As you probably figured out we are going to spend the Summer going through Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Philippians is a great book. It’s only four chapters but it’s rich. It’s filled with a clear picture of the gospel and how that is the power for enduring. If you have been a Christian for any length of time, you might be familiar with some of the themes or even some of the verses. But maybe you have less of an idea of the big picture of the letter. As it was read, you probably recognized many verses like “to live is Christ and to Die is gain” or “I can do all things through him who strengthens me”.
Maybe you’ve heard some of these verses used well, or misused. One of the benefits of expository preaching is that working our way through the book, section by section, we will see each of these verses in their proper context. Another benefit of expository preaching is that we will better see Paul’s agenda in writing the letter, rather than bringing my thoughts to the text.
We are going to spend 13 weeks working through Philippians. Kyle, Mat Adams and Grant will also help with preaching certain weeks this Summer.
This week I want to give an overview of the book. We will look at the background so we can understand the world of the Philippians better, and then we will look at the major themes of the book that go into the title of our series. Based on the themes I see in the book, I am working off the title “Joyfully following Jesus together ‘til the end”. In addition to the themes, we will also look at a passage that forms the heart of the book that anchors all of the themes.
When coming to any book of the Bible, we need to understand the original setting and how it can affect the actual content that’s written. Let’s start with the background by answering Who, Where, and Why.
First, who are the main characters in the book?
Verse 1 says that Paul and Timothy wrote the letter. Most, if not all of you are familiar with Paul’s story. He was a Pharisee, trained very well in the Jewish scriptures and was persecuting Christians until he met Jesus and was dramatically converted. It’s also noteworthy that he was a Roman citizen. This combination of Jewish heritage and Roman citizenship allowed him a unique perspective that he preached and wrote from.
He became an apostle, traveling around the ancient world preaching the gospel, and planting churches. He faced incredible persecution, and sufferings. He was imprisoned several times, including when he wrote this book.
Paul’s life as an apostle was filled with difficulty and sufferings. In 2 Corinthians 11 Paul gives a description of what he faced as an apostle:
“Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.”
This is Paul’s life. These are the circumstances that he writes Philippians from. This is the context that he is able to say things like “to live is Christ and to die is gain”. He has anxiety, he clearly is suffering, and yet somehow he can still have joy and hope because of the gospel.
The next character is Timothy. Timothy was one of Paul’s partners on his travels, who joined him shortly before Paul went to Macedonia and Philippi for the first time. His mother was Jewish and his father was Greek. This gave him a unique background for ministry to the Philippians and other churches that Paul had planted. In the letter, Paul mentions Timothy’s worthy character and his hope to send Timothy to the Philippians.
Another character who was a companion of Paul is Epaphroditus. Epaphroditus was Paul’s messenger who would deliver the letters between Paul and the church, as well as a financial gift to Paul from the Philippian church. He would not only deliver the letters, but also provide other updates from each party. We will see more of his story in chapter 2.
Paul’s Opponents: The last character I want to introduce is Paul’s opponents. He mentions this group throughout the letter, most significantly in chapters 1 and 3. Here’s a couple examples:
1:15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment.
3:2, Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.
3:18-19 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.
It appears that Paul is addressing the Philippians to watch out for a few different groups. One is preaching the gospel, but with wrong motives. Another group seems to insist on additional requirements to the gospel like food laws or circumcision. No matter if it was one group or multiple groups, these opponents were a threat to the church. Paul is concerned that it has affected the Philippians in ways they understand the gospel, the church’s unity, and their willingness to suffer. Several of the themes in the book are connected to the role of these opponents.
That’s the list of the main characters in the book. Now let’s look at the setting of the book. Where did the people live? Where was Paul at the time?
Philippi was a significant city in Macedonia. It was the first city in Europe where Paul planted a church. Acts 16 recounts how Paul was in Asia, but was called in a vision to go to Macedonia. Paul and Timothy came to Philippi to preach the gospel. Through a few encounters they wound up planting a church.
Philippi was part of the Roman empire. Here is one commentator’s description of the city: “the city was modeled after the mother city, Rome. Roman arches, bathhouse’s, forums, and temples dominated Philippi at the time of Paul. [Hansen]” The look and feel of the city would let you know that you were in a city under Roman rule. It was filled with retired Roman soldiers.
Worship of the Roman emperor was encouraged in the colonies, and Roman citizens took great pride in their citizenship. So when Paul refers to Jesus Christ as Lord, and he calls on Christians to acknowledge their citizenship to heaven this was in conflict with the surroundings of the church in Philippi. As we work through the letter remember that this tension existed for this little church within the Roman empire.
One other note about Philippi was that it was primarily a Gentile church. A church with Jewish roots would have a different understanding of the Old testament, but As a result, Paul uses fewer Old Testament references than a letter like Galatians which is aimed at a Jewish church.
The other significant note about the location is that Paul wrote the letter from jail. It is not known exactly where he was jailed, especially since he was imprisoned in multiple cities. While it’s uncertain what city he wrote from, it is most likely Rome. There are arguments for other cities like Ephesus or Caesarea, but the more important thing for us to understand is that Paul is writing from jail, and he’s a good distance from Philippi.
Why: Purpose of the Letter
Paul is writing a letter to the Philippian church for a few reasons. Unlike some of Paul’s other letters like Galatians, where he is furious, or Corinthians where he is untangling some pretty serious confusions about the Christian life, Paul’s tone us much warmer in Philippians. He has some concerns to address, but he is also flowing with thanksgiving for his church.
The Philippian church was very poor financially, but they had previously sent a monetary gift to Paul, delivered by Epaphroditus. Paul writes to thank the Philippians for their partnership and support. He also gives an update on his status and his other partners in ministry, Timothy and Epaphroditus. Along the way as Paul is thanking the Philippian church and giving personal updates, he also has a few spots where he inserts specific instructions and teachings, and then returns back to his more personal updates.
That’s the background of Philippians. Again, the context of the letter helps us better understand what Paul is writing. Begin to imagine what this world was like. Now let’s look at each of these themes that we will dive into throughout our work in this book. The title of this sermon series is “Joyfully following Jesus together ‘til the end”. I tried to capture the major themes in this title: Joy, discipleship, unity and Christ’s return. I want to introduce each theme with a few areas in the book where they show up.
The first theme is joy.
Joyfully (Joy and contentment)
In a very short book, a form of joy is used 14 times in Philippians. Paul rejoices about the church, and invites the church to rejoice with him.
Joy in our culture is cheap. The meaning has been flattened to a form of happiness. Maybe you’ve seen billboards saying “the joy of selling your house as-is”. I’ve also seen ads for Ikea where they promised joy if you bought a plastic aloe plant. That’s not what the Bible means by joy. That’s something different.
Joy is a satisfaction untied to your earthly circumstances. It’s different than happiness. Remember the list I read of things Paul had suffered? Paul wasn’t happy about getting whipped or imprisoned. He didn’t look forward to shipwrecks. But he did have joy about many things. He had joy about the gospel spreading, about the Philippians themselves, and in the Lord. His joy was rooted in eternal things in order to deal with his temporal circumstances.
The second theme in the book is discipleship. We follow Jesus and help others to follow Jesus.
Following Jesus (Discipleship)
In A few weeks ago Pastor Dave mentioned in his sermon that the great commission is our purpose. We are called to become mature disciples of Jesus and help make others disciples. We follow Jesus’ teachings and example to become more like him. we see Paul encouraging the people to do this very thing.
1:27 Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ.
3:17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.
Following Jesus is not a distant command to Paul. He is intimately involved in the Philippian’s growth and desires to help them continue. He promises they will persevere (1:6), he is concerned for their progress and joy in the faith, and multiple times urges them to keep going, even in his absence. He wants to return and see their growth in person. Several times in the letter Paul encourages the people to follow examples of Jesus, himself or his friends, Timothy and Epaphroditus. Even from prison Paul plays the roles of cheerleader, accountability partner, shepherd to see the Philippians become better disciples of Jesus.
Together (Unity and fellowship with the saints)
Theme number three is unity. Paul frequently instructs the Philippians to have unity. We have already looked at Paul’s opponents. While he doesn’t name all of the reasons, Paul is concerned that these opponents are causing division within the church.
As a result, we see lots of language to describe unity in the book: Work together for the faith of the gospel. Side by side. Be of one mind, having the same love. In chapter four he mentions two women Euodia and Syntheche, and appeals to the church to help them agree in the LORD. He doesn’t mention the specifics of the disagreement, only that he wants them to agree. He emphasizes the unity of the church. He views the Philippians as his partners in ministry and partakers of grace.
This theme is grounded in our status with Christ. When God gives us the faith to believe the gospel, we are united with Christ. As you read the book, you will notice how many times Paul says “in Christ”. As we become more like Christ, we should be more united with other people who have union with Christ. Our common union with Christ is the reason for our unity with one another. As we work through the book, remember also that anytime Paul uses the word ‘you’, he’s addressing the entire church. It’s you all, meaning that everything Paul says is meant for the community, not as individuals.
Paul is calling us to joyfully follow Christ together. The final theme of the book tells us why we should do these things. Let me start with a quick illustration for us to think about.
‘Til the end (Return of Christ)
Kids, I want you to imagine something. Imagine your mom or dad says, “After church we’re getting in the car and are going on a long trip. We’ll be in the car for about 3-4 days, it will be hot because our AC doesn’t work, our DVD player is broken too. We’ll be going over mountains and through desserts, so it will be a rough ride. And we are also going with another family, so the van will be cramped, noisy, and hotter.” Your first question is probably, where are we going?
What if your parents said, “nowhere. We’re just going to drive around and then come back home.” Are you excited to go? If we buckle in for a road trip just for the sake of driving around and suffering, it is miserable and pointless.
What if instead of just driving around, you knew where you were going to end up? What if the drive ended in California at Disneyland? What if you knew ahead of time that the trip would take 4 days and it would be awful, but then you’d get to stay at Disneyland for a month? And all the food and treats were free, there were no lines for the rides and you got to do it all with
There is an end where everything in Philippians, and this world, is headed. We aren’t simply floating around aimlessly. We follow Jesus because there is a point to all of this. This entire history of the world is headed somewhere. We can do so with joy, because our hope is in a glorious future where we will be in the presence of Jesus Christ forever. Think about Paul’s circumstances. He’s in prison without a lot of earthly hope. And yet he continually reminds the Philippians of Christ’s return.
The book is filled with language about the day of Jesus Christ.
1:6 And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.
1:10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ
3:20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ
When we see Christ, either in death or at his glorious return, it will be far greater than our current circumstances. And that motivates us to live for Christ.
I want to look again at article 9 of the Statement of Faith that we read earlier (can you put that slide up again?): ‘We believe in the personal, bodily and premillennial return of our Lord Jesus Christ. The coming of Christ, at a time known only to God, demands constant expectancy and, as our blessed hope, motivates the believer to godly living, sacrificial service and energetic mission. ‘
Because there is a point to this life, we have a mission to complete. It changes our motivations and our behavior.
If I have to spend 4 days in miserable circumstances in order to gain a month of splendor, it’s worth it. Even more, if I have to endure a few decades of suffering and trial in order to gain an eternity of Christ and all his glories, I can persevere. All of Paul’s instructions and encouragements to the Philippians are in the knowledge that our lives are headed towards an end. Either we die and meet Christ or Christ will return and meet us. Either way, Christ will be the end of this earthly life.
The Cross-Shaped Mountain-2:5-11
All of the themes that I just mentioned show up throughout the book. We will point them out as we work through Philippians, but there is something even more foundational that all of these themes flow out of. It’s the central truth of the book and it’s found in chapter 2:5-11.
2:5-11 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
It’s often referred to as the Christ hymn that displays the glory of Christ through his deity, through his humility in the incarnation, and his exalted glory in his ascension. Glory at every step.
Most of you know that my family lived in Portland, Oregon for 14 years. It’s a beautiful city and one of the unique features is that Mount Hood is only 50 minutes from Portland. On any clear day, you can see Mount Hood from anywhere in the city. It’s always there, even if you are in a suburb on the far side of Portland, you can still see Mt Hood. That’s how I think of this passage in chapter 2 in Philippians. No matter where you are in this book, the Christ Hymn is always present, you can always see it. It informs all of the other themes in the book.
If Paul wrote a book and instructed the Philippians to find joy in all things, including suffering, but didn’t tie it to the person and work of Jesus Christ, it would be a very different book. It would be law and it would be futile. For any of us to work up joy to the point where we’d be willing to choose joy in hard circumstances, just because Paul tells us it’s right would be exhausting. But when we can get our bearings by looking at the glorious mountain of the book, we find the faith and power to live like Christ.
That was a lot of information for one sermon. We will spend the rest of the Summer diving in deeper and seeing how the glorious humility of Jesus gives us not only the model, but the power to grow in our joy.
I encourage you to read the book this week with these things in mind. As you read the book, notice where the themes of joy, discipleship, unity and Christ’s return show up. And also be aware of how the humble glory of Christ and his gospel informs the book as well. If you are not a Christian, hear the good news of Jesus Christ who died for sins, rose again and is coming back to reign and believe it. If you are a Christian, see it as your joy to follow Jesus. As a group of Christians at Grace Church, we joyfully follow Jesus together til the end.