Saturday, January 01, 2011

Bondservants of Christ

Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ, 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. (Philippians 1:01-02, NKJV).
I have recently committed Philippians to memory and, while it took quite a bit of time, it is well worth the effort. The Apostle Paul writes from his heart to "his beloved and longed for brethren", his "joy" and "crown", and reveals to them and us, as he does in all his epistles, the wonderful mysteries of Christ. There is such richness in this ancient letter from a pastor to his church. It can be read in a few minutes, but pondered for a lifetime. A mere taste of its profound truths and encouragements are sampled here.

The greeting in verse 1 follows the conventions and protocol of the times, identifying the authors immediately, instead of waiting until the end, as we typically do today. Writing from prison, Paul introduces himself, and Timothy, his "son in the faith", protege' and apprentice pastor, as bondservants of Jesus Christ. This concept of bondservant (Gr. doulos <doo'-los>), encapsulates in one word the essence of both Paul's self-image, and his relationship with the Lord.

The word literally means a slave, bondman, or man of servile condition. Its root depicts a Galley slave, chained to the oar in the bowels of an ancient sea-going vessel, the lowest of the low, an "under-rower" who was due the least regard or provision, and whose survival and well-being depended entirely upon the largesse of the ship's commander. It also refers to the ancient Hebrew regulations concerning household servants, who, indentured for a certain number of years, were given a choice when the contract was fulfilled: be emancipated or bound to the family from that day forward. Those slaves who chose to remain, out of loyalty, gratitude and love for their master, had their earlobes voluntarily pierced with an awl, that was briefly embedded in the lintel of the household's front entrance. Afterwards, the family bestowed upon the cherished servant a gold ear ring, identifying him forever in his role of voluntary servitude to that household.

We see repeatedly from Paul's letters that this was how he viewed himself, a voluntary slave, an under-rower, the "off-scouring" of the world, enchained to His beloved Master of his own volition, knowing that being the lowliest slave of Christ was far better than Emperor of the World. Clearly, he, like the other Apostles, did not see themselves in some vaunted, royal role of the early church. They were merely Christ's beloved slaves, under shepherds of God's people, accountable to the Great Shepherd Himself. Paul's, and his fellow apostles' humility, is a key component to being an effective worker for the King, a "good and faithful servant". Even the meaning of Paul's name, little, reflected this idea.

The recipients of this small epistle were all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons. This, too, is instructive to us today. Saints is the English translation of  hagios (hag'-ee-os), meaning literally, "called out one, something or someone set apart to God for His holy purposes". It is not a special class of believer, but ALL who are in Christ Jesus. This particular audience resided and worshiped in the city of Philippi, but the term is no less applicable to contemporary followers of Christ. We are all saints, called out from the world to God. The single qualification is sincere belief. The job description is to be His witnesses, literally, His martyrs, those who live out their faith (and perhaps die for it), doing everything in the name of the Lord Jesus. The rewards are eternal, the empowering is from His Spirit, and the results are in His sovereign control.

The bishops were overseers within the church. Pastors, elders, men well-taught in, and able to teach, the apostles' doctrine. Here is what Paul writes elsewhere regarding this office in the church:

A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. (1 Timothy 3:2-7, NKJV).
Looking further, deacons are those servants of the church, both men and women, who take care of the needs of the fellowship, the Body of Christ, other than teaching. These include all administrative areas, as well as caring for the poor or sick, distributing the offerings where most needed, and in general, carrying out the vision and instructions of the bishop. In military terms, it is a kind of First Officer role.  Paul also supplies guidance for this area of service:

Likewise deacons must be reverent, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy for money, holding the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience. But let these also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons, being found blameless. Likewise their wives must be reverent, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things. Let deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well. For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a good standing and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus. (1 Timothy 3:8-13, NKJV).
The apostle then concludes his greeting with one of his characteristic doxologies: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The components of this phrase, grace and peace, are inseparable in the New Testament, occurring multiple times, written mostly by Paul. It has been said, and rightfully so, that it is impossible to know the peace of God, unless you first accept His grace through Jesus Christ. This is a brilliantly succinct summation of mankind's long war against God. Always at enmity until faith in Christ, human beings struggle to either reject God completely, or attempt to earn His good pleasure. The rejectors lose their battle because they must. How could the finite in any way defeat the Infinite One? These can never know peace, and will exist in torment through all eternity. 

The other group, too prideful to fully accept God's gift of His Son, strive to perform in such a way as to obligate God to bless them. That too is impossible, since those born in sin can never DO enough to merit God's favor. Peace for this group is also unachievable. Without being in Christ, you can never perform enough works of sufficient quality to know His peace. You are forever insecure and never at rest.

But Christians kept by the power of God are eternally secure and have already entered into His rest. We have that peace that passes all understanding. And our hearts and minds are under guard by the Lord Himself, so that having accepted God's unfathomable offer of grace, we are equally recipients of His peace.

In addition to all the treasures it is our pleasure to uncover thus far within the opening salutation of this letter, there is yet another gem contained in the conjunctive bridging, God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. For want of a better phrase, that word "and" in this context denotes the existential equality of the two things on either side, God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ are existentially equal - a hidden proclamation of the absolute Deity of Christ - and all this contained in what otherwise might be overlooked as a formulaic opening stanza.

Please join with me, then, as we continue to explore the marvelous richness of this tiny New Testament epistle, filled as it is with blessing and encouragement and profound truth right from its very start.