Saints is one of several Old Testament terms used to designate Israel that was appropriated by New Testament writers for the people of God newly constituted by Christ and the Spirit. Its origins can be traced to the covenantal setting of Exodus 19:6, where God addresses Israel as his people, "a holy nation"—a people consecrated and subject to Yahweh and his service. Its New Testament usage most likely derives from Daniel 7:18, where God's end-time people, who receive the kingdom as an eternal inheritance, are called "the saints of the Most High." A preferable translation might be "God's holy people," which keeps both dimensions of the term intact—believers in Christ as constituting God's people, who are by that very fact also called to be his holy people, set apart by the Holy Spirit for God's purposes and distinguished as those who manifest his character in the world. Concern that the believers be God's holy people in Philippi will be picked up throughout Paul's letter (Phil 1:10-11; 2:14-15; 3:17-19; 4:8).
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.
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