The city of Philippi was situated at a pass in a range of hills at the eastern edge of Greece—thus at the eastern edge of Europe—along the overland trade route from Rome to Asia. Following the assassination of Julius Caesar, the decisive battle to determine the fate of the Roman Empire was fought on the plain to the west of Philippi. When the victor, Octavian was named Roman Emperor (becoming Caesar Augustus), he reorganized the city of Philippi as a Roman colony, giving property to veteran commanders and soldiers, including veterans of the Praetorian Guard.
Philippi was considered a “little Rome.” Though it was roughly a thousand miles from the actual city of Rome, the citizens of Philippi always looked upon themselves as citizens of Rome. They lived under the municipal law of Rome and were governed by two military officers who were appointed directly from Rome. They spoke Latin. They wore the Latin style of clothing. They kept up Roman customs.
Though they resided on the far edge of Europe, the citizens of Philippi lived their lives as citizens of Rome. When Paul wrote to the believers in Philippi, who resided far away from heaven, he challenged them to do the same: to live their lives as citizens of heaven—though on earth—conducting themselves in ways that were faithful to their Lord and to their true citizenship. That’s the call of the book of Philippians to us—no matter where on earth we live—to conduct ourselves in ways that are faithful to our Lord.
The early church father Jerome claimed that the apostle John, late in his life, kept repeating to people the command in John 13:34 that we are called to love one another, and John would explain, “Because it is the Lord’s commandment, and if it be fulfilled it is enough.”
To live as citizens of heaven, while residing on planet earth, we are to live as Christ lived, and that means to love one another as Christ loved us (John 13:34).
Thirty years ago, Pastor Mark Thompson of Faribault, Minnesota, suffered terrible knife wounds from an assailant in his home. One consequence of his difficult recovery was being forced to miss watching his son Chris run in the state cross-country championship. Pastor Thompson asked his brother Merv to go in his place. According to an account in the St. Paul Pioneer Press & Dispatch, Mark told his brother, “I can’t be there to see Chris run, so I want you there at the beginning of the race. Holler a lot…. Then at the end, I want you to really cheer loudly. And I want you to make your voice sound like mine.”
With his uncle’s encouragement, Chris ran a strong race, finishing in second place. Merv, who is also a pastor, recognized the theological significance of this. He explained, “That’s what Jesus wants us to do: Make your voice sound like mine.” (Leadership Journal, summer, 1989)
When Paul prayed in Philippians 1:9-11, “This is my prayer, that your love may abound more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God,” he was, in essence, praying that we make our voice sound like Jesus’ and that we make our actions look like Jesus’.
I am shocked by and moved by the way Paul opens his letter to the Christians in the city of Philippi. He writes to them, “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you….”
Consider Paul’s words carefully: “I thank my God every time I remember you….”
As Paul sat in his prison cell in Rome, what kinds of things may have provoked his memory of the Philippians?
Every time he felt the chains upon him and or looked about at the prison walls that enclosed him, he may have recalled the first time he was locked in chains in a dungy prison cell, and that would have reminded him of Philippi, and his first encounter with unjust imprisonment. Every time he felt a pain in his back or in his shoulders, he may have recalled the beating he sustained in Philippi. And then there was Epaphroditus. The Philippians had sent Epaphroditus to Rome to provide care for Paul in his imprisonment, but Ephaphroditus had become deathly ill, and it was left to Paul to care for Ephaphroditus instead.
I fear that if I were in Paul’s shoes, I would have begun my letter to the Philippians quite differently. I may have written, “Dear Philippians, I am sorry to tell you this, but every time I remember you, I am filled with disappointment and frustration! My present surroundings remind me of the lousy night I spent in your dank prison. My aching body reminds me of the cruelty I suffered among you. And sick Epaphroditus is a constant reminder to me that with friends like the Philippians, who needs enemies!”
I may have been inclined to begin my letter with griping, but Paul began his letter by expressing gratitude. How was he able to do that?
I believe the answer is found in verse 6 where Paul shares, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” Paul perceived something within the Philippians that others might not have been able to see.
In 480 B.C., when the Persian army invaded Greece, the Greek commander Themistocles assembled the Greek ships off the coast of Salamis and waited there. As the morning wore on, he simply sat there idly, not commanding the ships into battle. The soldiers grew restless and confused. They wondered whether he was afraid of battle. But Themistocles knew what he was doing. He knew that around 10 each morning, the winds and waves would change, and would turn the Persian ships sideways, making them easy targets for ramming by the Greek triremes. Moreover, with the ships driven now by a strong wind, Themistocles would not need to waste half of his men pulling at the oars but could bring them all on deck for the battle. As Themistocles trusted in a power that was not perceptible to his enemy, Paul had come to trust in a power that was not easily perceptible to others.
A story has been shared throughout the centuries that when Michelangelo began work on the statue of David, he brought a hunk of marble into his studio, and his housekeeper grunted at it. But many months later, after chipping away at that hunk of marble, the magnificent form of David began to take shape. The housekeeper walked back into the studio and stared at the emerging statue. In amazement, she turned to Michelangelo and asked, “How did you know that beautiful man was hidden inside that hunk of marble?” Paul, like Michelangelo perceived the beauty that lay hidden in the Philippian church, and he knew that Christ was doing his work among the Philippians and would not stop until his work came to completion on the day of Jesus Christ.
I pray for God to turn my griping heart into a grateful heart, with faith to perceive the beauty that God is producing in my life and in the lives of others.
“Some theologians interpret hell as alienation from God,” writes Norma Swetnam. “I have experienced such a hell while in the throes of depression—a terrible sense of aloneness and isolation from everything, from everybody and from God. This results in a loss of hope for the future, and without hope what is there?”
Elizabeth Wurtzel adds, “A human being can survive almost anything, as long as she sees the end in sight. But depression is so insidious, and it compounds daily, that it’s impossible to ever see the end.”
In the depths of despair and depression is where we find two individuals whose story is told in Luke 24:13-35. One of the individuals is identified as Cleopas. The other is probably his wife Mary, who is identified in John 19:25 as “the wife of Clopas.” They are walking seven miles northwest, from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They walk with their heads down because of the setting sun before them and because of the despair within their hearts. Their despair stems from a tragedy that took place just a couple of days before: the one they had hoped would redeem Israel had died by crucifixion and had been sealed in a tomb.
As they walk along, someone new joins them and asks what they are discussing. As the story unfolds, we discover that their new companion is Jesus, but, in the midst of their hopelessness, it will take them a while to figure that out. The irritableness of depression flashes forth from Cleopas, who retorts, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”
If irritation had flashed back from Jesus, he might have walked away at that point, leaving them to continue on in despair. Instead, he gently asked them questions about what had happened, enabling them to pour forth their expressions of sorrow and confusion.
When they finished, Jesus invited them into a new way of perceiving what had happened, explaining to them from the Scriptures the good that God accomplished through Jesus’ crucifixion.
As they walk along together, the mood of their souls changes. By the time they reach Emmaus, they are no longer irritably trying to get rid of Jesus. Instead, they urge him strongly to stay with them. When Jesus breaks bread and blesses it, they recognize him. They exclaim to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”
Hope had come alive in them! Despair had been replaced by burning or glowing hearts.
What produced such a change in them?
What made the difference was the presence of Christ. Discovering that Christ had not been defeated and that he had not abandoned them made all the difference in the world.
Bruce Larson comments, “The events of Easter cannot be reduced to a creed or philosophy. We are not asked to believe the doctrine of the resurrection. We are asked to meet this person raised from the dead.” That’s what happened to Cleopas and Mary on the road to Emmaus.
J. Sidlow Baxter adds, “Fundamentally, our Lord’s message was himself. He did not come merely to preach a Gospel; he himself is that Gospel. He did not come merely to give bread; he said, ‘I am the bread.’ He did not come merely to shed light; he said, ‘I am the light.’ He did not come merely to show the door; he said, ‘I am the door.’ He did not come merely to name a shepherd; he said, ‘I am the shepherd.’ He did not come merely to point the way; he said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’”
While two depressed individuals trod along toward the setting sun, Jesus cared enough to come and walk beside them. By his presence, Jesus turned their despair to hope, and their depression to joy, for with his presence is the assurance that we are never left alone, that we are remembered and loved, and that the God of resurrection will see us through.
The amazing beauty of God’s love burst forth in the midst of the world’s deepest ugliness!
Here is the ugliness: The crucifixion of Jesus.
Bruce Larson points out, “Crucifixion was invented by the Carthaginians and adopted by the Romans. It was the most horrible manner of execution ever devised and it was used only for the lowest type of criminal.”
Cathleen Shrier gives a more thorough description of crucifixion’s ugliness: “The accused needed to be nailed to the patibulum [the horizontal piece] while lying down, so Jesus is thrown to the ground, reopening his wounds, grinding in dirt, and causing bleeding. They nail his ‘hands’ to the patibulum. The Greek meaning of ‘hands’ includes the wrists. If the nails were driven into the hand, the weight of the arms would cause the nail to rip through the soft flesh. Therefore, the upper body would not be held to the cross. If placed in the wrist, the bones in the lower portion of the hand support the weight of the arm and the body remains nailed to the cross. The huge nail damages or severs the major nerve to the hand (the median nerve) upon impact. This causes continuous agonizing pain up both of Jesus’ arms.
“Once the victim is secured, the guards lift the patibulum and place it on the stipes [the vertical piece] already in the ground. As it is lifted, Jesus’ full weight pulls down on his nailed wrists, and his shoulders and elbows dislocate. In this position, Jesus’ arms stretch to a minimum of six inches longer than their original length.
“It is highly likely that Jesus’ feet were nailed through the tops as often pictured. In this position, the weight of the body pushes down on the nails and the ankles support the weight. The nails would not rip through the soft tissue as would have occurred with the hands. Again, the nail would cause severe nerve damage and acute pain.
“Normally, to breathe in, the diaphragm must move down. This enlarges the chest cavity and air automatically moves into the lungs (inhalation). To exhale, the diaphragm rises up, which compresses the air in the lungs and forces the air out (exhalation). As Jesus hangs on the cross, the weight of his body pulls down on the diaphragm and the air moves into his lungs and remains there. Jesus must push up on his nailed feet (causing more pain) to exhale.
“In order to speak, air must pass over the vocal cords during exhalation. The Gospels note that Jesus spoke seven times from the cross. It is amazing that despite his pain, he pushes up to say ‘Forgive them.’”
The physical torture of crucifixion was ugly, but the deeper ugliness was what Jesus’ crucifixion revealed about the depravity of human sin. In Jesus’ crucifixion, the very worst attributes of humanity amassed together at the same place at the same time. Cold-hearted injustice was inflicted upon the earth’s only truly innocent individual. Hate was flung upon the One who is fully loving. Bitterness was spit out upon the One who is merciful and forgiving. A blind eye and deaf ear turned away from the One who listens intently to the imperceptible groaning of our souls. People turned their backs on the One who gave his life for us. The death knell of crucifixion rang upon the Giver of Life.
Yet here is the beauty: The promise of forgiveness and restoration.
Even while soldiers strip away his clothes and gamble for them, and even as religious leaders mock him, Jesus battles the searing pain to rise up and pray aloud, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”
Then the intense beauty of forgiveness burst forth in a personal display. One of the criminals hanging near him cried out, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Max Lucado observes, “A condemned criminal was sent to his death by his country. In his final moments, he asked for mercy. Had he asked for mercy from the people, it would have been denied. Had he asked it of the government, it would have been declined. Had he asked it of his victims, they would have turned a deaf ear. But it wasn’t to these he turned for grace. He turned instead to the bloodied form of the one who hung on the cross next to his and pleaded, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And Jesus answered by saying, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.’” (In the Grip of Grace, p. 41)
And the beauty that burst forth produced such an amazing splendor that it promised to carry through into eternity. William Barclay points out, “When a Persian king wished to do one of his subjects a very special honor, he made him a companion of the garden which meant he was chosen to walk in the garden with the king. It was more than immortality that Jesus promised the penitent thief. He promised him the honored place of a companion of the garden in the courts of heaven.”
Because of what Jesus did on the cross, the beauty of forgiveness and restoration has forever overwhelmed and transformed the ugliness of sin and of death.