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Letter to Old Friends

Philippians  1:1-11

Of all of Paul's letters, the one to Philippi is the warmest and most congenial to his heart. It also shows lessons for mature churches - and mature Christians.


It always helps to know where you're going. So where is Philippi?


Philippi was a Roman "colony" - a Roman settlement in the Greek lands, founded by ex-soldiers - and it was an important trading city. It was a stop along the Egnatian Way, the main east-west trading route of the Roman Empire. Here Paul, on his second missionary journey, met Lydia, the seller of purple in a town with so few Jews that there was not even a synagogue, just a river meeting. Here Paul was scourged and thrown in jail - a jail he and Barnabas turned into a midnight concert hall. Here the jailer was converted. Here the officials had to beg him to leave town, a Roman citizen scourged without legal authority (but for the cause of Christ). Paul returned there on his third missionary journey.

It is a church much praised by Paul, and held up as an example to others. The letter itself, therefore, is the most personal and heartwarming of all of his letters, for this is a letter to old friends. The key word - we will see it often - is "joy."

Paul, as he writes this letter, would have little cause for joy in the world's eyes. He is in prison, shackled to a Roman soldier. He is awaiting the convenience of the Emperor Nero, and faces martyrdom. Church tradition has it that he was beheaded at Nero's command. But through all of this we can see that Paul was at peace, a peace that can only come from God.

The theme of Paul's writing is that of encouragement of a mature church. We often see what is said to the backslider, now we shall see what is said to those who love God dearly.


Paul's letters, like those of the time, begin with a salutation.

(Phil 1:1-2 NIV) Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons: {2} Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.


It is interesting that in other letters Paul starts off by describing himself as an Apostle of Jesus Christ; here he uses the word "servant." It actually means a bond slave. This is a sign of two things:

  • It is a sign of humility - and an example to the Philippians which will be expanded upon.
  • It is also consistent with the honor which Paul gives to Christ throughout this letter. The preeminence of Christ will be seen frequently.

Too, there is an emotional side to this. To be a willing bond slave of Christ is an example of devotion. But isn't it the case that it also carries with it a certain dignity? As the devotion is grows, so does the innate dignity of the servant, for that dignity flows through him from his Master.


Paul sends his greetings to the "saints." We sometimes recoil from the word, thinking of plaster saints in the Roman Catholic tradition. But the truth is simple: all true Christians are saints.

  • The word itself means one who is holy, kept separate from the world.
  • But note: it is "in Christ Jesus." We cannot keep ourselves holy and separate without Him.
  • See again Paul's humility: the bond slave addresses the saints. This is humility at work.

He then singles out two other groups from within the saints. First are the overseers (you may bishops, elders or presbyters in your translation), the spiritual leaders. Next are the deacons (this is the word for servant). In so doing, he pays particular honor to these, as should we all.


In his greeting he now wishes them two things:

  • Grace - the common greeting of the Greek people
  • Peace - the common greeting of the Hebrew people

In so doing, he unites the church - and tells them the source of their unity, for this is in God and in Christ. Thus he echoes Christ's prayer that we may be one, just as He and the Father are one.


Paul now renders his thanks for them. In some letters he skips this section, especially when the letter is one of correction. But for these dear and faithful friends, he has much to be thankful.

Paul's joy

(Phil 1:3-5 NIV) I thank my God every time I remember you. {4} In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy {5} because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now,

If you'd like to see the reason for a pastor's joy, take a look at this verse:

(Heb 13:17 NIV) Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.

These Philippians have done that - they have made Paul's work with them a joy. Why does he consider this a joy? Because of their fellowship with him. The Greek word for this is koinonia, which implies a very deep fellowship - the root word in the Greek means "union." It is a word for those who have shared each others burdens, who have cried together. The evidence of this is easy to find. This is a church that did not forget him when he left to evangelize elsewhere, but supported him from afar.

This is a lost art today. In my father's time it was considered a noble thing, a "good deed" (for you Boy Scouts), to materially assist those who gave their full attention to the Gospel. Today it seems lost, and we are the weaker for it.

Another reason for Paul's joy is this: these were the first to share, and the last - they've been with him all the way. From the time he met Lydia by the river, to the time they sent Epaphroditus, they have shared his burdens. There is no friend like an old friend.

Paul's confidence - Christ in them

(Phil 1:6-7 NIV) being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. {7} It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God's grace with me.

When Paul says he is confident here, he teaches us a few lessons in short words:

  • This teaches them humility. It is not through their own virtue and power that they will endure to the end, but through the power of God.
  • It also shows that Christ is no respecter of persons in that. Even the good church, the righteous Christian, cannot prevail on his own. All are in need of grace and the sustenance of the Holy Spirit.
  • But it also teaches this: they (and we) and be confident in Christ. He will not fail.

Paul has particular reason to feel like this.

  • They are partakers in a grace which is sufficient. As Paul knows, Christ's power is perfected in Paul's weakness.
  • They shared this grace with him when he was a free man with them, preaching in their streets.
  • They still share it, even though he is now in chains, disgraced in the world's eyes.
Deep Longing

(Phil 1:8 NIV) God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.

Paul's yearning leaks out in two ways:

  • "God can testify" - literally, "God is my witness" - is an expression usually used to claim something to be the truth. It is an oath. But it can also be used to show a depth of feeling, and that is what Paul is doing here. These people are very, very dear to him.
  • His affection is not just his own, but that of Christ. It is something in complete harmony with the will of God.


Paul now ends his salutation with a prayer for his friends.

(Phil 1:9-11 NIV) And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, {10} so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, {11} filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ--to the glory and praise of God.

In this we see three great themes.

Love abounding

"The measure of love is to stop nowhere" (Chrysostom). Is this not the measure of love shown us by Christ himself? What more can a man do than give up his life? This is the kind of love that we, the imitators of Christ, should display. It is the love that these imitators of Christ model for us.

Knowledge and depth of insight

Love, unbalanced by thought, yields disaster. But if we balance reason and emotion correctly, love becomes the driving motivation in a successful walk with Christ.

  • We need to see that the good is often the enemy of the best. Love would prompt us to do either; knowledge and insight will choose correctly.
  • The result of this? That we would be pure and blameless. Some translations put this "sincere" and "without offense." Either translation suits well the call of Christ.
  • This clarity also yields endurance, for we must do this until the end - either until we die as individuals or, as the church, until the return of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Think of it as a recipe: Love, when guided by knowledge and insight, yields fruit - the fruit of the Spirit. Paul gives us two necessary conditions of that fruit:

  • First, that fruit is "through Christ" - and through him only.
  • Second, that fruit is for the glory of God - not our own personal honor.

Selected lessons for today's church

There are many points from which to choose; let me leave you with these four which I believe are most important for the church today:

  1. Your power is in Christ, not in yourselves. Whatever you do, do it in the Lord, or court certain failure.
  2. Remember the care of the workers in the Gospel. He who receives a prophet receives a prophet's reward.
  3. Hang in there! Be faithful to the end - either of your life (personally) or until the Lord returns (the church).
  4. Love, guided by knowledge and insight, produces great fruit.

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