Of obstacles and joys

Background Scripture Philippians 1. Devotional Reading: Acts 9:10-16.



Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is my favorite of all the epistles. William Barclay calls it Paul’s “loveliest letter” and I agree. Although we will be spending the five Sundays of August with this letter, we will not come even close to extracting from it everything of importance and value. I hope you will return to it many times – especially when you are facing formidable obstacles.

All of his letters – excepting Galatians – begin with expressions of thanks and appreciation, but the opening of Philippians is the warmest and deepest of any Paul’s greetings. Throughout the letter it is obvious that a very warm and singular relationship exists between Paul and this church. But that was not because his stay in Philippi was a breeze. In fact, according to Acts 16, he ran into all kinds of trouble there – but not with the Philippian church. Keep in mind also that this letter is written by Paul in prison (scholars disagree as to whether the prison was in Rome, Ephesus, or elsewhere).

Here then is the irony: Paul is in prison and in need of strength to endure his ordeal, but he writes a letter to the Philippians to encourage them in their ordeals and assures them that their faith is helping him to keep his faith. His letter demonstrates that life in Christ does not necessarily eliminate all obstacles and hardships. In fact it may bring more ordeals, rather than fewer. (Some believe that their membership certificate gives them a free ride around life’s obstacles. Not so!) A ‘SLAVE FOR CHRIST’?

The key to his attitude is found in 1:1 when he begins: “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus.”
All the commentaries I examined indicate that the Greek word, “doulos,” is more accurately translated as “slave,” rather than “servant.” In some of his other letters Paul stressed his authority as an apostle, but to the Philippians he stresses that he belongs to Christ, he has no other master. He is no longer his own.

This however is not a doulos forced upon him, but one voluntarily embraced. Paul did not seek this imprisonment – and possible end of his mission and life – but neither did he shrink from it. Furthermore, SPI RI T

because Christ is his master, this obstacle, nor any other, can separate them. One way or the other, the gospel will be advanced (1:18).

Even his enemies cannot halt the advance of the gospel (1:15,16). Whether he is executed or freed, his bond with Christ is intact. If he lives, he will continue as an apostle. If he is put to death, his martyrdom will also exalt the gospel. He is telling the Philippians that, for Christ to grow similarly in them, the ego must die. CHOOSE JOY

Paul further explains his attitude when he says, “Yes, and I shall rejoice” This is not a prediction of what will happen, but a conscious decision and vow to Christ, others and himself. Joy does not just “happen” to Paul, he chooses to experience joy, rather than sorrow. To a degree much greater than most of us imagine, we can choose to experience joy or sorrow, faith or despair, and even love instead of hate.

His choice of joy is also supported by what he calls the partnership of the Philippian Christians. He is “thankful for your partnership in the gospel from the
first day…”
(1:5). The Greek word translated here as “partnership” is koinonia, and it has diverse, but connected meanings: “sharing,” “communion,” fellowship,” bond,” and more. Paul’s uses it to thank them for giving financial support, concern, intercessory prayers, letters, and sharing in the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ.

So, although separated by miles, they are one in the Spirit. Paul is not alone in prison, nor are they alone in their toils for Christ. Their shared joy helps them overcome their obstacles. And what helps you with yours?