We are overwhelmed by pleasant warmth when we read this letter. There is a cordial relationship between the sender and the recipient despite the great distance and the different circumstances. Paul is in Rome and the recipients are living in Philippi. He is not writing from a comfortable apartment or from a nice hotel room, but from a jail. A prison those days was not a luxurious dwelling place, as it is today, at least in the West.
We get in this letter a glimpse into the heart of Paul. When we read this letter we do not hear any lamentation as to how bad things are with him. Rather we hear the singing of his heart. How is this possible? This is possible because his heart is full of Christ. He is not overwhelmed by his circumstances. He does not grieve, he does not grumble at the Lord, but sees Him Who is above all circumstances. Paul is convinced that his circumstances are in the hand of the Lord.
When we see our life from this perspective we cannot be intimidated. But often it does not happen in our practical life. The Lord knows this. That is why the Lord takes us by the hand through this letter to teach us how to live with joy in our heart through all our troubles and difficulties of life. Paul also did not learn this overnight. He went through a lot of exercises for that. For him this was worth the trouble. If that was so for him, the same goes for you and for me.
I mentioned the word joy. This is the key word for this letter. It is quite refreshing to hear Paul use this word again and again. Furthermore there is no sign of depression about the situation he was in, nor was there any sign of gloom about the developments in the church. His heart was full of joy for he was full of Christ. There was also joy because the Philippians had not forgotten him. Paul very much appreciated the proof of their love to him. How good it is when others show that they have not forgotten us and that they empathize with us.
Philippi is first mentioned in the Bible in Acts 16 (Acts 16:11-12). There it is reported how Paul and his companions entered Europe and brought the gospel to Philippi. The result of their preaching was the beginning of the church in Europe. It was not without resistance; it was accompanied by oppression and persecution. Paul landed in prison. But the light of the gospel shone forth from the dark dungeon.
When Paul wrote this letter he was back in jail. About ten years had passed since his first visit to Philippi. The Philippians had not forgotten him and Paul also had not forgotten them. There was regular contact between them. Several times the Philippians had sent him something to support his living. And when they heard of his detention in Rome they asked Epaphroditus to visit him. They were eager to send something through him. Well, it was well received by Paul, which is evidenced in this letter.
This letter is really a thank you letter. Paul expresses his gratitude for the gift he had received from the Philippians, and much more than that he is thankful to them for their compassion. One can read between the lines how much he is connected to this church. The tone is full of love and the language full of intimacy. He could share his heart and his sentiments with this church. He knew that they would understand him. It is something valuable to know that someone trusts you and understands you.
The Philippians desired to express their love for Paul through their gift. For them it was not ’out of sight, out of mind’, but they kept him in their hearts. They always thought of him with gratitude and concern. Paul in his turn thought of their worry and concern for him. He wanted to remove their anxious concern for him through this letter. A deep affection was present on both sides. Such a relationship with each other and with God’s servants is a lovely role model for local churches.
Paul is a man who uses any situation for the furtherance of the gospel. Here he makes use of his prison experience to serve people spiritually. In a most friendly way he shares with the Philippians the experiences he went through. The letter to the Philippians is not a doctrinal letter but a letter full of Christian experience. We encounter here deep soul experiences. Christendom is not just doctrine; it is Christ’s life in our life; an experiencing-Him life. Doctrine and life go together and one does not work without the other. In this letter the emphasis is on life unlike in the letter to the Romans in which the emphasis is on doctrine.
An experiencing-Him life is a life of spiritual development. This life is not a search for an optimum fortune; this life does not happen in a snapshot. Spiritual growth is a process that takes place in God’s way according to God’s will. Therefore it is necessary that Christ is central. You must learn to focus your look constantly on Christ. Then only you can grow spiritually. Spiritual growth means being filled with Christ in your heart and in your whole being more and more every day, and that you involve Him in all your activities, and that you do nothing without him. Do you dare to say that you are that far in your spiritual journey? I am not. Even the Philippians were not.
This letter is a description of a Christian’s pilgrimage through the wilderness. A wilderness is not a pleasant place to stay. It is dry, withered and dead. So is the world for the Christian. A Christian is not concerned with the things around him on earth. His concern is about Christ in heaven. His journey is toward Him. That goal fills his life and is the motive to endure. This zeal inspires him for greater activity. He gives up anything that prevents him from achieving this goal.
In this letter you cannot find the word ‘flesh’ (in the sense of sinful flesh) or the word ‘sin’. Nothing is mentioned regarding the struggles of faith. Struggles are a part of life in this world which affects us. In this letter we listen to a man who is full of Christ. If you have learned to continually fix your gaze on Christ, temptation will not have a chance to force itself on you. Difficulties and problems, doubts and worries do not get a chance to separate you from Christ. Christ is greater than all our problems. If Christ is involved in your life the problems do not disappear, but they come under His control.
Instead of struggles of faith you see the power of the Spirit. Where Christ is seen, the Holy Spirit is at work. As your eyes are fixed on Christ the Holy Spirit keeps on working. The Holy Spirit gains free access to fill your heart and your entire outlook with the Person of Christ.
This letter has four chapters and in each chapter the life of Christ is the theme:
1. Chapter 1: Life consists solely of Christ.
2. Chapter 2: Examples from the life of Christ – how this life first became visible in Christ and then in others.
3. Chapter 3: Describes the power this life offers to everyone who desires to live this life.
4. Chapter 4: How this life lifts a Christian above all his circumstances.