Letters were an extremely rare event in the ancient day. Couriers did not travel like the modern post office. Someone carried the letter personally from the sender to those receiving the letter. There would be an incredible excitement when a letter arrived because it was indeed a rare occasion. There must have been great excitement when Epaphroditus returned to Philippi with a letter from the Apostle Paul.
As we look at the Biblical text a number of important themes rise out of the letter to the Philippian church. Paul addresses five major themes over the course of the four short chapters.
1.) In Christ
The phrase in Christ appears eight different times through the letter to the Philippians and is one of the major themes that Paul addresses. The wording is important because Paul does not use in Jesus, by Jesus or even because of Jesus. Paul makes the usage in Christ for two important reasons. The first is that he is writing to Jewish converts to the faith. Making the claim that Jesus is the Christ or messiah was vital to the message Paul preached in Philippi and this was another way of reminding them of that fact.
The second reason is a bit more subtle but it is clear. Paul seems to making a clear connection to the benefit of being part of the church or body of Christ. One issue that Paul addresses with the church is unity. Communicating the fact that the believers had a common bond in Christ would go a long way in restoring the unity of the church.
Notice all of the things that Paul writes here that we gain by a relationship with Christ.
Believers are in Christ (1:1)
Our joy is in Christ (1:26)
Our glory is in Christ (3:3)
Our confidence or faith is in Christ (3:9)
Our hope is in Christ (3:14)
Our peace is in Christ (4:7)
Our reward or blessings are in Christ (4:19)
Our citizenship is in Christ (4:21)
Philippians is often called the epistle or letter of joy, for good reason. Paul writes extensively on the topic of joy in this letter. Paul uses the word joy or rejoice, 14 separate times and the theme flows in every chapter of the book. Considering the length of the letter Paul is clearly making a bold statement. The theme is a continual reminder to the Philippians that joy is to be a part of the Christian life and a constant aspect of the Christian walk. Each chapter is a vivid reminder that Christians are to live their lives with a sense of joy.
How can we live a Christian life without joy? A joyless Christian is like a stream without water, it cannot exist. Joy flows into our lives from heaven itself and absolutely nothing will ever be able to take it away.
Notice how Paul weaves joy throughout the book of Philippians.
Joy flows from faith in Christ (1:25)
Joy comes from proclaiming the gospel (1:18)
Joy is a product of church unity (2:2)
Joy is beyond personal circumstances (2:17-18)
Joy is a personal choice (3:1, 4:4)
3.) Living for Christ
For me to live is Christ and to die is gain 1:21
Paul stressed the importance of living for Christ. Listen to a few of the things that he writes to the Philippians
Whatever happened conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of Christ1:27
you shine like stars in the universe 2:15
Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you 3:17
Paul believed that Christians needed to live differently than those in the world around them. There needs to be a fundamental difference in our behavior and those who do not claim to know Christ. He was calling the Philippians to rise above the chaos and cares of the world to live out the Christian life.
Paul understood the reality of suffering, he wrote this letter from prison. Paul knew that the Philippians were undergoing great trials and that there was internal strife in the church. He writes to both encourage and strengthen the church. Paul had been a living example of suffering for the gospel when he was in Philippi. Remember that he and Silas were beaten and imprisoned unjustly when they started the church there in Philippi. Paul was no strange to suffering and trials. He wrote to remind the Philippians that there was hope beyond personal or corporate suffering.
5.) Church Unity
One of the main reasons Paul writes this letter was to remind the church that they must remain united. The only way that a church can stand in this world is to be united in the service of Christ. Paul was trying to stop an ongoing feud within the church between two women.
Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel 1:27
Paul clearly calls for the church to stand together in the midst of internal and external hardships. Our common bond flows out of our unity in Christ.