Philippians: Joy and Rejoicing with St. Paul

by Steve Ray on July 3, 2017

It was the strangest thing they had ever heard. It was not necessarily the singing¾they had heard that before. It was the time of the singing¾midnight¾and it was the place of the singing. This was no temple or amphitheater. The men were down below, where rats scurry over their faces in the darkness and the bugs scamper under their clothing and bite.

It was damp and cold and foul. The wounds from the severe beatings were swollen and discolored. The shackles clamped on the ankles would usually incite cursing. They had heard screams and cursing from the jail before¾that was nothing new. But never had they heard joyous singing.

But it was the earthquake that scared the jailer. The ground shook and prison doors flew open. He saw the open door and was ready to fall on his sword, afraid the prisoners had escaped.

He knew the penalty for allowing prisoners to escape¾instant execution. From the depth of the prison he heard a voice calling: “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” The city was Philippi in Macedonia and the year was about ad 51. Paul and Silas had been imprisoned for preaching and for casting an evil spirit out of a young slave girl–a girl exploited by her masters for soothsaying and great profit.

Having been spared by the two men rejoicing in chains¾and the power of God¾the trembling jailer fell to his knees before Paul and pleaded, “What must I do to be saved?” He was baptized that very night with his whole household. They soon joined Lydia and her household who had heard Paul’s message earlier and believed (Acts 16:14-15). The church in Philippi was born.

It is now about ten years later, between ad 61-63 and Paul, again in chains, writes a joyful letter to the young church that he had established in Philippi. They had been the first to hear the gospel in Europe. Paul was writing from prison, in Rome, confined by chains and guards (Acts 28:16, 30-31). But again, he was joyful. In fact, in his short letter to the Philippians he uses the word “joy” or “rejoice” an unprecedented sixteen times. His heart could sing with joy even though his body groaned in pain. He was teaching by example—rejoice always; keep your eyes on Jesus.

The early Church was full of singing; it was the verbal expression of the joy within. Singing was probably different than we know it today—probably a melodic chant led by a canter and repeated by the people. Christians did not invent hymns. They were sung by pagans to honor and laud their gods and heroes. In the Church hymns were sung as a natural expression of Christian joy, and, based in part on Jewish synagogue practice, an integral part of worship. Paul exhorted his friends in Philippi, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Phil 4:4).

Not only were these ancient hymns sung as an expression of joy, but they were also used to instruct the faithful, providing a creed, so to speak, memorized as a song.

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