Last night at Collide, we began a new series called Euphoria about the book of Philippians. As part of our launch of the series, Dawn Sherill put together some background info on the setting of the book. We thought we’d share her notes, which include more than what she had time to share Sunday night, here on the blog:
These events did not happen in a vacuum. We’re talking about real people dealing with real life in the real world. So it’s important to understand what was going on in the world around them.
Philippians is a letter than was written by Paul. He was Pharisee (a Jewish religious leader) who persecuted Christians. Then He met the very much alive Jesus Christ and became a believer himself. He eventually became an amazing missionary, taking this good news of Jesus all over his world. He encountered persecution, harsh conditions, even imprisonment…but somehow kept an unexpected attitude of joy, even in the midst of the craziness.
He took three major missionary journeys. During his second journey, he had a “night-time vision” of a Macedonian man calling him to “come help us.” So Paul headed to Macedonia (we’re talking the area of Greece, South East Europe). With him were 3 guys named Silas, Timothy, and Luke (yep, that Luke who wrote the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. To read about this part of the 2nd missionary journey, you can read Acts 16). The leading city in Macedonia was Philippi. It was in a strategic location, and even more important, was a Roman colony, which made it pretty special. Way back in the day, Octavian (Julius Caesar’s nephew who took over after he got taken out) declared the city a Roman colony and populated it with Vets from his army (after he defeated Brutus and Cassius) and then about 10 years later with Vets from Marc Antony’s army (Marc Antony had joined with Cleopatra and fought Octavian, who took them out). So he gave this city special Roman privileges and therefore the city was very loyal to the Roman government and customs. And they got some pretty sweet perks as well…such as sometimes being exempt from taxes and having legal privileges of Roman citizens, just as if they lived in Italy (the Roman government gave Roman citizens much better rights than those people just living under Roman rule). So there was a lot of civic pride and special standing in this city. Fast forward from about 30 BC to about 50 AD (about 80 years) and here we have Paul introducing the Gospel to Europe here in Philippi.
His typical MO was to go into a new city and go the Synagogue. But there were no synagogues in Philippi. However, he did find some “God-fearing” women meeting by the river to pray. Now another interesting thing about this area is that women seem to have had a much more significant role in public life than in most other areas at this time. As to why they were meeting out of the way at the river, it’s possible that because worship of the Emperor was such a huge part of the Roman religious life, most people in Philippi probably weren’t that open to expressions of religious customs or practices at all related to Judaism. So this is the culture.
One of the leading women Paul and his crew met was a merchant named Lydia. She was pretty well off and even invited them to stay at her home. This generosity of Lydia foreshadows the generosity that the Philippian church would become known for.
Then they met some more interesting people. There was a slave girl with a demon and Paul and Silas cast it out of her. Her owners then accused them of going against Roman culture (remember how important that was here). They didn’t realize that Paul was a Roman citizen so he and Silas were beaten and thrown in jail. While in jail, we get a glimpse of this ridiculous joy Paul had, even in times of challenge. Instead of pouting or complaining or any of a ton of other reactions, Paul and Silas were singing praises to God. Imagine what that sounded like to the other prisoners!
Then an earthquake came and released the shackles of the prisoners, and the prison doors. The jailer, had he lost all his prisoners, could have been killed, and so was about to kill himself. So imagine his relief when he finds out that they are all still there! This is such a witness to him that he becomes a believer and then so does the rest of his household! (I imagine when he asked Paul, “what do I do to be saved” that it must have been Paul’s favorite question he ever heard, “Well, I’m glad you asked….”)
If we look at these first three people that we’re introduced to, we see three different “strata” of society: Lydia, the high class merchant; then the Middle class jailer; and then the lower classed slave girl. So this new church that Paul was planting could seem to have a challenge to figure out how to be unified in the middle of such a stratified and “class-based” culture. But from the beginning of Lydia opening her home, this church was always very generous and loving to Paul, and he loved them back. He often used them as a good example in his letters to other churches.
But it was a journey, so Paul and his traveling companions left. But during his 3rd missionary journey, a few years later, he got to visit them again. But then around 60-62, we find Paul in prison. He was awaiting his sentence, which could mean he would be executed. But we don’t find a Paul who had a despondent or angry attitude. We again find a Paul with joy. A divine Euphoria you might say. The joy of Christ in the midst of trial and challenge.
The Philippian church had heard that Paul was in jail, so they sent a messenger named Epaphroditus to bring Paul monetary support and to help him while he was in jail. But on this journey, Epaphroditus got deathly sick and almost died. Don’t worry, he lived. Once he reached Paul, it seems that in addition to the money, he also gave him an update on how the church was doing. So Paul wrote this letter back to the Philippians, to tell them “Thank You,” to let them know that he was sending Epaphroditus back because he wanted them to know he was okay, and that he should get a hero’s welcome; and he also addressed some things going on in the church. In addition to being so generous, even out of their poverty, they did have some challenges.
There was persecution from their Roman neighbors and also the sense that they were still struggling with unity. We already saw how that could be a challenge in their setting, but it seems as if there was also a disagreement between two ladies in the church (Euodia and Syntyche), which may have been threatening to infect the whole church. Paul wanted them to nip this issue before it became a cause of church division. He warns them that this lack of joy and this disunity could only work to harm their witness and make it harder to withstand the persecution they were facing. Paul wanted them to know that even though the suffering and challenges were real, so to was the joy of Christ real and available, no matter the circumstances. Paul was in chains and still had this joy, so he was a great picture of that! And he loved the Philippians and wanted them to live in this joy and to stand as one, united in Christ.
So as we go into this study, just remember this was a real guy writing to real people he loved about Truth he knew to be real. And this joy, (this divine Euphoria) that so passionately infiltrated Paul’s life and teaching comes from the same God that knows, loves, and can provide the same for us.