The letter of Philippians was written by the Apostle Paul to the Christians in the city of Philippi. Paul, traveling with Silas, Luke, and Timothy, planted the church in Philippi, and Acts 16 describes a few of the city’s first believers, like Lydia, the jailer, and their families. Paul was imprisoned, probably in Rome, at the time of writing his letter, which is a response to the Philippians sending Epaphraditus with a gift for Paul. The tone of Philippians, therefore, is quite different than many of Paul’s other letters. Here the apostle is not primarily writing to correct false teaching or rebuke rampant sin; instead, he is writing to further encourage the Philippians to continue growing in their faith. Even though the Philippians were apparently suffering some form of persecution (1:28) and Paul himself was imprisoned, his refrain throughout the epistle is a command to rejoice. No matter the external circumstances, Paul is confident that his readers will find joy and contentment in Christ.
We begin by studying the greeting of Paul’s letter. As was typical of ancient epistles, the author (Paul) is stated first, followed by the recipients (the Philippians), and then a greeting was given (grace and peace). Although these two verses may seem fairly simple and easily overlooked, they are filled with Christ-exalting truth, setting the tone for the remainder of the letter.
SERVANTS OF CHRIST // VERSE 1
Paul’s epistle to the Philippian church begins in the traditional style of an epistle: by stating the writer first. Since we are explicitly told which men this letter comes from, let us meet Paul and Timothy.
Who is Paul?
The Apostle Paul casts an enormous shadow over the Christian faith, who arguably shaped Christianity more than anyone except for Jesus Himself. But who was Paul? Originally named Saul, the apostle provides a helpfully condensed version of his testimony in Acts 22, while speaking to the Jews in Jerusalem. Born in Tarsus, Saul was raised in Jerusalem where he became a Pharisee under the tutelage of Gamaliel, the most renowned Pharisee of his time. When Christianity began to expand after the events of Pentecost, Saul zealously persecuted the heretics, capturing and delivering over to death as many as he could find. But while traveling to Damascus, Jesus appeared to him as a bright light, asking why Saul was persecuting him. In Damascus, Saul’s sight was restored through the prayer of Ananias. From that time on, Paul was commissioned out as an apostle to the Gentiles, where he suffered greatly for proclaiming the gospel. Paul explains these trails as such:
2 Corinthians 11:24-28 | Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.
These hardships primarily took place while Paul traveled about on his missionary journeys. Of course, life outside of his travels was not easy either. As is the case with the writing of Philippians, Paul spent many of his final years in prison before eventually being executed.
Who is Timothy?
Timothy was a young man that Paul found shortly in Lystra, which was before Paul would travel to Philippi for the first time. With a Jewish mother and a Greek father, Timothy was taught the Scriptures by his mother, Eunice, and grandmother, Lois (1 Timothy 1:5; 2 Timothy 3:15). Timothy joined Paul, Silas, and Luke as they continued their journey, eventually planting the church in Philippi. Given that 2 Timothy is the last Pauline letter, written just prior to his execution, the intimate father-son relationship between Paul and Timothy can be greatly felt.
Some thought must be given to why Timothy is placed alongside Paul in this greeting. After all, Paul was an apostle who authored Scripture by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but Timothy was not. Is this verse, however, suggesting that Timothy is a coauthor of Philippians? The short answer is no. Throughout the letter, Paul repeatedly speaks of himself in the first person, and in chapter two, Paul speaks of Timothy in the third person. The letter, therefore, is clearly written by Paul. Timothy is likely included for two main reasons. First, Timothy was likely the scribe of this letter, physically writing the words that Paul spoke to him. Second, the Philippians already knew Timothy from their previous travels, and Paul was planning to send Timothy to them again as his representative (2:19, 23).
Slaves of Christ
Now that introductions have been made, let us turn our attention to how Paul and Timothy introduce themselves: servants of Christ Jesus. Servant, while not an incorrect translation, is certainly not the best. Servant often implies someone who is paid for their service, like a restaurant server, a butler, or a maid, but Paul is not calling himself that kind of servant. Instead, slave is a much more accurate translation because slave implies the ownership of another person, not simply the hiring of them. We rightfully wince at the very idea of slavery, especially considering the racial slavery from U. S. history. Slavery in the ancient world, although still more than capable of brutalities, did not come with such racial overtones. Slavery was often a valid option for working off a large debt or placing oneself under a wealthier household. A slave could also often purchase their freedom if they desired to do so. Ancient slavery, therefore, is not a direct parallel with our history of slavery. The basic idea, however, remains the same. A slave is the property of his or her master. To be a slave is to be owned by another. This concept is particularly difficult for an individualistic culture such as ours to comprehend. Personal autonomy flows through everything that we do. If are fish, it is our water. If we are birds, it is our air. The entire abortion industry flows from this line of understanding: “my body; my choice.” We are each, as Henley says in his poem Invictus, masters of our fate and captains of our soul. To be owned by another human being is, therefore, almost unfathomable. The mind can scarcely comprehend it.
Yet Paul happily calls Timothy and himself slaves of Christ. The implications of this are difficult to overstate. Paul did not view himself as being the master of his own fate or even his own body. His individual autonomy had been eclipsed by something far greater, Someone far greater. When we reconsider Paul’s testimony, this only continues to astound. Within one moment, Paul ceased persecuting Christ and instead became His slave. Can you imagine the radiance of Christ’s glory, a glory so beautiful that Paul’s life immediately reordered, a glory so marvelous that all his sufferings were a mere light, momentary affliction by comparison?
John Owen pleads for us to search diligently for this glory:
It is by beholding the glory of Christ by faith that we are spiritually edified and built up in this world, for as we behold his glory, the life and power of faith grow stronger and stronger. It is by faith that we grow to love Christ. So if we desire strong faith and powerful love, which give us rest, peace and satisfaction, we must seek them by diligently beholding the glory of Christ by faith. In this duty I desire to live and to die. On Christ’s glory I would fix all my thoughts and desires, and the more I see of the glory of Christ, the more the painted beauties of this world will wither in my eyes and I will be more and more crucified to this world. It will become to me like something dead and putrid, impossible for me to enjoy. (7)
Why is Jesus’ glory so worthy of our pursuit and servitude? Paul uses the word slave one other time in Philippians not to describe himself this time but to describe the humiliation of Christ. Philippians 2:6-11 remind us of Christ’s descent from heaven to become a man, a slave who would be obedient to the Father to the point of death on a cross. But though Jesus suffered humiliation on our behalf, His exaltation is now supreme and total.
Although Jesus became a slave for us, He is now the name above all names, and one day every knee will bend and every tongue confess that He is Lord. In other words, Christ became a slave to save us, so that we can now become slaves to His righteousness. For Him, we willingly lose our lives, knowing that we will find greater life in Him. But while submission to Christ is presently an option, one day that option will cease. Christ will, in the end, reign as Lord and Master over everything and everyone. Those, therefore, who do not willingly embrace the loving and gracious arms of Jesus as their Lord will still find their knees forced to bow to Him as Lord.
Do you submit to Christ as your Lord? Are you a slave of Christ? Are there any aspects of your life that you withhold from Jesus’ lordship?
SAINTS IN CHRIST // VERSE 1
Next, we shift our focus onto the recipients of Paul’s letter: the Philippians.
Who are the saints?
The address is to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi. The first question that must be asked is: Who are the saints? The Roman Catholic usage of saint is likely to immediately spring to mind. In Catholicism, saints are Christians who displayed in their life an extraordinary amount of holiness and devotion to God. Saints are, in many ways, super-Christians. As you may have guessed already, Paul’s idea of sainthood is quite different. When Paul refers to all the saints of Philippi, he is not addressing his letter only to the best of the best. No, he is referring to all the Christians in Philippi. Throughout the New Testament, saint is synonymous with Christian. Why is this? First, we must understand what exactly being a saint means. In Greek, saint comes from the same root word of holy. In fact, in English, the words saint, sanctify, and sacred all come from the same idea of being holy or becoming holy. A saint then could be called one who is holy.
Now the question becomes: what is holiness? Holiness is best understood as an adjective that can only fully be used to describe God Himself. Because holiness refers to the uniqueness, otherness, or distinctiveness of something, God is the only being who perfectly embodies holiness. Everything else in creation is like something else, at least in the fact that they both have been created. God, however, is totally unique. Even we humans, who were created to be like God, can only dimly reflect His nature. In this sense, God alone is holy. Yet throughout the Scriptures, people and even objects are also deemed holy. How is this? When holiness is applied to people and objects, the meaning is not that they are utterly unique like God but instead that they are distinctively set apart for God. For God, holiness is a statement of His being. For us, holiness is a declaration of God’s ownership of us. To be holy is to be called out of commonality, ordinariness, vulgarity, and profanity into a life exclusively dedicated to God. Saints, therefore, are a people of God’s own possession who have been commission to be His instruments of working in the world (1 Peter 2:9). In other words, if you are a Christian, you are a saint.
So the saints in Philippi are the same as the believers in Philippi, but notice two other descriptions that Paul gives of them: in Christ and at Philippi. We’ll address their physical location first. Philippi was a city in eastern Macedonia that was conquered and given its name by Philip II of Macedon (more commonly known as the father of Alexander the Great). Philippi later received recognition as being near the battle site of Brutus and Cassius (assassins of Julius Caesar) against Mark Antony and Octavian (friend and adopted son of Caesar, respectively). After the battle and more fully when he became Augustus Caesar, Octavian relieved some of his veteran soldiers for the purpose of colonizing the city. Philippi became highly Romanized and was even modeled on the city of Rome itself. It quickly became a crucial city of the Roman Empire due to its proximity to rich gold mines and its position on the Via Egnatia, which was the major road that Paul would have traveled upon from Philippi to Thessalonica. The founding of the church in Philippi can be read in Acts 16.
But the saints of Philippi are not only located at that city, they are also in Christ. Being in Christ is a common concept throughout the New Testament, so we could turn to a multitude of Scriptures for gaining a fuller understanding. Colossians 1:19-22 provides a remarkably concise glance at the riches of our being in Christ:
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.
What a glorious truth! In Christ, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and by Christ, God is reconciling all things to himself. The peace of this reconciliation occurs via the blood of Jesus on the cross.
But why do we need to be reconciled to God? We were alienated and hostile in mind. This is our great problem. Because of our continuous rebellion against God, we were separated from God, but not merely separated, we were also hostile to Him. Like Adam and Eve before us, our disobedience is nothing short of a proclamation of our own divinity. Sin, therefore, does not merely make us dirty to God. It cuts us off from Him and makes us haters of Him. Sin is not a light-hearted issue; it is evil itself. In Ephesians 2:1, Paul goes so far as to call us dead in our sins.
What then could save us from our alienation and hostility toward God? Christ, and Christ alone. He has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him. By the death of Christ, we are reconciled to God and made holy, blameless, and above reproach. Jesus does this by, first, taking the due wrath for our sins upon Himself, and then granting to us His righteousness as our own. The process, called propitiation, is how we are reconciled to God. Christ absorbed God’s wrath, while giving us His righteousness. But notice that all of this only takes place in his body of flesh. Our reconciliation with God can occur nowhere other than in Christ. Jesus is now our mediator, bridging the divide of alienation and reconciling the hostility between God and us. This is why Paul commands the Colossians later to consider themselves dead to themselves and alive to God in Christ: “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (3:3-4).
What does it mean then to be in Christ? When we have died to our sin and our life is hidden in Christ, we are reconciled to God, standing before Him holy and blameless. Being in Christ, therefore, is the very essence of the gospel. There is no good news outside of Christ. In Him is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6), and there is no other. To be in Christ is life. To be outside of Him is death.
It should also be noted that the Philippians dual locations occur simultaneously. Their life may be hidden with Christ in God, but they are still physically present in Philippi. The same is true of us. We exist in a kind of intermediate state. We have been rescued from sin and now possess the full heavenly blessings of God, and yet we still live in non-glorified, sin-ruined bodies. We are not what we once were, but we are also not yet what we will be. We are in Christ. But we are also in this broken, fallen world. We cannot neglect either of these truths. We must live as new creations in Christ, while also continuing to live in our neighborhoods, cities, and towns. Our dual citizenship must ever be before us. Yet we must also note that the problems rarely come from us being transfixed with our heavenly status to the neglect of our present condition. John Piper expresses this thought well:
The problem with the church today is not that there are too many people who are passionately in love with heaven. Name three! The problem is not that professing Christians are retreating from the world, spending half their days reading Scripture and the other half singing about their pleasures in God all the while indifferent to the needs of the world. The problem is that professing Christians are spending ten minutes reading Scripture and then half their day making money and the other half enjoying and repairing what they spend it on.
It is not heavenly-mindedness that hinders love. It is worldly-mindedness that hinders love, even when it is disguised by a religious routine on the weekend. Where is the person whose heart is so passionately in love with the promised glory of heaven that he feels like an exile and a sojourner on the earth? Where is the person who has so tasted the beauty of the age to come that the diamonds of the world look like baubles, and the entertainment of the world is empty, and the moral causes of the world are too small because they have no view to eternity? Where is this person?
He is not in bondage to TV-watching or eating or sleeping or drinking or partying or fishing or sailing or putzing around. He is a free man in a foreign land. And his one question is this: How can I maximize my enjoyment of God for all eternity while I am an exile on this earth? And his answer is always the same: by doing the labors of love.
Only one thing satisfies the heart whose treasure is in heaven: doing the works of heaven. And heaven is a world of love! It is not the cords of heaven that bind the hands of love. It is the love of money and leisure and comfort and praise — these are the cords that bind the hands of love. And the power to sever these cords is Christian hope.” (Piper, 1986)
How often do you consider your being in Christ? Would you consider yourself heavenly-minded or worldly-minded? How might fixing our eyes on Christ enable us to be better citizens here and now?
With the overseers and deacons
We, of course, cannot continue into verse 2 without addressing the final phrase of verse 1: with the overseers and deacons. I will not spend much time here discussing these two offices, since I have already addressed them in detail through our series, Biblical Leadership. So here is the shorthand information. Overseers and deacons are the two offices of leadership in the church as defined in the Bible. Overseers, who are also called pastors and elders, are guardians of doctrine within the church, tasked primarily to shepherd the congregation through prayer and the ministry of the Word. Deacons are the church’s guardians of unity, who primarily minister to the physical needs of the congregation. Note that both offices are presented as being plural, which is consistent with the rest of the New Testament.
GRACE & PEACE FROM CHRIST // VERSE 2
Now understanding the letter’s author and recipients, Paul writes a common Christian greeting to the church of Philippi. The phrase grace and peace is as loaded with significance as in Christ is. In many ways, these two words represent the entire biblical message.
The Hebrew word for peace, shalom, is well-known, and even though the letter was written in Greek, Paul no doubt had this concept in mind. Shalom, however, means far more than just the absence of conflict or hardship; it also refers to being whole or complete. Thus, being at peace is to be fully satisfied and content, possessing the serenity of perfect security and completion. With God’s peace, there is no fear. No anxiety. No worry. No stress. No want. No lack. No envy, greed, or coveting. The peace of God is being fully satisfied in God.
Of course, this peace is only given to us through the other word: grace. Grace is best described alongside mercy. Mercy occurs whenever just punishment is withheld, and grace is the giving of blessing instead. In other words, mercy is about not receiving what we deserved, while grace is about being gifted what we do not deserve. As we described above, these two actions form God’s act of propitiation through the cross of Christ. By God’s mercy, the wrath for our sin is withheld from us and transferred to Christ. By God’s grace, Christ’s righteousness is placed upon us, enabling us to receiving the blessings of God, such as His peace.
God our Father
So by the grace of God, we have the peace of God. These come from the hand of God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Not only is God’s wrath kept from us, but God becomes our Father. In Christ, we are able to speak to the Designer of centripetal force, wombats, and mangos as our Dad. If we find security in having connections to powerful people, how much more should we be at peace knowing that our Father upholds the universe by the word of His power!
The Lord Jesus Christ
And this relationship was purchased for us through the death of our Lord, our Master. To bring everything full circle, how can we not serve Christ as His slaves when He has died for us, showered us with His grace, and given us the peace of having God as our Father? Surely He has been proven to have our best interest at heart. We are far richer and far better off serving Christ than any other lord, even ourselves.
May we, therefore, be slaves of Christ who are in Christ by the peace and grace of Christ to the glory alone of Christ.