Paul was coming up on two years in a Roman prison when he wrote a letter to the church at Philippi. Unlike many of his dealings with other churches, this letter wasn’t written to help with problems or to defend his own ministry; this time, Paul wrote to a thriving church whose members needed counsel on how “to walk worthily of their heavenly citizenship” (Phil. 3:17-21).
Founded on his second missionary journey, the church at Philippi was generous, joyful, and a model of what a church should be. This was a church membership Paul could confide in (Acts 16). Facing known enemies in Rome who were doing anything they could to undermine his work, as well as the very real possibility of execution at the end of his imprisonment, Paul easily could have used this opportunity to vent his frustrations and fears to concerned friends.
Instead, he was outlandishly joyful.
Outlandishly, bizarrely, abnormally joyful! Imprisoned and facing death, Paul… was… joyful!
Rather than dwelling on all the things that were going wrong and had been going wrong for at least two years, he prayed joyfully for his partners in faith at Philippi who were walking in love as Christ did (Phil. 1:1-5; 2:1-2). Paul was joyful that while his actions had resulted in imprisonment, they weren’t in vain; in fact, the gospel was being talked about and preached more than ever (1:15-18; 2:14-18). Facing a bleak future, Paul was joyful for his brothers and sisters in Christ and the spread of Christianity. His personal situation did not determine his attitude and – most importantly – it didn’t curtail the joy he had through Christ.
Where did he find such courage in the face of adversity? Paul writes, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content….I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (4:11, 13). “Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:20, 21). Paul, a former Pharisee and persecutor of the church, rejoices at all he’s lost “in order that [he] may gain Christ and be found in him” (3:8, 9). Imprisonment has been an ultimate blessing for the Gospel – plenty of reason for rejoicing as far as Paul is concerned. Any personal pain he may have experienced pales in comparison to the gains made for God.
Therefore, Paul commands … he commands the Philippians to always rejoice. Refrain from anxious thoughts. Pray. Give thanks to God. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:6-8, emphasis added).
Are we thinking about these things? Or are we thinking about how terrible things are, coveting the car we can’t afford, worrying about the illness that racks our body… or maybe we’re nursing frustration about the long wait we’ll have at the restaurant because services ran just a little too long? Convicted? I am.
True. Honorable. Just. Pure. Lovely. Commendable. Excellence. “By prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” – appearing to outsiders as outlandish, bizarre, and abnormal – “will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Paul knew the peace of God. And what a testimony he left us (Phil. 4:7, emphasis added).