One of the special treats of deeper Bible study is having a feel for the differences in Paul’s seven authenticated letters (I Thessalonians, Philippians, I and II Corinthians, Philemon, Galatians, and Romans). Years ago I would read various citations from several of them and they’d kind of mush together. But having studied them now in depth, it’s as if this huge, distinct musical chorus is behind each one, as distinct as Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is from the music of Shostakovich.
These understood distinctions are enriching to our study of Paul’s seven messages to each church community because the Apostle is a model of thoughtful, adaptable and effective communication. We see how brilliantly he fashioned his letter to fit the particular challenges of each community he was supporting when we know more about those individual circumstances.
This is especially true of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Here are many familiar verses, such as “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5); and “Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice” (Phil. 4:4). At one level, such admonitions sound like solid counsel to a young church wanting to model the Master Christian.
Yet the back-story provides a moving and powerful statement as to how we can deal with the toughest kind of adversity in our lives today. Because that’s what was happening in Philippi: they were being seriously persecuted, this Roman community with little Jewish presence. Yet they never gave up their commitment to this Christ-centered message of salvation Paul had shared. Additionally, their support of Paul himself never flagged. In fact, these Philippians were the only church community that consistently sent Paul financial assistance, a gesture he never solicited but for which he was enormously grateful.
There are 155 references in the King James Version of the Bible to ‘joy’, and 60 of those are in the New Testament. It strikes me as rather remarkable that in this short letter of just four chapters, 10% of those ‘joy’ references can be found in Philippians.
So the next time we’re grousing about too many challenges, I suggest a pause to read these four moving and powerful chapters about joy in the bible. Afterwards, we can’t help but realize that joy has little if anything to do with our human circumstances and everything to do with the reality of Christ in our hearts. Thank you, faithful Philippi!