PHILIPPIANS, Part One

From Slaves to Saints, 1:1, 2

Some two thousand years ago, an itinerant preacher and occasional tentmaker was unceremonially thrown into a Roman prison because he created a “public disturbance.”  It was from that dark, damp prison that he dictated a short letter that may have taken up all of one or two pages of rough paper.  Very few of us would even know who the Roman emperor was at that time, and even though Nero was said to have been a very prolific author, nothing remains of anything he wrote.  On the other hand, the “apostle Paul” is a name recognized by millions upon millions of people all around the world; by Christians, Jews, and unbelievers alike.  While not all of Paul’s writing has survived the intervening 20 centuries, some has, and his short letter to his friends in Philippi one that has and is a source of great comfort to all who have read it.

No doubt Paul would be befuddled by his “success.”  He was, after all, just a “preacher.”  He was an evangelist who, in his travels, got to know many people as he founded and preached in churches all over the Roman Empire and beyond.  Little did know that people in 2010 would still be reading and studying some of his letters.

As we read Paul’s letters, they all have certain characteristics.  He greets his readers in the name of the Lord.  Sometimes his letters were written to churches—large and small—and sometimes he was addressing a single person.  In some of his letters he rebukes and corrects a congregation or individual for some deviation from the Word of God.  Paul’s main concern was for the health of the Church, which would lead to healthy individual believers.

Of all the letters Paul wrote to churches, this one is the most personal.  It contains no rebukes; there were no major problems in the church, apparently.  All the warnings Philippians contains are cautionary; they are warning to take care and watch out.  Within the 104 verses of this letter, the names and titles of Jesus Christ occur over 50 times; clearly He is the reason for this letter.

1.  The setting:  Town and church

During the time of Paul, Philippi was not a big city, but it was an important one.  It was named after Philip, the father of Alexander.  In 42BC, a great battle between Brutus and Octavian took place at Philppi.  Octavian (Augustus) prevailed and he, as the leader of the new state, rebuilt Philippi and filled it with his own soldiers, making it a military outpost and colony of Rome.  Because of its strategic location, and its fairly rapid grown, it became the chief city of Macedonia.

The citizens of Philippi were diverse and highly educated.  The town was filled with Greeks, Asians, and Romans and all were devoted to their various philosophies and religions.  Temples abounded in Philippi, and the when the Gospel of Jesus Christ was first brought there, it was readily accepted.

The church there was founded by Paul and his friends during his second missionary journey, sometime in 52 AD.  There were very few Jews living in Philippi, and so Paul had to use a different tact in presenting the Gospel.  Normally, he would visit the local synagogue and reason with its members; but in Philippi, there was no synagogue because there weren’t enough Jews to sustain one.  What would Paul do?  Acts 16 tells us how Paul adapted his approach to fit the circumstances—

On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river, where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women who had gathered there. One of those listening was a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us. (Acts 16:13—15)

And so Philippi had its first convert; Lydia, a business woman who also has the distinction of being the first European convert to Christianity.  Also an early convert was a slave girl whose conversion caused all kinds of problems for her employer, who used her talents to make money.  These early conversions caused such a stir, that Paul and Silas were imprisoned.  In fact, they were viewed as such trouble makers that the Philippian jailer chained them up in an inner cell.

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everybody’s chains came loose. The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped.  (Acts 16:25—27)

We know that story; not one single prisoner escaped, which led to the conversion of their jailer and his whole family.

From this very simple beginning the church was constituted.  A fairly wealthy business woman, a former-slave girl, and a low-ranking, upper middle class government official and his family made up the first congregation in Philippi.  Truly in Jesus Christ there is no distinction of male or female, rich or poor, free or slave!

After Paul and Silas left to continue their work, Luke probably stayed behind to help organize the congregation into a genuine local Christian church.  It is also probable that the congregation at Philippi was as persecuted as Paul; they therefore had a special kinship with him and were intensely loyal to him.

According to what Paul wrote to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 8:1—2), the church at Philippi fell into financial problems, but they never let their circumstances affect their fidelity to Christ or their generosity to other churches.  Out of their poverty, they were able to give to help other struggling congregations and even Paul himself.

2.  Greeting: from the servants, verse 1

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus.

A simple greeting belies its power.  Paul the great apostle; Paul, the eloquent expositor of Scripture; Paul, the complier and organizer of Christian theology, not only refers to himself as a “servant,” but he links his name to a junior pastor, Timothy.   Why did he do that?  As to why he mentions young Timothy, he had traveled with Paul on his second missionary journey and was therefore present when the Philippian church was birthed.  He had visited the town with Paul on a subsequent journey (Acts 20) so the congregation would have known Timothy.  Imagine how glad they would have been to know that Timothy had remembered them!

Timothy was very close to Paul on many levels and was no doubt being groomed to continue Paul’s work after Paul’s time was up.

Paul does not use his title, “Apostle,” in this letter even though he had no problems using it elsewhere.  This is because this letter is much more personal that his other congregational letters.  In fact, this letter to the people at Philippi has more in common with Paul’s very personal letter to Philemon that to any other of his letters.  Paul is not interested in stressing his credentials; these people knew who Paul was.  He loved them and they loved him right back.

Paul refers to himself and Timothy as “servants” of Jesus Christ.  The Greek word used is doulos, and is often translated as “slave.”  Why does Paul describe himself as a “slave” or “servant” of Jesus Christ?  The common answer is that doulos emphasizes his complete submission and dependence on Christ.   Doulos is not a technical name for Paul and Timothy’s office, but rather is characterizes their willing service to Christ.

And yet it means much more than that.  Paul and Timothy (and all believers, for that matter) had been literally bought with a price and were therefore owned by their Master, the One who bought them, Jesus Christ.

You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men.  (1Corinthians 7:23)

What does it mean to be a slave of man?  The exact opposite of being a slave of Christ! It means letting the whims of human beings dictate not only your thoughts but your behavior as well.  It means fearing man and preferring the ways of the world over the way of Christ.  Paul would have none of that!  Indeed, being a slave of man leads only to bondage and a life of drudgery.  Contrast that the liberty that comes from being a slave of Christ’s—

You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.  (Romans 6:18)

But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.  (Romans 7:6)

The liberty that comes from being a slave of Christ is something a sinner can only dream of!  Real freedom and liberty is only found in Christ.  To be a slave of Christ is to be free from sin.

3.  Greeting: to the saints, verse 1b

To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons.

The word “saints,” hagiois, means literally “holy ones” or “set apart ones.”  What an apt description of what a Christian is supposed to be:  set apart.  Christians belong to God and are to be like God.  Christians are His precious possessions, purchased and belonging wholly to Him.   It does not mean the folks in the Philippian church were “sinless.”  It simply means that they have been set apart by God to serve Him in the world.

“Saints” refers to the state of Christians in Christ.  As the New Testament uses the term, a Christian is a “saint” merely because he is “in Christ.”  To be “in Christ” is to be controlled by Him; to be under His control and His influence.  It means to be held in the very palm of His hand.  “In Christ” is one of Paul’s favorite phrases; he uses it 8 times in the four chapters of this letter and almost 50 times in all his letters combined.

William Hendriksen offers his definition of what a “saint” is:

A saint, then, is a person to whom the Lord has shown great favor and upon whom, accordingly, there rests great responsibility.  He who is a saint (2 Cor. 1:1) must remember that he has been called to be a saint (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2).

In other words, at some point in the life a saint, his life must line up to his calling.

Not only are members of the Philippian church addressed, but also the leadership of that church; the overseers and deacons.  This is the very first mention of “overseers and decaons” in the New Testament.  The word “overseer” comes from the Greek episkopois, which is often translated as “bishop.”  In New Testament times, the episkopois referred to the spiritual leader of a local congregation, and sometimes a local church may have had more than one “overseer,” and sometimes just one.   “Overseer” seems to have been equivalent to “elder,” which was a word very common is Jewish communities.  Since Philippi had few Jews, they used the more common “overseer” to name their church leaders.

“Deacons,” diakonois, is a word with a beautiful meaning:  “those who serve.”  From what we learn in Acts, deacons looked after the physical needs of a congregation; the elders looking after the spiritual needs.

What is really interesting in this greeting is that Paul addresses the members, the spiritual leaders, and the administrative leaders of this church all together, addressing them all as “saints.”  In God’s sight, the pulpit is no higher off the ground then the pew.  Any organization has to have its leaders, including the church, and God has made provision for this, but it is a false distinction to elevate the leaders of the church above the most average member of that church for all are saints.

The church really is a most amazing organism.  The Philippian church reflects many churches of today.  Not many churches spring into being, packed to overflowing with wealthy members who just can’t wait for Sunday and Wednesday night to get here!  In fact, many churches struggle into existence, gaining a member here and there growing ever-so-slowly, with only a few members never missing a service.  Most churches are like the Philippian church; a rag-tag collection of people from all walks of life, brought together by the Holy Spirit, united under the banner of the Word of God, and bound together in love.  With all the bickering and gossip and destructive behavior that characterizes so many churches today, it’s a testimony to the boundless grace and mercy of God that He considers us “saints,” co-workers, co-heirs with, and ambassadors of Jesus Christ.

May the Lord, through the work of the Holy Spirit within us, help us to live up to our calling as “saints” and “holy” people.

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