A Letter to Saints – Philippians 1:1-2
The other day I wrote an important letter. People are very busy, and I knew that my letter had to make an instant impact or it might be tossed away. So I crafted powerful opening sentences, and worked on getting my key message into the first couple of lines. It’s a great letter, so hopefully it’s now getting all the attention I think it deserves, and it isn’t lying in a trash can.
Letters were not common in the ancient world. That meant no one needed to spend time on a power intro because, when a letter did arrive, there was no danger of it being tossed away unread. Therefore when Paul wrote to the church in Philippi he started his letter with a very ordinary and common formula of who wrote the letter, who the letter was for, and introductory personal greetings. He wasn’t concerned about power phrases or getting his number one point noticed in the first five seconds. All that mattered was getting the letter to the right people, ensuring they knew who’d sent it, and establishing the right rapport.
Right at the start Paul chose to include Timothy’s name, not because Timothy was a joint author but he was Paul’s companion and very well known to the Philippians. Acts 16 describes how Paul met Timothy at Lystra. Timothy joined the group who traveled with Paul and therefore was with him when, soon after, he made his first ever visit to Philippi. That was a tough visit. There were conversions but also persecution, prison time and even an earthquake! The birth of the church in Philippi was memorable. Now that Paul is writing to the believers there, putting Timothy’s name alongside his would mean a lot to Timothy and to the people in Philippi.
Paul is again in prison while he writes this letter, perhaps in Ephesus. He is facing an uncertain future but writes in a remarkably positive tone to the Philippians. Clues to Paul’s attitude and commitment lie in the first two verses.
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,
To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons:
2 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Overall this is a short opening to a letter, but it’s filled with powerful statements that tell a great deal about Paul and the church.
The letter comes from Paul and Timothy, and Paul says they are servants of Christ Jesus.
In several of his letters Paul introduces himself as ‘an apostle.’ He wanted to leave no uncertainty about his authority to instruct the church. But he doesn’t write that here. The Philippians had no doubt and no problem with Paul’s role and his right to teach.
So, instead, Paul begins by saying he and Timothy are “servants” of Christ (v. 1). The word ‘servant’ placed these two men in the most humble of places in relationship to Jesus because Paul used the Greek word doulos which not only means ‘servant’ but ‘slave.’ The Greco-Roman society, which included Philippi, knew exactly the position of a slave. A slave – man, woman or child – had no rights, no free time, no allowance for personal ambition, no liberty to speak, and no ability to form relationships of their choosing. They were owned by their master, and their world revolved around the master’s wishes. Anyone concerned about their personal honor or prestige would not describe themselves as a slave.
But, as he will make very clear later to the Philippians (3:4-14), Paul had surrendered all interest in his honor and prestige for the sake of Christ. His mind, his body, his time, his talents, his movements, his relationships, his days were all at the disposal of his Lord. The same was true of Timothy. They belonged to Christ. Through and through they were his.
I’ve seen exchanges of contracts between lawyers where one drafts the document, the other lawyer sends it back with deletions and amendments, and then lawyer number one makes further changes, and so it goes back and forth between the lawyers with each altering the things they don’t like until they are left with a document which, hopefully, they can agree on.
Christians are tempted to view discipleship to Christ like that, as if they can negotiate with Jesus, opting out of the hardest sacrifices or at least toning them down to acceptable levels.
Paul would teach otherwise. There is no negotiable contract. We come before the Lord as slaves to our Master, in complete surrender and dedicating our lives entirely to his service.
The letter is for the church in Philippi, described as God’s holy people in Christ Jesus, together with the overseers and deacons.
This is the only letter of Paul that names church leaders among the recipients of the letter. Every other letter is just to the church members.
The consequence is that scholars are fascinated by the inclusion of church leaders as recipients in this letter, and they are filled with opinions about why they are mentioned, and who ‘overseers’ and ‘deacons’ might actually be. The scholarly interest is not really surprising since an unhealthy amount of church debate centers on positions of prominence and issues of structure.
However, Paul’s very brief reference to these leaders probably solves little about those matters.
Very possibly he mentioned the leaders of the Philippian church only for two reasons: 1) In chapter 4 Paul will thank the church for a money gift they’d sent to support Paul’s work, so he mentions the leaders because they had authorized and organized that gift; 2) Paul’s letter would be given to leaders first who would then read it to the congregation, so he recognizes the particular roles of the overseers and deacons in leading the church.
There are some lessons such as these to be drawn from Paul’s words. The church was organized; leaders were identified and carried some kind of authority. There was a multiplicity of leaders; oversight of the church was not the role of just one person. It’s interesting that Paul names “all God’s holy people” first as recipients of the letter, and only after them adds the mention of the overseers and deacons, as if to prioritize the wider body of Christians and not give undue prominence to their leaders. Scholars debate whether the references to overseers (or bishops) and to deacons describe official church offices or whether those terms are being used to describe the work people did. To this day the word ‘leader’ can be a common noun or a proper noun, so we could say ‘John is a leader in the group’ or ‘John is Group Leader’ and only our punctuation or surrounding words would tell us if John served like a leader or had been appointed as the leader. In truth, leadership was evolving in Philippi and other cities where churches had been planted, and it’s hard to define any single title or structure for leadership in these early years of the church.
In any case, what I find more interesting is how Paul describes the Christians in Philippi. The King James Version translates his words as “all the saints in Christ Jesus.” The English Standard Version and Revised Standard Version also use the word “saints.” But the New International Version avoids that word and translates Paul’s description of the Philippian church as “all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus.”
What the NIV is doing is taking the Greek word hagios – which means ‘saint’ – and translating it as “God’s holy people” to explain its meaning. That’s because hagios, when used as an adjective, means ‘holy,’ in the sense of something set apart, something different from anything ordinary. I often hear sports commentators describe the latest superstar as having skills of a different order to anyone else in the game or on the track, a person whose temperament and talent set them apart from the run of the mill player. That’s how Paul saw the church.
With that in mind, there are then three lessons from Paul’s description of these Christians.
First, the church consists of saints – holy people – set apart for God. Christians are not simply one group of people among all the subdivisions of humanity. They’re different. They’re unique. They are the people who belong to God.
Second, Christians aren’t saints because of their own merit or their own piety. Paul is very clear these are “holy people in Christ Jesus.” It is his goodness, his holiness, his righteousness that they have and not anything they have achieved for themselves.
Third, when the New Testament refers to saints, which it does over sixty times, it is never describing a person of such piety or powers that the church singles them out for special recognition and the title of ‘saint.’ The word ‘saint’ should never be reserved for a few spiritual superheroes. Every Christian was a saint as far as the New Testament was concerned, and that’s how Paul sees the whole church as he begins his letter to the Philippians. One writer picks up on the way Paul describes himself as a ‘slave’ of Jesus and the Christians as ‘saints’ in Jesus, and says our modern concept of a saint would lead us to expect the letter to be addressed “‘Saint Paul … to the Christians at Philippi’, not ‘Slave Paul … to the saints … at Philippi.’”
Every Christian is someone whose life is wholly dedicated to God through Jesus Christ, and that is exactly how Paul addressed this church when he called them ‘saints.’
Paul’s greeting to the church is “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
This kind of greeting is very typical of Paul. Every New Testament letter that carries his name has some form of words very similar to this. (They appear in Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:3; Eph. 1:2; Phil. 1:2; Col. 1:2; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1; 1 Tim. 1:2; 2 Tim. 1:2; Titus 1:4; Philemon 3.)
The fact that his greeting always has those words is neither an accident nor a routine. It’s a greeting which captures some of Paul’s most deeply held and most closely valued beliefs. In the form he uses it here for the Philippians, three stand out.
First, he wishes them God’s grace. He wants them to know about it, but even more to be transformed by it. Everyone is a sinner, and no one deserves mercy, but God shows it anyway. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” Paul wrote to the Romans (Rom. 5:8). But, he went on, “How much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!” (Rom. 5:17). He is saying: ‘Righteousness is a gift. It is not something the believer earns but something the believer receives.’ Grace is the word Paul uses for that undeserved favor.
Second, he wishes them God’s peace. As long as we were under a sentence of death for our sinfulness, we could never be at peace. God’s grace dealt with the death sentence, so now we have peace (Rom. 5:1). But this peace is more than an end to war. When the guns stop firing, the soldier senses calm. But that’s just relief because a bad thing has ended. The peace Paul means comes also because a good thing has started. Now, Paul says to Christians, “We boast in the hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:2). We have hope! We have a future! We have the promise of God’s goodness, greatness and glory forever! The peace he prays for the Philippians isn’t fundamentally about putting the heart at rest, but stirring the heart to the special excitement and anticipation which is unique to the children of God.
Third, he sees no division between God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace and peace come from both. They show the same love, mercy and goodness because they are one. One writer sums up Paul’s understanding very succinctly: “Jesus does what God the Father does.”
Paul had persecuted those who followed this Jesus. He’d hunted them out and watched them put to death for their faith in Jesus. But then he had met personally with the risen Jesus, and his life was changed. The persecutor was now the believer. Paul, the Christian, knew that Jesus who had walked this earth was a man, but he was also more, much more. So Paul didn’t refer to Jesus as his equal, nor as someone slightly superior like a prophet, nor as someone like a general who would have had some real authority over him. Rather, Jesus had become the one before whom Paul bowed, the one in whom he trusted for his salvation, the one who now sent grace and peace to him and to all believers. Paul saw Jesus and the Father as one, an insight at the very heart of our faith.
The opening of Paul’s letter follows a standard formula of stating who it’s for, who it’s from, and an opening greeting. That sounds so simple and mundane.
But Paul has made it clear that this letter comes from him and Timothy who are slaves of Jesus Christ, their lives utterly and entirely his.
This letter is for people who are saints of God, people wholly set apart for God.
And this letter comes with prayer for grace and peace to be theirs, the grace and peace that God the Father and God the Son jointly give to all those whose lives are given in love and loyalty to the Lord.
 J.A. Motyer, The message of Philippians (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 24.
 R.R. Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1991), 51.
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