It’s not very common these days to receive a physical letter in the letterbox. I’m not sure about you but what usually arrives in our letterbox is bills, junk mail, or some political party telling us what they’re going to do if they are elected. But on occasion, perhaps for a birthday, there might be a short letter written from one of the grandparents. And there’s still an excitement that comes from receiving a handwritten letter from someone. It shows they care; it shows they are thinking about me, and it shows they have gone to a bit of effort and cost to get it to me.
As Paul opens his letter to the Philippians, we can hear the care, the thought, and the effort that Paul goes to show his joy and affection for this church. And knowing that the church in Philippi is aware of Paul’s imprisonment (1:13) and their worker Epaphroditus is with them and has been sick (2:25-30), I suspect they would be very excited to have received this letter. Then, upon opening and reading, they would have been buoyed by the genuine thankfulness, emotion, and love Paul expresses to the church right from the beginning.
And so, from the beginning of a Paul’s writing here to the Philippians, we find this letter to be one of genuine partnership.
Unlike the letters or emails we write, in which we state the recipient’s name and ask them how they are, Paul follows first-century letter-writing custom of stating his and Timothy’s name before giving a little greeting to the church.
And it’s easy to skip right over these little greetings at the start of the letters we have in our Bibles. Here in Philippians it’s worth noting a couple of things.
Slaves of Christ
First, notice how Paul identifies himself and Timothy.
We read, “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus” (1:1).
In the NT it is common to translate the word used here as either servant or slave, and this can be the case here. In our minds, ‘servant’ is a little softer to our ears and imaginations than ‘slave’, but for the church in the Greco-Roman world, this idea of being a slave was a common marker of identity. Slaves in homes, business, or on farms were part of life. And so the idea of being bound to someone else was not a foreign idea as it is for us today. Therefore, when Paul calls himself a “slave of Christ Jesus” he is identifying himself with Christ. He recognises he is bound to Christ. He knows he is under the authority and Lordship of Christ and at his service.
Saints In Christ
Second, notice how Paul identifies the church.
We read, “To all the saints (NIV: God’s holy people) in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons.”
Paul uses another couple of identity markers, this time for the people of God at Philippi. Those who have turned to God through Christ are called ‘saints’ or ‘God’s holy people’. Paul acknowledges those within the church, despite their non-Jewish background, are in the continuing line of God’s people. They are being set apart for God, which is a familiar description in the OT of this term ‘saints’ (Exodus 19:4-6; Psalm 135:3-4). This is a little marker of their identity and a helpful reminder in how they should think of themselves.
I wonder how you think of yourself? Are you a sinner or are you a saint?
We live in the tension of knowing we are sinners while being assured of the truth that we are in Christ. Through faith in Christ we are considered the people of God, the saints of God. We are the holy people of God who are in Christ Jesus. Paul writes this regularly as he opens his letters to the Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Colossians, and here in Philippians. And while we continue to fail, continue to sin against God, we can know that we are saints in Christ because it is Christ who has decisively dealt with our sin on the cross.
This should be the regular way we think about ourselves as believers, as saints.
After writing about reconciliation and peace with God through Christ Paul writes in Ephesians 2:19-20:
19 So, then, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.
If you are struggling with sin or struggling with God’s acceptance of you because of your sin, then I encourage you to dwell on what it means for you to be a saint. For that is what you are in Christ Jesus.
Leaders Under Christ
Alongside this identity marker of being saints is Paul’s reference to the overseers and deacons. These are leaders in the church at Philippi and he wants to make sure they listen to the content of this letter as well.
In chapter four Paul encourages two female leaders within the church to agree with one-another in the Lord (4:2-3), but more than this Paul is highlighting how the message of this letter is for the whole congregation. There is no separation between the leaders and the rest of the church. They are together the people of God, no one is more special than anyone else. This letter isn’t just for a certain segment of the church, but everyone is called to walk the same walk as each other.
We often see this occur in churches, where leaders are put on a holier-than-thou pedestal. But those who are in leadership are no more special in the eyes of God than anyone else.
At the church where I pastor I, and the rest of the pastoral team, sit under the teaching of scripture just as much as anyone else. We who are involved in the leadership of the church may have certain responsibilities placed upon us because of our roles, and according to Hebrews 13:17 we will need to give an account before God in due course. But our prayers don’t make it to God any faster, our sins still need to be repented of, confessed, and forgiven through Christ. Our conduct still needs to be worthy of the gospel (1:27).
Here at the beginning of this letter, even in these first two verses, we see the beginnings of what is a special partnership. A special partnership that already speaks into our identity with God and with one-another.
This post is part of an ongoing series where we will dive into the themes, messages, and lessons found throughout the book of Philippians. For earlier posts please see: