Humility and the unity among the body of Christ are main themes in Philippians. Sadly, however, many commentators read that theme into the introduction to the letter (1:1). This then turns the opening into some secret code that the original readers would not have understood. But when it is all boiled down, the opening of Philippians is just like any other opening, and a common sense reading is best.
I am not downplaying the importance of asking questions during Bible study. It is certainly important to ask why every word and phrase is worded the way it is, for every detail was directed by the Holy Spirit. However, it is when exegetes are not satisfied with the most common sense answer, hoping to be “scholarly” and find some deeper innuendo, that I have a problem with these speculations. So it is important to ask in regards to the opening of the letter to the Philippians, “Why does Paul call himself a slave of Christ in this letter?” However, we must be willing to stop where authorial intent stops, which is as easy as, “Because he viewed himself as Christ’s slave.”
Certainly a key theme in the letter is humility, as well as unity. Many commentators read the theme of humility into this introduction all throughout: Paul calls himself a “slave” to model the humble attitude he wishes to see in the congregation; Timothy is mentioned beside Paul to demonstrate that even an apostle shouldn’t think too highly of himself; the elders and deacons are mentioned alongside the church so that they don’t think they are above the congregation. These applications, however, are an unwarranted stretch.
However, before we start interpreting the whole letter through this lens we must back up and see the letter for what it really is. First, in its most plain sense, Paul wrote this as a “Thank You” letter for the financial gift they send with Epaphroditus. Second, we must remember that this is a Pauline Epistle, meaning that its opening is just like any ordinary opening of his. Third, as an epistle written by somebody in the first century, the author follows the standard letter-writing practices of his day. So this opening, although “Christianized,” is basic: Sender name, recipient name, greeting (typically grace & peace).
When studying the opening of an epistle we must remember that Paul did not have all of his previous epistles sitting before him. Paul was most certainly not thinking in this letter or the opening of any letter, “The Philippians will compare this letter to 2 Corinthians and therefore I need to make some distinction that will surely get my point across that I am trying to emphasize in this letter more so than that one.” The churches that received the epistles could not, like we can, simply flip forward and backward a couple pages to compare each epistle’s introduction side-by-side (especially ones that were yet to be written!). Paul sat down each time afresh without all of his previous openings at the forefront of his mind.
So now with Paul’s epistle to the Philippians, we shall examine the opening verse and see what information we can legitimately draw from it, but most importantly for our present purposes, what speculations we should avoid.
Question #1: Why does Paul mention Timothy?
It seems most likely that Paul mentioned Timothy primarily because he was with him at the time. In Chapter 2 Paul says that he hopes to send Timothy to them shortly (vv. 19, 23), which implies that he was currently with Paul. Timothy must have been tending to Paul’s needs while in prison.
It should not seem strange that Timothy is mentioned to the Philippians since he helped Paul plant that church! He was picked up by Paul and began evangelizing with him in Acts 16:1-3, and was with Paul when he planted that church (the account is found in Acts 16; also compare 1 Thes. 1:1 with 2:2). We know that Timothy did more ministry among Macedonia (Acts 19:22). Paul says to the Philippians that they “know of his proven worth” (Phil. 2:22), so they must have had strong familiarity with Timothy. They knew that he cared deeply for their spiritual wellbeing, and they knew that he was a faithful gospel minister alongside Paul.
Any answer beyond this is going too far. He most certainly did not mentioned Timothy to bring himself down a level and demonstrate humility. Paul mentions his co-laborers in the openings of other epistles where humility and unity were not as big an issue.
Question #2: Why does Paul call himself and Timothy “slaves” of Christ?
Along with this question an interpreter may add the implied second half, Why does he not call himself something else? Commentators are tempted to see too much behind not only why he gives himself a lowly title, but also why he doesn’t give himself the exalted title of apostle. They will again read the theme of humility into this. They say that Paul is demonstrating for the quarrelsome Philippians how we ought not assert our authority, but lay aside our rights and titles, bringing ourselves to the level of servitude.1
However if this is the case, then we would have to draw the same inferences for the opening of every letter. For example, Paul calls himself “apostle” in his letters to Timothy. Does that mean Paul felt the need to reassert his authority against rebellious Timothy? The case in point that these speculations are silly is the epistle to Titus, where Paul labels himself both a “bond-slave of God” and an “apostle of Jesus Christ.”
There are better answers offered among commentators. Silva suspects it is due to the closeness and affection between Paul and the church. Martin says it is because the church never called his authority into question (unlike Galatians), so he need not reassert it. These are more tolerable solutions to be sure, but still fall short of accuracy. Instead, it is best to see no real significance.
With speculation aside, however, it is important to discuss the sense in which Paul saw himself as a slave. It could be in the sociological sense of servitude in their day. But there is also the Hebrew understanding of a position of honor, since Moses, Joshua, David, and others were called slaves of God.2 It seems more likely that Paul had servitude in mind. This is so because it would have been more at the forefront of their mind (especially being a Gentile church). Further, servitude is the way doulos is used in its only other use in the epistle (2:7). Also, the OT sense never finds repetition in the NT (unless this is the only exception), and in fact, the servitude aspect is established for Christian morality.3
Question #3: Why did Paul single out the elders and deacons in this letter and no other?
Many commentators, again reading humility into it, come up with some strange answers to this question. Some say it was to buttress their authority which they may have been abusing. Others say it is to shame them by “being the better man” and humbling himself while exalting them, as if they somehow would have refused to. But these two must certainly be rejected because rebuke is absent from his tone.
There are other answers offered to our question that are not influenced by the humility theme. One is that he shows regard (in an honoring way) to soften the blow for some of the more sensitive discussion later on. Another is that in a previous letter from the Philippians to Paul, the elders and deacons mentioned themselves (which would somehow be prideful?) and so Paul, in response, singles them out to shame them. If either of these confuse you, that is probably a good thing, because these views are too far of a stretch to even be given the time of day.
So why mention the elders and deacons here and in no other letter? Most certainly it is because they were the ones who oversaw the financial support sent to Paul by the hand of Epaphroditus. Perhaps his money came with a letter from the church itself signed by the elders and deacons. No hint of the humility theme is present, and there is certainly no hint of humbling them. It is very likely that the letter sent with the money was address from the elders and deacons and church, and so he is just replying.4
Question #4: Why the repeated us of “all”?
In the short letter of Philippians, Paul packs in several references to the Philippians as “all of you,” or, “you all.”5 Is this to drive home that all believers are one in Christ? That Paul wants nobody excluded? Most certainly the doctrine of the body of Christ is bound up in each use. Christians definitely need those frequent reminders. The question would be more urgent though if Philippians was unique in this respect.
The reference to “all” the saints is also found in the opening of Romans,1 Corinthians, and 2 Corinthians. Add to this the fact that four of Paul’s epistles are personal letters and therefore would not include such an opening. This brings our statistics from 1 out of 13 down to 4 out of 9. This makes the reference in Philippians a little less startling, although admittedly church unity was a problem in Rome and Corinth as well.6
Question #5: Why call the church “saints”?
Since calling the church “saints” is so common for Paul, especially in introductions, we should not read too much into it here (although the fact that Christians are saints is significant). Although commentators avoid reading humility into Paul’s use of this word, many still spend a lot of time on its background. In my opinion, those discussions drown out the main point, and should be reserved for an appendix so that the readers may keep their eyes on the flow of the text.
All in all, my point is that Paul was simply writing a letter.
1 Another angle of this question would be Hawthorne’s question of why Paul labels Timothy a slave as well, since he usually reserves that title for himself. This however, is simply pointless for Epaphroditus (Col. 1:7), Tychicus (Col. 4:7), and Epaphras (Col. 4:12) are called slaves. But most importantly, see Phil. 2:22 where he says that Timothy “worked like a slave” with him. The root of that word is doulos.
2 Moses, Joshua, and David were called slaves of God (Josh. 14:7; 23:30; 24:29; Ps. 88:21; 89:3). Moses: Exo. 14:31; Num. 12:7; Neh 10:30; Psa. 105:26. Other prophets: Amo. 3:7; Jer. 25:4; Dan. 9:6, 10. Paul calls himself a slave in only two other greetings (Romans and Titus). Silva, Melick, Hellerman, and Hawthorne all take it in the sociological sense of servitude. Martin takes it in the OT sense.
3 Consider especially Romans 6:19. After repeatedly emphasizing how Christians no longer slaves to the flesh but are now slaves to righteousness, he says, “I am speaking in human terms.” Meaning that human slavery is the perfect illustration of what Christian slavery is like. So to Paul, being a slave of God means that you are owned by him and owe him full allegiance.
4 I am indebted to Hellerman and Silva for their discussion and summaries of the various positions, even though they do not share my conviction.
5 In addition to here, Hawthorne lists 1:4, 7 (twice), 8, 25; 2:17, 26; 4:21, 23.
6 It may be important to note that the short letter of 1 Thessalonians also contains frequent mention of all saints, etc. See 1 Thes. 1:2, 7; 3:12, 13; 4:10; 5:5, 15, 26, 27.