Paul identifies himself as the author of this letter written to the church at Philippi, a city in Macedonia. Paul, whose Hebrew name was Saul, was born in Tarsus, a major Roman city on the coast of southeast Asia Minor. Tarsus was the center for the tentmaking industry, which may have influenced Paul to choose that craft as his occupation (his primary paying profession). His religious profession was that of a Jewish Pharisee.
Paul was from the tribe of Benjamin (Philippians 3:5) and trained at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), a well-respected rabbi of the day. He was an ardent persecutor of the early church (Philippians 3:6, Acts 8:3; 22:4-5; 26:9-11) until his life changing conversion to Christianity (Acts 9:1-31, Galatians 1:11-24).
After believing in Jesus Christ as his Savior, Paul was called by God to take the gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15). This was an amazing about-face for a committed Pharisee like Paul who ordinarily would have nothing to do with Gentiles (Acts 10:28). Paul wrote 13 epistles in the New Testament. Tradition has it that Paul was beheaded shortly after he wrote 2 Timothy in 67 AD. (Information adapted from The Woman’s Study Bible, p. 1834)
Philippi was a city in eastern Macedonia, or modern northern Greece, 10 miles inland from the Aegean Sea. The city was founded in 356 BC by the Macedonian king, Philip, who was the father of Alexander the Great. Philippi was a great strategic city in the Greek empire as it was surrounded by mountains and close to the sea. Much traffic to Rome from the east went through Philippi, which served as a gateway city to Greece and Italy (a major crossroad on the Egnatian Way – one of the empire’s interstates linking the Aegean and Adriatic Seas). Philippi was a transplanted Roman colony. The citizens in the colony were given the same rights and privileges as those who lived in Italy. They were able to maintain their own senate and magistrates and were not subject to regional government. Most importantly, this excluded them from taxation. Luke refers to Philippi as a “leading city of the district of Macedonia, a Roman colony” (Acts 16:12). Philippi was also Luke’s hometown.
The church at Philippi was founded around 51 AD during Paul’s second missionary journey (for complete story see Acts 16:9-40). During this visit to Philippi, Paul and Silas probably looked for a synagogue to share the gospel with the local Jews (as was their custom when entering a city – Acts 16:13). The lack of a synagogue indicated that there were few Jews in Philippi (as it took 10 Jewish men to start a synagogue). Paul and Silas found, instead, a group of women outside the city gates by the riverbank gathered for prayer. One of the women at the riverside that day was Lydia, a prominent businesswoman who worshipped the God of Israel (she was probably not Jewish by birth). When she heard the good news of Christ she immediately received salvation and converted to Christianity. The good news of Christ was also embraced by her household, which possibly included her servants and children. Lydia became the first believer in Philippi and was a gracious hostess to the first church in Europe, which met in her home.
Next Paul and his companions met a demon-possessed slave girl (Acts 16:16). Paul commanded the spirit to leave the girl and she, too, became a convert. Since her fortune-telling skills had been used by her owners to make a profit, they became angry with Paul for destroying their source of income. The dishonest men had Paul and Silas brutally beaten and thrown into the local jail for “throwing the city into confusion” (Acts 16:20).
While in jail, Paul and Silas met the Philippian jailer. After Paul and Silas’ chains had been miraculously broken during an earthquake, the jailer who had been guarding Paul and Silas converted to Christianity (Acts 16:23-34) and his entire household believed in God and were baptized. When Paul and Silas left Philippi, Luke remained there to continue the ministry to the newly formed church. At the end of Paul’s third missionary trip, Paul visited Philippi again. Paul had a very close relationship with the Philippian church. They were a source of encouragement to him and they also provided financially for his ministry more than once (Philippians 4:15 & 16, 2 Corinthians 11:9). Paul calls this church his “joy and crown” (Philippians 4:1).
The letter to the Philippians was written by Paul around 61 or 62 AD during his house arrest in Rome (for details of his arrest and imprisonment see Acts 21:27 through Acts 28). Being under “house arrest”, Paul was chained to a Roman soldier 24 hours a day, but was free to receive visitors and write (Acts 28:17-31). The guard was changed every 6 hours, which gave Paul an excellent opportunity to share his faith with many different guards. During this time period Paul wrote the prison epistles (letters): Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. Philippians was the last letter Paul wrote from the Roman prison, as Philippians 1:21-28 seems to indicate a decision about his fate would be made soon.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians is a well-crafted expression of gratitude and joy. So, what exactly is joy? How does joy differ from happiness? Happiness is a fleeting emotion based on external circumstances. But true joy is different – it is something that comes from within – it’s a deep abiding peace and sense of contentment and strength that is due to something internal.
True joy is based on a saving relationship with God and in maintaining fellowship with Him. The believer’s joy is found in the inner work of the Holy Spirit. Even non-believers in Jesus can know happiness as they find it in the good things that God has given to all human beings so generously. The Christian knows a heightened joy that is rooted in the bond that exists between the believer and the Lord and the bond that exists with other believers whom we have come to love (as in Philippians 1:4, 25-26; 2:2, 29; 4:1). The deeper our relationship with Jesus and with His people the greater the joy that awaits us and the less that joy is dependent on external circumstances.
Scriptural Insight: “In the Old Testament joy is cast in terms of the worshiping community’s response to God. A relationship with God was the key. In the New Testament, the most common use of joy (Greek – chairo) indicates both a state of joy and that which brings us joy. Our relationship with Jesus, particularly abiding in Him and being obedient to Him, is a source of joy (John 15:10-11). Joy is produced in us by the Holy Spirit and is a fruit of His presence (Galatians 5:22; 1 Thessalonians 1:6). It is not linked with material possessions, but rather is an overflow of salvation (Acts 8:8; 16:34). Joy is not dependent on external circumstances and is applied to suffering as well as to salvation (Acts 13:50-52; 2 Corinthians 7:4; James 1:2; 1 Peter 1:6-7).” (Adapted from The Teacher’s Commentary, p. 934)
The book of Philippians is an excellent mini-study of joy. Paul mentions joy or rejoicing 15 times in this letter. That means that on average joy or rejoicing appears every 7 verses. This is even more significant when you realize that while Paul is writing these words of joy he is in prison in Rome and chained to a Roman guard! What does Paul know about joy that transcends his circumstances? Are you hungry for joy in your life? This special letter encourages all who read it to know Jesus and know joy!
Think About It: “Joy is not the absence of trouble, but the presence of Christ.” (William Vander Haven)