Philippians: joy out of affliction

Philippians: joy out of affliction

Philippians is one of the four prison epistles. So, one of the primary objectives of writing this epistle has to do with Paul’s imprisonment. The verses indicating his imprisonment include:

1:7 Even as it is meet for me to think this of you all, because I have you in my heart; inasmuch as both in my bonds, and in the defense and comfirmation of the gospel, ye all are partakers of my grace.

1:13 So that my bonds in Christ are manifest in all the palace, and in all other places;

1:14 And many of the brethren in the Lord, waxing confident by my bonds, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. (NRSV, “…having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment…)

Most of the topics in this epistle surround Paul’s imprisonment, such as affliction and joy. Paul through this epistle not only reveals to the Philippians his personal feeling of being imprisoned but to bring comfort and encouragement to them with the message of “joy”. He also gives them exhortation and warning in critical times.


How does Paul see his own affliction? The epistle has a great deal telling of Paul’s personal view and feeling about it. First, he is very certain he is suffering for the gospel. In 1:7 says, “...both in my bonds, and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel…”. He is imprisoned not owing to his own fault but simply because he insists on preaching the gospel.

(Background of Paul’s imprisonment)

In Acts Chapters 21-28, we are given the information of how Paul was chained as a prisoner from Jerusalem to Rome. To begin with, Paul has been persecuted by the Jews to the point that he was surrounded by the Jews in the temple who stirred up the people in Jerusalem to kill him. (Acts 21:27-31; 26:21) Seeing that “all Jerusalem was in an uproar”, the chief captain in charge of Jerusalem (Claudius Lysias, Acts 23:26) immediately took soldiers and centurions to settle the matter. He bound Paul with chains and interrogated him in the  castle (NRSV—“barracks” 兵營) the reason behind the uproar. After hearing Paul’s story and knowing his identity as a Roman, the chief captain loosed his chains and brought him before the council and the chief priests (since this is a case of argument in their own religion, Acts 23:28-29). (Acts 21:31-36; 22:22-30) Paul in the council raised the issue of resurrection among the Pharisees and the Sadducees and caused a division between them. “When there arose a great dissension, the chief captain, fearing lest Paul should have been pulled in pieces of them, commanded the soldiers to go down, and to take him by force from among them, and to bring him into the castle. And the night following the Lord stood by him, and said, ‘Be of good cheer, Paul; for as thou hast testified of me in Jerusalem, so must thou bear witness also at Rome.” (Acts 23:10-11)

Some Jews conspired to kill Paul on the way as they asked the chief captain to bring Paul to the council for further questioning. The intrigue was heard by Paul’s sister’s son who told Paul about it. Paul referred him to the chief captain through a centurion. The chief captain sent Paul straight to Caesarea at midnight and brought him before Felix the governor. Felix kept him in Herod’s judgment hall and waited for the accusers from Jerusalem to come over. (Acts 23:12-35)

The high priest Ananias came with the elders and an orator (辯士) (NRSV, attorney) before Felix. The attorney charged against Paul as “a pestilent (可致命的瘟疫) fellow, and a mover of sedition (騷亂) among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader (頭目) of the sect of the Nazarenes, who also hath gone about to profane the temple, whom we took and would have judged according to our law.” (Acts 24:5-6) Felix ordered to “keep him in custody, but to let him have some liberty and not to prevent any of his friends from taking care of his needs,”  (NRSV, Acts 24:23). Paul was kept in Caesaria for 2 years (Felix wished that money be given him for releasing Paul) until Porcius Festus came to replace Felix.

Festus went down to Jerusalem to discuss Paul’s case with the Jewish council. They still conspired to kill Paul on the way while asking Festus to send him up to Jerusalem for questioning. Festus insisted that Paul be kept in Caesaria and let the accusers go there with him. After the questioning in Caesaria, Festus desired to please the Jews and thus asked if Paul would want to go up to Jerusalem and to be judged before him. Paul answered, “I stand at Caesar’s judgment seat, where I ought to be judged...I appeal unto Caesar (Augustus, Acts 25:21).” (Acts 25:1-11)

When King Agrippa and Bernice came to salute Festus in Caesaria, Festus told the king of Paul’s case and his own point of view: “To whom (the Jews) I answered, ‘It is not the manner of the Romans to deliver any man to die, before that he which is accused have the accusers face to face, and have license to answer for himself concerning the crime laid against him.’…When Paul had appealed to be reserved unto the hearing of Augustus, I commanded him to be kept till I might send him to Caesar.” (Acts 25:16, 21)

Paul made his personal testimony before Agrippa and concluded, “I would to God, that not only thou, but also all that hear me this day, were both almost, and altogether such as I am, except these bonds (chains, NRSV).” (…not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am…NRSV) Both Festus and Agrippa agreed, “This man doeth nothing worthy of death or of bond.” Agrippa further concluded, “This man might have been set at liberty, if he had not appealed unto Caesar.” Afterward, “they delivered Paul and certain other prisoners unto one named Julius, a centurion of Augustus’ band.” Finally, they sailed to Rome of Italy. (Acts 26:29-27:2)  

After arriving in Rome, Julius delivered the prisoners to the captain of the guard, but “Paul was allowed to live by himself, with the soldier who was guarding him.” (NRSV) Paul called for the chief of the Jews and said, “…for the hope of Israel I am bound with this chain.” And “Paul dwelt two whole years in his own hired house, and received all that came in unto him, preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him.” (Acts 28:16-31)

(Effect of his imprisonment)

1)  Expand the gospel

The epistle of Philippians is written under the above background and out of Paul’s experience as a prisoner. Phil 1:13 states that “my bonds in Christ are manifest in all the palace (NRSV, “it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ), which indicates that:

  i) he was in Rome at the time of writing;
  ii) his affliction was for the gospel;
  iii) his imprisonment helped spread the gospel further among the Roman officials and the royal families of
At the end of the epistle, Paul said in his greeting, “all the saints salute you, chiefly they that are of Caesar’s household.” (4:22) Hence, some of the royal members in Caesar’s home were truly converted. Moreover, many believers became “much more bold to speak the word without fear” due to his imprisonment. (1:14)

2)  Christ is magnified

Not only is he not ashamed of being a prisoner, but he believes that by his powerful testimony, “with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death.” (1:20) So long as Christ is preached, he does not mind when someone “preach Christ even of envy and strife...the one preach Christ of contention, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction to my bonds”. (1:15-16)

3)  An example for the believers

His affliction also serves as an example for the Philippians. “For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake. Having the same conflict which ye saw in me, and now hear to be in me.” (1:29-30)

(His view of affliction)

Affliction or suffering is certainly Paul’s real experience of it. We are very afraid of encountering affliction and very resistant to it. Paul, however, after all this life and death experience, has learnt to look at it in a very optimistic way. He said, “for to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” And Christ is magnified anyway in his body, “whether it be by life or by death.” (1:20-21) How can he perceive that “to die is gain”? It is because he apprehends that only suffering for Christ and the gospel will bear eternal “fruits of righteousness” (1:11). Before he was converted, he sought his own righteousness and thus persecuted the church. Now, he has learnt that “what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ.” (3:6-9)

Not only is he willing to suffer to win the praise of Christ, he has a desire in his mind to experience the taste of resurrection from the dead. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his suffering by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (NRSV, 3:10-11) One must die in order to experience resurrection. The fact that he has passed through the valley of the shadow of death for so many times perhaps causes him to have this desire in mind. He is no longer afraid of death. He knows for sure that one day the Savior and Lord Jesus “shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body.” (3:21) Indeed, he is ready to be offered as sacrifice for the Philippians. (2:17) (“Even if I am being poured out as a libration over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you.” NRSV)

Nevertheless, he believes he shall be freed shortly (1:26, 2:24)


Verses that mention ‘joy’ (or ‘rejoice’) include: 1:4, 18(x2), 24, 26; 2:2, 16, 17(x2), 18(x2), 28; 3:1, 3; 4:1, 4(x2), 10 (18 times in total). Paul keeps on emphasizing this godly character in each chapter.

(joy out of affliction)

The most incredible thing that Paul revealed in this epistle is joy out of his affliction. This is really the strongest message he would desire to convey to the Philippians. As mentioned in the previous section, his affliction has encouraged the brothers to speak boldly and thus caused the gospel to spread all over. Even some preach the gospel with an evil mind and cause more of his affliction. So long as “Christ is preached, and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice.” (1:18) So long as Christ is “magnified” in his body, his affliction increases his joy. (1:20)

(joy out of the church)

The church of Philippians brought him much joy, unlike other troublesome churches. First of all, he is joyful to see that their fellowship continues from the first day until now.(1:5) They have truly practiced the love of Christ with each other and have maintained a family relationship in church. This is the most encouraging news for a minister who planted the church.

Paul has the dilemma of “live or die”. However, when he comes to think of the church of Philippians, he chooses to “abide in the flesh”. For he perceives that “I shall abide and continue with you all for your furtherance and joy of faith, that your rejoicing may be more abundant in Jesus Christ for me by my coming to you again.” (1:24-26) A minister who loves the church so much would never want to say farewell to his children and go to heaven so soon.

Paul has some demand for the church in order to increase his joy. He wants them to be “likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.” He does not want to see any “strife (結黨) or vainglory (虛浮的榮耀)” in church, like the church of Corinth. (2:2-3) He wants them to “do all things without murmurings and disputings”. (2:14) What’s more, Paul wants to see that “ye may be blameless and harmless…without rebuke…holding forth the word of life, that I may rejoice in the day of Christ, that I have not run in vain, neither labored in vain.” (2:15-16) This is indeed the wish of every pastor. That’s also what Christ wants to see: “that He (Christ) might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing, but that it should be holy and without blemish.”  (Ephe 5:27) To achieve this ultimate goal, Paul is ready to commit his life to this church so that both he and the church rejoice together. (2:17-18)

The only place Paul uses the word “sorrow” is when he mentioned Epaphroditus (2:27). He is the messenger sent by the church of Philippians to Rome to serve Paul and bring him the things he needed, which is described by Paul as “an odor of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well-pleasing to God”. (4:18) What made Paul sad was that this beloved brother “was sick nigh unto death”. (2:27) Epaphroditus himself was sad too as he longed for his own church. Now that God has shown him mercy and healed him, Paul has decided to send him back to the church so that “when ye (the church) see him again, ye may rejoice, and that I may be the less sorrowful.” (2:28)

The sending of Epaphroditus to Rome to serve Paul is the service that made Paul rejoice greatly: “But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at the last your care of me hath flourished again.” (4:10) Paul further mentioned that “in the beginning of the gospel, when I departed from Macedonia, no church communicated with me as concerning giving and receiving, but ye only. For even in Thessalonica ye sent once and again unto my necessity.” (4:15-16) Well, he is not complaining of not receiving gifts for a period of time since he departed from Macedonia, because he added that “not because I desire a gift: but I desire fruit that may abound to your account.” (4:17) He testified for the Philippians that “wherein ye were also careful, but ye lacked opportunity.” (「你們向來就思念我,只是沒得機會。」) (4:10) The unceasing care and concern of the church of Philippians for Paul sufficed this minister to say that the church is his “joy and crown”. (4:1)

(rejoice in the Lord)

Toward the end of the epistle, Paul exhorts the Philippians: “finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord.” (3:1) This is the word he keeps on emphasizing throughout the epistle. Yet he feels necessary to repeat it now (“to write the same things to you, to me indeed is not grievous, but for you it is safe”,「於我並不為難,於你們卻是妥當。」3:1) He does repeat the same word twice in Chapter 4: Rejoice in the Lord always; and again I say, Rejoice.” (4:4) So, what does Paul mean by rejoicing in the Lord?

In 3:3, Paul says, “for we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh.” Here he mentions the topic of circumcision again. Every time he mentions this topic, he is speaking against the Jews who regard circumcision an absolute requirement for salvation. Paul refutes it as righteousness by work but not by faith only (3:9). He has argued over this false doctrine in some other epistles—Romans (Rom 2:25-29), Galatians (Gal 5:2-6; 6:12-15). Here in Phil 3:3, when he said, ‘we are the circumcision’, he is saying that the Gentiles who are regarded as uncircumcised by flesh have become circumcised spiritually. They are the true descendants of Abraham, the father of faith and promise. This new concept of circumcision is also found in Colossians (Col 2:11-13). Such change of status qualified us to receive the promised inheritance, the redemption of our bodies (Ephe 1:7, Phil 3:21, Col 2:12-13—all 3 epistles are written during his imprisonment)—which thus becomes the reason for us to rejoice in the Lord.

In 4:4, Paul exhorts the church to rejoice in the Lord and “not worry about anything” (NRSV, 4:6) but offer “prayer and supplication with thanksgiving” (4:6). The church of Philippians is not having an easy time while spreading the gospel. Paul encourages them in 1:27-30 to “stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel, and in nothing terrified by your adversaries…for unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake, having the same conflict which ye saw in me, and now hear to be in me.” Paul seems to worry that affliction would steal away the spiritual joy of the Philippians. Therefore, he keeps repeating this key message over and over.


In his beginning prayer, Paul prays for the church

  • “that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all judgment,
  • that ye may approve things that are excellent,
  • that ye may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ, being filled with the fruits of righteousness.” (1:9-11)

In face of oppression upon the church, Paul desires that

  • “ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel, and
  • in nothing terrified by your adversaries.” (1:27-28)

There are at least two meanings in the above two verses:

  1. The church should hold firm the truth of the gospel against any heresy such as “circumcision”. Paul warned them to “beware of dogs, beware of evil workers, beware of the concision (those who mutilate the flesh, NRSV) (「防備妄自行割的」) ”. (3:2)

  2. They might expect some affliction like Paul’s when oppressed by the enemies. But they must persevere for Christ’s sake. In 1:29, Paul states the principle that “unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake.” 

Paul keeps on stressing the unity (“oneness”) of the Spirit within the church:

“if there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies…ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.” (2:1-4)

In order to maintain the unity of the Spirit, they must all bear the same mind to learn the humility of Christ. Christ’s humility took the form of a “servant” of God and be “obedient unto death”.(2:6-8) Being servant to each other, they must care more for others and less for themselves. Then, there will be no more envy, strife or competition for honour and glory among them.

Paul continues with the same desire that they be unified in spirit and in truth: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling…do all things without murmurings and disputings, that ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke.” (2:12-15) Paul claims that they should “shine as lights” “in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation”, “holding forth the word of life”. (2:15-16)

Paul also shares his own mind of working out his own salvation: “this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before. I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” (3:13-14) He exhorts them to “be thus minded”. (3:15)

Paul exhorts the church to follow him as an example: “be followers together of me, and mark them which walk so as ye have us for an example.” (3:17)

Paul tells the church to “stand fast in the Lord”. (4:1) And then he beseeches two church sisters to be “of the same mind in the Lord”. (4:2) Probably they have arguments with one another. He also tells the church to help “those women which labored with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and with other my fellow laborers”. (4:3)

Paul calls the church to “rejoice in the Lord always”. “Let your moderation (「謙讓的心」) be known unto all men.” “Be careful for nothing (「一無掛慮」); but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.” (4:4-6)

Paul’s final exhortation is :

“whatsoever things are true…honest…just…pure…lovely…of good report; if there be any virtue…any praise, think on these things.” (4:8)

Paul again takes himself as an example and says: “those things, which ye have both learned and received and heard and seen in me, do.” (4:9)

Example of Paul

There are many verses in this epistle that reflect Paul’s mindset and principle of faith that qualify him as an excellent example for us as Christians to be his followers:

(1:6) “being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.”「我深信那在你們心裏動了善工的,必成全這工,直到耶穌基督的日子。」

(2:17) “Yea, and if I be offered upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I joy, and rejoice with you all.” (「我以你們的信心為供獻的祭物,我若被澆奠在其上,也是喜樂,並且與你們眾人一同喜樂。」) 

(3:7-8) “But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ.” (「只是我先前以為與我有益的,我現在因基督都當作有損的;不但如此,我也將萬事當作有損的,因我以認識我主基督耶穌為至寶。我為他已經丟棄萬事,看作糞土,為要得著基督。」)

(3:10-11) “That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; if by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead.” (「使我認識基督,曉得他復活的大能,並且曉得和他一同受苦,效法他的死,或者我也得以從死裏復活。」)

(3:13-14) “I count not myself to have apprehended, but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” (「我不是以為自己已經得著了;我只有一件事,就是忘記背後,努力面前的,向著標竿直跑,要得神在基督耶穌裏,從上面召我來得的獎賞。」)

(4:11-13) “For I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound; everywhere and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” (「我無論在甚麼景況都可以知足,這是我已經學會了。我知道怎樣處卑賤,也知道怎樣處豐富,或飽足,或飢餓,或有餘,或缺乏,隨事隨在,我都得了祕訣。我靠著那加給我力量的,凡事都能作。」

Example of Christ

To conclude, Christ is our perfect example:

(2:7-8) “But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men. And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” (「反倒虛己,取了奴僕的形象,成為人的樣式;既有人的樣子,就自己卑微,存心順服,以至於死,且死在十字架上。」)


Affliction can take away our joy. The kind of affliction that Paul talks about is the affliction that we receive as we uphold the truth or obey the Lord’s command. Paul himself can rejoice in times of affliction simply because he knows that he is suffering for the Lord. Whatever we do for the Lord will naturally make us joyful in spirit. There may be unhappy moments but the degree of spiritual joy we have can overwhelm the unhappiness caused by the suffering. Peter has a similar encouragement for us, “For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. For even hereunto were ye called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps.”  (「倘若人為叫良心對得住神,就忍受冤屈的苦楚,這是可喜愛的。你們若因犯罪受責打,能忍耐,有甚麼可誇的呢?但你們若因行善受苦,能忍耐,這在神看是可喜愛的。你們蒙召原是為此,因基督也為你們受過苦,給你們留下榜樣,叫你們跟隨他的腳蹤行。」) (I Peter 2:19-21)

As for the kinds of affliction in our daily lives such as job pressure, body injury, sickness, mental distress, the departure of beloved ones, loss of properties, etc., Paul tells us not to worry but pray and make requests to God in everything. God will grant us the peace of mind in Christ Jesus so that we can “rejoice in the Lord always”. (Phil 4:4) The difficult part is to pray “with thanksgiving” for all that we suffer. Here, we need to bear strong faith that God prepares the best for us in our tough experience, and He will take good care of us no matter what. In other words, we need not be so pessimistic as just to focus on the suffering. Instead, we should look forward for a better future in what is happening around us. Faith and hope for a better future is the key to rejoice in the Lord in our hardship.