The Letter to the Philippians: A call to Gospel partnership

Who wrote it?
Paul the Apostle and his spiritual son, Timothy. Except Paul merely refers to themselves as “servants of Christ Jesus”, writing to the “saints who are in Christ Jesus” (1:1). This is significant, because Paul’s self-identification reflects the tone of the letter. Paul isn’t calling them to submit to his authority; he appeals to them as a servant in Christ. It’s a letter from a servant of the Gospel to fellow servants.

Where is Philippi?
Philippi was in the region of Macedonia in the first century, now in modern-day Greece. But it’s not its location but its history that is truly interesting.

In 356 BC, King Philip II conquered the city and named it after himself. You may have heard of his son, Alexander the Great.

In 42 BC, in the aftermath of Julius Caesar’s assassination, Mark Anthony and Octavian defeated Brutus and Longinus at the Battle of Philippi. Because of its significance to the founding of the new Roman empire,  they resettled the veteran soldiers there in Philippi, granted it the privileged status of being a Roman colony and renamed it Colonia Victrix Philippensium, meaning, the Victory Colony of Philippi.

Why is this relevant? Because the City of Philippi was essentially a Roman military colony. Such colonies tended to be jealously proud of their status and fiercely loyal to Rome. Here’s another thing. In 27 BC, the city was renamed Colonia Augusta Iulia Philippensis, after the Roman emperor (Octavian) at the time. And what was Octavian’s regnal name? It was Imperator Caesar Divi filius Augustus, meaning, The Commander, Son of God, His Majesty.

What we have here is a Roman military colony, fiercely loyal to an emperor whom they believed to be the Son of God. What do you think happens when you go to a city like that and proclaim the Good News that Jesus Christ (not Octavian, whom their grandfathers fought for, and who gave them their land, and to whom they pledged allegiance) is the King, the Son of God? Right: you get persecuted.

So suffering and persecution forms the backdrop of the entire letter.

What are the key themes of the letter?
Philippians is one of the more readable epistles. Paul actually makes its themes obvious.

Joy. The word “chairo” (joy) appears 16 times in four chapters, which has led some to call the letter an “epistle of joy”.

Mind. Paul uses the word “phroneo” (mind/thinking) in 18 verses of his writings. Eight of these come from this brief letter to the Philippians. The great kenosis hymn in 2:6-11 is described as the “phroneo of Christ”.

Fellowship. This comes from the familiar word “koinonia”. Paul speaks of his koinonia with the Philippians (1:5), with the Spirit (2:1) and with Christ (3:10). It’s a comprehensive way of understanding our Christian life.

Gospel. The Gospel is central to Philippians. Paul’s entire life is about defending, confirming and advancing the gospel (1:7, 12, 16). The reason he is thankful for the Philippians is because of their partnership in the gospel, and he urges us to walk in a manner worthy of the gospel.

Pulling all these themes together, we can summarise the main idea of Philippians as, “Gospel koinonia, created by the phroneo of Christ, leads to Christian chairo.”

The theme of this sermon series on Philippians is therefore, “A Call to Gospel Partnership”.

Why is it important to read Philippians?
Well, for one, it’s the word of God. But if you need an additional reason, it is this: we need joy. What we notice, as Singaporeans, is that joy is conspicuously and surprisingly missing from our society. Singaporeans are safe from natural disasters. Our healthcare is incredible. Our government is stable. We live better and longer than the vast majority of humanity. Aren’t these things supposed to make us happier than most? Yet, surprisingly, we aren’t! Singaporeans are regularly ranked among the most stressed out, anxious and depressed people in the world. What in the world is supposed to make us happy, then? Well, maybe the answer is not found in the world.  Perhaps it’s found in a person whose kingdom is not of this world. Perhaps the secret ingredient of joy is the right mindset about the true purpose of life, found in the one who lived it supremely.

A recipe for joy is what Philippians can teach us, and that’s why it’s important to read it.

How do we apply it?
We apply Philippians by living out our calling as gospel-partners. The prayer is that through the preaching of Philippians, by God’s grace, members of the church of Mt Hermon will learn what it means to be gospel partners, identify themselves as gospel partners and live in gospel partnership, for the joy of their souls and the glory of God.

Ps Luwin Wong