The Epistle of Joy
Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (1:1–2)
We live in a generally sad world, a fallen world well acquainted with despair, depression, disappointment, dissatisfaction, and a longing for lasting happiness that often never comes to pass. Moments of pleasure and satisfaction are scattered through the general pain and sorrow of life. Many people have little hope that their situation in life will ever change much, if any, for the better. Hopelessness tends to increase with age. Long years of life often become long years of sorrow, unfulfillment, loss of loved ones and friends, and often physical limitations and pain. Such decreasing times of happiness tend to produce a morbid sadness and lessening satisfaction with life.
Most people define happiness as an attitude of satisfaction or delight based on positive circumstances largely beyond their control. Happiness, therefore, cannot be planned or programmed, much less guaranteed. It is experienced only if and when circumstances are favorable. It is therefore elusive and uncertain.
Spiritual joy, on the other hand, is not an attitude dependent on chance or circumstances. It is the deep and abiding confidence that, regardless of one’s circumstances in life, all is well between the believer and the Lord. No matter what difficulty, pain, disappointment, failure, rejection, or other challenge one is facing, genuine joy remains because of that eternal well-being established by God’s grace in salvation. Thus, Scripture makes it clear that the fullest, most lasting and satisfying joy is derived from a true relationship with God. It is not based on circumstances or chance, but is the gracious and permanent possession of every child of God. Therefore it is not surprising that joy is an important New Testament theme. The verb rejoice (chairō) appears ninety-six times in the New Testament (including those times when it is used as a greeting) and the noun joy (chara) another fifty-nine times. The two words appear thirteen times in Philippians.
A biblical theology of joy includes many features. First, joy is a gift from God. David declared, “You have put gladness in my heart, more than when their grain and new wine abound. In peace I will both lie down and sleep, for You alone, O Lord, make me to dwell in safety” (Ps. 4:7–8); “You will make known to me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever” (Ps. 16:11).
Second, God grants joy to those who believe the gospel. Announcing Christ’s birth to the shepherds, the angel said, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10–11). Jesus told His disciples, “These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full” (John 15:11). Christ came to proclaim a gospel that would give true supernatural joy to those who receive Him as Savior and Lord.
Third, joy is produced by God the Holy Spirit. “For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking,” Paul said, “but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17). In his letter to the Galatian churches, the apostle wrote, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22–23).
Fourth, joy is experienced most fully as believers receive and obey God’s Word. The prophet Jeremiah exulted, “Your words were found and I ate them, and Your words became for me a joy and the delight of my heart; for I have been called by Your name, O Lord God of hosts” (Jer. 15:16). The apostle John wrote his first letter so that, among other things, his and his readers’ “joy may be made complete” (1 John 1:4).
Fifth, believers’ joy is deepened through trials. The full reality of joy is experienced when it is contrasted with sadness, sorrow, and difficulties. “You also became imitators of us and of the Lord,” Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess. 1:6). In his second letter to the believers at Corinth, Paul spoke of being “sorrowful yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10). James counseled believers to “consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials” (James 1:2), and Peter encouraged them with these words:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials. (1 Peter 1:3–6)
Sixth, believers’ joy is made complete when they set their hope on the glory of heaven. They are always to be “rejoicing in hope” (Rom. 12:12). Peter reminded them that, “though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory” (1 Peter 1:8). Later in that letter he exhorted, “To the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation” (1 Peter 4:13). Jude concluded his brief letter with the beautiful benediction: “Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen” (Jude 24–25).
The love bond between Paul and the Philippian believers may have been stronger than the one he had with any other church. It was in large measure because of the joy that their love brought to him that the theme of Paul’s letter to the Philippians is joy. The depth of their relationship with him encouraged the apostle during his imprisonment and added to his joy. He was concerned about their unity, their faithfulness, and many other important spiritual and practical matters. But his overriding concern was that their sorrow over his afflictions would be tempered by their joy over his faithfulness to the Lord and the great reward that awaited him in heaven. Paul wanted them not to be sad, but to share in the fullest measure his deep, abiding joy in Jesus Christ. It is a noteworthy testimony to the maturity of the Philippian believers that, although Paul warned and encouraged them, he made no mention of any theological or moral problem in the church at Philippi. That also brought the apostle joy.
In the first two verses the apostle described himself and Timothy as servants of Jesus Christ, the Philippian believers as saints in Jesus Christ, and offered his salutation to them in the name of their Lord.
Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus (1:1a)
Paul is the beloved apostle who wrote thirteen New Testament epistles and is arguably the most noble and privileged servant of Jesus Christ the world has ever known. Yet, he refered to himself and Timothy simply as bond-servants of Christ Jesus. He made no mention of his apostolic authority or his being chosen to record part of God’s written Word. He viewed himself and every believer primarily as a slave of the Lord.
Perhaps the most concise and clear look at Paul anywhere in the New Testament comes from the apostle himself later in this letter. Speaking of his life in Judaism, he wrote,
I myself might have confidence even in the flesh. [But] if anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless. But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Phil. 3:4–11)
Paul’s human credentials were remarkable. He was the epitome of Jewish manhood, an exemplary, traditional, zealous, and legalistic “Hebrew of Hebrews.” In the eyes of his peers, he was blameless and righteous. But after his conversion he saw those things for what they were in God’s eyes: mere rubbish. What he had considered to be positives before God he came to realize were actually destructive negatives. His former imagined righteousness was really unrighteousness, which he gladly forsook to gain the true righteousness that comes only “through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith” (3:9).
Timothy shared that righteousness, as a fellow bond-servant of Christ Jesus. He was Paul’s son in the faith (1 Tim. 1:2), not only a protégé, but also a cherished companion, to whom the apostle would bequeath an extraordinary spiritual legacy and ministry. His two inspired letters to Timothy were written several years later, the first after the apostle had been released from his first imprisonment in Rome and the second during his second imprisonment there.
Bond-servants translates the plural of the oft-used Greek word doulos, which describes a person owned by someone else and thus subservient to and dependent on that person. Paul used it of himself at the beginning of three of his epistles (Rom. 1:1; Phil. 1:1; Titus 1:1), and in each case it precedes the mention of his apostleship. James (James 1:1), Peter (2 Peter 1:1), and Jude (Jude 1) use it in the same way.
When used in the New Testament of a believer’s relationship to Jesus Christ, doulos describes willing, determined, and devoted service. It reflects the attitude of an Old Testament slave who refused the opportunity for freedom and voluntarily resubmitted himself to his master for life. The Mosaic Law provided that “if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out as a free man,’ then his master shall bring him to God, then he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him permanently” (Ex. 21:5–6). Speaking of all faithful believers, Paul declared, “Now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter” (Rom. 7:6). To the Corinthians he explained, “For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave” (1 Cor. 7:22).
In that spirit Paul and Timothy did not think of being bond-servants of Christ Jesus in anything but positive terms. Nor did they think of themselves as bond-servants of the church, of Rome, or of any other person or institution, but exclusively of Christ Jesus. Paul reminded the elders from the Ephesian church of that single-minded devotion when he met them near Miletus: “I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24). That devotion is required of every believer, but especially of those called to the ministry. Even if a pastor’s or teacher’s primary devotion is to the church, it will inevitably bring some measure of compromise, disappointment, and spiritual failure. But devotion to Christ Jesus can never be disappointing or in vain. If his ministry is concerned with other believers’ standards and opinions, a pastor will invariably stray from the gospel to some form of compromise. But devotion and obedience to the Lord and to His Word will just as invariably keep him on a godly and faithful course.
Paul’s physical bonds were not really marks of his bondage to Rome but to his Lord. His imprisonment by Rome symbolized his bondage to Jesus Christ. “My imprisonment in the cause of Christ,” he explained, “has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else, and … most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear” (1:13–14). It was Jesus Christ who would assign all his duties and meet all his needs. He had the same spirit of devotion to Christ that David’s servants had to him as king: “Then the king’s servants said to the king, ‘Behold, your servants are ready to do whatever my lord the king chooses’ ” (2 Sam. 15:15). Jesus declared unambiguously that “no one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt. 6:24). And because the Lord is such a loving Master, His servants can testify with Paul, “And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor. 12:9).
to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons: (1:1b)
Paul addresses his letter to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi. Like qodesh, its Hebrew equivalent, hagios (saints) refers to someone who is set apart; specifically believers, who are set apart by God for Himself. Both words are often translated “holy.”
Unfortunately, saints are often thought of as being a special, higher order of Christians who accomplished extraordinary good deeds and lived an exemplary life. In the Roman Catholic system, saints are revered people who are officially canonized after death because they have met certain demanding requirements. But Scripture makes it clear that all the redeemed, whether under the Old or New Covenant, are saints, set apart from sin to God.
When God commanded Ananias to lay his hands on the newly converted Saul (Paul) so that he would regain his sight, he answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he did to Your saints at Jerusalem” (Acts 9:13). A few verses later Luke writes that “as Peter was traveling through all those regions, he came down also to the saints who lived at Lydda” (Acts 9:32). In both instances it is clear that saints refers to all believers in those cities (cf. Eph. 1:1; Col. 1:2). That Paul even referred to the worldly, immature believers at Corinth as saints indicates beyond dispute that the term has no relationship to spiritual maturity or character. To them he wrote, “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours” (1 Cor. 1:2). Like all other believers, the Christians at Corinth were not saints because of their spiritual maturity (cf. 1 Cor. 3:1–3), but because they were “saints by calling,” a reference to their call to salvation (cf. Rom. 8:29–30).
All believers are saints, not because they are themselves righteous, but because they are in their Lord, Christ Jesus, whose righteousness is imputed to them (Rom. 4:22–24). A Buddhist does not speak of himself as in Buddha, nor does a Muslim speak of himself as in Mohammed. A Christian Scientist is not in Mary Baker Eddy or a Mormon in Joseph Smith or Brigham Young. They may faithfully follow the teaching and example of those religious leaders, but they are not in them. Only Christians can claim to be in their Lord, because they have been made spiritually one with Him (cf. Rom. 6:1–11). “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us,” Paul wrote, “even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:4–6). To the Galatians he declared, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). In Paul’s letters, the phrase “in Christ Jesus” occurs fifty times, “in Christ” twenty-nine times, and “in the Lord” forty-five times. Being in Christ Jesus and therefore acceptable to God is the believer’s supreme source of joy.
Overseers and deacons are called to lead the church. As is clear from Acts 20:17, 28 and Titus 1:5, 7, overseer is another term for elder, the most common New Testament name for the office (cf. Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2, 4, 6, 23; James 5:14). Elders are also referred to as pastors (or shepherds; Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1–2), pastor-teachers (Eph. 4:11), and bishops (cf. Acts 20:28, marg.; 1 Tim. 3:2, marg.). Their high qualifications are set forth in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and Titus 1:6–9. Overseers, or elders, are first mentioned in relation to famine relief money sent by the church at Antioch to the elders in Judea by the hands of Barnabas and Saul (Acts 11:30). They mediate the rule of Christ in local churches by preaching, teaching, setting godly examples, and giving Holy Spirit-guided leadership.
Although their role is primarily one of practical service rather than preaching and teaching, deacons are required to meet the same high moral and spiritual standards (1 Tim. 3:8–13) as elders. The distinction between the two offices is that elders are to be skilled teachers (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:9).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (1:2)
Paul used this common greeting in several of his letters to churches (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:2; Eph. 1:2; Col. 1:2–3; 2 Thess. 1:2) as well as in one letter to an individual (Philem. 3). It is an expression of the apostle’s deep love for fellow believers, even the immature ones in Corinth who caused him such grief. But he must have felt an especially deep sense of joy and gratitude for the saints in Philippi who, in stark contrast to those in Corinth, had brought him immeasurable satisfaction and comfort.
The saving, eternal grace that is granted to penitent, believing sinners is the supreme divine gift, and everlasting peace is its greatest blessing. The source of both is God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. This salutation expresses Paul’s abiding love and concern for the faithful believers in Philippi and serves as an introduction to the many specific causes for rejoicing that he mentions throughout this tenderest of all his epistles.
The common New Testament salutary connection of God our Father with the Lord Jesus Christ repeatedly emphasizes the oneness of nature between the two (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3, 9; 2 Cor. 1:2–3; Gal. 1:1, 3; Eph. 1:1–2; Phil. 1:2; Col. 1:3; 1 Thess. 1:1, 3; 1 Tim. 1:1–2; 2 Tim. 1:2; Titus 1:4; Philem. 3; Heb. 1:1–3; James 1:1; 1 Peter 1:3; 2 Peter 1:1–2; 1 John 1:3; 2 John 3; Jude 1). God the Father shares His essential divine being with the Lord Jesus Christ. The emphasis on this equality establishes the deity of our Lord Jesus, which is the central truth of Christianity.
Of Servants and Saints
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons:
Space is at a premium in journalism. If an editor has two writers, each with equal insight and each maintaining an identical position, the best writer is the one who can express his thought in the shortest space. A writer who can do in one column what another can only do in two is twice as good a writer from the journalist’s point of view. If the apostle Paul were living today, he would make a good journalist. Of course, his editor would have to shorten his copy in places because Paul does go off on excursions now and then. But when he is writing carefully, one or two sentences can convey relationships that take volumes to analyze.
To some extent this is true of the verse before us. Paul begins his letter as any writer in antiquity would begin a letter. He starts with his name and the name of the one who is with him. He identifies himself for the benefit of his readers. He identifies his readers and offers a prayer on their behalf. Paul writes: “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons.”
But Paul is more than an ancient writer. He is also a Christian, and more than that, a Christian theologian. Hence, when he writes these things, he writes them not as mere civilities—as you or I would say, “Dear John” or “Dear Lois,” “Sincerely and cordially” or “with kindest regards”—but he writes them to communicate Christian truth and to teach the deepest and most significant Christian relationships.
A Servant of Jesus Christ
When Paul introduces himself and Timothy as “servants of Christ Jesus,” he uses a word that literally means a “slave.” Paul wanted to say that he was Christ’s slave and that he wished to serve him as any obedient servant serves his master. No doubt Paul was implying that what was true for himself should also be true for any Christian. He taught that we are “not our own”; we are “bought at a price” (1 Cor. 6:20). Therefore, we are to glorify God in our body and in our spirit which are God’s.
It is a spiritual law that no one can become a servant of Jesus Christ until he realizes that by nature he is a slave to sin. In antiquity there were three ways a person could become a slave. First, he could become a slave by conquest, by being vanquished in a war between opposing armies. Thus, to give an example, many of those who took part in the Athenian invasion of Sicily became slaves of the Sicilians when the Greeks were defeated at Syracuse in 413 b.c. Second, a person could become a slave by birth. Any child born of slaves automatically became a slave as well. Third, a person could become a slave because of debt. Many poor people sold their children into slavery in order to pay a debt. This was so common, in fact, that the Jewish people even had a law to lessen the forces of custom. Every fifty years, in the year of Jubilee, those who had become slaves because of debt were automatically set free. These laws are spelled out in Leviticus 25.
It is striking against this background that the Bible teaches that all men have become slaves to sin in ways similar to those by which a person could become a physical slave in antiquity. The Bible teaches that human beings are born in sin. David writes, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5). This verse has nothing to do with any supposed sinfulness of the sex act, as some branches of the Christian church have taught. Sex is not sinful but good. It merely teaches that there was never a moment of his life when David was not a sinner, and there was never a part of him that was free from its contamination. The Bible also teaches that we are slaves by conquest. Sin rules over us, so that we cannot do the things we would. Hence David prays for deliverance from willful sins, asking that they not “rule” over him (Ps. 19:13). Solomon speaks of the sinner being bound by “the cords of his sin” (Prov. 5:22). Then, too, we are sinners by debt. For this reason Paul speaks of the wages of sin, telling us that the account can only be paid by death (Rom. 6:23).
Paul knew that he had been a slave to sin in each of these ways, and every person must realize the same thing in some form before he can taste God’s deliverance. A person must know that he is sick before he will go to see the doctor. In the same way a person must know that he is enslaved spiritually before he will turn to the One who alone can set him free.
Just as there were several ways of becoming a slave in ancient times, so were there several ways of becoming free from slavery. A person could earn freedom. He could buy it. Or it could be given to him by someone able to pay the price of his redemption. Three ways! But although there were several ways of becoming free from slavery in ancient times, in spiritual terms there is only one way of deliverance—to be bought by the One who alone can pay sin’s price. No one will ever buy his own salvation. Our acts of righteousness are debased coinage in the sight of God. No one will ever earn his salvation. We can do nothing to merit God’s grace. But what we cannot earn and cannot buy, God will give freely on the basis of the sacrifice of Christ. The Bible says that “the wages of sin is death,” but it also teaches that Jesus paid that price on Calvary. It declares, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). This is a great deliverance, and Paul knew it personally.
Someone who has not experienced this redemption from sin will want to argue that this is merely an exchange of slavery to one master for slavery to another. But this is far from an accurate picture. No Christian would ever compare the two except in terms of a total allegiance. It is true that we have been slaves to sin, as all men are, and that we are now servants of Christ. But the second service is not at all like the first. It is a bondage of love and gratitude, a relationship that we could compare quite closely to marriage. If you are married, you know that a person is not autonomous in marriage. You are not free to do anything you want—to marry another, to leave the home, abandon the spouse. But you are free—free to serve, free to give, free to love your family. It is thus that Christ rules us; it is thus that he rules you. He is your Lord; you are his bride. He is the master; you are his to do his bidding. This will never be slavery. It is the way of joy and peace and genuine spiritual satisfaction.
One other truth needs to be seen in this phrase: the ease with which Paul substitutes the name of Jesus for the name of God—Jehovah. This phrase is not unique with Paul. When he refers to himself and to Timothy as “servants of Christ Jesus,” he is not coining a phrase in order to define the relationship. He is borrowing a phrase from the Old Testament and giving it specifically Christian content.
The student of the New Testament cannot forget that the great Old Testament figures were called servants of God, “servants of Jehovah.” The opening verses of Joshua speak of “Moses the servant,” and in Judges 2:8 Joshua himself is called the “servant of the Lord.” David is called “my servant” or “his servant” several times in the Psalms (78:70; 89:3, 20). One also finds the phrase “my servants” or “his servants the prophets” (Ezra 9:11; Jer. 7:25; Dan. 9:6; Amos 3:7). This phrase was familiar to Paul and all the Jewish people. How significant then that Paul substitutes his own name for those of the servants of God in Old Testament times and the name of Jesus for the name of Jehovah. Paul did not teach a new religion. He did not teach a new God or a new and contradictory revelation. The God who had spoken long ago through the prophets was speaking in Paul’s day through Jesus Christ and the testimony given to him by the apostles and the ministers of the gospel. Who is he? He is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and is one with him. When we serve Jesus we serve the Father also.
Saints in Christ Jesus
Next we read of the “saints in Christ Jesus,” those to whom the apostle Paul is writing. These were the Christians at Philippi. They were not special Christians; they were people like you and me. Hence, the title applies to us, as it does to every Christian. Paul writes to the saints at Rome, to the saints at Corinth, to the saints at Ephesus, and so on. In every case he means believers.
A great deal of trouble had been caused for many seeking to understand what the Bible says about being a saint by the erroneous assumption that the word refers to personal holiness. It does not. The one who is a saint in the biblical sense will strive to be holy, but his holiness, however little or however great it may be, does not make him a saint. He is a saint because he has been set apart by God.
The biblical word for saint refers to consecration. This meaning is very evident in the Old Testament where the Bible speaks of the sanctification of objects. In Exodus 40 Moses is instructed by God to sanctify the altar and the basin in the midst of the tabernacle. Moses was to make saints of them. Clearly, the chapter does not refer to any intrinsic change in the stones of the altar or the basin but to the fact that they have now been set apart for a special use by God. Jesus prayed for the disciples in John 17, saying, “For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified” (John 17:19). This does not mean that Jesus made himself more holy, for he was holy. It does mean that he separated himself for a special task, the task of providing salvation for us by his death.
In the same way the Bible teaches that those who are Christians have been set apart by God. These constitute “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God” who should show forth the praises of him who has called them out of darkness “into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9). If you are a Christian, God has set you apart in this way. David was an adulterer, but before God he was a saint. For God had set him apart unto himself. Jeremiah was a rebellious prophet, but before God he was a saint. For God had set him apart unto himself. The church at Philippi had a woman who was a merchant, one who was a slave girl, and a man who was a violent soldier. Yet these were saints in Christ. Are you a Christian? If so, you are a saint, and so am I—regardless of our station in life. We are so, not because of what we have done, but because we have been separated unto God in Jesus.
An illustration of this truth comes from the life of the late Harry Ironside of Chicago. During the early days of his ministry before there were airplanes, Dr. Ironside used to travel many miles by train. On one of these trips, a four-day ride from the West Coast to his home in Chicago, the Bible teacher found himself in the company of a party of nuns. They liked him because of his kind manner and his interesting reading and exposition of the Bible. One day Dr. Ironside began a discussion by asking the nuns if any of them had ever seen a saint. They all said that they had never seen one. He then asked if they would like to see one. They all said that they would like to see one. Then he surprised them greatly by saying, “I am a saint; I am Saint Harry.” He took them to verses of the Bible such as this one to show that it was so.
So it is with us. Your name may sound funny when you preface it with the title “saint.” But you may rest assured that it does not sound funny to God—whether you are a Saint George, a Saint Lucy, or a Saint Harriet. God knows us all by name, and it is he who calls us saints in Christ Jesus.
Overseers and Deacons
Finally, Paul also mentions the church officers: the overseers, who were the pastors of the local congregations, and the deacons, who were the officers elected to care for the needy and the sick. These labored with local believers in the spread of the gospel and the strengthening of Christians.
It has often been taught by higher critics of the New Testament that the pastoral letters—1 and 2 Timothy and Titus—could not have been written by Paul because they give evidence of a more highly developed church structure than was possible in Paul’s time. They speak of the offices of overseer and deacon, and these are supposed to have been a later development in church history. How significant in the light of this criticism is the fact that the same offices occur in the Book of Philippians, a book that only the most foolhardy of scholars would deny to be written by Paul and one that by even the most critical rating must be dated before the year a.d. 65, and probably by a.d. 60 or 61.
Moreover, the office of overseer is reflected in the Dead Sea Scrolls, all of which date from before a.d. 70 and many of which are considerably older. On this point William F. Albright has written:
The repudiation of the Pastoral Epistles of Paul, now commonly assigned by critical scholars to the second quarter of the second century A.D., becomes rather absurd when we discover that the institution of overseers or superintendents (episkopoi, our bishops) in Timothy and Titus, as well as in the earliest extra-biblical Christian literature, is virtually identical with the Essenef institution of mebaqqerim (sometimes awkwardly rendered as “censors”).
If anything, the evidence seems to show that the offices of overseer and deacon, far from being an invention of the post-apostolic church, were actually always present and in a completely natural way. The offices did not exist because of a rigid revelation from God or because of a carefully developed theory of the structure of the church. They existed because they were needed. If the church was to be guided, there must be those who could oversee the work. These were bishops, overseers. If the poor were to be helped, there must be men entrusted with that work. These became known as deacons. All of these worked together.
The most important word in this phrase is the small word “with.” Many who hold office want to dominate those who are in their charge. They want to be “over” them, or at least to go “before” them in terms of prestige or honor. It should not be so with Christians. Paul says that the officers of the congregation worked with the believers, and he subordinates his own role and that of Timothy by picturing both of them as the servants of all.
That is the secret of forward progress for the life of a Christian congregation. The saints must be servants, and there must be a division of labor coupled with a working together in Christ for the furtherance of the gospel and the strengthening of other believers. This was God’s way of blessing the little church at Philippi. It is God’s way of blessing your church and mine. You do not need to be a deacon, a presbyter, or an elder. But you can work together with God’s saints for spiritual ends. God wants you to do it. God wants you to witness to Christ together and to work with others to help those who need your material and spiritual assistance.
Grace and Peace
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
These words convey a warm Christian greeting. Yet, they sound strange to modern ears, largely because few in our day know what grace or peace means. If grace means anything at all to most people, it may indicate charm, good manners, or attractiveness. Peace may refer only to peace as an alternative to warfare. Actually, the words mean much more. In Paul’s usage they refer to the deepest of spiritual realities.
A Common Greeting
The words Paul used to greet the church at Philippi were actually quite common in Paul’s day. The word translated “grace” was a normal gentile address that meant “greetings.” We know this from the use of the word in the thousands of Greek papyri found in the Near East by archaeologists and in letters written by officials of the Roman empire. An ancient letter might begin like this one from the emperor Claudius to the people of Alexandria in Egypt: “Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus Imperator, Pontifex Maximus, holder of the tribunician power, consul designate, to the city of Alexandria: greetings.” The last word is like Paul’s word for grace. Similarly, the common greeting among the Jewish people was “peace” (shalom). One of the kings of Persia used this form of address to write to the people of Jerusalem under Ezra (Ezra 4:17). This was also the common word of greeting in Jesus’ day.
At the same time, however, it is important to note that the words are transformed in Paul’s hands so that they carry Christian meanings. The normal gentile greeting in Greek was cherein, a verb; but Paul uses the noun form of the same root, charis. The difference is slight, but there is a great change in meaning. For in Christian speech Paul’s word charis was always associated with the grace of God. The emperor Claudius was merely sending greetings to the citizens of Alexandria. Paul was saying, “God’s grace be with you.” In a similar way, although the word itself is unchanged, peace cannot be understood merely as a common salutation. In Paul’s mouth it must always have some reference to the fruits of justification, the result of the reconciliation of the Christian with God.
A great New Testament scholar Johannes Weiss wrote of these two words, “The fact that these terms connect themselves with the ordinary Greek and Hebrew greetings does not exclude the employment of ‘grace’ in its specifically Christian and Pauline sense in which it denotes the unmerited divine operations of love, which is the source and principle of all Christian salvation. Similarly, ‘peace’ is not to be understood primarily in the technical sense of Romans 5:1, as the first-fruit of justification; but we may be sure that, in Paul’s mind, the whole state of tranquility and general well-being which was implied in ‘peace’ attached itself at the root to the fact of reconciliations with God.”
The first greeting that Paul has for the Christians at Philippi, then, is grace, and he used it with its full Christian meaning. God’s grace! The unmerited favor of God toward humanity.
It seems unnecessary to emphasize that grace is unmerited, for that is the definition of grace. Yet we must emphasize it. For man always imagines that God loves him for what he is intrinsically. We imagine that God has been gracious to us because of what we have done—because of our piety, our good deeds, our repentance, our virtue. But God does not love us because of that, and he is not gracious to us because of that. Paul says that “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Christ died for people who were hideous in his sight because of sin. We are like that. If we are ever to understand the grace of God, we must begin with the knowledge that God has acted graciously toward us in Christ entirely apart from human merit.
There is a wonderful illustration of the nature of grace in the life of John Newton. John Newton had been raised in a Christian home in England in his very early years. But he was orphaned at the age of six and lived with a non-Christian relative. There Christianity was mocked, and he was persecuted. At last, to escape the conditions at home, Newton ran away to sea and became an apprentice seaman in the British navy. He served in the navy for some time. At last he deserted and ran away to Africa. He tells in his own words that he went there for just one purpose: “to sin his fill.”
In Africa he joined forces with a Portuguese slave trader, and in this man’s home he was very cruelly treated. At times the slave trader went away on expeditions, and the young man was left in the charge of the slave trader’s African wife, the head of his harem. She hated all white men and took out her hatred on Newton. He tells that she exercised such power in her husband’s absence that he was compelled to eat his food off the dusty floor like a dog.
At last the young Newton fled from this treatment and made his way to the coast where he lit a signal fire and was picked up by a ship on its way to England. The captain was disappointed that Newton had no ivory to sell, but because the young man knew something about navigation, he was made a ship’s mate. He could not even keep this position. During the voyage he broke into the ship’s supply of rum and distributed it to the crew so that the crew became drunk. In a stupor Newton fell into the sea and almost drowned.
Toward the end of the voyage near Scotland Newton’s ship encountered heavy winds. It was blown off course and began to sink. Newton was sent down into the hold and told to man the pumps. He was frightened to death. He was sure the ship would sink and he would drown. He worked the pumps for days, and as he worked he began to cry out to God. He began to remember verses he had been taught as a child, and as he remembered them he was miraculously transformed—he was born again! He went on to become a great preacher and teacher of the Word of God in England. It was this John Newton who wrote:
Amazing grace! how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
Newton was a great preacher of grace, and it is no wonder. For he had learned what Paul knew and what all Christians eventually learn: Grace is of God, and it is always unmerited. It is to the undeserving—to you and to me—that the offer of salvation comes.
Grace is unmerited, but grace is also abounding. Romans 5:20 says that “where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” At one time I came across an item in the Washington Evening Star that told of a young man who had suddenly become a millionaire. The young man had been working as a four-dollar-an-hour waiter in Clearwater, Florida, and had suddenly inherited a three million dollar share of his father’s lumber business. Suppose now that on the day before the settlement of his father’s estate the owner of the restaurant had decided, entirely on his own initiative and without any real reason on the part of the young man, to increase the young man’s salary to five dollars an hour. That would have been grace, but it would have been a very small thing. In place of this, however, the young man received three million dollars. Instead of a small raise, he experienced what we might call “grace abounding.”
It is the same in the economy of God. God tells us that we have not the slightest claim upon him. We deserve hell at his hands, and anything he might do for us, however insignificant, is grace. But God’s grace is not insignificant, and it certainly does not stop with a single act. It is not a dollar-an-hour grace. It is a grace that has made us millionaires in Christ.
Moreover, the Bible teaches that God’s grace will go on overflowing throughout this life until the moment of our bodily resurrection and, indeed, throughout eternity. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:14–15: “We know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in his presence. All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.” It was by grace that the worlds were hung in space and the earth was disposed for human life. It was by grace that the mountains were created and the world was filled with life. By grace humans are made in God’s image with every capacity for fellowship with him. By grace humans received the biblical revelation after the fall. By grace God chose Israel for a special purpose in history. It was grace that sent the Lord Jesus—to live a life that revealed the Father and to die for human sin. Grace leads us to trust in Christ. Grace sent the Holy Spirit to be our teacher and our guide. Grace has preserved the church through the centuries. Grace will bring forth the final resurrection. Grace will sustain us throughout eternity as we live in unbroken fellowship with God and grow in the knowledge of him.
Grace unmerited! Grace abounding! It is the knowledge of such grace that inspired Paul to write: “Grace to you!” Yes, grace be unto you. Grace be multiplied.
Peace with God
But grace is not the only word in Paul’s greeting to the Philippians. His second word is “peace.” Just as grace was the common greeting for the Gentiles, peace was the common greeting among the Jewish people: Shalom! How thoughtful of Paul to combine the two in his characteristic greeting to Jewish-Gentile churches!
Just as Paul had a deeper meaning in mind for the word “grace,” so he had a deeper meaning in mind for the word “peace.” Shalom in the writings of the apostle Paul can never be understood merely as a common salutation. Peace comes from God. Grace is the unmerited and abounding favor of God toward men and peace is the result of that favor. It is the result of the reconciliation of man and God through Jesus’ death—peace obtained at the cross of Christ.
I have often marveled in studying the New Testament at the significant moments in the life of Christ where the promise of peace occurs. The promise of peace to men occurs first at the birth of Jesus in the words of the angels: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14). The angels taught that we would know peace through him. Jesus speaks of peace to the disciples just before his crucifixion: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). Finally, “peace” is the first word that Jesus speaks to the disciples after his resurrection as they are assembled in the upper room. He said, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19).
Peace with God! Think of it. We are not naturally at peace with God. We are at war with God, either passively or actively, and being at war with God we are also at war with each other and ourselves. That is why we experience so much misery and why there is so much unrest in the world. But God gives peace, perfect peace. He does it in Christ. He will give you peace if you will come to him in Jesus.
Most of this applies largely to the unbeliever. But we must also apply it to our everyday lives as Christians. Christians trust God for their salvation from the penalty of sin. They must also trust him for a daily victory over sin and for a constant provision for all needs; that alone brings the peace that passes human understanding. Paul writes a little later on in the epistle: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6–7). Do you know this peace of God? Or are you filled with anxiety? If you are, you need to trust completely in what God has already done for your salvation and then learn to lay all your requests before him. If you will do that, the peace of God will “guard your heart and mind through Christ Jesus.”
Grace Before Peace
The final point is this: grace comes before peace. Paul writes, “Grace and peace to you.” Not “peace and grace to you.” In God’s order of things, God’s hand is always there in grace before any spiritual blessing. That is so in order that salvation might be entirely of him.
We see this throughout Scripture. In Genesis 6–8 we read of the great flood and of God’s intervention to save Noah and his immediate family. We read of Noah’s sacrifice and of God’s promise never again to destroy the earth by water. All these things are marvelous. But before any of them ever happened, we read of God’s grace. “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Gen. 6:8).
The Book of Genesis also tells of God’s great blessing on the life of Abraham. Abraham was to be the father of many nations. He was the first to receive the rite of circumcision. God promised that in his seed all the families of the earth would be blessed. We are told that by Abraham’s faith God accounted him as being righteous. But before any of these things—before the promise, before the sacraments, before faith—God came to Abraham in grace, calling him out of Mesopotamia into Palestine and establishing a permanent relationship with him.
Exodus tells of the blessing that came to Israel at Sinai and later in the promised land. The young nation received the law and a kingdom. But before any of this we read of God’s gracious deliverance of Israel from captivity in Egypt. Thus Moses writes, “In your unfailing love you will lead the people you have redeemed” (Exod. 15:13).
So it has been in all ages. It is the story of David and Solomon, of Moses and the prophets. It is my story and yours, if you are a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ. Did you seek God? Did you find any of the fruits of salvation before God himself was at work in your heart? Of course you did not. If you did anything at all, you ran away from God. And he had to pursue you like the hound of heaven. We never seek God. When we find God, it is only because God comes to us first in grace.
Perhaps God is coming to you in this moment. If so, you must respond to his grace. God will pour out not only peace but love and joy, and he will give access into his presence and the sure hope of life beyond the grave.
Captivated by Christ Jesus
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Phil. 1:1–2)
What do you hear in the opening lines of the apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi? Are these words just stock boilerplate “preliminaries,” to be skimmed over quickly to get to the meat of the matter? Should we process them the way we do a form letter’s impersonal “To Whom It May Concern,” or the fake familiarity of “Dear Valued Customer” in computer-generated mass mailings, sent by marketers who consider us “dear” and “valued” only because they want our dollars?
The openings of Paul’s letters do sound alike. Their basic components can be found in almost any piece of first-century Greek correspondence: author, recipients, and a greeting (good wishes or a blessing). It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss Paul’s handling of this standard template as though it were the thoughtless product of a mechanical “mail-merge” function. As similar as they seem, each of Paul’s letter openings actually introduces key themes to be developed in the rest of the epistle, just as the opening lines of John Milton’s Paradise Lost foreshadow the tragic story that follows:
Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse.
As these words give a premonition of Adam’s fall and its dire effects, while promising rescue through a second Adam, so Paul begins his “conversation” in correspondence with the Philippian congregation with a preview of his agenda for writing. The apostle “tweaks” the Hellenistic epistle template to lay the groundwork on which he will build his pastoral counsel to his friends in Philippi.
The Backstory of the Church at Philippi
Chains and armed guards prevented Paul from carrying on a face-to-face conversation with the Christians of Philippi, so his epistle had to serve as his side of a dialogue between himself, this congregation’s founding father, and his beloved children in the faith. Paul and the Philippians shared a history that had forged a strong bond between them. These believers would have heard every word from Paul’s pen against the backdrop of that relationship. To pick up the subtle previews embedded in Paul’s opening greeting, we need to do some detective work to place ourselves, as much as possible, into the context that the Philippian believers inhabited day by day. We need to comb through the epistle, the book of Acts, and other ancient records reflecting life in Philippi, picking up clues to the situation that prompted Paul to send this missive of warm love and surprising joy.
By the time that Paul, Silas, and their team reached Philippi, this city in eastern Macedonia already had a colorful history. Four centuries earlier, the city had been taken over by King Philip II of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great—hence the name Philippi. In the century before Paul arrived, Julius Caesar’s nephew Octavian and the general Marc Antony defeated Caesar’s assassins in a decisive battle fought just outside Philippi, and the victors celebrated their triumph by constituting Philippi a Roman colony. That meant that citizens of Philippi had the same legal rights and privileges as citizens of Rome, the capital of the empire. Many retired army veterans settled in Philippi, adding to the city’s “Roman flavor,” which was reflected in its architecture and its language. Although surrounded by Greek-speaking communities in the eastern Mediterranean, Philippi had Latin as its official language. Not surprisingly, Philippi prided itself on its religious devotion to the Roman emperors, in addition to worshiping indigenous pagan deities. Yet one choice was missing from the smorgasbord of religious options offered in Philippi: there was no synagogue, apparently because the Jewish community was so small that it lacked the minimum quorum of ten males required by rabbinical tradition.
These influences molded the Philippian mind-set that Paul and Silas met as they traveled west along a major Roman road (Via Egnatia) to this significant Macedonian city, located north of the Aegean Sea on the eastern side of what is now Greece. Outside the city gate they found a riverbank where women whose hearts hungered to know the God of Israel had gathered for prayer. One of these was Lydia, a textile importer from Thyatira in Asia, across the Aegean Sea. She believed the gospel as the Lord opened her heart, and offered her spacious home as the missionaries’ ministry base (Acts 16:11–15). Later, Paul’s exorcism of an evil spirit from a slave girl enraged her owners, who had profited from her “gift” for fortune-telling (16:16–18). The owners gathered a mob and played on Philippi’s pride in its privileged link to Rome by accusing Paul and Silas of advocating “customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice” (16:21). To quell the disturbance, Philippi’s magistrates ordered beating and incarceration. By the next morning, however, an earthquake and an urgent midnight conversation had brought the jailer and his family from spiritual death into everlasting life (16:25–34).
When Paul wrote his letter a dozen years later, some who heard it read aloud had probably lived through those (literally) earth-shaking events. Was Lydia still hosting the church in her home, as she did at first? Was the jailer sitting in the congregation with his family, recalling Paul’s bleeding back as the words “the same conflict that you saw I had” (Phil. 1:30) were spoken? Was he replaying in his mind the missionaries’ surprising songs in the night as he heard Paul’s new report of his current chains and contagious joy (1:18–26)? Was the slave girl there, too, in her right mind, set free by the name of Jesus, to whom every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, as every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord (2:10–11)? Were there Roman citizens who had once praised the emperor as lord and savior but who now rejoiced in a higher citizenship and awaited a greater Savior and Lord: for “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (3:20)?
Paul had a deep affection for this church. The letter is laced with terms of endearment and expressions of longing for reunion with his friends, to whom Paul says, “I hold you in my heart.… I yearn for you with all the affection of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:7–8), and whom he calls “my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown” (4:1).
On the other hand, the members of the Philippian church would also be aware that their congregation had problems. One flaw, which Paul will address later in the letter, was a subtle self-centeredness that showed itself in competing priorities and interpersonal frictions. He keeps returning to this concern:
Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Phil. 2:3–4)
Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation.… (2:14–15)
I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel.… (4:2–3)
Such rivalries and misunderstandings jeopardized the Philippians’ unity at the very time when external pressure from persecution made it all the more imperative that they be “in full accord and of one mind” (Phil. 2:2). Although the physical threat of suffering (1:27–30) and the spiritual threats of Judaizing legalism (3:2–11) and lawless sensuality (3:18–19) lurked in the background, the frictions and fissures that divided these believers weighed most heavily on Paul’s heart. Putting it bluntly, the members of this otherwise wonderful church were not jumping for joy at the prospect of being slaves, which is precisely the way that Paul unapologetically characterized himself and Timothy. Slaves, after all, had to do what other people wanted. Greeks spoke of them as “talking tools” or “thinking tools,” like a plow or a hammer, only more versatile and able to perform a variety of tasks. Slaves had to submit their personal preferences, opinions, convenience, schedules—even their physical health and safety—to the agendas and whims of their masters. Who would volunteer for such a powerless position, unless compelled by armed force or economic necessity?
Later in this letter Paul will explicitly correct the Philippians’ self-centeredness. In these opening sentences, he takes a very gentle approach to the sensitive subject of their resistance to the calling of slaves. He presents himself and Timothy as men who have found freedom in being slaves, captivated by Christ. Then he gives reasons to believe that becoming Christ’s slave is the road to lasting joy.
Paul makes these points by mentioning one name three times in these two verses: Christ Jesus … Christ Jesus … the Lord Jesus Christ. This threefold repetition foreshadows how thoroughly Paul will extol Christ as the only theme worth preaching (Phil. 1:15, 17, 18), the only master worth honoring (1:20), the only cause to make life worth living and death worth dying (1:21). To each mention of Jesus’ name Paul attaches a distinctive phrase:
Servants of Christ Jesus
Saints in Christ Jesus
Grace … and peace from … the Lord Jesus Christ
These three phrases are keys that unlock the mystery of how Paul and Timothy could find joy in being captivated as Christ’s slaves, and how we can experience that same joy.
Servants of Christ Jesus
The epistle’s opening verse expresses Paul’s first point: The heart of joy is selflessly serving King Jesus and others for his sake.
Paul’s emphasis on servanthood can be seen in two small but significant variations to the standard opening of a first-century letter. First, with respect to authorship, Paul groups Timothy’s name with his own, and then shares with Timothy the title servants or, more precisely, slaves. In other letters Paul included the names of his colleagues with himself as virtual coauthors (2 Corinthians, Colossians, Philemon, and 1 and 2 Thessalonians). But when he attached titles to names, he affixed one title to himself and another to his colleagues. We read, for example, of Paul the apostle and Timothy the brother (2 Corinthians; Colossians), or of Paul the prisoner and Timothy the brother (Philemon). Only in Philippians does Paul open an epistle by associating a colleague with himself and then link their names with a shared title, “slaves of Christ Jesus.” Why would he do this here and not elsewhere—and, specifically, why choose the title slaves to describe himself and Timothy?
The Philippians need to see dramatized in Paul and in Timothy the counterintuitive truth that these men bear God’s authority because Christ has captivated them as his slaves. Paul and Timothy are living proof that those whom Jesus saves he enslaves. In their self-centered preoccupations and competing agendas, Paul’s Philippian friends need to see what joyful slavery looks like, up close and personal.
The claim that Jesus enslaves those he saves may sound harsh and uninviting: what kind of “salvation” is it that deprives us of our cherished autonomy and subjects us to the will of Another? But consider the link between being saved and being enslaved by Jesus from this perspective: everybody is somebody’s slave. Despite the inflated claim of William Ernest Henley’s Victorian poem “Invictus,” none of us can honestly say, “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” No matter how much you would like to think otherwise, your every plan and action is driven by a desire to avoid pain or achieve gain by pleasing or placating some “lord” or other. The master you serve may be success or money, or what money can buy. Your lord may be affection or romance, or reputation and respect. You may be enslaved by other people’s opinions, terrified at the prospect of rejection or ridicule, or perhaps you are haunted by the specter of life alone.
You also have to face the fact that every master other than Jesus will exploit and disappoint you in the end. Not all are as obvious as the evil spirit that had seized the Philippian slave girl and forced words out of her mouth. Not all are as blatant as the slave girl’s owners, who treated her as a moneymaking piece of property. But every master other than Jesus will use you and then discard you. When we realize that we all serve one master or another and that other masters inevitably abuse and fail us, suddenly we find that there is nothing as liberating as being a slave of King Jesus. The church father Chrysostom commented: “One who is a slave of Christ is truly free from sin. If he is truly a slave of Christ, he is not a slave in any other realm.…”
Being Jesus’ slave not only frees us from every abusive master, but also confers delegated authority. Roman society had taught the Philippians to hear nothing but powerless subservience in the term slave. But Paul had introduced them to the Old Testament Scriptures, where the title “slave” or “servant of the Lord” was applied to leaders such as Moses, Joshua, and David. Those ancient servants were previews of the ultimate Servant of the Lord foretold by Isaiah, who would accomplish God’s will through obedience and suffering. In this letter Paul uses the title “servant [slave]” just one more time, to describe the Christ who was in the form of God and then took “the form of a servant” and offered the ultimate obedience in death on a cross (Phil. 2:6–8). The Lord delegates authority to his slaves, to accomplish his will and shepherd his people. More than that, the Lord honors the slave’s role by assuming it himself in his incarnation.
So Paul starts by inviting the Philippians to follow his and Timothy’s lead, tasting the freedom of bowing to Christ’s lordship. Paul is in custody, probably in Rome, awaiting the outcome of his appeal to Caesar himself. Paul is going to show them how being a slave of Jesus has set his heart free to accept any outcome to his legal case, as long as Christ gets glory through Paul’s response to his circumstances. He says in Philippians 1:20: “It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.” Paul is so captivated by Christ that all he cares about is seeing his Savior exalted.
Timothy shares the same single-minded focus on pleasing the Master. Paul names Timothy side by side with himself because he intends to send Timothy soon to Philippi. Timothy is so captivated by Christ that he cares more about his fellow Christians than about his own comfort or safety (Phil. 2:19–24). In Timothy’s coming they will experience Paul’s love, for Timothy is Paul’s spiritual son, and sons resemble their fathers. More importantly, Timothy seeks the interests of Jesus Christ and therefore expresses the compassion of Jesus himself.
What would it do for our unity as the body of Christ, for our patience with others who see things differently, if we were to think like Paul and Timothy, to see ourselves as slaves of Christ Jesus? How would it impact our personal and family priorities in the way we spend our free hours and our dollars?
The best way to learn the joy of being Jesus’ slave is by watching it worked out in practice. In the midst of our seminary poverty, my wife gave me a book entitled How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot (now in its nineteenth edition). It avoided mechanics’ jargon and had clear, cartoon drawings. Its humor was entertaining. Yet this manual could not compare with standing alongside a real mechanic and watching him work on an engine. The same is true of the process of getting your heart inside the freedom of joyful slavery: you need to watch how “the pros” do it. The Philippians could watch Paul and Timothy “show how it’s done,” as could other churches. The competitive Corinthians needed to learn humility by watching Paul’s and Apollos’s collaboration in ministry: “I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6). The author to the Hebrews urged that congregation’s readers to recall the example of past shepherds “and imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7).
Do you have in your circle of acquaintances some “skilled mechanics” in serving Jesus, models in servitude, so that you can watch them and see how it’s done? Who are the fathers or mothers, older brothers or sisters in following Jesus whom you are watching as apprentices watch a craftsman—those about whom you say to yourself, “When I grow up, I want to be like him or her, quietly caring for others’ needs first”?
Paul stated explicitly to Titus that he expected older Christian women to pass along to younger women the wisdom and spiritual maturity that God had granted them through years of learning and practicing the Word of God (Titus 2:3–5). No doubt he expected older men—and not only those who held the office of elder—to fulfill the same modeling and mentoring roles as those who had learned spiritual maturity: “sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness” (2:2). Although years do not automatically confer wisdom (which is ultimately God’s gift, not our achievement, Prov. 2:6; James 1:5), Scripture honors the aged: “Gray hair is a crown of glory” (Prov. 16:31). Many churches today, in a commendable desire to meet the distinctive needs of different groups—children, youth, and adults in various life phases—run the risk of segregating generations, making it hard for those who are younger to get to know those who are more mature. As individuals, too, we may gravitate toward people like us, who share our current interests and issues. When we do, we forgo a rich resource of wisdom that the Lord has prepared in the lives of those who are walking the path of faith ahead of us. Both for our congregations and for ourselves, the biblical model of spiritual nurture through godly examples calls us to honor the elderly and to pursue ways to glean the life lessons that they have to share with us.
Overseers and Deacons
The second adjustment that Paul makes to his customary opening is that he addresses this epistle not only to the church but also to its leaders. This is the only letter that Paul opens with a greeting to the church’s officers, its “overseers and deacons.” Paul writes nothing randomly. Why, then, this greeting to the church’s elders—overseers is another term for elders (Acts 20:17, 28; Titus 1:5–7; 1 Peter 5:1–2)—and deacons? We cannot be sure, but the profile of the congregation that we have seen suggests that Paul’s purpose is to send hints to the congregation and to the leaders themselves.
First, to the members of the congregation, Paul presents a reminder: “When you are tempted to dig in and insist on getting your own way, remember that Jesus has embedded you in a network of authority and accountability, for your own good. You have overseers who are charged to watch out for your well-being and to correct you when you stray. And you have deacons, servants (diakonoi), who show you how to care for others with the compassion of Jesus, who came not to be served but to serve (diakoneō) (Mark 10:45). Learn the joy of servitude by watching your leaders.” Elsewhere Paul instructs Christians “to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (1 Thess. 5:12–13). In contrast to some in our day, who consider church membership to be optional or even suspect, the apostles expected the followers of Jesus to be recognizable not only by their public profession of faith, but also by their commitment to the Christian community and their glad submission to the shepherds that Jesus appoints for his flock (Acts 2:41; 5:13–14; Heb. 13:7, 17).
Second, to the overseers and deacons, Paul drops the hint, “Brothers, as you exercise the authority that Jesus has delegated to you, remember that, like Timothy and me, you are ‘slaves of Jesus Christ.’ To be leaders in Jesus’ kingdom is to be slaves of all, serving those whom you shepherd.” In Philippians 4:3 Paul will lay on the shoulders of one leader, whom Paul considered his “genuine yokefellow,” the heavy burden of helping estranged sisters reconcile with each other. Such intervention demands a spirit of selfless sacrifice. As one commentator observed, “Paul directs his opening greetings to leaders in the church (overseers and deacons) because they were the potential solution to the problem of disunity in the church.”
So Paul and Timothy, as “slaves of Christ Jesus,” are living proof that the heart of joy is selflessly serving King Jesus and others for his sake. This servant’s heart must be seen in the church’s leaders and in its members. But what makes serving Jesus so strong a source of delight that even Roman imprisonment could not dampen Paul’s joy? The answer is found in Paul’s second use of the name of Christ Jesus.
Saints in Christ Jesus
Paul’s second use of Jesus’ name suggests why being Christ’s slaves generates joy: The heart of joyful service is being set apart to stand awestruck before the beauty of King Jesus.
When Paul calls his Philippian friends saints, he evokes a picture of privileged access into the very temple of God. We hear the word saints repeatedly, but do we pause to ponder what it means? We may say about someone with extraordinary patience, “Oh, she’s a saint.” But what does the Bible mean by saint?
In our English Bibles, the noun saint and the adjective holy are two ways of talking about the same thing. Although saint and holy do not look alike in English, they represent the same family of words in the biblical languages, Hebrew (qadosh) and Greek (hagios). These terms describe the purity that befits the privilege of standing in the presence of God. When the Lord appeared to Moses at the burning bush, God’s presence made the ground under Moses’ feet “holy,” requiring that Moses shed his sandals (Ex. 3:5). On the yearly Day of Atonement, Israel’s high priest—with elaborate sacrificial and cleansing rituals—passed through the Holy Place, the sanctuary’s outer chamber, into the inner chamber, the Most Holy Place (Ex. 26:33–34; Lev. 16). The turban on his head bore a gold plate engraved, “Holy to the Lord” (Ex. 28:36). The Lord himself is supremely holy, as his awesome seraphim chant thrice over (Isa. 6:3–5). Isaiah trembled to realize that the Lord’s holiness—his consuming purity—was lethal to defiled people. Even the high priest’s sons were consumed by fire when they treated regulations pertaining to the sanctuary in a cavalier way, for the Lord said, “Among those who are near me, I will be sanctified [treated as holy]” (Lev. 10:1–3).
We might say that holiness is “dangerous privilege”: dangerous because the all-Holy God is not to be treated casually, but also privilege because we were created to be near him, beholding his beauty and attending to his desires. Our popular usage of saint contains a grain of truth: a saint is a special person, set apart by God and granted access to God’s holy presence. Yet, amazingly, the Bible calls people who are not pure or free of defiling sin holy and saints. God called Israel to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:5–6). Though those Israelites were stiff-necked and prone to wander, still he pitched his tent in the middle of their camp. He had picked Israel out of all the nations and separated them as his own property, so they were saints, a people holy to the Lord (Deut. 7:6).
Paul’s personal pedigree included his belonging to this special people, Israel (Phil. 3:5). But in opening this epistle, Paul surprises us by applying this precious title of privilege to a congregation that was composed of all sorts of people from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds. Since the Jewish community in Philippi was so small, most if not all of these “saints” must have been Gentiles, raised in pagan religions. Lydia, the first Philippian believer in Jesus, was a God-fearer (esv: “worshiper of God”) (Acts 16:14). God-fearers were Gentiles who embraced the Jewish belief in one God and tried to follow the Ten Commandments, but did not fully convert to Judaism’s dietary and other ceremonial obligations. Then there was the jailer, whom no one would have called a saint before the earthquake at midnight. Only after Christ shook his world did he wash his prisoners’ wounds. Before that, he hadn’t cared.
Now Paul applies the glorious title saints to Lydia and the jailer alike. How could the Creator, who is pure clear through, allow soiled, sinful people such as Lydia and that jailer, or Paul and Timothy, or you and me, to stand in his presence, admiring his glory and attending to his wishes? How could people like us even survive in the presence of such all-consuming purity? The answer lies in Paul’s second use of Jesus’ name: we are in Christ Jesus.
United to His Holiness
We may be so accustomed to Paul’s formula “in Christ” or “in Christ Jesus” that we fail to notice the momentous reality that it conveys. Paul uses this phrase or something like it (“in the Lord” or “in him”) over twenty times in this brief letter, the highest concentration in any of his correspondence except Ephesians and Philemon. He uses it to describe the Christian’s reason for rejoicing (Phil. 3:1; 4:4, 10) and source of encouragement (2:1). Being “in Christ” is the protective environment in which God’s peace guards our hearts from worry (4:7). “In the Lord Jesus” is the atmosphere in which Paul lays his plans for the future (2:19). But at its core, “in Christ” is Paul’s shorthand for the truth that men and women and boys and girls who trust in Jesus are bound tight to him, so that his obedience and sacrifice and resurrection life become theirs. His death on the cross becomes their death under sin’s condemnation and their death to sin’s domination. His resurrection declares their right standing before God the Judge and ushers them into a new life of freedom to love God. No wonder Paul’s desire was to be found “in” Christ, not claiming a righteousness of his own but resting instead in the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ (3:9).
That little word in traces the source of our hope to the fact that God has united believers to his Son, and thus given us a share in all that Jesus has accomplished, including Jesus’ worthiness to stand in his flawless integrity before his Father. One commentator interpreted Paul’s audience as “all in Philippi … who are holy through their union with Christ Jesus.” That captures Paul’s point well. Only because Jesus was holy straight through, from start to finish, can we stand in the presence of the all-holy God and delight in his beauty rather than being incinerated by his white-hot purity.
For All the Saints
God’s grace, which makes us fit to bask in his beauty, embraces “all the saints.” Paul will include “you all” in his prayers, his confidence, his gospel partnership, and his longing (Phil. 1:4, 7, 8). Each “you all” is intentional: Paul embraces every believer in Philippi, and they need to do the same to one another. The rifts in the church in Philippi were not as deep as the party spirit at Corinth, where Christians sounded like children arguing at recess: “I’m on Paul’s team,” “I’m with Apollos,” “I’m all for Peter,” “I’m on Jesus’ side” (1 Cor. 1:12). Even though the fissures in Philippi were not the chasms of Corinth, the Philippian church needed Paul’s call to unity (Phil. 1:27; 2:1–4).
When our priorities compete and our preferences clash in the church, we tend to reduce Paul’s all to some. We may say to ourselves, “I find it easy to serve with some of the saints, give thanks for some of the saints, and pray for some of the saints. But there are others … I’m not saying they are not saints, of course. But we rub each other the wrong way. We need to give each other plenty of space. You understand.”
Paul says, “No, I do not understand. Since your status as saints is ‘in Christ Jesus’ and in his grace alone, I insist on embracing you all in my love, and I expect you all to do the same to each other.” Later he will marshal reasons for our commitment to unity: “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Phil. 2:1–2). Our backgrounds and life experience may be so different that we do not naturally fit together. But if we are “saints in Christ Jesus,” our lives have been supernaturally and inextricably interwoven.
Yet this single-minded, single-hearted unity is not easy to live out in practice in the daily frictions that try our patience with one another. When things don’t go our way, it is easy to pull up stakes and move on to the next congregation, rather than to stay and work through hurt feelings or competing visions. What force is strong enough to hold us together, when our self-centeredness and our culture’s individualism threaten to pull us apart? Paul’s third use of Jesus’ name answers that question.
Grace and Peace from Christ Jesus
Paul’s opening blessing shows that Christ’s grace and peace have the power to turn selfless service into lasting joy.
The typical first-century letter followed the identification of author and readers with the Greek word chairein. Chairein meant “Rejoice”; but as often happens with commonly used expressions, in epistle openings chairein had faded into a colorless “Greetings.” (How many people think “God be with you” when they say, “Goodbye”?) Yet Paul doesn’t write meaningless Greek. He replaces chairein with a like-sounding Greek word, charis, which captures the heart of the gospel: “grace.”
On the part of his dear friends at Philippi Paul is invoking nothing less than the favor of God, the embrace of the Father, lavished as a free gift on those who deserve condemnation. Paul is pleased that these folks are “partakers with me of grace” (Phil. 1:7). Both their faith in Christ and the privilege of suffering for his sake are gifts of God’s grace (1:29).
Grace from the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ is the source of that astonishing exchange that Paul had described in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” In his epistle to the Philippians he portrays each side of this exchange of grace. In chapter 2 we hear that Christ, who was “in very nature God” (niv), took a servant’s nature and died on a cross (Phil. 2:6–8). In chapter 3 we hear the other side of the exchange: Paul is found in Christ, receiving right standing with God through faith in Christ (3:9). This is the amazing “trade”: Jesus the innocent condemned and punished, and we the guilty declared right in God’s sight.
The result is peace, the reconciling reality that secures our place in God’s heart. Nothing but God’s grace could give us peace with God. Our insults to his honor created a chasm of antagonism between us and our Creator, and this terrible divide will not disappear just by our pretending it isn’t there. This is also true in our relationships with each other. When someone has hurt you, it doesn’t “make the problem go away” for the offender to ignore the pain he has inflicted, and to say glibly, “Well, let’s just move on now.” The injury has to be acknowledged, and the pain has to be dealt with. Peacemaking always has its price, even among human beings. The aggressor must pay the price of humbling himself and admitting the wounds that his words or deeds have inflicted. When possible, he makes amends. The victim, too, pays a price: the price of releasing resentment rather than holding the offender’s guilt as a weapon to be wielded against him in the future.
The wonder of the gospel is that, though we must admit with grief that we have offended our good Creator, the God whose honor we have violated has come to absorb the pain that should be ours. Paul reminded the Christians at Ephesus that Jesus is the ultimate Peacemaker and that the price of peace was his death: he “reconcile[d] us both to God in one body through the cross” (Eph. 2:14, 16). The peace that Christ secured for us frees us to pay the price of making peace and keeping peace with each other, to put others’ needs and interests above our own.
Grace and peace belong to those who approach God as “Father” and who bow to Jesus Christ as “Lord.” God’s grace and peace impart not only forgiveness but also transformation of the direction and affections of our hearts. God is not so incompetent as to leave us forgiven but unchanged in the poisonous self-centeredness of our hearts. The people on whom God the Father and his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, set their invincible love will never again be satisfied to be locked into our own interests, fixated on our own reputations, or enslaved to our own self-image. Christ’s glory becomes our heart’s chief delight, and his love for others ignites our compassion.
To receive grace and peace from the Father and the Lord Jesus is to discover the joy of belonging to the Master who made and redeemed us for himself. The Book of Common Prayer captures the paradox of our status as slaves of Christ when it speaks of God “whose service is perfect freedom.” The authors of the Heidelberg Catechism were right to affirm that the Christian’s only comfort in life or death is “that I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”14 To belong to Another—to be captivated by Christ Jesus—is true liberty.
Subverting Our Self-Centeredness
At first glance, these two brief verses seemed so matter-of-fact, didn’t they? They looked like the preliminaries that we could skim over quickly. Now that we have listened more closely, however, we discover that from his opening syllables Paul has gently brought us into the heart of the matter, subtly subverting our instinctive self-centeredness.
We like to be lords. Even if we cannot make others do our bidding, at least we want to call the shots for our own lives. But Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ, turn upside-down our assumption that freedom is found in getting our own way. Have you experienced the liberation of surrendering to the mastery of Jesus the Christ, the eternal Son of God who became a slave, to free you from yourself and from the masters that drive you?
God designed us for togetherness and created us for community. But indifference, isolation, and competition have seduced us into thinking that freedom is found in “looking out for Number One,” keeping options open, and avoiding long-term commitments. Paul and Timothy challenge our self-defensive individualism, throwing their arms wide to embrace “all the saints in Christ Jesus.” None of us stands alone. Each needs the support and accountability of the rest of the body of Christ. Are there any “saints in Christ Jesus” whom you have trouble loving as brothers or sisters? Do you honor and heed the shepherds and servants in whose care God has placed your spiritual well-being? Do you pray for them, encourage them, and respect them as they protect the church’s unity and purity?
Do you realize how much you need the grace of God in order to have peace with God? To enjoy a reconciled relationship with the holy God, we need grace that we have not earned and could never deserve. Does the matchless condescension of the Lord Jesus Christ so grip your heart that you are humbled and hope-filled at the same time?
1 Paul adapts and makes distinctively Christian the conventional greetings found in Hellenistic letters: “A to B, greetings,” followed by a wish for good health. He does not extend to the Philippians the friendly good wishes of a private individual but the blessings of “grace and peace” generated by what God has done through Christ’s death and resurrection.
He names Timothy as his cosender. Timothy was present at the founding of the Philippian church (Ac 16:1–12) and had been dispatched by Paul on subsequent occasions to strengthen the Macedonian churches (Ac 19:22; 20:3–6), so that they already knew of his irreproachable, Christlike character (Php 2:22). Paul commends him in 1 Thessalonians 3:2 as “our brother and God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ” and praises his devotion to the cause of the gospel (Php 2:19–24).
In the salutations of his three letters to the Macedonian churches (1:1; 1 Th 1:1; 2 Th 1:1) Paul does not identify himself as an apostle. Here he identifies himself and Timothy as “[bond] servants” (douloi, “slaves,” GK 1528) of Christ Jesus. We need not speculate that Paul omitted the title “apostle” because his relationship with the Philippians was warmer than with other congregations, which made mention of his apostolate unnecessary. Elsewhere in his greetings, he distinguishes his own role from that of his cosender, who is identified only as “our brother” (1 Co 1:1; 2 Co 1:1; Col 1:1; Phm 1). Identifying himself with Timothy as “bond servants” is suggestive. The term could be a title of honor, drawing on the OT image of God’s chosen servants who are his accredited messengers (see Ps 105:42 [Abraham]; Ex 14:31; Nu 12:7; Jos 14:7; Ps 105:26 [Moses]; Ps 89:20 [LXX 88:21; David]; and 2 Ki 17:13, 23; Jer 7:25; 25:4; Am 3:7 [the prophets]). The Philippians, however, are more likely to connect the term to slavery, which was ubiquitous in the ancient world. Identifying himself and Timothy as slaves drives home the point that they are not ministry volunteers but are in bondage to Christ, who owns the title deed to their lives.
Since Paul ends his letter with a greeting to the church from those of “Caesar’s household” (4:22), he may be making a deliberate if allusive contrast. Those who belong to the household of Caesar are slaves and freedmen (slaves who have been manumitted but who are still legally obligated to their former masters). Their status is embedded in the status of their masters. Slaves who belonged to wealthy, influential families were more powerful and enjoyed greater privileges than many free persons. Belonging to an imperial household would give a slave and a freedperson high status that would make them worthy of special mention in the final greetings. Roman colonists perhaps would have appreciated that fellow believers belonged to the imperial family, but Christians would understand that being a slave in Christ Jesus’ household carried infinitely higher status than being a slave in Caesar’s household (cf. Ro 1:1, where the term “slave” [NIV, “servant”] appears in the salutation).
Slaves frequently served as agents or managers for their masters, and the title can convey Paul’s authority as Christ’s manager. Paul understands all Christians to be Christ’s slaves since they all were bought at a price (1 Co 6:20). He has no interest in emphasizing his status and makes no pretensions to some special dignity. Introducing himself and Timothy as Christ’s slaves at the outset must be intended to highlight lowly service and humility, an emphasis that echoes throughout the letter. Paul exhorts the Philippian Christians to “in humility consider others better than [themselves]” (2:3), poetically describes Jesus as taking the form of a slave (2:7) and dying a slave’s death on the cross (2:8), and recalls how Timothy has “slaved” (edoulesen, GK 1526; NIV, “served”) in the work of the gospel (2:22). This salutation sounds a leitmotif in the letter and sets an example of the proper role of those functioning as leaders in the church. Paul does not govern his flock with a stick in his hand. He has learned to obey his master as a humble slave, and he leads others from below.
The Philippians are named hagiois (GK 41, “saints”), those dedicated to God and set apart for God’s service. The people of Israel were called the “saints of the Most High” (Da 7:18), referring to their vocation (cf. Lev 19:2; Dt 7:6; 33:3; Ps 31:23). The designation “saint” represents consecration to service rather than any moral qualification. Barth, 11, puts it well: “Holy people are unholy people who nevertheless as such have been singled out, claimed, and requisitioned by God for his control, for his use for himself who is holy.” Their membership in this holy community is attributable solely “to the call of divine grace in Christ” (TDNT 1:107), given to them as those who were “washed, … sanctified, … justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Co 6:11). The Christians in Philippi are not simply another voluntary association of members joined by common interests; they are God’s “treasured possession” out of all the peoples (Ex 19:5–6).
“In Christ” is theological shorthand that evokes “simultaneously the gift of salvation and the accompanying divine demand (e.g. ‘stand firm in the Lord,’ Php 4:1),” and it describes “the life of faith under Christ’s lordship in a world where other powers and temptations were present” (M. A. Seifrid, “In Christ,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne et al. [Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1993], 436). Being “in Christ” means that, though their earthly address may be Philippi—a Roman colony set up, as every colony was, to foster the majesty of Roman culture, religion, and values—they live in the Lord, who reigns supreme over heaven and earth. Their fate is bound to Christ and to others who are bound to Christ with them.
Paul addresses “all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi.” The only other salutation in which he specifically addresses “all” is in Romans 1:7 (“to all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints”); D. A. Black (“The Discourse Structure of Philippians,” NovT 37 : 23 n. 21) suggests Paul does so there because he wishes to instill a greater sense of unity “to a Roman Christian community that consists of churches meeting in various private homes.” The addition of “all” here may disclose a similar concern for Christians’ unity in Philippi.
Philippians is the only letter where Paul mentions church officials in his salutation (“with the overseers and deacons”). It is hardly surprising that a community would have leaders and lieutenants to help carry out its work, and the Roman genius for order and organization may have emerged in this church so that they developed specialized functions (cf. Carolyn Osiek, Philippians, Philemon [Nashville: Abingdon, 2000], 35). Why are these officials singled out, since they do not reappear by name in the letter? What is their role in the church?
“Overseers” (episkopoi, GK 2176) was a term employed for officers in different types of societies and organizations (see Ac 20:28). Since “overseers” is plural, Paul cannot have a monarchical bishop in view. Fee, 67, comments that the preposition “with” suggests that Paul does not regard them as “ ‘over’ the church, but they are addressed ‘alongside of’ the church, as a distinguishable part of the whole, but as part of the whole, not above it or outside it.” John Chrysostom (Hom. Phil. 1.1) assumes that they were likely the elders of the congregation. Lightfoot, 96–97, lays out the argument that “bishops” are identical to “presbyters.” Paul may have avoided the latter term because of its historical associations with Judaism and because he preferred words that conveyed a more functional meaning (cf. Collange, 40). Paul uses the term “deacon” (diakonos, GK 1356) variously to refer to Christ (Ro 15:8), the secular ruler (Ro 13:4), himself (1 Co 3:5; 2 Co 3:6; 6:4; 11:23; Col 1:23), and his coworkers (Phoebe, Ro 16:1; Epaphras, Col 1:7; Tychicus, Col 4:7). In the NT, the cognate verb is connected to offering service at table (Mk 1:31; Lk 10:40; 22:26–27; Jn 2:5, 9), and it retains its general sense of lowly service (Mk 10:45). If the “deacons” had a separate function from the “overseers,” they may have been responsible for administering social service (see Ac 6:1–6; Ro 12:7; 15:25; 16:1–2; 2 Co 8:4).
Collange makes the intriguing suggestion that the terms “overseers” and “deacons” refer to the individuals’ functions and not to self-sufficient offices into which men could be fitted. It is not surprising that the elders bore the title of “overseers,” a common secular title, but Paul may have combined it with “servants” to make it clear “that the function of oversight was of value only as a service for the building up of the community and that therefore it would require much humility” (Collange, 40). Paul reminds them that leadership brings the responsibility to serve. The most that can be said with complete confidence is that they had roles of supervision and service that were distinctive in the community (see further my “The Absence of an Ordained Ministry in the Churches of Paul,” PRSt 29 : 183–95).
2 Paul extends greetings to the Philippians from “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” “Grace and peace” are not ordinary good wishes from a friend but blessings effected by the new spiritual reality wrought by Christ’s death and resurrection (cf. Ro 5:1; 15:13; Eph 2:14; Col 1:20). Paul offers a wish-prayer that will be fulfilled jointly by God our Father, who graciously forgives, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who bestows peace on his disciples (Jn 14:27; 16:33; 20:21). “Grace” is the source of Christian life, and “peace” is its consummation.
The “familiar drone of its liturgical declamation,” as Bockmuehl, 57, describes it, may cause readers to skip over this greeting and pay no heed to its Christological bang. The peace offered through Jesus Christ rivals that of the peace established and propagated by the emperor, who is portrayed in Roman imperial propaganda as the world’s great savior and benefactor. The emperor’s peace is built on the backs of conquered peoples who must submit to political oppression, religious crackdowns, and impoverishing taxation. Christ’s peace comes through his own death for others, which was driven by God’s fatherly love. It brings true peace—reconciliation to God and to one another. Proclaiming Christ as Lord with “the name that is above every name” (2:9) can only evoke hostility from the many “so-called lords” in the world (1 Co 8:5). Caesar and his loyalists would regard this confession as high treason because it means that Caesar is not lord.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). Philippians (pp. 9–16). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (2000). Philippians: an expositional commentary (pp. 17–28). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Johnson, D. E. (2013). Philippians. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (1st ed., pp. 3–19). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.
 Garland, D. E. (2006). Philippians. In T. Longman III (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, pp. 188–191). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.