The first paragraph in this letter is packed with vital information. We discover the author, the stenographer, and their attitude toward Jesus Christ. We discover the recipients, their position in Christ, where they lived, and that this church was doubtless a well-developed church spiritually and organizationally. We discover a rather common greeting that characterized most letters in this culture, but we also discover why this greeting was both common and unique, indicating an unusual relationship between author, stenographer, and the recipients.
Paul was the great apostle to the Gentiles. His letter to the Philippians is one of thirteen that bear his name in the New Testament.
Paul was originally named Saul and was extremely dedicated to pharisaical Judaism. His great pre-conversion accomplishment was to persecute the church—an accomplishment he was later ashamed of when he, too, became a member of the body of Christ and gave his total life to preaching Christ and ministering to people he once tried to imprison and destroy.
When Paul wrote this letter, he was in prison in Rome for the cause of Christ. He had just received a gift—an abundant gift—from the Philippian Christians. They had sent one of their most respected men—a man named Epaphroditus—who delivered their package of love. One of Paul's main purposes in writing this letter was to thank the Philippians for their generosity and concern.
As Paul wrote this letter, a somewhat younger man no doubt sat at his side with pen in hand—a man Paul had come to love as if he were his very own son. His name was Timothy. He was probably writing this letter as Paul dictated it.
Timothy had a special place in his heart for the Philippian Christians. And they had a special place in their hearts for him. He had helped start this church. He was with Paul on the second missionary journey when they first came to Philippi. As we'll see later, Timothy's relationship with these Christians was deep and profound. It was fitting that Paul include Timothy in this greeting.
When Paul wrote this letter, he classified both himself and Timothy as "servants of Christ Jesus." The word servant literally means a "bond slave." Paul, however, did not use the word servant to refer to people who were in bondage, but rather to refer to people who were free. Paul and Timothy were not serving with a sense of oppression and compulsion, but rather with a sense of privilege and commitment. Both realized with a deep sense of appreciation that Jesus Christ had become their servant in order to provide eternal life. Paul especially was grateful to God. After all, he had been an enemy of the cross of Christ. But God, in His love, chose Paul to be one of His choicest servants, in spite of his previous hatred toward Christians and the One they served.
Paul and Timothy, then, had found freedom—not by living for themselves, but by turning their lives over to Christ as His servants. They had truly "lost their lives to find them again" (Mark 8:34-37).
Paul directed his letter at two groups of Christians. More accurately, there was only one group—all "the saints." But they also sent a special greeting to a smaller group within the larger group—the church leaders—which he identified as "the overseers and deacons."
No word has been more misinterpreted, abused and misused than the word saint—both inside and outside the Christian community. To many, a "saint" is a special kind of Christian—one who has lived an unusual life of holiness and dedication.
Not so! A "saint," as Paul used the word, refers to any true believer. In fact, all the Corinthians were called "saints." and there was a no more carnal group of Christians in all the New Testament world (1 Cor. 1:12; 2 Cor. 1:1, 2). A saint, then, is a person "called" and "set apart" by God. The word refers to a man's position "in Christ Jesus." Thus Paul followed this word with the phrase "in Christ Jesus."
To be "in Christ Jesus" is what makes a person a saint. The people Paul was writing to were true believers. They had put their faith in Jesus Christ. They were baptized into one body by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13).
Incidentally, the phrase "in Christ Jesus," or a similar one, was one of Paul's favorites. "In Christ Jesus" appears 8 times in the Philippian letter alone, and 41 times in his letters as a whole. The phrase "in Christ" appears 37 times, and "in the Lord" 43 times. Thus this concept appears over 120 times in Paul's writings. To Paul it was a grand and glorious reality to be a Christian—to be "in Christ Jesus."
True, Paul was writing to a group of Christians whose citizenship was "in heaven," but they also lived "on earth"—specifically, in Philippi, a significant Roman colony in Macedonia. It was in this city that Paul began his ministry in Europe (see map). He came to Europe as a result of the "Macedonian call"—a vision he had received in the night (Acts 16:8-10). So Paul, Timothy, Silas, and probably Luke packed their bags, crossed the Aegean Sea, and eventually came to Philippi. Here they met a number of people from a variety of backgrounds, led them to Jesus Christ, and established a church that was destined to become one of the most mature groups of Christians in the first century. (The account of the founding of this church is found in Acts 16.)
Within the larger group of Christians at Philippi (the saints) was a smaller group (the church leaders), to whom Paul wished to extend a special greeting. Two interesting observations can be made about the words Paul used to describe these leaders.
a. First, the spiritual leaders at Philippi were called overseers (or bishops) rather than elders, reflecting their cultural background.
Paul used the titles elder and bishop interchangeably in the New Testament, but with a purpose. The title elder was used primarily in churches comprising Christians who were converted in the Jewish culture. The title overseer was used in churches that consisted primarily of people who were converted in the Greco-Roman culture. The reason for this is that the word elder was a common word among Jews, and the word overseer was a common word among the Greeks and Romans. An elder in Israel was a religious and social leader, an overseer in the pagan culture was one who had the oversight of a Roman colony. In both instances, the words were borrowed and given a new meaning and function in the Christian community.
The apostle used the word overseer when writing to the Philippians no doubt because the church was heavily populated with Gentile converts. Then, too, many Bible expositors believe that Luke stayed in Philippi to help establish the church when Paul, Timothy, and Silas left to go on to Thessalonica. Since Luke was a Gentile convert, he also may have influenced the Philippians to use the word overseer rather than elder.
The overseers at Philippi were those men appointed to teach doctrine, shepherd the Philippian believers, and manage the church of God. These leaders were men mature enough to minister to the spiritual needs of the flock.
b. Second, the fact that Paul greets the "deacons" at Philippi indicates that mis church was spiritually mature and well developed organizationally.
A deacon in the New Testament was a man appointed to care for the material needs of the body. They seemingly were appointed once a church began to develop and grow and create needs that would not be present when the church was in its infancy. Paul always began in new churches by appointing elders or overseers—for the very first need of any believer is to be taught and to have pastoral care. Thus we see Paul exhorting Titus to appoint elders in Crete—but he said nothing about deacons (Titus 1:5). Evidently the need for deacons had not yet arisen.
Thus the Philippian church was well on its way in its growth and development. They had both overseers and deacons—and Paul wanted to greet all the leaders in the church at Philippi in a special way.
Paul used two words to extend his special greeting—"grace and peace." The word grace was usually used among Gentiles; the word peace was a common greeting among Jews. Consequently Paul uses both—again reflecting his cultural sensitivity.
But Paul adds a divine dimension—a dimension that was noticeably absent in secular correspondence. His greeting was "from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." This gives both grace and peace a distinctive Christian meaning. Paul was referring to God's unmerited favor and abounding grace toward mankind when He sent Jesus Christ to be the Savior of the world. He was also referring to the peace with God that all men have when they receive God's gift of eternal life.
Thus Paul began his letter with a brief but power-packed paragraph—just two simple verses in our Bible today. These two verses tell us a lot about Paul, Timothy, the Philippians, their church leaders, and the deep relationship that existed between Paul and Timothy and these New Testament Christians.
Paul refers to the Philippians, the Corinthians, the Ephesians, and the Colossians as "saints." He simply means "believers" or "Christians."
This leads to an important question: What is your relationship with Jesus Christ? Do you know Him personally? If not, you can receive Him right now. This prayer will help you:
"Father, I invite Jesus Christ to be my personal Savior. I am sorry for my sins, and I confess them to You. I need You and believe Jesus died for me personally on the cross and rose again so that I might live forever. Thank You for coming into my life to be my Savior."
All true Christians are saints, but not all are servants. Have you turned your life over to Jesus Christ totally and unconditionally? Have you come to the point in your life where you have made Him first place? Or are you still running your life—making all your decisions selfishly?
How does a Christian become a servant? First, by making a decision—a decision expressed clearly in Romans 12:1, 2. The following prayer paraphrases that decision:
"Father, in view of all Your mercies and grace to me, I offer myself to You as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to You. It is the only reasonable and logical thing for me to do. And from this moment on I will not allow my life to be pressed into this world's pattern and mold, but rather I will become more and more like You through a renewed mind and heart, proving and testing day by day what Your good, pleasing, and perfect will is for my life. In short, Father, I want to be Your servant. I want to lose my life to find it again."
Now that you have made this decision, you must develop a strategy for renewing your mind. Paul sets forth that strategy in Philippians 4:8, 9: "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice, and the God of peace will be with you."
Think of one thing in your life that is currently keeping you from serving Jesus Christ with all your heart. The following checklist will help you identify that problem:
Now write out a goal for this week. Share the goal with someone you really trust and have him pray with you and support you in helping you be a better servant of Jesus Christ.
My goal for this week is:
Read Philippians 1:3-11. Answer this question: "What evidence is there in this passage that the Philippian Christians represented a mature church?"