Ordinary Time Bible Study
Philippians: Friends in the Gospel
Note: When passages are quoted at the beginning of new sections, I will be using The Message translation because of its conversational, friendly tone. You can compare this version with others, as well as have access to Gordon Fee’s commentary, at Bible Gateway.
In grammar school I was taught some rudimentary rules about writing letters: that there are basically two types (personal/friendly and business); that one (business) has an inside address, while friendly letters do not; but that both begin and end the same way (with a greeting, such as “Dear Father,” and a closing, “Your son, Gordon”).
Letters in the Greco-Roman period had this pattern in reverse, with a threefold salutation at the beginning: “Gordon, to his father: Greetings.” Very often the next item in the letter was a wish (sometimes a prayer) for the health or well-being of the recipient. Paul’s letters, which follow this standard form, usually include a thanksgiving report and sometimes, as here, a prayer report (telling his recipients specifically how he prays for them). In contrast to most first-century letters, where (as in ours) these formal items were stereotyped, Paul tends to elaborate them; and in his hands they become distinctively Christian.
• Gordon Fee
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Paul and Timothy, both of us committed servants of Christ Jesus, write this letter to all the followers of Jesus in Philippi, pastors and ministers included. We greet you with the grace and peace that comes from God our Father and our Master, Jesus Christ.
In comparison with some of Paul’s other letters, the address in Philippians is brief. He mentions himself along with Timothy, addresses all the believers together along with their leaders, and greets them with a gospel-transformed ancient way of saying “hello.”
Note that Paul mentions himself and Timothy together, without distinguishing that Paul is an apostle. He had no need to emphasize his status or authority. He was writing to friends, and the description “servants” well characterizes the kind of relationship they had with each other and which he encouraged in the congregation. When he has to remind them of this in chapter 2, it is a vivid act of Jesus as a servant that he appeals to (2:5-11).
He calls the Philippian congregants “saints” (Peterson substitutes “followers.”) In Exodus 19, Israel was called to be a “holy nation” through acceptance and observance of the Law of Moses. But the gospel Paul brought to the Philippians was apart from this Law. He had not called them to become observant Jews and thus set themselves apart for God, but rather had called them to faith in Jesus the Messiah apart from any legal requirements of that older covenant. They are “saints in Christ Jesus.”
Why does Paul mention the Philippians’ “pastors and ministers” (lit. overseers and deacons) in particular? This is unique among Paul’s letters.
It is likely that this is a gentle prod, first of all, to the whole congregation. Paul is reminding them that God has given them gifted people to help them practice faith, hope, and love together as a community. The internal strife that will be mentioned later is one situation that perhaps the apostle is anticipating with this reminder.
It is also possible that the conflicts that were brewing in the church were among the leaders themselves. He may have singled them out as a way of getting their attention in particular.
Also, the suffering that the Philippians were experiencing may have prompted Paul to remind them that they and their leaders needed to support each other in the midst of stressful circumstances.
Finally, as we will see in chapter 4, Paul is thanking the Philippian congregation for their generous gifts to support his ministry and to help him in a time of trial. Perhaps he singles out the church leaders because they helped administrate these gifts.
In verse 2 we read the Apostle Paul’s standard greeting. As Fee observes, Paul’s greetings are wonderful examples of how he turned even the most common courtesies into gospel. He also notes, as have many, that these two words — grace and peace — represent the overall theological perspective of Paul and the NT authors.
The sum total of God’s activity toward his human creatures is found in the word grace; God has given himself to his people bountifully and mercifully in Christ. Nothing is deserved, nothing can be achieved. The sum total of those benefits as they are experienced by the recipients of God’s grace is peace, God’s shalom, both now and to come. The latter flows out of the former, and both together flow from God our Father and were made effective in our human history through the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is in the context of this gospel that Paul and the good folks in Philippi enjoyed their friendship and served one another in love.
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Ordinary Time Bible Study
Philippians – Friends in the Gospel