Lesson 6 of 6
In Progress

Bible in the World – Philippians

Saints, Bishops, and Deacons

Philippians is the only Pauline letter specifically addressed to “saints in Christ Jesus . . . with the bishops and deacons” (1:1). In the course of church history, “saints” came to designate figures in the Roman Catholic tradition who lived exceptionally holy lives and performed miraculous deeds in Christ’s name (e.g, Saint Augustine of Hippo, Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Therese of Lisieux; Saint Teresa of Calcutta). They were certified as saints after their deaths through a process of examination by church officials.

The Philippian “saints” to whom Paul writes, however, simply refer to the entire congregation, without distinction. All who believe in Christ are “made holy” in Christ and “set apart” to serve Christ. Paul never singles anyone out as uniquely “sainted,” including himself (no self-identification as “Saint Paul”).

Paul does acknowledge himself and others as ministerial leaders, though not as overlords. His vision of leadership is not a domineering hierarchy but rather a collaborative, servant-oriented partnership in Christ. For example, he recognized Epaphroditus as “my brother and co-worker and fellow soldier, your messenger/apostle and minister to my need” (2:25). 

Early on in church history, however, church leaders increasingly came to occupy defined “offices,” variously designated as popes, archbishops, bishops, cardinals, elders, pastors, and deacons—a practice that continues today. Several of these titles have roots in the New Testament but more in a functional than official sense. The terms for “bishop” (episkopos) and “deacon” (diakonos) in Philippians 1:1 simply mean “overseer” and “servant,” respectively. In all likelihood, they represent men (such as Epaphroditus) and women (such as Euodias and Syntyche) who practically engage in “overseeing” and “serving” functions within the fellowship. There is no indication that they were appointed or elected to these “offices.”

Prison Letters

During his times of imprisonment, Paul did not simply bide his time waiting for release or punishment; still less did he languish in paralyzing fear and anxiety. He used his periods of confinement to “spread the gospel” (1:12). In Philippians, he indicates “that it has become known through the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ” (1:13).

In particular, while his missionary and pastoral travels were curtailed, prisoner Paul availed himself of the opportunity to write to congregations. The Pauline letters of Philippians, Philemon, Ephesians, and Colossians were all composed from prison (though many scholars regard the last two as written in Paul’s name, not by Paul himself, and staged in a prison setting).

Writing from prison as an accused lawbreaker and threat to Roman security allows Paul to reflect poignantly on his commitment to Christ in hard times. Readers get a glimpse of what matters most to Paul (“living is Christ”), how he holds up under fire, and why he remains hopeful and joyful in Christ. Writing from prison accords Paul special authority and authenticity.

Paul’s identity as a prisoner-writer has been immortalized in a painting by Rembrandt (1627). The spirit and power of Christian letter-writing from prison, pioneered by the Apostle Paul, carried into crisis periods of the 20th century, exemplified in the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, written under the Nazi regime (Bonhoeffer was a staunch opponent of Hitler), and in the American preacher/prophet Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written during the 1960s Civil Rights struggle.

Rembrandt: St. Paul in Prison

Rembrandt, “Saint Paul in Prison,” 1627


Koinōnia in various forms is used several times in Philippians to express the vital idea of “sharing together” in the “fellowship” of the gospel (1:5, 7; 2:1; 3:10; 4:15). Most modern Christians have heard of this Greek term and have at least a vague idea of its association with “fellowship.” Many church buildings include a “fellowship” hall or center of some kind for congregational meals and other social gatherings.

Paul’s idea of koinōnia-fellowship, however, involves more than casual get-togethers and congenial meetings. At root koinōnia represents “common” (koinos) life, commonality, commonwealth,and living in community. From a Christian perspective, it stresses integral and intimate participation together in the common life of Christ, or more succinctly, life “in Christ.” Such common life is unified, holistic life across so-called spiritual and secular boundaries. As in Phillippians, koinōnia often focuses on material-economic sharing (see 4:10‒20). 

The book of Acts describes the radical generosity of the early Jerusalem congregation in which “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common (koina)” (Acts 4:32‒34; see 2:44‒45). It is doubtful that other congregations went this far in pooling all their money and goods, but the spirit of oneness in Christ, of “standing firm in one spirit” (Philippians 1:27), encompassed caring for one another materially as well as spiritually.

Carmen Christi, “Song to Christ”

Philippians 2:6‒11 has long been designated as the Christ Hymn, from the Latin Carmen Christi (“Song/Ode to Christ”). Whether appropriated or authored by Paul, it represents one of the oldest worship songs among believers in Christ and has continued to be venerated throughout the course of Christian history.

How might this old song speak afresh to concerns in the modern world? Consider two possibilities.

First, this song tells an evolutionary-creational story. Christ himself undergoes formative development or metamorphoses from being “in the form (morph‒) of God” to taking on the human “form (morphē) of a slave” and finally being exalted over all creation “in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” This is a progressive story of evolving—not exchanging—forms. Jesus becomes and remains the divine-human Christ intimately involved in all creation. His rule over creation is sympathetic and beneficent as one who fully participates in the making and remaking of the world from “above” and “below.” By implication, followers of Christ will work with him in total creation care. 

Second, this song tells an erotic-relational story. Lutheran scholar David Fredrickson has opened a new window to understanding Christ’s self-emptying (kenōsis), based on old Greek and Roman love poetry that portrays “emptying” as a passionate lover’s deep “longing, melting” for the beloved one. In this vein, Christ’s “emptying” is less of a humbling abasement of self for lowly humanity than an intense longing to be with his beloved human creatures by becoming one with them: wholly pouring himself into humanity: physically, psychically, emotionally, spiritually.

See Paul A. Holloway, “A Hymn to Christ?

David E. Fredrickson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-26/commentary-on-philippians-21-13-3

David E. Fredrickson, Eros and the Christ (Fortress Press, 2013).

Matters of Life and Death

From its inception to the present day, the Jesus movement and Christian faith have squarely faced the inexorable fact of the human condition: we all live and die, and we know it. Among God’s creatures, humans alone (as far as we know) are conscious of death, naturally leading to vital questions pertaining to postmortem life or afterlife.

Ancient Greek philosophy proposed various theories, such as the immortality of the soul, separate from the decaying body (Plato), or the unconscious and painless reabsorption of the deceased person’s bodily “atoms” into the fabric of the universe (Epicurus). By contrast, in Jesus’ day, most Jews (the Sadducees excepted) believed in a general bodily resurrection of all God’s people at the climactic “day of the Lord.”

In Philippians, Paul accepts the common Jewish view—with notable implications for his personal and present life. The personal experience of Jesus Christ forms the bedrock of Paul’s faith. Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and exaltation—all as an embodied human being—became the pattern and goal for flourishing human experience “in Christ.” Hence, for Paul, “living is Christ, and dying is gain” (1:21), as he presses “toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus”—the goal of resurrection (3:11‒14).

In his precarious state of imprisonment with the possibility of execution, Paul takes heart in his belief that death would immediately usher him into Christ’s presence, that is, he would be “with Christ” (1:23) more fully than earthly life allowed. Paul does not, however, comment on the precise “state” of his anticipated postmortem fellowship with Christ. In any case, he believed that his body would ultimately be raised from the dead, as Christ’s body was.

Such longing to be with Christ and “attain the resurrection of the dead” (3:11) by no means dampens Paul’s enthusiasm for present life and ministry in Christ, as long as God allows. In this letter, Paul hopes and prays for continued opportunities to minister to the Philippians and “continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith” (1:24‒25).

Moreover, Paul’s ardent belief in joyful afterlife with Christ does not eliminate the experience of deep sorrow at the prospect of death, particularly that of beloved friends and coworkers like Epaphroditus. Paul was grateful that God mercifully spared the ill Epaphroditus from death, thereby also sparing Paul “one sorrow after another” (2:26‒27). 

Overall, Paul maintains a healthy, robust perspective on both life and death.

Work Out Your Own Salvation

Alert Protestant readers of Philippians might well gasp at Paul’s exhortation in 2:12—“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Wait a minute! Wasn’t the whole point of the Protestant Reformation launched by Martin Luther that one could not earn or work out one’s salvation, which came purely by God’s grace through faith alone (sola fides)? Isn’t this a major doctrinal sticking point dividing Protestants and Catholics to the present day? 

Closer examination, however, yields a more balanced perspective. For one thing, modern English versions obscure the communal focus of Paul’s teaching here. The verb for “work out” assumes the plural “you” subject, and the “your” possessive pronoun is also plural. Thus Paul states, “You all work out the salvation of yourselves—together.” Paul is not calling for each individual to obtain his or her own salvation on personal merits. Rather, Paul urges the Philippian believers to strive side by side (1:27) to strengthen one another’s faith and life in Christ. Moreover, the nature of “salvation” (sōtēria) includes not only salvation from sin (Paul actually does not mention sin in 2:12), but also healing and restoration from ailments and anything that hinders a joyous flourishing life in Christ.   

Most crucially, Paul hastens to add in 2:12—“for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you to both will and to work for his good pleasure.” As always with Paul, God in Christ remains the source of all blessing, including the ability to work with God and with one another for good (works). No one can survive on their own, independent of God and God’s people. Everything God does works out and in shared fellowship (koinōnia) and faith-in-action—faithful faith, we might say. Or as Paul says in Galatians 5:6—“the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” James puts it more starkly—“faith without works is dead” (James 2:14‒26)—but is still compatible with Paul’s perspective.

“Work Out Your Salvation”: Conduct “Worthy of the Gospel” in a Communal Context by Paul Anthony Hartog


In any society, certain rights are enjoyed by those who have citizenship, either by birth or by a process of naturalization determined by law. This issue continues to spark debate in our increasingly mobile, globalized world related to policies of immigration and border control.

In the ancient Roman Empire, citizenship was held by a minority of privileged people and included the right to due legal process, including appeal to Caesar. The majority of the population, however, including many enslaved individuals, were not citizens. Some were able to achieve citizenship through patronage and/or purchase.

The book of Acts describes Paul as both a Greek citizen of his hometown of Tarsus and a Roman citizen—by birth (Acts 16:35‒39; 21:37‒39; 22:25‒29)—thus granting him a measure of protection against false accusations and unlawful detainment. But obviously he was not exempt from imprisonment and the prospect of capital punishment. 

Paul never explicitly refers to his Greek or Roman citizenship in his letters. In Philippians, however, he uses “political/citizenship” language (politeia) in two strategic places. First, when he urges the Philippians to “live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27), the terminology connotes “live as a citizen” (politeuesthe) in this world, across imperial and territorial boundaries, in a way that conforms with Christ’s righteous and loving way of life.

Second, Paul extends the Philippian believers’ “citizenship” (politeuma) into the heavenly realm with their “Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,” both presently and in the future (3:20). This is not to deny, however, Christ’s presence in and with his followers now, on earth, or their citizenship in God’s earthly realm (kingdom). We might say that believers enjoy “dual citizenship” in earth and heaven or, better, a universal “passport” throughout God’s universe encompassing heaven-and-earth, on earth as it is in heaven.   

True Riches

A strain of “prosperity theology” (partly based on a simplistic interpretation of the biblical Wisdom tradition) runs through the Protestant work ethic and modern Christian charismatic populism. Its basic tenet: God wants God’s people to be healthy, wealthy, and wise (with a nod to Benjamin Franklin); if you honor God, God will bless you with material riches. A motto verse from the end of Philippians: “And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (4:19)—emphasizing the abundant “riches” over the basic “need” component (God is rich enough to supply our “wants,” too).

This concluding statement must not be isolated, however, but rather interpreted in the context of the entire preceding Philippian letter, in which Paul scarcely touts worldly prosperity and profit. Paul’s values, morally and monetarily, center on the crucified-risen-exalted-returning Christ: “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (3:7‒8).

Paul is not anti-body, anti-world, anti-earthly goods. After all, Christ became an embodied human being in the world with real physical needs, and his ministry often extended to feeding and healing human bodies. Paul is grateful for the Philippians’ ministry to his practical “needs” while he’s in prison (2:25; 4:15‒18). But he does not seek to accumulate riches; he’s happy (“content”) to have “enough” to get by (4:11‒12, 15).
Paul lives according to an economy of grace (charis), gratefully appreciating all of life’s blessings, little or big, as gifts (charismata) from God in Christ to be shared in loving fellowship (koinōnia) with one another (1:3‒7; 4:15‒18).