“From Rome with love”. This is Paul’s email (using the technology of his day) to the household churches in the province of Philippi, a prosperous Roman colony in Macedonia. Any citizen of Philippi was automatically given Roman citizenship and they were immensely proud of this. They acted as more ‘Roman’ than the people in Rome, insisting on speaking Latin and supporting all the traditions and ceremonies that went on in the centre of the empire. Many retired centurions lived there and were inevitably intensely patriotic and supportive of the emperor. There were so few Jews that they were not – even by their own laws – permitted to establish a synagogue. Therefore, Paul was writing almost exclusively to Gentile believers in Christ and so did not quote the Old Testament at all.
He wrote this letter in about AD 61, probably from Rome (see 4:22) and probably from his position of ‘house arrest’, where he lived in relative freedom for at least two years, before being released. His purpose in writing was to thank the Philippians for the generous financial gift that they had sent him. But it was also to warn the churches to avoid the doctrines of Jewish legalists and also a sect called Antinomians, who had a very lax and permissive lifestyle. Paul reminds the Christians that persecution ‘goes with the territory’, and that they should not be discouraged by his own circumstances (imprisoned) nor theirs (persecuted).
I will pick out a selection of verses that mean a lot to me – but there are many others; this letter is full of spiritual ‘protein’ which could take months to digest!
1:5 “…because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now…”. Paul rated the Philippian believers as full partners in God’s mighty enterprise of saving the lost. They participated by preaching the gospel in their own city, just as Paul was doing in Rome; also by praying for him and by sending financial support (at great personal sacrifice) to Paul and his other churches. These are ways in which we can also be full partners in the gospel in our day.
1:6 “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus”. Paul is underlining that God has done something for his people – by sending his Son to die for their sins – the beginning of the good work – but that he is now continuing to do a good work in them, by the activity of the Holy Spirit. When the Lord starts a task, he sees it through! He is the Initiator, the Sustainer, and the Completer of our salvation.
1:9 “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ”. In a narrow sense, ‘Love’ is not enough; it needs to be focused and steered. As we increase in knowledge and depth of insight, our motives and our understanding will line up and we will really start to accomplish God’s will in God’s way. Since we can only live 24 hours per day, and 80-ish years in a lifetime, we only have time for God’s ‘best’. Life is too short for the ‘good’ if it gets in the way of the ‘best’. For most of us believers, then, the ‘good’ is a far more dangerous enemy than the ‘bad’. (Think about it!)
1:13, 14, 18 “As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear… The most important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached”. Paradoxically, persecution galvanizes the soul and focusses the mind. People decide what they believe and then ‘nail their colours to the mast’. Also, the delivery of the gospel does not depend on mankind’s pure motives (or it would never get anyone saved!), but on God’s predetermined mercy.
1:21-24 “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in this body, this will mean fruitful labour for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body”. Paul was so committed to Christ and so close to him that it was almost irrelevant which side of the ‘Great Divide’ (physical death) he dwelt on. To continue living on earth was better for his fellow believers and for the spread of the gospel; to ‘depart’ would give Paul more joy and pleasure, since he would see his Lord all the time. In the end, the servant heart of Paul wins out and he ‘decides’ to stick around. But this passage does tell us two more things: (1) Initially, when we die, we relinquish our mortal bodies and are temporarily dis-embodied (see also 2 Corinthians 5:6-9). But ultimately, all the saints who have ‘fallen asleep’ will inherit a perfect new heavenly body, along with those remaining on earth when Christ returns (see 1 Corinthians 15). (2) Physical death was of very little concern to Paul, since he knew that he would remain conscious and continue to live in a relationship with Christ – all the more so!
1:29 “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him…”. Just as we read in Ephesians 2:8, our saving faith is a gift from God, not something we generate from within. That should make us enormously thankful and grateful to the Lord. But another part of the ‘package’ is ‘Suffering’, which is not an aberration in the Christian life, but an integral part of it in the present age. This also is a gift from God to us since suffering for Him is counted as a privilege!
ZEPHANIAH 1, 2 and 3
One of Hezekiah’s great great grandsons, and born in the reign of Manasseh, Zephaniah prophesied during the early reign of Josiah. This meant that he had Jeremiah, Nahum and possibly Habakkuk as his fellow-prophets. Zephaniah means ‘Hidden by the Lord’ or ‘Protected by the Lord’ – which may have been a very apt name for a boy born to a god-fearing family during Manasseh’s reign of terror! Zephaniah’s prophecy is likely to have been made early in the Josiah’s reign, before the great reforms and rebuilding of faith in God had been started by the king.
The main theme is the impending judgment of the Lord on Judah and on the surrounding nations and empires; like many prophecies it ‘telescopes’ into the final Day of the Lord on the whole of earth. The message is that God’s punishment will come like a tsunami upon the region, and that a remnant of Judah will be saved and restored by the Lord. This message is punctuated by more cataclysmic threats concerning the whole earth: “I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth… When I destroy all mankind on the face of the earth” (1:2-3).
He reserves his fiercest judgment for the Baal worshippers and those who bow down to Molech. Many of the locals practised syncretism – the worship of one’s own gods mixed in with worship of neighbouring gods, just to ‘hedge your bets’ – and even Solomon was not innocent in this regard (1 Kings 11:7).
He promises to punish those who practise superstition – “…all who avoid stepping on the threshold” (1:9), which was a pagan custom of the day. These days we might consider ‘touching wood’ or avoiding the joins in the pavement slabs as being similarly abhorrent to the Lord. Superstition is ‘super-stupid’ when you are trusting in a sovereign God; he is not impressed with rituals, with silly rules and with a multiplicity of words. Neither is he impressed with those who are complacent, who think that God ignores their ‘white lies’, their tax evasion, their selfishness, and their outward show. But the ‘day of distress’ will come upon all people on the whole earth!
Chapter two follows as a call to repentance for the nation of Judah – rather like Jonah pleaded (eventually) with Nineveh: “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, you who do what he commands. Seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you will be sheltered on the day of the Lord’s anger”. Just as God promised Abraham that he would spare Sodom if he found only ten righteous men in it (and He didn’t), he often spares whole societies because of the presence of a few of his faithful people living in their midst. Even a small amount of salt and light can keep a nation pure and honest.
Meanwhile the other surrounding nations will be destroyed totally. Nineveh was so completely devastated that its site was virtually forgotten until recently modern times when Eighteenth Century archaeological excavations revealed it. Chapter three continues in the vein of destruction, targeting Jerusalem especially since, those to whom much is given, are expected to produce much more fruit!
Then in 3:9 onwards, the compassion of God is directed as the remnant of his people, who have been faithful to him throughout the ages. Jerusalem will be cleansed and then re-peopled with the meek and humble; with those who trust in the Lord. “Sing, Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm… The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you but will rejoice over you with singing”. (3:14, 16, 17).
God promises them a final homeland at a place where heaven meets earth forever; the places that we call home are only temporary ‘tents’ – and we must realise that we can never truly be ‘at home’ anywhere in this age. Our destiny, our calling, our true homeland is located in the Age to Come, and we waste our time looking for and expecting to find some kind of perfection or ‘heaven on earth’ in this present age. Get on with the task at hand and hasten the Day of the Lord’s coming!