Introduction to the New Testament book of Philippians

26 Sep

When this book is written, Jesus had already lived, died, rose back to life and returned to heaven.  His followers shared his message of salvation through faith in Christ wherever they went.  Paul was a Jew and at first vigorously opposed Christ’s followers—to the point of execution.  But Jesus appeared to him in a vision and Paul’s eyes were opened to his reality and he because just as strong a supporter as he had formerly opposed.  Paul had visited the city of Philippi twice to share the Good News of Jesus.  He had developed dear friendships with these people.  He is now writing this letter from prison—we aren’t sure just where.  He was imprisoned because of his teaching about Jesus.  In the midst of ancient prison restrictions, Paul writes this “letter” to the Philippians with much joy.

This is Paul’s happiest letter.  And the happiness is infections.  Before we’ve read a dozen lines, we begin to feel the joy ourselves—the dance of words and the exclamations of delight have a way of getting inside us.

But happiness is not a word we can understand by looking it up in the dictionary.  In fact, none of the qualities of the Christian life can be learned out of a book.  Something more like apprenticeship is required, being around someone who out of years of devoted discipline shows us, by his or her entire behavior, what it is.  Moments of verbal instructions will certainly occur, but mostly an apprentice acquires skill by daily and intimate association with a “master,” picking up subtle but absolutely essential things, such as timing and rhythm and “touch.”

When we read what Paul wrote to the Christian believers in the city of Philippi, we find ourselves in the company of just such a master.  Paul doesn’t tell us that we can be happy, or how to be happy.  He simply and unmistakably is happy.  None of his circumstances contribute to his joy:  He wrote from a jail cell, his work was under attack by competitors, and after twenty years of so of hard traveling in the service of Jesus, he was tired and would have welcomed some relief.

But circumstances are incidental compared to the life of Jesus, the Messiah that Paul experiences from the inside.  For it is a life that not only happened at a certain point in history, but continues to happen, spilling out into the lives of those who receive him, and then continues to spill out all over the place.  Christ is, among much else, the revelation that God cannot be contained or hoarded.  It is this “spilling out” quality of Christ’s life that accounts for the happiness of Christians, for joy is life in excess, the over flow of what cannot be contained within any one person.  (Below–photo of the ruins of the ancient city of Philippi.)


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