As we begin a series on Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we remember that the apostle Paul introduced the Christians in Philippi to Jesus. As we read this letter he sent them, we begin with some introductions.
First, we are introduced to Paul and Timothy.
Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, . . .Philippians 1:1a NIV
At the time of writing, Paul is a prisoner, likely either in Ephesus or in Rome. This fact was well know to the Christians in Philippi who had in fact sent him a financial gift. In that time and place your friends and family needed to supply you with provisions if you were a prisoner. What we now know of as “The Book of Philippians” is actually a thank you note!
Interestingly, Paul describes himself first off, not as “stuck in prison,” but as a servant of Christ Jesus. His relationship with Jesus was of greater note than his relationship with the state. Never mind being captive of the state, more importantly, Paul is a servant, or better, slave, to Jesus.
The Christians in Philippi knew all about slavery, many of them either being slaves themselves, or owning slaves. They would all know that it is better to be a free person than a slave. However, Paul sees it as a mark of distinction.
This was all part and parcel of a new way of thinking because of Jesus who himself modelled servanthood:
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”Matthew 20:25-28 NIV
Paul will go on in the letter to encourage the Christians in Philippi, and us also, to be a people who think different because of Jesus.
Paul includes Timothy in his opening greeting. Timothy was not really known to be an apostle, certainly not in the way the twelve disciples were, or Paul, all of who had met the risen Jesus. Paul brings no attention to that by saying something like “From Paul the apostle, and Timothy my assistant.” No attention is drawn to Timothy’s “rank,” the assistant is included on an equal footing, as a partner.
Whatever our role may be in service to Jesus, we are partners in the good work Jesus is doing in and for the world. Whether we are playing what people think to be a big role, like the apostle Paul, or we are are playing what people think to a smaller role, like the assistant Timothy, we are partners. Whatever the Lord calls us to do, we are necessary and valued. Again, because of Jesus, we are to think differently.
Second, we are introduced to ourselves:
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, . . .Philippians 1:1b NRSV
We might wonder what subset of Christians qualify to be known as “saints.” Some translations use the words “God’s people” but the most literal translation is “holy ones.” We are introduced, therefore, to all Christians, we are introduced to ourselves as saints or “holy ones.”
We might struggle to call ourselves saints or holy ones, but Paul can simply state it with confidence.
We may think, to be a saint I need to know more. Remember, the saints in Philippi don’t even have a full Bible yet. No doubt, some, perhaps many, would be illiterate. Yet they are saints, holy ones!
Of course digging into the Bible and growing in knowledge is part of growing in Christ, but not being well versed is not a hindrance to being a saint, a holy one.
I have a lot to learn as a bass player, especially scales and musical theory, but my lack of knowledge does not stop my bandmates from introducing me as their bass player. We are holy ones in Christ Jesus, not because we know a lot, but because Jesus makes it a reality.
We may think, to be a saint, I need to be better than I am. In Jesus we are on a journey of becoming better than we are, but we don’t need to wait for our arrival at the destination to be called “holy ones in Jesus.”
Though many would call me a decent bass player, I don’t play nearly as well as so many others, but that does not stop my bandmates from calling me their bass player. Being part of the band is not conditional on my achieving perfection, but on my bandmates saying I belong to the band.
We are holy ones in Christ Jesus, not because we have passed some sort of test for perfection, but because of the blood of Jesus, because of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, because God has included us, because God says we belong.
Third, we are introduced to church structure:
. . . together with the overseers and deacons:Philippians 1:1c NIV
We see here the beginnings of organisation. What we do not see is a complicated and complex organisation. As I often half-jokingly say “I don’t like organised religion. That is why I am a Baptist, for we are the most disorganised group of people in the history of the world.”
There is a lot written in the writings of the New Testament about Jesus and how to be a follower of Jesus. There is very little written about organisations called “churches” and how to “do church.” The writings of the New Testament are far more interested in helping people grow in Jesus, than in setting up rules for organisations.
Let us keep it about Jesus and helping people grow in Jesus in our day. Let God call people to leadership. Let God call all of us to serve. Let’s not make it complicated.
Fourth, we are introduced to God:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.Philippians 1:2 NIV
We are introduced to God as father.
Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, we can now be included in the family of the one Creator God. Anyone and everyone has the opportunity to call God “father.”
Remember how the Lord’s prayer begins, a prayer the Christians in Philippi would have been instructed in; “Our father.” These would be meaningful words within a mainly non-Jewish city like Philippi. God is “our father,” and not just the father to the Jews.
He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of GodJohn 1:11-13 NIV
The other side of the coin, of course, was that the Creator God of the Jewish Scriptures is God, and the idols and gods of the Romans therefore, were not.
We are introduced to Jesus as Lord and Christ.
The primary creed of the early Christians was “Jesus is Lord.” This would be fitting for the non-Jewish believers in Philippi, many of whom were Roman citizens thanks to the city being a colony of Rome. While they may not know much about a Jewish messiah, or the Jewish Scriptures that point to the Messiah, they knew all about lords. Indeed they would be familiar with the idea that “Caesar is Lord.” Except, that he is not. Jesus rose from the dead showing that he is Lord, Caesar is not. Though being Roman is in their blood, they are now marching to the beat of a very different drummer. Again, in Jesus, it is time to think different.
Less familiar to the Romans in Philippi would be the notion of “Christ,” which is the Greek term for “Messiah” or “anointed one.” The Christians in Philippi were primarily non-Jewish, and they were not required to become Jewish, as we read about in Acts 15. The Jewish scriptures, however, were very important. The Hebrew Scriptures point to God fixing everything though his anointed one, the Christ, the Messiah. The term “Christ” may not have resonated with the Philippians as strongly as “Lord” did, but it was instructive. Though they were not becoming Jews, they were now to look to the Scriptures of the Jews as a source of truth.
We are also introduced to what happens when God comes to earth.
The Roman gods were known to be very fickle. But when the true God, the Creator God, and as it turns out, the only God, came to earth in Jesus, grace and peace became possible. “Grace and peace” was a common greeting in letters of the ancient world, but it is a loaded term on the lips of Paul, and a reality in Jesus Christ.
Do you need to be re-introduced?
- To who Paul is, to what the New Testament is?
- To yourself, who you are in Christ?
- To God?
If so, join us in the weeks to come as we unpack Pauls’ letter to the Philippians, learning more about the impact of Jesus as we go.