Think back over your last 30 years. What jobs have you had? Where have you traveled? Do you have close relationships that have lasted throughout those years? Where have you had influence or impact on the lives of others? What have you learned about following Christ during all that time?
When Paul wrote the letter to the Philippians that we’ll be studying together, he had been a Christian for almost 30 years. From the beginning, Jesus told him that Paul was to go to those who were called Gentiles (that is, anyone who was not Jewish) and preach the gospel to them. Paul spent the first three of those years just getting to know Jesus and learning what to teach about Him to others. Then, he became the co-pastor of a church of Gentiles for a few years.
Around 12 years after he said yes to believing in Jesus, it was time to go elsewhere. Jesus sent him on mission. To new places. Paul and his friend Barnabas did that for two years, traveling to Cypress and southern Turkey where many people believed the gospel and new churches were formed.
After being home for a while, Paul felt it was time to go back and visit those new churches. So, he set out with a new ministry partner named Silas. Along the way, a young man named Timothy joined the team. God directed their movements through Turkey, allowing them to travel certain places and preventing them from going to other places. While waiting in a town on the western coast of Turkey for direction from God, Paul had a vision one night of a man of northern Greece begging them to come over to preach the gospel there. Obediently, Paul and his companions, now also including Luke, boarded a ship that took them across the Aegean Sea to the continent of Europe. Some say it is the greatest crossing that ever has taken place because it took the gospel to Europe and, therefore, to us.
When Paul arrived in Philippi, he was about 45 years old. He had been a believer for around 15 years and in ministry for 12 of those.
Philippi was a commercial center in the province of Macedonia in northern Greece. Picture this bustling town of possibly 200,000 residents in a flat, wide valley on a small river surrounded by mountains. In Roman times, it was located on the Roman version of an interstate highway, called the Egnatian Way, that linked travelers from the eastern parts of the Empire to Rome in the west. Thus, Philippi was a gateway to the east.
About 100 years before Paul arrived, Caesar Augustus made Philippi a Roman colony and gave army veterans land there with big farms attached. This was a smart military move as it made Philippi like a fortress on the outskirts of the Roman Empire with skilled soldiers ready to fight if needed. Being citizens of a Roman colony had its privileges! Those born there were automatically Roman citizens. Roman citizenship was highly prized in the early 1st They were protected under Roman law against punishment, execution or torture without a trial. And, they paid no taxes to Rome. The Philippians, who were mostly Greek and Roman, were so proud of this privilege that they modeled their city after Rome, dressed like Romans, and spoke Latin as often as Greek. There were very few Jews living there.
Paul had been born in Tarsus, another Roman colony in southern Turkey. He understood everything these people felt and thought about their citizenship. They had the right to appeal to the emperor, which Paul did. That’s why he is in Rome awaiting trial when he wrote this letter.
Philippi was a very prosperous place. Who wouldn’t be if you paid no taxes? Main Street Philippi was a great market for goods that Romans liked and a highway for easy transport. The whole region had exceptionally fertile soil which grew lots of grain for food. And, timber was plentiful. There was even gold in the nearby hills. A group of Greek physicians conducted a school of medicine in Philippi. Some think Luke may have come from here. Besides soldiers, there were slaves and slave owners and lots of business owners.
The joyful relationship begins
Philippi had so few Jews that there was no synagogue, which required at least 10 men. So, any Jews living there met for prayer on the Sabbath outside the city walls along the banks of the river to get away from idolatry. Paul began sharing the gospel with a group of women meeting for prayer. The Lord opened the heart of a prominent business woman named Lydia so that she accepted the gospel readily and brought it to her home. She knew Jesus so could know joy.
Lydia sold purple cloth. Purple was a favorite color of the Romans, and it was very expensive to produce. So, it was considered valuable and worn as a sign of nobility or royalty. We still use the term “royal purple.” As a business woman, Lydia was likely wealthy! Macedonian inscriptions show greater freedom for women in that area of the world than anywhere else at this time. She must have had a large home as she invited Paul’s whole gang to stay. The new church met in her home.
During his time in Philippi, God healed a demon-possessed girl through Paul. The girl had been part of a fortune-telling business. This caused an uproar by the owners who weren’t too happy about losing their source of income. Though they had committed no crime, Paul and Silas were severely beaten and chained in jail. But, they chose to praise and worship God and not let their circumstances steal their joy. At midnight, while they were singing praises to God in the hearing of other prisoners, God answered with an earthquake.
The jailer, thinking the prisoners had escaped, was about to take his own life, but Paul stopped him. All the prisoners had stayed in their places. Over whelmed with their Christian testimony and their unquenchable joy, the jailer asked the most important question any sinner can ask God, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul’s answer has led to the salvation of multitudes of people who have heard the good news. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” The jailer did just that. Then, he took care of their wounds, fed them, and took them home where Paul shared the gospel with the whole family. They all believed and were saved. The jailer was filled with joy because he now knew Jesus and could know joy!
The next morning, Paul and Silas used their rights as Roman citizens to establish their innocence and thus protect the future of the church there by having the magistrates escort them publicly from the prison so everyone could see.
The joyful relationship continues
When Paul left Philippi, a church was established in Lydia’s house, a church of servants and givers who had what Paul described in 2 Corinthians as “overflowing joy.” Paul visited these believers again 3 years later. This was a church very dear to Paul. He visited again and celebrated the Passover week with them. By this time, the church had sent Paul a financial gift several times.
Paul was arrested in Jerusalem, then after a long time of waiting was sent to Rome to be imprisoned there. Paul was in his own rented house where for two years he was free to impart the gospel to all who came to him. While he was in prison, the Philippian believers once again had collected a gift of money and sent it to him along with their pastor, Epaphroditus, so Paul’s confinement would be more comfortable.
This church was closer to Paul than was any other church. His love for them and their love for him are evident throughout the letter. Paul says he “longs for them with affection” and “has them in his heart.” He calls them “brethren” and “beloved” as well as his “joy and crown. There is a genuine bond between these dear people and Paul. We can see that over and over in his words to them.
Paul rejoiced as he wrote this letter to thank the church and to express his love for them. They lived out the joy of knowing Jesus. He had no doctrine to correct as he did in his letter to the Galatians. Neither did he have to correct their conduct, as he did for the Corinthians. There was apparently only one small ripple in the fellowship of the church between two women. Paul admonished them to get along, but he didn’t seem to treat the matter as being serious. He doesn’t mention Lydia.
There is reason to believe that Paul made a fourth journey after his release from house arrest in Rome. It is likely that he visited the Philippian church again a few years after the writing of this letter. Paul was arrested during Nero’s great persecution and martyred in 67/68 AD. His life ended, but his legacy continued in Philippi into the 2nd century we know for sure. And, of course, in this wonderful letter that the Holy Spirit has preserved for us as Scripture.
The joyful letter to the Philippians
Paul’s letter to the Philippians is a well-crafted expression of gratitude and joy. This joy comes through your relationship with Jesus Christ. He is the one who promises to complete His work in you. The one who supplies your every need. The one who gave Himself up for you on the cross. The one who gives you the motivation and the power to serve Him with joy. The one who strengthens you in every circumstance. The one who causes you to be content. The one who supplies your every need from His glorious riches. The one whom you can know well. The one who longs to produce joy in your life.
The deeper your relationship with Jesus and with His people the greater the joy that awaits you and the less your joy is dependent on external circumstances. This study of Philippians will encourage you to know Jesus and know joy!
Want to have joy in your life?
Let Jesus satisfy your heart with the fullness of His joy. Then, live in that joy!