THE EPISTLE TO THE PHILIPPIANS
On the northernmost shore of the Greek Archipelago, as it is now called, or of the Mgean Sea, as it used to be called, was the city of Philippi. If you look upon the map you will see that northward from this northern shore of the Greek Archipelago there stretches a great rocky barrier, which separates now, as it did then, the Turkish peninsula from the Greek peninsula, and which separates the region of the East from the region of the West.
Here, at Philippi, that great rocky barrier, as it approaches the sea, was depressed, and there was a narrow plain; upon that plain, at a distance of about ten miles from the sea, Philippi was situated. Certain gold mines in the neighborhood and certain mineral springs had early led to the settlement of the place; but it was chiefly the fact that this depression in the hills, between the mountains and the sea, constituted a sort of gateway from the East to the West that led Philip of Macedon to fortify the place about three centuries and a half before Christ, to build a city there, and to distinguish that city by giving it his name. The city of Philippi, therefore, was so called because it was founded by Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great.
The great importance of the place as a sort of strategic key led, in the year 42 before Christ, to the world-renowned battle of Philippi, one of the world's decisive battles. Augustus and Antony on the one side, and Brutus and Cassius on the other, fought there for the empire of the world; and you know how Shakespeare has commemorated that struggle in his play of Julius Caesar.
The conqueror in that battle, Augustus, led by the same reasons which I have intimated already, made Philippi a Roman colony; and by a Roman colony I mean a city that is settled by Romans who have been brought from Italy, who have brought with them their municipal organization, who are governed by a senate of their own, and who have all the rights and privileges of Roman citizens. This Philippi is a Roman city, on the very confines of the Roman world; that is, on the very confines of that world where the Latin language is spoken and taught.
In the little narrative with regard to Philippi which is preserved to us in the Acts of the Apostles, all these various classes of population are more or less represented. There, first, is the original barbarian element; secondly, there is the Greek element; thirdly, the Roman element; and finally, the Jew. We have here at Philippi a sort of strategic point for the gospel, as well as for the empire of the world; for here we have a confluence of Eastern and Western life, a strangely mixed population, and a remarkable regard paid to the rights and dignities of Roman citizenship. Here it was that Christianity first came in contact with Roman civilization. Here was fought for Christianity a battle more important than that battle of Philippi, in which Augustus and Brutus fought for the mastery of the world. You remember that the apostle Paul, on his second missionary journey, desired very much to complete what he must have thought of as the evangelization of Asia Minor. There were other regions of Asia Minor which he yet desired to visit. He wanted to enter Bithynia; but you remember that the sacred writer says, "the Spirit suffered him not." He was driven, as it were, by his own inner impulse, and by the direction of divine Providence, to the northwestern portion of Asia Minor, until he came to Troas, the point from which he would naturally, if at all, pass over into Europe. I can imagine that the prospect of passing over into Europe and into an entirely different civilization from that to which he had been accustomed caused him a great deal of trepidation. It was only the voice of the man of Macedonia, "Come over to Macedonia, and help us," that finally determined him to take his way to Europe.
Here, in Philippi, was the first conflict between Christianity and European paganism; and upon the decision of that conflict great things depended for Christianity in the future.
In every city he had visited heretofore, Paul had always gone first to the synagogue of the Jews; but here, in Philippi, there was no synagogue of the Jews. There were Jewish people there, but they were very few. It was a Roman population instead of a Jewish population. Since there was no synagogue, the Jews who were there, not having any regular place of meeting in the city, conducted divine worship outside, in a secluded place, in the open air, by the side of that rushing river upon which the city was built. Those who visited this place of prayer were not Jewish men;
they were Jewish women, and apparently these women were themselves few in number.
But Paul went out there upon the Sabbath day; and as he spoke to them with regard to the gospel of Christ and the fulfilment of the promises of the Messiah in the Old Testament, the Lord opened the heart of one of them, Lydia by name, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, in Asia Minor, so that she attended to the things that were spoken. She might have listened and gone away, and thought no more of it, if the Lord had not imparted to her a new bent of mind, a new disposition to receive the truth. Receiving the truth, she became Paul's first disciple; and the fruits of her discipleship were new Christian hospitality. She received Paul and his fellow workers—for I suppose, at this time, Timothy, Silas, and Luke also were with him—received all four of them into her house, and her house became a rendezvous and a starting-point for missionary effort in the city. Paul remained there many days, it is said. Probably this means a number of weeks, or even months. He preached the gospel until at last attention began to be attracted to him. People began to know who he was; and now we find that a Greek divining girl, a girl who was possessed by an evil spirit, and pretended to prophesy, a sort of Greek fortune-teller under the influence of the satanic power, followed Paul and Silas as they went through the street, half mocking, perhaps, and yet perhaps half inclined seriously to recognize the power that was in them. The Greek girl cried, as she ran: " These men are the servants of the most high God, who came to teach us the way of salvation." That continued day after day until, at last, Paul turned and commanded the evil spirit to come out of her, and the evil spirit did come out. The result was that the masters of this slave girl, finding that the hope of their gains was gone, and that they could no longer use her for their purpose, fell upon Paul and Silas, roused a mob against them, and brought them before the magistrates. The magistrates ordered them to be scourged, put them in prison, confined them in the innermost dungeon, and made their feet fast in the stocks. So the magistrates seemed to side with this riotous element in the Roman population.
It has been questioned by some why Paul, who was a Roman citizen and who had a right to be absolved from all such punishments as scourging, did not urge his rights as a Roman before the scourging took place; and some have thought that the reason was just this, that this was his first visit to a purely Roman city. Paul, it is said, was in a place where Latin was the prevailing language; it was impossible for him, under the circumstances, to make himself known, and to get the hearing of the magistrates; it was only after the thing was really done that he was enabled to make an effective protest. However that may be, we know that it was an occasion of the mighty exercise of divine power; in the middle of the night there was an earthquake; the doors of the prison swung open, and Paul and Silas were permitted to go free. The jailer came with fear and trembling, fell down before Paul and Silas, and asked what he should do to be saved. The appearance of these men, whose backs had been lacerated by the Roman scourge, still rejoicing and singing praises to God at night, was something so strange as to attract his wonder. Conviction of sin had already been awakened in his heart; he longed to know the God whom these men preached; and he earnestly asked how he might find the way of salvation. The answer was that he was simply to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and he should be saved; and, believing right then and there, he received baptism, and was added to the number of the Christian church.
This miracle seems to have worked in behalf of the truth, and to have made a deep impression through the town. By declaring himself a Roman citizen Paul secured release, and so intimidated the rulers of the city that they were anxious to get rid of him in order that there might be no report of their proceedings carried to Rome. More than this, Paul and Silas seem to have been so helped in their work that a large number was added to the church. When Paul leaves Philippi we find him speaking of "the brethren," though the church began with only a few women— yes, with only one. The church of Jesus Christ had been founded in that place, and that church was one of the most beautiful illustrations of Christian love and joy and confidence and successful labor that we read of in all the annals of the New Testament.
We find that Luke, who, up to this time, for quite a little space has used the word "we" of himself, the apostle, and his companions, now ceases to use the word "we" in describing Paul's journeyings, and seems to intimate that he himself, the writer, was left in Philippi. It is only when Paul goes back again to this same Philippi—a long time afterward—that Luke begins again to use the word " we," and goes with Paul afterward in his journeyings. The inference has been that Luke was left in Philippi by Paul, to take charge of the church until Paul returned on his third missionary journey, after which he followed Paul to Rome. If this be the case, it shows how greatly blessed, efficient, and discreet pastoral care may be. In this church the new converts from among the heathen passed for a number of years under the instruction and supervision of Luke. This furnishes us with some explanation of their faithfulness, the uniformity of their Christian character, and the depth of their love and joy. Tertullian says that this church was one of the few that were eminent for preserving autograph apostolic letters, by which I suppose that this letter to the Philippians was kept among them as a sacred treasure.
The church at Philippi seems to have been characterized by some very remarkable qualities. Paul, in writing his letter to them, has almost nothing to blame. It is the one letter of all the apostolic letters in which you will find almost no censure at all. There is a great deal of commendation. The apostle can commend, first of all, their faithfulness and their devotion in the midst of persecution. The persecution which vented itself upon the apostle seems to have been continued in the case of the disciples whom the apostle won; and yet, in spite of that persecution, the church at Philippi remained firm; firm in its faith, firm in its love. Though they were poor, yet they seem to have contributed very largely, in proportion to their means, to all manner of Christian enterprises; and they were especially characterized by affection and devotion to the apostle himself. You know that the apostle did not wish to lay upon the new church that he founded the burden of his support. He preferred to earn his own living by his trade of tent-making; and yet, occasionally, it was very desirable that he should have the time to himself for Christian labor. It was the contributions of this church at Philippi which enabled him to take his time for Christian work. When he came to be imprisoned at Rome, there was a great deal in the way of comfort that might be purchased for him by the pecuniary assistance that came to him from others. It was this church at Philippi that again and again, as he declares, ministered to his necessities. There is no proof of confidence that a high-minded man can show like this of being willing to take pecuniary assistance from another. Paul would never have taken this assistance from the Philippian church if there had not been a bond of warm affection and confidence existing between him and them. These were the graces of the Philippian church.
There were certain things against which the apostle needed to warn them; and yet he did not censure them for special faults. He rather cautioned them against things to which they might possibly be exposed. There was, for example, the jealousy which might possibly arise between different church-members engaged in the same sort of work. "I beseech Euodias and beseech Syntyche, that they be of the same mind." They were two women who perhaps had a little jealousy of one another in their Christian work. The apostle cautions them to keep in mind the common cause for which they labor, and always to work together. That is perhaps as near an approach to censure as we find in the Epistle, and it is very gentle.
There is a little danger that Judaizing teachers may persuade them that they can trust something else than the one work and righteousness of Jesus Christ; and so the apostle gives them, in the form of his own experience, the instruction that we are not saved by any works of righteousness that we have done. Salvation is of the Lord. Paul seeks the righteousness of Christ, and to be clothed only with that. That is his only hope. He sees some in the Philippian church who are not faithful in their Christian life. There are professors of Christianity who do not show forth the power of religion. "There are some, I tell you even weeping, that are enemies to the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, who mind earthly things." There were a few such at Philippi.
It is wonderful that there were not more things in this Philippian church against which he could inveigh; but we find nothing in the shape of denunciation. All the apostle says, by way of qualification of his commendation, is rather a cautioning and warning against possible future evil, than a declaration that these evils were marked in the Philippian church.
And now as to the circumstances under which the Epistle to the Philippians was written. You remember that the apostle had now become a prisoner at Rome. I suppose that this Epistle to the Philippians was written later than the Epistle to the Ephesians. Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon seem to be bound together in a group. The Philippians seems to have been written somewhat later than those three, but during this same Roman imprisonment. It must have been in the last year at least of that Roman imprisonment, because, in the Philippians, Paul speaks of the church in Rome as having acquired some size. The number of converts was large. That could hardly have been said at the beginning of his imprisonment. Then, again, his associates have left him. In the Philippians he is comparatively alone. In the early part of that imprisonment his associates were with him. There has been time for a number of journeys between Rome and Philippi.
Epaphroditus, during the imprisonment of the apostle at Rome, was sent to Paul with a contribution for his necessities. Epaphroditus had time to go to Rome and communicate to the apostle the gifts of the Philippian church. Epaphroditus was taken sick while he was ministering to Paul; the news of Epaphroditus' sickness had time to reach the Philippians; and Epaphroditus had time to hear again from Philippi of the care and anxiety of the church on his behalf.
Such journeys as these, together with the sickness of Epaphroditus and his recovery, the writing of the letter and the sending of it to the Philippians, must altogether have occupied a number of months at the least. One might better perhaps suppose that it was a year, or a year and a half. Since the imprisonment of the apostle in Rome lasted just two years, it must have been the middle of the second year at least before this Epistle to the Philippians was written. Then the date of the Epistle was the middle of the year 63, six months before the narrative of the Acts of the Apostles came to its end. Q
The object of the Epistle was, as I have intimated, not to reprove any particular things that the Philippians were guilty of, not to censure them as the apostle censures the Galatians, for example, or the Corinthians in one portion of the Epistle; not to set before them any great scheme of Christian doctrine, nor to vindicate his apostolic authority, as in the Epistle to the Romans. The object of the Epistle was apparently to pour forth the gratitude of the apostle's heart for the great kindness and love which they had shown to him in sympathizing with him in his troubles and in his imprisonment, to encourage them in enduring similar trials and sufferings, and to increase their knowledge and love and joy.
I do not know of any other Epistles in which the personal remarks are so beautifully expressed as they are here. It is the natural and spontaneous outflow of the apostle's heart. He would stimulate their Christian virtues. He would broaden and beautify their Christian character, and he would show them how all spiritual blessings are theirs in the gospel of Christ. There is no other Epistle of Paul which, in our higher moments, when we are near to Christ, seems to us so sweet and beautiful as this Epistle to the Philippians.
The order of the Epistle is determined in a large part by this desire to express the gratitude of the apostle to God. In the very first verse you have recognized an organization of the Christian church that is noteworthy. He writes to those who recognize Christ, to the saints in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons; i. e., with the overseers and the deacons. Only two orders are recognized, only two sorts of officers in the Christian church. First the pastors, or overseers, of the flock, and then the deacons of the church; and I suppose we have here the outline of church organization in the apostolic time. We do not anywhere find that there are more than these two ranks, or officers, in the Christian church.
One of the first prayers is "that their love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment." He recognizes the depth of their Christian devotion, but he would have a discreet devotion; he would have an affection that has laws and bounds; he would have it conform to the truth. So he prays that they may add to their love Christian knowledge; and then, as the means of increasing this knowledge, he speaks of his own personal relations, and, in the latter part of the first chapter, is occupied with an account of his own experience, and of the fact that all his trials and persecutions have been the means of furthering the gospel of Christ. So he recognizes everything that has happened to him as God's choice, ordained not only for his own good, but for the good of the Christian church.
Only in the second chapter does he give us the one doctrinal portion of the Epistle. There is one doctrine set forth in this Epistle to the Philippians with a fulness and power such as we find nowhere else in the New Testament. It is the doctrine of the person of Christ, and the relation of the divine to the human nature of our Saviour. You remember how it begins. The apostle would urge them to humility, and he sets before them the example of Christ who, being in the form of God, thought not his equality with God a thing to be forcibly retained, but emptied himself, taking upon him the form of a servant, and being made in the likeness of man. Not only did he humble himself to become man, but he further humbled himself by suffering death, even the death of the cross. "Wherefore God hath highly exalted him and given him a name above every name; that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven and things in earth and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
There is no more sublime passage in the New Testament than this. It sets forth the infinite glory of Christ, his absolute equality with God in the beginning, and then his emptying himself of this glory, in order that he might unite himself to our human nature, to sanctify and redeem it. This is the great doctrine of the Epistle to the Philippians. What a motive to humility we have! He who was rich became poor that we might be made rich. What an argument for selfdenial and the giving up of our own personal interests in order that we may serve Christ and his church!
In the third and fourth chapters you have exhortations to unity; you have warnings against Judaizing tendencies; and you have the Epistle ending with warm salutations and expressions of the apostle's love. As you read this Epistle, one thing is very striking in it; and that is the love which passes all love that is common among men. There is just one explanation of it. The apostle longs after the Philippians in the heart of Jesus Christ. In our old version this was translated in such a way that the meaning of it was obscure, even repulsive, "in the bowels of Jesus Christ." That word, you know, was in the old times simply the common word for heart. When you hear of an accident to a friend, it affects you in that very portion of your body in which he has suffered. You have an awful feeling of goneness; and the word "bowels," because it is connected with our own emotions of sympathy with the trouble and pain of others, came to be used for heart. The word meant only "heart," and it ought always to have been translated by "heart." The apostle longs for the Philippians " in the heart of Jesus Christ." As much as to say, " It is not my own affection that I am expressing. I am incapable of this myself; I could not rise to this height, in which my sympathy goes out to Christians in the remotest part of the world, and bears them on my soul continuously. This is all due to the fact that I have entered into union with Jesus Christ, and that his heart has become my heart."
My dear friends, there are certain things we can do in Christ, and by virtue of our relation to him, that we can never do without him. There is a sympathy which we can feel for the wants and needs of others, longings for their good, unselfish devotion to their interest, which is absolutely impossible to unregenerate human nature. It becomes possible only wten we enter into union with Christ. Then Christ fills our hearts with some of the unselfish sympathy that pervades his heart, and we ourselves begin to feel. Whatever comes to us, we long to devote ourselves to Christ. Here is the secret of Christian generosity and unselfishness. When we become one with Christ we get out of our narrowness, out of our pettiness; we begin to love as Christ loves, and to long for the good of his church as Christ longs for it. So this whole Epistle to the Philippians is a continuous exhortation to Christian peace, Christian faith, Christian confidence, Christian joy, and Christian love.
If Christ is only an ideal conception or only a historical person in the past, this faith, love, and joy are indeed impossible. But if Christ is a living and present Saviour, to whom we may become so united that his Spirit takes up his residence in us, and his heart becomes our heart, why, then, the highest forms of Christian life are simple and easy. All things are possible to him who opens his heart to receive the great Son of God, and who by faith joins himself to Christ; for thus our hearts become connected with the great heart of the universe and are immeasurably enlarged.
Here is the secret of the Epistle to the Philippians, and of the joy, peace, and comfort that fill the apostle's heart. When he does not know whether the coming week shall bring to him life or death, he is content. He knows that, since Christ is in him and he is in Christ, "for him to live is Christ, and to die is gain."