Writing a Letter
One of the most significant events in biblical
interpretation was the discovery of a mail boat in Alexandria, Egypt. None of
the letters were concerned with Christianity; but they were ordinary letters of
the time. This gave us to understand that the letters in the New Testament
followed the normal pattern of letters being written at that time. In short,
God did not invent a new form of literature; he used what was at hand.
The typical letter of the day began with the salutation:
Like a modern business memo, the salutation included a rather
formal note telling us to whom the letter was addressed.
There was also a brief mention of who is writing the letter,
again similar to a modern memo.
These were followed by a formal greeting.
So while the letters read today as being a bit on the stuffy
side, in those days it would've been seen as proper formality. The letters are
in fact very businesslike. This is true even though Paul is writing to old
friends at Philippi.
The City of Philippi
Philippi was a Roman colony in Greece. That means it was
originally settled by Roman soldiers who had retired from the Army. This meant
that the city would be particularly loyal to Rome; serving as a thorn in the
side of the Greeks should they choose to revolt. It is also a city with which
Paul has a close connection. You might recall these events from the book of
Paul was given the vision of the Macedonian calling to him to
come over to that area and preach the gospel.
In response to this he went to Philippi, and there met Lydia, the
"seller of purple." There was evidently no Jewish synagogue in the
city, which means there were very few Jews in the city. This is to be expected
in a Roman colony. Lydia invited the apostle and his friends to her home, and
that was the beginning of the church in Philippi.
The most prominent incident recorded for us is Paul driving out
the demon from the slave girl who foretold the future. This caused a riot, and
eventually resulted in Paul and Barnabas being thrown in prison.
At midnight, when Paul and Barnabas were singing hymns, God's
kind Providence sent an earthquake to release them. The jailer was converted.
You'll also recall that the magistrates were frightened to know that Paul was
Roman, and they had beaten him without a trial. It seemed politic Paul and
Barnabas to move on.
Paul Writes from Rome
Of course, Paul is not writing from Philippi. He's writing
from Rome. In fact, he's writing from a prison in Rome, where he is chained to
a couple of members of the Praetorian Guard. Eventually, this will lead to his
martyrdom. In the meanwhile he sees it as a marvelous opportunity to evangelize
the soldiers chained to him. Sometimes your circumstances are more of a matter
of your attitude.
We begin at the beginning:
Philippians 1:1-2 NASB
Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ
Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons: (2) Grace to you and peace from God our Father and
the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul and Timothy
If you will notice, there is something unusual about the
salutation. In most of his letters Paul refers to himself as an apostle. Here
he refers to himself (and Timothy) as bond servants. To be an apostle was a
high rank indeed; being a bondservant is not. The reason is simple. Paul does
not need to defend his authority as an apostle to a church with he spent so
much time. Rather, he reminds them that his life is one of service. We may see
in this simple phrase three things:
First, we see the humility of the man. His concern is for the
unity of the church, not for his own authority.
Then we see his honor to Christ. He is not just a bondservant; he
is a bondservant of Christ. No matter how high your station in the church, you
are still a servant. Indeed, as our Lord told us, he who would be ruler of all
must be servant of all.
We should also see in this the utter devotion Paul has to Christ.
One who is truly in love with Christ leads an extravagant lifestyle —
extravagant, in service.
To the Saints
The word "Saint" sometimes troubles Protestant
Christians. It conjures up a vision of a plaster Saint stuck to the dashboard
of your car. This, however, is not the original meaning. Rather, a saint is one
who is separate to God. This is a person who lives in the world, but is not of
the world. How does one do this? Paul gives you a hand here: the Saints
"in Christ Jesus." You remain separate from the world by staying in
Christ Jesus. This is why you are taught to have a prayer life, a devotional
life, a life of study of the Scriptures as well is a public life as a
Paul then calls out two groups of people separately. One of
these is translated here, "overseers." The word can also be
translated elder or bishop. It is the word from which we get our word,
Episcopal. The other group, deacons, comes from a different word. They have
different functions. The overseers are responsible for maintaining the doctrine
of the church; later, they will be responsible for the administration of the
church in a local area. Interestingly, it seems that Paul often appointed only
one Bishop to a church. However, as is seen here, in the early church we had
more than one at a given church. Deacons were particular servants of the
church; they were formally assigned to specific duties. So you have here the
leadership of the church. Paul identifies them separately to make sure that no
one thinks that his letter applies to the rank-and-file, but not the officers.
Paul's formal greeting here is "grace and peace."
In doing this he combines to traditional greetings: one from the Greek, and one
from the Hebrew. Grace is the greeting to the Greeks, for he conveys the idea
that God has brought his forgive missed mankind as a whole, not just the Jews.
The traditional Jewish greeting is peace (or as we would have it today, shalom).
So he combines the ideas of forgiveness and harmony.
Of course, grace and peace come from God our Father. He
reminds the Philippians that their forgiveness and harmony does not come from
themselves, but from God. The ancient church used to say that all good things
come from God, through Christ by the Holy Spirit. There is something of that
distinction here as well.
I Thank My God
Philippians 1:3-7 NASB
I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, (4)
always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all, (5) in view of your participation in the gospel from
the first day until now. (6) For I am confident of this very thing, that He
who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. (7) For it is only right for me to feel this way
about you all, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment
and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers of
grace with me.
Paul now reveals little bit of his prayer life. It's
interesting to see how often Christians of an earlier time felt that their
prayers were largely those of thanksgiving. While many of us rush to prayer
with our list of requests, Paul begins with thanksgiving. Note, please, that he
is consistent in this: he says he does it in every prayer for them. What might
be even more surprising is that he prays with joy. So many of us look at prayer
is something somber and dull.
The source of this thanksgiving is the Fact that these
people have participated in the sharing of the gospel from the very first day
he got there until he started this letter. The word participation in this
passage is actually the word that is normally translated fellowship. (I am not
sure why the NIV and the NASB translate it this way.) Put shortly, these are
people who have shared his ministry for a long time — and he is grateful.
Confidence through Christ
Very quietly, Paul gives us an insight on the mind of this
time. Most of the Philippians had worshiped the Greek gods before they became
Christians. Much of what they believed, therefore, came from those Greek gods.
In particular, it was not unusual for a Greek God (in the legends) to change
his mind and leave some human being in the lurch. Paul assures them the Christ
Jesus does not do any such thing. Whether or not the Christian is brought to
the completeness desired is a matter for the Christian; Jesus Christ will
always do his part.
Paul puts a time limit on these things: the return of
Christ. Notice how casually he accepts the idea that Christ will return. The
early church took the warnings of Jesus seriously, and felt that he might
return at any moment. We sit almost 2000 years later, and we think that nothing
has happened, and therefore nothing will happen. But the warnings of Christ are
still there. People may think you're a fanatic or weirdo for believing that he
will return. Let them. When he will return, I do not know. But I have God's
word on it: he will return.
In this translation, Paul refers to them as "partakers
of grace with me." Nothing binds people together quite as much as shared,
profound experience. Paul consistently refers to himself as the greatest of
sinners, and therefore the greatest recipient of grace. It's the great reason
why he doesn't think his circumstances matter — in a sense, he deserves to be
locked up for what he did to the church. After that forgiveness, no
circumstances seem to matter to Paul. He is in prison — most of us would
consider an embarrassment, at the least. Think of it this way: suppose your
senior pastor was locked up. Wouldn't you feel just a bit embarrassed, at the
least, when someone mentioned that? Paul shows no such embarrassment. He knows
that the people is writing to are not ashamed of him, but happily share his
imprisonment for the gospel.
What I Want for My Friends
Philippians 1:8-11 NASB
(8) For God is my witness, how I long for you
all with the affection of Christ Jesus. (9)
And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real
knowledge and all discernment, (10) so that
you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and
blameless until the day of Christ; (11)
having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and
praise of God.
Love May Abound
In verse nine, we see a phrase that tells us a great deal
about Christian love:
First, love is to abound in knowledge. The word in the Greek is
epignosis; it means a full knowledge, a complete knowledge. Christian love is
not particularly a feeling, but a learned, intentional act of the will.
Next, it is to abound in all discernment. The word can also be
translated insight, or good judgment. Love is blind, but Christian love works
with its eyes open.
That's a different picture than that which we normally see
portrayed when someone talks about love. It reflects a change in our society.
We see love is something which is an emotion that happens to you; they saw love
is something you decided to do. Because it's a decision, it should be taken
with full knowledge and you should use insider good judgment in the choices you
make. It's almost impossible to get this across to some Christians.
It's not just that love is to abound, it's that love is to
abound still more and more. The word in the original Greek can also be
translated, "overflow." That's the kind of love we are to have; not
parsimonious and measured love but one that is more than sufficient to all
Sincere and Blameless
Paul slides in here a concept which you occasionally see in
the letters. It is that the Christian is to discern those things which are
true, beautiful and excellent and approve of them. Any form of excellence is to
be approved. The object here is to train your life so that you are sincere and
blameless. If you see something good, praise it — whether it hurts your ego or
The word "sincere" in the Greek means something that
has been tested in the sunlight. The idea is that your conduct has been seen
and approved. This is easiest to do if your conduct follows this rule of
approving what is excellent.
The word "blameless" carries with it in the original
the idea of actively inoffensive. It means that you go out of your way not to
offend other people, but rather praise their good works simply because their
good works deserve it.
Fruit of Righteousness
It sometimes surprises people to find that the
fruit of righteousness comes from discipline. Let's take a look at the
Hebrews 12:11 NASB
All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to
those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of
This is the only other place in the New Testament
where the phrase "fruit of righteousness” occurs. This, I hope, makes
clear the idea that Christian love is not simply an emotional response (that's
actually compassion) but something which we learn, which comes from training
What often surprises the Christian is the driving
cause of this discipline: glory and praise to God. The greatest of Saints have
always known this; the highest act of man is glory and praise to God. As a
beginning Christian this seems a little bit strange, but the more you get to
know God is the more you realize that he deserves it. It's always a good
question: does your life bring glory and praise to God?