Philippians 2:1-4

Remember, the section of Paul’s letter to the Philippian Church that we are now considering, the section that follows the introduction, began at v. 27 of chapter 1. This section, extending to 2:18, is an exhortation to holy living such as you find in almost all of Paul’s letters. 1:27-30, the verses we considered last Lord’s Day morning, are the introduction to this lengthy exhortation. Again it is typical of Paul to introduce what scholars call his paraenetic material with a general statement like the one we find in v. 27: “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” Scholars love to invent words, to coin neologisms or new words. “Paraenetic” – a word that you won’t find in ordinary dictionaries of the English language but which you find all the time in biblical commentaries – is a made-up English adjective, taken from the Greek verb παραινέω which means “to advise” or “to urge.” So when Paul is advising us as to how to live the Christian life or urging us to lay hold of that life, biblical scholars say that he is involved in paraenesis. That is scholarship for you: making up highly specialized vocabulary, secret words that only the initiated will know, when perfectly ordinary words are available! Those of you who find scholars and scholarship tiresome might be interested to know that the other definition of neologism – besides “a new word, usage, or expression” – is “a meaningless word coined by a psychotic.” At any rate, we are in the paraenetic section of the Letter to the Philippians.

Text Comment

You will appreciate that 2:1-11 are a unit and that I am somewhat artificially dividing our reading by stopping with verse 4. The connection between the first four verses and the remaining portion of the paragraph is too obvious to require comment. I justify my decision to treat the first four verses separately in two ways: first, the main thesis or point of the paragraph is stated in these first four verses, the remainder are given to illustrate and confirm that point, so the main point can certainly be treated on its own; and second, the immortal Carmen Christi, the “Hymn of Christ,” which is found in vv. 6-11, is too important in itself to be treated simply as an illustration of the main point of the paragraph. That is its use in the context, without a doubt, but it is, in fact, one of the most important Christological passages in the Bible. It deserves separate treatment.


The sentence begins with a “therefore” which the NIV omits. But the connection with what has gone before is close and important. He said in v. 27 that they needed to stand firm in one spirit and contend as one man for the faith. It is that thought that he is picking up as he proceeds into the main body of his exhortation. We know from the remainder of the letter that at least the seeds of disunity had been sown in the church. While the problem was perhaps not yet acute – not as acute, for example, as it had been in Corinth when Paul wrote his first letter to that church – it was real and this explains Paul’s lengthy and powerful exhortation to unity. [Cf. O’Brien, 167]

The four-fold question is, of course, rhetorical. Of course they have experienced such encouragement and comfort. It is an appeal to their Christian experience and their Christian feelings and affections. The way this first verse functions in Paul’s exhortation is this: the Philippian Christians know very well the comfort they received when they believed in Jesus; they found consolation in suffering and trial in the love of God; they have experienced the fellowship of the Holy Spirit and felt his power in their hearts and lives; they have experienced the tender mercies of God; and because they have they will have every reason to heed the exhortation that follows. All of these blessings that they have shared become reasons why they ought to love one another and practice a deep and affectionate unity.


Grammatically vv. 1-4 are one sentence with the main clause the imperative of v. 2: “make my joy complete.” His own joy is, of course, not Paul’s primary concern – his primary concern is the Philippians’ unity in love – but, as we said in introducing the letter, joy is going to be a silver thread that runs right through the letter. It is a tactful way to appeal to them. Rather than rebuke them for disunity he appeals to the fact that they love him and their sacrificial actions on his behalf have recently proven the depth and power of that love. As a result it is natural for him to appeal to their concern for him and for his happiness as a way of motivating them to pursue holy things. Nothing would make him happier than to see his brethren in Philippi living in loving unity.

The four brief clauses that complete v. 2 all amount to emphasis on the same thing: spiritual unity. Often in the New Testament emphasis is conveyed by repetition. Saying the same thing in different ways is called tautology. One great New Testament scholar referred to Paul’s four-fold exhortation here as a “tautology of earnestness.” [Lightfoot, cited in Silva, 87] Paul wants to be sure his readers get the point! By “being-likeminded” Paul does not mean that they think precisely the same way about everything – the Greek term isn’t so much an expression of intellectual agreement – but that they are one in intent and disposition. [O’Brien, 178]


This statement indicates that the true obstacle to a unity of heart and mind is not differences of opinion but selfishness and vanity.


Shifting attention away from ourselves to others – which, of course is what Jesus Christ did, as the following verses will remind us – is the key to Christian unity.

There is a very great deal of disunity in the world. Every day the newspaper brings fresh reports. It can be deadly – whether Muslims killing Muslims and Americans in Iraq or bloody riots in some city – or simply viscous and ugly – as in the boardroom meltdown at Hewlett Packard or the mudslinging by American politicians. People, in fact, usually don’t get along with one another. The daily newspaper would have many fewer pages if people got along better. Disunity is what drives the news. What unity there is – and it is often celebrated precisely because it is so often lacking – is achieved ordinarily either by means of concentration on superficial things – loyalty to one’s favorite sports team or a common effort to support a charitable cause, a 5K run to support cancer research, for example, or by joining together people who think precisely the same way about something. It is also achieved under the pressure of some common threat. That, of course, is not unity in any important or impressive sense; it is, in fact, a form of self-centeredness. A sense of oneness or togetherness is felt only when a person is together with people who agree with him or her or when a person perceives his own life or safety to be in jeopardy. That is a unity entirely of convenience or necessity.

And if you think I am painting too dark a picture, consider how often you have found people maintaining a spirit of unity and togetherness even in the face of real disagreements. Experience proves how evanescent human unity really is: whenever the disagreements come, the unity disappears. American politicians were largely unified going into Iraq, but it didn’t take long for the cracks to emerge and now, of course, there is open antagonism and scarcely concealed hatred. And it is so everywhere: in society as a whole, in the workplace, even, alas, far too often in the family. How hard it is for human beings to be and remain of one mind, having the same love. And if unity among human beings depends upon their thinking alike, we are doomed to disunity.

But, it should not be so for Christians. That is Paul’s point. Christians have transcendent reasons to be like-minded and to maintain a unity in love in defiance of differences of opinion, even in the teeth of perceived slights and offenses. They are supposed to be different from the world precisely in this way! Christians are to be people who get along with one another no matter what! Our Lord, remember, said the very same thing. He said that the world would know the truth of the gospel, that God had sent his Son into the world for its salvation, by the unity of Christians. Unity is so rare, so hard to achieve, so difficult to preserve, that when the world sees a community where people love one another and stick together no matter their faults, their differences, and their failures, Jesus said, people will be forced to account for what they see. These people are different in a wonderfully attractive way. What is it that makes them so? And it will become clear to them that the love Christians have for one another must come from somewhere: that this is God’s love and Christ’s love in and through them.

But, alas, we know that it hasn’t always been so that Christians have forced the unbelieving world to account for their other-worldly love for one another. Everyone is aware that the Christian church today is deeply and historically divided into three great sections: The Orthodox or Eastern Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Protestant Church. And everyone is further aware that the Protestant world – and for that matter, the Orthodox world and Roman Catholic world – is further divided into virtually innumerable divisions, and that the major divisions, such as, for example, the Presbyterian Church, are further divided into still smaller segments. Anyone familiar with Church history at all and with the history of his or her own church, knows that the divisions that separate Christians from one another often were born in bitter controversy and continue in studied antagonism, one group of Christians holding themselves apart from the other.

And so it was from the beginning. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, as we well know, exposed a Christian congregation that was splintered, not by heresy but by other factors, into distinct parties and oppressed by a party spirit, various groups vilifying the rest for various reasons: from loyalty to a favorite preacher to different opinions about what constituted Christian behavior.

What is more, the better one learns the history of Christianity, the more division and disunity one finds. We tend to look back on the early centuries of Christianity, the three centuries following Pentecost, as a kind of golden age of Christian unity. We remember Tertullian’s famous statement, which he puts into the mouth of the pagan observer of Christianity, “My how those Christians love one another.” And, surely, there was such brotherly love and impressively so. But there were, within the church at the same time, bitter divisions as well, major schisms, dirty dealing – one side against the other – and mutual hatred. Tertullian himself apparently became a member of the Montanist sect, a movement of Christians not so dissimilar to the charismatic movement of more recent times, especially a charismatic church that was also fundamentalist in its approach to Christian ethics and the Christian life. Montanists practiced what they held to be a continuing gift of prophecy, they had female clergy, and were rigorists in Christian ethics, even determining the exact length of the veil that their women had to wear to worship. The Montanists separated themselves from mainstream Christians. And the mainstream struck back. The very first regional synod known to Christian history excommunicated the Montanists and it was a movement often spoken against, though, so far as we know, Montanists held to the main points of an orthodox Christian confession.

But, again, where does all this leave us. Our Savior and King prayed on our behalf for the complete unity of his followers and his church fractured into uncountable pieces. Paul wrote to his Philippian brothers to urge upon them the practice of unity in love because news had come to him of division in that church.

Well, my friends, welcome to the Christian life. Just as sanctification – for which our Savior also prayed – comes very slowly and only with great difficulty, so does unity. As to our holiness the Savior also said that the world would notice, see our good works and glorify the Father who is in heaven. And it is hard for us to believe that, so poorly do we practice good works. And it is hard to believe that our unity, such as it is, could ever impress the world. But that is our Savior’s will and so it is our calling and our duty and ought to be our passion.

And Paul here has given us the way to put that commitment into practice. His argument runs like this. Look, if you are a Christian you must practice love and unity with other believers. It is the inevitable, the inexorable logic of your faith. You can’t argue that other believers don’t deserve your love, because you didn’t deserve Christ’s and yet he gave it to you! You can’t say that your interests are more important than theirs because Christ’s interests were certainly more important than yours, but he put your interests first. He had every right to look to his own interests and he looked to yours instead. You can’t say you love him if you don’t show yourself willing and ready to please him and he has said that what pleases him is to have his followers love one another. If you know the love of Christ, the glory of it, you can’t not love someone who also knows that love. You can’t look down on someone, you can’t hate someone, you can’t dismiss someone whom Christ loves as much as he loves you! Such a thing would be to dishonor the love of Christ, not to thank him for it and adorn it in your life. Christians can’t be selfish who have been saved from sin and death by infinite acts of selflessness.

There is an inescapable logic here and every true Christian knows it! As Augustine said of himself and his Christian friend Alypius, “we were washed in the same blood!” But every Christian is obliged not only to say that about every other Christian but then to treat the other accordingly. You love Christ when you love those Christ loves. He said that himself in many different ways and, had he never said it, we would still have known it to be so.

But Paul doesn’t leave it at the level of logic. He descends still further to the affections. If you have any encouragement…if any comfort from his love…fellowship with the Holy Spirit…if you have known the tenderness and the compassion of the Lord… If you have in your heart, he says, the living experience of God’s love, of Christ’s grace, of the Holy Spirit’s presence, then you must love one another. Not to do so would be to turn your back on those magnificent realities as if they meant nothing to you and as if you cared nothing for them.

Would you be willing to give up the joy you have sometimes felt in the knowledge of God’s love for you? Would you be willing to give up the exquisite comfort that you have sometimes found in the knowledge that you are going to heaven and will live in infinite joy for ever? Would you be willing to abandon the confidence that God has your life in his hands, or that he with you wherever you go, or that he hears your prayers, or that he stands ready to forgive yours sins when you ask him in Jesus name? Would you be willing to surrender your membership in his family and the right to call him Father? No, Paul says, these are the greatest things we know; they are the highest conceivable privileges ever bestowed on a human being. You would never give them up. No Christian ever would! It is our very life to know and, at least sometimes, to feel these things!

But if these things, then other things with them, including the love of fellow Christians. You can’t have and keep Christ’s love and refuse to love your brethren. You can’t feel the warmth of that love in yourheart and then have a cold heart toward the saints. You can’t rejoice in Christ’s love for you and God’s mercy to you and be unloving and unmerciful toward others God has loved and Christ has shown mercy. It is impossible! It is a contradiction! It is a betrayal of those very things that are the most important of all things to you.

I have been reading lately Leigh Montville’s fascinating new biography of Babe Ruth [The Big Bam: The Life and Times of Babe Ruth]. Did you know that Babe Ruth was a practicing Christian, a Roman Catholic? He was profane to a degree that was shocking even in the commonly profane community of professional baseball players. He was a womanizer of the first order; the Wilt Chamberlain of his day. It appears that when, after some years of marriage, he and his wife announced that they were the parents of a daughter, already sixteen months old, the truth is that the daughter was Ruth’s by another woman. And he was no one’s friend. He was likeable enough in a superficial way, but he was no one’s real friend. He was a selfish man pure and simple. He showed a little kindness to his fans, to be sure – especially after hiring Christy Walsh to be his business manager and public relations man – and he would shower acquaintances with gifts from time to time, but he had no real friends and was not a real friend to anyone. Little of his constant, incessant womanizing was reported in those days. He was a shameless user of women. But players and sports writers belonged to the same fraternity. Nor did they write what they could have about his prodigious appetite for food and alcohol or his gambling at which he sometimes lost prodigious sums of money.

But all the while Ruth was a “Christian” man. Listen to Leigh Montville.

“The Catholic religion would stay with him, the rhythm of mistakes and redemption perfect for his life of rapidly accumulating venial sins. Three Our Fathers, three Hail Marys, and a good Act of Contrition would clear out his moral digestive system and set him back on the road. He would amaze teammates sometimes when he would appear at Mass in the morning after a night of indulgence. Three Our Fathers, three Hail Marys, a good Act of Contrition, a $50 bill in the collection basket, ready to go. He would become a celebrated member of the Knights of Columbus.” [29]

The Knights of Columbus, you know, is an organization of conservative Roman Catholics dedicated to defending and propagating the faith. And not just the Catholics. He addressed Presbyterian groups on several occasions as well.

Now, it is not hard for us to see that that is a mockery of the Christian faith. You can’t go to church and take the name of Christ on your lips and his body and blood in your mouth to make up for adultery, drunkenness, and a perpetual disregard for other human beings. You can’t call Christ your Savior and then live in open contempt for all that Savior taught and did. You can’t call yourself a Christian and live as if the grace of God and the love of Christ meant nothing much to you and had not become the principles of your own life as well.

But, says Paul, the same is true here. You can’t take Christ and leave his people. You can’t take God’s love and be a hater. You can’t rejoice in Christ’s salvation and then act toward others as if you are not a sinner saved by grace. There is a connection between one thing and the other, an inescapable connection. The love of God in your heart and the love in your heart for others is the same thing, comes from the same place, is part and parcel of the same salvation. The two things belong together as surely as the root and the plant.

Now, the fact that Paul had to tell the Philippians this and later appeal to some members of the church to get along with one another is proof that this loving unity does not come without effort and attention. We have the frequent witness of the New Testament that this particular duty of loving unity will be as difficult to fulfill as any other part of our sanctification. Just as every Christian struggles to be holy and finds continual failure, even as he or she also advances in godly living, so it is with the practice of Christian unity. It simply is. It has always been so.

But what is perfectly clear from Paul’s way of putting things here is that no Christian cannot fail to cringe at his or her failures to practice unity with other believers – perhaps especially those believers with whom there is some disagreement – and can fail to be determined to seek that unity and to practice that unity as a fundamental feature of his or her identity as a Christian. Our union with Christ absolutely must produce a union with all others whom Christ loves and who love Christ. It is as simple as that and the logic as inescapable as that. Paul has left us no room for maneuver. And no Christian should want to maneuver. Christian unity may sometimes be difficult; it is hardly impossible.

So, Paul says to us, make the connection in your mind between God’s mercy and Christ’s love to you and yours to other Christians. Make sure you see that clearly. It shouldn’t be difficult, the connection is as clear as clear can be. Almighty love cannot be answered by hate; infinite mercy to the unworthy cannot be honored by vanity and selfishness. And, once you see that, “look to the interests of others…” Paul’s verb is perhaps too weakly translated here. The commentators recommend a translation like “fix one’s gaze” or “look attentively” at the interest of others. You don’t have to forget your own interests, but you look to those easily enough. Fix your gaze on the interests of others. Concentrate on the interests of others. You’ll notice that Paul doesn’t tell you what to feel, he tells you what to do!

“The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the greatest secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less.” [C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 116]

For all I know, the Lord Jesus, being a true man, may not have felt always the same toward his disciples. It is clear that some of the time he was exasperated with them. But he always acted in love to them. And nothing prevents us from doing the same and every fiber of our true selves as followers of Jesus cries out for us to do so. You have reason enough to love one another. Now set out to do it. Do it. Find the way, any way, and do it. One brother or sister at a time.