Uncommon Servants and Unlikely Saints (Philippians 1:1a)

So far in our study of Philippians we have observed the historical background of Paul’s attempt to plant a church in Philippi, found in Acts 16.  We noted that, despite all the obstacles in his way, he persevered and expressed joy.  Joy is a dominant theme of Philippians.  Chuck Swindoll entitled his “commentary” on Philippians Laugh Again.

Do you lack joy in your life?

Psalm 86:4 is a prayer for joy.  “Bring joy to your servant…”  So you can pray for joy.

But we also get to joy through rejoicing.  Rejoicing is a choice we make to express our joy in God and His goodness.  Remember that grace, give thanks and joy all come from the same Greek root, char.  If you recognize how good God has been to you and thank him for it, joy arises in your heart.

So let’s dive into the introduction of the epistle to the Philippians.  Remember that “epistle” means letter.  Epistle is not the wife of an apostle.

As a letter, it follows the standard form of letters at that time, with a greeting, the body of the letter, and a closing.

So, in vv. 1-2 Paul introduces himself and Timothy, identifies his recipients—the Philippians—and salutes them with a blessing.

1 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons: 2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Yearbook—Who’s Who—sometimes the people with the most potential are the greatest disappointments.  They have no category for the “least likely to succeed,” but sometimes we’re surprised at who succeeds and who doesn’t.

Paul and Timothy…and the Philippians…don’t seem like the kind of people history would deem successful.  They seem unlikely candidates but…

In Paul’s introduction he follows the familiar cultural style of identifying the writer, then the recipients, and then voicing a greeting.  However, as Paul so often did, he here expands upon this literary formula and speaks to the central issues the Philippians were facing.

The primary problem that the Philippians were facing seemed to be disunity, spurred by selfish desires and an inflated sense of self-importance within some of the church members.  So, Paul uses his introduction to lay a foundation for addressing the issue of disunity.

Notice that Paul introduces himself by the name we are most familiar with…Paul.  But he started out with the name Saul.

This name brings to mind Acts 13:9 where Saul changed his designation to Paul.  He was never referred to as Paul before and never called anything else afterwards.  This transition from a Hebrew name to a Latin one, occurring at the outset of his ministry to the Gentiles, reflects his principle of being all things to all men, a Latin name probably being more acceptable to occupants of the Roman Empire.

Because this Latin word means “little,” many have conjectured that Paul adopted it because he was short in stature.

But let me offer another alternative.  Paul was of the tribe of Benjamin and given the name Saul after the king from that tribe.  Scripture informs us that King Saul was extremely tall, standing head and shoulders above the rest of the people.  I find it doubtful that had Paul been a 4 lb. 10 oz. baby his parents would have named him for this gargantuan king.  Imagine the ridicule they would have received from their friends.  It is more likely that Paul was large, reflecting the stature of his namesake.

He may have adopted the name Paul to reflect his self-evaluation as the “least of the apostles” and “chief of sinners.”  As we read the epistle, perhaps it is more valid to picture its author as a large man physically with spiritual humility.

Now, Paul doesn’t always include others in the salutation unless they were co-writers or functioned as his secretary.  To include Timothy again illustrates Paul humility and team spirit.

Timothy was Paul’s “son in the faith.”  That may not mean that Paul had led Timothy to faith in Christ, but simply that he had taken Timothy as his disciple, to train in godliness and ministry.

Timothy joined Paul on his second missionary journey.  He had a believing mother and grandmother, though it is likely his father was not converted.

Timothy applied himself to labor with Paul in the business of the gospel and did him very important services.  Through the whole course of his epistles, St. Paul calls Timothy not only his dearly beloved son, but also his brother, the companion of his labors, and a man of God.

It is fairly rare in life that one can find such a good friend and trusted confidant, but Paul had it in Timothy.

Timothy was well-known to the Philippians, having been a part of the team with Paul that had originally planted the church at Philippi (Acts 16).  They knew that there was “no one like him” (Phil. 2:20-21) and wanted Timothy to come back while Paul was in his first Roman imprisonment.

Timothy was Paul’s secretary at times (2 Thess. 3:17).  But in Philippians 2:19 he says, “But I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you shortly…” which tells us that Paul was the author.

The unique feature of the Philippian introduction is not that Paul mentions Timothy’s name alongside his own, but that he applies equally to both the designation “servant,” “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus.”

Generally Paul would distinguish himself in the introduction as an “apostle,” “slave of Christ,” or “prisoner” before he would name his teammates.

Why does Paul include Timothy here as a “servant of Jesus Christ”?  Most likely it is to reinforce to the Philippians a lesson they all needed to learn—“that relationships in the bosom of the church between collaborators were not those of authority, superiority or inferiority, but of humble equality” (Collange).

I’m sure that Paul’s acknowledgment of these coworkers served as an encouragement to them.

Paul’s example should challenge all of us to reflect on whether we display this propensity, highlighting the importance and contribution of coworkers and friends. Doing so costs nothing and can be a substantial blessing to others.

By the way, the word for “servant” here is the Greek word doulos, not diakonos.  The diakonoi, or deacons, and we will see that word at the end of verse 1, were originally “table waiters” and indicates someone who serves intentionally and usually temporarily.  These servants could work and then go home and live their lives.

The word doulos, on the other hand is someone who is not their own.  The NASB uses the word “bond slaves.”  It’s the same word the demon-possessed servant-girl used to identify Paul and his companions when they first visited Philippi: “These men are bond-servants of the most high God” (Acts 16:17).

Douloi are owned by another; possessed by someone else; and therefore have no will of their own but are totally subservient to the will of their master.

A slave didn’t clock in at 8 in the morning, put in his eight hours, and clock out for the night. He was the property of his master. He didn’t have a life of his own. He was on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, always ready to do what his master commanded, even if it was unpleasant or inconvenient.

This is one of Paul’s favorite words to apply to himself and I think it is appropriate for us to consider adopting it for ourselves.

Now, we do not only object to this concept because of our sad history of owning slaves in the United States, but because we like to think that we are the “captain of our fate,” that we determine our own lives.

However, embracing this perspective for ourselves—of being slaves of Christ—can be quite liberating.

When the Apostle Paul identifies himself and Timothy as slaves of Christ, what are the implications?  We can frame the answer in two words, both beginning with the letter “O”—ownership and obedience.

Ownership is a tough word. Paul captures its primary implication in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, “…  You are not your own.  You are bought with a price.”

Those of us living in the land of the free tend to equate being one’s own with the essence of personhood.  Therefore, losing our autonomy is tantamount to losing our humanity.

This perspective embodies an element of truth.  We become a slave of Christ at salvation.  Saving faith includes relinquishing our autonomy, which Scripture associates with death.  Baptism depicts this death by our submersion under the waters.  This graphically symbolizes death since left submerged we would die.

However, salvation does not leave us there.  Rather, it brings us into a new existence in which we live for Christ.  Though our American love of independence may invoke the parallel between loss of autonomy and loss of humanity, Scripture assures us that we achieve humanity to the fullest when we submit our lives to Christ.  We flourish precisely when we are submitted to God.

We find examples of submission and becoming fully alive at the human level.  Most married people would attest that life to its fullest began for them when they relinquished autonomy to take on the obligations of marriage.  Likewise, the man born to be a soldier becomes fully alive when he submits himself to the authority of the Army.

We were designed to be slaves of Christ.  Only when we submit to His ownership do we become the persons we were meant to be.

Ownership encompasses obedience.  If Jesus owns us, this reality obligates us to do His bidding.

Specifically what does Jesus call us to do—what is the nature of our obligation to Him?  In brief, God requires us to obey the law of love, that is, we are obligated to consistently seek to benefit others.

Doing so entails two elements.  First, we must give others what they deserve, that is, we must treat them ethically.  We must live righteously.  Not to do at least that much is certainly unloving.

In addition, we must employ all of our resources such as time, energy, capabilities, influence, money, etc. to benefit others in ways beyond our obligation to them, i.e. we are called to extend grace to them.

We maximize our display of grace to others by applying “stewardship,” which is an archaic word for “management.”  Our obligation to Christ requires that we manage our resources effectively in order to provide the greatest benefit to others.  In essence, Christ calls us to function as CEO of our lives, aggressively working to achieve the greatest profit for our Owner.  Doing so demands discipline, wisdom, and an understanding of biblical priorities.

Ultimately, this approach to life provides the greatest fulfillment and satisfaction, and it produces the greatest reward for time and eternity.

In choosing this term Paul was indicating that he was owned by Christ (1 Cor. 6:20).  Yet at the same time, for someone thinking theologically, it was a very liberating idea, for it meant he was voluntarily and gladly enslaving himself out of love to the One who had liberated him from a worst slavery, to sin and death (Romans 6:18-22; cf. John 8:33-34, 36).

In Exodus 21:1-6 we see this situation…

1 “Now these are the rules that you shall set before them. 2 When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. 3 If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. 4 If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out alone. 5 But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ 6 then his master shall bring him to God, and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever.

Now, slavery during these centuries could be horrible and cruel and demeaning, but many slaves enjoyed good lives.  Paul recognizes, like this man that this Master has been good to him, and he wants to voluntarily and gladly submit himself to Jesus Christ.

That Paul could speak of himself as a servant of Christ Jesus testifies to God’s grace in the life of a man who had been an arrogant and self-righteous persecutor of the church (Acts 9:1–2Phil. 3:6).

To be a Christian is to be a slave, not to your own lusts, but to the Lord Jesus Christ.  The foundation for knowing the abiding joy of the Lord is to recognize and submit to Jesus as your owner and Master, who has the right to command how and where you should live, how you should spend your time and money, and even how you should think. Your entire life must be focused on pleasing Him and doing His will as His slave.

James Boice points out (Philippians, An Expositional Commentary [Zondervan], p. 21) that in antiquity there were three ways a person could become a slave: by conquest; by birth; or, because of debt.  He goes on to observe that we all are slaves of sin by the same three causes.  Sin has conquered us, so that we are not free to do what we know is right.  We are sinners by birth, being born with a nature that is hostile toward God and oriented toward pleasing self.  We are sinners by debt, having run up an unpayable debt toward God who states that the wages of our sin is death.

But–and this is crucial–many people are not even aware of their condition as slaves to sin.  Having been born in sin, living all their lives to gratify the selfish desires of their corrupt nature, and being unaware of the huge, unpayable debt they have run up before the holy God, they’re like the Jews who argued with Jesus that they had never been enslaved to anyone (John 8:33).  They are like the frog in the kettle, unaware that the water is now boiling.

But Jesus replied, “Everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin…. If therefore the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:34, 36).  That is the startling truth we must all face.

Only Jesus Christ, by His substitutionary death, can set us free from bondage to sin.  But He only does it when we recognize our need and call out to Him for deliverance.  Then, having been freed from sin through faith in Christ, we become enslaved to God and begin to grow in holiness (Rom. 6:22).

If we call ourselves Christians, and Jesus is Lord, then we need to voluntarily and gladly submit to Him with all our strength in every area of life.

When Paul later says, “For me to live is Christ” captures this idea.  Our lives were bought by Christ and we should live every moment for Christ.  That doesn’t mean we can’t have a family or engage in business, but it means that obedience to Christ is central to all we do.

Every morning we voluntarily submit ourselves—our lives, our schedules, our families, our work—to the Lord.  We await His orders and obey His known will in every activity and interaction of the day.

The starting place for experiencing God’s joy is to yield yourself daily as a slave to Jesus as your Master; and to view yourself as being on duty for Him, listening for His voice, quick to obey His commands.

Again, in several of his epistles, but introduces himself as an apostle of Jesus Christ, to emphasize his God-given authority.  Identifying himself here as a “slave” emphasizes humility, the very attitude that the Philippians needed for unity and for joy.

While we sometimes need authority, we always need humility.

End Notes:

Discussion on “bond slave” comes from Paul Brownback’s blog Hope That is Real, February 9, 10 and 17, 2017.

Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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