1. Approve What Is Excellent (Philippians 1:1-11)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (28:44)

El Greco, 'St. Paul' (1606), Oil on canvas, 97 x 77 cm, Museo del Greco, Toledo.
El Greco, 'St. Paul' (1606), Oil on canvas, 97 x 77 cm, Museo del Greco, Toledo.

What a warm beginning Paul brings to his Letter to the Philippian Church. He obviously has great affection for them. The first few paragraphs ooze love. But when he starts to pray for these his friends, we begin to see what his ministry is all about. Let's learn from this Apostle who knew Christ well.

As we begin, let us pray: Father, as we begin our study of this Letter, we ask that your Holy Spirit instruct our hearts. Show us the nuggets that you have for us. Build them into our lives and let them mature in us, so that we might grow in Christ. Thank you for this incredible privilege of letting you speak to our hearts. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Servants of Christ Jesus (1:1a)

"1Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons:
2Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." (1:1-2)

Letters in Paul's day usually had a set format: "A to B, greetings."[10] Notice how he identifies himself and Timothy as "servants of Christ Jesus." "Servants" is probably too weak a translation. The Greek noun doulos is used of "a male slave as an entity in a socioeconomic context," or "one who is solely committed to another, "slave, subject,"[11] denoting "compulsory service."[12] Hired "servants" come and go, but "slaves" are committed to their Master for life. I recall Paul's sense of responsibility about preaching. When he writes to the Corinthian church he says,

"Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!" (1 Corinthians 9:16)

To the Romans he writes,

"I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish." (Romans 1:14)

He is a slave to do God's will and fulfill God's purposes for his life -- not just to play at serving God when the notion strikes him. But he isn't a slave that complains about his lot. He finds joy in doing God's will. Genuine love for God is the key to joy in service.

Saints in Christ Jesus (1:1b)

Next, Paul addresses the recipients of the letter:

"To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons" (1:1b).

He writes to the whole church and then includes the leaders. It's backwards from the way we might address a group -- distinguished leaders first, then fellow citizens.

Have you ever been uncomfortable to be referred to as a "saint"? This word isn't referring to your perfection -- as in, "I'm no saint!" -- but referring to who owns you. Let me explain.

"Saints" is the Greek adjective hagios. As an adjective it pertains to "being dedicated or consecrated to the service of God." Here it refers to believers as "the holy ones, saints," as consecrated to God.[13] When we are "saved," when Christ's Spirit comes into our lives, we become holy. No, not perfect or perfected, but dedicated, set apart to the service of God. We are now his sacred property and off limits to profane use. Paul reminds the Corinthians:

"Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body." (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)

You can't make yourself holy by doing good deeds. You are made holy by being purchased by God at the cost of Christ's blood (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 1:18; Revelation 5:9). It is because you are now holy, separated to God, dedicated, "sainted," that you now want to clean up your act. Salvation and sanctification are both God's work in us. So settle it in your heart, you are a "saint," no matter how rough-hewn your spiritual life seems to be right now. You belong to God. Period.

When you think about it, being a "slave of Christ Jesus" and being a "saint" of God are pretty much the same thing, just looking at different aspects of belonging "lock, stock, and barrel" to God!

One minor point: Have you ever wondered why Paul sometimes says "Jesus Christ" and other times says, "Christ Jesus"? They mean the same, it's a matter of emphasis. "Christ," of course, is not Jesus' name but his title: "Messiah, Anointed One." When Paul says "Messiah Jesus" he is especially emphasizing that title.

Q1. (1:1) What is the basic idea of "slave"? What is the root idea of "saint"? In what way are these words saying the same thing about a Christian's relationship to God? (Note: to answer this question correctly you'll need to refer to the notes on the precise word meanings.)

Overseers and Deacons (1:1c)

Let's look at the salutation again:

"Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons." (1:1)

This isn't the place for a complete word study on church leaders. But let's look at the words used here.

"Overseers" (NIV) or "bishops" (KJV, NRSV) is the Greek noun episkopos, from which the Episcopal Church gets its name. The noun comes from two words: epi-, "over" (as a marker of power and authority) + scopeō, "to pay careful attention to, look (out) for, notice."[14] Generically, the noun refers to "one who has the responsibility of safeguarding or seeing to it that something is done in the correct way, guardian." The term was taken over in Christian communities in reference to one who served as an "overseer" or "supervisor," with special interest in guarding the apostolic tradition. It has traditionally been translated "bishop."[15] It is found in Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:2; and Titus 1:7, and in the New Testament is used synonymously with the words for "shepherd/pastor" and "elder." In the second century, bishops emerged who had authority over local church pastors (presbyters, elders), the beginning of a church hierarchy. But here in Paul's letter it is referring to the elders or leaders of the local church.

"Deacons" is the Greek noun diakonos, "generally one who is busy with something in a manner that is of assistance to someone." The term was applied in secular Greek to "one who serves as an intermediary in a transaction, agent, courier." It is also used as "one who gets something done as the behest of a superior, an assistant to someone" -- "attendant, assistant, aide." In the Christian community it refers to one identified for special ministerial service. In this sense it is used in our passage, as well as in 1 Timothy 3:8, 12; 4:6; and Romans 16:1 (in the feminine gender, referring to Phoebe, a "deaconess of the church in Cenchrea").[16]

Grace and Peace (1:2)

"Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ." (1:2)

"Grace and peace" is Paul's customary greeting. The typical Greek greeting was "grace" or "favor." The typical Hebrew greeting was Shalom, "peace." Paul combines them and moves them from an everyday usage to a special greeting where each word holds a spiritual meaning. Paul is pointing specifically to the "grace of God" and to "peace with God," which is the blessing of a right relationship with God. "Grace and peace!"

Joyful Prayers (1:3-5)

"I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now...." (1:3-5)

In reading these verses you get the feeling that Paul's love for the Philippians is continuous and overflowing. Every time he thinks of them he thanks God for them. "In all my prayers for all of you" suggests many and frequent prayers for the congregation as a whole and probably some members in particular.

Then Paul says, "I always pray with joy (Greek chara)...." Paul first alludes to this experience of joy in verse 4, but it will continue throughout the letter: "In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy," he says. See the word study on rejoicing in the Introduction.

Partnership in the Gospel (1:5)

What brings joy to Paul in his prayers? He writes,

"I always pray with joy because of your partnership (Greek koinōnia) in the gospel from the first day until now...." (1:4-5)

The Greek noun koinōnia, "close association involving mutual interests and sharing, association, communion, fellowship."[17] "Partnership in the gospel" means that through their gifts of aid to Paul, they participated with him in his ministry of preaching the gospel. And because of that participation, they also would share in the eternal reward of that ministry. We'll see in chapter 4 that this was a two-way partnership:

"In the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only." (4:15)

It was a true partnership, a mutual sharing, a two-way street, of giving and receiving. In the case of the Philippians, it was giving money, love, and personnel (Epaphroditus) to support Paul's ministry. And it was receiving in return spiritual and material blessings (4:19). See the word study on "fellowship" in the Introduction.

Q2. (1:6) When we become financial "partners" with a Christian missionary, minister, ministry, or church, what do we receive out of the partnership? What other kinds of support might we offer beyond financial?

Carry the Work to Completion (1:6)

Now he prays for them with confidence based on God's faithfulness:

"...Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." (1:6)

"Confident" is the perfect participle of the Greek verb peithō, which means here, "be so convinced that one puts confidence in something."[18] "Carry it on to completion" (NIV) or "perform it" (KJV) is the Greek verb epiteleō, "to finish something begun, end, bring to an end."[19]

Yes, we have a responsibility to repent from sin and turn towards God. But thankfully, our salvation and eternal destiny do not on rely upon our feeble efforts to be righteous. They depend upon God himself who has declared us to be his ("saints," verse 2) and will complete what he has begun in our lives when Christ comes ("the Day of Christ," verse 6). Paul has given us a wonderful assurance of God's involvement in our salvation -- and it certainly won't be the last mention of this in the Letter.

But we are not to presume upon God's grace or give false assurance to those who really aren't trying to live for Christ. This assurance is intended for believers who are sincerely seeking to follow Christ, in spite of their imperfections.

When you look at the context of this letter, Paul isn't saying this just to individuals, but to the church as a whole. He is saying: "He who began a good work in you Philippians will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." As we see later in the letter, he is encouraging them to mature as a group.

Q3. (1:6) What does Paul expect God to do for the Philippian believers? Why does he expect God to do this? What is the basis of Paul's confidence? On what basis can we expect God to do this for us?

Paul's Affection for the Philippians (1:7-8)

"7It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God's grace with me. 8God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus." (1:7-8)

"I have you in my heart," says it all. Paul loves the Philippians and feels their love for him. He especially appreciates their constancy. They supported him when he was in active, church-planting ministry. "Defending" is the Greek noun apologia, often used as a legal term as "a speech of defense, reply." It doesn't carry our English idea of "excuse" here.[20] "Confirming" is the Greek noun bebaiōsis, "the process of establishing or confirming something, confirmation, validation," here, "confirmation, establishment of the gospel."[21] Perhaps even more significantly the Philippians support him now, when he is sitting in prison. How often do we forget our missionaries when they have to come home from the field because of illness or family needs? The Philippians were constant in support of Paul no matter what his situation.

As a result Paul sees them as sharers of God's grace to Paul. They have shared in the support; they also share in the reward. "Share in" (NIV, NRSV) and "partakers of" (KJV) is the Greek compound verb sygkoinōnos, "participant, partner," used in secular Greek of business partners.[22] See the word study on "fellowship" in the Introduction.

Prayer for Discernment (1:9-11)

In his overflowing love for the Philippians, Paul prays for them:

"9And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, 11filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ -- to the glory and praise of God." (1:9-11)

Let's break down the prayer logically to understand just what Paul is asking:

That your love may abound ... in knowledge and depth of insight

So that you may be able to discern the good from the best, and

Therefore, may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ

and be filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ,
In order that you bring glory and praise to God.

Paul's final desire is that their lives reflect "glory and praise" to God. How does this come about?

It begins with love -- here, in particular, love for God. Paul prays that their love for God "may abound more and more," that is, become increasingly greater, that their love for God may accelerate.

But this is not just any kind of love for God. It is love that becomes more discerning and knowledgeable about who God is and what really pleases him. "Knowledge" is the common Greek noun epignōsis, "knowledge, recognition."[23] "Insight" (NIV, NRSV) or "judgment" (KJV) is the Greek noun aisthēsis, "capacity to understand, discernment, denoting moral understanding."[24] When we are young we are carefree and careless. We don't know what to watch for -- what is important and what is of no importance. As we grow, we grow more discerning.

In this verse, Paul applies discernment to love. When we fall in love for the first time, it is usually "puppy love." It may be real enough. It is certainly powerful. But it is more about what pleases us than what pleases the object of our attraction. As this love leads to marriage (that is, commitment) and matures, however, it grows both in knowledge and discernment of the needs of our spouse. It is a love combined with actions that are suitable for our spouse. It isn't about us nearly as much as it is about our spouse and our spouse's needs.

Has your love for God grown since you became a Christian? Is it at the puppy love stage, or have you grown beyond that to committed love that seeks to please God in all that you do? Have you progressed to a love that knows what God desires and is discerning therefore about how you live your life?

Discerning What Is Best (1:10a)

The effect of our increasing knowledge and discernment is:

"... So that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ...." (1:10)

In verse 10, "discern" (NIV), "determine" (NRSV), or "approve" (KJV) is the fascinating Greek verb dokimazō. The root idea is "to make a critical examination of something to determine its genuineness, put to the test, examine." Gold, for example, would be tested to determine its purity. Oxen would be put through their paces to determine their usefulness. The word can also extend to the meaning, "to draw a conclusion about worth on the basis of testing, prove, approve."[25]

"What is best" (NIV, NRSV) or "things that are excellent" (KJV) is the participle of the Greek verb diapherō, "be worth more than, be superior to," or here, "the things that really matter."[26]

We've looked at the words. Now what does the sentence mean?

The good is the enemy of the best. We can be so preoccupied with good things, that we don't have time for the best, most important, most significant things. We can live years of our lives pursuing things that are transitory and ultimately of little worth. Good, maybe, but not of ultimate importance.

Paul's prayer here is that we are able to determine by critical examination which things are of greatest importance and put our efforts into those things -- the things that are of greatest worth. "Most excellent, dude."

Q4. (1:9-11) Why does Paul ask God to give the Philippian Christians discernment? What will be the result of discernment in their lives? How does selfishness cloud discernment? How is the good the enemy of the best in our lives?

The Result of Clear Focus (1:10-11)

Let's look at this prayer again:

"9 And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ -- to the glory and praise of God." (1:9-11)

Paul prays that their love may mature and become discerning so that they might achieve two things:

  • To be pure and blameless when Christ returns, and
  • To be filled with the fruit of Christ's righteousness.

Have you ever despaired of being blameless? I have. I sin and then blame myself. I wonder how a just God cannot help but blame me. Then I remember what the cross is all about. God has placed my blame and sin and guilt upon Jesus. He died for me as my sacrifice for sin, as Peter put it, "For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God" (1 Peter 3:18). Now I am without blame in God's eyes -- not my doing, mind you, but God in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19).

"To be pure" is the Greek adjective eilikrinēs. Originally it meant "unmixed, without alloy." Then, in a moral sense, "pertaining to being sincere, without hidden motives or pretense, pure."[27] We become pure as we begin to focus our lives on what is of greatest value, and refuse any longer to fill our lives with that which is of less value.

Then Paul speaks of being "filled with the fruit of Christ's righteousness." What is the fruit of righteousness? A righteous character, a character and life that reflect God's way and God's values.

To the Glory and Praise of God (1:11)

Paul prays for a love towards God that discerns the best from the good and as a result produces a life that is pure, blameless, and of good character. This is what the Spirit builds in us when we yield to him (Galatians 5:22-23). Paul closes this prayer with the words: "... to the glory and praise of God."

That is the final purpose and goal of our lives, of course. This is not about us, but about God. Our lives are not to be lived so that we achieve our goals and are happy. But as both slaves and saints (people dedicated to the service of the deity), our lives are to reflect well on him. That's what we're about. Jesus said:

"In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." (Matthew 5:16)

Paul has a way of putting it all in perspective in the first eleven verses of this brief letter to the Philippians.

Philippians: Discipleship Lessons, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson, JesusWalk Bible Study Series
Available in PDF, Kindle, and paperback formats

We are slaves and saints whose lives are to be lived to bring credit to our God. But this is not a heavy burden, but love's mission as our love becomes more and more discerning and focused. That is what the Christian life is about, a maturing love for God and an increasingly godly life that accurately reflects that love we have for him. That is our aim.


Father, help me to mature in my own love for you. Help me to be discerning, not impulsively selfish, about what I choose to do and be. Help me to be a true bond-slave to you -- and a saint, in the real meaning of that word. I love you. Help me to love you better. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." (Philippians 1:6)

"And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ." (Philippians 1:9-10)


[10] John S. Lown, "Epistle," ISBE 2:122-125; Peter T. O'Brien, "Letters, Letter Forms," DPL 550-553.

[11] Doulos, BDAG 259-260.

[12] Karl Heinrich Rengstorf, "doulos, ktl.," TDNT 2:261-280.

[13] Hagios, BDAG 11.

[14] Scopeō, BDAG 931.

[15] Episkopos, BDAG 379-380.

[16] Diakonos, BDAG 230-231.

[17] Koinōnia, BDAG 552-553.

[18] Peithō, BDAG 791-792.

[19] Epiteleō, BDAG 383.

[20] Apologia, BDAG 117.

[21] Bebaiōsis, BDAG 173.

[22] Sygkoinōnos, BDAG 952.

[23] Epignōsis, BDAG 369.

[24] Aisthēsis, BDAG 29.

[25] Dokimazō, BDAG 225.

[26] Diapherō, BDAG 239, 4.

[27] Eilikrinēs, BDAG 282.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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