by Denise Teal
Philipians 1: 12-26
An unknown author once wrote “Be an encourager. The world has enough critics already.” When we look at Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the word “encouragement” stands clear. In the first part of Phil.1, Paul is starting a letter to a church in Philippi that was going through some trials. It was Paul’s first “plant” but he was many miles away. It is similar to many letters with its greeting; thanks for sending any help and a bit about how things are with the writer.
But Paul is in prison awaiting trial. People didn’t go to first century prison to be punished. They were awaiting trial or execution, either of which can take a long time. I’m sure most people in prison there had good reason to be miserable.
Paul was in miserable circumstances but he was not miserable. He was under house arrest on trumped up charges awaiting a trail whose outcome could result in his execution. We are not sure where he was, but his trial would be in the presence of Nero, whose attitude towards Christians would not have been kindly. On the way to Rome, Paul had experienced shipwreck, being bitten by a poisonous snake, and spent another two years waiting for his trial. In prison, he would have no privacy. Every few hours there would be a different praetorian guard. He would be chained up. If someone didn’t send food and money, he wouldn’t eat. Back in his beloved church at Philippi, 700 miles or so distant, tensions were building.
There were people with designs on leadership; preaching Christ “out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defence of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition… supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains.” (Phil.1:15-17)
But Paul had something in his favour. The Philippians loved and cared about him enough to send food, money and fellow workers to his prison and Paul guided them from afar.
There would be people on the inside, metaphorically snapping at Paul’s heels to preach their way; and plenty of people outside the Philippian church… wanting to muddy the reputation of this growing faith; offering Roman PC alternatives that were ‘in vogue’ to keep up their social ‘standing’ there. Does any of that sound familiar, today? But it’s not good if Christians can’t agree. A church starts to take sides and forget why they are there; unity lost, to personal differences. Paul sensed this happening in Philippi, even among Christian converts.
Despite his own lockdown, how did Paul deal with division? He implied “do nothing”. (V.18) A unified church finds the good in people…the talents that work for Christ and brings them out.
Like us, Paul has a bigger priority…to encourage things that give us hope for our life with Jesus. Encouragement keeps hope on the go, doesn’t divide the church and doesn’t drive anyone away.
Paul’s letters have every indication that he was speaking as a confident, respected and loved leader to a church that listened to him.
What can we learn from Paul’s letter to this church? It can be summarized in the word “encouragement”. Throughout it, Paul is encouraging the people of Philippi to live lives obedient to God, in ways that are uplifting to one another. He is full of hope. He explains how his imprisonment has done a great deal to advance the Gospel. (Phil.1:12-18) Paul is confident of his faith and joyful in it. In v 19, Paul encourages the things that work in our faith…he continues to rejoice because he knows that prayer and the spirit of Jesus are im-portant to any growing church.
We grow together when we’re encouraged to think as Paul did. That’s Christian encouragement at its best! Even in lockdown, social distancing and all its difficulties…Paul’s words encourage us to be unified in faith: Phil.1:.27: “stand firm in one spirit, striving together with one accord for the faith of the gospel”. What if our encouraging words are the only source of strength in someone’s difficult day?
After all, “It’s not who we challenge… it’s how we serve”.
Prayer: Father, we all have needs, but we pray that we will look beyond ourselves to others, as Paul did. Make us aware of how we might offer encouragement to those that are struggling to cope, this week. Amen