Note: The following is adapted from a message given by Lori Schweers at Crossroads Bible Church in Double Oak, TX in the fall of 2002.
What is the difference between happiness and joy? 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.
The book of Philippians is an excellent mini-study of joy. Paul mentions joy or rejoicing repeatedly. 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?
The little letter to the Philippians was written by the apostle Paul around late 61-62 AD. Paul would have been around 60 years old and he would have been a believer in Jesus Christ for approximately 25 years. Paul wrote this letter from Rome while he was under house arrest. House-arrest meant that he lived in his own rented quarters and was free to have visitors come and go and was able to freely share the gospel with all who came. However, he was chained to a member of the elite Roman guard that changed every 4-6 hours.
Philippi is located in Macedonia, or what we know as northern Greece, in a flat, wide valley on a small river surrounded by mountains. There was a range of mountains that separated it from the Aegean Sea and the seaport of Neapolis, where Paul first landed in Europe. The ancient name was Krenides meaning “wells” or “little fountains.” In 350 BC, the name was changed to Philippi by Philip II of Macedon (the father of Alexander the Great). On an historic note: Philippi is where Marc Antony and Octavian fought and defeated the men who killed Julius Caesar (Brutus and Cassius) around 42 BC. Later Octavian became Caesar Augustus. Augustus made Philippi a Roman colony and gave Antony’s army veterans land there with big farms attached. This was a smart military move as it made Philippi like a fortress on the outskirts of the Roman Empire with skilled soldiers ready to fight if needed. Most important was its status as a Roman colony. Membership had its privileges!
· Those born there were automatically Roman citizens. Roman citizenship was highly prized in the early 1st century.
· They answered directly to Rome and not a provincial governor – less bureaucracy.
· They had the right to appeal to the emperor (which Paul does and that’s why he is in Rome awaiting trial).
· They were protected under Roman law against punishment, execution or torture without trial. (This is key when we see what Paul endures in Philippi in Acts 16.)
· Best of all, they paid no taxes!
This elevated status and wealth gave them pride that often bordered on arrogance. Since Paul came from a Roman colony, he understood their civic pride about Roman citizenship. Paul appealed to this pride in the way he addresses their citizenship in Phil. 1:27 and 3:20-21 when he reminds the Philippians that their TRUE citizenship was in HEAVEN, not the Roman empire.
In Acts 16, Luke refers to Philippi as a leading city in Macedonia. This is an interesting comment since Thessalonica was the capital of Macedonia. The reason for this is that Philippi was a Roman colony and Thessalonica was not, which gave it more status. There was also a school of medicine in Philippi and some think that Luke may have attended there. But we don’t know for sure.
Philippi was a bustling commercial center located on the Egnatian Way. This was a major ancient highway that liked the Adriatic and Aegean Sea. Travelers to Rome would cross the Adriatic and then continue up to Rome. Thus, Philippi was a gateway to the east.
We know that at the end of Acts 15 Paul tells Barnabas, “Let’s revisit the churches we’ve started.” They have a disagreement over who should come along and they part ways. At this point Paul takes Silas and travels to Syria and Cilicia. They then meet young Timothy who now will accompany them. While in Troas, Paul had a night vision of a man from Macedonia appealing to him to “come over to Macedonia and help us.” They left Troas immediately (including Luke) and departed for Macedonia. Some say this was the greatest crossing ever because the gospel was finally coming to Europe (and therefore to us).
After arriving in Philippi, Paul and Silas seek a “place of prayer” on the Sabbath rather than a synagogue. Why? Philippi was predominately Gentile. It took 10 male heads of households to start a synagogue. Normally when Paul and his traveling companions would enter a city they would go on the Sabbath to the synagogue to bring/share the gospel with the local Jews. Since a synagogue was not there, we can rightly assume there weren’t many Jews. So Paul and his companions went where Jews typically would gather for prayer when a local synagogue was not available – the river.
Now we meet our cast of characters in the Philippian story! Lydia: She was a prominent businesswoman who sold purple cloth. Purple cloth was very valuable and worn as a sign of nobility or royalty. It was a favorite color of the Romans. She was most likely wealthy. She must have had a large home as she invited Paul’s whole gang to stay. We notice that God opened her heart to receive the gospel and she responded by accepting Jesus and JOYFULLY opening her home to serve others.
Next we meet a slave girl who was demon possessed. She was being used for fortune telling purposes to bring profit to her disreputable masters. In verse 18, she is healed of the demon possession thereby infuriating the owners who now will lose their source of income. The charge these men made was primarily prejudicial – anti-Semitic. According to the Bible Knowledge Commentary, “Rome permitted the peoples of its colonies to have their own religions but not to proselytize Roman citizens. The civil leaders could not distinguish between Judaism and Christianity….” Luke was probably Gentile and Timothy was half Greek, so they weren’t considered part of the “Jewish” group. These deceptive men seize Paul and Silas and have them beaten severely. Remember, this is a big “no-no” for Roman citizens. They were beaten with rods—wooden poles bound together and carried by the magistrates. They were then thrown in jail.
Then, we meet our next convert to the gospel and member of the Philippian church—a jailer who was commanded to guard Paul and Silas securely. The jailer imposes his version of maximum security. He takes the men to the heart of the prison (the inner prison/innermost cell) and fastens their feet in stocks. So here’s Paul and Silas who have committed NO CRIME – beaten and put in stocks designed to hold the most dangerous prisoners in absolute security! But Paul and Silas chose by an act of their will to praise and worship God and not let their circumstances steal their joy
Then something miraculous happens – a great earthquake occurs. To us the jailer acts rashly and threatens to kill himself, but in reality he would have been personally responsible for the prisoners and possibly would have been executed for allowing them to escape. Paul immediately speaks up, “We are all here.” By this he means not just he and Silas but ALL the prisoners! Why would prisoners not have fled as soon as the doors were opened? They must have wanted to know more about this God Paul and Silas were singing so joyfully about. Joy is contagious!
The jailer’s first words are, “Sirs what must I do to be saved?” Great question with a simple answer: “Believe.” Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved. What caused the jailer to rejoice greatly? He now knew Jesus and could know joy!
Next we see Paul and Silas being released (though the Bible doesn’t say exactly why). The jailer releases them, but Paul doesn’t go without a final word. He references the unfair beating they received and of course the city officials then wanted them to leave quietly realizing that they had treated Roman citizens improperly. Paul may have done this to take some heat off the new church there. Remember, if they are associated with a “trouble maker Jew” like Paul, they could also be potentially harassed. Paul and Silas once more return to Lydia’s to encourage the new church before departing. From the word, “they,” we gather that Luke remained in Philippi with the new church.
Paul visited these believers again at the end of his 3rd missionary journey. This was a church very dear to Paul. His love for them and their love for him are evident throughout the letter. Paul says he “longs for them with affection” and “has them in his heart.” He calls them “brethren” and “beloved” as well as his “joy and crown. There is a genuine bond between these dear people and Paul and we can see that over and over in his words to them. When Paul was arrested in Jerusalem, the church lost sight of him for 2 years. They finally heard he was in Rome in prison. While he was there they collected a gift for him and sent it along with Epaphroditus.
A sense of joy pervades the Bible. In the Old Testament joy is seen in worshiping and praising God. It was seen as the enthusiastic response of the worshiping community. It’s seen as the people remember who God is and what He has done for them in the past. It’s rooted in hope and confidence of what He will do in the future. A relationship is key.
In the New Testament, we find joy that is independent of our circumstances. Joy can be experienced by the believer even in trials and persecution. From where does this joy come?
William Vander Haven said: “Joy is not the absence of trouble, but the presence of Christ.” Knowing Jesus – think about the Philippian jailer. He believed and rejoiced. Over and over in Acts as the gospel is taken to the people and received by the people; their salvation brought an overflow of joy. Paul uses the word “gospel” an amazing 9 times in Philippians. There must be a connection between the good news of knowing Jesus and true joy.
Jesus spoke in John 15 of the necessity of a dependent relationship on Him because apart from Him we can do nothing. Then he says in vs. 11 that a dependent relationship and obedience to Jesus brings us HIS joy – FULL joy.
Galatians 5:22 says that joy is produced in us by the Holy Spirit and is a fruit of His presence. Jesus said back in John 15:8 that when we abide in Him God is glorified, and we bear much fruit. Again the key to joy is a dependent relationship on Jesus. Do you see why Paul says, “I can do all things through Christ?”
Joy is most often linked in the NT with God’s work in fellow believers whom we love and whom we serve. Many times in Philippians (as with other letters) Paul refers to the believers he writes to as his joy or considers it joy to pray for them. He rejoices in serving them and in them serving him and each other. Think of Lydia who upon receiving the gospel joyfully served as gracious host to Paul and his companions as well as to the entire Philippian church that met in her home. Consider the jailer who received the gospel and began to joyfully serve Paul and Silas. The entire Philippian church that received the gospel and continued to joyfully serve Paul with their prayers and gifts. Of course we can’t overlook Paul who wrote this joyful letter. Paul who was chained to a Roman guard but because of his deep, abiding dependency and relationship with Jesus he was able to joyfully see God working despite difficult situations. Joy in knowing Jesus is contagious. It wells up within us and motivates us to serve others in love.
Paul’s focus is key. He never says, “Rejoice because” or “rejoice in your pain and difficulties.” He always says, “Rejoice IN the Lord.” The focus is on our living Lord, the one who promises to complete His work in us. The one who supplies our every need. The one who gave Himself up for us on the cross. The one who gives us the motivation and the power to serve Him with joy. The one who strengthens us in every circumstance. The one who causes us to be content. The one who supplies our every need from His glorious riches. The one whom we can know in a personal relationship. The one who longs to produce joy in our lives.
Do you know Jesus? If you don’t, you can never know true joy. Do you know Him but feel like you have lost the joy? Draw closer to Him – abide in Him – get to know Him better so He can make your joy full and complete. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said scornfully about Christians of his day, “I would believe in their salvation if they looked a little more like people who have been saved.” Jesus paid for your sins on the cross so you could have eternal life and have it more abundantly. That in and of itself is enough to be joyful about and to rejoice in the Lord regardless of anything going on in your life. G.K. Chesterton says, “Joy is the gigantic secret of the Christian.” I would say, it’s no secret – because you can know Jesus and know joy.