Philippians: Joy in the Gospel

Written by Kailynn Nelson

Our next sermon series is going to be on the book of Philippians. As we dive into Philippians, I want to take some time here to give y’all an overview of the background of Philippians, as well as a short summary. Written by the Apostle Paul, the letter to the Philippian church is often known for being a letter about joy. Several times throughout the letter Paul encourages the Philippian church to rejoice and tells about his own joy as well. The joy Paul talks about in this letter is not just a positive feeling or being happy, however. The joy Paul expresses in Philippians is something that is much more solid than mere happiness. Happiness is simply a feeling, an emotion that comes and goes with our circumstances. Joy however, the joy Paul writes about is much different. Joy is something that lasts, that endures. As we go through this series, we will see more about what joy looks like and where Paul finds his joy. I want to walk through a few interesting and important things about the church in Philippi, as well as the situation Paul find himself in as he writes the letter. I think knowing what is happening to Paul as he writes is especially important for understanding joy and where his joy is rooted. I hope reading this post will help us engage with Philippians as a whole church, both on Sunday mornings and throughout the week.
The church in Philippi was one of the churches Paul started during his second missionary journey, which you can read about in Acts 16. In Philippi, Paul preached the gospel to a woman named Lydia, who eventually became an important member of the church. Paul and his partner, Silas, were also imprisoned in Philippi for exorcising a demon out of a slave girl. When God delivered them from the prison, they shared the gospel with the jailer there and he became a Christian.
The Philippian church was very supportive of Paul’s ministry. In fact, Paul’s main purpose for writing the letter was to thank them for a gift they had sent him (Phil. 4:18.) Toward the end of the letter Paul writes, “Yet it was kind of you to share in my partnership. And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again” (Phil. 4:15-16).  Paul says he did not seek a gift from them, but he rejoiced in their desire to participate in the gospel with him.
Besides their financial support, the Philippian church also shared with Paul in persecution and suffering because of the gospel. In many ways, Philippi was a smaller version of Rome. During the time Paul was writing this letter, many retired Roman soldiers lived in Philippi and Emperor Augustus had turned the city into a military outpost. The ties to the emperor in this city ran deep. Because of their loyalty to Rome, while many citizens still worshipped pagan gods, emperor worship was incredibly important in Philippi. The Roman government demanded its citizens worship the emperor like a god as a show of loyalty. Because Christians refused to worship anyone above the one true God, they often faced opposition and persecution, especially in a city like Philippi. Knowing this, Paul encourages the Philippian church to hold fast to Jesus. He reminds them of the persecution he himself has faced and is still facing, “it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in Him but also suffer for His sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have” (Phil. 1:29). Paul actually wrote the letter to the Philippians while he was imprisoned in Rome for his faith in Christ. Paul knows the suffering the Philippians are experiencing, because he is facing it himself.
Paul starts Philippians the way he starts most of his letters, with a prayer of thanksgiving for the Philippian church. He thanks God with joy for the church because of their partnership with him in the gospel. In chapter 1, we see Paul explain where his joy lies, in Jesus. Even though he is in prison, he rejoices because the gospel is being advanced, and he knows no matter what happens to him, Jesus will be glorified. In his joy, Paul encourages the Philippians to hold fast to their faith in Jesus as well.
In chapter 2, Paul focuses primarily on the obedience of the Philippian church. He encourages them to obey God, just as they always have. As well as holding on to their faith, Paul wants the Philippians to be unified and have humility with one another. He uses Jesus as an example of the humility the Philippians should be walking in. He ends chapter 2 by telling them he is sending Timothy, who is one of Paul’s closest friends, and Epaphroditus, who brought Paul the Philippians’ gift.
In chapter 3, Paul reminds the Philippians of the gospel and where their confidence lies. Because they are in Christ, they do not put their confidence in their flesh but in the righteousness of Jesus. Paul says he has the most reason of anybody to boast in his flesh, to have confidence in his own “righteousness.” But he counts all of his righteousness and all he had before he met Jesus as nothing. His true desire now is to know Jesus more. Paul is not perfect, but he continues to pursue Jesus. He encourages the Philippians to do the same.
Paul ends the letter in chapter 4 by first encouraging unity in the church, specifically between two members of the church. He also encourages the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord. He encourages them to pray and seek God in everything. He tells them “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (4:7). God will help the Philippians endure their suffering and stay strong in their faith. Paul ends by specifically thanking the Philippians for the gift they sent him. He did not seek a gift from him, but he thanks God for providing for him through their generosity.
As I said above, joy is the main theme throughout this letter. Paul constantly is encouraging the Philippians to rejoice and expressing his own joy. Paul’s imprisonment and the persecution the Philippians are facing may make his declarations of joy throughout the letter seem a bit radical. But, the joy Paul writes about is not just a positive feeling. The joy Paul writes about is rooted in something much more solid than his circumstances. His joy is rooted in Christ, in the gospel. Paul says his greatest desire is to get more of Jesus. Paul writes that if he lives he will be able to serve Jesus on earth more, and that would bring him joy. But if he dies, he gets to be in the direct presence of Jesus, and that will bring him more joy. No matter what happens to Paul, he gets more of Christ and experiences more joy in the gospel.
I hope that this summary and overview is helpful as we go through Philippians together as a family. I hope learning a little more about why Paul is writing and especially the situation Paul is in as he writes will help you to consider what it means to have joy, and especially what it means to have joy in the gospel.

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