by William Nicoll
INTRODUCTORY: THE SALUTATION.
THE sixteenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles contains the account of the Apostle Paul’s first intercourse with the Philippians, and of the "beginning of the gospel" there. The date may be fixed as A.D. 51. After the council at Jerusalem, [Acts 15:1-41] and after the dissension between Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:39), the Apostle of the Gentiles, accompanied by Silas, took his journey through Syria and Cilicia. "Confirming the Churches," he went over a good deal of ground which he had traversed before. At Lystra he assumed Timothy as an additional companion and assistant; and he passed on, guided in a very special manner by the Holy Spirit, until he arrived at Troas. Here a Divine warning, in a dream, determined him to break ground in a new field. The little company, to which Luke was now added, passed on to Macedonia, and, having landed at Neapolis, where they do not seem to have made any stay or found any opportunity of preaching, they came to Philippi. This, therefore, was the first city in Europe in which, so far as we have any distinct intimation, the gospel of the grace of God was declared.
Philippi was a city of some importance, and had the position and privileges of a Roman colony. It was situated in a fruitful district, was near to gold mines, and was also near enough to the sea to serve as a depot for a good deal of Asiatic commerce.
It is hardly necessary to remind readers of the Scripture how Lydia and others received the word; how the preachers were followed by the damsel with the spirit of divination; how, when that damsel had been silenced by Paul, her masters raised a tumult against Paul and Silas, and got them scourged and cast into prison; how the earthquake, which followed during the night, resulted in the conversion of the jailor, and in Paul and Silas being sent forth from the city with honour. Perhaps Luke and Timothy remained behind at Philippi, and continued to edify the believers. At any rate, Paul himself had by this time continued there "many days." Two short visits of the Apostle to Philippi at a subsequent time are known to us. [Acts 20:2; Acts 20:6]
The Church thus founded proved to be an interesting one, for it possessed much of the simplicity and earnestness of true Christianity. Both in the Epistles to the Corinthians and in this Epistle, the Philippians are singled out, above all Churches, for their cordiality of feeling towards the Apostle who had brought to them the. knowledge of the truth. They made liberal contributions for the furtherance of his work in other regions, beginning shortly after he left Philippi, and repeating them from time to time afterwards. They seem to have been remarkably free from some of the defects incidental to those early Churches, and to the churches at all periods. The Apostle’s commendations of them are peculiarly warm and glowing; and scarcely anything had to be noticed in the way of special warning, except a tendency to disagreement among some of their members. It does not appear that there was any great number of Jews at Philippi, and we find no trace of a synagogue. This may account in some measure for their freedom from the Judaising tendency, for we find the Philippians exhorted, indeed, to beware of that evil, but not reprehended as if it had taken any strong hold among them. On the other hand, they seem to have remained in a good measure free from evils to which Gentile Churches were most exposed, and which, at Corinth for example, produced much that was disheartening and perplexing.
Eleven years, probably, had now passed since Paul had brought to Philippi the knowledge of Christ Jesus. During that time he had undergone many vicissitudes, and now he had been for some time a prisoner at Rome. Probably he had already written the Epistles to the Ephesians, the Colossians, and to Phlippians. Comparing these with our Epistle, we may conclude that his prospects as a prisoner had not improved, but rather darkened, since the date of those letters. At this time, then, Epaphroditus arrived, apparently after a dangerous journey, bearing with him a supply for the Apostle’s wants, bringing tidings of the state of the Philippian Church, and assuring him of their sympathy and their prayers on his behalf. It is no wonder that, in these circumstances, the Epistle bears marks of having been written by the Apostle with a special flow of tenderness and of affection.
The scope of the letter may be briefly stated. After the usual inscription and salutation, the Apostle expresses (as he does so often in his Epistles) his thankfulness for what the Philippians had attained, and his desire that they might grow to yet higher things. He goes on to tell them how matters stood with himself, and opens up, as to those whom he reckons trusted friends, the manner in which his mind was exercised under these providences. Returning to the Philippians, and aiming at this, that they and he might have growing fellowship in all Christian grace, he goes on to set before them Christ, specially in His lowliness and self-sacrifice. This is the grand end; attainment to His likeness is work for all their lives. Paul sets forth how earnestly his heart is set on this object, and what means he is taking to advance it. After a brief digression relating to his circumstances and theirs, he returns again to the same point. In order that defects may be removed, dangers avoided, progress made, Christ must be their joy, their trust, their aim, their very life. They, like the Apostle himself, must press on, never content till the consummate salvation is attained. [Philippians 3:21] If this should be so, his desires for them would be fulfilled. So he closes [Philippians 4:2] with directions rising out of this central view, and with renewed expression of the comfort he had derived from their affectionate remembrance. Their good will to the cause in which his life was spent, and to himself, had cheered his heart. And he took it as God’s blessing to him and to them.
Such is a brief outline of the course of thought. But the Epistle, while perfect in the unity of its feeling and of its point of view, is remarkable for the way in which it alternates between matters proper to the Philippians, including the instruction Paul saw fit to impress upon them, and matters personal to himself. The Apostle seems to feel sure of affectionate sympathy in both regions, and in both equally; therefore in-both his heart utters itself without difficulty and without restraint. Philippians 1:3-11; Philippians 1:27-30; Philippians 2:1-16; Philippians 3:1-4; Philippians 2:9, are occupied with the one theme, and Philippians 1:12-26; Philippians 2:17-30; Philippians 4:10-21, with the other. In short, more than any other Epistle, if we except, perhaps, that to Phlippians, the Epistle to the Philippians has the character of an outpouring. The official aims and obligations of the Christian instructor are fused, as it were, in the "glowing affection" of the personal friend. He is sure of his place in the hearts of his correspondents, and he knows how glad they will be to be assured of the place they hold in his.
Let us now attend to the inscription and salutation. Those who send the Epistle are Paul and Timothy. Yet plainly we are not to regard it as a joint Epistle proceeding from both equally; for it is Paul who speaks throughout, in his own name and by his own authority. Timothy only joins, as Sosthenes and Silas do in other cases, in heartily commending to the Church at Philippi whatever the Epistle contains. As there was harmony between the two labourers when they laid the foundation at Philippi, so there is also in the building up. Timothy is joined in the love and care; but the authority is Paul’s. Both alike are called "servants of Jesus Christ"; for to this Church no further commendation and no rehearsal of a special right to speak and teach are needed. And yet, to understanding hearts, what commendation could be more weighty? If these two men are called, and allowed by Christ to be His servants, if they are loyal and faithful servants, if they come on an errand on which Christ has sent them, if they deliver His message and do His work, what more need be said? This is honour and authority enough-to be, in our degree, Christ’s servants. But the word is stronger: it means bondservants, or slaves, -such as are the master’s property, or are at his absolute disposal. So Paul felt; for we are not to reckon this to be, on his part, a mere phrase. Already, in this word, we recognise the sense of entire consecration to his Master and Lord; in which, as we shall see, he felt he could count upon the hearty sympathy of his Philippian friends.
Those who are addressed are, in the first place, "all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi." The saints, or holy ones, is a common expression in the Scriptures. The word "sanctify" is applied both to persons and to things. Bible-readers will have noticed that the term seems to vibrate or vacillate between two meanings, - signifying on the one hand the production of personal intrinsic holiness, and on the other merely consecration, or setting apart of anything to God’s service. Now the connection of both meanings will appear, if we mark how both meet in the word as it is applied to the children of God. For such are separated, set apart for God from sin and from the world; not, however, by a mere outward destination, devoting them to a certain use and service, but by an internal hallowing, which makes the man really in his inward nature holy, fit for God’s service and God’s fellowship. This is done by the regeneration of the Spirit, and by His indwelling thereafter. Hence, to distinguish this consecration from the mere outward ceremonial sanctification, which was so temporary and shadowy, we find the Apostle Peter [1 Peter 1:2] saying that God’s children are chosen "by sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus." For the ancient Israel was sanctified to obedience in another manner. [Exodus 24:6]
Now because this real consecration takes place when we are grafted into Christ by faith, because the Spirit comes to us and abides in us as the Spirit of Christ, because whatever the Spirit does, as our Sanctifier, has its rise from Christ’s redeeming work, because He unites us to Christ and enables us to cleave to Christ and hold fellowship with Him, therefore those who are thus sanctified are called saints in Jesus Christ. It is the Spirit who sanctifies; but He does so inasmuch as he roots us in Christ and builds us up in Christ. Therefore saints are sanctified by, or of, the Spirit; but they are sanctified (or holy) in Christ Jesus.
This expression, "saints," or some phrase that is equivalent, occurs commonly in the Epistles as the designation of the parties addressed. And two things are to be observed in connection with it. First, when the Apostle addresses "all the saints," in any Epistle, he is not shutting out any professed members of the Church, any professed believers in the Lord. He never speaks at the outset of an Epistle as if he meant to make deliberate distinction between two several classes of members of the Church: as who should say, "I write now to some part of the Church, viz., the saints; as for the rest, I do not now address them." Hence we find the term used as equivalent to the Church-"to the Church of God which is at Corinth, with all the saints which are in all Achaia," and again "to them that are called to be saints." We shall see presently the lesson which this is fitted to teach. But, secondly, on the other hand, the Apostle’s use of the word makes it clear that he uses it in the full sense which we have explained, of a real saint-ship. He does not restrain the sense to some merely external saintship, as if his meaning were "professing Christians whether they are real or not." The word stands, in the inscriptions, as equivalent to "sanctified in Christ Jesus," "faithful in Christ Jesus," "beloved of God"; or as in 2 Peter 1:1, "them that have obtained like precious faith with us," and in 1 Peter 1:2, "Elect according to the foreknowledge of God unto obedience." Thus then we are to take it: - The Apostle wrote to the visible, or the professed and accepted followers of the Lord, on the understanding that they were what they professed to be. He was not to question it: he assumed that they were saints of God, for to profess the faith of Christ is to claim that character. He rejoiced to hope that it would prove to be so, and gladly took note of everything which tended to assure him that their holiness was real. He proclaims to them, in the character of saints, the privileges and the obligations that pertain to saints. It was the business of every man to look well to the reality of his faith, and to try the grounds on which he took his place with those addressed as beloved of God and called to be saints. There might be some who had but a name to live. [2 Corinthians 13:5] If so, it was not the Apostle’s part, writing to the Church, to allow that possibility to confuse or lower the style of his address to Christ’s Church. He wrote to all the saints in Christ Jesus who were at Philippi.
This is evident from the strain of all the Pauline Epistles, and it is important to observe it and apply it. Otherwise we shall readily fall into this way of reasoning, -"Since there must have been some in these Churches who were only nominally and not really believers, the word saints must include such; therefore it can imply only an outward separation of men, apart from any determination of their inward state." If we do so, then everything the Apostle says to saints, their standing, their privileges, their obligations, and their hopes, will come to be strained and lowered in the interpretation, so as to mean only that such privileges and blessings are somehow attainable, and if attained may also on certain terms be secured. The interpretation of the Apostle’s teaching on these subjects will, in short, be what it must be, if it is taken to apply at once, in his intention, to those who are indeed saints and to those who are not. This line, in point of fact, has been taken, in the interpretation of the Epistles, so as to resolve everything the Apostle says about the eternal life of saved men, as actually theirs, from their election downwards, into a mere matter of outward privileges. This view, no doubt, involves a straining of plain words. Yet it will always seem to force itself upon us, unless we hold fast (what is indeed demonstrably true) that when the Apostle speaks to saints, he says what should be said to those who are indeed saints, and on the understanding that those whom he addresses are such.
In like manner, on the other side, we have a lesson to learn from the unhesitating way in which the Apostle writes to the saints and sends the letter to the members of a Christian Church as the parties intended. He may have some things to reprehend; he may even have to express fears, when things have gone amiss, that some in the Church may yet prove to be no saints. Yet writing to the Church, he writes to saints. Let us learn from this what those lay claim to who become members of Christ’s Church, and what responsibilities they take on. They claim, in Christ, the salvation which makes men saints-i.e., persons set apart under the influence of the Holy Spirit to enjoy Christ’s forgiveness and to walk in His ways. Christ does this for us, if He does a Saviour’s work. It is a thing incongruous, a thing, in the Apostle’s view, not to be taken for granted, that any one shall hold his place in Christ’s Church who is worldly, earthly, unholy. There may be such, but Paul will not assume it; he will not measure the Christianity of Christ’s Church by any such standard. Neither will he go about to determine whether perhaps it is so or not in the case of any who are professing Christ in the ordinary way. If any have entered Christ’s Church who are content to continue in worldliness and sin, not seeking in Christ the grace which saves, that is solely their own personal sin, and in it they lie unto the Lord. But not for that will the Apostle come down to speak to Christ’s Church as if it should be thought of as a company to which holy and unholy may equally well belong. If any be there who are in no vital sense saints, their intrusion will not hinder Paul from speaking to the Church of God in its own proper character and according to its calling.
But let it be remarked at the same time, that this same fact shows us that the Apostle was wont to judge of men and Churches charitably; yes, with a very large charity. We may be very sure that there was a good deal in all those Churches, and a great deal in some, that needed to be judged charitably. They were not all clear, eminent, conspicuous saints; so far from that, there might well be some whole Churches in which saintship was, so far as man’s inspection could perceive, faint and questionable. But the Apostle was far from thinking of shutting out the man whose faith was weak, whose attainments were small, whose regard to Christ was but a struggling and germinating thing. Far from being disposed to shut him out, no doubt the Apostle’s whole desire was to shut such a one in, among the saints in Jesus Christ.
To be accepted in the Beloved, to be sanctified in Christ Jesus, is a very great thing. No less than this great thing Christ offers, and no less we humbly claim in faith. Also it is no less than this that Christ bestows on those who come to Him. Let Christians, on the one hand, look to Christ, as able and willing to do no less than this even for them; on the other hand, let them look to themselves, that they neither deceive them; selves with false pretences, nor trifle idly with so great a gospel. And in the case of others, let hasty and needless adverse judgments be avoided. Let us be glad to think that Christ may see His own, where our dim sight can find but scanty tokens of His work.
Along with the saints the letter specifies, in particular, the bishops and deacons. The former were the officers who took the oversight, as the word implies; the deacons those who rendered service, especially in the Church’s outward and pecuniary concerns. These two standing orders are recognised by the Apostle. It is obvious that this does not suggest diocesan Episcopacy, for that implies three orders, the highest being a single bishop, to the exclusion of others assuming the office in that place.
It is more important to observe that the Epistle is not directed to the bishops primarily, or as if they were entitled to come between the people and the message. It is directed to all the saints. To them the Epistle, to them all the Scriptures belong, as their own inheritance, which no man may take from them. In so far as the bishops and deacons are distinguished from other saints, the Scriptures pertain to them that they may learn their own duty, and also may help the people in the use and enjoyment of that which is already theirs.
Now follows the salutation-Grace be unto you and peace. This is the ordinary salutation, varied and amplified in a few of the Epistles. It may be said to express the sum of all Christian well-being in this life.
Grace is, first of all, the word which expresses the free favour of God, manifested towards the unworthy in Christ Jesus. But it is further extended in meaning to that which is the fruit of this favour, to the principles and dispositions in the mind which result from grace, which recognise grace, which in their nature correspond to the nature of grace. In this sense it is said "grow in grace." Peace is the well-grounded tranquillity and sense of well-being which arise from the sight of God’s grace in Christ, from faith in it and experience of it. Grace and peace are the forerunners of glory. That is a blessed company to which so great a fulness of good is commended, as ordinarily theirs.
And from whom is this good expected to proceed? From God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The Father who loved us, the Son who charged Himself with the burden of our salvation, impart a grace and a peace fragrant with that Divine love and charged with the efficacy of that blessed mediation. If any one wonders why the Holy Spirit is left out, a reason may be given for it. For if we look to the substance of the blessings, what are this grace and peace but the Holy Spirit Himself dwelling in us, revealing to us the Father and the Son from whom He comes, and enabling us to continue in the Son and in the Father?
the Third Week after Easter