51. Finding Courage in the Midst of Difficulty (Philippians 2:19)

Only once in the New Testament do we find the verb eupsuchein. Mid-way through his letter to the Christians at Philippi, Paul announces that he intends to send Timothy to find out how they are doing. Of course, this will only happen “in the Lord Jesus”, i.e. as the Lord Jesus directs. Presumably, if Timothy arrives in Philippi, it is because Paul believes this is what God wants to happen. What makes Timothy such a good choice is that among Paul’s helpers no one else shows the same degree of concern for the Philippian Christians (2:20). In the following verses we discover that if Paul’s trial goes well, he intends to send Timothy and then shortly after to follow him in re-visiting Philippi.

Paul’s primary purpose in sending Timothy is “to take heart in his [Paul’s] difficulties (eupsuchein)”, if the news about the Philippian Christians is good. At this time Paul is in prison at Rome, awaiting the outcome of his appeal to Caesar. Unsure about the outcome, he reflects upon God’s purposes in these events. He is confident that they will “serve to advance the gospel” (1:12),[1] but it may cost him his life. What he wants to know is whether these believers “stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you” (1:27-28)? Paul hopes that just as they remain true to their Christian confession in the face of strong opposition, so too will he, as he faces Caesar. Paul too is looking for encouragement in the midst of his difficulties. 

Cognate forms of the word eupsuchein frequently occur in epitaphs. It serves to express the prayer of the mourner that the deceased will undertake the journey into the unknown region of death with hearty courage. “To Eutychianos, …good courage! May your sleep be with the just”.[2] A common epitaph is simply alupe eupsuchei – “free from pain, be stout-hearted”. Within the concept of bravery or courage, there are also overtones of joy. Spicq cites an excerpt from a second century A.D. letter written by a father to his son, “Write to me soon so that I may rejoice”.[3]

In Josephus’ account of Israel’s battle with the Amorites (Numbers 21), he says that the Amorite warriors initially were high-spirited (eupsuchon) until they saw the determination of the armed Hebrew soldiers.[4] When he recounts the story of Esther and her entrance into the presence of Artaxerxes, Josephus reports that her fear made her faint. The king takes her in his arms and encourages (eupsuchein) her “to be of good cheer and hope for the best”.[5] Several times Josephus uses this word to describe Herod the Great’s stout-heartedness in the face of severe hardship and difficulty, including plots to kill him and attacks against his army.[6]

The author of 2 Maccabees reported that the mother of the seven brothers martyred by Anitochus Epiphanes “although she saw her seven sons perish within a single day, she bore it with good courage (eupsucheos) because of her hope in the Lord”.[7]

So good news about the state of the Philippian believers would cause Paul’s spirits to soar, with resulting courage and joy. Though despair might be expected given his circumstances, he would gain great hope if he knew these believers, despite their oppression, were staying strong.  Paul would certainly have heard the stories about Esther and about the martyrdom of the seven brothers. In each case people, facing incredible pressure, put their lives at risk in order to serve God and be loyal to Him. Perhaps Paul saw himself in such a situation. Martyrdom for Jesus’ sake was a very real possibility. Knowing that those whose lives he had touched through the Gospel were staying the course would give his sufferings greater purpose and urge him to keep strong in his faith commitments also.

It is easy to lose heart, to have courage fail in our service for God. When opposition becomes fierce and our life’s work is threatened, it is natural for us to question the purpose of it all. Sometimes, despite our best intentions and our hardest efforts, black despair envelopes us. Paul sensed this danger and his letter to the Philippian Christians, delivered by Timothy and Epaphroditus, anticipates that fresh encouragement will reach the imprisoned apostle and help him cope with the threat of execution.

Perhaps you today are struggling to keep a stout heart, to retain joyful courage in your ministry or your walk with God. Life has dealt you some heavy blows; your ministry seems beset with obstacles that are overwhelming. Where will you discover the kind of courage that will lift your spirits and enable you to persevere? One key source Paul would counsel us to look at is the influence our work for Jesus has had in the lives of others. If they are persisting in the faith, then we can take great encouragement that God is at work in our lives even in the midst of great difficulties.

Application: as you reflect upon God’s word today:

  1. what parallels do you discern between Paul’s situation and your own today? Where is the oppression hitting you the hardest as you seek to serve God?
  2. when the situation becomes the darkest where do you find courage to carry forward with hope and joy?
  3. whom would you name today that has been influenced positively for Christ through your service? Do you find joy in this fact?
  4. what do we learn about the importance of Christian community for sustaining our Christian hope and courage?

  • 1. I discuss this text in Internet Moments with God’s Word #22. [click here to view]
  • 2. C. Spicq, Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, Volume 2 (Peabody, Mass.: Hendricksen Publishers, 1994):155, quoting an Jewish inscription found in Rome (Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaicarum # 110).
  • 3. Spicq, 156.
  • 4. Jewish Antiquities 4.89.
  • 5. Jewish Antiquities 11.241.
  • 6. Jewish Antiquities 12:302; 14:355; 15:141.
  • 7. 2 Maccabees 7:20

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