According to the custom of his day, and quite unlike our own, Paul uses the threefold salutation: signature, address, and greeting. However, much like our own correspondence, the signature reveals a great deal about the mood, purpose, and content of a letter as well as the relationship between writer and reader. One can look at a signature and determine if the letter is formal or informal, official or casual, between friends or strangers. Paul’s signatures are no less revealing and the reader of Paul’s letters should pause to savor them. His lengthy (six verses!) signature with full credentials in the Roman letter tells the reader Paul is writing to strangers; the cold and official signature in Galatians announces tension immediately; whereas the warmly emotional signature in Philemon alerts the reader that Paul will be using the relationship as ground for asking a favor. Here in Philippians the absence of Paul’s usual credentials as an apostle says that his relationship with the readers makes that unnecessary; but neither does Paul permit his affection for the Philippians to substitute for the central subject matter: the gospel. Being friends of the pastor is not to be equated with being the church. He prefers to sign his name “Paul a servant (slave) of Christ Jesus,” flavoring the entire letter, for he will call upon them to be servants of one another just as Christ himself took the form of a servant (2:7). Here as elsewhere Paul adds to his name that of his associate in ministry. This does not mean that Timothy coauthored the letter—Paul writes in the first person singular (1:3)—but that Paul always worked as part of a team. In this case Timothy was not only well known to the church at Philippi, having been with Paul at its founding and having visited there more than once (Acts 16; 19:22), but he was soon to be sent to Philippi as Paul’s emissary (2:19–23).
The letter is to “all the saints in Christ Jesus.” The term “saints” or “holy ones” refers primarily to God’s act of claiming them as God’s people, consecrated, bound in a covenant (Exod. 19:6; Deut. 7:6). It is in a derived sense that the term came to refer to the moral character of those so set apart, but this secondary meaning should not be negated in order to underscore the primary one. Paul knew perhaps better than we how easily grace can degenerate into sentimental “acceptance” without moral earnestness.
Paul gives the saints two addresses: “in Christ Jesus” and “in Philippi.” He will elaborate upon this double designation later when he calls upon them to let their life in Christ Jesus be evident in their life in Philippi (2:5). Paul will not let them forget, as though they could, that they had been called to be God’s people in that time and place.
And how strategic it was for the whole Christian mission! Located on the Egnatian Way, nine miles from the port of Neapolis, Philippi witnessed daily the traffic of commerce, culture, and religion between East and West. Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, had rebuilt the town of Krenides and had given it his own name. It had flourished because of the gold mines nearby, but those days were gone. It now flourished as a Roman colony, having been favored by both Mark Antony and Octavius following their victory over the armies of Brutus and Cassius, assassins of Julius Caesar, on the plains of Philippi in 42 B.C. Antony settled some of his soldiers there and Octavius, now Caesar Augustus, located Italian families there soon after 30 B.C. Philippi is now a Roman colony, an administrative center of the Empire whose proud inhabitants are Roman citizens and whose official language is Latin. Luke provides our only account of the beginning of the Christian mission there (Acts 16: 11–40). In response to a vision and call to “Come over to Macedonia and help us,” Paul and companions made a slow start at a riverside place of prayer. Lydia and some others responded but difficulties mounted. Victimized by local anti-Semitism and charged with civil disobedience, Paul and Silas endured beatings and imprisonment. As far as we know, this was the first time Paul came up against Roman power. He remembered in a letter to the Thessalonians how he had “suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi” (I Thess. 2:2). According to Luke, Paul made at least two other visits to Philippi (Acts 20:1–6), but the political and social climate apparentlydid not improve. In fact, the church at the time of this letter is “engaged in the same conflict which you saw and now hear to be mine” (1:30). Most likely the common agony helped forge the bonds holding Paul and this church together.
Singled out for special mention in addressing all the saints are “bishops and deacons” (no definite articles are used). This reference is noticeable by its singularity in Paul’s letters. That fact, coupled with the common assumption that such offices were yet a generation or two from appearing in the church, has convinced many scholars to regard the phrase as an editorial addition at the time Paul’s letters were gathered and granted wider authority in the church. Such certainly may have been the case, but original or editorial, the reference is not to ecclesiastical positions such as were later to be so designated. The terms, now clerical, were in that culture rather common, referring to overseers or superintendents and servants or attendants. Deacon was a common term for servant and an overseer could be a state or local official or a leader of a religious guild. As such these persons were responsible for collecting, managing, and distributing taxes or other funds. It is practically impossible to document the evolution of church order, but it is quite possible that some persons in the church at Philippi functioned in such a capacity. After all, a prominent feature of Paul’s relation to this church is their gifts to him, their repeated support for his mission (4:10–20), and their generous offerings for the famine victims among the Christians of Judea (II Cor. 8—9).
Paul’s greeting to the churches, “grace and peace” has become almost as familiar as his name. The double greeting was a compound derived from his heritage as a Jew and his mission as an apostle to the gentiles. “Peace” (shalom) reminded Paul that his gospel had been promised through the prophets in holy Scripture and that, for all his battles with legalistic distortions of Judaism, Paul was still an Israelite (Rom. 11:1). “Grace” (charis) was a Christianized modification of the common Hellenistic greeting (chairein). Whether or not, as some have speculated, Paul began his preaching by “saying the blessing” of grace and peace from God through Christ, it is difficult to imagine that it ever became routine for him. After all, Paul’s earlier zealous defense of his Jewish tradition and his violent persecution of the group that in the name of Jesus “said grace” upon all without distinction of Jew or gentile never faded from memory. It was that past which made his blessing of grace and peace a miracleevery time he said it. Or for that matter, every time anyone says it. Given the sinful conditions that determine our granting or withholding a blessing, for any of us to desire God’s unmerited favor upon other persons is certainly due to the presence in us of a God who sends sun and rain upon good and evil alike (Matt. 5:45) and who is kind even to the ungrateful and selfish (Luke 6:35).