During our study of Paul’s Prison Epistles this year, we have noted on several occasions that the criminal justice system in ancient Rome was significantly different than our own. One chief difference is that our modern criminal justice system feeds and clothes those who are in prison, while prisoners in the Roman Empire depended on the goodwill of family and friends to sustain them. Unless prisoners’ loved ones sent them money or food, these ancient inmates did not eat.
This was true even of the Apostle Paul while he was in prison in Rome. Thankfully, he had friends to help meet his physical needs during his incarceration. The Philippian church was particularly faithful to the Apostle in this regard, as Philippians 4:10–20 illustrates. Paul wrote to the Philippians, in part, to thank them for their financial support, and he begins to express his thanks specifically in today’s passage.
Mutual giving and receiving was key to friendship in the ancient Greco-Roman world, and Paul’s partnership with the Philippian church illustrates this principle. As we see in Philippians 4:10, the Philippians had been looking for a way to express their appreciation to Paul tangibly but had been unable to do so for quite a long time. The Apostle’s imprisonment in Rome, although it could be viewed as a tragedy from a limited earthly perspective, was somewhat of a blessing for them because it gave them the opportunity to show forth their friendship again in sending money to help meet Paul’s need. They had actively been looking for a way to love their beloved pastor and Apostle, fulfilling Matthew 7:12 and demonstrating Christian character, and finally they were able to help Paul with their monetary gift.
Yet even if Paul valued the Philippians for supporting his ministry, his friendship with this congregation was not merely utilitarian and based on what he could get from them. We see this in his hesitation to refer to his “need” of anything from the Philippians, at least in the ultimate sense (Phil. 4:11). The Apostle is implying that he still would have loved the Philippians dearly if he had no physical needs; his joy in their friendship was not limited to what he could get out of them in a particular circumstance. He had Christ, and that was enough to satisfy any need he had, no matter his circumstances (vv. 12–13).
God gives us friends in the church to help build us up and so that we might support one another in all our needs. Of course, only Christ fulfills all our needs in an ultimate sense, but He does work through human means to sustain us and to remind us that we are sufficient only in Him. Thus, we should be forging close bonds with other believers that we might bless them and be blessed in return.