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Table of Contents
Introduction – Why Philippians?
1 A Strange Greeting
2 Paul’s Thanksgiving
3 Paul’s Prayer And Rejoicing
4 Answers To Prayer
5 Worthy Conduct
6 The Attitude Of Christ
7 Obedience And Purity
8 Two Servants
10 Pressing On To The Goal
11 Follow My Example
12 Living In Harmony
About the Author
Introduction: An older man was thinking back over his life. As his eyes fell on the chains which bound him he contemplated the series of events which led to his captivity. He remembered his teachers and the fine education they gave him. He remembered his burning zeal for God which led him to persecute the followers of Jesus, to the point of imprisoning and killing them. He thought back over the stunning events which led to his own conversion to being one of Christ’s followers. He thought of the high social and political status on which he turned his back in his passion for following Christ. He remembered all of the hardships and dangers he underwent during his extensive evangelistic tours. But now he found himself a prisoner. Was it really worth it? What would the future hold? Was he merely waiting for an executioner’s sword? And what had he really been able to accomplish during his long career? Had he spent his life and his strength for nothing? As he contemplated these questions he began to smile as remembered a gift which had recently been sent to him. His smile grew broader as he remembered the people who sent the gift. His life and work had made a difference. No matter what would happen to him in the future, it was worth it all. As he basked in these thoughts he felt the gentle urging of God’s Holy Spirit to send a letter to these people. He summoned a companion and with his assistance began to write. The prisoner was the Apostle Paul, and the people to whom he wrote were the followers of Christ in the city of Philippi.
While the Bible as a whole tells a single story, each book of the Bible emphasizes a different aspect of that story. For example, the book of Nehemiah illustrates the principles of leadership. The letter to the Romans provides an essay on the process of, and the legal basis for God’s plan of redemption. The letter to the Ephesians discusses the role and purpose of the church. In the same way, the letter to the Philippians provides an understanding of certain aspects of God’s plan in a way which no other part of God’s Word does.
The studies in this book attempt to not only disclose the meaning of what the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Christians at Philippi, but ask how the principles can be applied to our lives in a practical way. At the end of each chapter I include several application questions to help make the principles and lessons of Paul’s letter very personal.
Unless otherwise stated, I have based these studies on the New International Version (NIV) translation.
I. Themes in Philippians
Though the letter is short—only four chapters long, it discusses several important themes. Understanding them will help us in our atempt to live for Christ.
Sooner or later every thinking person asks the question, “What is the meaning of life?” On a personal level, all of us would like to think that our specific lives have meaning—that we have a purpose for being here and that we have made a difference. Often, however, that meaning is not obvious when we evaluate our lives by the standards of the world. (See 1 Corinthians 1:26-29.) Few of us are able to accumu-late much in the way of material possessions. Few of us will be able to contribute to the world’s knowledge or cultural attainments. Few of us will invent anything, write a book or compose music or paint a picture which will have any impact on those around us, let alone our civilization. Few of us will have any direct influence on history or the course of nations. Few of us will be statesmen or great philanthropists. Few of us will be famous, or even notorious. Most of us will live obscure lives which will soon be forgotten by all but our families and closest associates or friends.
In view of this, it is important to ask from where meaning comes. If it is derived from wealth, social status or position; if it stems from cultural attainments or contribution to the advancement of our civilization, then we will have to acknowledge that for most of us, our lives have very little meaning. I suspect that one of the contributing factors in many suicides is that people have concluded that there is no point to their lives—their lives are meaningless.
One of the themes of Paul’s letter to the Philippians is that meaning and purpose are not centered on, or even derived from, the things the world or our culture consider important. In his letter Paul will demonstrate from where true worth and meaning come. Circumstances do not determine value. Our lives can, and do, have meaning in spite of appearances.
2) Joy and Contentment
A second theme in the letter to the Philippians is that of joy and contentment. In four short chapters, the concept of joy or rejoicing is mentioned sixteen times. Just as circumstances do not determine whether our lives have meaning so too, joy is independent of circumstances. Even tragedy, poverty and persecution do not have the capacity to rob God’s people of joy. If we are able to develop and maintain the attitude God wishes us to have, we can experience joy no matter what we are going through. If we learn the principle of joy, it follows that we can also be content regardless of circumstances.
3) The Incarnation
Another of the themes of Philippians is the meaning of Jesus Christ becoming a man. While other passages discuss Christ’s coming into the world as a human being, no other passage focuses on Christ’s humanity in quite the same way. For example, the first chapter of John emphasizes Jesus’ divinity. Hebrews, chapters 1 through 3 emphasizes His supremacy. Christ’s coming to earth as a human being has profound implications, not only in regard to our salvation, but also in how we live our lives from day-to-day. As His followers, we are to adopt the same attitude as our Lord.
4) Paul’s Humanity
Philippians also gives us a unique look at the Apostle Paul. Here we see him not so much as a great teacher or theologian, or even as an Apostle, but as a person. Perhaps in no other book does he let us into his heart as he does here.
II. Application – Thought Questions
1) Does my life have meaning? From where do I derive meaning?
2) Do I let circumstances affect my level of contentment?
3) Do I really believe that Jesus came to earth as a human being? What difference does it make in the way I live my life?
A Strange Greeting
Introduction: While reading the letters in the New Testament we tend to skip over the greetings. To our mind they are merely standard formulas used by the letter-writers of the time, much like our convention of beginning a letter with ‘Dear Mary,’ or ‘To whom it may concern.’ Yet no Scripture is without meaning. We can learn much even from the first few words of Paul’s letter.
I. The Authors (Philippians 1:1)
Who wrote the letter?
The letter is addressed as though it is from both Paul and Timothy. In spite of the two names listed, however, the letter is written in the first person, singular. It is evident that even though Timothy’s name is given, it is Paul who is speaking—particularly in chapter 2, verses 19 through 24 where Timothy is spoken of in the third person! So why is the letter addressed as though Timothy is one of the authors? I speculate that Paul dictated the letter and Timothy wrote it down. By the way, it is worth noting that while Paul and Timothy are given as the ones who wrote the letter, the true author is the Holy Spirit. (Compare 2 Peter 3:15-16 and 2 Timothy 3:16.)
What were the circumstances of the writing? What was going on in Paul’s life?
From chapter 1, verses 13 and 14 we learn that while Paul was writing this letter, he was in chains in Rome waiting for trial. His being bound may have been a reason why he, presumably, dictated the letter to Timothy. Philippians is known as one of the ‘prison epistles’ but this is a bit of a misnomer. Paul was certainly under arrest, but he was probably not in prison in the ordinary sense. Evidently, the letter was written during his first imprisonment and, if so, Paul was actually in his own rented house as related in Acts 28:16, 30. Though he was granted the privilege of living in his own house, he was still bound with chains and had a guard in constant attendance. As we shall see, he also faced a death sentence in the case his trial went against him.
Approximately when did Paul write this letter?
From chapter one, it is evident that Paul expected his case to be decided shortly. Presumably, then, this letter was written shortly before the end of the two-year incarceration Luke mentions at the end of Acts. It is most likely that this would have been about the year AD 61.
How does Paul describe himself and Timothy?
It is interesting that though Paul was an Apostle, in other words one specially chosen by Christ in order to spread the gospel, he never refers to himself as an Apostle in this letter. In letters to other churches, Paul vigorously defends his apostleship, but not here. In this letter he never mentions it. Instead, Paul describes himself and Timothy as ‘servants’ of Christ Jesus. The word translated ‘servant’ (doulos) actually means ‘slave’ or ‘bond-servant.’ This has some important implications:
1) In this letter, Paul emphasizes the concept of servanthood or serving as a slave. This is the same word Paul uses for Christ in chapter two. Christ left heaven and took on the nature of a slave. If we are followers of Christ, then it is appropriate that we display the same nature He did.
2) To be a servant or slave also implies that there is a Master. If one is a slave of Christ he is not only controlled by Christ, but is dependent upon Him. Christ is the Master and it is He who assigns each one of his followers their place and task. As we will see, Paul can rejoice, even though he is in chains, because his circumstances are in the Master’s control.
3) By calling himself a servant, Paul is putting himself on the same level as the people to whom he is writing. From the letter it is obvious that the Christians in Philippi had a great respect for Paul. Perhaps they had a tendency to place him on a pedestal or to give him more honor than was appropriate. Paul is reminding them that his purpose is to not only serve Christ, but to serve them as well. Leadership does not preclude servanthood. In fact, Jesus taught that true greatness is achieved only through service. (For example, see Matthew 23:11.)
II. The Audience (Philippians 1:1)
To whom is the letter written?
Paul calls the people to whom he is writing ‘saints.’ What is a saint? Many people think that a saint is someone, now deceased, who has performed some special act of merit during their lifetime which has earned them God’s special favor. For example, when the College of Cardinals met a few years ago in order to select a new Pope, they were proceeded into the Sistine Chapel by a chorus chanting the ‘Litany of the Saints.’
This is not what Paul means. He is writing to living people. So, what or who is a saint? According to Scripture a saint is someone:
1) Who believes (2 Thessalonians 1:10),
2) Is faithful (Ephesians 1:1),
3) Who acknowledges Jesus as the Son of God (1 Corinthians 1:2) and most of all,
4) has been sanctified by Christ (1 Corinthians 1:2).
In fact, the root meaning of the word Paul uses (hagios) is ‘holy’ or, ‘separated.’ In other words, Paul is writing to the followers of Christ, that is, Christians. By definition Christians have been ‘sanctified.’ (For example see 1 Corinthians 6:11.) That is, Christians have been made holy (Colossians 1:22) and they have been separated from sin and the world. The flip side of this is that if someone has not been sanctified by Christ, they are not a saint as the Bible uses the term.
Where did the people to whom this letter was written live, and what is the significance of the place?
The people to whom Paul is writing were in Philippi. The city was built by Philip, king of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. At the time Paul wrote, it was an important Roman colony in the province of Macedonia on the main road linking Rome with the East. Today its ruins are in the country of Greece.
Philippi holds a special place in the history of the church. Paul first traveled to Macedonia as a result of a vision from God (see Acts 16:6-10). It was at the city of Philippi that he preached in Europe for the first time. The church at Philippi was the first congregation which he established in Europe. Philippi is also where the incident recorded in Acts chapter 16 took place in which Paul and Silas were unjustly imprisoned and their faith so impressed their jailer that he became a follower of Christ.
What does Paul mean by the terms ‘overseers’ and ‘deacons’?
Note on translation: The NIV has Paul writing to the saints “together with the overseers and deacons.” It would probably be better to translate this, “including the overseers and deacons.” (For example, see the updated NASB.) The overseers and deacons are not distinct or separate from the saints, but are a group within all those described as saints. In other words, the overseers and deacons are saints as well.
These titles of ‘overseer’ and ‘deacon’ refer to office holders in the church.
Rarely, if ever will you see someone listed in a church bulletin as an ‘overseer.’ What are they and what do they do?
1) Some translations use the word ‘bishop’ here instead of overseer. The footnote in the NIV and other translations says “Traditionally bishops.” So, we see that in the New Testa-ment, the word ‘overseer’ is equivalent to ‘bishop.’
2) Acts 20:17 relates how Paul met with the elders from Ephesus. While speaking to them he says in verse 28, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers…” So, ‘overseer’ is also equivalent to the term, ‘elder.’
3) In the same verse, Paul tells the elders to “…Be shepherds of the church of God…” So, an ‘overseer’ is also a ‘shepherd.’
4) In Acts 20:28 the verb “to shepherd” is used, but in Ephesians 4:11, the noun form of the same word is translated ‘pastor.’ So, another title for ‘overseer’ is ‘pastor.’
5) For the sake of completeness, I should mention that the Greek word translated ‘elder’ is sometimes translated ‘presbyter.’ (See 1 Timothy 4:14.)
Why make such a big deal about it? The reason is that in our culture, and in our churches, there is a lot of confusion about what a pastor is. According to popular thought, the person who delivers sermons from the pulpit is the pastor of a congregation. No! Speaking from the pulpit does not make anyone a pastor. Likewise, a person who has been appointed as an elder or overseer or shepherd, is a pastor whether he speaks from the pulpit or not. Pastors certainly preach, but not all preachers are pastors! The question is not whether someone is speaking to the congregation, but whether he meets the qualifications specified in Scripture (1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9, 1 Peter 5:1-4) and has been chosen to oversee the congregation.
So why don’t we use the term ‘overseer’ instead of ‘pastor’ or ‘elder’? It may be because of our cultural legacy which associates images of the plantation and slavery with the word. But do be aware that as far as the New Testament is concerned the 6 terms mentioned above are all equivalent. The terms merely emphasize different aspects of the overseers’ work. It is they who are responsible for the spiritual health and growth of the church.
It is also worth noting that Paul addresses his letter to the ‘overseers’ (plural). In contrast to modern practice, each congregation in New Testament times did not have only one bishop or pastor, but several. The work of overseeing, instructing and guiding the church was shared among them.
What is a ‘deacon?’
The root meaning of the term deacon is ‘servant’ or ‘waiter.’ The term is distinct from the term ‘servant’ which Paul already used for himself and Timothy. The word deacon describes a person in relationship to his work, while the word ‘servant’ which Paul used for himself in his greeting, and for Christ in chapter 2, refers to a person in relationship to his master. Deacons are assistants to the overseers. They take care of the physical or material needs of the church, particularly the ministry of benevolence, so that the overseers can concentrate on its spiritual needs.
III. Greeting (Philippians 1:2)
What does Paul desire for those to whom he is writing?
One of the things which Paul desires for the followers of Christ in Philippi is grace. What is grace?
a) Grace can be thought of as an undeserved gift. For example, the grace, or gift, of salvation. The follow-ers of Christ are given grace, even though they are undeserving sinners, because Jesus has paid the penalty for their sin.
b) Grace may also be defined as divine favor. In other words, being pleasing to God. In this sense, to ‘grow in grace’ (see 2 Peter 3:18) is to become more pleasing to God. Paul is asking that the saints at Philippi become more aware of their salvation and that they experience God’s pleasure.
c) When people are in covenant relationship, they are supposed to help each other to keep the covenant. As Christians, we are in covenant relationship with God. When God shows us grace, He is doing something to help us keep, or remain faithful to, the covenant. For example, the writer of Hebrews says, “Let us approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)
d) Grace is also God’s power which enables us to do what is right. Titus 2:11-12 says, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age,”
In view of these definitions, Paul is asking that God will enable the saints at Philippi to be faithful to the covenant, and to become more pleasing to God. He wants them to receive God’s gifts and to become more aware of their salvation. He wants them to have a greater measure of God’s power working in their lives.
The other thing which Paul desires for those to whom he is writing is peace. Peace is not the absence of hardship but the serenity of soul which makes it possible to face and overcome hardship. Jesus said, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
Notice in Paul’s greeting that grace and peace come from God and Jesus Christ. If we do not have peace, perhaps we are looking for it in the wrong place.
What titles does Paul use for God and for Jesus?
Paul greets the people to whom he is writing in the name of ‘God our Father.’ This is a reminder that the followers of Christ have been included in God’s household. God is not a remote, unapproachable tyrant, but is near, approachable and caring. (See Romans 8:15-17.)
2) Our Father
By calling God ‘our Father,’ Paul is emphasizing unity between himself and the people to whom he is writing. Though he is an apostle, he is also their brother in God’s household.
The terms Paul uses for Jesus are so familiar to us as Christians that it is all too easy for us to forget what the terms mean and what they imply. If we are to follow Jesus, however, it is important that we understand who it is that we are following.
In his greeting, Paul calls Jesus ‘Lord.’ In chapter two of this letter, Paul will explain that God has exalted Jesus by giving him this name or title which, by right, belongs only to God. By calling him ‘Lord,’ God has made Jesus the supreme ruler. It is on the basis of His authority that Jesus commands. “Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go…”” (Matthew 28:18)
But doesn’t calling Jesus ‘Lord’ exalt Jesus at the expense of God? This in no way diminishes God’s glory, but rather enhances it. For, when we call Jesus ‘Lord’ we are agreeing with what God has done. (See 1 Corinthians 15:27-28.)
Not only is Jesus ‘Lord,’ but he is also the ‘Christ.’ The word Christ is the Greek form of the title ‘Messiah.’ Both terms refer to the One whom God has anointed. This means that in addition to appointing Jesus as the supreme ruler or king, God has anointed him to be both prophet and priest. As prophet, Jesus delivers God’s word to us. He said, “…The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.” (John 14:10) But Jesus did not merely deliver God’s words, he is the actual personification of God’s word. He is called the ‘Word.’ (John 1:1) Not just His actions or His life, but His very person is a message from God.
In His role of priest, Jesus gave His own life as a sacrifice for our sins. In addition, He presents the requests of His followers to God. Scripture says, “Therefore, since we have a great high priest… Jesus the Son of God… Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:14-16)
IV. Application – Thought Questions
1) Do I consider myself a servant? Would I feel comfortable in describing myself to someone else as a servant or slave of Christ?
2) Have I been sanctified? Is it evident from the way I live my life that I am a saint?
3) Am I careless in using biblical terminology? When I use a term like ‘pastor’ do I mean the same thing the Bible does? Or, do I re-define what the Bible says? Do I allow society or culture to determine for me what biblical terms mean?
4) Am I conscious of God’s grace in my life? Do I know His peace?
5) Do I look at God as my Father? Is that a comforting thought?
6) Do I really understand what it means when I call Jesus, ‘Lord?’
7) When I call Jesus the Christ, do I use the word merely as a surname, or am I conscious of what that title means?
8) Do I act as though Jesus really is the Lord and the Christ?