Paul’s Letter to the Philippians – 01 (“Servants of Christ Jesus”)

[Message: Kobus van der Walt (Three Rivers Baptist Church – 30 March 2019)]


In approximately A.D. 61 the apostle Paul was under house arrest in Rome and while there, he received a love gift, or a care package, consisting of supplies gathered by the believers in Philippi which they sent to Paul by the hand of one of their own, a man named Epaphroditus. In turn Paul wanted to send a letter to the church in Philippi for this love gift, but before he sent the letter back with Epaphroditus, the young man, beyond the call of duty, first served Paul. While serving Paul, he became seriously ill and, in fact, almost died. After a while however, God graciously granted him health, and Paul sent his friend back home with a letter. 

The city of Philippi is currently called Filippoi, and was part of the region of East Macedonia in the present day Greece.

It was at Philippi, which Paul visited on his second missionary journey (Acts 16:12), that Lydia and the Philippian jailer and his family were converted to Christ. Now, some years later, the church was well established, as may be inferred from its address which includes “the overseers and deacons” (1:1).

There are 5 key verses in this letter:

  • Phil.1:21 ~ “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
  • Phil.3:7 ~“But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.”
  • Phil.4:4 ~ “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”
  • Phil.4:6-7 ~“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” 
  • Phil.4:13 ~ “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”

The Letter to the Philippians can be called, “Resources Through Suffering.”Paul experienced severe suffering throughout his life and this letter is about Christ in our life, Christ in our mind, Christ as our goal, Christ as our strength, and joy through suffering.


Phil.1:1-11 (ESV) ~ “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, 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. I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”


In today’s message, we will look at our topic according to the following three main points:

  • Sender (1:1a).
    • Recipients (1:1b).    
    • Greeting (1:2).

As with many of his letters, Paul warned the new believers in the church of Philippi to beware of the tendency toward legalism which continually cropped up in the early churches, because there was a constant effort on the part of the Judaizers to draw the saved Jews back to the teaching of salvation by works. But Paul reiterated that salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone and branded the Judaizers as “dogs”and “men who do evil.”

In particular, the legalists (legalism = noun. strict adherence, or the principle of strict adherence, to law or prescription, especially to the letter rather than the spiritand it is a doctrine that teaches that salvation is gained through good works)were insisting that the new believers in Christ should continue to be circumcised according to the requirements of the Old Covenant (Gen.17:10-12; Lev.12:3). In this way, they attempted to please God by their own efforts and elevate themselves above the Gentile Christians who did not participate in the ritual. Paul explained that those who have been washed by the blood of the Lamb were no longer to perform the ritual that symbolised the need for a clean heart.

  •       Sender(1:1a):

       The first verse of the letter to the Philippians start in the same way as all the other letters of Paul to churches, namely with an introduction of him as the author of the letter. Usually he greeted his readers with the words ~ “Paul, an apostle”(Gal.1:1a). Paul would introduce himself as an apostle, meaning “a sent one by the risen Jesus Christ,”in order to emphasise his authority. In other words, his words came from the Lord and not out of himself, or as he explains in Gal.1:11-12 ~ “For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”He therefore says that the Lord only speaks through a prophet  – that was during the New Testament times, shortly after Christ’s ascension and before the Bible was written or compiled. We see that Paul emphasises this fact in 1 Cor.14:37-38 ~ “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. If anyone does not recognise this, he is not recognised.”

In Gal.1:15-16 Paul says that he did not become an apostle by appointing himself as an apostle or a church or a group of believers appointed him as a servant of God – no, God Himself called him as an apostle ~ “But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone”(Gal.1:15-16). No man would appoint himself as an apostle if we look at how much and what kind of suffering these apostles experienced through their lives. Except for one apostle (i.e. John), all of them died as martyrs – Both Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome about 66 AD, during the persecution under Emperor Nero. Paul was beheaded. Peter was crucified, upside down at his request, since he did not feel he was worthy to die in the same manner as his Lord. Andrew was crucified. Thomas was killed when pierced through with the spears of four soldiers. Phillip was cruelly put death. Some of the oldest reports say that Matthew was not martyred, while others say he was stabbed to death in Ethiopia. Bartholomew died as a martyr. James the son of Alpheus, was stoned and then clubbed to death. Simon the Zealot was killed after refusing to sacrifice to the sun god. Matthais (the apostle chosen to replace Judas)was burned to death.

Suffering would be a Part of Paul’s Christian Life ~ “But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name”(Acts 9:15-16). Paul describes his suffering in 2 Cor.11:23-31 ~ “Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one – I am talking like a madman—with far greater labours, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying.”

Why am I mentioning these things that happened to the apostles and especially to Paul? Because suffering lies at the heart of Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

Paul describes his feeling of being defeated, of temporarily losing hope because of the terrible conditions and circumstances he endured.

Although Paul knew that life is never truly hopeless and that God is able to rescue us from any trouble, he was also a human being; he had weaknesses just like ours. And the truth is that sometimes knowing and trusting in God’s sovereignty isn’t enough to keep us from despair. Even Paul struggled. Even Paul wanted to give up. Even Paul felt abandoned.

Paul was not absolutely sure what would happen to him. On the one hand, he knew that his death was a real possibility, and so he tried to prepare his friends in Philippi for the worst. On the other hand, he had some level of expectation that he would survive, and so he encouraged them to hope for the best. But whatever the future held for him, at the time he wrote this letter he was suffering greatly, so that he struggled with sorrow and apprehension.

Paul wants to encourage his friends in Philippi (and us) to persevere to the end despite hardship and discouragement.

Back to 1:1. We now understand that Paul writes with the authority that God gave him, but why does he refer in 1:1 to himself as a “servant”instead of an apostle as in other letters? 1 Cor.7:22-23 ~ “For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men.”For being called and saved is to become a bondservant and a bondservant is not free to live as he likes – free to sin as he like. We are saved and bought by the Blood of Christ and therefore we belong to Christ – we are His bondservants. 

We must understand that before our salvation, we were slaves of our own flesh – of sin ~ “…For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification”(Rom.6:19b). But after our salvation, we became slaves of Jesus Christ – so, either way, we are slaves. When we are bond slaves of Christ it implies that we aresubservient too, and entirely at the disposal of our Master.” 

In Roman times, the term bondservant or –slave could refer to someone who voluntarily served others. But it usually referred to one who was held in a permanent position of servitude. Under Roman law, a bondservant was considered the owner’s personal property. Slaves essentially had no rights and could even be killed by their owners. According to Paul, we are therefore the property of Christ and we have no rights. The only right we have is to serve Christ in obedience and if we are not obedient to our Master, we could be killed spiritually.

Paul in 1:1 says therefore, that he and his co-worker Timothy are bond slaves of Jesus Christ and in that capacity, he wants to greet his co-slaves in Philippi.  

Paul includes Timothy’s name in his greeting, because Timothy was well known to the Philippians(Acts 16:3, 10–12), and he was now with Paul. Not that Timothy had any share in writing the Epistle; for Paul presently uses the first person singular, “I”42 times and the word “me,”40 times in this letter and not “we”(1:3). The mentioning of Timothy’s name implies merely that Timothy joined in affectionate remembrances to them. It also refers to Timothy as an example of what Paul is saying to the Philippians, namely that they should also be bond slaves of Christ like the man who is currently with him (Timothy).

How do we know that Timothy acts like a slave of Christ? It is because Timothy serves other people – the Philippians specifically ~ “…he has served with me in the gospel”(1 Tim.2:22). 

Timothy is a slave in serving in the Gospel. We also see in 1 Tim.2:19 that Timothy carries the brothers in Philippi’s welfare on his heart – he puts their welfare before his own ~ “For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare.”

Paul’s aim in writing this letter to the Philippians is to produce people like Timothy. It means people who are not only servants of Christ but also take care of the interest of others and not just for the interest of themselves.

  •       Recipients(1:1b):

       In the second part of 1:1, Paul greets the “saints”in the church in Philippi, as well as the overseers and the deacons. Paul uses the word saints 40 times in his letters. The root word for “saint” is “holy” and Paul always uses this word, “holy” or “holy ones,”to refer to all people chosen by God to be His disciples. 

Why is a “saint” (or a Christian)called “holy”? There are several references in the Word of God that will supply us with an answer ~ “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saintsin Christ Jesus” (Phil.1:1). Here the word “saint” means “holy” or “holy ones,” or “holy servants in Christ.” 

A second question, how can believers, or Christians, or saints, be called holy? We are called holy, because we are called by God to be holy – Eph.1:4 ~ “…even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him…”Col.3:12 ~ “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience…” Peter, in 1 Pet.2:5, 9, is very clear about the fact that those of us who have been called to be holy are holy ~ “…you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ…”(vs.5 ) and vs.9, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation…”Because we are saved and therefore elected to be holy, means that we are holy ones – “saints”therefore.

That is the reason why Paul’s letter is directed to all the saints; all the believers; the holy ones in the church in Philippi and they are saints, because they are planted into Christ Jesus  – they are born again or saved in others words ~ “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in himwho is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life”(1 John 5:20). 

Apart from the saints, Paul also addresses his letter to the deacons and the overseers. In Acts 6:1-6 we see that the deacons to whom Paul directs his letter, are saints described as “helpers.”And we see in Acts 20:28 that the overseers were appointed to watch over, guide, and protect the believers ~ “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.”

Mentioning the elders in the church makes clear to us, that there was an established leadership structure in the church in Philippi. It is not really clear why Paul added the words “overseers and deacons” and there exist three theories why he might have done that:

  • First, Paul addressed these leaders, because they were responsible for organising the gifts sent to Paul and he thus wished to give attention to them for their fine work in the Lord. 
  • Another theory is that Paul wants to endorse their authority to deal with those whom the apostle refers to as “dogs,”“mutilators of the flesh”and “enemies of the cross of Christ”(3:2-3, 18). 
  • Other scholars argue that it is because there was friction among the leaders themselves (4:2-3), and the mention of the leaders in a greeting which focuses on servanthood and humility suggests that Paul wants to remind them of their need to be unified. 

All three of these suggestions have at least some merit in the text of the epistle, but all of them lack for any positive proof and therefore we can’t tell for certain why Paul added the elders and deacons to the addressees of his letter.

  •       Greetings(1:2):

       The greeting that we find in 1:2(“Graceto you and peacefrom God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”)is identical to that found in 1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans, Ephesians and Philemon and has thus become a standard for Paul. 

In the greeting, we have three words or phrases that need to be looked at. Let us first look at the word “grace”:

  • Grace:Paul uses the word “grace” approximately 100 times most of which express the unmerited favour of God toward undeserving sinners like the Philippians, and by extension you and me as Christian believers. Paul also uses this word in Eph.2:8-9 to express that salvation is totally the work of God on behalf of the believer and comes not through any human effort (i.e., “not by works”). Grace was at the heart of Paul’s Gospel. For Paul, the grace of God is a primary motivator toward a holy life, for it is God’s unmerited favour that teaches believers to… ~ “…renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age”(Titus 2:11-12). When saying “grace to you…”When saying “grace to you…”Paul was in actual fact praying that the saving grace and unmerited favour of God might rest on them and that they will renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives.
  • Peace:For Paul, there is no peace in the heart, no sense of well-being and wholeness, no tranquillity before God and in the storms of life, until a person has entered into the grace of God by faith. Then, and only then, can he have the peace of God in his heart. A person enters that peace by personally trusting in Christ as Saviour.
  • God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: With the words “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,”Paul wants to stress the fact, that grace and peace do not come from him, but form God and God alone.

What can we learn from today’s message?

  • That we will experience suffering because it is part and parcel of being a bond slave of Jesus Christ.
  • That our salvation is a work of God and we must be thankful for His unmerited favour!
  • That the peace of God that transcends all understanding will, guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
  • Before our salvation we were slaves of our own flesh, the devil and the world, BUT now we are bond slaves of Christ bought by His precious blood to live in obedience to our Master! 
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