Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi says more about joy than any other New Testament book. Even though Paul is under arrest and in chains, he rejoices because of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He writes to thank the Philippian Christians for the help they gave him and to encourage them to face their own trials with "joy in Christ Jesus."
Prayers of joy and love
Paul follows first-century custom by first saying who he was, then the people he was writing to: "Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons" (1:1).
In some letters, Paul introduces himself as an apostle. But since the Philippians already accept his authority, here he introduces himself simply as a servant of Christ Jesus. He views his chains, his mission and his entire life in the context of doing Christ’s work. He writes to "the saints" — the holy ones, those who are set apart for God.
First-century Greek letters often began with chairein, "greeting." Paul modifies this to charis, "grace." Grace is part of his identity, and he begins writing with a prayer for grace and peace "from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (v. 2).
He then praises the Philippians — not directly, but by thanking God for them (v. 3). Not only is this giving credit where it is due, it reminds and encourages the Philippians that God is working in their lives.
"In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy," Paul writes, "because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now..." (vv. 4-5). The Philippians supported Paul’s missionary work, and had sent him help (4:15; also see 1 Cor. 8:1-5). Paul rejoices that these people have such a zeal for the gospel, and this letter shows them his gratitude that God is using them in this way.
Paul’s joy is rooted in God’s faithfulness: "being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus" (v. 6). Since the Philippians had begun so well, Paul is confident that they will persevere in the faith — not on their own strength, but because God will continue to work in them. "All of you share in God’s grace with me" (v. 7).
Prayer for love
God knows how much I care for you, Paul writes — I care for you as much as Jesus himself does (v. 8). The Philippians are concerned about Paul, but here, the man in prison expresses compassion for them. As we will shortly see, they faced some trials of their own.
Then Paul tells them what he prays for: "that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ — to the glory and praise of God" (vv. 9-11).
The Philippians already love. Paul wants their love to grow into wisdom and good behavior, and this letter will help them do that. As they grow in knowledge, they will have a better foundation on which to make decisions, and their behavior will come not from their own righteousness, but from Jesus Christ working within them. And the praise will go to God, because he is the source of the righteousness.
Priority of the gospel
Paul then begins to address their concern for him. They had heard of his arrest and imprisonment, and he reassures them "that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel" (v. 12). The gospel is what is important, he implies, not my comfort. So what looks like misfortune for Paul is really turning out quite well. Since he could talk to his guards, "it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ" (v. 13).
Instead of other Christians being frightened by Paul’s arrest, they became encouraged by Paul’s boldness in captivity. "Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly" (v. 14). Paul could be restrained, but the gospel spread even more.
Some people were trying to take advantage of Paul’s restrictions, but Paul does not worry about them. He judges everything by one standard: the gospel. "It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel.
"The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached" (vv. 15-18). Paul is encouraged by those who preach out of love, but he sees good even in what the others are doing, because more people are learning about Christ.
"And because of this," Paul writes, "I rejoice." His joy was in the gospel, not in his own advantage.
Paul has reason to be confident, because his confidence is in Christ. "I will continue to rejoice," he writes, "for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance" (v. 19). Paul knows that he will be released, but in the meantime, the gospel is going to more people. So he is happy.
To live is Christ
Paul does not know whether he will be released alive, or released by death. No matter which, he is sure that Christ will give him strength to be faithful. "I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death" (v. 20). If Paul escapes alive, he will praise Christ. If he is killed for his faith, that will also be a witness for Christ.
"To live is Christ and to die is gain" (v. 21). Death can be "gain" for Paul only because he knows he will get more after death than he has in this life. He trusts his Savior for eternal life, so he uses this mortal life to serve his Savior. If he dies, he will be assured of a reward. If he lives, he can preach the gospel. Because his life is in Christ, and Christ is his priority, both possibilities are good. No wonder he rejoices!
"If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body" (vv. 22-23). If it were just for himself, Paul would rather die, escape his troubles and enjoy life with Christ. But he has an assignment to preach and teach, and he is convinced that he is not yet finished.
"Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me" (vv. 25-26). His work among the saints is to help them experience joy in their faith. His release from prison and his ministry among them will help the Philippians focus on Christ as their source of joy.
The gift of suffering
Paul then hints at troubles the Philippians themselves are facing. This may be why he mentioned the possibility of death, why he set an example of viewing death as gain, why he encouraged them to view everything through the lens of Christ. Whether in life or in death, their goal should also be to exalt Christ, to bring glory to him, to demonstrate that he is worthy of their trust.
"Whatever happens," he writes, "conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ" (v. 27). Their behavior should show that they trust in Christ even when threatened. "Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel" (v. 27). Imitate me, he seems to be saying. Face your trials just as I am facing mine — rejoicing in Christ, holding fast to the faith. And he urges unity, a point he will address again in later chapters.
Stand firm, he says, "without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved — and that by God" (v. 28). If the Philippian Christians keep their faith even when threatened with death, it will be evidence that they are thoroughly convinced of a glorious afterlife with Christ. This will exalt Christ, and might convince some people that they need the salvation that these saints so strongly believe in.
Paul then writes about a surprising gift: "For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have" (vv. 29-30).
Yes, they are to view their sufferings as a gift, as part of their faith in a crucified Savior. Just as the Philippians share grace with Paul (v. 7), they also share in persecutions. Yet they are to rejoice, for the sufferings are part of joining Jesus in his journey to glory, and these sufferings exalt Christ, showing him to be more valuable than all earthly comforts, more valuable than life itself. Whether they live or die, they have reason to rejoice, for they have Christ!