What we call the “book of Philippians” is a letter that the apostle Paul wrote to the churches in Philippi, a city in ancient Macedonia (modern-day northern Greece) while he was in prison for preaching the gospel. These churches had partnered with Paul and supported him throughout his ministry. They sent Epaphroditus to take care of Paul while he was in jail (Phil 2:25). They sent money to keep Paul’s ministry going while he was in jail (Phil 4:18). And on at least three occasions, the Philippians sent money to help pay for his mission trips (Phil 4:15-16; 2 Cor 11:9).
There appear to be several reasons that Paul was moved to write this letter to the Philippians, but the most pressing seems to be to thank them for their generosity in partnering with him financially (what Paul calls “fellowship”) and to give them an update on how he is doing. Paul was worried that news of his prolonged imprisonment might dishearten the Philippians. What were they to think about a God who would torpedo his own mission by allowing his greatest missionary to suffer and to be put in jail? Paul’s report, however, is much to the contrary, and Paul’s message in chapter 1 of Philippians is a message of hope and joy and contentment in Christ even in the midst of these terrible setbacks.
Before reading on, grab your Bible and read Philippians 1.
Philippians 1 is about life. Paul, by answering for himself, forces the Philippians, and us, to answer the questions, “What is your life?” “What do you live for?” and “Where is your hope?” Paul’s answer? “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain!”
How could Paul become the guy who legitimately says, “Live or die, I’m good with either”? Here’s what Paul understood: our hope comes from what we worship, what we ascribe highest value to. And what we worship is what we live for. Paul could have easily despaired. It is easy for us to look at Paul and say, “His ministry is his life.” But his missionary journeys were on hold, because he was in jail. He was suffering abuse at the hands of the people he was trying to share the gospel with. Other Christian preachers were gaining in popularity and running him down to their churches. And without the help of the Philippians and their gifts, Paul didn’t even have enough food to keep from starving. But Paul does not respond with despair. He responds with joy and hope. How? Where does that hope come from?
Paul articulates for the Philippians just where his hope comes from and what he lives for. Paul says clearly, “My freedom is not my life. It is not my hope. So if I don’t ever get my freedom back, I’m good. I’m happy.” Paul says, “Avoiding suffering is not my life. It is not my hope. So if I suffer, I’m good. I’m happy.” Paul says, “Being liked by other preachers and being considered as ‘successful’ as they is not my life. That is not my hope. So as long as they are preaching Christ, even if they hate me and you think, ‘Wow, I wish Paul was as awesome as they are!’, I’m good. I’m happy.” Paul says, “Being wealthy, even having enough food to keep from starving, is not my life. It is not my hope. So if I starve, I’m good. I’m happy.” “For me to live is Christ,” Paul says, “and to die is gain.”
Paul was trying to get the Philippians to see that when we make anything else other than Christ our life, we necessarily lose hope, because nothing but Christ is sufficient to sustain us. The gospel-centered Christian has an amazing resilience to tragedy, because the worst of tragedies never put our ultimate hope in jeopardy. Christ is ours and we are his, and that, all by itself, is victory. The Christian who, in one fell swoop, loses her friends, her ministry, her reputation, and all her earthly possessions (as happened to Paul) does not despair, because those things were not her life. The Christian man who has to stand by the coffin of a dead wife or a dead child does not ultimately despair, because though they were beloved, they were not his life. Paul says, “My life is Christ, and him only, even if they cut off my head” . . . which they did just a few years later. Christ is our only hope for difficult times, and when difficult times come they serve to press us more deeply into our hope.
- If a church member came to you and said they didn’t care if they lived or died, how would you respond?
- How does Paul evaluate his life in light of the gospel?
- What areas of life should the gospel influence? Name them.
- Material– How does the gospel shape my view of possessions?
- Relational– How does the gospel shape my view of family, friends, co-workers, neighbors?
- Psychological– How does the gospel shape my image of myself, my thoughts, and my emotions?
- External Systems– How does the gospel shape my view of work, government, society?
- Take a moment to write down one application for each of the four categories above.
- Paul’s suffering helped further the mission of God. If you are suffering and, yet, the gospel is not being advanced in your life, what ought you to do?
One of the great treasures of my ministry was the time I spent serving alongside Ed Gravely. For close to 4 years we wrote small group curriculum for Christ Community Church. This blog series is adapted from my archive of curriculum we wrote concurrently with the pulpit ministry of CCC. If any writing in these posts is pleasant to read I’m sure Ed deserves the credit.