Encouragement in Distress
A Letter for Today
An elderly couple passed away in their twilight years, and when they got to heaven the husband was simply astonished! He discovered that it was far more magnificent than he could possibly have imagined. It was fantastic! He turned to his wife and observed: "You know, if it hadn't been for your yogurt and bran muffins, we could have been here ten years ago!"
Paul seems to echo a similar sentiment in his letter to the Philippians: "For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Phil 1:21)"; and, "For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better (Phil 1:23)." Paul knew suffering, and Paul knew true joy. And he knew joy through suffering. And in his darkest hour, he wrote a letter to encourage his most intimate friends.
The year 2001 has brought heartache and suffering to so many. Our world has profoundly changed - permanently - and we need to adapt to the new realities. And the coming year may also have its own unpleasant surprises and threatening trends. Paul, who wrote virtually half of the New Testament, wrote a highly relevant letter whose theme is "joy through suffering." There may never have been a time when this letter could mean more to those families which have been impacted by the tragic events of the recent past. It also has many practical implications for each of us. It was written from the then capital of the world to one of the most strategic centers in the Roman Empire: Philippi.
Philippi was founded by the great Macedonian king whose name it bears. Its natural advantages were considerable; however, its primary importance was its strategic geographical position commanding the great road between Europe and Asia. The almost continual mountain barrier between the East and West has a depression here which forms a gateway for this thoroughfare between the two continents. It was the advantage of this position that led Philip the Macedon to fortify the site. It was this which marked out the very battlefield where the destinies of the Roman Empire were decided, and which led the conqueror to plant a Roman colony on the scene of his triumph. Philippi was the scene of the decisive battle ending the Roman republic in 42 B.C. Brutus and Cassius, murderers of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C., were defeated by the combined forces of Mark Antony and Octavian, who later became Emperor Augustus. Because of Philippi's assistance, Augustus not only granted Roman citizenship to these Philippians when he became emperor, he conferred upon it the coveted privilege of "Italic right," giving its inhabitants the same rights as if they were living in Italy. (Their resultant pride is essential to understand to fully appreciate the tensions involved in Acts 16.)
Paul's first visit to Philippi is recorded with a minuteness that has few parallels in Luke's history. Luke joined Paul just as he crossed over into Europe, and he was with him during his stay in Philippi. (Many assume that it was Luke who was the man seen in Paul's vision.1) Paul's visit ended abruptly in the middle of a storm of persecution, and the apostle left behind a legacy of suffering to this newborn church. The afflictions of the Macedonian Christians, and of the Philippians particularly, are more than once alluded to in Paul's letters.2
Paul's ultimate appeal to Caesar challenged the hostility of the greatest power the world had ever seen. The very emperor to whom the appeal was made bears the ignominy of the first systematic persecution of Christians, which raged for several centuries, and which ended in establishing the Gospel on the ruins of the Empire.
Paul's letter to the Philippians is remarkable: He himself was a prisoner at the time - and it was he who was providing encouragement to them, the faithful believers at Philippi! Paul, addressing a Roman colony while himself a prisoner in the Roman capital, writing as a citizen to citizens, exploits their very political franchise as an apt symbol of the higher privileges of their heavenly calling, to their political life as a suggestive metaphor for the duties of their Christian profession.
Here is a letter that is pregnant with insights on the real priorities in life, encouragement during difficult trials, and guidance during the inevitable "dark times." Yet joy is the main theme of this intimate letter. "Inner joy" occurs 16 times in these four brief chapters.
Paul also deals with some of the thorniest issues among us: how to deal with Christian troublemakers. Jesus warned his disciples that they would betray one another.3 Paul speaks of those who preached Christ out of "envy and strife" and "contention."4 Paul is reporting that they preached Christ out of unworthy motives: jealousy, strife, and partisanship. These "Christians " were trying to get Paul in trouble with their preaching! (Christians are well known for arranging their firing squads in circles!)
He also alludes to this friction in other letters: he indicated that most of the Christians had deserted him. It is not generally recognized how poorly Paul had been received in Rome. The pastors were jealous of Paul. They neglected him for that reason. When the pastors forgot their duty, the people followed suit. In time Paul was almost forgotten.
Did you know that Paul very likely lost his life as a result of the trouble caused by the "Christians" in Rome? The information that exists from the early church period about the events that led up to the death of Paul points to this conclusion. Envy led some Christians to denounce Paul and, as a result of their denunciation, Paul (and perhaps others also) was presumably executed under Nero. When Onesiphorus arrived in Rome, no one seemed to be able to tell him where Paul was. It was only by a diligent search that he found him.5
When Paul began to make converts through the Praetorian Guard, his views spread throughout Rome, provoking jealousy among the leaders of the Roman congregation. Paul alludes to that here and in his second letter to Timothy. Suetonius, a Roman historian who wrote the lives of the Caesars, tells us that "since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chresus [Christ ]," thinking that Christ was the ringleader. Claudius expelled them, both Christians and Jews, from Rome.6 A Roman Christian, Clement, wrote a letter to the believers in Corinth about 90 A.D., warning them about the bad effects of jealousy which had resulted in suffering and death among God's people. He alludes to seven examples from the Old Testament, and seven from more recent times, including Paul . 7
While this intimate letter deals with the practical issues of suffering, it also includes one of the greatest flights of Christ's glory.
The Great Parabola
This passage, known among scholars as the Kenosis , is among the most glorious sections of the New Testament.8 It follows the descent of the Lord Jesus Christ from the highest position in the entire universe, down to the death on the cross, and then up again to see Him seated once more on the throne of His glory, before which every knee shall bow. In only a few verses, we sweep from Christ's life in eternity past to eternity future and are admitted to the breathtaking purposes of God in human salvation. These few verses teach the divinity of Christ, His preexistence, His equality with God the Father, and His incarnation and true humanity.
Paul includes Jesus Himself in his pantheon of examples. As a friend of mine once observed, If you squeeze an orange, you get orange juice. If you squeeze a lemon, you get lemon juice. If you squeeze a Christian, you should get Christ.
Here is a letter - with some striking parallels to Jesus' letter to the church at Smyrna - which also provides a rich reward to the diligent student. 9 This letter is an encouragement for our own time, indeed. Commit yourself to a careful review of this epistle: it will surprise you.
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