Philippians Intro & 1:1–2
Recently at our church, I had the opportunity of participating in “team teaching” through the book of Philippians for the adult Sunday School class. The book was divided up, and each of the six men were given 3–4 passages to teach. I am posting the text of my four lessons on this blog. If you are interested in hearing all the lessons for the whole book they are available here. #Philippians
Intro to the Study of Philippians
I’ve been given the privilege of teaching the opening weeks of this study through the book of Philippians. Before we get to the text of Philippians I am going to take a few minutes to refresh your memory of the background of the Philippian churches founding from the book of Acts.
About two years after the success of their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas, set out again desiring to revisit the churches which had been established.
And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.” (Acts 15:36 ESV)
Almost immediately on this second journey however, difficulties began to arise. Barnabas wants to take John Mark, who had started with them on the first journey but turned back. Paul disagreed. The disagreement was so sharp that the great missionary duo of Paul and Barnabas parted ways. The difficulties did not end there.
And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. (Acts 16:6-8 ESV)
J.A. Motyer in his commentary described this as “the sense of running ones head into a stone wall”. We are not told exactly how the Holy Spirit communicated this prohibition, nor are we given any information about the thoughts of Paul’s company, but I think we can safely assume that there was some perplexity, and even perhaps frustration. The perplexity did not last long however.
And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. (Acts 16:9-10 ESV)
The word rendered concluding in the ESV is to “bring together”. It is the idea of laying one thing next to another—Paul’s vision along side the closed doors in Asia and Bythenia. Clearly they were to go to Macedonia. And so they made their way to the first major city in Macedonia—Philippi.
Philippi was located just a few miles inland from the port of Neapolis. It was situated upon the Egnatian Way—The great road that connected Rome with the East.
The city was named for Phillip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, who captured it from the Thracians in 360 BC. It was later the sight of important military victory in the rise of Augustas. In commemoration of the latter event it was made a Roman colony.
Being a colony meant that it was identified with Roman a unique way (think modern embassy). Being a Roman colony meant that the citizens of the city were also citizens of Rome, they were exempt from the taxation levied on occupied territories and had the right to due process in Roman courts. This was a point of civic pride to the Philippians who wanted to be just like Rome. William Hendriksen in his commentary called it “Rome in miniature”.
Ministry at Philippi
It was typical of Paul when arriving in a new city to begin by speaking at the local Synagogue. However, in Philippi, no mention is made of this. While we do not know for certain, it may be that no synagogue existed because the Jewish presence there was too small.
Regardless, on the Sabbath they found some people gathered out side the city by the river for prayer. Here Paul began to preach the gospel and a woman named Lydia, a seller of valuable purple cloth became a believer.
Soon after, a slave girl who had a demonic spirit by which she preformed divination, began to follow them crying out. Eventually Paul commanded the demon to come out of her, and she was delivered. This caused no small conflict with her owners who profited from her abilities. They drug Paul and Silas before the authorities. They were stripped, beaten and thrown into prison without trial, yet at midnight as they prayed and sang, there was an earthquake which freed the prisoners.
The jailer, fearing they had escaped, was about to take his own life when Paul called out to him, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” Apparently the jailer heard the gospel either through their preaching, or through their prayers and songs for responded, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” He and all his house became believers that night.
The next day they were freed. The authorities fearing more trouble upon discovering that Paula and Silas were Roman citizens, ask them to leave the city. And so, after visiting the believers again, they departed, however we know that Paul made subsequent visits to Philippi (cf. Acts 20:6)
Letter to the Philippians
Paul is writing this letter to the church from prison (cf. 1:12–30). There is some debate about where he is imprisoned. It does have some bearing on how we understand a few verses, however, I will leave that for those who cover those passages. I think that the traditional view, that he is writing from his Roman imprisonment described in Acts 28 around 61AD, best fits the references to the “imperial guard” and “Caesar’s household”.
Out of concern for Paul in prison, the Philippians church had sent a man named Epaphroditus to Paul with a gift. While there Epaphroditus had become very ill and was unable to return. Paul is now writing:
- to thank them for their gift,
- to let them know that Epaphroditus had recovered and was returning to Philippi,
- to encourage them to remain firm in the faith
- and to address some problems he has been made aware of including a disagreement between two women in the church.
There are a number of themes that run throughout the letter. A few that stand out to me are:
- Paul’s affection for his readers (This is evident through out the letter and we will be looking at this more closely next week.)
- Live lives worthy of the gospel
- Identity in Christ (Identifying with Christ’s death and resurrections and imitating his example of humility.)
- Unity of the believers
- Joy, even in the face of opposition
Were I to try and summarize the book of Philippians in a sentence (which is a good exercise to try with any book of the bible you are studying) it would be like this: Paul encourages the Philippians to behave like the citizens of heaven that they are, living lives worthy of the gospel, being unified in humility, and remaining steadfastly joyful in the face of opposition.
Salutation & Greeting
Now with the background in our mind, let’s turn to the text of the letter.
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. (Philippians 1:1-2 ESV)
Here we have a salutation typical of letters from that time. At the start of the letter you have the name of the one writing the letter. This is followed by those to whom the letter is addressed, and a short greeting. This seems more logical than the modern convention which forces you to flip to the end of the letter to identify who wrote it.
Now, this opening is likely familiar to you as Paul’s other letters begin in a similar way. In fact you have probably read over these words quickly before without giving them much thought. Yet, if we believe our doctrine of inspiration, then we must recognize that the Holy Spirit did not include these salutations simply to fill up space. We should give them the attention they are due as part of God’s Word.
One of the benefits of being assigned a text is that it can force you to look at a passage differently than you otherwise might. For example, being assigned a long passage means that you cannot focus on every detail, but must pull back to see the “big picture”. Inversely, being assigned two short verses causes you to look a bit more closely.
In our remaining time I want to take a closer look at these two verses. Specifically I want us to note two things about the author; three things about the recipients; and then we will look at the greeting as well.
The first thing we notice about Paul in this salutation is his characteristic humility. We might expect the letter to be addressed from Saint Paul to the servants of Christ Philippi, but this is inverted.
As most of you know the underlying word dulos refers to one who, like a slave or bond-servant, is not a free agent, but is wholly owned by another. Paul and Timothy are identified as the servants of Christ, and their ministry—indeed their purpose in writing—is to serve Christ by serving the believers who are the body of Christ.
This is an essential characteristic of the leaders whom Christ appoints to care for his church. They are not lords to rule over the believers. There is only one Lord, one head of the church, and those whom he appoints are charged to care for and serve the body.
The second thing to note about Paul is closely related to this, and it is the inclusion of Timothy. Paul is the author (note the pronouns), but he includes Timothy in this salutation. Having experienced those events recorded in Acts 16 together, there was no doubt a bond between Timothy and the Philippian believers. But more significant than that perhaps, is that the apostle Paul was pleased to have this young man with him participating in the work of the ministry.
The relationship between Paul and Timothy gets at something that I think is an essential part of The New Testament pattern for ministry. An indicator that you are growing and maturing as a leader in the church that that people will want to follow you and learn from you, and you in turn, will want to invest in the lives of other believers.
This is essentially the model of one on one discipleship or mentorship, and it is not limited to those in vocational ministry. In fact, Paul’s letter to Titus indicates that this should be true of women as will as men. Ladies, a mark of maturity as a believer is that by your words and actions you are teaching younger women, and men likewise with younger men.
I am thankful to see this at work in our own local church, where it not assumed that you must be over the age 50 to be involved in the essential work of ministry.
There are three things to note about the recipients as well. The first is how they are identified. The letter is address to “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi”. The word saint (ἅγιος) is one who is holy, separated and set apart from common use—dedicated to God.
This is not a special subset of believers, but it is “all” the believers at Philippi. Saints are not only people pictured in stain glassed windows. In fact the term “saints” is one of the normal ways the New Testament speaks about believers. Every believer is a saint.
You are a saint, not because you live in some special pious manner, but because Jesus has reserved you for himself. You are specially set apart as his, and he is uniquely yours. What a glorious truth! This is true of everyone who has placed their faith in Christ. Sinclair Ferguson put it this way, “We are saints, not because we have reached high levels of maturity, but because we have been brought into the kingdom of the Lord Jesus.”
The second thing to note about the recipients is their location. They are “the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi.” Paul applies two locations to the church and the order is significant. First and foremost they are in Christ. They are his body, his bride. They belong uniquely to his kingdom.
The Philippians, and all believer are saints “in Christ”. It is a reality of being made a new creation in Christ that makes the believer distinct from the world. It is because of what Christ has done in us, by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the work of regeneration. Old things have passed away, and all things have become new. This changes our desires, our ambitions, and our priorities. Our first priority now is to seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness.
Yet these believers are also citizens of Philippi. As Christians we have a dual citizenship. You may be a citizen of the state of Missouri, and of the United States of America, but as a believer you are first a citizen of God’s kingdom. The Philippians may have taken pride in their citizenship as part of a Roman colony, but Paul wants them to remember that their first allegiance is to Christ and his kingdom. This is why He reminds them in chapter three that their ultimate citizenship is in heaven.
The third thing to note about the recipients is the inclusion of the overseers and deacons. This is the only time they are mentioned in the salutation of any of Paul’s letters. The word “overseers” refers to those who have oversight or guardianship of something. When referring to the church it is used interchangeably with the term “elder” in the New Testament (cf. Acts 20:28 where Paul tells to Ephesian elders be faithful in their work as overseers of the church, also Titus 1:5-7).
Here, in a nut shell, we have the apostolic model of how a New Testament church is to be ordered. It is made up of regenerate believers, from among whom, some are set apart to the two offices of Elder or Overseer and Deacon.
Notice “all saints” are listed first in the place of prominence. The leaders are not the focus, Christ’s church is. Leaders are the servants of Christ given to shepherd and guard his people, and the church as a whole is to behave towards them in such a way as to make their work a joy and not a burden.
Grace and Peace
Finally, the salutation concludes with Paul’s standard greeting of grace and peace. We often read those words so quickly, yet they are central pillars of the new life in Christ.
The Philippians, like you and I, were the recipients of God’s grace. They were not better than their neighbors—not more wise or more noble. They were lost in their sin, rebels against the holy God who made them, and justly under the condemnation of his wrath like all the rest of mankind. Yet God chose them for himself. He set his redeeming love upon them. He sent his Son to die for them. Christ went to the cross, taking their sins and dying in their place. Now, by the work of the Holy Spirit, they have been raised together with Christ.
And they, like us, are now at peace with God. Those who were once far off have been brought near. These one-time enemies of God have been adopted—made sons, and heirs with Christ. They have been brought into the family—the household of faith.
All this is a work of the triune God. It is “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”. And although the Holy Spirit isn’t mentioned explicitly here, his work is implied. It is he who applies the work of Christ to us.
For Paul these are more than just words. He was privileged to be the means by which the gospel first came to them. He was there to witness many of their conversions. If you have experienced getting to share the gospel with someone, seeing them respond in faith, and then watching them go on to grow in the Lord, you will understand what Paul is feeling!
As we will see in the next section, this is why Paul feels such love for, and joy over the believers in Philippi. It is because they are living portraits of the grace and peace of God.