Greetings and Gratitude in the Gospel


Just as in writing letters or emails today we follow certain patterns, so too ancient Greco-Roman letters tended to follow recognizable patterns. The typical pattern for the opening of a letter was: (1) name of the sender(s); (2) the recipients of the letter; (3) salutation/greeting; and (4) prayer, often with elements of thanksgiving and/or petition. (Guides to New Testament Exegesis 5; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), 25-9. An example of this basic structure is found in a second-century (a.d.) letter written by Serenos to his wife Isidora: ‘Serenos to Isidora his sister and lady warmest greetings. Before all else I pray for your health and every day and every evening I make supplication for you before Theoris who loves you. I want you to know that ever since you left me I have been in mourning weeping at night and mourning during the day’ (P\. Oxy\. 528); cited from Michael B. Trapp, Greek and Latin Letters: An Anthology, with Translation (Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 72-5. Paul adapts this pattern with his own distinctive theological and situational distinctives to not merely open the letter but anticipate major themes and/or issues that he develops later in the letter.

This opening section of the letter breaks down into two main pieces: Greetings (1:1-2) and Prayer (1:3-11). Running throughout 1:1-11 are several key themes in the letter:

(1) unity within the body (some form of the Greek word for ‘all’ occurs nine times); (2) the necessity of humility (1:1);(3) Paul’s deep affection for the Philippians (1:3-4, 7-8); (3) the Philippians’ participation in Paul’s ministry (1:5-7); (4) the eschatological nature of the Christian life (1:6, 9-11); (5) Paul’s imprisonment (1:7); and (6) godly living (1:9-11). All these themes are ultimately connected to the gospel. Because they experience fellowship in the gospel, God has united Paul and the Philippians for the advancement of the gospel (despite the distance separating them) in anticipation of the day of Christ.

Greetings in the Gospel (1:1-2)

Paul begins this letter by referring to himself and Timothy (a co-sender of the letter) as slaves of Christ Jesus. He goes on to describe the recipients as: (1) all the saints (2) in Christ Jesus (3) who are at Philippi (4) along with the overseers and (5) the deacons. Although Paul follows the typical pattern of the ancient letter form, he expands it by adding these descriptions of himself, Timothy, and the Philippians. Even within these descriptions Paul hints at themes he will develop later in the letter. By referring to himself and Timothy as servants, he anticipates the description of Jesus Christ the ultimate servant (2:5-11). Additionally, the phrase ‘all the saints’ foreshadows the emphasis on unity that pervades the letter. Though perhaps not apparent upon first reading the letter, these connections become evident as Philippians is read repeatedly.

Even within this opening greeting, the gospel shapes Paul’s words and thoughts. The identity of Paul, Timothy, and the Philippians is determined by their relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ. In studying these verses, we as present-day followers of Christ can learn much about who we are as well.

1:1 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons:

Following the custom of his day, Paul begins by identifying himself as the author. But he also includes Timothy as an author of the letter, making Philippians one of the seven Pauline letters that have ‘co-authors.’ Timothy is also mentioned in2 Corinthians, Colossians, 1-2 Thessalonians, and Philemon as a co-sender of a Pauline letter. He was arguably Paul’s most trusted ministry companion, serving alongside him in gospel ministry ‘as a son with a father’ (Phil. 2:22). Timothy was with Paul when the church in Philippi was planted, though Acts does not explicitly mention him in the account (Acts 16:11-40).

In each of his letters Paul further describes himself in some way after his name, and these descriptions often anticipate a theme in the letter. Such is the case here, as Paul describes himself and Timothy as servants of Christ. This translation is slightly misleading, since the Greek word doulos refers to a slave rather than a hired servant. (ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin and Daniel G. Reid; Downers Grove: IVP, 1993), 1124-7. On the spiritual significance of slavery as a metaphor for the Christian life, see Dale B. Martin, Slavery as Salvation: The Metaphor of Slavery in Pauline Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990) and Murray J. Harris, Slave of Christ: A New Testament Metaphor for Total Devotion to Christ (NSBT 8; Downers Grove: IVP, 2001). This is one of Paul’s favorite titles, though it is phrased in a variety of different ways. (28x) and diakonos (21x). See further NIDNTT 3:589-99. The moniker reflects his conviction that he belongs to Jesus Christ and is completely at His disposal. It may also reflect Paul’s conviction that Christ dwelling in him was fulfilling the mission of the Servant of the Lord to be a light to the nations (Isa. 49:6), bringing salvation to them (cf. 2 Cor. 5:20–6:2; Gal. 1:10, 15-16; 2:20; Col. 1:24-26; see also Acts 13:46-48). (BZNW 168; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2010), 103-22. Of course, given the prevalence of slavery in the ancient world, the Philippians would also have heard this description in light of that institution; see O’Brien, Philippians, 45; Fee, Philippians, 62-3. But Paul also applies the title ‘servant’ to his co-workers in ministry, including Timothy as he does here (cf. also Col. 4:12; 2 Tim. 2:24-25).The prominence of the title may also stem from Jesus’ own teaching that those who desire to be great must be servants, following the pattern of Jesus Himself (Mark 10:43-45). More importantly, this title also anticipates the description of Christ in 2:7 as one who took ‘the form of a servant’ in an act of self-sacrificial love for others. The work of the ultimate servant Jesus Christ creates servants who are empowered to love and live as he did., 71-5.

The letter is addressed to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi. By referring to all the saints, Paul begins his emphasis on unity that runs throughout the letter (cf. 1:27–2:18; 3:15–4:9). According to its consistent use in the NT, the term translated saints