Over the next three days, I get to read Philippians. This is a letter Paul wrote while sitting in a Roman prison, addressed to the believers in Philippi. They had sent one of their own, Epaphroditus, to Rome to visit Paul, bring a gift of support, and encourage him while in prison for preaching the gospel. While in Rome, Epaphroditus had become sick; when word got back to the church, they were concerned about him, so Paul writes to alleviate their worries and thank them for their kindness.
One of the key themes in Philippians is joy. In chapter 1, Paul makes two key points that tell us why he could be so filled with joy in such difficult circumstances.
The first reason is his deep love for the people he had led to faith in Philippi, and his confidence in the work God was doing in and through them.
Philippians 1:3-8 – I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all, in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now. For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. For it is only right for me to feel this way about you all, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers of grace with me. For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.
There is a special, God-given affection between believers. We rejoice with one another as we see God working out our salvation through the difficulties of life. We encourage each other and lift each other up in prayer. The Holy Spirit in us draws us together. Have you noticed that you can often connect more deeply with a fellow Christ-follower than you can with your own flesh and blood who do not know Jesus? Our physical bonds of family relationships are temporary, but the brotherhood that comes from being adopted into God’s family lasts for eternity.
Paul is filled with joy because he knows God will continue His work in each of the believers until it is complete. Their participation in the spread of the gospel affirms their faith. God is sanctifying them, and He won’t let them go or give up on them until the image of Christ is formed completely. What a great attitude to have towards one another. We don’t all “get it right” every time. Sometimes we miss things. We grow up spiritually at different rates, and we all have our own struggles to work through. Paul was filled with joy because he knew God would never abandon His children.
The second reason Paul was filled with joy was that his circumstances, even though difficult, were accomplishing a greater purpose.
Philippians 1:12-14 – Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known through the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else, and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear.
Paul goes on to speak of some who were preaching Christ out of jealousy or selfish ambition, thinking it would cause him distress. He saw the bigger picture, however; Christ was being preached regardless of the motives, and he knew the power of the word of God to save, despite the faulty messenger.
Paul took great joy in knowing that because he was suffering in prison, people were growing bolder in their faith, and others were hearing the gospel. His sole purpose in life was to glorify God and preach Jesus, so when, where, and how that happened didn’t matter. He also had an eye on eternity, which freed him up to live in joy and not worry about the outcome. He expected deliverance, whether physically, to go on and serve the body of Christ here, or to be delivered spiritually through death, gaining heaven and the privilege of being with Christ. Either outcome was acceptable. As long as Christ was exalted, he would rejoice.
If you’re struggling to have joy, there are two practical lessons here for you. First, who are you spending time with? If you know Christ, are you surrounding yourself with the body of Christ – serving with each other, encouraging one another, praying for one another, helping each other grow up spiritually? If you don’t know Christ, perhaps you need to consider who you’re hanging around and what their influence on you might be.
Second, if your joy is lacking, examine the purpose of your life. Why has God put you on this earth? As Christ-followers, our goal is to glorify Jesus and tell others about Him. Anything else leaves us dissatisfied, as we are seeking what unbelievers seek – trying to find purpose in the trivial temporary things of this world.
Every person was created by God for a relationship with Him, and until we find our satisfaction in Jesus, we will have to be content with the fleeting happy moments that quickly fade away when life gets difficult. Surround yourself with the people of God and develop real relationships. Spend your life on the gospel and making Jesus known. Then you will know what it is to have joy.