The Thickest Joy on Earth

Why We Love Philippians

Cities Church | Saint Paul

When the apostle Paul first came to town, the city of Philippi was famous for its connections to two of the greatest emperors of the ancient world: Alexander the Great and Caesar Augustus.

Paul came to Philippi in the winter 49–50 AD, to a population of about ten thousand (sizable but smaller than Thessalonica and Corinth), and when he wrote this letter ten years later, I don’t think it was lost on Paul how significant it was to be writing to “saints in Philippi.” That is, to Christians alive and well in no obscure city. The planting and growth and endurance of the church in the city of Philippi represented gospel advance deep into the Roman empire.

The city, founded about 350 years before Christ, was about 8 miles northwest of the port city Neapolis, in the region called Macedonia. The city was named for Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. Alexander conquered Greece in 338 BC and spread its language around the known world. So, when this city, named after Alexander’s father, received a letter from Paul, almost four centuries later, in the Greek language, it was (in part) because of Alexander.

But long past were the days of Alexander. The Romans took Philippi in 168 BC, and the city’s real claim to fame came in 42 BC, at the Battle of Philippi, when armies of Brutus and Cassius, who had assassinated Julius Caesar, were defeated by the coalition of Marc Antony and Octavian (who would become Augustus). After that, Philippi became a Roman colony, and located along the queen of long roads in the Roman empire, the city became the gateway between Asia and Europe. Far more important than history, it was a strategic city in terms of travel. Then enter Christianity in the first century.

The reason the world knows and remembers Philippi today is not because of Alexander the Great, and not because of Julius Caesar and Marc Antony and Augustus. The world remembers Philippi because of Jesus. His apostle Paul showed up there and planted his first church in Europe, and then years later wrote them this letter which we have in the New Testament.

Who, Whom, and Why?

Let me just say, I love Philippians. I have a history with this book, and that in my most formative season of life. And I know I’m not alone. Many of us love this book, for a handful of reasons, and what I’d like to do in this sermon is celebrate several of those reasons why so many of us love Philippians — and why the pastors think this book in particular meets us in our life as a church here in the first half of 2024.

So, let’s take this twofold approach this morning, to introduce this Philippians series: First, I’d like to answer three questions from verses 1 and 2, and then finish with four reasons why so many of us love Philippians. So, here are three key questions from verses 1–2: (1) What do we know about the recipients of this letter? (2) Why is this letter from Paul “and Timothy,” and not just Paul? (3) What do they hope this letter will accomplish?

1. Who Received This Letter?

First, what do we know about the recipients of this letter? Verse 1 says the letter is “to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.” As for Philippi, Acts 16 tells the story of Paul first coming to the city, and the unusual circumstances of his coming there, and the conversion of Lydia and a jailer. But that was ten years before this letter, and I don’t think that amazing story actually plays much into this letter a decade later.

It is significant, however, that Paul writes “to all the saints,” that is, to the whole church. He could have written only or mainly to the leaders, but he writes to the whole church, “to all the saints” (as he usually does in his letters). So, we might say this letter is congregational, not presbyterian.

And yet, even though the whole letter is to the whole church, Paul does hat-tip the leaders and mentions two offices (and note both terms are in the plural): “with the overseers and deacons.” These two offices are the same two specified in 1 Timothy 3, where we find qualifications for both, with “able to teach” being the main difference in the requirements. Overseers (or “pastors,” or “elders”) comprise the lead or teaching office in the church, while the deacons are the assisting office.

2. Why Two Authors?

Why is this letter from Paul “and Timothy,” and not just Paul? The first part of verse 1 says the letter is from “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus . . .” Paul is the apostle. He met the risen Jesus on the Damascus Road. Timothy is a younger associate that Paul picked up in Derbe not long before he first showed up in Philippi. So, why would Paul, the apostle (the one who really matters, it seems) have the letter come from both him and Timothy, his junior partner?

First, consider Paul’s magnanimous spirit. Rather than highlight his special authority, and exclude his collaborator, Paul is secure enough, and generous enough, to include Timothy with him. Now, Timothy (along with Silas and Luke) had been with him at that first trip to Philippi. So, the Philippians knew Timothy. And as we’ll see in chapter 2, Paul hopes to send Timothy back to Philippi soon to check in on them (Philippians 2:19).

Timothy also likely served as Paul’s assistant in composing this letter. He may have been the secretary as Paul dictated the letter. Ancient letter writing was not anything like writing emails, where you dash something off in a few minutes. Writing an epistle in the ancient world was like publishing a book — it was a long, involved, expensive process. Paul, together with Timothy, would have drafted the letter; then re-read and edited; then re-read again; then carefully written out a final copy. So, Timothy likely was involved significantly in producing the letter, like an editor and publisher would be for a new book today.

But again, Paul is the apostle. And generous as he is to include Timothy in the process and to name him here at the beginning, at the end of the day the letter comes under Paul’s apostolic authority. He signs off on everything in it. It represents him, and the risen Christ, from beginning to end. He speaks in the first person in verse 3, and speaks of Timothy in the third person in chapter 2.

So, with Timothy listed here with Paul, “apostles” doesn’t fit them together. But together they are “servants of Christ Jesus.” Servants here is the same word for slaves (douloi), which pairs with Lord or Master (kurios). For Paul and Timothy to call themselves slaves is to say something about their Lord. Jesus is Lord, he is kurios; therefore, they are douloi, slaves.

Jesus is said to be Lord at the end of verse 2 — grace and peace come from “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” The one who was so clearly fully human, just two decades before walking the roads of Galilee and the streets of Jerusalem, teaching with wisdom and authority, performing signs and wonders, suffering and dying, and purportedly rising again — this man is exalted alongside “God our Father” as the divine source of the grace and peace Paul extends to the saints in Philippi. Which leads to our third and final question.

3. What Was the Letter’s Purpose?

What do Paul and Timothy want this letter to accomplish? Verse 2: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” As we’ll see in the coming months, Paul has some specific manifestations of Christ’s grace and peace in mind when he thinks of the present needs in Philippi. We might summarize it as fresh joy in Christ, leading to humility and unity (following internal conflicts), leading then to joyful, effective witness in this Roman colony.

This “grace and peace” Paul means to come to them through words, through this letter. So, the letter doesn’t just begin with a prayer for grace and peace; the letter itself is designed by Paul to be grace and peace to them. Epaphroditus will carry this letter back to his home church (2:25–30). He had brought a gift to Paul from the Philippians (4:10, 14, 18), which was not their first gift to Paul. From the very beginning, the saints in Philippi had supported Paul (1:5; 4:15–16). These are clearly some of his best partners, which explains why this letter gushes with affection and joy. Paul deeply loves this church, and they make him happy. They are his “joy and crown” (4:1). If only all the churches could be like Philippi’s!

This most recent gift (of perhaps food and supplies) they sent with Epaphroditus while Paul’s in prison in Rome, and apparently somewhere along the way Epaphroditus got sick, and almost died. Now he’s recovered and can go back, so this becomes an opportunity to write to the Philippians, and extend grace and peace to them in several ways: Paul thanks them for their gift, he updates them on his status in Rome, he commends Epaphroditus for his service, he prepares the way for Timothy to come soon, and he addresses the internal tension that has emerged in the church.

From the beginning, there had been external opposition to the gospel in Philippi. Paul and Silas were beaten and imprisoned at the get-go. Now the church in Philippi is about ten years old, and conflict is threatening from within. As we’ll see in chapter 4, two prominent women in the church are at odds (and likely others as well). So, Paul hopes that this letter, with its exhortations to pursue humility and seek unity will be a means God uses to bring about fresh and greater peace in Philippi, and that Paul’s words, his teaching, his letter, will be a means of God’s grace to this church, a church with so much to appreciate and a few things to grow in.

So, Paul loved the Philippians. And it’s a contagious love. I think that’s part of why so many of us love Philippians — how can you not when the apostle Paul loves this church so much and has so much grace to celebrate?

Four Reasons We Love Philippians

So, let’s close, then, with four brief reasons why we love Philippians, which relates to what we need as a church right now, and why the pastors are so excited for this focus in the weeks ahead.


First, this is an epistle of joy. As we will see, this letter overflows with joy, with brightness, with warmth (in contrast with, say, Galatians!). In Philippians we have more explicit mentions of joy, gladness, and rejoicing in such a short space than anywhere else in the Bible. From the beginning, the whole epistle is warm and bright (even with the trouble that comes to the surface in chapters 1, 3, and 4).

And yet, in all this brightness and warmth and joy, this letter is written from prison in Rome. What an amazing person Jesus has made the apostle Paul. Singing at midnight in prison, after being beaten by rods. And now, ten years later, singing (in the form of this letter) while sitting in prison in Rome. So, don’t mistake the joy of Philippians for the thin pleasures of a carefree life. This joy is deep enough to survive and thrive in prison, in conflict, in struggle, in pain, in sickness, even in death.

Which really should put our lives — our little problems and our big ones, our complaints and pains — into perspective. The pastors’ prayer for us as we steep our souls in Philippians in these next five months is that Jesus would make us more like Paul. Beaten with rods, he sings. Imprisoned, he overflows with joy. Why? Not just because he had a buoyant personality, but because Jesus is Lord. The gospel is true. The Spirit is alive and poured out generously on those who love Jesus. God is sovereign. Christ is on the throne. He gives grace and peace and joy, even in the worst of earthly circumstances.

And I know it’s January, the coldest month. Winter is here, and we’re now entering into the thick of seasonal affective time (which is real, and especially in Minnesota). One of the reasons the pastors chose Philippians, bright, warm, deeply joyful, for such a time as this is to help us through this winter. So, we love Philippians because it’s an epistle of such deep joy.


Second, we love Philippians because it’s relatively brief (in contrast to, say, Hebrews!). Philippians is brief enough for a short, focused (but still deep) study. Philippians is just 104 verses, which, I promise you, is brief enough for anyone in this room to memorize — if you put the work in over time. There are 52 weeks in a year. That’s just two verses a week. You can do this. What better way to take on the sheer madness of a presidential election year than to memorize this brief epistle of deep, enduring joy?


Third, we love Philippians because it’s so accessible. It’s relatively easy to understand (in contrast to, say, Galatians, or Leviticus, or Hebrews — our last three series!).

We’ve been through a lot as a church. God’s grace has sustained us through a major capital campaign, and renovating our building, and losing three pastors last summer. The reason we chose Philippians for the first half of this year is that we hope this might be a time to refresh our souls. The last three books of the Bible have not been easy ones! Cities Church, you have done well, and it’s time for something more accessible. It’s time for Philippians, and we’re going to take it slow.


Finally, we love Philippians because of the memorable passages. From 1:6 to 2:12–13 to 3:12–14 to 4:19, how many remarkable verses and passages there are in Philippians. I made a list of my top 10 favorite verses in Philippians. It includes the four I just mentioned. It also includes 3:20–21 (on our citizenship being in heaven) and 4:4–8 (on not being anxious and setting our minds on the true, honorable, and just) and 4:11–13 (on all things through Christ who strengthens me), but let me end with my top three.

The first two reveal the heart of Paul for Jesus. As Christians, in our best moments, we want to be like this:

1:21: To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

3:7–8: Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.

In our best moments, when we are thinking our clearest, and our hearts are their purest, this too is what we want: for Christ to be our life, and to see death as gain because to depart and be with Christ is far better than being distant from him. And, with Paul, to count as loss anything else of gain we have in view of the surpassing value of knowing Jesus.

And how do we know him? The last memorable passage reveals the heart of Jesus, and leads us to the Table, Philippians 2, verses 6–11:

[Being] in the form of God, [Jesus] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The death he died was not for his sin; he had none. The death he died was for ours. And he went to the cross, as we saw in Hebrews, “for the joy set before him” (12:2). He humbled himself, knowing his Father would exalt him. He was obedient to death, knowing his Father would raise him, and reward him, and honor him, and honor himself in and through him — and that he would win for himself a people who trust in him.