Rejoice in the Battle: The Theme of Philippians
The Apostle Paul knew better than most the difficulties believers face for being faithful to the gospel. As he is imprisoned in Rome, Paul spends considerable time in his letter to the Church at Philippi encouraging the Philippian followers of Christ to consistently find joy in even the worst of circumstances and thanking them for their financial generosity. The chief way Paul chose to do this was by focusing on the theme of humility by pointing to Jesus as the ultimate example of finding joy through humility.
The theme is most apparent in Paul’s beautifully written poem in Philippians 2:6-11 concerning the humility and ultimate lordship of Christ. Paul believes that those who find joy through humility will work together for the advancement of the gospel (Philippians 1:12-30), consider others as more important than themselves (Philippians 2:1-4), eagerly await their heavenly citizenship (Philippians 3:18-21), and are enabled by Christ to endure all things (Philippians 4:11-14).
A Different Kind of Battle
The City of Philippi was in Macedonia, modern-day Greece. In October of 42 BC, Philippi became the site of a large battle in which Mark Antony and Octavian (who would later become the emperor Caesar Augustus who issued the census in Luke 2:1) defeated Brutus and Cassius, the leading assassins of Julius Caesar. Upon completion of the war, Philippi became a colony of veterans who fought in this battle.
Why does this matter? The background of the city helps us know and understand the theme of the letter to the Church at Philippi. Paul uses “military language” as the driving metaphor of the letter. A couple of quick examples of this: the Greek word for the “work” begun by Christ in 1:6 is the same word used for a “battle” and in 2:25, and Paul refers to his brother Epaphroditus as a “fellow soldier.”
We Work Together to Advance the Gospel
Philippians 1:6 shows us that Jesus is the one who began the battle, but it is our responsibility to live life in a manner worthy of Jesus, standing firm in one spirit, with one mind, “battling” side-by-side advancing the gospel (Philippians 1:27).
Paul reminds us that we will fight and suffer (Philippians 1:29), but we are also encouraged over 15 times to rejoice or have joy. How is this possible? How is it possible to have joy in the midst of the battle?
We Consider Each Other as More Important Than Ourselves
Paul begins Chapter 2 with an encouragement that the Philippians complete his joy by being unified in Christ. He urges them to do nothing out of rivalry or conceit but to consider others as more important than themselves. Rick Warren in his book, The Purpose Driven Life, explains humility in this way: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less. Humility is thinking more of others.”
Paul encourages believers to think the same way, have the same love, feel the same things, and focus on the same goal as Jesus. If we’re all doing this, no one will be lacking.
We Eagerly Await the Arrival of Our Heavenly Citizenship
In this letter, as well as several others, Paul informs believers that our difficulties in this world are temporary. There are those who live in surrender to Jesus, and there are those who, Paul describes as enemies of the cross whose god is their stomach and whose glory is their shame. These enemies are focused on earthly things.
As believers in Christ, we cannot be the same. We must, in contrast, “be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom [we] shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15). When we follow Paul’s encouragement in Colossians 3:1-4, we truly experience what is like to shine like lights in the world. Joyfully focusing on Christ instead of the things of this world is the epitome of understanding where our citizenship truly belongs.
We Are Enabled by Christ to Endure All Things
In one of the most beloved (but often taken out of context) verses in the letter, Paul gives a personal example of experiencing this joy in humble circumstances. He talks about how he has lived with very little and with abundance, and he knows the secret to enduring anything. He knows that our joy is not in our circumstances but in Christ alone (Philippians 4:12-13).
By saying that he can do all things through Christ, Paul is not saying that Jesus will allow him to do supernatural things (although Jesus did at times use Paul in miraculous ways like in Acts 19:11-12). We risk misunderstanding the promise of this text when we remove it from its context. This verse is not a guarantee of success no matter the obstacle you face, it’s a guarantee that Christ will be with you and will strengthen you in the midst of the battle.Philippians serves as constant encouragement to believers to ‘fight the good fight’ knowing that no matter what comes our way, Jesus is there fighting alongside us.Click To Tweet
Joyful humility causes believers to work together for the advancement of the gospel, consider others as more important than themselves, eagerly await their heavenly citizenship, and be enabled by Christ to endure all things. This theme of the letter to the Philippians serves as constant encouragement to believers throughout all time to “fight the good fight” knowing that no matter what comes our way, Jesus is there fighting alongside us.
Lucas Smith has served in full-time ministry since 2011 and holds MDiv and MA in Biblical Languages degrees from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. He currently serves as Associate Pastor of Youth and Families at Eastern Heights Baptist Church in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.