The trouble of joy

The trouble of joy

by Andy Constable

Philippians is one of my favourite books in the Bible. It’s one of the first books that I read when I became a Christian and I remember it challenging me so much. I’ve been preaching through this book on Sunday evenings over the last year and I want to share with you some of the things that I’ve been learning. The first thing I want to look at is the subject of joy and this is split into two parts: why Paul should not be joyful and then next week why Paul is joyful.

Why Paul should not be joyful?

Philippians is known as the joyful letter. When you read this letter joy, love and fellowship jumps off the page. In the first eleven verses of chapter one words like thanksgiving, joy, partnership, grace, affection, abounding, glory and praise are used. Paul is genuinely hopeful and content in life. He writes in Philippians 4:11b “for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” This is a surprising statement when you consider the circumstances around Paul’s life.

Firstly Paul has had years of persecution since becoming a Christian. 2 Corinthians 11:23-29 gives us a long list of sufferings including- plots to kill him, imprisonment, countless beatings almost to death, he has received 40 lashings minus 1, 3 times he has been beaten with rods, once he has been stoned, 3 times shipwrecked, danger, robbers, sleepless nights, hunger, cold…he has faced it all. Let me describe what would happen when Paul received the 40 lashes minus 1 because we don’t really get the gravity of this in our modern day context. The whip that was used for this punishment had multiple tails. Each tail would have had pieces of bone and metal embedded in it. These would dig into the flesh when the whip was applied and pull bits of flesh out of the prisoners back when they were drawn back. Paul’s back would have been obliterated by the time he had received the full 39 lashes. Whip, metal goes into the flesh, pull back flesh. Whip, metal goes into the flesh, the whip pulls back the flesh. 39 times. Many people died from the pain of one whipping. Paul received it five times throughout his life. So imagine, if you want, just as he had survived and recovered from the first whipping. The flesh had just about grown back on his back and its all soft and tender because its new skin. Then Paul receives another whipping. This man received some beatings for his faith. He had experienced pain beyond what many of us will ever experience.

Secondly Paul is in prison while writing to the Philippians. He has been put in prison for sharing the gospel in the Roman Empire. He is actually facing the possibility of death as he awaits trial with Emperor Nero. This was a time when Christians were being burnt alive for their beliefs in Christ. And Prison today would have been nothing compared to the conditions faced by Paul in Rome. Today you have recreational activities, a certain amount of time in daylight, decent enough food and beds to sleep in. A prisoner in the Roman period had no light in his cell and was in total darkness 24/7, prisons were often overcrowded meaning a comfortable nights sleep was out of the question – the most a prisoner would have got in terms of bedding would have been a thin pallet of wood on the floor, Paul would have been chained up to other prisoners or to the wall at all times –the chains weighed 7 kilograms each and this plus the malnutrition in the cells meant the chains would cut into the wrists and cause great pain, there would have been a lack of food and drink and certainly no toilets. When somebody died they would have just put them in the corner until they were taken away. So Paul was facing a very grim time in prison.

Thirdly, Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 11:28: “Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.” In a hostile world for new Christians Paul was constantly concerned that his churches held onto the gospel and preached the message faithfully. Two of the biggest problems at the time was disunity and false teachers and the church in Phillipi were facing both. There was a kind of prosperity gospel being preached  by local false teachers (Philippians 3:18-19) and there was in house fighting between two of the women (Philippians 4:2-3). This troubled Paul greatly as he loved Jesus and wanted him to be honoured in his church.

Paul was really facing some tough times to say the least- persecution, prison and problems in the church. But surprisingly Paul isn’t dismayed, in despair, depressed or on the verge of suicide. He says he has learned to be content. This letter and Paul is full of joy. We will find out why next week!