“The Slaves Exhortation”

Studies in Philippians

 PHILIPPIANS 1:1-2—4:21-23

THE PHILIPPIAN EPISTLE comes to us from two slaves, not from an apostle. It is an exhortation, designed to affect our feet, rather than a revelation for the enlightening of our minds. Paul and Timothy do not present the truth as to our position in Christ, but the path to be pursued by the Philippians, after they know their place in Him. It consists principally of four "living expressions" of the evangel, which are set forth for us to follow. Christ, Timothy, Epaphroditus, Paul—these are the patterns who give us a clue to the conduct which becomes us today—Christ and Paul in particular.

Philippians follows Ephesians. Whatever we may hold as to the sequence of the books in the Bible, Paul's epistles come to us in an order undoubtedly divine, for it is the same in all the manuscripts. The Roman group—Romans, Corinthians, and Galatians— form a unit by themselves, and do not depart far from the great truths of justification, conciliation, and glorification. Romans, like Ephesians, has a completeness all its own, yet it is supplemented by the two epistles to Corinth, as to conciliation and glorification, and Galatians is a most masterly commentary on its treatment of justification.

Philippians occupies the same relation to Ephesians that the Corinthian epistles do to Romans. This similarity is even more strikingly seen in Galatians and Colossians. Galatians is practically confined to the first of the three great subjects of Romans—justification. It leaves conciliation and glorification to the Corinthian letters. So Colossians also deals principally with the first aspect of the mystery of Ephesians—our relationship to God. It leaves the other two to Philippians. In this epistle, then, we may expect to find set forth the conduct which flows from our relationship to Christ and to our fellow saints. The power of the appeals will depend largely on our apprehension and appreciation of the last two items of the secret—that we are a joint body, and are joint partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus, through the evangel of which Paul became the dispenser.

Just as Galatians is an excellent help in understanding justification, and the Corinthian epistles in developing conciliation, so Philippians may assist us in further founding and confirming our knowledge of Ephesians, although it is intended for those who already apprehend that great unfolding of present truth. It will especially help to correct such faulty ideas as we may have in regard to the last two items of the secret. This is especially true of the evangel, for the Philippians were active participants in it from the first (1:5). And this very same evangel remains with them. He unfolds no new one to them. Now, however, they are joint partakers in its grace, whereas, at first, they partook of it as guests of Israel (Eph.2:12).

Both Ephesians and Colossians are easily divisible into two parts, doctrine and deportment. No such division can be seen in Philippians, for it is all devoted to conduct. It, indeed, divides into two complementary halves, for a glance at its structure will show that it is a reversion, dealing principally with living expressions of the evangel. In the first half are the examples of Christ and Timothy. These are balanced in the second by those of Epaphroditus and Paul. In the first part, we are exhorted to imitate Christ (2:1); in the second we are bidden to imitate Paul (3:17). These facts are of vital value in the interpretation of this epistle, for some passages in it, divorced from its controlling theme, may be to Paul's other Epistles made to appear to teach truth quite beyond and contrary to Ephesians, but when kept within the bounds set by the epistle itself, and applied to our experience, they are in fullest accord with the previous epistle and its transcendent revelations.

A casual reading of Philippians gives little idea of the symmetry and beauty of its structure. Yet, for a close consideration of the epistle, there is no key comparable to a clear exhibition of the literary framework. The mind is likely to be lost in a maze of detail and forget the theme under discussion. Indeed it is not always easy to seize the real subject without some such aid as the structure affords. Perhaps the common impression of this epistle is that, like our own letters, it is a jumble of this and that and the other, without any designed relation between its parts. A so-called "analysis" is apt to be arbitrary and is usually derived from the interpretation, instead of aiding it. But a real "framework" should be as self-evident as the skeleton of an animal, with all its parts symmetrical and complementary, making their relationships quite obvious to all.


The framework of Philippians shows that its subject is participation in the evangel. We must not limit this to the heralding of "the gospel" to unbelievers. It includes all of the glad message as it was revealed, not only as imparted to faith, but as expressed in life. In the second half of Ephesians, we are told how we should walk; here we are shown. There the basis of conduct is truth. Here it is illuminated by example. The greater part of this epistle is devoted to living expressions of the evangel. The service and suffering of its greatest exponents are presented for our consideration. Christ Himself, in His descent from the form of God to the shame of the cross, is presented for our imitation. Corresponding to this we have Paul's descent from a self-righteous Pharisee to conformation to the death of Christ. The center of the epistle depicts two ideal characters—Timothy for service, and Epaphroditus for suffering.


In accord with its character, the hortatory passages in Philippians are not grouped together at the close, as in Ephesians and Colossians, but are scattered symmetrically throughout the epistle. They appear before and after the two great examples. The apostle pleads for a humble and obedient disposition like our Lord's (2:1-5,12-18). He exhorts us to imitate himself and beware of those who act otherwise (3:1-3, 17-21). The question may arise, since Ephesians has already dealt with the conduct which comports with its new revelation, what room is left for exhortation in Philippians? The answer is that here also we see the special character of this epistle. The exhortations are general in Ephesians, here they apply particularly to service. Ephesians indeed dealt with the slaves of masters on earth. Philippians deals with the conduct of all saints in their character of slaves of a heavenly Master.


To correspond with their character, both Philippians and Colossians, unlike Ephesians, are written jointly by Paul and Timothy. In Colossians, Paul speaks as an apostle, Timothy as a brother, but in Philippians, both bow themselves under the yoke of servitude to Christ Jesus. They are slaves. Here there is no secret unveiled, as in Ephesians. Here we are concerned with deeds rather than with words, with walk on earth rather than with our position in the heavens.

As the conclusion shows (4:21-23), the saints in Rome, especially those of Caesar's household, join him in greeting the saints in Philippi. Both are eloquent witnesses to the service of these slaves.


Philippi does not enter into his ministry until after Paul's separation by the spirit (Acts 13:2) and his further separation from Barnabas (Acts 15:39). It enters soon after Timothy becomes Paul's companion. Very definite leading by the holy spirit, which forbade his speaking in the province of Asia and Bithynia, forced him to the seacoast at Troas, where he had the Macedonian vision. Thereupon Paul crossed over into Macedonia to help them (Acts 16:6-10). Philippi was the first stopping place, as it was the foremost city of that part of Macedonia and a Roman colony. There it was that Paul met Lydia, the purple seller of Thyatira, and drove out the python spirit from the maid. And there he was flogged and jailed and put in the stocks and prayed and sang hymns to God. There it was that the jailer was saved, and exulted, believing in God, with all his house.

Such is the background in the book of Acts. All is still on kingdom ground. There is baptism, and the casting out of demons, and a miraculous earthquake, all of which belong to the kingdom which is the theme of the "Acts" (Acts 1:6; 28:31). Since then vast changes had taken place. The record of Acts itself had practically closed. Israel had been thrust aside. God's salvation is dispatched directly to the nations, without their mediacy. The apostle has made known the great truths of justification, conciliation, and glorification in his epistles to the Romans, the Corinthians, and the Thessalonians. These he undoubtedly made known to them in his later visit (Acts 20:6). But of these truths the Acts knows nothing. Far less should we look there for the latest revelations, which Paul sent from his prison in Rome. So that we must leave the Philippi of Acts in the far distant background, with great spiritual changes between that and the writing of this epistle.


Not only is this epistle written by slaves, but it is written especially to supervisors and servants. It is very evident that, in respect to service, there were distinctions between the saints. This is necessary wherever a number of individuals unite in striving to accomplish a common end. The experienced should supervise. The capable should serve. This is fitting and proper.


It is evident to everyone that the order in the various churches of today is not that found in the Scriptures. No church has several "bishops," or supervisors, as in Philippi, except those few who are striving to conform to the divine model. In those days, besides the gifts, apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers (Eph.4:11), there were supervisors and servants for service, as well as elders for rule. The function of a "bishop" has usually been confused with that of an elder, so that today we have "episcopalian" (ruled by bishops) and "presbyterian" churches (ruled by elders). Ephesians does not deal with the local ecclesia, hence there is no mention of local elders or supervisors or servants. So also, Philippians is concerned with service, not with rule, hence elders are not mentioned, although their work of supervision is brought before us.


When we see how far modern ecclesiastical organizations have departed from the ideal set before us in the Scriptures, there is a tendency to recognize no order as divine in the ecclesia. But this will lead us from one error into another. This epistle reveals the root of the present apostasy in this regard in its opening exhortation. Supervisors and servants are especially exhorted to imitate the humility of Christ and to follow Paul in his repudiation of earthly honors. Contrariwise, they have been transformed into "bishops" and "deacons." Instead of visiting the saints in their own ecclesia, the bishop has a high place over the clergy of many churches. Instead of imitating Christ, he has emulated Satan. In order to recover the divine idea of "the office of a bishop" we will need to note carefully all that is said on the subject in the Scriptures. In order to get the exact significance of the word, we set forth a concordance of its occurrences. The word in parenthesis is the Authorized Version rendering.

supervise, episkopeoo

As is usual, the Authorized Version itself is witness to the true meaning of this word, for it renders it overseer (Acts 20:28) and taking the oversight (1 Peter 5:2). It is characteristic that the Authorized Version should introduce one of the ecclesiastical titles used in the church at the time it was translated, for it was particularly desired not to disturb the church order then existing. Luther also made it plain that he was not of those who discard everything not found in the Scriptures. He wished to leave everything in the Catholic ritual as it was unless definitely contrary to the Word. Hence the ecclesiastical order of the Lutheran church still contains much which has been carried over from Romanism. But, even when translated "bishop," the spiritually intelligent will detect a vast gulf between the ecclesiastical dignitary of today and the humble supervisor of the early church. Who would class a bishop with a servant, or even with a "deacon" (Phil.1:1)? And who would expect to find several bishops in one church, as in Philippi? And who would exhort a bishop not to lord it over the flock? Is that not the very essence of his office? Today we have one bishop over many churches, then there were many in one ecclesia. Now bishops rule over ministers and deacons, then they were associated with them in serving the saints.

The Greek words we are considering are formed from epi, ON, and skop, NOTE, ON-NOTE, and are the usual terms for visit, visitor, visitation. It seems from this that the principal duty of the supervisor is to visit or "look after" the saints. It is the service done by a pastor. The word pastor is literally, shepherd. When Paul was passing Ephesus for the last time (Acts 20:28), he exhorted the elders, "Take heed to yourselves and to the entire flocklet among which the holy spirit appointed you supervisors, to be shepherding [or to be pastors of] the "ecclesia of God..." This was evidently a Presbyterian-Episcopal church, for the elders were also bishops! And they were the ones who did the pastoral work as well! Ecclesiasticism is difficult to avoid in these days, but those who give themselves to the Lord's work and are entitled to live of the evangel should strive their utmost not to lord it over the saints. Now that there are no apostles, church government is a local matter, in the hands of the elders in each ecclesia. The Word does not sanction any ruler outside the ecclesia except the Lord Himself.

The terms, elder, bishop, pastor, and teacher should not describe distinct ecclesiastical offices. Though the chief function of an elder is to preside (1 Tim.5:17), yet when Titus was instructed to constitute elders in each city, Paul also calls them supervisors: "If anyone is unimpeachable, the husband of one wife, having believing children not accused of profligacy or insubordinate—for a supervisor must be unimpeachable..." (Titus 1:6,7). And the supervisors are to shepherd, or be pastors (Acts 20:28). Besides, some of the elders had the gift of teaching, and one who toils in the Word is to have special honor and to be supported in his work (1 Tim.5:17,18). Paul probably combined all these gifts and services in himself. Any layman in an ecclesia may become a servant, and when he becomes older, a supervisor and an elder, besides exercising one of the gifts, evangelist, pastor, or teacher.

Apart from apostolic oversight, the Pauline ecclesias were given no human head to unite and rule over the ecclesia as a whole, or over any groups of them. All of the functionaries, servants, supervisors, and elders, were local, and had no service or jurisdiction outside their own ecclesia. The gifts, indeed, may have had a wider sphere, but it is likely that evangelists and teachers, when they went to other fields, cooperated with the local ecclesia, if there was one, and deferred to the elders in matters of church order. One might almost say that the early church had no head. The need for a human head was not felt until the church lost contact with its heavenly Head, and wandered away from His Word. If all were subject to Him there would be the fullest cooperation and unity. Israel did not recognize Jehovah as their King, so they asked for a man. After the same example of unbelief, the church has chosen bishops and popes, and has called councils, and conferences and assemblies. These have succeeded, not in uniting the saints into one body, but in dividing them into many hostile camps.

All "church government" in the Scriptures, apart from the apostolic office, is local. No bishop, no elder, has any jurisdiction beyond the assembly where he lives. There were no unions of several companies, or of all in a given city, or district, or country. There were no ecclesiastical authorities outside the local gathering. Every ecclesiastic who rules over more than one group of saints or over the local officers is usurping the place of Christ, for God has given the headship of the church to Him.

Since there was no corporate unity among the saints on earth, their relation to the government was an individual one. And this consisted simply in submission to the superior authorities (Rom. 13:1) and in praying for them (1 Tim.2:2). If each individual believer would do this the probability is that the saints would lead a mild and quiet life. Their ability to carry on the functions for which they are left on the earth would be much greater than under the present system, when by organized numbers, they seek to influence governments in their favor, to their own eventual loss.


Perhaps no better evidence can be offered for the defection of the church from the spirit of humility inculcated in Philippians than the change from supervisor to "bishop," and from plain servant to "deacon" or "minister." It is evident that the latter term once meant no more than servant, or our translators would not have rendered Matthew 20:26, "whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister." In Matthew 23:11 they translate the same word servant. Some of the functions of these "deacons" or "ministers" are: keeping house, like Martha (Luke 10:40), drawing water (John 2:9), and it is specially used of those who waited on the table at meals (Luke 22:27; Acts 6:2). Hence it also has the sense of serving out or dispensing. It refers to lowly duties, not dignified display. I well remember my first experience as a deacon. The office fell to my lot without appointment or election. My duties consisted in cleaning out the meeting place each week. I had others do such things for me in business and at home, but I considered it an honor to perform such a service as to the Lord. It gave me much joy and satisfaction, and to this day I feel more confident of a reward for wielding a broom in those happy days than for the higher work of wielding a pen in the defense of the truth in the long years that have followed.

The following are occurrences of this word in Paul's epistles:

From this short list, we see that dia konos is not the special title of a church official. Magistrates are also "deacons" or "ministers." It is a general term, applicable to all who serve others or serve out something. It also shows that the terms minister and deacon are equivalents in the Scriptures, though they are so far apart in modern ecclesiastical usage. Every deacon is really a minister and every minister a deacon. To escape such confusion the CONCORDANT VERSION avoids ecclesiastical terms wherever possible. It has made servants out of the deacons and ministers.


"Minister" is used by the Authorized Version at all times for another Greek word, leitourgos, for which it is more appropriate, and the CONCORDANT VERSION follows its example. As it is also a form of service which the Philippians, as a whole, rendered to Paul (2:17,30) through Epaphroditus (2:25), it will be well to include it in our study at this time, although such ministers have no permanent place in the church order. The term was applied only on special occasions, when some public service was performed, as will be seen by its occurrences.

The public nature of the service rendered by a "minister" is evident from the occurrences, as well as the derivation of the word. It is literally PEOPLE-ACT, one who acts for other people, who officiates. Thus it is used four times of the priesthood (Luke 1:23; Heb.8:2; 9:21; 10:11). A priest ministers or officiates. When Paul acted as a priest of the evangel of God, he was a minister (Rom.15:16). Paul was not the minister of Philippi. On the contrary, the Philippians were ministers of Paul (Phil.2:17,30). This consisted in the supply of his temporal needs. They had failed in this until Epaphroditus was sent to minister to Paul for them.

To give a modern example: One morning a brother, a baker by trade, called at the publication office and handed over a special collection taken by the ecclesia for the work. He was their "minister" on this occasion. When a special effort is to be made in which the whole ecclesia joins, they may choose one of their number to act for them in forwarding their bounty. By this act, he becomes their "minister," in the true, biblical sense of the word. Too often, alas, our Lord's words are literally, instead of figuratively, true. In these days, the "minister" expects to be treated as the greatest in the ecclesia, instead of the least. True greatness does not consist in superior education, manners, or social position, but in lowly service.


Elders, as we have seen, are not in view as such, in Philippians. Age should teach wisdom, and experience should develop ability to direct. Therefore the older men were usually looked upon to preside over the affairs of an ecclesia. As elders, they were over those who served. But they usually did their share in serving also. It seems to be taken for granted that they would supervise (Titus 1:5-7). Such as did so appear in Philippians, classed as supervisors. Paul's epistle to Timothy and Titus deal with rule in the ecclesia. Hence elders are brought before us there. In Philippians, we are interested in the service of all, including the elders.

The question as to the manner of choosing elders, now that there are no apostles to constitute them, should seldom come up. It should be evident to all who are those who have the necessary qualifications, and they should be recognized without further ceremony. This has worked practically for many years even in these days. Other methods lead to much that is evil. Especially is this so when there are definite terms of office, with elections occurring frequently. The church of God is not a democracy, ruled by the majority. They should bow to the Word and to those who possess the qualifications which are therein prescribed. Elders may ask the opinion of anyone or of the whole ecclesia, but they should not base their action on this alone, but upon the experience and wisdom which their years should bring, in accord with the Scriptures.


A striking phrase closes the epistle in the salutation at the end. "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit!" The striking absence of physical blessing in the epistle is emphasized at its close by limiting God's grace to the spirit, in contrast to the body and the soul, which were prominent in the evangel of the kingdom. Contrast the salutation of the apostle John to Gaius. He emphasized the soul (3 John 2). But Philippian service brings in a new note. There is suffering in present service. Christ descended to death. Paul is in bonds, and his afflictions are intensified even by his fellow slaves. Epaphroditus is infirm and risks his soul. All grace is in spirit. Hence, in closing, Paul calls down this grace upon the Philippians and upon us—that we may find our highest bliss in serving Him in the midst of physical infirmity, not in flesh, but in spirit.

A. E. Knoch

This publication may be reproduced for personal use
(all other rights reserved by copyright holder).