1 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,
2 To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. – Philippians 1:1-2 ESV
As we begin our study of Paul’s letter to the believers in Philippi, it’s essential that we establish the historical context behind this document. Obviously, the opening line, which serves as the salutation to the letter, establishes Paul as its author. But we also find the name of Timothy, his young protégé and spiritual son in the faith. Timothy was alongside Paul as he penned this letter while under house arrest in Rome.
Paul had ended up in Rome by virtue of a series of complicated and, obviously, God-ordained events that had begun with a plot on his life. Paul had returned to Jerusalem in order to meet with James and the other leaders of the Jerusalem church. He made a report regarding his work among the Gentiles, and this news was met with great joy. But, while James and his associates were excited about what was obviously a sign of God’s hand upon Paul and his missionary efforts, they reported that the believing Jews in Jerusalem were less-than-enthusiastic about Paul’s work because of some disturbing rumors they had heard. It seems that Paul had been accused of teaching Jews that, once they came to Christ, they no longer had to keep the law of Moses. James presented Paul with the basic gist of the rumor.
“…they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs.” – Acts 21:21 ESV
James was concerned that once these Jews heard that Paul was in town, they would stir up trouble for him. So, he recommended that Paul go through a period of purification, signaling to his critics that he was still a faithful Jew. Paul had agreed to the recommendation and, as the seven days of purification were coming to a close, he had made his way to the temple to complete the process. But Paul ended up being accused of bringing a Gentile into the restricted area of the temple reserved solely for Jews. A mob descended upon Paul and they had every intention of putting him to death. But Paul was rescued by Roman soldiers and put under arrest. A small faction of the Jews swore an oath among themselves that the would fast from food or drink until they had put Paul to death.
When the plot was exposed, Paul was shipped to Caesarea where he appeared before the Roman governor, Felix. Paul would remain in Caesarea for two years, under house arrest. Eventually Felix was replaced by Festus, who decided to send Paul back to Jerusalem for trial. But Paul, knowing that he would not receive a fair trial in Jerusalem, appealed to his right as a Roman citizen to appear before Caesar in Rome. He was granted his request and was shipped to Rome, where he remained for two years under house arrest, awaiting trial before Caesar.
It was from Rome that Paul wrote this letter. But why is any of this background information relevant? It is because the entire letter to the Philippian believers is filled with words of encouragement. Here was a man who had spent years facing trumped-up charges that had left him imprisoned for a crime he had not committed. He was still facing a plot on his life and the prospect of appearing before Caesar with no guarantee that his trial would end in either his acquital or release. In fact, he would tell his brothers and sisters in Philippi:
“For I fully expect and hope that I will never be ashamed, but that I will continue to be bold for Christ, as I have been in the past. And I trust that my life will bring honor to Christ, whether I live or die.” – Philippians 1:21 NLT
Long before Paul ever arrived in Rome, he made a similar statement to the believers living there.
“If we live, it’s to honor the Lord. And if we die, it’s to honor the Lord. So whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” – Romans 14:8 NLT
So, here was Paul, writing to the believers in Philippi and attempting to encourage them in their faith. And the words that Paul writes to these people carry far more significance and weight where you consider the circumstances under which he wrote them. Consider this well-known declaration by Paul found later on in his letter.
“I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little.” – Philipiians 4:11-12 NLT
And he follows this expression of contentment in the face of adversity with the confident assertion: “For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13 NLT). This was a man who knew what he was talking about. He was not offering pious-sounding platitudes, but well-tested counself based on his own personal experience.
Paul had a strong attachment to the believers in Philippi because he had played a major role in their coming to faith. Early on, in the book of Acts, Luke records Paul’s arrival in Philippi, a Roman colony. Paul had the privilege of leading to Christ a woman named Lydia, along with her entire household. Her home had become the meeting place for the fledgling congregation. It was in Philippi that Paul and Silas were imprisoned for casting a demon out of a young slave girl whose masters profited from their use of her as a fortune teller. Once freed from her demon, she was of no use to these men and they turned their anger against Paul and Silas. After having been severely beaten, Paul and his companions were imprisoned. But Paul was not someone who let obstacles stand in his way, even the bars of a prison cell. It was while they were in prison that Paul and Silas led to Christ the jailer in charge of their care.
Once released from jail, Paul and Silas eventually made their way to Thessalonica, but it seems that Paul made at least one return trip to Philippi some time before the penning of his letter to them. His letter was in direct response to a gift he had received from them that had been delivered by a man named Epaphroditus. Paul would use this young man to deliver his letter, allowing him to return home and put to rest any concern they had over his well-being. It seems that Ephaphroditus had become deathly sick during his time in Rome, but had recovered.
“I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill.” – Philippians 2:25-26 ESV
Paul was happy to send him home and included a word of commendation, praising Ephaphroditus for risking his life in order to minister to Paul’s needs.
But back to Paul’s salutation or greeting. He describes himself and Timothy as servants. The Greek word he used is doulos, and it refers to a bondservant or slave. It literally meant, “one who is subservient to, and entirely at the disposal of, his master; a slave.”
So, Paul doesn’t set himself as some kind of superior leader who deserves respect and honor, but describes himself as a lowly slave. This is the same designation Paul used when writing to the church in Rome.
Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God. – Romans 1:1 ESV
Little did he know that, when he wrote these words, they would be prophetic. He would later become like a slave, living under the auhtority of the Roman government and completely subservient to their will. But he would see be serving Christ even while subject to the power and control of Rome.
And Paul addresses his letter “to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi.” They are saints or hagios, a Hebrew word that carries a depth of meaning. It is often used to refer to holiness. But it can also mean “to be set apart.” According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, hagios was used “of things which on account of some connection with God possess a certain distinction and claim to reverence.” Like the temple itself and the items found within it, believers have been set apart by God for His use. They belong to Him. Which is what led Paul to tell the believers in Rome:
Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. – Romans 6:13 ESV
Paul had a deep desire to see his brothers and sisters in Christ live up to their calling as children of God. And he will plead with them to live lives that are set apart, reflecting their unique status as saints of God.
Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel… – Philippians 1:27 ESV
Here was a man well-acquainted with what it means to suffer for his faith. He had first-hand experience with what it looks like to live as hagios in a world that stood in direct opposition to all he believed in and stood for. At the core of his message to the Philippian church will be Paul’s call to spiritual maturity in the face of adversity. They were a relatively healthy congregation, but they were surrounded by darkness and faced with the constant temptation to compromise their faith. And he will use his own walk with Christ as an example of what holiness looks like in real life.
But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 3:13-14 ESV
And Paul knew well, that this determination to press on and strive for the goal of Christ-likeness would require the grace and peace of God. But as Paul also knew, he could do all things through Christ who provided all the strength he needed.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.