“Dear Philippians…”?

When was the last time you actually wrote someone a letter, as opposed to sending an email or text message? The closest I’ve come in recent memory is cards saying “Thank you,” or “Happy birthday,” or sending condolences. I do almost all written communication electronically. That’s ironic considering I was a late adopter of the technology. Years back, when our school transitioned to email, I was one of the last one or two holdouts, preferring to write notes out longhand and tape them to colleagues’ office doors (what one colleague jokingly called “D-mail”).

Then again — I’m notorious for long emails, because I write them like letters. I don’t like overly businesslike, straight-to-the-point emails that crisply ask for information and say little else. I still follow the conventions of letter-writing, with some kind of friendly hello and a goodbye. End a text with “CYA”? Not happening.

There are consequences, though. Sometimes, I get frustrated because I know the recipient hasn’t read the whole message; if I ask three questions, only one gets answered. And if I complain to my wife, she reminds me that no one wants to read long emails.

Okay, yeah, I get it. But I probably won’t change the way I write. It feels rude to leave out the niceties.

Some letter-writing conventions are both ancient and intuitively obvious. In the apostle Paul’s day, the common practice was to begin with three things: (1) the author’s name/description, (2) the recipient’s name/description, and (3) “Greetings” (in the Greek, chairein). We see this, for example, in the letter of James:

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ Jesus, to the twelve tribes in the dispersion, Greetings. (James 1:1, NRSVUE)

By comparison, however, Paul’s greeting to the Philippians is more complicated:

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Phil 1:1-2, NRSVUE)

This isn’t just a fancy way of saying, “Hi, Philippians!” Paul takes the conventions of his day and injects them with theological purpose. Remember, this was a Gentile church worshiping a Jewish God and Messiah — a new social phenomenon in which nothing was to be taken for granted. Even in this brief salutation, Paul uses the name of Jesus and the title “Christ” (the Greek equivalent of messiah) three times in combination, even adding the title “Lord” at the last. He is reminding the Philippians of their shared identity as believers: We serve Jesus, we are in Jesus, and grace and peace are from Jesus, the only true Lord.

In this and the next two posts, we’ll break down how Paul adapts the three elements of the salutation: author, recipient, and greeting. Each element is meaningful. Let’s begin with the identification of the author.

The letter is from Paul and Timothy. Most likely, the words of the epistle are Paul’s, and Timothy wrote them down. But the Philippians knew Timothy well (Phil 2:22), and Paul hoped to send him to them (2:19), so it makes sense that the greeting would come from him as well. Paul calls himself and Timothy “servants” of Jesus; the word generally referred to a slave who was someone else’s property. In the New Testament, the word is used positively to describe someone who willingly submits to the authority and lordship of Christ.

But it’s not only what Paul says that matters, it’s what he doesn’t say. Look at the openings, for example, of Paul’s letters to the Romans, Ephesians, or Galatians. In all of them, Paul calls himself an “apostle,” one with the authority of someone sent by God. But that word is absent here. His relationship with the Philippians was such that there was no need to assert his authority in any way. Again, this is a letter from one friend to another; when he tells them what he wants them to do, it will be on the basis of their friendship and not his status as an apostle.

I also suspect that Paul’s reference to himself as a slave and not an apostle fits better with his immediate context. Four times in the first chapter, Paul mentions his imprisonment (vss. 7, 13, 14, 17): the word he uses literally means “bonds” and can refer to chains or shackles. He’s not trying to win their sympathy (he already has it!) but give them a living example of what it means to be a slave who suffers for Jesus and yet is able to remain content (4:11) through Christ’s strength (4:13).

I know who I am, Paul can say. And in the next post, we’ll look at Paul’s description of who the Philippians are.