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In comparison with Paul's other letters, several elements of this greeting stand out: its comparative brevity, the fixed nature of the greeting proper (v. 2), and the inclusion of overseers and deacons. Several items call for comment.
The word translated servants is actually the Greek word for "slaves" and probably carries a double connotation. Gentile hearers would have instinctively understood the word to refer to those owned by, and subservient to, the master of a household. Although the institution of slavery in antiquity was a far cry from the racial slavery that blighted American society--and the English society that made it possible by the slave trade--the slave in the Roman Empire was still not a free person but "belonged to" another. At the same time, however, in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the LXX), which would have been well known to the Philippians, this word was also used to translate the term "servant of Yahweh [the LORD]." "The slave of the Lord" thus carried a sense of distance from and dependence on God, while at the same time being a kind of honorific title for those in special service to God (e.g., Moses, 2 Kings 18:12; Joshua, Josh 24:29).
This double connotation is probably at work in Paul's present usage. He and Timothy are "slaves" of Christ Jesus, bound to him as slaves to a master, and also servants of the Lord (now Christ Jesus!) whose bond is expressed in loving service on behalf of Christ for the Philippians--and others. This designation anticipates a significant moment later in this letter, where Christ himself is said to have taken the very nature of a servant (2:7). Elsewhere Paul uses this terminology to designate any and all who serve God as free bond-slaves--that is, as those who are free in Christ Jesus but have used that freedom to perform the duties of a slave (Gal 5:13) in the service of God and of his people. This is the closest thing to status one finds in our letter. And this is also the first of at least sixty-one mentions of Christ in the letter. Whatever else is said, everything has Christ as its cause and focus.
Their becoming "God's holy people" is the direct result of their relationship to Christ Jesus; they are the saints in Christ Jesus. Christ Jesus is responsible for their becoming the people of God. As the crucified and risen One, he also constitutes the present sphere of their new existence. They live as those who belong to Christ Jesus, as those whose lives are forever identified with Christ. This theme is thoroughgoing in Philippians, both in Paul's reflections on his own life (1:20-23; 3:7-11) and in his affirmations of and exhortations to the Philippians (1:27; 2:1, 5-11; 3:3; 4:7).
The most striking feature of this salutation is the addition of the phrase with the overseers and deacons. Surprisingly, this is the first designation of its kind in Paul's letters; even more surprisingly, after being thus singled out in the address, they are not hereafter mentioned or spoken to. As with the salutation itself, the letter in its entirety is always addressed to the whole community. Our difficulty from this distance is to determine who these people are and how they functioned in the community of faith. Nonetheless, some things seem clear enough.
First, exactly as one finds in the earliest (1 Thessalonians) and later (1 Timothy) letters, both references are plural. No evidence exists for a single leader as the head of the local assembly in the Pauline churches. The most probable reason for this relates to the role Paul himself played in his churches. Although he was not regularly present with them, they were his churches and owed their existence and obedience to him (cf. Phil 2:12).
Second, the language used for this addition, together with or "along with," is a sure giveaway as to the role of leaders in the Pauline churches. The community as a whole is addressed, and in most cases therefore the overseers and deacons are simply reckoned as being within the community. When they are singled out, as here, the leaders are not "over" the church but are addressed along with the rest, as a distinguishable part but clearly as part of the whole, not above or outside it.
Third, like all Paul's designations of church leaders, these terms first of all refer to people who function in these ways rather than hold an office. The noun overseer derives from a verb whose primary meaning is to "visit" in the sense of "looking after" or "caring for" someone. The people who bore this designation probably held the primary leadership roles in the local church and were responsible for caring for the people.
The word deacon, which means "servant," is most commonly used by Paul to designate those who serve others (Christ, Rom 15:8; government officials, Rom 13:4; Paul himself, 1 Cor 3:5; 2 Cor 3:6; his coworkers, Col 1:7; 1 Thess 3:2). From our distance it is nearly impossible to know either what their function was or how they differed from the overseers. If the latter most likely gave general oversight to the congregation, deacons probably were distinguished by their actual deeds of service.
Why only in this letter are the overseers and deacons singled out in the salutation? The most likely clue is to be found in 4:2-3, where Euodia and Syntyche, who are probably among these leaders, apparently are not in full accord with each other. Thus both the all with which the address begins and the addition of with the overseers and deacons at the end anticipate the problem of friction that has arisen within this community, perhaps within the leadership itself.
In a profound sense this greeting nicely represents Paul's larger theological perspective. The sum total of God's activity toward his human creatures is found in the word grace; God has given himself to his people bountifully and mercifully in Christ. Nothing is deserved, nothing can be achieved. The sum total of those benefits as they are experienced by the recipients of God's grace is peace, God's shalom, both now and to come. The latter flows out of the former, and both together flow from God our Father and were made effective in our human history through the Lord Jesus Christ.
The collocation of the Father and Son in such texts as these must not be overlooked. In the theology of Paul, whose central concern is salvation in Christ, God the Father is understood to initiate such salvation, and his glory is its ultimate reason for being. Christ is the One through whom God's salvation has been effected in history. But texts such as this one, where Father and Son are simply joined by the conjunction and as equally the source of grace and peace, and many others as well, make it clear that in Paul's mind the Son is truly God and works in cooperation with the Father and the Spirit for the redemption of the people of God.
Although one hesitates to make too much of such relatively formal matters, the contemporary church fits into this salutation at several key points. Those in roles of primary leadership too easily slip into a self-understanding which pays lip service to their being slaves/servants of Christ Jesus but prefer the more honorable sense of this term found in the Old Testament to the paradigm either of Christ (in 2:6-8) or of Paul (2:17). Not only so, but the emphasis on all of God's holy people, together with the leaders, could use some regular dusting off so as to minimize the distance between clergy and people that too frequently exists in the church. All of us are in Christ Jesus; and all are in Christ Jesus in whatever "Philippi" God has placed us, since contemporary Western and westernized cultures are no more friends to grace than theirs was to these early believers. And finally, as for them, the key to life in Christ in our Philippi lies first of all in our common experience of grace and peace . . . from God our Father provided by Christ our Lord.