Philippians - The Epistle of Joy
There is an invigorating joy that breathes through the length of the entire epistle to the Philippians; there was something special about this particular church that made the heart of St. Paul swell with gladness. He says to them that every request he makes to God for them is "full of joy".1 He longs for them as though with the very heart and affection of Christ.2 Unlike the factitious Corinthians and the fickle Galatians, the Philippians have always obeyed every word and teaching of the Apostle.3
In this epistle we find none of the earnest warnings against false teaching or rebukes against moral sin that pervade the rest of St. Paul's epistles. The church at Philippi had been from first to last loyal to her spiritual father and faithful to the Christian code of conduct. But one fault only seemed to have needed correction, and it was of so limited and personal a character that instead of denouncing it, St. Paul needed only to gently hint at it with affectionate entreaty. The fault was a lack of unity between some of the female members of the church, most notably Euodia and Syntyche.4
St. Paul wrote the epistle directly in response to one of the few happy incidents which encouraged the dreary uncertainties of his captivity. At this time he was incarcerated at Rome; the wrongful accusations against him of inciting a riot in Jerusalem5 and his appeal to Caesar to escape seizure by the Jews6 had introduced him to Roman chains. He was now reduced to a life of isolation and inactivity; he could not even support himself by working with his hands any longer.
The Philippians responded by sending him Epaphroditus, a leading presbyter of their church, with a monetary gift to minister to his needs.7 St. Paul is overtaken by this show of love; he sees it as their sharing in his distress,8 and they were in fact (oddly) the only church that made the sacrifice in aiding him in his journeys.9 Indeed, he accepts the gift as a sweet-smelling and pleasing aroma to God.10 But Epaphroditus had flung himself into the service of the Apostle with such exuberant energy that he finally succumbed to sickness—"almost unto death". The news of this caused the church, as well as St. Paul himself, intense anxiety. God had mercy on him, in St. Paul's words, and he was healed, that the church might receive him with joy and that the Apostle might not suffer "sorrow upon sorrow" by his death.
When we first meet the epistle to the Philippians, it does not strike us as a theological treatise or a moral dissertation; it is much more like the outpouring of tenderness and gratitude from an evangelist's heart to his most loving converts. It shows us less than other epistles of St. Paul's particular teaching, and more of his personal character and feelings. It is perhaps most famous for this fact: that amid the trials and hardships of a galling imprisonment, there shines forth from the Apostle's heart a serene happiness. "Rejoice in the Lord always"—and this from a man who had less reasons than any other man in the world to rejoice. It is a most encouraging fact which the epistle quietly asserts that a man, even if he sees reasons to the contrary, can be joyful in the Lord always. The person who grasps the message of the epistle to the Philippians has been raised to a new plane and a new life.