“Twenty centuries ago an itinerant tentmaker was tossed into prison for creating a public disturbance. There he spent considerable time dictating a letter that might have taken up a dozen sheets of stiff, scratchy paper. Today few people would recognize the name of the Roman emperor at the time and, although Nero was a prolific author, nothing of his literary output remains. Paul’s name, on the other hand, is instantly recognized by millions, and existing copies of his letter to the Philippians, in many languages, run easily into the millions. Indeed the time has come...when people call their dogs Nero and their sons Paul.”
The Chains of Freedom
“You do you.”
“Be what you want to be.”
“Follow your heart.”
“I just want to be free.”
“I’m free to make my own decisions.”
“You can’t tell me what to do!”
“The choice is yours.”
“Don’t tread on me!”
“It’s a free country.”
“Give me liberty or give me death.”
We have heard these expressions for freedom in all sorts of circumstances and relationships. From parenting to patriotism, freedom is a battle cry. Yet, our modern understanding of freedom is cast as liberation from any sort of restriction or restraint. It is the freedom to do whatever you want to do. It is freedom FROM something rather than the freedom FOR something.
And so, Self Definition and Authentic Personhood are the highest marks of being human in our culture. Yet people in America are less happy than they ever have been. A much greater percentage of our population describes itself as lonely. Addictions have proliferated. Suicides and deaths of despair are rampant (even before the Global Pandemic). It is worth asking: Are we chained to our freedom? Are we in bondage to liberation? Are we shackled to our sense of the autonomous self?
Perhaps our straightjacket is not God, morality, religion, faith, or some combination of these. Perhaps the straightjacket is a culture that demands that nothing take away our precious freedom? Yet, Classical (Aristotle) and Biblical (Paul) understandings of freedom suggest that true freedom is shackling yourself to the right restrictions and limitations for the sake of becoming a flourishing person who desires to love and serve others out of that wholeness. In this sense, you are not chained to freedom, but tethered to good rhythms and limits that will make you truly free. Deep down, we know this to be true. We are not surprised that pianists discipline themselves by practice. That professional athletes adjust their diets and follow exercise regimens for the sake of performance. That scholars carve out time to study with diligence. It makes intuitive sense to us that freedom is all about finding those restrictions that will liberate us: Those self-imposed limits that will enhance our abilities and bring an ultimate joy and a deeper fulfillment.
Christians take this one step further and suggest that the best and truest way to set out in pursuit of this type of freedom is to bind yourself to Christ. It is why Paul and other New Testament writers referred to themselves first and foremost as “bondservants” or “slaves” of Christ’s. Strapping ourselves to Jesus and his life, death, and resurrection is the ground note, baseline, taproot--the living well of true freedom. Christians believe that humanity is enslaved to sin, so it is only with Christ that our journey of becoming fully free can begin anew.
And how does this spiritual growth in Christ continue? Tim Keller writes: “If we only grow intellectually, vocationally, and physically through discipline and judicious constraints--why would it not also be true for spiritual and moral growth? Instead of insisting on freedom to create our own moral-spiritual reality, shouldn’t we be seeking to discover it? And disciplining ourselves to live according to it?”
In the book of Philippians, we find an authentic, spiritual, and moral freedom that was not created by Paul, the author of the letter, but instead, was discovered by him as he was discovered by Jesus while on the road to Damascus. This freedom is unbounded by painful circumstances. It does not ebb and flow premised upon Paul’s sense of self-definition or sense of self-worth. Instead, Paul writes this letter while in prison. His shackles scrape the parchment as he writes about things like joy, confidence, and generosity--the ability to be truly free while bound to Christ!
My hope and prayer for WCPC over these two months is that we will allow this little letter to instruct us, and as we do, we will learn that freedom is not doing whatever we want to do, but becoming who we truly want to be.
May you find true freedom in being shackled to Jesus!
“This letter makes it clear that as Paul looked at all the churches he had founded, the people of Philippi were the ones who gave him the most joy. To be sure, he loved them all; but this letter breathes a confident trust and enjoyment which we don’t always find elsewhere. Now, in prison...the Philippian church has sent him a gift of money. One of the reasons he’s writing is to say a heartfelt ‘Thank you’.”
“The letter is sent to the Christian community of Philippi by Paul, who joins Timothy’s name with his own in the opening salutation. After the salutation and the assurance of his profound thanksgiving and prayer for his friends at Philippi, Paul tells them how his present situation, despite the restrictions of imprisonment, has promoted the spread of the gospel among the officials in whose care he is and has encouraged many of the local Christians to be more uninhibited in witnessing to their faith. Even if some of them are impelled by motives that are not at all friendly to Paul, the fact remains that Christ is being proclaimed, and this makes Paul rejoice. He does not know what the outcome of his imprisonment will be, but his resolve is that, whether it is ended by release or by execution, the glory of Christ will be promoted. He then makes an appeal for harmony among the members of the Philippian church: he deprecates petty jealousies and antipathies and reminds them of Christ’s self-forgetfulness in becoming a servant to others and enduring death by crucifixion. After further words of encouragement, in which Paul’s sense of personal involvement in the spiritual well-being of his converts is made very clear, he tells them that he will soon send Timothy to see them and bring back news of them. Right now, he says, he is sending back Epaphroditus, one of themselves, who had recently come to discharge a service to him on their behalf and had incurred serious illness in doing so. Then, with ‘Finally, my brothers …’ (3:1), he gives the impression that he is bringing the letter to an end, when suddenly he puts the readers on their guard against subversive intruders and (partly by way of countering the influence of such people) sets out, with reference to his own experience, the essence of Christian faith and life. Further words of admonition (4:1–9) are followed by thanks for a gift that Epaphroditus has brought to him from Philippi (4:10–20). The letter closes with a final doxology, greetings, and benediction.”
The City of Philippi
Philippi, in northern Greece [called Macedonia in the first century], was the first place in Europe that heard the news that there was a new king, namely the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth. You can read the story of Paul’s first visit there in The Acts of the Apostles, Luke’s “Volume 2,” where he tells us that, “...during the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ After Paul had seen the vision, he got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them” (Acts 16:9, 10).
“Christianity reached Macedonia less than twenty years after the death of Christ. One of the earliest New Testament documents—the first letter to the Thessalonians—was sent from Corinth, probably in the fall of A.D. 50, to the young church of Thessalonica. The letter, which is sent in the names of Paul, Silvanus [or Silas], and Timothy, indicates that the church of Thessalonica came into existence through a visit that those three men had paid to the city not long before. Their visit to Thessalonica had been preceded by a visit to Philippi, where they had ‘suffered and been insulted’ (1 Thess. 2:2).”
In the mid-first century, Philippi, although not large, was a strategically located city with a rich heritage and distinctive culture. It spilled down a mountainside and onto a fertile, well-watered plain about ten miles inland from the important port of Neapolis. The Egnatian Way, a critical artery of commerce linking the city of Rome with its eastern provinces, passed through the city center. The city of Philippi bears the name of Philip II, king of Macedonia, who founded it in 356 B.C.
As was customary of Paul’s mission, he took the Gospel and its vehicle (the Church) to the most important, strategic cities of any given region. His strategy was to reach those cities that would then shape the culture.
Author and Occasion
“Paul’s usual practice when visiting a Gentile city was to make for the local synagogue in order to find an audience among the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles who attended it. In Philippi, it seems, there was not a large enough Jewish community to form a regular synagogue congregation (for which the quorum was ten men). But there was an informal meeting place outside the city, by the river Gangites, where some women assembled on the Sabbath day to recite the appointed prayers. These women may have comprised both Jews and God-fearers (Gentiles who adhered to the Jewish form of worship without becoming full proselytes); their leader was Lydia, a native of Thyatira in Asia Minor, who traded in the purple dye manufactured from the juice of the madder root for which her home country had long been famed. (Homer describes how “a Macedonian or Carian woman stains ivory with purple dye.”) Lydia and some of her companions formed the nucleus of the church of Philippi. The women of Macedonia had long been famed for their initiative and influence, and that noble tradition was well maintained by the women in the Macedonian churches. Lydia put her house at the disposal of the missionaries, and it was evidently the meeting place of the church that quickly came into being in Philippi.”
“The missionaries, however, ran into trouble when Paul exorcised from a slave girl ‘a spirit by which she predicted the future’ (Acts 16:16). The spirit is technically called a pythonic spirit; that is to say, it was a pale reflection of the spirit that empowered the Pythian prophetess at Delphi to speak as the mouthpiece of Apollo. As a result of the exorcism, the girl was no longer able to tell fortunes.... Philippian owners of the slave girl were annoyed at the loss of the regular income her fortune-telling brought them; Paul, they thought, was guilty of wanton interference with their property rights. He and Silvanus (the two full Jews in the missionary quartet) were therefore dragged before the magistrates in the forum, and a charge was laid against them: ‘These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice’ (Acts 16:20, 21). The bystanders joined in the attack, and the magistrates, deciding that these two unwelcome foreigners needed to be taught a sharp lesson, ordered them to be beaten with the lictors’ rods and locked up overnight.”
“The best-known episode of Luke’s narrative of the evangelization of Philippi tells of the earthquake that struck at midnight while Paul and Silvanus were ‘praying and singing hymns to God’ in the darkness of the inner prison, and of the jailer’s alarm, attempted suicide, and conversion (Acts 16:25–34).... [Then, after learning that they were Roman citizens]... Paul and Silvanus had to leave Philippi; the magistrates’ polite request was no more to be ignored than the lictors’ forceful eviction would have been. But they left behind them a young church of ardently committed converts whose affection for their apostle was shown by gifts that they sent him on more than one occasion, beginning within a few weeks of his departure (see Phil. 4:15, 16).”
The Teaching of the Letter and our Series
As with the other Pauline Epistles written in the first century and recognized and canonized as God’s Word, Philippians is both particularly occasioned and eternally relevant. Yet, Paul rarely writes his letters in a form or outline that aligns with our western sensibilities. There is a basic structure to Paul’s letters (things like a Greeting, Salutation, and Thanksgiving), but this doesn’t keep him from sometimes bursting into doxology, admonishing a brother, and mining a theological truth--and all in one sentence! Thus, when I teach through Paul’s letters, which I often do, I seldom go verse-by-verse through an entire letter. Our treatment of Philippians is no exception. We are indeed covering most verses of this joy-filled letter, but we will jump around a bit, addressing the major teachings of the letter. Each topic will be addressed as a straightforward question with a provocative answer. Like this:
What is Salvation?
Salvation is Work in Grace
What is Joy?
What is Love?
What is Friendship?
Community Group Conversation Guide
My hope is that our community group leaders will follow this conversation guide each week during this series, would attempt to memorize Philippians 1:1-11, and would take up the summons to a weekly action or spiritual practice.
- Practice the Scripture Memory Passage (Philippians 1:1-11).
- Answer the question: How did the practice or collective action committed to last week draw you closer to Jesus and more deeply into His mission?
- Read this week’s passages two times through.
- Pray: Ask God to illumine your heart and prepare your mind for discussion.
Questions for Exploration:
- What stands out to you / disrupts you / grabs your attention in the Scripture? (Everyone who would like to, share. Please take less than 1 minute per person to share as this section is intended to be brief.)
- How is God’s Word connecting to your life / your work / your neighbors in this moment? (Read this question and then read the Scripture passage again for a third time. Take a moment to ponder the passage. Then, take 1 minute each to share.)
- Particular Questions for each week’s discussion:
- Week 1: What is Salvation? How does this definition both affirm and challenge you?
- Week 2: What is Freedom? How does this definition both affirm and challenge you?
- Week 3: What is Joy? How does this definition both affirm and challenge you?
- Week 4: What is Love? How does this definition both affirm and challenge you?
- Week 5: What is Unity? How does this definition both affirm and challenge you?
- Week 6: What is Friendship? How does this definition both affirm and challenge you?
- Week 7: What is Contentment? How does this definition both affirm and challenge you?
- Week 8: What is Good Citizenry? How does this definition both affirm and challenge you?
Questions for Discernment:
- What themes are arising for the group? How might the Holy Spirit be raising something to your collective awareness?
(Devote the rest of your time to this question and the last one.)
- In light of this week’s passage and theme, what action or spiritual practice is God calling you to that you can commit to individually or collectively this week?
- Pray through Paul’s Prayer in Philippians 1:9-11 each week.
Works and Authors Explored
William Barclay, The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians.
Tim Keller, Making Sense of God.
Os Guinness’ many works and thoughts on freedom
Frank Thielman, Philippians (The NIV Application Commentary).
Ben Witherington, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary.