Philippians (1): An Apostolic Greeting
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 1:1-3)
When God chose to speak to the world through prophets and apostles, he didn’t invent a special holy language to convey his message. Instead he spoke in the day-to-day language of those he was addressing. This is why, for example, the New Testament is not written in ‘biblical Greek’ but in the koine, the vernacular spoken by the common people. In the same way, instead of inventing a new kind of literature to make his meaning clear, he adopted the types of literature with which human beings had been familiar ever since the invention of writing. Prominent among these were stories, poetry, proverbial sayings, legal documents and letters.
Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is one of several such letters to be found in the New Testament. It was probably written from Rome around 62 a.d., while Paul, having appealed to Caesar, was being held in custody pending his trial. His confinement was not of the harshest: he was probably under house-arrest rather than in prison, and friends were clearly able to visit him. But conditions were grim enough. What we know of Roman custom suggests that he was bound by the hand to a soldier and was never left alone day or night; and the mental strain, too, was grim. The trial, as he himself makes clear, could go either way, issuing either in life or in death (Phil. 1:20). This human background is clearly reflected in the epistle, yet from such conditions came the priceless legacy that we know today as the ‘Prison Epistles’: Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon and Philippians.
The greeting of the Epistle to the Philippians, quoted above, follows the usual pattern of Paul’s letters and, indeed, the usual pattern for letters in the culture of Paul’s day. The writer identifies himself, names the addressees and then conveys his good wishes. However, though Paul adheres to the usual style, he also modifies it profoundly, adapting the standard form of greeting in order to give it a distinctive Christian flavour. This appears clearly in the way he describes himself. Rather than simply identify himself as ‘Paul’ he describes himself (and Timothy, his associate in the letter) as ‘servants of Christ Jesus’.
The word doulos, which Paul uses here, is one of three words commonly used for ‘servant’ in the New Testament. One, diakonos, was commonly used to denote a domestic servant, but it was also used by Jesus to describe his own service (Mk. 10:45), by Paul to define his preaching ministry (2 Cor 5.18) and by Paul again to denote the specific office of deacon (1 Tim. 3:8-13).
A second term, leitourgos, was originally used of people who rendered professional service either to the state or to the gods (for example, civil servants and priests), but Paul also uses it in Romans 13:6 when he describes the ‘powers that be’ as ‘ministers of God’; and again in Romans 15:16 to describe his own calling as ‘a minister of Christ Jesus’.
The third word, and the one that Paul uses here, is doulos, familiar to generations of Evangelical young people as the name of one of Operation Mobilisation’s ocean-going missionary ships, was the common word for a slave, and occurs in that sense in, for example, Ephesians 6:5, where Paul commands the douloi to obey their earthly masters. When applied to a believer’s relationship to Christ, however, it must be stripped of the connotations we attach to it today as a result of the evils of the slave trade. Christ’s servants are not under the lash: on the contrary, his yoke is easy, and his burden is light (Mt. 11:30). Indeed, the word receives a new dignity from the fact that later in this very epistle it is applied to Christ himself (Phil.2:7).
Nevertheless, by portraying himself and his fellow-Christians as douloi of Christ Jesus, Paul is reminding us that the Saviour is our Lord (kurios), our Master and our Owner. We are not our own, but belong to him, having been bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:19). Every area of our lives, then, is to be regulated by his will; and, conversely, we answer to no other. This is the fundamental heart-beat of a Christian:
Now to be thine, yea, thine alone, O Lamb of God, I come.
The second departure from the usual form of ancient letter-writing is the way that Paul identifies the recipients. He is aware that he is writing not to an individual, but then neither is he writing to the city of Philippi as such, nor to ‘the contemporary world.’ He is writing to a church, addressing their specific needs as Christians, assuming that they already have a clear understanding of the core Christian doctrines, and assuming, too, that they are keen to learn more. Since there would be only one copy of the letter, they would have to gather together to hear it read, and we can be sure that there would be great excitement. A letter from an apostle, and especially from Paul, would be very special event. It would be God’s word to them, but though addressed to one particular church, the church in every age and in every place has the right to appropriate it as a letter to itself. Focused as it is, in the first instance, on the needs of the first-century Christians of Philippi, it is no less relevant to the needs and longings of their 21st century successors. It is also, by implication, a reminder that no matter how important it is to speak to the contemporary word, it is no less important to speak directly to contemporary Christians.
But how are the Philippians described? As ‘saints’: but as the sequel shows, this is far from meaning that they were flawless. What it does mean is that God had set them apart and had begun in them a work of moral and spiritual transformation which would continue until it was completed ‘at the day of Christ’ (verse 6).
But what is no less fascinating is their address. It is as if they had two distinct postcodes.
First, they were ‘in Christ Jesus’. They were members of his body. He lived in them (Gal. 2:20), and with such effect that the life of God was in their souls. Nor was this something merely mystical, or even a case of our hearts burning within us (Lk. 24.32). It was an objective reality. The risen, living Christ dwelt in them, anointing and empowering them, and leading them by his Spirit.
The words trip off pen or keyboard easily enough, and familiarity with the idea can all too easily blunt our sense of wonder. But wonder it is, at two levels: first, the One who died is alive again; and secondly, the Son of God, whom the heaven of heavens cannot contain, has made our hearts his home. It is surely worth more than a passing thought.
But then, they also had a second address. They lived ‘at Philippi,’ and that was where their sainthood was to show itself. Philippi was a special city. It was a colony of the Imperial City itself, and it was in this city, governed directly by Roman law and steeped in Roman religion and culture, that the believers would have to live out their discipleship. Here, in a world where there were gods many and lords many, and where they were a tiny, marginalised minority, they would raise their families, conduct their businesses, and enjoy their leisure; and in that world, amid all its darkness, they would shine (Phil. 2:15).
The overseers and deacons
Special mention is made of ‘the overseers and deacons’ (ESV). There is a degree of pedantry in the use of the word ‘overseers’ here. The underlying word is episkopos, and there is nothing to be gained by abandoning the traditional rendering ‘bishop’. What is interesting is that at this stage the small church at Philippi, a bare ten years old, not only had a bishop: it had several of them. In Acts 20:17, referring to the church at Ephesus, the same class of men are first of all described as ‘elders’ (presbuteroi), but then a few verses later (verse 28) they, too, are called bishop (episkopoi). What this points to is, first of all, that the pastoral care and leadership of the flock was not the responsibility of any single individual but of a local council of presbyter-bishops. In modern terms, the Kirk Session was the local bishop.
But then, secondly, within this council of elders all were equal. Only in the second century did the idea emerge of a single bishop in charge of a group of churches and their pastors. In the beginning it was not so. Not only were bishops and elders equal: they were one and the same. The only difference was that while the word episcopos (literally, someone who kept an eye on things) tells us what elders did, the word presbyteros tells us what they had to be. In the first instance, presbuteros, like the Latin senator or the Gaelic seanair, indicated seniority on account of age. The English word ‘elder’ (and the associated word ‘alderman’) conserves this same idea. Those entrusted, under Christ, with the affairs of the church, had to be people of maturity, trained and tested in the university of life. It was not a position to be occupied by a novice or a recent convert (1 Tim. 3:6).
Side by side with the bishops, Paul places ‘deacons.’ The most detailed New Testament reference to this office occurs in 1Timothy 3: 8-13, but unfortunately it tells us little about their actual duties. Assuming, however, that ‘the Seven’ of Acts 6:5-6 were the first deacons, their function becomes clearer: they were to ‘serve tables,’ meaning that they had to take personal responsibility for distributing relief to the poor. In the first instance their appointment arose out of the need to relieve the apostles of this duty, but this is not to belittle their office in any way. Compassion for the poor was central to the ministry of the Lord himself, and in line with this the Reformed churches have always recognised that what they called ‘distributions,’ administered by deacons, must have a stated place in the organisation of every congregation. The problem, so far as the early church was concerned, that by the time we reach Acts Seven the apostles were so busy as almoners (or perhaps, in modern terms, social workers) that they had no time to fulfil the ministry which they alone could fulfil, namely the preaching of the word; and although the Seven are not specifically referred to as ‘deacons’ their duties certainly corresponded very closely to what was expected of deacons in later Presbyterianism, where their primary role was ‘the collection and distribution of the alms of the faithful’ (Second Book of Discpline, 8:2).
That this was far too important a matter to be left to random volunteers is clear from the fact that those chosen had ‘to be of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom’ (Acts 6:3) and had to be solemnly set apart by prayer and the laying-on of hands (Acts 6:6). But it is clear, too, that at least some of those chosen were people of outstanding quality. Stephen, for example, ‘a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 6:5), and destined to be the first martyr, was clearly a man possessed of a cluster of exceptional gifts Acts 6:8-10); and Philip later plays a key role in the expansion of the early church through his ministry as an evangelist (Acts 8:4-40). It is notable, too, that in 1 Timothy 2:8-13 Paul stipulates that deacons must be men who ‘hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.’ The office was clearly one which it was an honour to hold.
Yet, just as their position as deacons did not preclude Stephen and Philip from exercising a ministry of the word, so their primary calling as preachers did not mean that the apostles distanced themselves completely from serving tables. In Galatians 2:10, for example, Paul tells us that when the Jerusalem apostles warmly welcomed himself and Barnabas they added the charge, ‘Remember the poor’; and to this he himself adds the comment, ‘The very thing I was eager to do.’ Later, we find the same apostle, in the very midst of evangelising Macedonia and Achaia, not only organising a collection for the poor saints at Jerusalem but taking personal responsibility for making sure it was safely delivered to those who needed it (2 Cor. 8:19).
In line with this, it has long been the practice of Scottish Presbyterianism that the Minister (the very one who labours in the word and doctrine) should be a member of the local Deacons Court; and with the Minister, the elders. Behind this lay the clear principle, though not, perhaps felicitously worded, that ‘the higher office includes the lower.’ Only thus can we avoid a disjunction between the ‘business’ of a church and its theology. Where would we be today if the church had said to John Knox, Andrew Melville or Thomas Chalmers, ‘You stick to your preaching.’
Grace and peace
Having introduced himself and named those he is writing to, Paul then conveys his greetings. They are in exactly the same terms as in almost all his other epistles, ‘Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.’ In effect, the greeting has become an apostolic benediction, invoking a twofold blessing on the church at Philippi.
‘Grace’, the favour and goodwill of God, is more than a wish to help and more than a benevolent smile. It is a force: the invincible, all-conquering and all-sustaining divine strength which helps us in moments of weakness (2 Cor 12:9), keeps us from going to pieces (Heb. 4:16), and gives us limitless power to do and to endure.
‘Peace’ (Hebrew shalom) was part of the Aaronic Blessing (Num. 6:26) and implies not only security under God, but health and prosperity. In Psalm 122:8-9, for example, to wish Jerusalem ‘peace’ is synonymous with wishing her ‘good’. In Paul’s own usage there are two distinct meanings of peace. On the one hand, there is peace with God, resulting from justification and reconciliation through the blood of Christ (Rom. 5:1); and on the other, there is the peace of God: the subjective peace which God gives when, instead of abandoning ourselves to anxiety, we make our requests known to him (Phil. 4:6-7 and thus hand all our anxieties over to God(1 Pet. 5:7).
Paul looks for these blessings from a twofold source, ‘God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.’ In our familiarity with the idea of God as our Father we can easily overlook how revolutionary it sounded when Jesus was first heard using it: so revolutionary, indeed, that the Jews were mightily offended; and although Psalm 103 speaks of God pitying us as a father pities his children, no Old Testament believer had ever addressed God in this way. But now that God has spent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts we instinctively cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ (Gal. 4:6), though never forgetting that he is our ‘heavenly’ Father: always caring and always resourceful, but never to be trifled with.
But no less remarkable than the fact that God is our Father is the fact that Paul associates ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’ with him as equally the fountain from which grace and peace flow. This is one of the many incidental proofs of the deity of Christ in the New Testament, and what Paul sets before us here in matter-of-fact prose is represented for us in memorable imagery in the Book of Revelation: the River of the Water of Life (bearing grace and peace) flows out of the ‘throne of God and of the Lamb’ (Rev. 22:1). It is one throne, and its ‘two’ occupants are ‘one’, both occupying the ‘centre,’ exercising the same sovereignty in complete union and communion, and united in the eternal love from which the river of grace and peace flows through a fallen world.
But what of the Holy Spirit? Is Paul setting forth a binitarian rather than a trinitarian view of God? He has no hesitation elsewhere in associating the Spirit fully with the Father and the Son as equally divine and equally persona, as we see clearly in the Benediction with which he closes Second Corinthians: ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.’ But the key factor to bear in mind when we ask why Paul doesn’t mention the Spirit at this point is that the Spirit is not so much the source or fountain of blessing as he is the blessing itself. He it is who is God’s unspeakable gift (2 Cor. 9:15).
God’s grace and peace are not abstract forces or impersonal energies. His grace is his Holy Spirit empowering us, and his peace is his love being poured into our hearts by the same Spirit (Rom. 5:5). The Spirit is not only one of the triune fountain from which mercy flows. He is himself the mercy: the Paraclete, standing beside us and living within us as the very life of God in our souls. Hence the idea of the ‘communion’ or ‘fellowship’ of the Holy Spirit. He shares with us the love which the Father and the Son have for each other, for himself and for us.