The book of Philippians was written by the apostle Paul. Paul planted the church in Philippi roughly ten to twelve years before he wrote this letter from a prison cell in Rome (Phil. 1:12 – 13).
The city of Philippi was a largely Gentile city that had very little Jewish presence. Philippi was essentially a self-governing Roman colony that idolized the freedom of religion so long as you didn’t exercise your religious freedoms in a way that interfered with social and economic productivity (Acts 16:16 – 24).
Historians even note that the city of Philippi didn’t have a Jewish Synagogue which basically means that there weren’t even ten married Jewish men in the entire city which boasted a population of somewhere between ten and fifteen thousand people.
So, what this teaches us is that there weren’t very many people in Philippi who believed in the God of the Bible or the God of the Jews when Paul and Silas showed up to plant a church.
I’m not entirely sure how long the apostle Paul spent in Philippi preaching the gospel but I do know that he visited the city of Philippi at least three different times throughout his church planting journeys and that he enjoyed a very special relationship with the Philippian church (Acts 16:12; 20:1 – 6; Phil. 1:3 – 5; 4:1, 10 – 20).
And now, ten to twelve years later, the apostle Paul is sitting in a jail cell in Rome for preaching the gospel and he decides to write a letter to a church that he loves dearly. Take a look at how Paul begins his letter.
PHILIPPIANS 1:1 – 2
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.
So, what’s in a greeting? We typically read the greeting in a letter or in an email very dismissively; we view it like a courteous social construct.
When we see someone in the grocery store, we say “Hi, how are you doing today?” And then we enter into the courteous, surface level conversation that we are accustomed to. So, it’s easy to read Paul’s greeting in the same way and barely give a passing glance to what he says here.
I believe that every word of Paul’s greeting is intentionally seasoned with the gospel. Paul isn’t using his words carelessly; he’s sitting in prison, his time is short, the people he is writing to are precious and the God he wants to proclaim is majestic.
So, these opening words hold tons of significance for us today. But what is the significance of what Paul is writing here? What’s in this greeting?
To grasp the depth of what Paul is writing here we need to ask some interpretive questions.
- Who are the recipients; who will be hearing the opening words of this letter and all of the words of this letter when it gets read to the church in Philippi?
- What was the apostle Paul’s relationship with the recipients of this letter?
- What are some of the main themes or issues that Paul wants to address in this church family?
- How does Paul’s greeting begin to scratch the surface of what he wants to say?
- And finally, why does this matter to us, what difference will it make and how will these verses help us?
#1: WHO ARE THE RECIPIENTS AND WHAT WAS PAUL’S RELATIONSHIP TO THEM?
Oftentimes we read the Bible without any knowledge of who the author is and who he is writing to.
We read the words of the Bible through our own social constructs and we import meaning into the text that doesn’t belong there.
We read the Bible through the lenses of our Western American ideology, rather than doing the hard work of interpreting Biblical theology.
This would be similar to someone reading a letter that I wrote to my wife without doing the hard work of getting to know me or my wife or the issues we were discussing in the letter and then just lifting pieces of the letter out of context and applying them to his or her marriage in a way that I never intended someone to do.
So, we must ask who are the recipients of this letter and what is Paul’s relationship to them?
We already know that Paul planted Philippi ten to twelve years earlier. We know that Philippi was a largely unchurched population. We know that the culture of Philippi was similar to ours in its fervent devotion to religious freedom (so long as your religious freedom doesn’t step on anybody’s toes). And we know that Paul is writing this letter from prison.
But how can we put some flesh and some faces on the people that Paul is writing to? How can we get a sense of Paul’s relationship with some of the people in this church family?
One of the main rules of interpretation is the rule of context. Context, context, context.
This simply means that we have to put on our discovery hats and do some searching in the context of the Bible to see what else we can learn about the people that Paul is writing to.
The best place to learn more about the people in Philippi is to turn back to the book of Acts and look at chapter sixteen.
In Acts chapter sixteen the apostle Paul is on a mission to preach the gospel throughout Asia with his buddy Silas when the Holy Spirit prevents them from going where they want to go and he redirects them through a vision to go to the city of Philippi (Acts 16:6 – 12).
How often have you wanted to do something good but were prevented from doing it only to find out later that something more important needed to happen?
We are living in a season when many of us desperately want to do something different than what we are doing right now but for some unforeseen reason the Lord has us locked up in our homes and practicing social distancing.
There must be something more important in God’s mind than allowing us to gather physically as a church family. What could he be up to?
That’s essentially what happens when Paul arrives in Philippi; he wanted to go to Asia, but the Lord decided that Philippi was more important right now.
And the first person that Paul encounters is a woman named Lydia (Acts 16:13 – 15). Lydia was a saleswoman who feared God; she sold fine cloth and attended a place of prayer down by the river which tells us that there was no synagogue in town.
But Lydia feared God and at least believed he existed so when she heard Paul preaching, the text tells us that “God opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul” (Acts 16:14) which reminds us, that salvation is a sovereign work of God; Lydia didn’t open her own heart to the gospel; God opened her heart and she became the first Philippian believer.
And after Lydia became a Christian she was baptized along with her entire household as a public display of her new relationship with Jesus and then she begged Paul and Silas to stay with her for a while and attend more prayer meetings down by the river (Acts 16:15).
Notice who Paul and Silas meet next in Acts 16:16 – 22. As Paul and Silas are headed down to the river with Lydia to pray, they meet a demon possessed slave girl who keeps crying out at the top of her lungs that Paul and Silas are “servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation” (16:16 – 17).
It’s important that you underline the words “slave” in verse 16 and “servants” in verse 17 because we’re going to come back to that later. But for now, just notice that this girl keeps following Paul around and causing much disruption, so Paul gets annoyed and commands the demon to come out of the slave girl (16:18).
This slave girl was set free from demonic oppression immediately which means that her slaveowners could no longer exploit her and use her for their own gain.
This is where Paul’s exercise of his religious freedoms gets on the nerves of the people in Philippi and they drag Paul and Silas in front of the city officials, accuse them of disturbing the peace, have them beaten to a bloody pulp and thrown in jail (16:19 – 22).
Rough day of ministry for Paul and Silas! Could these circumstances really be better than sharing the gospel in Asia? Rough day!
So now, the apostle Paul has a relationship with a saleswoman named Lydia and a previously demon possessed slave girl who knows that he is a servant of God who proclaims salvation. And to top things off he and Silas have been beaten to a bloody pulp in the city streets.
So, who’s the next person to join the Philippian church plant? Acts 16:25 – 40 tells the story of the Philippian jailer who throws Paul and Silas into a jail cell (16:24); Paul and Silas begin to sing praise songs to the Lord in their jail cell (16:25); a massive earthquake opens the cell doors (16:26); the jailer almost kills himself and Paul stops him (16:27 – 29) which causes the jailer to ask the famous question in verse 30 where he asks “what must I do to be saved?” to which Paul and Silas explain the gospel and the jailer and all of his household are baptized as a public expression of their faith and membership in the new Philippian church (16:31 – 34).
Rough day of ministry becomes a fruitful day of ministry for Paul and Silas and the little seed of the Philippian church is planted.
So now we know a little bit about who the recipients of the letter to the Philippians are and what Paul’s relationship was to them.
Paul was the servant of the “Most High God” who proclaimed the gospel to a saleswoman named Lydia, a previously demon possessed slave girl and a jail keeper. These three people made up the core team of the Philippian church plant. These three people were no doubt sitting in the room when they heard the opening words of this letter to the Philippian church.
But before we get back to the opening words of this letter, we need to look at some of the main issues and themes that Paul wants to address in the Philippian church family.
#2: WHAT ARE SOME OF THE MAIN ISSUES AND THEMES THAT PAUL WANTS ADDRESS?
No one writes a letter to someone else without having a purpose for the letter. I write letters to my wife and my kids to let them know that I love them.
Sometimes I write letters/emails to our church family to address issues and give specific instructions. The apostle Paul is writing this letter for some very specific purposes; some very specific issues and themes that he wants to address.
There are three major issues with three major instructions in this letter.
MAJOR ISSUE #1: SELF-CENTEREDNESS AND PRIDE.
In Philippians 2:3 – 4 the apostle Paul addresses the issue of self-centeredness and pride when he says…
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others as more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
Apparently, the Philippian church had begun to backslide into selfish pursuits, and they were becoming concerned only about their own self-interests; they were beginning to forget that other people had needs too.
MAJOR ISSUE #2: COMPLAINING AND ARGUING.
In Philippians 2:14 – 15 the apostle Paul addresses the issue of complaining and arguing when he says…
“Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.”
Apparently, the Christians in the Philippian church were becoming known as complainers and arguers in their community.
They were beginning to look just like the crooked and twisted generation they lived among and Paul wanted to address this because their complaining and their arguing was becoming a nasty black eye or a gross stain and a dark shadow over their public reputation.
They claimed to know Jesus but the community around them knew them as complainers and arguers.
MAJOR ISSUE #3: DISAGREEMENT AND DIVISION.
In Philippians 4:2 – 3 the apostle Paul addresses the issue of disagreement and division when he says…
“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 together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.”
So, it appears that the church family was becoming known for their disagreements and their divisiveness.
What began as self-centeredness and pride quickly eroded into complaining and arguing and then further eroded into disagreement and division.
Let me say it this way: Self-centeredness, rooted in pride, results in complaining which leads to arguments that produce disagreements and division.
This is a crazy black eye on the reputation of a church family; a family who should be known for their innocence, their purity, their holiness, their unity and their selfless love for one another.
So, what’s the remedy? What kind of instruction does Paul give as an antidote to the infection that he sees creeping into this church family that he loves so dearly?
ANTIDOTE #1: PUT ON THE MIND OF CHRIST.
In Philippians 2:5 – 8 the apostle Paul says that the Philippians can cure the infection of self-centeredness and pride if they would…
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
The antidote for self-centeredness and pride is putting on the selfless-servant-slave mind of Christ that we already possess if we are believers.
ANTIDOTE #2: WORK OUT YOUR SALVATION IN CHRIST.
In Philippians 2:12 – 13 the apostle Paul says that the Philippians can cure the infection of complaining and arguing if they just simply listen to Paul, when he says…
“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
The antidote for complaining and arguing is to work out our own salvation. This doesn’t mean that we work for our salvation. It also doesn’t mean that we don’t share the gospel with others.
This means that we work to grow in purity and holiness because we are saved; this is what God is working inside of each of us and it brings him pleasure. In other words, pay attention to your own growth in holiness and you’ll stop complaining and arguing with everyone around you.
Start talking about how you need to repent instead of constantly complaining and arguing about how others need to repent.
ANTIDOTE #3: STAND FIRM IN THE JOY OF CHRIST.
In Philippians 4:1 and 4 – 7 the apostle Paul says that the Philippians can cure the infection of disagreement and division if they once again just simply listen to Paul when he says…
“Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved… Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
The antidote for disagreement and division is to stand firm in the joy of Christ. This joy that Paul speaks about is the fruit of the love of Christ welling up in and through him by the power of the Spirit of Christ.
If you know the love of Christ then your life will exhibit an unquenchable joy that no momentary circumstance can steal. Disagreement and division are the fruit of hearts that are full of anxiety, fear and unreasonable expectations.
But the fruit of someone who knows the love of Christ is a deep and abiding joy enabled by the Spirit of Christ and clothed in the peace of God which surpasses understanding.
At the center of all of Paul’s theology stands the crucified, risen and returning, Christ.
The apostle Paul has some very specific reasons for writing this letter to the Philippian church; he has very specific issues to address; he has very specific instructions to give.
He sees an invisible virus at work in this church family that he loves so dearly, and this virus is not only becoming a visible thing, especially in their ethical interactions with other people, but it’s also becoming very dangerous to their spiritual health.
Paul didn’t just write some quickly thrown together, slick statements, to print on our so-called Christian t-shirts and coffee mugs.
Paul wrote this letter because he could see that the church was degenerating into self-centeredness, pride, complaining, arguing, disagreement and division. And Paul knew that the antidote for all of these issues is Christ.
The Philippians needed to put on the mind of Christ, to work out their salvation in Christ and to stand firm in the joy of knowing the love of Christ. At the center of all of Paul’s theology stands the crucified, risen and returning, Christ.
Now that we know who the recipients of this letter were, what Paul’s relationship was to them and some of the main issues he wanted to address, we can return to Paul’s greeting at the beginning of the letter.
#3: HOW DOES PAUL’S GREETING CONNECT TO THE MAIN ISSUES AND THEMES OF THE LETTER?
When Paul opens this letter by saying “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” he’s packing all of the context of this letter, all of the issues of this letter and all of the answers to those issues in this letter into his opening lines.
How do you combat self-centeredness, pride, complaining, arguing, disagreement and division? How do you help people put on the mind of Christ, work out their salvation in Christ and stand firm in the joy of Christ?
How do I combat my own self-centeredness, my pride, my complaining, my arguing, my disagreeing and my divisiveness? How do I put on the mind of Christ? How do I work out my salvation in Christ? How do I stand firm in the joy of Christ?
Paul’s greeting answers those questions because in Paul’s greeting, we learn that we are servants, we are slaves, we are saints and we are recipients in Christ Jesus. We are servants of Christ, we are slaves to Christ, we are saints in Christ Jesus, and we have received grace and peace from Christ Jesus if we’ve trusted in his work at the cross and the empty tomb.
We are servants of Christ because we’ve become saints in Christ as recipients of the grace and peace of Christ at the cross and the empty tomb of Christ.
Remember when I said that we need to underline the words “servant” and “slave” back in Acts 16? The reason I said that is because those two words mean the same thing in the original language that this letter was written in.
A servant is a slave and the reality is that anyone whom Jesus saves he enslaves (Johnson 2013: 8). Being a servant or a slave of Christ Jesus is to be a saint in Christ Jesus by the grace and peace of God in Christ Jesus.
#4: WHY DOES THIS MATTER FOR US?
What difference will it make in our lives and how does this help us right now? Here’s my answer to those questions…
At the end of the day, there is something much more dangerous looming in the church than Covid19. This worldwide pandemic is dangerous for sure; it’s deadly, and it’s devastating. But there is something much more dangerous than this virus.
There is something much more pervasive and much more deadly than a physical virus.
My self-centeredness, my pride, my complaining, my arguing, my disagreements and my divisiveness are much more pervasive and much more deadly than any physical virus will ever be because the consequences of this physical virus pale in comparison with the eternal consequences of the spiritual sickness I just outlined.
And the antidote that my heart needs is found right here in these opening verses of Philippians chapter one.
- My mind must be set on serving Jesus daily if I am going to put on the mind of Christ.
- My heart must rest in my identity as a saint in Jesus if I am going to work out my own salvation in Christ on a daily basis.
- I must constantly be a recipient of grace and peace from Jesus if I am going to stand firm in the joy of Christ.
A servant is a slave and a saint is a special recipient of something that he or she does not deserve.
At the end of the day all of my self-centeredness, my pride, my complaining, my arguments, my disagreements and my divisiveness are an attack against the Lord.
These heart attitudes, these behaviors, they’re not just offensive to God they are an all-out assault against God. I stand condemned as an enemy of God in need of reconciliation because of these sins.
In the process of reconciliation (making things right through justification) the offending party (me) is expected to pay a fine to cover the damages inflicted upon the victim (God).
But because the victim (God) is perfect and the guilty party (me) is not perfect then I can never pay enough penalties to make things perfectly right.
This is what is so beautiful about the grace and the peace of the cross of Christ in the message of the gospel, because in the message of the gospel the victim (God) bears the pain of the offense and the payment for the crime.
God, in Christ Jesus, lays down his life to pay the price for my reconciliation and he seals the deal with the empty tomb and gives me the hope of Heaven. This is crazy good news!
An antidote for a physical virus, as good as that would be right now, pales in comparison with the fact that God paid the price for my sin against him so that I could belong to him.
All of my self-centeredness, my pride, my complaining, my arguments, my disagreements and my divisiveness are at once completely wiped clean when I trust in Christ as my Savior and I am transformed in that moment into a servant, a slave and a saint as a recipient of the grace and peace of God in the work of Christ Jesus at the cross and the empty tomb.
I can now put on the mind of Christ as I work out my own salvation in Christ while I stand firm in the joy of Christ. At the center of all Biblical theology stands the crucified, risen and returning, Christ.
This, my friends is what’s in this greeting!
I just want to leave you with a few questions of application:
- Where have you succumbed or surrendered to the elusive temptation towards self-centeredness, pride, complaining, arguing, disagreeing and divisiveness?
- Where do you need to put on the mind of Christ?
- How do you need to be working out your own salvation in Christ right now?
- What would it look like for you to stand firm in the joy of the love of Christ?
- What does it mean for you to be a servant, a slave, a saint and a recipient of the grace and peace of God in Christ Jesus?
- What would it look like for you to allow the crucified, risen and returning Christ to be the rightful center of your world?
It has been said that Paul’s letter to the Philippian church is the most personal letter he wrote and it’s also the letter that overflows with the most joy despite the fact that he is writing from a prison cell.
He knows that self-centeredness, rooted in pride, results in complaining and arguing that produces disagreements and division.
He knows that the virus that has infected his beloved Philippians is deadly powerful. But he doesn’t live in despair or defeat because he personally knows the powerful love of God in Christ Jesus.
Paul knows that the antidote is more powerful than the infection.
He knows that to be a servant of Christ is to be a slave of Christ who is a saint in Christ because of the grace and the peace of Christ that was purchased at the bloody cross in the doorway of an empty tomb in light of the hope of Heaven.
Joy is overflowing in Paul despite his circumstances because the apostle Paul kept the crucified, risen and returning Christ at the center of his heart and mind.
This my friends is what’s in this greeting!