The letter to the Philippians was written by Paul and Timothy about 60–61 AD while Paul was in prison in Rome. This city of Philippi was where he witnessed to the jailer, and the synagogue outside the city was where he met Lydia (Acts 16). It is a letter of gratitude, encouragement, praise, and prayer.
In this greeting Paul mentions “guardians and attendants”. These two words are typically translated “overseers/bishops and deacons/ministers”. But our word “overseer” tends to lean more toward the idea of ruler and less of protector, while “deacon” is not a translation at all but a transliteration, which means to write a word as it sounds in the target language. Diakonois means one who serves or waits tables, just as “minister” meant originally. But it had no connotation such as a paid speaker or CEO, as in most churches throughout history. There is some evidence that these attendants were benefactors who had the means to help the believers in matters of law or finance.
Paul is very grateful to the Philippian believers for their continued partnership with him in spreading the Gospel. Because of this, he is confident that God will keep supplying them with increasing spiritual blessings. Note that it is God, not the people, who both began this work and will complete it.
The people have continually prayed for Paul and worked by his side. So one of the things he prays for on their behalf is spiritual discernment. They are to test everything, not swallow everything blindly.
Rather than hindering Paul’s efforts, his imprisonments have actually helped. The guards and many others became aware of the reason for his arrest, and as a result the Gospel was made known to them. And it makes others bold, seeing that not even imprisonment can shackle the Gospel. To Paul, nothing mattered more than getting the truth out. Even if some people sought to use it to draw disciples away from him and to themselves, Paul is happy, as long as it’s the truth that’s being preached. God will deal with improper motivation in his good time.
Paul expresses his being torn between being dead and in heaven with Jesus, and here on earth to continue his work. But for the sake of others, he is happy to still be here to help the believers grow. And there is no hint here of “soul sleep” or delay between physical death and being conscious in the presence of God.
Now his attention turns to the people’s behavior, so that the Gospel will not be maligned. There is to be no fear of opposition from people who are still under God’s condemnation. Suffering is part and parcel of salvation, so it should not be seen as something unexpected. But Paul does not stop there. He holds up Jesus as the example to which all believers must look, as one who has suffered for the sake of a greater good. It must be understood that the suffering we are to endure has two qualities: it is for the sake of Christ, and it is at the hands of unbelievers. Never is “suffering for Christ” to come at the hands of fellow believers. No one claiming to belong to Jesus can use “suffering for Christ” as an excuse to keep abusing other believers and demanding that their victims remain silent and passive.
Chapter 2 vs. 5–11 is one of the most powerful and compelling passages of the entire New Testament, and it is full of deep theology. Although this is one of Paul’s most positive and uplifting letters, we have controversy here because it reveals very basic truths about Jesus’ deity and humanity, as well as a lesson in how those with privileges are to view them.
It tells us first of all that Jesus was “in the form of God” in the very beginning. He didn’t start out as a man and work his way up, as the cults declare. Neither did he eternally exist as any kind of sub-level of God, as the “eternal sonship” teaching asserts. He was not a mere angel (see Hebrews) or any other lesser being. Yet in spite of divine power and privilege, Jesus did not cling to it and refuse to stoop down to our level.
Voluntarily he set aside his divine privilege and made himself like one of us lowly creatures. It was not forced upon him or decreed by the Father over him, but was something he chose to do. It was in this humble situation that he took on the position of slavery, humbling himself and perfectly obeying the Father, even to the point of a tortuous and humiliating death. And if we truly follow his example, we too must be willing to lay down any privileges to which we may feel entitled. As Paul told the Corinithians (1 Cor. 9), he did not cling to his right to be paid for his work, in spite of it being justified by scripture. This has serious implications regarding the debate over the sphere of women in the church. Even if one could support privilege in the church and home by sole virtue of biological gender, such privileges are to be given up.
Yet this was not the end; God raised him back to glory and gave him the most exalted Name. Jesus did not permanently remain lower than the Father, but was restored to full equality as before. And because of what he did, Jesus will ultimately be acknowledged, willingly or not, by all sentient beings as the Master, to the glory of God the Father. Jesus spoke in prayer of his being one with the Father, and that they would again share the glory they had in eternity past.
We must remember that though Jesus was always divine and always will be, he did not become human until that point in history. Otherwise the statement about taking on the form of a human would mean nothing. Yet he will always remain human as well. In his divinity he is still fully equal with all three Persons of the Trinity, but at the same time, in his humanity he will always be the Son, and we will always be his adopted siblings.
This is all for our motivation, as an example to follow. Because of all Jesus did, we are then to carry our salvation to its ultimate conclusion. Yet many stop there and conclude that we have to work for our salvation. But they ignore the very next statement: “For it is God who is empowering you”. Salvation is God’s work; obedience is ours. Salvation is still a gift, still fully of God, and still not a reward. Instead, the context is all about following the One who is already our Master and Savior, the One we already belong to. It is this growth and new life we carry out (not “work for”).
Further, we are to stop whining about this following and suffering. We must hold on tight to the Word of Life and not to our own righteousness. Paul’s statements cannot be used as another attempt to throw out our security as believers, but simply as he writes here: that we stop relying on ourselves and thus make all Paul’s earlier teachings on how to grow as having been a waste of time.
Paul hopes to send Timothy to the Philippians soon so he can relay news about them. Paul doesn’t call Timothy an actual physical son here, but uses the term to describe his close relationship with him. For this reason he wants the people to treat Timothy with great respect. He had earlier sent Epaphroditus to them, a “co-worker and comrade-in-arms”. The people had worried about his (Epaphroditus’) health, but Paul is happy to report that God had mercy and healed him. Now he can visit them again, and they were to hold him in the same esteem as Paul and Timothy, since he had also risked his life for them.
Now Paul turns to words of advice and warning. There are people who want to control and micromanage, to rule and enslave. He had the legalistic “Judaizers” in mind especially, those who kept trying to force circumcision on all believers. Paul himself was a Jew with the highest legalistic credentials, but as great as his accomplishments had been, he counted them all as utterly worthless, even as “a pile of manure”. All the greatest accomplishments, the highest credentials, the most flawless performance was now considered unworthy to be compared with knowing Jesus the Anointed, God in the flesh. He had lost it all, but gained much more.
In light of that, how can anyone today insist that we must do this or that to get or remain saved? This works-salvation is known as Lordship Salvation, but it really isn’t about the Master at all. It’s all about us, our performance, our own righteousness. Look at Paul, and the radical change in him after salvation. Yet in all his letters he keeps pointing away from himself and towards Jesus. Salvation is still by faith alone. Those works could never save Paul, and they won’t save us today. Instead, he resolved to only know Jesus and the power of his resurrection— not his own power. But remember that this is no license to sin, as Paul made very clear in his letters to the Romans and the Ephesians. We behave out of love and respect for God; we die to sin because we are saved, not to become saved.
We have not attained our own resurrection or even reached full maturity, but we continue to pursue it nonetheless; Jesus has already taken possession of that which we reach for. We strive then, not to acquire what is already guaranteed to us, but what will result in our maturity and reward. We are not to sit on our inheritance, but to invest it, remembering Who it really belongs to. Yet at the same time, we are responsible for that investment. So we chase after that goal, straining toward the time when our faith becomes sight. A “prize” awaits all who run the race. Again, this is works/rewards language and therefore cannot refer to salvation itself.
Paul encourages the people to all run in the same direction and follow his example. They should note the contrast between his life and the lives of those who are really enemies of Jesus, who live only for the world. We are no longer citizens of this world but of the kingdom of God, and we should live like such citizens. Paul views the people as his medal of honor, his trophy, and he wants them to stand firm.
Now Paul starts to name names. Two women named Euodia and Syntyche have contended at Paul’s and Clement’s side, and he asks someone named Syzugos to be of assistance to them. They are called Paul’s co-workers, which should not be glossed over. Many people brush off these women as mere assistants instead of being on a par with Paul and the others. Had they been men, nobody would even think twice about this. Yet Paul even tells this Syzugos to assist them, showing their importance and worthiness of respect as leaders.
Now some general instructions on practical Christian living: Be happy, don’t worry, depend on God and speak to him often. This will result in inner peace, something the world tries to work for but Christians can have for nothing. This in turn will serve to guard our thoughts from that which would bring us down. Paul speaks of both the peace of God and the God of peace. If we keep our focus on the good and pure, we are walking with the God of Peace, who will never leave us.
While the Philippians had been inconsistent in the past with their giving to others, now they were showing maturity in this area. To assure them that he isn’t hinting that they should give him something, Paul tells the people about his contentment in every situation. And he commends them for sticking with him in spite of their own suffering. They were the only Congregation of believers to do so and went beyond expectation to help him. Yet whatever they did for him resulted in credits to their account spiritually.
As was his custom, Paul signs off with blessings and praise to God, along with greetings from other believers.