(This introduction to the book of Philippians was given by the late Dr. Glenn Barker, then Provost at Fuller Theological Seminary, to the Disciples Class at a Church in Pasadena, California. As a suggestion, please read Acts 16:6-40 to prepare you for your study of this book. You might also look at a map of New Testament times and locate the city of Philippi. And, as always, ask God the Holy Spirit to make God’s Word alive in your life.)
Today, we are introducing what will be the beginning of a study in Philippians. But I don’t want to read from the text today; I want to read from Acts which provides the background of how this particular church came into existence. I am reading from Acts 16, beginning at verse 6 through verse 40. (Here read Acts 16:6-40.)
So here we are in Paul’s second missionary journey. In the first missionary journey, you remember, he crossed over to Crete, went up into Lystra and Derbe and then returned overland and came back to Jerusalem. On this second journey, Paul was following his desire which was always with him: He would preach the Gospel where Christ’s name was not known.
There were two areas that intrigued him: One was the possibility of going west which would have been across Ephesus, where he had not yet been. The other was to go north up into Bithinia along the Black sea. But due to circumstances we don’t know anything about, those seemed closed.
The Decision to Enter Greece
So Paul crossed over to Troas and there stopped and looked across that straight and thought about the possibility of entering into Greece and Macedonia. For him, that would have been the beginning of the major section of the Roman Empire. Here in Philippi, across the river, you encounter the main Roman highway. Once you put your feet on it you can walk directly to Rome. It was a great transition to think of crossing over into that new geographical situation.
Paul had in all his other travels been basically working with Semitic persons, Oriental persons who were located in Asia and Asia Minor. But the fact is that even though this had been part of the Greek Empire and later the Roman Empire, there was only kind of a cultural veneer which was spread over what was basically Oriental and Semite persons. Now in going over into Philippi, Paul would for the first time be in the presence of Greek persons over whom the Roman Empire had stretched itself.
In some ways, the Macedonian people that he would encounter were among the best of the Greeks that he would meet. The Macedonians were very famous people, of course, and they were the people who had produced Philip of Macedon and later, Alexander the Great. You remember that Alexander had made the whole world into one world. But the people themselves were a fascinating people. Tarn and Griffin, in their book on Hellenistic Civilization, make the following statement:
“If Macedonia produced perhaps the most confident group of men in the world or that the world had yet seen, the women were in all respects the men’s counterpart. They played a large part in public affairs, received envoys, and obtained concessions from their husbands, built temples, founded cities, engaged mercenaries, commanded armies, built fortresses and acted as regents or even co-rulers. Here Paul was going to encounter both in men and women entirely different persons than he had ever met before.”
Philippi: Its People, Its History
Philippi, the first city that he would encounter in Greece, was founded by Philip the Second who was the father of Alexander, as I said. He had established this city, really, to guard the rear of his empire and also to protect the gold mines that were located in the city. About 168 B.C., the Macedonians were involved in conflict with the Romans. The Romans found them extremely difficult to subdue. They just wouldn’t quit. They were tough and loyal. Finally, the Romans divided Macedonia into four parts so that they could rule it and keep it subdued.
We don’t hear much about Philippi then until 42 B.C., when a great battle, made famous by Shakespeare, occurred. It occurred after Brutus had killed Caesar. Brutus and Cassius headed up the Republic’s army that represented the Senate in Rome and Anthony and Octavio, military commanders who came back after hearing of Caesar’s assassination, entered into a great civil war that took place right here on the plains next to Philippi.
Now the people of Philippi were very fortunate in that they selected the right side on which to fight. When Anthony and Octavio were successful, Philippi received a special status as a colony of Rome which, among other things, freed them from certain kinds of oppressive taxation.
In 30 B.C., Anthony and Octavio fell out and Anthony and Cleopatra, then, were on one side of the alliance and Octavio was on the other side. They fought their final battle on these same plains and again, the Macedonians choose the right side. They fought for Octavio and were successful.
As a consequence of that, this city was accorded the right of a Roman colony with the highest privileges. That meant that Latin was their language and that they lived entirely under Roman law. Life in Philippi was exactly the same as life in the city of Rome. Eighty years later when Paul comes into the city, it is a Greek city but it still has a large Roman overlay, with all the religious expressions that belonged to Rome.
Paul Enters Philippi
For Paul to come into this situation had to be a mind-blowing experience. He came into a city which had very few Jews; in fact, when he went outside the city to find a place of prayer, he was really looking for a Jewish synagogue. But there were not enough men to form a synagogue. What he found instead was a group of women who had been exposed to Jewish teaching and had become God-fearers. The key person among this group was Lydia.
Now Lydia was wealthy. She had a large household, and that meant slaves and stewards and so forth. So when she converted, Paul already had an incipient church. Just that whole household would have made a strong situation for him. But besides that, Lydia was well connected. Paul was in a network, and because of Lydia there was a whole group of other key women and key families to which Paul had access. So the church was established.
Most ministers will have this kind of experience once in a lifetime, a type of human experience where one enters in and everything goes right; where the people who make up the membership of the church is one where there is a fantastic response to the Gospel. And Paul had that experience here in Philippi.
Forever there would be something special between Paul and this city. The kind of people they were: they were generous, they were educated, they were cultivated, they were quite different than the Semites with whom he had worked in other situations. They were the kind of people who were very stable, very capable of setting goals and reaching those goals and they immediately embraced the Gospel and began to live by it. So much so, that it is almost beyond our understanding that in such a short time Paul could establish a church where the Gospel was so powerfully present.
Proclamation and Persecution
Paul was driven out of this city, as you know. He was arrested when he was accused of being a Jew. Paul now encounters anti-Semitism. Rome had already at one time expelled all Jews out of Rome. And in a colony like Philippi which would be proud of it’s Roman heritage, it is also true that Jews would have been in a tough situation. So as Paul is preaching the Gospel in Philippi, they became aware that he is a Jew and that becomes part of the circumstance. These men are Jews and they are preaching that which is not appropriate for us Roman citizens to believe in.
Now we know what Paul was preaching–he was preaching the Kingdom of God. He was preaching the fact that God Himself is the One who has control of all things in the world. For Rome that was a dangerous proclamation because for Rome, Caesar was god, he was divine. So this immediately set up problems in the city.
But the Gospel was so powerfully centered in these people that when Paul was driven out and left this city and went to Thessalonica, twice he received gifts of money and support to enable him to do the missionary work in that city. Then, when he was driven out from Thesselonica and went down to Corinth, the Philippians again sent special messengers down to him and brought gifts and support so that Paul drew his support from this one fellowship in this one city.
Paul visited this city two more times. In his third missionary journey, after he had been in Ephesus for two years, he went down to Corinth and stopped by at Philippi for a moment. Later, on his was to Jerusalem, he spent the Passover there. That tells you a lot because where Paul spent Passover was very important and he chose to spend it with these people in this great city and with this great church.
Special Affection for Paul
When Paul went to Jerusalem, he was imprisoned and was finally taken to Rome. And it’s to Rome, when the Philippians hear that Paul was there in prison, they send one of their ministers, Epaphroditus, to go to Rome to take gifts and money and food–for him to literally serve Paul while he was in prison.
Now Epaproditus obviously got caught up in Paul’s ministry in Rome. He stayed there a fairly long time. The Philippians were getting a little bit nervous as to when they were going to get their minister back. This is obvious as Paul says he had intended to send him earlier but it was just not appropriate. Then Epaphroditus became ill and almost died. Again, the Philippians heard about it and sent word asking what’s happening. Finally, Epaphroditus got well and was returning to Philippi. Paul sends this letter along with Epaphroditus extending his greetings and so forth to them.
Philippians: Paul’s Personal Letter
The letter that Paul wrote in this instance is probably the warmest letter, the most personal letter that we have of Paul to any church with perhaps the exception of Philemon. But I think even here that Philippians is even more personal. He does not have a purpose to instruct; he’s not writing them because they are theologically a problem or they have some need of correction. His main concern in this letter is spirituality–spiritual growth–what accounts for one’s spiritual development as a Christian. And Paul approaches this whole matter of spiritual development by basically sharing with them his own spiritual pilgrimage.
His approach to them is really to unveil himself, to make himself totally vulnerable before them and to share all his experience with Christ. He tells them what his life has been like because Paul doesn’t see himself in any sense unique. Paul does not see himself spiritually as one of the spiritually elite persons. He doesn’t think that because he is an apostle there is some grace of God that is available to him that is not available to others. Rather, Paul works from the other side.
Paul always recognized himself as being one of the worst persecutors of the faith, one of those who had stood by when Stephen was killed, one who had his hand in that. Paul always proclaimed the Gospel on the basis that if God could save him, He could save anyone; if the grace of God was sufficient for Paul, then it could be sufficient for any person in any situation. So when he shared of himself, he was not sharing as one who stands on a pedestal. Rather, he was sharing as one who had been in the trenches. And you will notice that in Philippians as he talks about himself in this letter, his basic character is to share who he is.
Now, for the key terms that we will encounter in this epistle:
Sixteen times we get the word “joy.” That wouldn’t be surprising except that Paul is writing from prison, and he is writing in a situation where he may well be put to death. But when he talks about what it means to be in Christ, Paul can only speak of joy!
Paul is not a depressed Christian. He is not at all a person who found Christian faith wearisome or difficult. He is not a person who sees himself now with a load upon his back, a cross to bear. Rather for him, Christian faith is the great enlightenment; it’s the great freedom, it’s the great liberty, it’s the great vision, it’s the great hope. And whatever happens to him in life, he can only respond to the Gospel in terms of the joy of the Christian life, the joy of knowing God, the joy of service, the joy of ministry. No other word is so powerful in this letter as the word “joy.”
A second key word that occurs in this epistle six times is the word “fellowship.” That is the technical word when we say koinonia. Here in this context with these people, Paul can expound upon the joy of what participation and being one together in Christ really means.
The other key word in this epistle is the word “Gospel.” Seven times Paul refers to the Gospel as being the heart of what he’s about. As we come to the text, we’ll see what that means in his experience.
I want to just remind you of the great character of this particular epistle. Think of the key verses, now, that you’ve known all your life. This is where it centers. Think of Philippians 1:6, “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
Paul is the supreme optimist: What God begins, God finishes. He never gives up on what God is doing. In his heart he is concerned for every Christian that they may be able to discern what is the best, and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ.
Discerning what is best–that’s what is Paul’s key–not how to just get by, or what is the narrowest white line across which you step in order to be a Christian. You know–how little can I do and make it to heaven. That isn’t what Paul is interested in. Paul is concerned about the best that is in Christ. The best that is in the Gospel. And so his concern is always that people may know what is the best.
Do you remember Paul saying that some people preach Christ out of envy, some people preach Christ out of fear? But what does it matter, he says: The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or not, Christ is being preached. Let people say what they will. He doesn’t have time to get involved in what other people do. If Christ is preached, regardless of the motives, the Gospel will prevail.
I eagerly hope, he said, that in no way may I be ashamed but will have sufficient courage so that now as always, Christ will be exalted in my body whether by life or by death. For me to live is Christ; that’s what this whole epistle is really all about. What does it mean to live? “For me to live,” he says, “is Christ.” That’s one of the most profound statements Paul makes in this letter.
Or think about this one, “Do everything without complaining or arguing so that you may be blameless and pure, children of God, without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life–in order that I may boast in the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain.” (2:14, 15)
Or think of those beautiful words from the third chapter, “For whatever was to me profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings.” (3:7-10)
Or again, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. . . I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus . . . But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ . . .” (3:12, 14, 20)
And then, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers (sisters), whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” (4:6-8)
Don’t settle for silly, vicious, small bananas type activity in your life. Have some goals, have some vision and let your mind and heart be there. Don’t lead a little life–God has enabled you to live the great life. Don’t settle for some thimble-full of blessing for your life.
This is one of the great epistles in the New Testament. I use this epistle more frequently of all the epistles in the hospital for the dying; it’s one of the great texts. It always calls us back to our roots. And it’s a great place to end up in one’s own spirituality. So I encourage you to read, memorize, lay hold of it and apply it. This is a great epistle, worthy of the best that we have.