Philippians: The Epistle of Joy
With thanks to John MacAuthur

By Paul Robison

Let's start with three observations.  Do you agree with this observation: “A person who has joy can preach powerfully without saying much”?  Someone else made this observation: “. . .  Joy flows on through trouble; joy flows on through the darkness; ... joy flows on through all persecution and opposition.  It is an unceasing fountain bubbling up in the heart; a secret spring the world can’t see and doesn’t know anything about.  The Lord gives His people perpetual joy when they walk in obedience to Him” (Moody)!  The last observation is based on a story.  There was once a French general under Napoleon who led an army to capture a city in Austria.  The town council had about decided to surrender when someone said, “Let's not forget that this is Easter!  Let's ring the church bells to remind others!  Let's leave it to God to determine our fate!”  So the church bells were rung.  When the French army heard them, they falsely concluded that the people were welcoming an Austrian army.  So they retreated and returned to France!  Then came this observation: “This incident has often been duplicated in individual lives.  When Christians have rung joy bells in the face of Satan's attacks and trials, they have often conquered.  Speedily, the foe has shrunk away [for] no enemy is quite so strong as faith combined with joy” (Wells)!  Since the words “joy and rejoice” occur about 16 times in the letter of Philippians, it has been called “the epistle of joy” (Barclay).  Indeed, a good two word summary this letter is “Be joyful!”  “Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or labored in vain” (2:14-16)!  “Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord” (3:1)!  “'Rejoice in Lord always!' Again I will say, 'Rejoice'” (4:4)!  When we think about the history of this congregation and its loving relationship with Paul, we discover that it was a church founded in joy, developed through joy, and fortified by joy.  So let's look quickly at this congregation's three phases: its joyful past, its joyful present, and its joyful future.   

First of all, this congregation was founded in joy; it had a joyful past.  Let's recall for a few moments how the church was founded.  The apostle Paul and Silas had been wondering which way to go and had tried several directions, but the Holy Spirit had forbidden them.  Then Paul received a vision in the night of a man calling, “Come over into Macedonia and help us!”  This was in about 52 A.D.  So Paul, Silas, and Luke eventually make their way over to Philippi.  This city was named for Alexander the Great's father, lay at some very important crossroads that connected the Empire, and it had the political privilege of choosing its own rulers and of being “a little Italy” in Macedonia.  Of course, Paul is interested in finding a synagogue, but in this city, there was none.  “It became a custom for the Jews in captivity to go to a river and weep because they were away from their homeland.  And the tradition grew that where there was no temple and there was no synagogue, Jews would find a riverside like they did in captivity and weep over their plight. So Paul knew exactly where he would find some Jews, and he found some Jewish women” (MacAuthur).  Lydia, a wealthy seller of purple goods heard Paul's preaching and became a Christian, along with others in her household.  She then offered her home as a place where the missionaries could stay.  Then we have the story about a slave girl, who was probably Greek, and how Paul eventually cast a demon from her.  Although the text doesn't say it explicitly, this slave girl probably became a Christian too.  When this happened, her owners grew very upset because they had been using her to make a profit by having her tell people's fortunes.  The owners brought Paul and Silas before the magistrates and falsely charged them with causing trouble.  The rulers didn't make much of an investigation but immediately tore off the missionaries' clothes, had them beaten, and had them put in jail.  One source described their situation in this way: “They had just been flayed open by a bundle of rods in the hands of experts that left their backs a pulp and often caused intense hemorrhaging, often caused injuries to organs, often smashed vertebra and crushed ribs.  So these aching bleeding limping men are then taken in, thrown into a deep dark cell in the inner dungeon and then they're put in stocks.  Not the kind of stocks that we think of when we think of the English.  The stocks that the Romans used had a series of holes extending further out.

Depending on the size of the individual, they stretched the legs to the farthest possible extremity and then locked them in those holes.  And then they stretched the arms to the same extremity and locked them there.  And in that condition they were placed in that inner dungeon, aching, bleeding, sitting in a dark cell, cramping up in ways that we couldn't even imagine, alone with the filth of the cell, the rats, and the stench. And why?  Because some men lost their money when they lost their demon-possessed girl” (MacAuthur)  But the church in Philippi was born out of joy, a joy unrelated to circumstances.  They were alone and in pain, but they were praying and singing praises to God!  Now that's joy ... so deep and so profound that nothing in our normal world touches it!  They knew the joy that comes from the Holy Spirit because they were willing to obey God, and they trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ.  Then we remember how God sent an earthquake, and the jailer was about to kill himself, but Paul tells him not to hurt himself, and the jailer then asks that all important question: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”  Paul and Silas encouraged him to believe on Christ, and they preached the Gospel to him and his family, and they had their wounds washed by this penitent jailer, and they baptized that jailer and his household into Jesus' name.  Now look at verse 34 because there is more rejoicing: “Now when he had brought them into his house, he set food before them; and he rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household.”  Those evangelists had been rejoicing despite their physical difficulties, and now their convert is rejoicing over his new status before God!  Look how all the Roman Empire is being drawn into the church at Philippi—a woman who is Asian, a girl who is probably Grecian, and a jailer who is Roman!  And all levels of society are seen as well: Lydia was wealthy, the slave girl was poor, and the jailer was middle-class (Barclay)!  Our Lord Jesus was uniting them all!  “All those converts had a had a bond with Paul that was marvelous.  They saw him [having been terribly mistreated].  They loved him.  Lydia and her household loved him, [the slave girl love him], and the jailer and his household loved him.  There was a [joyful] bond there [despite a pagan society all around them that was very materialistic and selfish]” (MacAuthur).  So we see there is joy in Paul's converts, and Paul and Silas had been joyful evangelists, notwithstanding the harsh persecution.  Then there was one other person filled with joy.  Look at the later part of verse 15: “So she persuaded US.  Now it happened, as WE went to prayer, that a certain slave girl, etc, etc.”  Do you see that Luke is including himself in this company at this point?  But notice what happens in verse 20: “And they brought THEM to the magistrates, etc. etc.”  Now drop down to verse 40: “So THEY went out of the prison and entered the house of Lydia; and when THEY had seen the brethren, THEY encouraged them and departed.”  Notice how Luke has begun to use the third person plural  instead of the first person plural.  Now go over to Acts 20:6: “But WE sailed away from Philippi after the Days of Unleavened Bread, etc., etc.”  Now Luke again goes back to the first person plural after a visit to Philippi by Paul.  What's is going on here?  Well, most commentators believe that Luke stayed behind to work as the preacher for the church in Philippi!  One commentator rightly observed:
The absence of the pronoun 'we' indicates that Luke remained in that Grecian city (Acts 16:40), and he is still there some years later when Paul returns (Acts 20:5), although of course Luke may have been elsewhere in the interval” (Harrell).  Now Luke was about a joyful as they come!  Remember how he began his gospel with the angel's announcement about good tidings of great joy at the birth of Christ, and then ends it with the apostles returning to Jerusalem with great joy after Jesus' ascension (Luke 2:10; 24:52)!  So, the Philippian church was blessed to have a joyful preacher as well.  The church in Philippi was founded in joy; it had a joyful past.

Now let's fast-forward about 10 years, around 62 A.D., and here we see that church developed through joy.  Paul's letter represents a joyful present.  First of all we find joyful numerical growth.  Notice how Paul begins this letter: “Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops [or elders] and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”  Before noticing the growth, let's think just a moment about that expression bond-servants of Jesus Christ.  It really means to be Jesus’ slave, but this slavery isn't oppressive.  This slavery is also joyful because “a bond slave was a slave bonded to the individual.  And it was often the case that that bonding was out of affection and love and a sense of esteem, not some kind of abject fear” (MacAuthur).  This affection led to joyful willing service, not forced behavior, unwilling duty, or abusive subjection!  Alright, let’s go back to that joyful numerical growth.  After 10 years, we now see that Paul says that this congregation has grown from two families and a slave girl to one with at least four more families.  There were probably many more than that, but the fact that there are elders and deacons (always in the plural) would indicate that, at a minimum, there had to be four more families!  In chapter 4, Paul mentions three more members by name: Euodia, Synthyche, and Clements.  Undoubtedly, others in Lydia's and the jailer's households must have converted as well. Someone made this observation: “[This] church to which Paul wrote must have flourished, because in his letter he referred to levels of leadership in the church, such as [elders] and deacons” (Study Bible).  Seeing a congregation expand out of love for the Lord truly makes for a joyful development!  And the diversity of status and nationality probably continued as well since Philippi “was one of the most integrated places in the Mediterranean world” (Study Bible)!

Next, we see joyful gifts being given by the Philippian brethren to express their love for Paul.  “The Philippian brethren had sent him a gift; they sent him some kind of gift.  But they were always doing that!  Look at verses 16-17: 'For even in Thessalonica, you sent aid once and again for my necessities.  Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that abounds to your account.'  This church was always sending him gifts.  It was the Philippians alone who sent him a gift when he moved on and had arrived in Corinth by way of Athens.  In 2 Cor. 11:9, Paul says that the brethren in Macedonia supplied his need (that reference to Macedonia really means Philippi).  It was also the Philippians who had sent him a gift in Thessalonica.  [How those Philippian brethren kept up with Paul's travels without phones and computers may baffle us, but love finds a way doesn't it?]  It was the Philippians who sent him a gift now through Epaphroditus.  The Philippian brethren loved Paul,  and they joyfully expressed their love by giving gifts to him.  Years have passed since the last gift; some estimate even six years later.  [So Paul] writes this letter to thank them for the gift and to tell them [in essence], 'Don't worry about me, I'm rejoicing...[the Gospel is expanding despite my chains, so] I'm rejoicing'” (MacAuthur).  They were a generous church who gave their gifts joyfully to Paul time and time again.  Maybe we should imitate this good congregation and send some gifts to our missionaries as well.  Our family was given such gifts when we worked abroad on the mission field, and every one of them lifted our spirits!  So who will make joyful gifts a reality among us as well?

Then we notice that Paul himself is such a joyful prisoner.  He is under house arrest and would have been chained to guard 24 hours a day.  But you don't hear any complaints in this letter.  Listen to some passages: 1) 1:18: “Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, and will rejoice!”  2) 1:25-26: “And being confident of this, I know that I shall remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy of faith, that your rejoicing for me may be more abundant in Jesus Christ by my coming to you again.”  In essence, Paul is asking them not to worry about him, and one day he'll come visit them again.  And he does!  “When he left this imprisonment, he went to Ephesus, and then he sent Timothy to get the church at Ephesus [back on track].  Paul then took off and went to Philippi [from where he] wrote 1 Timothy and Titus” (MacAuthur).  In 1 Tim. 1:3, “Macedonia” once again probably means “Philippi”.  3) 4:1 “Therefore, my beloved and longed for brethren, my joy and crown, so stand fast in the Lord, beloved.”  4) 4:10: “But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at last your care for me has flourished again.”  Someone has noted that the word “Christ” is found 50 times in this letter.  Yes, where there is Christ, there is joy!  Here's how someone else describes Paul's intentions in Philippians: “But it says in summary, 'I want the best for you.  I want the best for you, God's best.'  You see, here's a man who is concerned about others, who is lost in his concern for others.  And he writes them: 'Thank you for your gift; I don't need it, but I'm so glad [you remember me and] love me that much. Thank you for [sharing] Epaphroditus, but I'm sending him back because you need him more.  Don't worry about me, I'm rejoicing.'  Listen to this, in chapter 1, he says, 'People have disappointed me, but I'm rejoicing.'  In chapter 2, he says: ‘The plans have sort of disappointed me.  I'm sending Epaphroditus, [and] I'm going to send Timothy, [and] I'm going to be all alone, [but] I'm still rejoicing.' Chapter 3, 'I've lost all my past possessions; I'm still rejoicing.'  Chapter 4, 'I'm in very very trying circumstances, [but] I'm still rejoicing.'  That's his message. ... People are going to fail you, plans are going to fail you, possessions are going to fail you, and circumstances are going to fail you, but it doesn't ever need to touch your joy” (MacAuthur)!  When Paul wrote in 62 A.D., the church in Philippi had a joyful present!

Well, did Paul's example and epistle on joy stick or have an impact?  Yes, these brethren's lives continued to by fortified by joy.  This was their joyful future.  Well, how do we know that?  There was church leader in the second century who served as an elder in Smyrna and was one of the apostle John's disciples.  His name was Polycarp.  Another church leader visited Smyrna whose name was Ignatius, and he left some letters that he had written to the church in Smyrna and to some other churches in the area.  Then Ignatius visited in Philippi.  When the Philippian brethren heard about the letters that he had written to the other churches, they wrote to Polycarp and asked if they could have copies of them.  Polycarp not only sent them copies but also wrote them a letter himself (Davis).  This letter was written about 60 years later after the letter of Philippians (around 122).  He writes to the Philippian brethren: “It does my heart good to see how the solid roots of your faith, which have such a reputation ever since early times, are still flourishing and bearing fruit. … Though you never saw [Christ] for yourselves, yet you believe in Him in a glory of joy beyond all words (which not a few others would be glad to share), well knowing that it is by His grace you are saved, not of your own doing but by the will of God through Jesus Christ.” And Polycarp mentions deacons, young men, widows, and other sisters as a part of the congregation there.  And we see that they all still have “a joy beyond all words!”

“As a third-century man was anticipating death, he penned these last words to a friend: 'It's a bad world, an incredibly bad world.  But I have discovered in the midst of it a quiet and holy people who have learned a great secret.  They have found a joy which is a thousand times better than any pleasure of our sinful lives.  They are despised and persecuted, but they care not.  They are masters of their souls.  They have overcome the world.  These people are the Christians--and I am one of them’” (
www.sermonillustrations. com).  Be joyful!  “'Rejoice in Lord always!' Again I will say, 'Rejoice'”(4:4)!  Discover in Christ that bubbling fountain that can help you through all kinds of adversities!  Claim the strength that Christ can give when faith is combined with joy!  Your life can be founded in joy, developed through joy, and fortified by joy!  Become Jesus disciple by being immersed into His name or redevote your life to becoming a more faithful bond-servant to our Lord, following His will for the rest of days!