Verbal plenary inspiration (and its necessary consequence, total inerrancy) is the cornerstone of Christianity. For without a trustworthy word from God, we would not know Him, nor know of His incarnation, sinless life, substitutionary death, glorious resurrection, ascension, heavenly session, and coming kingdom. Nor would we know what those glorious truths mean for us, much less the constellation of reasons why they are necessary (our fallenness, the cursed nature of the world, satanic deception and opposition), or the high purpose for which we were created and to which God restores us through His gospel. We need God to speak, and He has spoken in written words given to His apostles and prophets for our benefit.
Because every word of Scripture proceeds from God’s mouth and heart, every word is important. And that includes the greetings of the epistles! In God’s kindness He has deposited great richness out of the hearts of His apostles as they wrote letters to little outposts of the kingdom in a sea of paganism. We must pay careful attention to them, for they will teach us much.
As Paul opens his letter to the Philippians, he gives us three fascinating and meaningful foundations to our joy in Christ.
A. Slaves of Christ (v. 1a)
How radically counter-cultural is it for Paul to refer to himself as a slave of someone! It was counter-cultural in his day, for slavery was a shameful institution that everyone hated. Slaves had no rights and no real will of their own. They were owned by someone and existed to serve him and make him happy. And it is counter-cultural in our day, which obsessively and jealousy guards unfettered autonomy and liberty (usually expressed in abject libertinism).
To be the slave of Jehovah was an Old Testament notion. It was frequently used to describe people like Moses (Josh 1:2), Joshua (Judges 2:8), Abraham (Gen. 26:24), David (2 Sam. 3:18), and others who had obviously consecrated themselves to God’s authority and use. But interestingly, it was also used to refer to the entire nation of Israel. Liberated from bondage to Pharaoh and entering into covenant with God for the fulfillment of His promise-plan, God says, “For the Israelites are My slaves” (Lev. 25:55, HCSB). John MacArthur writes, “The Exodus did not rescue them from slavery altogether, but only from slavery to Pharaoh. Now they were the slaves of God.” Nehemiah understood this, too (Neh. 1:5-6). Most interestingly in the OT the phrasing was always “slave of Yahweh” or something similar. In the NT, that has been expanded and the Lord Jesus is frequently the referent. For monotheistic Jews, to be in covenant with God was to be enslaved as a committed worshipper of His. Now, they are saying a carpenter’s adopted son is their Master! Because this Man is the Yahweh to whom Jews were covenantally bound—this does not change under the new covenant. Paul (Rom. 1:1, Gal. 1:10, Titus 1:1), Peter (2 Pet. 1:1), James (Jas. 1:1), Jude (Jude 1), and the Apostle John (Rev. 1:1) all saw themselves as bought, owned and exhibiting entirely for the will and purposes of another. Indeed, they encouraged the earliest generations of believers to think of themselves this way, too (Acts 4:29; Rom. 6:15-23; 1 Cor. 6:19-20, 7:22-23; 1 Pet. 2:16; Rev. 1:1a). A slave of Christ is one who is bound up in total, loving, unquestioning devotion to Christ and because of it, to His people.
If we saw ourselves as slaves of the Lord Jesus, how would that change our lives? Well, for one we would stop whining about our rights and feeling offended when snubbed or wronged. It isn’t that slavery to the Lord makes the pain of being wronged go away, or certainly that being sinned against does not matter—but it does put our slights and losses in perspective, doesn’t it? You exist for Him. You do not exist for the satisfaction of your own way. We would also be secure about our futures, as we would trust the Master to provide everything we needed—everything from basic stuff like housing and food to everything within His will to bring us joy as blessings from Him and manifestations of His grace. O Christian! Embrace your enslavement by Christ and find the security and joy it affords.
B. Saints in Christ (v. 1b)
Many of us grew up in (and were converted to Christ from) a religious tradition which saw especially holy people formally recognized as saints by the Pope after a series of miracles were credited to the prayers of that person. Of course, this whole process is radically unbiblical! In the NT economy, every genuinely converted person is a saint.
Sainthood in the New Testament speaks to our position and our calling. The term is lit. “holy one,” and it refers to someone who has been set apart for divine usage and purposes. Certainly, a true saint strives to be holy—to be responsive to God’s commands from the heart and to conform him or herself to God’s way of thinking, loving and valuing—but this is not why he or she is a saint! Instead, he or she is a saint because God has called them to Himself and set them apart by His work in the gospel and in granting them the faith and repentance to respond to the gospel. Indeed, the NT bears this out. We are saints by the effectual call of God (1 Cor. 1:2; Rom. 1:7). Sainthood means we are to be received by one another in a certain way (Rom. 16:2). It means we are to be equipped for the work of serving Christ (Eph. 4:12) and are to live holy, pure lives set apart from sin and worldliness (Eph. 5:3). Because of union with Christ, every Christian is a saint of God (Phil. 4:21). Union with Christ is something God does. He gives you the gift of faith and by it incorporates you into Christ so that His life and death become yours—and His holiness becomes yours. Indeed, sainthood is just an allusion to our imputed righteousness—but it is more than that. It is a call to how we are to live.
We are to live out in our practice what we are in our position. While it is true that our position is in some sense not affected by our practice, it is a grave error to so separate them that perseverance–both as evidence of conversion/position and (where the stress is placed in the NT) the only pathway to heaven and being acquitted at the final judgment—is made unnecessary meaningless, or worse, viewed as works-righteousness that undercuts the free grace of God. True saints live like it. Not perfectly. Not always consistency. But they possess the free gift of righteousness in Christ, live holy lives, and are kept by God in practical holiness all the way home to the last day.
C. Salutation from Christ (v. 2)
Does it amaze you that God and Christ speak in the Bible? Not just in certain portions (much less only the red letters!), but that the whole book is the written speech of the only God? How this ought to make us both incalculably grateful for our Bibles and also tremble as we read and study them! For this is a dangerous book. The holy God, the Creator who speaks and nothing obeys and becomes something, the God who dwells in unapproachable light and is a consuming fire—this God has spoken in a book. How careful we must be with it! And yet, what richness is here for the reverent and diligent!
Because of their union with Him, the saints at Philippi could know Christ’s warm welcome and blessing. They were no longer enemies. The throne—for it is a place of rule and authority, where commands are given and submission is enjoined—is yet a throne of rich grace, where sin is covered completely and all of God’s power, goodness and intimacy are available to us without measure because of the merit of Another (Another who Himself has unlimited access to God and Hos goodness, and because it is another’s merit it is not rooted in nor affected by what I do or don’t do). As the authoritative emissary of Jesus Christ, Paul brings tidings from God the Father and Jesus of grace and peace.
Grace is the heart of the gospel. We often think of it as the unmerited, unsought, unearned gift of God in justification, and it is that. But the fully-orbed picture of grace is that it is also a power—God working on our behalf to both bless us with every good thing (for every good thing we experience is not rooted in our merit but the kindness of God at the cross), and to transform us to live holy lives. Grace is always unmerited and unearned. It is a gift. But it is more than positional. It is an active, dynamic thing, alive in the hearts and life experiences of God’s covenant people.
Peace is a rich word. Paul is using it in its Jewish, Old Testament orientation. Thus, it does not merely mean a sense of inner calm (though it is that), nor even absence of conflict between you and a holy God (though without question that is its chief attraction and glory). Peace is a full word, an overflowing word. It is the (in Hebrew) word shalom. This means a state when everything is as it should be—everything is in working order, nothing is missing, with no frustration, lack, or dissatisfaction. Prosperity, fullness, wholeness, joy, and beauty are everywhere. Nothing is missing, all is well. This flows out of grace. It is the result of grace. Moreover, it is from Jesus (the incarnate God come to save sinners and redeem His creation) and because of union with Him. Is this not wonderful? God’s words to you, Christian, in a fallen and cursed world, are “Grace! Peace!” You are reconciled to a holy God. You have access to His blessings and redeeming, overcoming, restoring, sanctifying power. You have the charge of imaging, together with other Christians, the future kingdom in the present in your lives, values, and the power of God in answered prayer. You have the hope of a restored paradise earth where everything will be as it should. Should you not be the most shamelessly joyful person on the planet?
Embrace your slavery. Live out your sainthood. Bank on grace and peace. And God’s overflowing, indomitable joy will be yours!