Typecasting can ruin a career. Although Anthony Perkins did some marvelous work after 1960, he will always be thought of as Norman Bates in Psycho. Because of his success in Dracula, and his heavy eastern-European accent, Bela Lugosi fought unsuccessfully throughout his life for roles in movies that were not of the horror genre. Arnold Schwarzenegger had moderate success in his two comedies, but he is still considered strictly an action-adventure hero. In the opera world, it is even more broadly stated: basses are always villains or old men. In the Bible, one city has been typecast in a role related to imprisonment of the apostle Paul. After all, every Bible school student knows about the Philippian Jailer, but they forget about Lydia. Philippians is remembered as one of the “prison epistles.”
In a time when much of the world has been in, or is coming out of, physical isolation, maybe the city of Philippi, and Paul’s letter to the church there, is of increasing relevance today. A city long associated with Paul’s isolations may actually go against type. After all, it is not that Philippi was, like Ossining, Leavenworth, or San Quentin, equated with being a prison city. It is just coincidental that two of the three associations with Paul relate to his imprisonment. (The third association is their generosity in supporting Paul while he worked in Corinth, as mentioned in 2 Corinthians 8.)
Paul’s first isolation relative to Philippi came in the city itself. (Acts 16) Paul had cast a spirit of divination out of a young girl, making her employers angry. Since he was Jewish, and Philippi at that time had banned Jews from practicing their religion in the city, Paul was cast into prison with his companion Silas. In this first instance of Philippian isolation, what was their reaction? It was one that we in the age of Covid-19 are urged not to do: they sang. More specifically, “they sang praises unto God.” And so, that is the first thing we should do in this time of isolation. We should praise God. Now, Paul and Silas only had some prisoners and a jailer to hear them, but we have various forms of social media that we can use to praise God.
The other isolation related to the Philippians was Paul’s Roman incarceration. Understand that Roman prisons were not like American prisons. The government did not pay for prisoner upkeep. If you did not have friends to provide food and other necessities, you starved and were cold. It is in such circumstances that Paul wrote what many consider to be his most hopeful letter. It is from prison that he wrote “do all things without complaining or disputing.” (Php 2:14) He wrote about hope. “If I be offered upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I joy, and rejoice with you all.” (Php 2:17) And, of course, who can forget “Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice.” (Php 4:4)
Even the strictest orders for social distancing are nothing compared to Paul’s imprisonments. We may not be able to assemble as we would like. We may face certain restrictions that are annoying. We may even face some shortages of what we consider necessities, although many in the world might consider them luxuries. Nevertheless, our attitude should be that of Paul. Social distancing does not distance us from God. If anything, it should draw us closer, and in that we can rejoice.