An introduction to St Paul’s letter to the Philippians; the Epistle of Joy – Saturday, 30th week in ordinary time – Philippians 1:18b-26
The city of Philippi had been founded by Philip, the Father of Alexander the great. A range of hills divides Europe from Asia; at Philippi the range of hills dips into a pass. Philippi was a Roman colony and one that had great military significance. One of the greatest battles of history, between Mark Antony and Brutus and Cassius took place here.
It was on his Second missionary journey in about the year ACE 52 that Paul came to Philippi. Paul had sailed from Alexandrian Troas in Asia Minor (Turkey) and had landed in Neapolis in Europe and then he made his way to Philippi.The story of Paul’s stay in Philippi is told in Acts 16. Paul had to leave Philippi after a storm of persecution and an illegal imprisonment had beleaguered him. That persecution was inherited by the church in Philippi. So, Paul will tell the Philippians that they have shared in his bonds and in his defense of the Gospel (1:7). What he has gone through, they too are going to go through and so he asks them not to be afraid. (1:28-30)
There had been a growing friendship between Paul and the Church of Philippi, closer than any other Church. It was his proud boast that he had taken nothing from any Church (that he had earned his keep) but from the Church in Philippi he accepted a gift.
Why is Paul writing this letter? When Paul wrote this letter he was in prison in Rome and he wrote it with a purpose. It is a letter of thanks. It is ACE 63 or 64 and once again the Philippians have sent him a gift 4:10-11. It also has to do with Epaphroditus. It seems that the Philippians had sent him not only as the bearer of the gift but that he might stay as a personal servant of Paul. But Epaphroditus had fallen ill and was homesick. Paul was concerned that the Philippians might think of Epaphroditus as a quitter, so he goes out of his way to give him a testimonial (2:29-30). It is a letter of encouragement to the Philippians in the trials that they are going through (1:28-30). Finally, It is an appeal for unity. It is from this that rises the great passage that speaks of the selfless humility of Jesus Christ 2:1-11. In the Church at Philippians there were two women who quareled and were endangering the peace(4:2) and there were false teachers who were seeking to lure the Philippians from the true path (3:2). The letter is an appeal to maintain unity.
Philippians is in fact the loveliest letter ever written. It has been called by two titles the Epistle of Excellent things and the Epistle of joy. Again and again, Paul uses the word rejoice; even in prison he directs the hearts of his listeners to rejoice.
The letter of St Paul to the Philippians is written from prison; such letters are also referred to as the captivity epistles. Since Paul was in prison awaiting trial he had to face the fact that it was quite uncertain whether he would live or die and to him it made no difference. Ironically, it is easier to ‘die for the Lord’ than to live for him. For Paul, Christ was the reason why he lived. There was never a moment when Paul did not experience Christ in his life. Christ was the beginning of life on the road to Damascus.
Yet, death for Paul was an entrance into Christ’s presence. This also obviously showed that Paul did not fear death. Though some men may fear dying, no Christian should fear death. The result was that Paul was swayed between two desires; “I am hard pressed between the two” (verse23). The word he uses to describe his predicament (hard pressed) is senechomai ( In Greek). The word which is used for a traveller in a narrow defile, with a wall of rock on both sides, unable to turn aside and able only to go straight on. So while Paul desired to depart and be with Christ for ‘that is better’ (verse23); he also felt a tug in his heart to stay back on account of his friends and for the ministry that lay ahead. He genuinely does not know which to choose; he does not know which would be the better thing for himself, for the work of the Gospel and for the glory of God.
Departing from this world as expressed by Paul is not just a one day return trip. His desire was ‘to depart’. The word in Greek, analuein, indicated a whole process of movement by which a camp was stripped, its tents loosened, its tent pins removed. Paul wants to indicate that our ‘departing’ is a moving on; death is not the end, it is a moving on.
Having discerned and being convinced of this (verse25) Paul makes a choice for the good of all, to stay. At that point of time his presence was necessary (verse 24) to ‘remain and continue’ for their progress and joy in the faith. Let us be clear, we are dealing here with freedom and choice and not some kind of passive fatalism. Paul is not saying that he does not care what happens to him. On the contrary, he passionately wants what his Lord wants and he positively accepts what his Lord will ask of him. His desire is that his will and God’s will coincide perfectly.
The words remain and continue is a word play in Greek that cannot be reproduced in English. Remain in Greek is menein and continue in Greek is paramenein . Some suggest that this could be seen as bide and abide but para really means besides i.e. to wait beside a person, ever ready to help. So then Paul desire to live is not for his own sake but for the sake of the people whom he can continue to help
We should note that, even in prison, Paul is modelling “joy in the faith” for the Philippian Christians. Most people, sitting in a prison cell month after month, would find themselves at loose ends—and quite possibly suffering depression at their circumstances. Paul, however, views his prison as just one more mission field. Being imprisoned has not blocked his opportunity to proclaim Christ, which is his reason for living. He is happy to have the opportunity to speak to the guards and prisoners about Christ (1:12-13)—and his witness has emboldened other Christians to proclaim Christ in circumstances where they otherwise might not have done so (1:14).