The Epistle of St. Paul to the Philippians
A- About the Church at Philippi
In 356 B.C., King Philip of Macedonia took this town, expanded it, and renamed it “Philippi.” It became the primary link between the Asian Orient and the European Occident. The Romans captured it in 168 B.C., and eventually it became a Roman colony (Acts 16:12) and a military outpost. The citizens of this colony were regarded as citizens of Rome, and were given a number of special privileges (Acts 16:21). Special laws were developed for Philippi, and military personnel resided in it to protect its roads.
St. Paul came to Philippi for the first time in 52 (or 51) A.D., accompanied by Silas and Luke, during his second missionary tour (see map) , which he started from Antioch, Syria, (Acts 15:36). On that trip he passed through Derbe and Lystra (where he recruited Timothy to serve with him), then went on to Phrygia and the region of Galatia, then Mysia and Troas. In Troas, “....a vision appeared to Paul in the night. A man of Macedonia stood and pleaded with him, saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” (Acts 16:9) Here, the Lord invites St. Paul to evangelize Europe, since Macedonia lies to the north of Greece.
Obeying the voice of the Lord, St. Paul and his company set sail from Troas, crossing the Aegean Sea, and “... ran a straight course to Samothrace, and the next day came to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is the foremost city of that part of Macedonia, a colony ... staying in that city for some days.” (Acts 16:11, 12) On the Sabbath day, they went out of the city to the banks of the River Gaggitas, where many of the Jewish women customarily held their prayers, due to the unavailability of a synagogue for worship (either due to scarcity of funds or prohibition by local authorities). After prayers, St. Paul spoke to the women, among whom was “... a certain woman named Lydia ... a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshipped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul.” (Acts 16:14) She thus became the first person not only in Philippi, but also in Europe, who embraced the Faith and, when she and her household were baptized, she begged St. Paul and his company saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” (Acts 16:15)
Now it happened as they went to prayer, that a certain slave girl met them, “possessed with a spirit of divination ... who brought her masters much profit by fortune-telling. This girl followed Paul....and cried out saying, “These men are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation.” And this she did for many days. But Paul, greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And he came out that very hour. But when her masters saw that their hope of profit was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to the authorities. And they brought them to the magistrates, and said, “These men, being Jews, exceedingly trouble our city; and they teach customs which are not lawful for us, being Romans, to receive or observe.” Then the multitude rose up together against them; and the magistrates tore off their clothes and commanded them to be beaten with rods. And when they had laid many stripes on them, they threw them into prison, commanding the jailer to keep them securely. Having received such a charge, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks.” (Acts 16:16-24)
But the Lord was not absent; for “... at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them [in other words, they were praying openly]. Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were loosed. And the keeper [warden] of the prison, awaking from sleep and seeing the prison doors open, supposing the prisoners had fled, drew his sword and was about to kill himself [in defense of his military honor – which is to be expected]. But Paul called with a loud voice, saying, “Do yourself no harm, for we are all here.” Then he called for a light, ran in, and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. And he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” So they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes. And immediately he and all his family were baptized. Now when he had brought them into his house, he set food before them; and he rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household.” (Acts 16:25 – 34)
We thus see that, amidst all the suffering and the prison gloom, the glory of God shone through, and the circle of believers widened.
The Bible furthermore tells us, “And when it was day, the magistrates sent the officers, saying, “Let those men go.” ... But Paul protested and said to them, “They have beaten us openly, uncondemned Romans, and have thrown us into prison. And now do they put us out secretly? No indeed! Let them come themselves and get us out.” And the magistrates “... were afraid when they heard that they were Romans. Then they came and pleaded with them and brought them out, and asked them to depart from the city. So they went out of the prison and entered the house of Lydia; and when they had seen the brethren, they encouraged them and departed.” (Acts 16:35 - 40)
St. Paul and his company were obliged to leave Philippi, leaving behind two converted families: the family of the Asian Jewish Lydia, and that of the Gentile Roman prison warden, whose name we do not know. Another likely convert is the Greek slave girl, whose spirit of divination Paul had exorcised. We thus see how faith in One Christ united people coming from three completely different social backgrounds.
The tiny mustard seed though, gave forth abundant fruit, and became the Church of Philippi: a great oasis spreading the Faith amidst a barren idol-infested desert.
B- Paul in the Roman Prison and Circumstances in which the Epistle was Written
Many years went by, during which the apostle Paul and his company passed through various countries and cities, including Macedonia (Thessalonica), Greece (Berea, Athens and Corinth), before returning to Asia Minor (Ephesus), Caesarea, and Antioch, where they started a new missionary trip (see map) (Galatia, Phrygia and Ephesus) – (Acts 18:23, 24, Acts 19:1). They then re-traversed the sea heading to Macedonia (Philippi) and Greece, from there he returned to Philippi then to Troas, Miletus, Rhodes, and Cyprus, returning to Syria (Caesarea) and Jerusalem (Acts 20:1, 20:6, 20:15, 21:1, 21:3, 21:8 and 21:17).
Adverse events started to escalate, and the Jews’ allegations against St. Paul mounted, namely, that he was in defiance of the law, and in rebellion against Caesar. Consequently, he was subjected to attacks and trials, first in Jerusalem then in Caesarea, where he was imprisoned for two years, and finally appealed to Caesar.
St. Paul then boarded a ship sailing westwards from Caesarea to Myra (see map), and from there boarded another (Alexandrian) ship which was going to Rome which he has desired to visit to preach in it (Acts 19:21). Surrounded by violent winds at sea, then storms and shipwreck, St. Paul receives heavenly support in the middle of the night, in the form of an angel saying, “Do not be afraid, Paul; you must be brought before Caesar.” (Acts 27:24) The broken ship dropped its passengers near Malta, and the company resumed its trip on another Alexandrian (Egyptian) ship to Sicily and from thence to the south of Italy.
In Rome, St. Paul “....dwelt two whole years in his own rented house, and received all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him.” (Acts 28:30 & 31)
While imprisoned, St. Paul never gave up his service, and never ceased to pray for those whom he had evangelized over the years. He continued his missionary service, from prison, through letters. His epistle to the Church of Philippi was his fourth; it was preceded by his epistles to Philemon, the Ephesians, and the Colossians.
Eleven years had elapsed since St. Paul’s first visit to Philippi (51 or 52 A.D.) – although he had visited the city during his third missionary trip (Acts 20:1). During that time, he never forgot the congregation of Philippi, and always kept track of the news of their Church. They thus sent him Epaphroditus with their news and donations; unfortunately, his falling sick almost unto death while with St. Paul in Rome, caused much concern in the Church of Philippi. Upon his recovery, St. Paul quickly sent him back to Philippi to reassure the congregation of his well-being, (Philippians 2:25–30) and to deliver to them letters thanking them for their steadfast love, support, and adherence to the Faith, despite the surrounding adversity and persecution. He also promised them to send Timothy one more time to reassure him, St. Paul, of their continued prosperity (Philippians 2:19).
C- About the Epistle to the Philippians
Although that letter was written in prison, by a prisoner, it overflows with joy (Philippians 2:2,18 & 4:4); on the other hand, we can also sense the pervasive gloom of imprisonment when he repeats “chains” four times in the first chapter (verses 7, 13, 14 & 16). Nevertheless, there is no hint of sadness, worry, or despair. The prison, with all its shackles and somberness, failed to invade the apostle’s heart; it simply restricted his physical movement, while his fellowship with his God remained steadfast and vibrant. He even succeeded in preaching to the palace guard and to Caesar’s household (Philippians 1:13 & 4:22), calling them to freedom!
This Epistle also reveals St. Paul’s affection towards a church which he preached but has not seen for, perhaps, five or six years. It also includes his thanks, praise, and pleading for its poor people (2 Cor. 8:1-4), who did not forsake their commitments, despite their far distance and his long absence, and sent abundant gifts to their Apostle, sharing in his needs and the needs of the Church. On his part, the Apostle cared to emphasize his contentment and satisfaction in all conditions, and his trust in the Lord who fulfills all needs (Philippians 4:10-20).
In this Epistle we find precise description of Christ’s incarnation, divinity, equality with the Father in essence, obedience even to death on the cross, glorification and exaltation above any name in the universe, and the submission of all to Him. (Philippians 2:6-11)
In it also, there is encouragement and support of the Philippians to withstand persecution for the sake of Christ, following His example (Chapter 3), becoming light to the world around them (2:15), and exhortation for humbleness as the Lord himself (2:5-11), for being of one accord and likeminded (2:2, 4:2), and working out their own salvation with fear and trembling (2:12).
(To be contd.)
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