Reflections From Philippians

Last week I finished checking the book of Philippians in the T. language of Papua New Guinea.  It went so smoothly during the sessions that it only took two days to completely check and revise the translation.  I think one of the reasons for this is that I, like many others, find Philippians to be such an uplifting and encouraging book.  It has been nicknamed “The Epistle of Joy”.

There is no doubt that joy is a major theme of the book.  In just four short chapters, Paul uses the word “rejoice” nine times and the word “joy” five times.  And then for good measure, he adds in “thankfulness” and “to give thanks” once each.  So if you average this out, Paul talks about joy or thankfulness every six verses all the way through this epistle.

No wonder most people feel so good after reading the book of Philippians.  Paul is bursting with encouragement and positive feelings.  And as Christians, we too should take this attitude with us wherever we go.  But what is so amazing about Paul’s attitude is when you take into consideration the context within which Paul wrote this book.  Let me reflect on three aspects that come out of this book.

1.  Joy in His Location.

You do not need to read very far to realize that when Paul wrote this book he was in prison.  We do not know exactly when Paul wrote this letter, so we do not know if this imprisonment was his final time in Rome, or if it was an earlier imprisonment.  But we do know that it is because he faithfully preached the Good News that he was put there, and that Paul saw that this was the new ministry that God was calling him to, namely to preach Christ to other prisoners and to his captors. (v. 1:16)

Now I don’t know about you, but I think I would be hard pressed to “be joyful” if I were thrown into prison without just cause.  And prisons back then were nothing like the clean and modern prisons we now have today in North America.  And further, Paul lived under the constant threat of death from day to day.  He tells the Philippians that he is glad he could minister to them spiritually, even if it meant he would be “poured out like a drink offering”, i.e. be executed. (v. 2:17)

2.  Joy in His Situation.

Now to understand how Paul can be joyful in his location, I think we need to understand the joy he had in his situation.  In chapter three, Paul takes time to briefly describe what his situation was before he met Christ.  He had all the right credentials (a circumcised Jew of the tribe of Benjamin who spoke pure Hebrew), had all the right training (a legalistic Pharisaical zealot) to make him believe he was “righteous” in God’s eyes.

But after meeting Christ, his situation changed completely.  He came to know that righteousness does not come from arrogant obedience to the law, but from a relationship with God based on the example of the humility of Christ to whom we bow the knee and declare to be our Lord.  (vv. 2:5-11)  As Paul says, everything in this life has little value “compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”  (v. 3:8)

It is this perspective, that there is an eternal spiritual life to be had, that makes life in this world look both pale and also bearable.  So if we are enjoying the “good life”, it does not compare to the eternal riches of the next life.  And if we find life treats us terribly, we also know that it is for just a little while that we will endure such difficulties.  And so Paul can view all situations in the following way:

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  (v. 4:12)

3.  Joy in His Vocation.

This is not to say in any way that Paul did not struggle with life and what was happening to him and around him.  He tells his readers quite plainly that there are others who are imitating his ministry of “preaching Christ” out of envy, rivalry and a desire to cause Paul even more grief while he is in prison.  True, there are some whom he says preach Christ well out of a love for Paul.  But Paul says, what does it matter, as long as Christ is preached.  (v. 1:18)

And further to this, we also see Paul wrestled with the idea of “maybe it would be better if God just took my life.”  No doubt, Paul had to have some moments of despair and depression.  Others seemed to be trying to destroy all the good that he had done.  His life in chains was a terrible daily ordeal.  I don’t think we could blame Paul to think of the joy of leaving this life of misery to be with the Lord in eternity.

But instead of giving in to his despair, Paul looks outside of himself and looks at what opportunities still lie ahead of him to serve his Lord by serving others.  He says these poignant and emotional words:

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.

Philippians 1:23-25

Dear Readers, may you be encouraged by the words and the attitudes that Paul has put before us to be an example of how we ought to live our lives as Christians.  May we all be content to live our lives for Christ wherever He has placed us.  And may we be willing to lay down our lives for others for the benefit or their souls.  May we all live for Christ, until the day He will take us to our heavenly home.

Amen!

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