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Lessons in Joy From the Philippians

Anna is a pastor, writer, and theologian who obtained her BA in religion in '06, Diploma of Ministry in '16, and Diploma of Divinity in '17.

“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through Him who gives me strength.”

Philippians 4:12,13


Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

— Philippians 1:2

Life’s Difficulties

Life may be hard, but it’s good. We have all gone through a rough patch here or there; sometimes it’s a minor bump in the road, a short period of unemployment, for example. At other times it’s a huge pothole, such as a long, drawn-out terminal illness. Some people live in soul-crushing poverty which drowns them and they struggle throughout their lives. Other people must endure a wayward relative; a parent or child who is constantly bringing harm to themselves or others. Loved ones die and some people get divorced, sometimes in life, trouble can really get you down. Every now and then, it can be difficult to see the sunshine on a cloudy day.

When we struggle, it can be helpful to remember that we’re not alone. The apostle Paul also endured many hardships. In 2 Corinthians 12 he spoke of a thorn in his flesh, an unnamed torment that he begged God to remove. God merely reminded Paul that His grace was sufficient. And if ever there was anybody who needed God’s comfort-- it was Paul. He had survived shipwrecks, beatings, and imprisonment, yet through it all, he was able to find peace. As he mentioned in 2 Corinthians 12 he had managed to delight in his difficulties. To really see Paul’s optimism though, one need not look further than the Book of Philippians.

The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.

Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance.

— Philippians 1:18-20

Paul in Prison

Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians while he was jail. Typically a depressing setting, Paul managed to write an upbeat letter despite his environment. In only four chapters, Paul was able to mention the word “joy” and “rejoice” sixteen times. Paul begins the letter with a word of thanksgiving and praise, a typical salutation in many of his letters. Paul writes in chapter 1:3,4 that he thanks God every time he remembers the people if Philippi, and that he prays with joy because of their partnership. How wonderful that he felt that way! It is especially important to remember that he was not writing from a comfy desk with a cup of coffee in his hand and a cat at his feet. He wrote that letter while in prison.

It is believed that at the time Paul wrote Philippians he was imprisoned in Rome, punished for his faith by none other than Nero himself. The bloodthirsty tyrant who fed Christians to lions and allegedly burned Rome, Nero didn’t exactly inspire ‘joy’ amongst the early Christians. Yet despite his persecution, Paul wrote one of the most uplifting books in the entire Bible. His very life was in jeopardy, but Paul doesn’t dwell on that, he focuses on thanksgiving and happiness, and love for his brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul had made some wonderful friends in Philippi, he trusted them, they became his partners. He counted on them for prayer and support. Chapter 1:19 “Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance.” What phenomenal faith, displayed and recorded so that we too can learn from it, nearly 2,000 years later.


But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. Therefore my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!

— Philippians 4:1

Paul’s First Visit to Philipi

Paul had learned by now that much good can come from bad situations. Ironically, on his first visit to Philippi, Paul was imprisoned there. Acts 16 records the details. While in Philippi the first time Paul and his companion, Silas, came across a young slave who made her money telling fortunes. Acts 16:16 says that it was through a “spirit” that she saw the future. Paul commanded the spirit to leave her, and it did, taking her fortune-telling abilities along with it. The unfortunate slave girl’s owners could no longer make money from her so they attacked Paul and Silas and brought them before the magistrate. The duo were found guilty of turning “the city in an uproar and advocating customs unlawful for Romans.” (Acts 16:20,21)

As punishment for their crimes, Paul and Silas were stripped, beaten, flogged, thrown in jail, and their feet were placed in stocks. True to form, Paul still did not despair. Verse 25 says that by midnight Paul and Silas were singing and praising while the other prisoners and a guard listened in. Suddenly there was a miraculous earthquake that shook the foundation of the prison. The temblor broke the chains and opened the prison doors. When the guard saw the opened doors, he assumed that everybody escaped and he knew that his punishment would be brutal. The guard drew his sword to kill himself, but Paul stopped him. Paul assured the distressed guard that everybody was still there. Paul spoke with the guard, and ended up converting him and his family. Acts tells us that the guard was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God. (Acts 16:34)


Paul’s Love for the Philippians

From that prison guard, and a business woman named Lydia (who was mentioned earlier in Acts chapter 16) sprang the church of Philippi, which became so near and dear to Paul’s heart. Paul found it an honor to suffer that day in the Philippian prison so that others could find God. Ten years had passed from the time when Acts and Philippians were written, and in that time the church of Philippi flourished and became one of Paul’s favorite churches. He had found true brothers and sisters within the city and developed a deep and lasting relationship with them. In chapter 4:1, Paul calls them his ‘crown of joy.’ In Philippians 2:25 Paul writes of Epaphroditus, a trusted friend who traveled over 700 miles from Philippi to Rome to care for Paul while in prison. He asks that the Philippians honor men like Epaphroditus, whom Paul referred to as a brother and fellow soldier, one who risked his life to serve the Lord.

When Paul was not mentioning his affection for the Philippians, he returned to his optimistic theme of joy. He deviated occasionally with words of fatherly wisdom, but he always returned to the main them. Chapter 3:1 he writes “Finally, my brothers rejoice in the Lord!” Paul had found joy and peace through God and he was eager to share that with his friends. Through the preservation of the letter, we too, can learn from Paul. Paul found reasons to be thankful and happy in a jail cell, under the persecution of the notorious Nero, and the knowledge of his impending death. If despite all that, the apostle Paul could cling to his faith, peace, and joy, then how much more can we find happiness? God never left Paul, and well he knew it, and God will never leave us. We can do everything through Him who gives us strength.

© 2018 Anna Watson

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