Did you know that most of the books that comprise the New Testament are actually letters? These letters (also known as “epistles”) contain both general Christian teaching and specific instructions for the congregation to which they were addressed. As part of our Letters to the Church series, we’re taking a brief look at each epistle in the New Testament. Our previous entry examined Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus. This week, we look at one of Paul’s most personal letters.
Paul’s Letter to the Philippians
Start reading it here: Philippians 1
When was it written? We know that Paul was a prisoner when he wrote this letter. Identifying which imprisonment this was (Paul was jailed on numerous occasions) would make it possible to identify a more specific date. As it is, he may have been imprisoned in Caesarea (A.D. 57-59), Rome (A.D. 59-61), or Ephesus (A.D. 53-55) while he wrote it.
To whom was it written? The Christian church in the city of Philippi, one of the leading cities in the district of Macedonia. Placed strategically on the Egnatian Way, Philippi enjoyed important privileges within the Roman empire: autonomous government and immunity from tribute.
Why was it written? The Philippian church had sent the imprisoned Paul a gift by a messenger named Epaphroditus. When Epaphroditus fell ill while performing his duties, Paul decided to send him back to Philippi and asked that the church receive him with joy and hold him in high regard.
This letter stands out as one of the most personal that Paul wrote. It is joyful in nature and doesn’t harshly rebuke the congregation. Paul shows his immense gratitude to the church by thanking them for their generous gifts.
What does it say? The overarching themes of this letter are suffering and joy. Though the letter may seem to emphasize the suffering endured by Paul, his co-workers, and the Philippians, it also resonates with tones of joy.
Ancient Roman attitudes toward life and death were bleak. Death was the inevitable end of life, and suffering in life was just a prelude to that grim fate. Capricious and cruel gods exacted inconsistent divine “justice” with impunity. Humans had no option other than to simply accept the ultimate futility of their aspirations and wishes.
In writing his letter from a place of exceptional suffering, Paul actually reflects that cultural background… with one crucial difference: he offers joy from that place. He writes to the Philippians to show them that his imprisonment had not impeded the spread of the gospel, but had actually hastened its expansion. Paul draws attention to the significance of suffering in the growth of God’s kingdom, and offers the Philippians that same joy-in-spite-of-suffering if they will embrace that gospel message.
- Philippians 1:18b-26: Faced with the choice to either die and be with Christ or live and suffer, Paul chooses the latter for the good of the church.
- Philippians 2:5-11: Through the example of Jesus Christ, Paul shows that there is no shame in suffering.
- Philippians 3:17-20: Beaufitully, Paul calls the Philippians to follow his example. Though earthly suffering may be the consequence, their “citizenship is in heaven.”
What can we learn from Philippians? The book of Philippians is a beautifully crafted and very intimate letter to one of Paul’s most beloved churches. He addresses them with a clear sense of fellowship and affection. It’s forthright in calling us not only to accept our suffering, but to rejoice in it. As Christians, we are not exempt from the suffering that’s inherent to human existence—but our faith gives us a different, and hopeful, perspective on suffering that other religions and philosophies cannot. Furthermore, persecution on account of the Christian faith is a powerful testament to our God and the suffering that Jesus Christ himself endured.
Consider these questions as you read Philippians:
- What does this letter suggest about the church of Philippi?
- How do you think you would have fared in Paul’s position? Would you have turned your suffering into joy? How?
- Have you ever found yourself in a position to suffer for the Lord?
- Imagine that you’ve received this letter from Paul. What might you write back to him in response?