Philippians 1:1-2: Saints Who Serve
Christianity was a revolution that changed the attitudes and values of the ancient world. It was an entire way of living and not merely a set of dogmas. What made early Christianity so revolutionary? The salutation of Philippians (1:1-2) contains several answers to our question.
In the opening greeting of the letter we see that Philippians was written and sent by two of Jesus’ slaves, Paul and Timothy, men who worked side by side and shoulder to shoulder for the Gospel. Timothy is mentioned because he was with Paul when the church at Philippi was established and is now with Paul in Rome. Of all Paul’s churches, the church at Philippi was the church to which Paul was closest, and of all Paul’s companions, no one was as dear to him as Timothy was. The great contribution of Timothy to Paul’s missionary service was that he could be entrusted with any task. His one desire was to serve Christ. Paul could therefore send him to Thessalonica, to Philippi, and to Corinth with perfect confidence that Timothy would get the job done. Like Paul, he was simply a bond-servant, a slave of Christ Jesus, His absolute possession and the One he owed absolute obedience.
Only rarely in life does one find such a trusted friend as Paul found in Timothy. Becky and I are extremely blessed to have known and worked with many such “Timothies.” I’m not talking about people who merely put on a show of affection for others or who feign concern for the Gospel. I’m talking about believers whose sacrificial service for others in the name of Christ is exemplary, just like Timothy’s was (2:19-24). I must tell you, these radical Jesus-followers are a great encouragement to us. Our work in Alaba, in Burji, in Gondar, our work among the nomads, the animists, the Muslims, the Orthodox of Ethiopia – all this work would be impossible without the willingness of Timothies who work with us side by side and shoulder to shoulder.
Sometimes our closest Timothy is our own spouse. I know that’s true in my case. Jonathan Edwards’ last words before he died were those of gratitude to his wife Sarah for the “uncommon union” they had enjoyed by the grace of God. Whenever I think of the partnership between Paul and Timothy or between Aquila and Priscilla I think of the similar kind of relationship I enjoy with Becky. We have the opportunity to spend large amounts of time serving the Lord Jesus together both in America and abroad. We have set priorities for our marriage that elevate the kingdom to a place of precedence over everything else in our lives. I am not ashamed to say that God has used Becky tremendously in my life to draw me closer to Him and to nudge me toward greater Christian maturity. Hudson Taylor, the famous missionary to China, had a similar relationship with his life partner, Maria. J. C. Pollack, in his book Hudson Taylor and Maria (p. 102), writes:
Maria tempered without question his zeal, was largely responsible for the common sense and balance characteristic of Taylor at the height of his power…. Under the influence of her less mercurial yet gay temperament he shed those moods of melancholy; he would discuss every matter with her and forget to be introspective. He became more assured, grew up…. Her passionate nature fulfilled his warm-blooded yearning to love and be loved. She gave him full response, fostering and feeding affection so that together they had such a reservoir of love that it splashed over to refresh all, Chinese or European, who came near them.
If I could take you with me to Ethiopia, I’m sure you would be as blessed as I am to see Becky’s servant-style selflessness. She is a woman of great faith and prayer and an indispensable part of my work in the Gospel.
Notice how Paul elevates Timothy to his own level as a co-equal partner in the Gospel. Later he will tell the church, “I have no companion who has a spirit like Timothy does, no one else who is so genuinely concerned about other people, no one who lives so selflessly. He practically enslaved himself to me in the Gospel!” (2:19-24). Like Paul, I am a wealthy man because I have been blessed with such selfless companions in the service of the Lord Jesus. What makes my memories of Ethiopia so precious? It’s simply the people – people who join us in the work, who faithfully continue the job, and who hand it on to still others.
It is because such cooperation in the Gospel is essential if we are to reach the world for Christ that Paul wrote to all the saints who are in Philippi. As we have seen, Philippians is fundamentally an appeal for Christian unity. It is organized in such a way as to allow Paul to address tactfully two women who had quarreled badly and were endangering the church’s unity (see 4:2). It is because of the need to maintain the unity of the church that there arises in the very heart of the letter the great passage about selflessness and humility (2:1-11). Thus the words “to all the saints” (1:1) sets the tone of the whole letter.
The word “saints” here is not so much a reference to behavior or conduct as it is a reference to the Philippians’ position “in Christ Jesus.” Far from connoting otherworldly piety, it pictures a people who are set apart from all other people because of their commitment of follow and obey Christ. Believers in Jesus Christ are the “different ones” – different because they live in the sphere of eternity and in the encircling presence of God. They are, moreover, consecrated to Him because of their special relation to Jesus. Like Paul and Timothy, they too are bond-slave servants of Christ Jesus, set apart for a different and special function in life. As we shall see, this function is nothing less than full participation in the work of the Gospel (1:5). The Philippians had been drawn together by the grace of God, and when people are really touched by God’s unmerited favor their hearts begin to beat with the pulse of Christ and their love begins to go out to the men and women for whom He died.
The Philippians lived, of course, in two spheres simultaneously: “in Christ” and “in Philippi.” Christians must live out their sainthood in this world. But wherever they live in the world, and whatever outward circumstances they may face, they are always in Christ, enjoying His presence and purpose and power. My “Philippi” happens to be Southside Virginia. Yours is wherever you reside. My job happens to be teaching Greek. Yours is probably something quite different. But wherever we live and whatever we do, we can do it willingly and cheerfully, because we do all things as unto the Lord and in His presence.
When asked how he attained such great victories, Nelson said, “I had the happiness to command a band of brothers.” The church is a genuine church only when it has the quality of togetherness. The Philippian church had been just such a church, a group of saints whose first concern was to put their Christianity into practical action. That this togetherness was in danger of being torn asunder did not prevent Paul from addressing his loving thoughts to all of them rather than to some of them or most of them.
Leaders “Among,” Not “Over”
In this opening salutation we also note that Paul goes out of his way to greet “the overseers and deacons” (so most translations). In the New Testament there are two Greek words that are used interchangeably to describe church leaders. The word presbuteros is usually rendered “elder,” while the word episkopos is usually rendered “bishop” or “overseer.” The uniform practice of the early church in the New Testament was to have a plurality of elders or overseers. This is because leadership by one person always tends to exalt one man over others, while the Bible clearly teaches that only Christ is to be exalted, for He alone is the head of the church (Col. 1:15-20; Matt. 23:8-12). Thus, Paul does not greet the “pastor” (singular) or the “overseer” (singular) of the church in Philippi, but the “overseers” (plural). Though the churches we attend may have a “pastor,” this is not the teaching of the New Testament.
It is instructive that Paul describes these believers in Philippi, not as being “under” their leaders (in which case the Greek preposition would have been hupo), but rather “along with” (Greek sun) the overseers and deacons. This is not accidental. In terms of biblical teaching, every Christian is a minister. There is no separate class of those who minister while others stand by and watch. Though some ministers may devote more of their time and energy to the ministry, and some may even be paid for their ministry, all Christians are “in the ministry.” As Alec Motyer of Christ Church, England, writes: “Within the local church there was fellowship (all the saints) and leadership (the bishops and deacons). The leadership, however, was not an imposition upon the fellowship but an expansion of it. For the saints are not ‘under’ but with (‘in company with’) the bishops” (The Message of Philippians, p. 33). Motyer adds, “As is always the case in the Bible, the existence and activity of such ministries arise out of the needs of the church, and they can be exercised only in ways that are suited to what the church is. Thus, for example, the New Testament never speaks of any ministry as mediating between God and the church” (p. 35). Motyer is referring to the great New Testament doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, which is an essential part of the biblical idea of the church.
It is also important to note that neither “overseers” nor “deacons” is used with the Greek definite article. This is highly significant. In Greek, the use of the definite article generally points out particular identity, whereas the absence of the article generally emphasizes qualities or characteristics. Apparently Paul uses this construction to emphasize the work these individuals do and not their titles. Evidence for this functional meaning of the terms comes from other Pauline epistles as well (see 1 Thess. 5:12-13; 1 Cor. 12:28-31; Rom. 12:6-8). The clear impression we receive is that of local churches under apostolic authority with each church managing its own affairs under the leadership of men who oversee and serve the congregation.
The implications of this are tremendous. If you were to go into practically any Protestant church today, you would likely encounter a hard and fast clergy-laity distinction, and very often a church ruled by one man with an iron fist. Or you may find the leadership divided into pastors, elders, and deacons, or into ruling elders and teaching elders, with the ruling elders functioning more like administrators who are involved in very little pastoral ministry. None of these models is truly biblical. While some passages suggest the presence of an elder who became the spokesman for the leadership, there is no suggestion anywhere of one man who was viewed as “the” pastor. Such a person was always accountable to the other elders and never led in a hierarchical manner, as was the case with Diotrephes (3 John 9-11). Thus the church is never viewed as a one-man team with the “pastor” doing all the work while the “laypeople” watched. Because of the limited capacity of one man to lead the church, New Testament leadership was plural and equal, with no system of hierarchy. True, certain people will generally function as leaders among the leaders because of their wisdom and experience, but all are equal and accountable to each other.
Moreover, in the worship of the church the leaders are never seen as dominating. Instead, a pattern of multiple participation by the congregation seems to have been the mark of all apostolic churches (see Rom. 12:4-8; 1 Cor. 14:26; Eph. 4:11-16; 5:19; Col. 3:16; Heb. 10:24-25; 1 Pet. 4:10-11), regardless of their geographical location (see 1 Cor. 4:16-17; 11:16; 14:33). The New Testament teaches that the congregational meeting is to be a place where all Christians exercise their spiritual gifts and stimulate one another to love and good deeds. There is no division into two classes of people: clergy and laity.
In addition, the leaders in the congregation did not take upon themselves honorific titles that might set them apart from the rest of the “saints.” Alexander Strauch, author of Biblical Eldership, correctly notes (p. 259):
There were prophets, teachers, apostles, pastors, evangelists, leaders, elders, and deacons within the early church, but these terms were not used as formal titles. For example, all Christians are saints, but there is no “Saint John.” All are priests, but there is no “Priest Philip.” Some are elders, but there is no “Elder Paul.” Some are pastors, but there is no “Pastor James.” Some are deacons, but there is no “Deacon Peter.” Some are apostles, but is no “Apostle Andrew.” Rather than gaining honor though titles and position, New Testament believers received honor primarily for their service and work (Acts 15:26; Romans 16:1, 2, 4, 12; 1 Corinthians 8:18; 2 Corinthians 8:18; Philippians 2:29, 30; Colossians 1:7; 4:12, 13; 1 Thessalonians 5:12; 1 Timothy 3:1). The early Christians referred to each other by personal names—Timothy, Paul, Titus, etc.—or referred to an individual’s spiritual character and work: “…Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit…” (Acts 6:5); Barnabas, “…a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith…” (Acts 11:24); “…Philip the evangelist…” (Acts 21:8); “Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow-workers in Christ Jesus” (Romans 16:3); “Greet Mary, who has worked hard for you” (Romans 16:6); etc. The array of ecclesiastical titles accompanying the names of Christian leaders today is completely missing from the New Testament, and would have appalled the apostles and early believers.
In light of what we have said above, there is a great need for reformation within local churches in the way we view leadership. Traditional pastoral ministry promotes an unbiblical one-man model of leadership under the self-styled “pastor.” In contrast, the New Testament teaches oversight by a plurality of men called elders. Some elders might be gifted differently and may even excel in specific pastoral tasks, but there is no biblical warrant for dividing church leaders into separate “offices” with honorific titles. Traditional concepts of “pastor” are clearly unscriptural. The New Testament does not speak of two classes of Christians, as we do today. According to the Bible, all Christians are the people of God who through the exercise of spiritual gifts do the work of the ministry. Such is the teaching of Paul in Phil. 1:1. Once again, Alec Motyer summarizes it well (p. 40):
How is leadership to be exercised? What is the relationship between leaders and led? The one word with provides the answer: ‘…the saints’, writes Paul, ‘…with the bishops and deacons.’ The strong natural leader chooses the easy path of being out front, taking it for granted that all will follow; the low-profile leader ‘plays it cool’, submerges his own identify and takes the risk that the tail will soon wag the dog. The more demanding exercise, the sterner discipline and the more rewarding way are found in companionate leadership, the saints with the overseers and deacons.
This kind of leadership has many facets. It involves realizing that leader and led share the same Christian experience: both are sinners saved by the same precious blood, always and without distinction wholly dependent on the same patient mercy of God. It involves putting first whatever creates and maintains the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. It means that leaders see themselves first as members of the body, and only then as ministers. In this way they face every situation from within the local body of Christ and not as people dropped in from the outside (or even from above!). It involves patiently waiting for the Holy Spirit to grant unanimity to the church in making and executing plans. It involves open relationships in which the leaders do not scheme to get their own way or play off one against another, but act with transparent integrity. It involves willingness to be overruled, to jettison role-playing and status-seeking, to be ready to cast a single vote with everyone else. It involves putting the welfare of the body of Christ before all personal advantage, success or reputation and it involves co-equal sacrifice for the Lord and his gospel. It is the leadership of those who are content to stand among the saints as those who serve.
From Saul to Paul
Finally, I must say a few words about the author of this great letter, the apostle Paul himself, who is perhaps the best-known Christian in all of church history. We know from chapter 3 of Philippians that Paul had been proud of both his Jewish heritage and his zeal for God, so much so that he was responsible for the “blood of the martyrs” until the risen Christ had changed his life forever. Read Phil. 3:4-7 and you will see that Paul enjoyed every privilege a Jew could enjoy and how he willingly and deliberately abandoned it all for the sake of knowing Christ and making Him known. There are three things that stand out in my mind about the converted Paul.
The first is the landscape of his past. When I think of Paul’s conversion I get tremendous hope. I’m reminded that God’s love reaches even the terrorists of the world – the Saddam Husseins, the Osama bin Ladens, and the Sauls of Tarsus. It’s just like God to take a murderer called Saul and make him into an evangelist called Paul.
A few years back, I experienced the truth of God’s borderless love in an amazing way. I had been teaching at a college in Addis Ababa when I got news that a 19 year-old man had been murdered for his faith in a village south of the capital. So along with one of my Ethiopian colleagues I drove there to visit and pray with the parents of the deceased. I knew there was little I could do for that grieving family except to wrap my arms around them. It was a Saturday afternoon when my companion and I, accompanied by some of the local church elders, drove out to the family’s village along a long, dusty road. There we enjoyed sweet fellowship – not the superficial social fellowship that we are so used to in our churches here in America, but the kind of oneness, common love, and concern that Paul describes so wonderfully in Phil. 2:1-4.
As dusk approached we began to drive back to town. All of a sudden I noticed some lights off in the distance. I asked the men who were with me, “What are those lights?” “That’s the prison,” they replied. “Is Mohammed there?” I said. “Yes,” came the answer. (Mohammed was the young man who, for religious reasons, had murdered the 19 year-old Christian.) He had been tried and sent to prison. When I heard that Mohammed was there, the Lord immediately said to me, “Go and visit Mohammed in prison.” You ask, “What the voice audible?” No, it was deeper than that. I simply had a very strong impression that I needed to visit not only the victim’s family but also the murderer himself. When I asked the elders if it was possible for me to call on Mohammed, they stared at me as though I were out of my mind. “You want to visit the murderer?” they replied with open-mouthed astonishment. “Yes, if that’s possible,” I said.
Despite their misgivings, the elders were able to arrange a meeting between me and Mohammed for the next morning. When we arrived at the prison we were ushered into a meeting hall where I was asked to wait until Mohammed could be led to us from his cell. Slowly the hall began to fill with prisoners, all of whom were curious about this white-faced foreigner. When the hall was full, the warden turned to me and asked me if I would like to speak to the group. Of course I agreed, and for 15 minutes I shared with them the story of Jesus and how He loves them and how He died for them and how He can forgive any sin. When I had finished speaking, the prisoners began filing out of the hall. One prisoner, though, stayed behind. He remained seated, head in hands, weeping uncontrollably. It was Mohammed. Somehow he had been led into the room and I had not noticed it. I went up to him, introduced myself and the elders who were with me, shared a few words with him, gave him a blanket that I had purchased in town, and left. God had clearly done a miracle in arranging for Mohammed to hear the Gospel that day.
A few months after I first visited Mohammed I went back to see him again. In fact, I visited him wherever I was in Ethiopia (about every 6 months). One day Mohammed asked me for a Bible, which I gladly supplied. About two years after our first meeting, my wife and I were visiting Mohammed when he said to us, “I’m ready.” We asked him, “What are you ready for, Mohammed?” He said, “I’m ready to acknowledge Jesus as my Lord and Savior.” And in the middle of the prison he lifted his hands toward heaven and cried out in Amharic, “Yesus Getano!” (“Jesus is Lord!”). At that very moment the kingdom of God invaded that Ethiopian prison, the kingdom of forgiveness, peace, and joy. Like the apostle Paul, Mohammed was a murderer, but now he was forgiven. Suddenly Mohammed became very quiet. He looked at us in the eyes and said, “My family told me that if I ever became a follower of Jesus they would disown me. They would not visit me when I got sick or bury me when I died.” Then he said, “You are now my parents.” At that very moment Mohammed became our responsibility, along with eight other Ethiopian youth whom my wife and I care for. We tell people, “We have nine Ethiopian children, and one of them is in prison for murder.”
I’m happy to say that Mohammed led several prisoners to the Lord while he was in prison. Today he is a free man, training to be an evangelist. Yes, God can take a murderer and make him into an evangelist. God can take haters and make them lovers. And when we experience His love, we reciprocate our indebtedness to Him by spreading His love to others. There is no better example of this than the apostle Paul.
When I think of Paul, I reminded, in the second place, of his scholarship. No, I’m not referring to his academic achievements or his publications or his reputation as a graduate of one of the world’s leading universities. In fact, the term “scholarship” is completely redefined when we think of Paul’s missionary life. I’ve often heard Paul referred to as a theologian. I can’t dream of Paul ever using that term to describe himself. Paul wrote great theology, it is true, and he was a thinker of the first magnitude. But he thought of himself, first and foremost, as a preacher of the Gospel, a church planter, and a lover of souls. He was God’s “chosen instrument” to take the Good News to the Gentiles, and to that single task he was fully devoted. He was, as every Christian should be, “separated unto the Gospel” (Rom. 1:2), and whatever publishing he did he did for one purpose: to advance Christ’s kingdom and to build up the church.
Many years ago I came to a similar conclusion in my own life. Like many others before me, I had viewed my scholarship as an end in itself, as an entrée into the world of academic conferences, as a means of gaining recognition and affirmation. But as I read the New Testament – a novel thing for a New Testament professor to do! – I began to see that my priorities were terribly misplaced. The words of Kierkegaard spoke to my heart (Provocations, p. 201):
The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obligated to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh priceless scholarship, what would we do without you?
Today I seek to use whatever scholarly abilities the Lord has given me for His service. Simply stated, I practice serving. The opportunities are endless to model the Jesus walk to others. Don’t wait for politicians to bring about cultural renewal. Be the hands and feet of Jesus – evangelizing the lost, feeding the hungry, teaching the illiterate, caring for unwed mothers, rebuilding the broken walls of our culture.
Finally, it is significant that although Paul was Jewish, he was also very familiar with the ways and customs of the Gentiles. It should not surprise us that God would use such a man to be His primary spokesman for Christianity in a Gentile context. Down through the ages God has granted His servants skills that uniquely equip them for the service to which He calls them. Paul’s Roman citizenship, for example, came in very handy as he traveled throughout the Mediterranean world, not least when he arrived in Philippi. The city was a Roman colony, its magistrates carried Roman titles, and its residents were fiercely proud of their Roman citizenship. Little wonder, then, that Paul wrote to the Philippian church, “You are a colony of heaven” (3:20), or that he urged the believers there to “live out your citizenship in a manner worthy of the Gospel” (1:27). Paul was always one to choose his words carefully, and nowhere is this clearer than when he uses politically-charged language in Philippians.
I can well appreciate this truth in my own life. The fact that it’s extremely easy for me to minister in many different cultures owes a great deal to my birth and upbringing in the “melting pot of the Pacific,” Hawaii. Ethnic diversity was part of my growing up experience from day one. The same is true of Becky. Her childhood in Ethiopia has given her a refreshing adaptability wherever she goes. What a vast area of opportunity that opens up! It is not a little thing if you are able to live and work in a different culture and language. I often joke that one of my spiritual gifts is the “gift of eating.” For some reason I can consume anything set before me and not get sick. I’ve eaten dog meat in Korea, red-hot curried food in India, and who-knows-what in East Asia. Where did I get this ability? Perhaps it came from the multiethnic milieu of Hawaii, where I enjoyed Korean, Chinese, and Indian food on a regular basis as part of a mixed bag of colors, races, and languages. The lesson? God can use anything in our lives. He wastes nothing. He can use even the most mundane experiences in our past if we will let Him.
We have hardly exhausted the profound truths that are contained in these two short verses. But if we were to begin to implement them in our homes and jobs, I believe we would see a radical change in our lives.
It really boils down to what you choose to think about yourself. Only you can decide if you will be a saint who serves. No one can force you to live unselfishly for the sake of the Gospel. Christian renewal begins locally, in every congregation, and personally, in your own mind and heart.
February 9, 2009
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.