Chapter 1: The Gospel’s Progress amidst Opposition and Suffering
Section 1: Verses 1-11
Introduction: Greetings, Thankfulness, and God’s Work in the Saints’ Lives
The gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ unites believers in a common life and mission. Evangelization and service for the Saviour are endeavours which the Bible well describes as spiritual warfare, Eph. 6. 10-18. Paul wrote to his beloved converts in Philippi in order to ensure their ongoing participation in these important, but difficult tasks. In addition to external opposition, their effectiveness for the Lord was impaired by internal problems – most notably their lack of unity, Phil. 2. 2-3; 4. 2.
Ratherthan begin his letter with a stinging rebuke, the apostle commences with an introductory paragraph that establishes both his love for the Philippian Christians and the Lord’s high purpose for them. He also wisely presents his well-known co-labourer and himself with humility, describing themselves as ‘slaves’ ESV margin, or ‘bondservants of Christ Jesus’, 1. 1 NAS. One commentator elucidates the first-century believers’ understanding of the word, ‘Although in the Old Testament the term “slave" sometimes appears as a title of honour to indicate the special relationship of great heroes like Moses, Joshua, and David to God … in the Graeco-Roman context of Paul and his Philippian readers, it would have had unmistakable overtones of humility and submission. Paul’s readers would probably have understood the term as Paul used it here to refer to people conscripted into the service of Christ instead of into service to sin’.1 The modern evangelical preoccupation with clerical titles and human-conferred credentials stands in stark contrast to Paul’s unrelenting desire to exalt Christ and abase himself. Like the Master, Paul girds himself with the slave’s towel and crouches low to wash the erring Christians’ feet.
Most translations reverse the KJV’s order of ‘Jesus Christ’ to ‘Christ Jesus’, for example, JND, ASV, NASB, ESV. W. E. VINE explains the differing emphasis in this word order, ‘"Christ Jesus” describes the Exalted One who emptied Himself (2. 5), and testifies to His preexistence; “Jesus Christ” describes the despised and rejected One who was afterwards glorified (2. 11), and testifies to His resurrection. “Christ Jesus” suggests His grace, “Jesus Christ” suggests His glory’.2 DONALD CARSON adds, ‘that life [of the Philippians] was in Christ Jesus. This phrase, or its equivalent, appears many times in this letter, indicating that Christ is the very environment of the Christian’s life. Believers live and move within the orbit of His will, His grace, His presence’.3
God’s View of Christians
In contrast to the unpretentious terminology that he applies to his colleague and himself, Paul refers to the Philippians’ divinely-bestowed high position as ‘saints’, v. 1 – a term literally meaning ‘holy ones’, ‘separated ones’, or ‘set apart ones’. To many people this word conjures up images of pious medieval portraiture: intrepid, super-spiritual men and women who shunned worldly comforts, performed miracles, and were adorned with glowing halos twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Instead of being restricted to a select class of over-achieving Christians, the term is applied to all believers, even those who demonstrate failings and struggles of various kinds, for example, the notoriously imperfect Corinthians, 1 Cor. 1. 2. Theologically, it emphasizes the reality of the believer’s spiritual position in Christ. God has set apart Christians from this fallen, condemned world in order to be like His Son and serve Him in holiness in this scene of His rejection. Of course, their position and practice were somewhat divergent. Problems existed which the apostle would address later in the epistle, but first he prepares the ground for their correction by reminding them of their exalted calling, position and destiny as saints.
At the outset of the letter, Paul also greets certain responsible members of the congregation, namely, ‘the bishops and deacons’. The former term is better translated ‘overseer’, and refers to the shepherds – always plural in New Testament churches – who are also described as ‘elders’, Acts 20. 17, 28. The latter word means ‘a servant’ and can refer to identifiable people within the assembly with duties in the practical and material realm. Some Bible students suggest that these two groups are singled out in a veiled rebuke. I find nothing in the text to support this hypothesis. Although this opening greeting is unique in the Pauline epistles, it does not necessarily follow that the overseers and deacons were doing anything amiss. It may be that he was merely sending salutations to those taking a leading role, with whom he had forged special bonds of love in past times.
Grace and Peace: Christian Realities
In verse 2 Paul greets the Philippians in his habitual way, employing the Graeco-Roman (‘grace’) and Hebrew (‘peace’) salutations. Because of their theological meaning in the light of Christ’s reconciling work, these mundane greetings are elevated to greater heights than anyone could have previously imagined. God’s grace in giving His Son to be a propitiation for the sins of the world and the positional and practical peace that are received by those who believe the gospel are forever linked with these simple opening words. They are mere platitudes to the world – not much more than eloquent wishful thinking; to Christians, however, grace and peace are everyday realities through the Lord’s work in their lives. Of course, they are not just from the apostle. They are also ‘from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ’, v. 2 – a reference to the deity and divine co-equality of the Son. As VINE remarks, ‘This order of the Name of the Lord Jesus with that of God as the joint source of grace and peace is evidence that the former shared with the latter in the divine nature’.4
Love and Prayers between the Saints
The apostle’s genuine affection for them is evidenced when he speaks of his memories and the resulting prayers for them in verse 3, ‘I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making request with joy’. First of all, he was grateful to God for these fellow saints who had showed him kindness during his past sojourn in Philippi. The depth of love between Paul and the brethren in Philippi is evidenced once again in verse 8, where he speaks of ‘longing after’ them; this word means ‘deeply desire’.5 Secondly, he regularly supplicated the Lord on their behalf. The substance of his prayers for them is not detailed until verses 9- 11. Thirdly, his thoughts of them consisted of unalloyed joy. He did not harbour ill thoughts towards them, nor did he lament anything untoward in his past experience with them. These positive feelings towards the Philippian believers stemmed from their ‘fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now’, v. 5. H. A. IRONSIDE delineated the ways in which one may partner in the glad tidings, such as:
'by prayer, by participation in the public testimony, by furnishing the means to enable the labourer to go forth unhindered by perplexities and anxieties as to necessary means to carry on his work. Every servant of Christ going forth for the Name’s sake, “taking nothing of the Gentiles," should be entirely cast upon the Lord for his support. On the other hand, it should be esteemed a privilege on the part of those abiding at home, to help them by ministering in temporal things; and such ministry will never be forgotten by Him who has said, “Whosoever receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward"’ 6
From the beginning of his labours among them, they provided him with support in different ways. Lydia opened her home to the missionary band, Acts 16. 15, and, after they had been unjustly beaten and imprisoned, the converted jailor dressed their wounds and fed them, v. 34. Upon their release from incarceration, they visited the fledgling assembly in order to comfort them, v. 40. The bond between church-planter and planted church was cemented in affliction and continued to elicit love from the apostle’s heart. It was apparently further strengthened by their ongoing support of Paul and his fellow missionaries through their prayers, gifts, and other evangelizing acts.