Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians

Philippi was one of the great cities of Roman Macedonia in Saint Paul’s time, sitting, as you can see by zooming in and out of the Google Map above, on the ancient Via Egnatia, the Roman Road joining Greek Kavalla on the Aegian Sea to Albanian Durres on the Adriatic. Philippi had become a Roman colony, placed under Italian law and governed by military officers. Saint Luke describes Paul’s entry into Philippi in the sixteenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, probably in a first-person account, for Luke was a companion of Paul at that time, alongside Timothy and Silas. How did a wandering Jewish group create a small Christian church (the first in Europe) in a short time, and in the absence of a pre-existing local Jewish community? They preached to the ladies:

“Thence we reached Philippi, which is a Roman colony and the chief city in that part of Macedonia; in this city we remained for some days, conferring together. On the sabbath day we went out beyond the city gates, by the river side, a meeting-place, we were told, for prayer; and we sat down and preached to the women who had assembled there. One of those who were listening was a woman called Lydia, a purple-seller from the city of Thyatira, and a worshipper of the true God; and the Lord opened her heart, so that she was attentive to Paul’s preaching. She was baptized, with all her household; and she was urgent with us; ‘Now you have decided that I have faith in the Lord,’ she said, ‘come to my house and lodge there; and she would take no denial.'”

Acts of the Apostles, 16: 12-15

And, obviously they created a seed community in the home of the lady Lydia, who seems to have had part in the lucrative Phoenician market in purple dye. We discover later in the chapter that the Apostle couldn’t stay very long, for he left almost immediately for Thessalonika. However, he undoubtedly kept in touch with the Philippians with correspondence, only one part of which we have reserved for us in our bibles in the Letter to the Philippians. I’m going to point out a few nice parts of the letter. First, Paul says that he is glad of any way in which Christ is proclaimed, whether as part of a work of charity, or even from a desire to make Paul himself suffer, such as by having him arrested and imprisoned!

“I hasten to assure you, brethren, that my circumstances [of imprisonment] here have only had the effect of spreading the gospel further; so widely has my imprisonment become known, in Christ’s honour, throughout the praetorium and to all the world beyond. And most of the brethren, deriving fresh confidence in the Lord from my imprisonment, are making bold to preach God’s word with more freedom than ever. Some of them, it is true, for no better reason than rivalry or jealousy; but there are others who really proclaim Christ out of good will. Some, I mean, are moved by charity, because they recognise that I am here to defend the gospel, others by party spirit, proclaiming Christ from wrong motives, just because they hope to make my chains gall me worse. What matter, so long as either way, for private ends or in all honesty, Christ is proclaimed?

Philippians, 1: 12-18

Priorities! ‘For me, life is Christ,’ Paul declares, ‘and death is a prize to be won!’ He wants to reach past death for the joy of eternal life with God, but he dearly loves the people of his churches, and he moans that his heart is torn in two: he wants to die, but he wants to live for the good of the churches:

“I am hemmed in on both sides. I long to have done with it, and be with Christ, a better thing, much more than a better thing; and yet, for your sakes, that I should wait in the body is more urgent still. I am certain of that, and I do not doubt that I shall wait, and wait upon you all, to the happy furtherance of your faith.”

Philippians, 1: 23-25

Now, remember when Christ said in the Gospels that we should be like little children in order that we acquire eternal life. Paul says a little bit more here, and it is startlingly relevant to us even today: 

“Beloved, you have always shewn yourselves obedient; and now that I am at a distance, not less but much more than when I am present, you must work to earn your salvation, in anxious fear. Both the will to do it and the accomplishment of that will are something which God accomplishes in you, to carry out his loving purpose. Do all that lies in you, never complaining, never hesitating, to shew yourselves innocent and single-minded, God’s children, bringing no reproach on his name. You live in an age that is twisted out of its true pattern, and among such people you shine out, beacons to the world, upholding the message of life. Thus, when the day of Christ comes, I shall be able to boast of a life not spent in vain, of labours not vainly undergone.”

Philippians, 2: 12-16

Paul has elsewhere in the letters we have said that he has begotten these new Christians in Christ. So he calls himself their father, and addresses them commonly as beloved children. He urges them to follow his example, which is a useful idea, since they do not have the spiritual and moral tradition and heritage of the Jews. By copying Paul, they acquire it gradually:

“No, brethren, I do not claim to have the mastery already, but this at least I do; forgetting what I have left behind, intent on what lies before me, I press on with the goal in view, eager for the prize, God’s heavenly summons in Christ Jesus. All of us who are fully grounded must be of this mind, and God will make it known to you, if you are of a different mind at present. Meanwhile, let us all be of the same mind, all follow the same rule, according to the progress we have made. Be content, brethren, to follow my example, and mark well those who live by the pattern we have given them…”

Philippians, 3: 13-17

Humble, dear Paul says that he is not perfect, doesn’t have the mastery, but he’s struggling along like everybody else. We know that this is not the first letter or the only letter Paul wrote to the Philippians, because he ends with a salutation to two ladies other than Lydia, whom we know from the Acts of the Apostles. He names Evodia and Syntyche. He is very affectionate in his recommendations of the Philippian Epaphroditus who had probably brought him a letter from Philippi and would now carry this letter of ours back home with him. Paul is also affectionate about his priest Timothy, who he has promised to send to visit the Philippian church. Timothy would later become bishop of Ephesus, across the Aegian in Asia Minor. Anyway, this post is overlong, and I shall end with a characteristic and beautiful Pauline exhortation to virtue:

“And now, brethren, all that rings true, all that commands reverence, and all that makes for right; all that is pure, all that is lovely, all that is gracious in the telling; virtue and merit, wherever virtue and merit are found—let this be the argument of your thoughts. The lessons I taught you, the traditions I handed on to you, all you have heard and seen of my way of living—let this be your rule of conduct. Then the God of peace will be with you.”

Philippians, 4: 8-9
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