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Philippians, Epistle of Joy, part 1

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May 2024 - Philippians, Epistle of Joy, part 1

Issue #430
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Issue #430May 2024

Philippians, Epistle of Joy, part 1

Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi was written from prison. Until recently, it was assumed that Paul was writing from the prison in Rome, but more recently, some have asserted that he wrote from the prison in Ephesus, although, if so, this would have been an imprisonment that is not recorded in the book of Acts. Either way, it has no impact on the message itself.

Toward the end of Paul’s letter, he sends greetings to those believers who were of Caesar’s household (Phil. 4:22). It is possible, but unlikely, that Caesar’s household would have been living in Ephesus, rather than in Rome. So I believe this epistle was written from Rome during Paul’s two-year imprisonment in 61-63 A.D.

Philippi itself was a tax-free Roman colony about eight miles inland from the port of Neapolis. Philippi was named for Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. It was not a commercial city, and this may explain why there were not enough Jews there to form a synagogue. When Paul and Silas went there for the first time, he encountered no Jewish opposition. Instead, it was the pagans who opposed them and cast them into prison, from which they were delivered by a great earthquake (Acts 16:26).

Until the moment that the quake struck, Paul and Silas had been singing praises to God, being full of joy, even though they had been beaten with rods (Acts 16:22). The other prisoners had no choice but to listen to their praise and worship, but they must have been sufficiently impressed, because when their chains had fallen off miraculously, they did not escape but followed Paul’s example (Acts 16:28).

The jailer was responsible for the prisoners and would have been executed if any of them had escaped. Because all of them were accounted for, the jailer and his household became believers, along with a woman named Lydia, and so they formed a house church in the home of the prison warden. The warden learned what true freedom meant as a bond-servant of Jesus Christ.

The extraordinary circumstance by which the church in Philippi was founded seems to have made it the Joy Church. So Paul’s epistle reflects “the joy of the Lord” (Neh. 8:10), and this was the secret of its strength.


Paul begins his letter in Phil. 1:1,

1 Paul and Timotheus, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons.

As with many of his letters, Paul identifies himself as a bond-servant, no doubt referring to the law of voluntary slaves who, after being released from bondage, return to the master out of love. In Exodus 21:5, 6 we read,

5 But if the slave plainly says, “I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out as a free man,” 6 then his master shall bring him to God [or judge]; then he shall bring him to the door of the doorpost. And his master shall pierce his ear with an awl, and he shall serve him permanently.

Piercing the ear (lobe) with an awl signified opening the ear to hear and obey. David himself testified in similar terms in Psalm 40:6-8,

6 Sacrifice and meal offering you have not desired; my ears You have opened. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required. 7 Then I said, “Behold, I come;” in the scroll of the book it is written of me, 8 “I delight to do Your will, O my God; Your law is within my heart.”

Most slaves were forced to obey the law of their master. But voluntary slaves obeyed because they agreed with their master. His law—that is, his will—was no longer imposed upon him unwillingly. Instead, the law was written in his heart, so that he obeyed because he wanted to. The Hebrew word shema means “to hear; to obey.”

The work of the Holy Spirit is to transfer the Law of God from external tablets (or paper) to the tablet of one’s heart. When the Law of God becomes a “delight” rather than being perceived as oppressive, then one can say, “I am a bond-servant of Jesus Christ.”

It seems that Paul had special affection for “the overseers and deacons,” as he addresses them in his greeting. No other letter of his mentions them. In fact, this epistle is Paul’s most personal letter.

Phil. 1:2 continues,

2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

A typical Greek greeting is charein, which Paul modifies as charis, “grace,” with all of its blessings of the loving-kindness of a sovereign God upon the remnant of grace. Peace (shalom) is the typical Hebrew greeting, implying reconciliation, harmony, and fellowship between God and men as well as the fellowship of the believers.


Phil. 1:3-5 says,

3 I thank God in all my remembrance of you, 4 always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all, 5 in view of your participation [koinonia, “fellowship”] in the gospel from the first day until now.

Paul’s heart was filled with joy every time he thought of them and every time he prayed for them. It seems that his joy was rooted in “the first day” when they had met. It was the night of the great earthquake that changed their lives forever and established the church in Philippi.

The “gospel,” of course, is the evangel, the Greek translation of the Hebrew word basar, “good news, gospel.” The word basar has a double meaning, for it also means “flesh” (as we see in Gen. 2:21, 23, 24). So we see how Jesus spoke of this in John 6:52, 53,

52 Then the Jews began to argue with one another, saying, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” 53 Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of the Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves.”

To eat His flesh is to believe the gospel that He was preaching. Such faith brings us into unity with Christ, so that He can truly say that we have become “one flesh” with Him (Gen. 2:24), as the bride with her Husband.

Phil. 1:6 continues,

6 For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect [epiteleo, “finish, bring to completion”] it until the day of Christ Jesus.

The beginning point of their faith, brought about by the great earthquake, was still not complete. Their Passover experience (justification) was only the start of a journey through the wilderness. Led by the Spirit through Pentecost, they were still in a journey of spiritual growth “until the day of Christ Jesus,” which we identify as the third great feast of the Lord—Sukkoth, or Tabernacles.

Paul’s Affection

Phil. 1:7, 8 says,

7 For it is only right for me to feel this way about you all, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you are all partakers of grace with me. 8 For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.

Nowhere else does Paul show such special affection. One can only imagine how his deep relationship had been nurtured in the short time that he taught them the basic principles of the gospel. The closest example we have is in 1 Thess. 2:7, 8, where Paul expresses his affection in terms of a nursing mother and her child:

7 But we proved to be gentle among you as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children. 8 Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives.

Nursing mothers have a one-sided affection for their children. Babies are dependent and are yet incapable of mature love. But the Philippian believers were maturing in love and could reciprocate such affection. Phil. 1:9 says,

9 And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment,

A baby’s love does not abound in “real knowledge.” True love deepens as one gets to know the other. Paul had gotten to know the Philippian believers, just as they had gotten to know Paul. Phil. 1:10, 11 continues,

10 so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ, 11 having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

They had “real knowledge” of the character and message of Paul himself and were in agreement with his gospel. Hence, they approved that which was excellent and were fruitful in righteousness. Righteousness comes by faith in the promises of God, and their faith had borne fruit.

In other words, their faith had resulted in “works.” James would have had no dispute, and his admonition in James 2:14 would not have applied to the Philippians:

14 What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?

Again, we read in James 2:20, “that faith without works is useless.” The Greek word translated “useless” is argos, “lazy.” It pictures a man who refuses to work. He claims to have faith, but his life remains unchanged.

The Progress of the Gospel

Phil. 1:12, 13 says,

12 Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, 13 so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else.

Paul spent two years in Rome under house arrest awaiting his trial before Nero. Acts 28:30, 31 says,

30 And he stayed two full years in his own rented quarters and was welcoming all who came to him, 31 preaching the kingdom of God and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered.

No doubt word had spread throughout the praetorian guard about the miraculous events at Melita (Acts 27 and 28). Paul’s guards provided independent testimony that was irrefutable. In Rome too, a sizable crowd of Jews came to hear what Paul had to say. As usual, some believed, and others did not (Acts 28:23, 24).

In all of this, Paul’s imprisonment did not hinder the gospel from being preached. The only hindrance—if we may call it this—was the blindness imposed upon the Jews, prompting Paul to cite Isaiah 6:9, 10 in Acts 28:26, 27.

Phil. 1:14 continues,

14 and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear.

Paul’s example of courage inspired other believers to speak the word with boldness. Such boldness seems to have originated in the second outpouring of the Spirit in Jerusalem recorded in Acts 4:31,

31 And when they had prayed, the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God with boldness.

Paul’s example also inspires us to this day to remain true to His word and the gospel of Christ, rather than watering down our teaching to accommodate the religious norms of the day.

Phil. 1:15-17 says,

15 Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife, but some also from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel; 17 the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment.

We can only wonder who Paul may have had in mind who was proclaiming Christ “out of selfish ambition.” Paul had many detractors, both then and even today. Paul left it in God’s hands to judge, saying in Phil. 1:18,

18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice.

This is Paul’s epistle of joy (rejoicing), so he wastes no time bemoaning his condition or castigating his enemies. He understands that God has a way of working all things together for good (Rom. 8:28).

Phil. 1:19, 20 says,

19 For I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, 20 according to my earnest expectation and hope, that I will not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.

Philosophers in Paul’s day worked hard on their public presentations so that a competitor could not catch him in a contradiction or fallacy, which would put him to shame. Paul believed that the gospel he preached was the truth, and he spoke it with boldness, knowing that he would “not be put to shame in anything” that he taught.

Paul’s Last Missionary Journey

Paul’s teachings would exalt Christ, “whether by life or by death.” Nonetheless, this being his first imprisonment in Rome, Paul expected to be delivered (vs. 19) and to preach the gospel first in Spain (Rom. 15:28) and then in Britain. This would be his fourth and final missionary journey, recorded in Acts 29 in the Sonnini manuscript, which I recorded in full here:


A 29th chapter of Acts appears at the end of the Book of Acts in the Sonnini Mansucript, which Sultan Abdoul Achmet gave to the French Ambassador Sonnini in his travels through the Ottoman Empire (modern Turkey). This final chapter records Paul's visit to Spain and to Britain, where he was treated well by the Druids, who told him of their descent from Israel. Paul preached upon Mount Lud, now Ludgate Hill and Broadway, where St. Paul's Cathedral now stands in London. For further information, see here:


The manuscript has all the hallmarks of authenticity, and it completes the book of Acts. Paul returned to Macedonia by the land route, traveling through Helvetia (now called Switzerland). Soon afterward, he was again arrested, escorted to Rome for trial, and then executed in 64-66 A.D.

As he prepared for execution, Paul wrote to Timothy in 2 Tim. 4:6, 7,

6 For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.

It is clear that he knew that his ministry had come to an end. But when he wrote to the Philippians, he was still confident that God would deliver him, because he knew that he still had to go to Spain and “far hence unto the gentiles” (Acts 22:21), i.e., to Britain—the farthest reach of the Roman Empire.

To Live is Christ

Phil. 1:21 says,

21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 But if I am to live on in the flesh, that will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. 23 But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; 24 yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake.

If Paul had to choose whether to live or die, he might choose “to depart and be with Christ,” as this would benefit Paul himself. But for the sake of the churches that he had established, “to remain on in the flesh is more necessary.” Ultimately, the decision was not Paul’s to make. God had ordained Paul to complete his unique work, and when that work was finished, it would be time for Paul to depart.

Phil. 1:25, 26 continues,

25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that your proud confidence in me may abound in Christ Jesus through my coming to you again.

We have no confirming evidence that Paul saw his beloved Philippians again, but we know from the Sonnini manuscript that he returned to Macedonia, where the city of Philippi was located. I think it is safe to assume that Paul saw them again before his martyrdom.

Conduct Worthy of the Gospel

Phil. 1:27 says,

27 Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I will hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel.

Again, the epistle of James would concur with Paul’s admonition. One’s conduct is the outworking of one’s faith. Without some evidence of change in one’s conduct, we would conclude that a person has not truly been begotten by the Spirit. It is easy to claim faith, but without evidence in one’s life, we must remain doubtful.

Phil. 1:28 continues,

28 in no way alarmed by your opponents—which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you, and that too, from God.

These “opponents” are those who not only disagree with the gospel but also actively oppose it to their destruction.

29 For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, 30 experiencing the same conflict which you saw in me, and now hear to be in me.

From the first day when Paul was imprisoned in Philippi, to his final imprisonment in Rome, he was their example.