Joyful submission to Christ in the midst of difficulty is challenging for many of us, even as believers. Paul wrote Philippians to encourage a church facing suffering and opposition. Part 1 of a whole book study series called “Joy in Christ: A Study Through Philippians.”
A few things to know before we get into the text.
What is Philippians? It is a letter, made up not so much of doctrine but of affectionate exhortations and guidance. Yet the power of Christ and the glory of God are central.
About Philippi: An old city in eastern Macedonia, Philippi had been turned into a Roman colony. It was both Greek and Roman in its characteristics and population. Paul originally came to Philippi about AD 49 (see Acts 16:11-12).
Who was Philippians written for? Originally Paul wrote this letter to believers at Philippi, a young church (less than ten years old) consisting primarily of Gentiles. The church at Philippi began with a core group of women converts and the first house church was in the home of a woman merchant named Lydia (see Acts 16:14-15).
Paul does not assume that this church requires instruction in the matter of the content of the gospel, but rather encouragement in the process of sanctification following their belief in and daily walk of the gospel. This was particularly important for this church as they were in the midst of suffering and opposition (see Gordon Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians).
Where was it written? Most scholars agree Paul wrote Philippians in Rome.
How did the letter arrive in Philippi? Paul’s reference to Epaphroditus in Phil. 2:25-30 as a messenger makes it likely that he carried the letter.
What were Paul’s circumstances at the time? At the very least Paul was under house arrest guarded by praetorian soldiers. Yet because of Roman citizenship, it was likely he was allowed more freedom than a typical prisoner. There is argument as well about Paul being in a prison rather than a house. In all cases, he was a prisoner of some kind.
When was it written? The letter is estimated to have been written toward the close of Paul’s imprisonment in Rome (2 years in). In his exposition of the letter, D.A. Carson places it at AD 61 (D.A. Carson, Basics for Believers).
Relationship to Paul’s other writings. Thought to be the last of Paul’s epistles to the churches, Philippians was written later than Philemon, Colossians, and Ephesians, the other prison epistles. His last three epistles were written to Timothy and Titus rather than to churches.
Themes: Joy, humility, unity in truth, sufficiency and centrality of Christ.
The big idea: A life lived with Christ in the center brings true joy.
A simple outline:
- Chapter 1: Live for Christ
- Chapter 2: Follow Christ
- Chapter 3: Grow in Christ
- Chapter 4: Rest in Christ
With that under our belts, let’s jump in to the first few verses.
1 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons: 2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
We tend to speed through greetings in epistles, but this one’s unique in a few ways so let’s slow down and look.
Set Free to Serve
In the first verse, Paul identifies himself as a servant and not an apostle as in many other letters. He (and Timothy who he includes as a fellow servant and worker in the gospel) are not bound to a human master, but rather to Christ for His service and glory.
This is important for us because every believer is likewise a slave to Christ who has set us free from our slavery to sin to be His servant (see Rom. 6:20-22; John 8:34-36). In serving God, we serve others in the body. As we serve side by side, though, we don’t always get along. That brings up the next unique point of this greeting.
A Need for Unity
Addressing his greeting to all the saints, Paul makes the additional mention of overseers and deacons. This is the only letter in which this is found so it makes us ask, why?
The focus on “all” saints and special mention of the church servant leaders may indicate Paul’s particular encouragement in this letter toward unity. His focus on speaking to the entire church is further seen with the repetition of “all of you” or “you all” (depending on your translation) throughout Philippians (1:4, 7-8, 25, 2:17, 26, 4:21).
From his exhortation in Phil 4:2 to the two women to get past small differences and agree as they should since they are united to one another in Christ. It’s possible that Paul makes mention of the servant-leaders of the Philippian church because there were issues between them.
Truth Not Compromised for Unity
Note that Paul is not telling them that they should compromise truth simply for the sake of unity, but that they should be united in the Lord and His truth. This isn’t Paul saying, just go along to get along. There seems to be a big push in the visible church today for unity over and above significant and non-negotiable doctrinal issues. But we cannot be united with people who deny or add to the central tenets of the Christian faith.
Inside the church, there is a place for us to correct and admonish. We are to do so with the loving motivation to see the other person grow closer in their walk with God. At the same time, we’re to watch ourselves carefully and to be open to correction as well from those who walk in a godly, Christ-like manner (such as the deacons and overseers that Paul refers to in his greeting).
Who are These Servant-Leaders?
In most churches, deacons and overseers (aka elders) are thought of as part of the “church leadership.” In terms of leading by godly example, I would say this is true. But in terms of the scriptural emphasis, they should largely be looked at as servants. Briefly, what are deacons and overseers (bishops in some translations) and what do the offices and duties mean to and for us?
Overseers (Gr. episkopos): In the sense of a careful watchman, an overseer looks upon others with active care and as a willing responsibility; he does not do this for personal gain, but from a motivation of godly love, he seeks to ensure sound doctrine as well as shepherd (pastoral care). Qualities of and regard for an overseer are described in 1 Tim. 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9, 1 Tim. 5:17-20 and duties are described in Acts 20:28 and 1 Peter 5:2).
An overseer is also referred to as an elder, with one and the same meaning, though in scripture “elder” emphasizes the standing and maturity of the person while “overseer” emphasizes their duties and authority.
If you serve as an overseer/elder, you do so not for merit, recognition, the attainment of power, or the appearance of superiority over others, but because you seek to uphold Christ’s truth and the integrity of His church.
Deacons (Gr. diakonos): The emphasis here is on serving and ministering, upon the work to be done. Deacons help support the elders and typically have no ruling authority, but care for the church (from serving to ensuring sound doctrine). Qualities described in 1 Tim. 3:8-13.
If you serve as a deacon, it is because you see the need in front of you and you have a heartfelt desire to meet that need. You’re at ground level seeing that the wheels turn and ministering where needed: from visiting an invalid or widow to bringing godly encouragement to the sick or discouraged or even simply cleaning up after a fellowship meal.
Attitude and Prayer
Whether serving as an elder or a deacon, it is a serious responsibility. From the descriptions of their qualities, it is not something we should seek to do for self-promotion, but rather from a sincere, humble desire to offer ourselves as instruments through which Christ’s wisdom and truth may flow.
At the same time, know that these people who do serve as elders and deacons are in the same sanctification process as the rest of the body. So pray for them and encourage them as you can!
Grace and Peace
When charis (grace) and eirene (peace) are joined together as they are here, it includes the idea of every kind of blessing and good as proceeding from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Here Paul doesn’t just give a cliché greeting, but paints a picture of the unity in truth and joy to which he is about to exhort his beloved church at Philippi. His combination of the typical Greek greeting of grace with the Hebrew peace gives the sense of all essential parts joined together in wholeness.
In a way, for Paul to wish “grace and peace” upon them is a prayer, even before the prayer he launches into in the next verses. It is to pray for all blessings, especially spiritual, upon them, out of the undeserved love and kindness of God. It is both favor and a sense of well-being, safety, and the surpassing peace that comes from salvation and rest found only in Christ.