The fact that every word of Holy Scripture is breathed out by our sovereign God is undoubtedly one of the most precious realities in the world. Besides guaranteeing the total inerrancy, perfect infallibility, comprehensive and binding authority, and complete (every word) preservation of the Scriptures until today, it also ensures the sufficiency of every passage of Scripture to teach transforming truth and instruct the mind, will, and affections.
As such, both the openings and closings of the epistles must be carefully studied to extract every drop of truth. Paul’s farewell to the Philippian church is no exception. Having concluded this tour de force explaining, applying, and exulting in Christian joy, Paul is ready to demonstrate it one final time as he communicates his love for the saints at Philippi and assures them of the triumph of God’s grace.
Here, we are instructed quite practically: The tender love and affection believers are to have for each other is modeled, and the powerful sufficiency and conquering power of God’s grace is revealed.
A. Final Words of Greeting (vv. 21-22)
These words break open neatly into a four-fold greeting.
Paul instructs the elders and deacons at Philippi—who were likely ones to read the letter to the church—to greet all of the believers there. Every word means something here. “Greet” is not a detached “hi,” the way we might see a mutual friend and say, “tell So-and-So I said hey!” Rather, the Greek word carries the idea of embracing, kissing, an overt expression of affection and warmth. We might better translate the idea by saying, “Give them a big hug from me!”
The use of the holy kiss in several passages in the New Testament is most interesting. Used both as a sign of fellowship (the wider context of at least one passage identifies who we are to kiss) as well as a doubtless affectionate and warm demonstration of personal love, the holy kiss is nothing less than an apostolic command to the churches. Our Western culture has been fantastically degraded thanks to several centuries of modernity, populism, Common Sense Realism, and the stubborn Enlightenment roots of autonomy, rationalism, and individualism. As such, given our cultural context, we are inclined to chafe at such a blatant divine demand to show physical affection to other Christians (especially men). While it is true that God has designed people to express love differently, I do wonder if the emphasis placed on physically receiving other Christians with love and tenderness is not intended by our Lord to be a direct attack on our selfishness, comfort levels, pride, autonomy, and all the rest! We claim our rights, including our right to express ourselves only in ways that feel naturally comfortable to our personalities and temperaments. The God of heaven says to regularly show physical affection to other Christians (and we have no reason to say that this cannot include appropriate kissing). Whom shall we believe?
“Every” carries the idea of each individual person, one by one. It does not mean a mass greeting to the whole (the way a guest preacher gets up and says, “My church wants to send its love to you all!”). It means personal attention and interest. This is noteworthy. The apostle Paul, the face of Christianity in the first century, who has been as it were in the inner counsels of God, insists on personally attending to each believer at Philippi. Surely we can do no less!
“Saint” denotes that as to our position and calling (with direct implications on our practice), we are holy, divinely chosen and set apart for consecrated service to our holy Lord. And of course, “in Christ” denotes our precious, life-giving, indissoluble union with the lovely Messiah. It is noteworthy that the Greek preposition translated “in” refers to a fixed position or resting permanently in a place!
Paul sees the Philippian believers as holy ones united to his beloved Lord, and as such worthy of his personal investment, time, and open, devoted affection and love. What a slap in the face to our carnal American sensibilities—and what a high and holy calling from our risen Lord!
Paul is not alone. He has had many dear Christian workers alongside him throughout his imprisonment—most notably, of course, Epaphroditus, who came from the Philippian church. Onesimus, Tichyus, Luke, Aristarchus, Mark, and doubtless others had made an appearance, ministered to Paul, and shared his heart. These men, Paul’s carefully chosen co-laborers in gospel ministry, wish to send the same personal love and affection to the Philippians as well! If nothing else, this says that church leaders ought to cultivate an intentional, personal, and loyal love for those whom God has placed under their oversight—as well as their brothers in the ministry (they were not visiting Paul as a mere social hour, after all, but out of love and loyalty to him in his suffering). Because the Philippians were dear to Paul, and doubtless he had been talking about them with these men, they became dear to these fellow-servants. They felt genuine love for people they had never met, but because they were dear to Paul, they became dear to them.
Because Paul was in Rome, it is certain the many Christians of that church made their way to him more than once—with food, prayers, encouragement, stories, tears, joys, and pain of their own. Knowing of Paul’s written ministry to local churches, the people whom Paul has ministered to for years through his own letter as well as in person want to demonstrate their love for their brethren in Philippi. A noteworthy lesson for us: Do we love the Christians in other churches and cities, even if doctrinal and practical disagreements prevent full cooperation and fellowship? For we will all be in heaven together, since we are part of the one household of faith. Do we have a tender affection for the ones we know in those cities, as well as a general affection for the ones we do not? We should. The Romans did.
This is perhaps the sweetest part of the greeting. Paul is nothing if not an evangelist, and he has been busy. Doubtless the soldiers he was chained to heard the gospel many times from the little former Pharisee, and it’s likely some of them came to know Christ. Through them, other people in Caesar’s household—“household” being an extremely broad word encompassing food tasters, cooks, courtesans, guards, maids, musicians, artists, gardeners, accountants, various ranks of slaves, and more—have embraced the reigning Messiah and identified with Him in baptism. Think of it: In the very beating heart of the Empire, the very nucleus of power, God has His elect who have come to know Him through Paul! Now do you see why he was not distressed about his imprisonment?
The greetings flow seamlessly into words of grace. It is to those we now turn.
B. Final Word of Grace (v. 23)
The great preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote concerning this statement, “[it is] the most comprehensive prayer that any person can ever offer on behalf of another. …Nothing greater can be desired or requested for any of us than that the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ should be present with us and controlling our spirits.” The all-sufficiency of God’s grace in salvation is one of the most precious truths. For in it we are assured that we are completely dependent on that which is outside of us from the beginning to the end of salvation. At no time is human merit even a remote possibility. Even the transformed life we must bring to the final judgment, as the confirming evidence of our faith in Christ in this life, is ever and always the evidence of our union with Christ and the means to final salvation, never the ground of our acceptance with a holy God (for even our righteousness is not good enough). God accepts us in Christ by His perfect grace alone because of the work of Christ alone. Anything else is a false gospel.
Moreover, for grace to be with us implies its authority over us (Heb. 4:16) and its comprehensive instruction of us (Titus 2:12). Grace is not merely unmerited favor. It is the active, dynamic, effectual presence of God Himself, giving of Himself, to accomplish all He intends in, to, for, and through us. This extends from eternity past all the way to the endless days on the resurrected earth in eternity. We will never stop needing God’s grace (even as glorified resurrected beings we are only there because of His grace to us as sinners!). The glorious adventures and perfect life we will enjoy on the new earth will be from one angle nothing more than everlasting demonstrations of God’s gracious kindness to us in Christ (Eph. 2:7). Grace is God at work powerfully on our behalf—unmerited, yes, because it is a free gift; purchased by the cross, yes, for that is the only way a holy God can show favor to sinners; but often entered into and applied by conditions we meet in our real responsibility. As such, we cannot be passive and lazy, but seek the Lord for greater and fuller manifestations of His grace.
Anyone reading the New Testament with their eyes open and two synapses to rub together will note that God’s call (to all humanity, who are responsible to obey His commands, and to Christians in particular, who are both responsible and able) is not exactly easy. And while God assures us of great blessing both spiritual and physical in this life and the next, it never comes apart from significant and often painful self-denial, submission, severing of ties with the world, death to self, brokenness, and repentance. The sensitive Christian, as well as not a few unbelievers, may think, “How on earth can God expect me to _____?” How can fallen men and women live lives worthy of the gospel, living in every part of life as a citizen of the kingdom? The answer is God’s grace—in regeneration, in justification, in sanctification, and in guaranteeing glorification. Only as people dominated by the grace of God can we obey Him, glorify Him, love Him, and witness for Him.
Philippians is about joy. But in the end, it is ultimately about God—His person, His work, His promises, and His grace to the ill-deserving. Only God Himself, as He is known by faith, can provide the unshakeable foundation to lasting and eternal joy.