Oh, C’mon. Don’t act so pious. You know you’ve heard the song. The fact is that if you’ve been out of the house over the past few months, and you’re not living on an Amish farm, you’ve heard what is commonly referred to as “The Happy Song” blasting through a mall, a grocery store, on a commercial or even from the car parked next to your own. (We could be really honest and admit that the car playing this tune might have been YOUR car, but we won’t go there for now.) We’ll leave the secular music debate for another day and just admit that we’ve all heard the song to which I’m referring.
I have to admit, the first couple of times I heard it, I liked the song. It was upbeat and catchy and seemed to make you feel, well, “happy”. Then, after awhile, after it’s heard it played over and over and over again it kind of got annoying. Eventually, I found myself agreeing with my brother who said, “Oh, c’mon, NOBODY could be that happy!”
Still, I couldn’t help thinking about this peppy tune as I started reviewing my notes on the book of Philippians for our new study, “How to be Happy, Happy, Happy”. (Yes, the title is a shameless play on America’s current fascination with a certain duck hunting family.)
Why did Philippians remind me of this song?
Because the Apostle Paul really was that happy. All the time—even in the worst of circumstances---Paul chose to be a person of joy. In the book of Philippians, he shares his secrets for maintaining joy even when there’s nothing “happy” in your present circumstances.
In the book of Philippians, Paul teaches us that happiness is a choice. Then, using his own experiences, he teaches us how to make the same choice.
However, before we can begin our study of Paul’s instructions, we need to take a good look at the circumstances in which he was writing this instructional manual.
Here’s some background on the book of Philippians:
The book of Philippians was written by Paul to the church in Philippi around 62 A.D.
To fully understand Paul’s relationship with the church, we need to go back to Acts 16, where we see Paul’s ministry is going through a transitional period. You see, at the end of Acts 15, Paul and Barnabas went their separate ways, and Paul is now travelling with a new team, including Silas and a young man named Timothy. (Watch for that name---you’ll hear it again in this study).
Not only is Paul’s team changing, but his direction is changing, too.
Acts 16:6-12 tells the story:
“Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas.
During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
From Troas we put out to sea and sailed straight for Samothrace, and the next day we went on to Neapolis. From there we traveled to Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of that district of Macedonia. And we stayed there several days.”
And we’re off! Within the next few verses, we see how this church was planted. (By a group of women none the less!)
On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. ‘If you consider me a believer in the Lord,’ she said, ‘come and stay at my house.’ And she persuaded us.” (Acts 16:13-15)
Seems simple, right?
Go where God tells you to go.
Meet people whose hearts are ready to receive the Gospel message and start a home church.
What’s not to be happy about?
Well, look what happened next.
“Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a female slave who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. She followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, ‘These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.’
She kept this up for many days. Finally, Paul became so annoyed that he turned around and said to the spirit, ‘In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!’ At that moment the spirit left her.” (Acts 16:16-18)
So Paul and Silas are minding their own business, on their way to pray, when a young woman who was demon possessed starts harassing them. Apparently, this didn’t happen just once, but it went on for days. Finally, Paul had enough and in the name of Jesus set her free from the demon that controlled her. In a moment, she was delivered and restored to her right mind.
In a perfect world, this is where the crowd would have gone wild with enthusiasm. They would have been high-fiving Paul and Silas, cheering, doing the wave, and bringing out anyone else who needed a miracle to be healed or delivered.
Guess what? That’s not what happened. Instead, the girl’s owners became angry and reported Paul and Silas to the government.
“When her owners realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. They brought them before the magistrates and said, ‘These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice’” (Acts 16:19-21)
Excuse me? When did Paul and Silas do all that? NEVER!
They were just minding their own business---the girl was disturbing them. Now, when they’ve HELPED her, they are being falsely accused to the government. But wait, things only get worse!
“The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods. After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.” (Acts 16:22-24)
From falsely accused to bound and tied in prison, things in this scene escalated quickly. Even though Paul and Silas were completely innocent of any of the charges being lobbied against them, they were still experiencing some pretty awful punishments. Take a second and look at them slowly.
They were stripped---humiliated.
Their bare bodies were beaten with rods---so badly that it is described as being severely flogged.
Then they were thrown into prison where the guard was told to keep a close eye on them.
Just take a minute and let that last phrase sink in.
Here they are in prison with really bad people---thieves, murderers, revolutionaries---and yet the government is saying, “These are the guys you’ve got to keep an eye on---they are dangerous.” Seriously? I think that accusation alone would have made me want to curl up in the corner, and cry myself to sleep.
Finally, they get put into the “inner cell” and for extra precautions their feet are put into the stocks.
Albert Barnes points out that “the phrase ‘inner cell’ refers to the most retired and secure part of the prison. The cells in the interior of the prison would be regarded as more safe, being doubtless more protected, and the difficulty of escape would be greater.” He describes the “stocks” as “being fastened or secured by the feet, probably by cords, to a piece or beam of wood, so that they could not escape. It is probable that the legs of the prisoners were bound to large pieces of wood which not only encumbered them, but which were so placed as to extend their feet to a considerable distance. In this condition it might be necessary for them to lie on their backs; and if this, as is probable, was on the cold ground, after their severe scourging, their sufferings must have been very great.”
Seriously!?! All of this torture for what? They were innocent of the charges placed against them! They were minding their own business! Ultimately, their greatest crime was helping a young girl. Yet, this was the result. Here they were, stripped, beaten, badly wounded, laying flat on their backs on the cold ground in the securest part of the Philippian prison.
That’s when Paul and Silas do something amazing. They started praising God!
“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.” (Acts 16:25)
That’s when something amazing happened:
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”
The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house.
At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household.
When it was daylight, the magistrates sent their officers to the jailer with the order: “Release those men.” The jailer told Paul, “The magistrates have ordered that you and Silas be released. Now you can leave. Go in peace.”
But Paul said to the officers: “They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out.”
The officers reported this to the magistrates, and when they heard that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, they were alarmed. They came to appease them and escorted them from the prison, requesting them to leave the city. After Paul and Silas came out of the prison, they went to Lydia’s house, where they met with the brothers and sisters and encouraged them. Then they left.
That’s how the church in Philippi was born.
I have to say there’s a certain irony about it---Paul writing to the Philippian church encouraging them to choose joy no matter their circumstances after he set the example just over 10 years before for them by praising the Lord in the absolute direst of circumstances. What’s even more amazing is that Paul didn’t write this epistle to the Philippian church from an ivory tower, but rather, from a Roman prison.
These facts show that Paul’s teaching in Philippians isn’t an impossible religious standard---a self-righteous precipice that we can never attain. Paul knew that life wasn’t always fair, that bad things happen to good people, that Christians experience persecution and betrayal, and that life doesn’t always end happily ever after.
However, Paul chose not to focus exclusively on these truths. Instead, he chose to look at life through the eyes of eternity. He chose to shift his attention from his temporary suffering onto the eternal God Who was worthy of all praise, honor, and glory. Throughout the book of Philippians he challenges the church that he founded and loved, as well as all of us, to share his perspective, maintain a kingdom perspective, and choose joy no matter the circumstances. That’s why Paul was happy.
So that’s the background---the history of the church in Philippi and a description of Paul’s circumstances as he wrote to them. Now it’s time to start our study and begin learning from Paul’s example “How to be Happy, Happy, Happy”. It’s going to be an amazing journey. We hope you’ll join us.