and architecture were copied extensively, and the coins produced in the city bore Roman inscriptions. The Latin language was used, and its citizens wore Roman dress. Although not the capital of the province, Philippi was a leading city and an important stopping place on the Via Egnatia, the recently constructed military road linking Byzantium with the Adriatic ports that led to Italy. (O’Brien, Epistle, 4)
It was in this important city that Paul planted the first church on European soil, which Luke recounts for us in Acts 16.
How did the Philippian church begin? You could discuss its origins in two parts: submission to the Spirit and evangelistic encounters.
Submission to the Spirit (16:6-10). First, Luke tells us that Paul, on his second missionary journey, received a vision from a man saying, “Cross over to Macedonia and help us” (v. 9). Just as Philip was led to the Ethiopian and Peter was led to Cornelius, Paul was led to Macedonia. In submission to the Spirit, Paul and his team broke on through to the other side, in what becomes a momentous decision. How did Paul eventually start the church in Philippi? Paul and his little team “evangelized them” (v. 10). Plant the gospel; plant the church. That’s the pattern here. God was working out His plan to get the gospel to the ends of the earth, and He was using ordinary guys to fulfill His mission, directing them by His gracious providence and the Spirit’s leadership.
We should recognize that God in His providence often directs our path by shutting doors. Paul was prohibited from ministering in Asia and Bithynia (Acts 16:6-7). If you read missionary biographies, it’s surprising how some of the most influential ones wanted to go somewhere other than where they ended up serving (e.g., Carey, Judson). So your task is to faithfully carry out the work that God gives you day by day, and to be ready and willing to change directions as the Holy Spirit leads. Perhaps you’re spending too much time trying to plan the next 10 years of your life and not enough time planning the next 10 days. Don’t wait to live your life. Stop worrying about your “life plan” and simply follow Jesus right now. Do you need to commend Christ to someone? Is there a new work that the Spirit is leading you to start? Have you recently shared coffee or a meal with someone who doesn’t know Jesus? They may not say it out loud, but many are pleading, “Come help us.”
Evangelistic Encounters (16:11-34). In verse 12 Paul and his team arrive in Philippi (ca. AD 51). Luke points out that Philippi was “a Roman colony.” Richard Melick writes, “Apart from Rome, Philippi was no doubt the most Roman of all the cities Paul visited” (Philippians, 24–25). In other words, if you had visited Philippi and were familiar with the mother city, you would have said, “This reminds me of Rome.” Hang on to this idea. Finding no synagogue in Philippi, Paul found the closest thing, a women’s prayer meeting by a river (v. 13). To some, I imagine this looked like nothing more than a little picnic. Some people may have walked right past them. Paul and his team of Silas (Acts 15:3-41), Timothy (Acts 16:1-5), and Luke (Acts 16:10) approached them humbly. But here, in this quiet, non-spectacular event, the first church on European soil came together! The kingdom of God breaks in like this—small, quiet, lowly—but then expands.
Interestingly, in the next chapter, when this little mission team is in Thessalonica, the people say, “These men . . . have turned the world upside down . . . saying there is another king—Jesus” (Acts 17:6-7). Ordinary and somewhat unimpressive believers were turning the world upside down with a distinct message and a distinct way of life.
We have three different types of evangelistic encounters described. The first meeting is with Lydia and some other ladies (Acts 16:11-15). Luke tells us of this very significant individual (v. 14). Apparently, Lydia was a woman of means (a “dealer in purple cloth”) who “worshiped God,” but that doesn’t mean “Christian.” She was probably a God-fearer. But when Paul began teaching, God opened her heart and mind to believe the gospel. She and her household (who apparently also believed) were baptized. After this, she showed hospitality by inviting Paul’s team to stay with her. God opened her heart; she opened her home. Women played a very important role in the church in Philippi. She started her day as a non-Christian. She went to bed as a follower of Jesus. We should pray every Sunday for this type of thing to happen. Those who arrive like Lydia to the gathering may have their hearts opened to the gospel and go to bed that night as Christians. This is a very encouraging story because we see that when you share the gospel, you aren’t on your own. The Spirit of God is at work. Trust in this fact. God opens up hearts. One might think, These people will never believe! Really? Paul went into a totally unreached area, preached the Bible, and people were saved.
Next, we read of a slave girl (16:16-24). Paul cast out a spirit from this tormented girl, and she was presumably converted. Because she had brought her oppressive owners a profit from fortune telling, her transformation didn’t please them. In anger the owners took Paul and Silas before the magistrates and had them flogged and imprisoned. This story reminds us of the spiritual battle that goes on in ministry (2 Cor 10:3-4; Eph 6:12; Jas 4:7; 1 Pet 5:8-9) and the superior power of God. God can change the lives of even the most tormented people (see Mark 5:1-20).
Finally, Luke describes the conversion of the Philippian jailer (16:25-34). In a most impressive scene, Paul and Silas begin praying and singing hymns to God while in prison—what a remarkable example for us! Do you praise God in the midst of suffering? How can you? Tertullian said, “The legs feel nothing in the stocks, when the heart is in heaven” (To the Martyrs, 2). These men cared more about Jesus than about earthly comforts. This scene powerfully illustrates Paul’s command to “rejoice always” (Phil 4:4). He didn’t just write about rejoicing always; he did it!
As a result of their praise, God shook the earth and shook the heart of one particular individual. Everyone’s bonds were unfastened. Then we read of the jailer. He initially feared for his life because he had failed to do his job (cf. Acts 12:19), but then, after Paul comforted him, the jailer eventually said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (16:30). Isn’t that wonderful? God was at work in his life. The evangelists rightly told him that he didn’t have to clean his life up; he needed only to “believe on the Lord Jesus” (cf. John 3:16; Acts 10:43; Rom 1:16; 10:10-11). After Paul and Silas explained things further, this jailer and his family believed and were baptized. Like Lydia, he, too, showed the men hospitality. He brought the evangelists to his house, fed them, and washed their wounds. Chrysostom said that he washed their stripes, and God washed his sins (Homily on the Acts of the Apostles, 36.2). That might be the way it happens sometimes. It may take enduring stripes to see people’s sins washed away. In Acts 16:35-40 we read how the missionaries got an official release (after some drama!) and were asked to leave the city. But before they did, Luke writes, “After leaving the jail, they came to Lydia’s house where they saw and encouraged the brothers, and departed” (v. 40). The church apparently had already grown, and we read that Lydia made her home available as a house church. She used her wealth and her home as a means of building up the church and advancing the gospel.
This is the story of the founding of the church in Philippi: Lydia and her family, along with some other ladies (Euodia and Syntyche?), a slave girl, a jailer and his family, and some new “brothers.” When Paul left, he received generous and loyal support from this new church (2 Cor 11:7-9; Phil 4:15-16; see Silva, Philippians, 2–4). He also revisited them on his third missionary journey (Acts 20:1-6).
We should be moved by the evangelistic passion of this band of missionaries. Paul told Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim 4:5). Here we see them doing work. You can slowly become so inwardly focused that you stop caring about those who are perishing. You can start complaining about all sorts of things when you lose sight of the mission. But it’s amazing how little you will complain about things inside the church when you’re reaching out to lost people. Evangelism stirs up your passion for Jesus, produces holiness, and yields hatred for sin. And it’s amazing who will say yes to Jesus when you speak the gospel! Let’s pray for this passion, and let’s pray for God to open up hearts as we do the work of evangelism. Also, pray for God to use you to help plant churches. Just as Philippi was a beachhead in Europe, we need new churches in many other parts of the world. We need some people to go and some to support the work, just as the Philippians supported Paul in his efforts elsewhere.
Why plant churches? Here are a few reasons. (1) The Great Commission points to church planting. When Jesus told the disciples to “baptize” and “teach” all nations, these commands pointed to church planting. Baptism is about people identifying not only with Christ but also with the body of Christ. In Acts 2 people are saved and baptized, and the church forms. They are also taught within the context of a church. (2) Paul’s ministry methodology was urban church planting. He was the greatest missionary-evangelist. There is no better way to reach the world than by starting new churches. (3) There are many practical reasons to plant churches, such as the fact that new congregations reach more unbelievers, particularly new residents, younger adults, and various social groups. We need to plant more churches just to keep up with the population growth, particularly in cities.
We learn much about church planting from Acts 16. We should be sobered by the fact that it may involve suffering—it did for this team. But we should also be encouraged by the fact that Paul reached three different types of people, using three different approaches, with the one gospel. We should also be instructed by the various methods by which these unbelievers were reached. Consider the following chart adapted from Tim Keller, Church Planter Manual:
Methods for Reaching Unbelievers
|Slave girl||Native Greek||Poor?||Spiritual turmoil||Deeds|
|Jailer||Roman||Blue collar||Practical and indifferent||Example|
All ethnicities and classes of people can be saved, and people in all types of spiritual conditions can be saved. Some are really influenced by dialogue, argument, and teaching. Others are moved by deeds of mercy. And some are attracted to Christian example. All of them are saved through responding to the gospel (Rom 10).
Do you know some “Lydias”—people who have moved to your city because of business or vocation? We have a lot of them in our city. Do you know some tormented girls—those who are dealing with hurt, abuse, human slavery, and even demonic power? They need mercy, counsel, and freedom. Do you know some blue-collar dudes? Perhaps God will lead you to minister to them.
As a church, we need to find contexts where we can teach the Bible to outsiders like Lydia. For Paul, that was down by the river. For us, it might be on college campuses or in religious clubs on campuses or at a coffee shop. You might start a small Bible study and invite people to it. My friend Harvey started his church as a result of a Bible study that he launched simply to reach his friends in Reno. It grew to 60 guys quickly, and now he pastors a church of more than 2,000.
As a church, we want to practice deeds of mercy, helping those who are poor and oppressed. We are commanded to practice good deeds, and Peter tells us that it has a tremendous impact on outsiders (1 Pet 2:12). I was in Detroit this week meeting with a church planter who has gained massive respect in a rough neighborhood, serving the community and loving the people around him with hospitality and authenticity. The example of this church has made people ask, “Why are you doing this?”
As a church, we need to witness through our example—in how we suffer, in how we praise, in how we live (1 Pet 3:1-2,16). Do people find something attractive about our lives? Let them see a life that says, “In all of our pleasures, Jesus is better; in all of our sufferings, Christ is enough” (Steve Timmis, “Christ Is Enough”).
About 10 years after Paul established the church at Philippi, he wrote this letter to his partners in the gospel. He thanks them for their exemplary generosity (4:14-19). Before he does that, he makes them aware of his present situation (1:12-26); he explains why he had to send Epaphroditus back so soon (2:25-30); he appeals to them to unite in the gospel (1:27–2:11; 4:2-3); he warns them of the dangers of false teaching (3:2); and in all things, he urges them to persevere with joy in Christ.
Paul writes the letter with a warm, friendly tone. He loves this church. He calls them his “joy and crown” (4:1). But they were facing some adversity. They were experiencing problems stemming from false teachers (see 3:2), and they were also experiencing some disunity from within (see 4:2). As a result, Paul calls them to persevere, to unite around the gospel (see 1:27–2:4), and thereby to retain their joy (he refers to joy around 15 times). These dynamics are important. Our joy and our unity are found in Christ (cf. 2:5-11). When you get the gospel, you get joy. When you focus on the gospel, you get unity. But we must persevere in believing the true gospel, and we must persevere in cultivating harmony in our relationships around the gospel. We aren’t told much about the disagreeing ladies in Philippians 4:2-3. They appear to be very faithful Christians. And the issue doesn’t seem to be doctrinal. Disunity often appears over nonessential matters. Even the best churches have to work at unity (see Eph 4:3).
So, what is the message of Philippians? I’ve already touched on some messages, but let me just mention six points of application from the book as a whole.