An Introductory Sermon
Philippi was a Roman colony and that was a tremendous privilege for its citizens for they now had the same status as a resident of the empire’s capital, Rome.
Paul had been involved with the formation of the church Philippi and, although it had been costly for him involving both imprisonment and beating, it had led on to a strong relationship existing between him and the emerging congregation. This relationship had persisted and deepened as the Philippians partnered with Paul in financially supporting him again and again as he pursued his evangelistic ministry in different areas. They had continued to show an interest in him and had not turned their backs on him even though he was now in prison once more.
Paul loved the congregation there in Philippi and wanted to see its members progress and enjoy their faith (1:25), he wanted them to press on to maturity as he himself was pressing on (3:14-16). His letter to them explains what this would look like and how it would come about.
Paul wrote to encourage the Christians at Philippi and urged them to live as good citizens but he wasn’t thinking about their Roman but their heavenly citizenship. This status had been conferred upon them not by politicians in Rome but by God through the gospel and they were to live their lives accordingly. The lifestyle of such a citizen would embrace a growing commitment to serving God and to serving one another and this would only be possible in Christ, who is central to absolutely everything. Paul would go on to describe Jesus as the perfect example and Christians are to aspire to follow him. The letter would also contain the lesser examples of Timothy, Epaphroditus and Paul himself as these three all provided examples of what it looks like when men seriously seek to follow Jesus’ example.
When Paul wrote his letter to the Philippian church he was in prison, probably in Rome. The arrival of a fresh gift from the Philippians had provided him with the occasion for writing to them. Paul wrote to thank them for their support but he took the opportunity of writing much more than a mere thank-you letter. He addressed a number of issues that were having an impact on their congregation:
They were anxious about him and Paul wanted to share news about his current situation
They were also worried about Epaphroditus’ health and he wanted to allay those fears
They were facing some challenges and Paul wrote to help them and impress upon them the need for growth and sound conduct. Specifically this involved:
The need to discern and to recognise false teachers
The need for unity between members
Finally, he wrote to share with them some of his plans for the future
The end result is a lovely little letter which vibrates with joy – Paul actually uses the word joy or rejoice more than a dozen times. And that is just how it should be when we keep Christ at the centre as Paul did!
Hopefully in the weeks to come we will be able to look at these matters in more detail. This morning we will limit ourselves to looking at the opening two verses. Let me read them to you again:
Phil.1:1-2 "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."
We begin with:
v.1 "Paul and Timothy…"
In our day we don’t sign our letters until we’ve got to the end but the ancient practice was different – they told you who was writing right at the outset and what a joy it would have been for the congregation in Philippi to hear that a letter from Paul had arrived! They knew him well, they appreciated him and they loved him. How keen they would be to hear his news and to catch up on all that had been happening to him! They could expect to receive some benefit from his spiritual maturity too as he would doubtless have some fine teaching to pass on to them.
Right at the outset Paul associated himself with Timothy who was with him in Rome and who he intended to send to help the Philippians as soon as he could. Timothy had also been with Paul when the church in Philippi was founded. But it is clear from what follows that it was Paul himself who was the chief author for he wrote a highly personal letter.
v.1 "Paul and Timothy, servants..."
Paul could have begun his letter by referring to himself as the apostle he was – he did just that in writing other letters – but he doesn’t do that here. He could have reminded the Philippians of his role as the founder of their church ably assisted by Timothy and a handful of others but he doesn’t do that either. Instead Paul what does is to describe himself and Timothy in a way which emphasises not their rank, or their authority within the Christian community but rather their lowliness and their utter dependence upon the Lord Jesus. They are
v.1 "servants of Christ Jesus"
Paul says that he and Timothy are servants but not just any old kind of servants they are servants of Christ Jesus!
The word that Paul used can be translated slave or bond-servant. When we hear the word slave we tend to think about slavery as it existed in the U.S. where it was a dreadful thing. But to be a bond-servant in the New Testament era was not really like that at all. The chief characteristic of such a servant was that he no longer belonged to himself but that he had sold himself to his master, the price had been paid and he was no longer his own. Now this could indeed be an honoured position, it all depended on the master who was served. And there is no greater master to serve than Christ Jesus and Paul was pleased (can we say proud?) to be a servant of such a master.
Is that true of you? Is that true of me? Are we genuinely happy to consider ourselves servants of Christ Jesus? Do we regard it as an honour to serve and to follow him? Surely it is a great thing to have been bought by such a master as Jesus – ah, but do I rejoice in that every day? Do you?
Now to those to whom the letter was sent...
Paul tells us a number of things about the people to whom he is writing; they are:
Saints – all of them
With overseers and deacons
What does this have to teach us? Let’s look at each phrase in just a little more detail.
The first thing that Paul writes as he addresses the church in Philippi is to call them saints or holy ones – and he’s referring to all of them. Paul was not writing to a few high calibre Christians, those who had attained a level of superior spirituality, he was writing to all who were believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. The word saint is simply the most commonly used word in the New Testament to describe a person who believes in Jesus. The word saint was used then in much the same way as we use the word Christian today.
The word saint simply describes someone who has been set aside for God; they have been "cut off" from their old way of life in order to live a new life, the life of purity and of holiness. If you are a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ then you too are a saint, someone who has been set apart for God, to belong to Christ, and you are to live your new life accordingly.
In Christ Jesus
"In Christ" was Paul's favourite way of describing a Christian – he spoke of them like this over 100 times.
If the Christian is a saint he's only a saint because of his being in Christ. No one becomes a saint as a result of the special efforts they have made or because of the particular gifts they might have received. Every Christian is a saint quite simply because he or she has believed into the Lord Jesus Christ and all that Jesus has achieved is now accredited to those who have believed into him.
Do you see how right at the outset of his letter Paul is at pains to make it clear that everything depends upon Jesus? Salvation is ours in Christ; we are secure in Christ; and in Christ we have everything we need. In Christ we are renewed and become new people with new feelings and a new set of values. In Christ we have a whole new way of looking at things. Being in Christ our salvation is an objective fact and because of our union with Christ we can experience its warmth and personal reality.
If all these things were true of the Philippians then they were richly blessed, weren't they? And so are you if you have believed into Christ.
As richly blessed believers, the Philippians still had to live out their faith in the physical world – and these believers lived and Philippi. Living there they had a mix of privileges, problems and challenges. And the same is true of Christians wherever they might live. The Christian is not to try to withdraw out of this physical world for their Christian faith can stand the many and varied tests that would come their way. The Christian faith is true and no make-believe philosophy.
Just as the Christian faith could be lived out in the Roman colony in the first century of the Christian era so it can be lived out in our day and in our society.
With overseers and deacons
Finally Paul makes it clear that he is not merely addressing a bunch of isolated individuals in Philippi. Paul was writing to be congregation, the congregation that was made up of all the saints along with the overseers and deacons. This is something we need to take seriously too. In our western world with all our emphasis upon personal and individual freedom we can so easily adopt the ‘what's in it for me’ mindset and lose sight of the community which is the church. The church is a community founded by a Saviour who gave up his rights in order to serve others and for us to focus upon what pleases me and what satisfies me is to be out of step with the master.
Having identified the senders and the receivers of the letter Paul, following the normal letter writing practices of his day, is ready to move on to the next stage and that involves blessings...
The formalities are almost over but before he can move on into the body of his letter he has one more thing to do. He has a blessing to pronounce, or desires to express, and this is what he wishes for his friends at Philippi:
v.2 "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."
Now we must remember that Paul is expressing his desire for a group of people who were already greatly privileged in that they already belonged to Christ and had already begun to live lives of increasing holiness. Paul, expressing his divinely inspired desires for them, longs for them to be yet further enriched in their personal spiritual experience. We must think about this for a moment.
Conversion and the fact of becoming a believer necessarily involves a great transformation in a person’s life and we must be careful that we never minimize the greatness and the importance of this work that only God can and does accomplish. When a person believes into Christ new birth has taken place, a new life has started – the Christian is truly a new creation. But this change, however radical it might be, is just the beginning – the new life is a life that is to be characterised by growth and by progress towards maturity.
If we mustn’t minimize the greatness of God’s work in saving us neither must we allow ourselves to think that coming to Christ in faith is all there is and that when you have done so that is it, you have arrived. There is so much more to come.
The Philippians had become believers because God had worked in their lives – he it was he who had begun this good work:
Lydia was the first person in Philippi to come to faith and she did so because the Lord opened her heart – and this was a gracious act Acts 16:14
The gaoler, in fear for his life in the prison, had cried out to Paul and Silas "What must I do to be saved?" and in reply he heard the comforting message of God’s saving grace: "Believe in the Lord Jesus and you shall be saved."
And the same thing was true of every believer in Philippi because it is always by grace that a person is saved.
If you are a Christian believer today it is not because you are better than others or that you have somehow worked so hard that you have merited God’s favour, it is simply because God has acted graciously towards you.
Grace means that you get something that you don’t deserve and the Bible tells us that all grace is to be found in Jesus. Despite what so many today seem to think, the Christian faith is not about what you have to do to secure your own salvation and it never has been – instead it is all about God being gracious to us in Jesus who is full of grace. That’s why the Christian gospel is such good news for it meets us where we are and freely helps us right there.
Let’s get back to Paul’s desires for the Philippians – yes, they were already recipients of God’s grace (we know that because they had been converted) but Paul wants them now to go on and to know and enjoy much more of God’s marvellous grace now that they are believers in Christ.
This concern of Paul’s was not limited to the Philippians for he expressed himself in identical language when he wrote to the churches of Rome, Corinth, Galatia and Ephesus; he wrote in just the same way when he wrote to Timothy and to Philemon as well.
And this means that if ever you feel at a loss as to how you might pray either for yourself or for another Christian you could usefully employ the desires that Paul expresses here for the Philippians in your own prayers. Do you do that? Will you do that? Will you feel free to pray for grace and for peace to be poured into the lives of others in the congregation?
But just what will such grace look like when it is poured into a believer’s life. Let me give you just a few pointers because grace really is such a wonderful thing! Grace is so rich it can’t be restricted to just conversion but goes on and on bringing further blessing into the life of every believer.
As you read through the NT you’ll find that grace is an important topic and the reality of grace is by no means exhausted when someone believes into Christ. Paul loved grace and wrote about it frequently. In his thirteen letters he mentions it more than eighty times – here are some of things he has to say about the work of grace in the believer’s life.
Paul declared that it was grace that enabled him to carry out all the different aspects of his ministry and he specifically linked grace to each of these aspects of that ministry:
Paul went on to affirm that every Christian was equipped by Christ’s grace in order to make them useful in the church and in the world.
The grace that was available was not limited in quantity either, rather its provision was so rich and abundant that it was more than sufficient to meet every need there was. Grace is not in short supply for God’s people and we should expect subsequent experiences of grace showing itself, amongst other things, in making victory over sin a reality and in making Christians excel in generosity. In fact grace is so abundant that Paul says that the whole environment which the believer inhabits is an environment of grace!
Small wonder then that Paul desires such magnificent grace to produce its effects in the lives of his friends!
And along with this further and deeper experience of God’s grace Paul also wants the Philippians to know and enjoy more and more of the peace of God in their lives.
Peace is something that characterises the Christian faith and the life of the Christian.
Jesus spoke of peace to his disciples, he promised them his peace, he greeted them after his resurrection with words of peace and peace continues to be a great blessing of the Christian life.
The Christian enjoys, by the grace of God, peace with God and is free to live at peace with others, he knows the peace of a quiet and soothed conscience and so can live at peace with himself. Peace can be, and is, enjoyed by the Christian even in the most trying of circumstances and when the immediate future only looks bleak.
The peace that Paul has in mind is so wonderful that later in this same letter he will refer to it as a peace that passes all understanding. In other words Christian peace is not the fruit of some carefully formulated self-help philosophy for that could be understood – no, this peace comes from God and is inexplicable if he is left out of the equation. We might not be able to explain how it works, but you know what, it is a reality and countless numbers of Christians will testify to it!
The Source of these Blessings
As we bring the section to a close we take note that Paul attributes these blessings of grace and peace to "God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ".
I suppose we might want to say that this tells us that neither grace nor peace are man-produced they both find their origin in the Creator and Sustainer of the world in which we live and that would of course be true.
However there is a much more important truth for us to underline here.
Do you see how Paul puts Jesus on the same level as God our Father? Paul attributes full deity to our Lord and Saviour here for to put another on the level of God our Father would be blasphemous were he not God himself. This is the mystery of the Trinity – a truth that God has revealed to us but a truth that remains beyond our human capacity to fully grasp. Indeed it is true to say that without divine revelation we would never talk about the Trinitarian nature of our great God.
To us who live in the west and used to being in a church context we probably brush quickly past this reference to the divinity of the Jesus as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity – after all it is a truth we have been ‘familiar’ with for years even though we have probably never taken much time to think about the wonder of the Godhead that is thus revealed.
It is an important truth for us to hold on to though. It makes it understandable why such emphasis will be placed upon Jesus throughout this little letter and indeed throughout the entire Bible. We have already said that the blessings of the saints in Philippi (and everywhere else for that matter) are all bound up with Jesus Christ and that is only possible because of the magnificence of his being – he can meet the needs of all his people because of who he is, the Son of God. He deserves our adoration and our worship.
It is also a truth for us to bear in mind as we progress our way through this letter because it will enable us to grasp something more of the significance of his example of humility in preferring to serve the interests of others instead of seeking to promote his own comfort or prestige.
We have a wonderful and worthy Saviour and let us learn more and more how to rejoice in his goodness towards us.
And to God be the glory.