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A Letter to the Philippians

“Context! Context! Context!” is the refrain I have always heard from preachers and academics. When we read the Bible, it is important to “set the scene” for the passages we are reading. The Bible is not a normal book. It has multiple different authors using different genres and multiple languages. Setting the scene behind a passage or book is helpful for getting something meaningful from reading.

Philippians is pretty straightforward. We get a narrative in Acts 16 about the beginnings of the Philippian church and Paul gives some description of the current ongoings of his life inside the letter. It is clear that Paul is in prison (Phl 1:7), has had a visitor from the Philippian church (Phl 2:30) and there are some tensions within their community (Phl 4:2). Finally, the Philippian church is enduring the same challenges that Paul faced at the church’s founding: persecution from disrupting Roman society(Phl 1:28).

The city of Philippi is Macedonian in origin, named after the father of Alexander the Great, Phillip II who conquered the city shortly after it’s founding (356 BC). In the time that Paul encounters Philippi and sparks a church community (49-50 AD), the city is predominantly composed of retired Roman officials and soldiers. Philippi was also a hub for mining operations, as well as a significant trade stop between Europe and Asia, leading to substantial wealth in the city.

The story of Paul coming to Philippi is found in Acts 16. Paul ends up casting a spirit of divination out of a woman who was performing fortune-telling and making money for a couple men in the city. These men then have Paul and Silas arrested, beaten, and thrown in prison saying, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe. (Acts 16:20)”.

The final home that gets baptized and follows Jesus before Paul leaves Philippi is the home of the jailer who was guarding the prison. Paul and his friend Silas held their own gathering in the prison. In the midst of their praying and singing, an earthquake hits the prison, the doors opened, and the chains fell off the prisoners, but they all stayed. The jailer was amazed and asked Paul and Silas how he could be “saved”. The jailer hosts Paul and Silas as they share Scriptures in his home, who then get baptized and follow Jesus. In the morning, the officials are aghast that they put Roman citizens in jail. The officials released them from custody asking them to leave the city.

The Holy Spirit guided Paul to Philippi by restricting his movement in Asia and giving Paul a dream about a Macedonian asking for help. This supernatural aspect occurs alongside persecution by authorities for “disturbing the city” by disrupting the traditional Roman practices. The letter suggests that Paul developed close relationships. The persecution Paul experienced gave the new Philippian believers opportunity to serve and care for Paul as he developed this new community of faith.

Christians in the New Testament were following a brand-new and exclusive religion. The Roman empire was less concerned about what or who people worshipped. What mattered more to the Romans was how that worship affected or contributed to their social order. Paul caused some businessmen in Philippi to lose their income. It’s also probable that the authorities would have perceived Paul’s faith in God to be responsible for the earthquake.

The Gospel and it’s followers are disruptive and subversive to the Roman world, calling people to an exclusive trust and faith in Christ. This is the prominent challenge facing the early Christians in general, but Philippi is a place where the church is an easy target for persecution. This situation required the early churches to be very focused on caring for one another, being resolved to persevere through persecution together with joy.

Our faith is formed by intentional personal relationships forged in the fires of a hostile world. Setting the stage of serious trial is important for understanding the letter Paul is addressing the Philippians. The letter comes near the end of Paul’s life on earth. Paul seems to have genuine concern that his life may be ending (Phl 1:20-23). Paul may be concerned that he may not see the Philippians again, while also wanting to encourage them that no matter what happens, Jesus is faithful to His people.

Let’s meditate on this thought from Dr. Nijay Gupta, “Sometimes, we work too hard to create a distance between our lives and the lives of people 2000 years ago.” Many aspects of our daily life are completely different from the ancient world, but human experience still involves a lot of the same basic needs and challenges: physical, spiritual, and emotional. We all need food, shelter, clothing, etc. We need to trust God with our lives because there are things happening that are out of our control, and we do not always understand. We also need connection, community, and healthy emotional outlets. Dr. Gupta notes how the letter to the Philippians is centred on relationships and how Jesus or the “God reality” as Marc likes to talk about, influences our relationships. Relationships are difficult and in ancient Rome, following Jesus often meant risking how your family and friends react to you.

Christianity is the only religion to have this personal community-based Scripture. These personal letters to churches becoming “sacred” is unique to our faith. Our faith is birthed out of deep, loving relationship. God is interested in developing relationships with human beings and between human beings through Christ. God moves heaven (Jesus coming to Earth), and God moves earth (earthquake in Philippi prison) so that He would know people personally and intimately. Philippians is not just about how the Philippians struggle in their faith, but it is also about how the Philippians are loving one another, persevering in loving God together.

Being Christian likely means trial or suffering of some sort. The Gospel is a promise of power for life and godliness (2 Pet 1:3), power to be like Christ. Christ’s call was to go to the cross and He calls us to carry our own (Luke 9:23) in serving one another. Philippians discusses how the Philippians carry Paul’s burden and Paul also honours Epaphroditus and Timothy as well. As we dig into this letter together, look for ideas related to giving of ourselves for the good of others. We can meditate on some ways God might be bringing us to care for one another and be thoughtful of one another’s needs.

Holy Spirit, please tie our community together in gracious care for one another. We want to love each other as you have loved us. Give us opportunities to open our homes to each other and provide for one another’s needs. Would we be unified in true care for each other.


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