Background to the Letter
This is a profound letter written by Paul. Rarely do we take the time to think about the conditions under which this letter was written in Philippi, but it is important to analyze the context of the author a bit in order to understand the why and the intentions behind the words.
Paul is sent to prison, not for a crime like endangering public safety or slandering a fellow citizen, but for preaching the gospel. His faithfulness to his calling and vocation lead him into an extreme situation that results in a prison sentence. His stay in prison while awaiting trial and a verdict creates such uncertainty about the future for him that it comes through in his words, “dying is gain” (Philippians 1:20-24). Just as death is a preferable outcome for any prisoner under extreme conditions, the challenge becomes to remain alive and make sense of suffering. Paul’s conviction about his mission and purpose in life enables him to overcome the situation and go beyond himself so that the mission can be accomplished in spite of the circumstances (1:12-14).
Paul refers to two people who are accompanying him during this difficult time. One is Timothy (Philippians 1:1) and the other is Epaphroditus (2:25) who is sent as Paul’s representative to the church and from whom he received help in his hour of need.
There are a number of first-century literary texts that speak about ancient prisons. They were cramped spaces, with little air movement, over-crowded, dark, gross and unsanitary. Prisoners were subjected to physical and mental torture, chained up with irons about their hands, feet and neck. They were under military guard and sometimes even chained to a soldier. Execution was often delayed in order to torture the prisoner more, allowing them to live with uncertainty as to when they will be condemned (Philippians 1:20). Prestigious prisoners had it better since they were free of chains. However, according to the testimony in Acts (16:22-24), the imprisonment of Paul and Silas was not that of the privileged classes. So, this gives us an idea of what kind of experience Paul was living through as he wrote this letter.
This letter is written to the church in Philippi, mainly addressed to the bishops, deacons and other interested parties. The use of words like bishops and deacons indicates that the Church was already fairly organized with some kind of established structure. It is possible that this organization was influenced by the structure of other Greek groups (1:1-2). It is a church that was founded by Paul and to which he feels very close (4:1). The letter is full of compliments and words of love and friendship (1:3,12). Something that stands out in the letter is the invocation to rejoice which makes us ask: How can Paul invoke joy and urge his readers to rejoice while being in the predicament that he is in? Another question that arises is: What difficulties have led this church, which has provided so much satisfaction to Paul, to lose their joy so that Paul must call them to recover or maintain it?
Loving another with whom one has a history full of experiences, satisfactions and mutual growth is what can urge one to put one’s self aside and think about the other even under hurtful and risky conditions, as was the case with Paul. This is one of the reasons why Paul is not thinking about where he is, or his possible death, or the daily suffering of this terrible place. His concern for others is what motivates him to write and encourage them to continue growing until they reach their goal (3:12-15).
I would like to highlight three important ideas that this letter shows us are of concern to Paul:
To be careful of religious people who impose rituals (the Jews) as if this were more important than following Jesus (3:1-10);
To continue to be joyful in the Lord (3:1); and
To demonstrate his gratitude for all the support that they have given him during these difficult times by sending them Epaphroditus (2:25-30).
It is through these lenses that we can enter into the text for this year that invites us to review and find important dimensions of the peace that surpasses all understanding.
What crisis situations exist in life that will lead us to experience the peace of God?
Reina is the name of a Cameroonian woman who braved the journey from her country, as many others do, in order to pursue the “American Dream” that she believed would result in an abundant life and well being. The first country where she landed was Brazil. Here she could stay for a year and one half, working and saving money so that she could continue her journey towards the USA. She tells how difficult it was because she could not speak Portuguese. But she learned it and her will and dressmaking skills enabled her to work as an upholsterer. In this way she was able to earn a bit of money and also make some friends.
She started her journey through Latin America, suffering hardship, hunger and dangers. Soon her money was up and she asked a Brazilian friend to lend her $100 USD that she promised to pay back. In this way she was able to continue. The journey was long and filled with danger. She says that in Panama she was given only one hour to cross the country, and she was deported many times before she managed it. She says that the most dangerous country for her was Colombia. It was risky passing through guerilla zones and crossing abandoned places and she saw many people around her die. In Nicaragua, she was robbed and was given only a handful of rice when someone had compassion on her. There were many good people in Mexico who helped her, but there were also places that had to be traversed very carefully.
When she finally got to the border, she applied for asylum and was taken to a detention center where she stayed for one year (GEO Detention Center in Aurora, Colorado).
There she had everything she needed. She learned more Spanish and some English. Even so, relationships were difficult because she had no family and no future. She couldn’t keep her process going because she had no identification papers. She thought that they were stolen from her along the way. But, her faith increased and she had hope that God would help her. A stranger by the name of Maria, who lived in the USA, offered to help her and be her support, but for that she needed identification.
Reina didn’t have any and she asked only one thing, that Maria call her friend in Brazil to tell her that she has not forgotten her debt and that when she leaves the detention center she will work to pay back what she owes. It is in this way that Maria called Brazil, explained Reina’s situation and to her great surprise discovered that Reina left her identification in Brazil! A miracle! This enabled the process to continue and allowed Reina to be released to continue her political asylum process. At every turn in the story, the phrase “Only God” would come out of her mouth. With every situation that she mentioned she would say, “Only God saves, heals, cares for, loves and frees.” She said it with such conviction and firmness, and her eyes shone with the joy, surprise and admiration that goes with seeing the miracle in every situation where God intervened. There was no human explanation, only the sincere faith in the One in whom she believes.
How can there be so much peace in the midst of so much suffering?
And not just in those who experience it, but that they are also moved to inspire and motivate those around them to live and experience that peace that only comes from above? But, how is does this peace come about?
I. A call to experience this peace that passes all understanding.
Paul is in prison, in chains, under conditions that probably most of us have never experienced. In any critical situation two ways of living with the difficulties can be observed: a) Be the victim: only look at yourself, suffer for yourself and tell all those around you how much you are suffering so that they see your condition. Be a victim and wait for others around you to move because of what has happened to you, or b) Take care of yourself and get to work. Another way, be concerned about yourself while always thinking about those around you and those who are left out.
A crisis situation creates uncertainty and pain about the future (it could be physical or emotional). However, love for others, be it for family, friends, church, etc., enables the person to overcome the situation and leads to deep reflections on their own behalf and on behalf of those around them. It is the presence of God that nourishes and orients, producing a peace that can be felt, making the impossible possible; a peace that allows the heart to trust, be secure, be saved and be well, in spite of the circumstances.
The chains, the military watch, the physical space of prison, the uncertainty about the sentence – whether life or death – do not prevent Paul from lifting his eyes and seeing his beloved brothers and sisters in Philippi and being concerned for them.
II. How this deep peace comes about
Accompanying with love and friendship
Paul is accompanied by Timothy, and he tells us about this in different moments and circumstance, including now in prison. It would seem that the condition of prisoner allows him to have the presence of Timothy. He also received Epaphroditus (3:25-27) who represents the beloved church in Philippi. They send resources to meet Paul’s needs and through Epaphroditus he receives the affection that the church sends to him (4:15-17).
Paul pleads with his loyal companion (whose name is not mentioned) to be a mediator for two women who worked with Clement and others in forming a group to preach the gospel. Now Euodia and Scyntyche have their differences and are separated. Paul in prison knows about this and sends these lines to promote reconciliation. He understands the importance of people living in the peace of God through dialogue and reconciliation.
The situation in prison does not stop him from rejoicing as he remembers the church that he loves and he asks them too to rejoice in the Lord, insisting: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” This insistence is a call to pay attention and do it. The chains cannot limit the joy that our memories of close relationships with people far away produce.
Do not worry but pray (4:6)
Paul could be communicating worry in this letter, but it is the complete opposite. The letter reflects a Paul who trusts fully in the Lord in the midst of his adversity. Even though the circumstances are difficult and the future is very uncertain, he trusts and has faith in the Lord.
With all of the above we can experience that deep peace that surpasses all understanding.
III. The surpassing peace
Verse 7 begins with an “And”, the purpose of which is to show what it means to experience the peace that surpasses all understanding.
“And”, means: Accompany in love and friendship, be reconciled, express joy, don’t worry; rather, pray. All of this leads to an experience of the peace that surpasses all understanding.
This declaration comes out of extreme conditions like: the prison of Paul, the route Reina traveled through Latin America while facing the threat of death, the 16th-century Anabaptists who could sing in the face of death and historical figures near and far who, through their life and witness, demonstrate the peace that passes all understanding.
Today, extreme situations can be found in every land and context. This beautiful passage echoes in our lives again calling us to live the peace that passes all understanding and guarding our hearts in Jesus Christ, who is our Lord.
What extreme situation do you live with in your context when this profound peace of God is felt?
May you bear witness to your experiences of the peace that surpasses all understanding in the midst of crisis and conflict that life produces.
—Rebeca González Torres (Mexico)
This article is part of the Peace Sunday worship resource for 2019. Click here to see more.