1 If therefore there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, 2 make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. 3 Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; 4 do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. [NASB ‘77]
Paul reminds the Philippians of all they have in Christ and how it should spur them to humility and love. Humility and love are components of the unity that Paul has already said is the key to striving together for the gospel. When believers have their identity in Christ and understand that they are all partakers of the same grace, they are able to regard one another as more important than themselves and unite in one purpose. The unity Paul calls for in this text can only exist among the redeemed who have all they need in Christ.
The beginning of verse 1 – If therefore – likely refers back to verse 27 and Paul’s admonition to live in a manner worthy of the gospel. A key component of living the gospel is to live in loving unity with others who are doing the same. And the way to do that is to first remember all we have in Christ.
The child of God has three joys in Christ that enable him to treat others with love and grace. The one who realizes what he has and what he is in Christ doesn’t place demands on others that get in the way of unity.
Paul says the believer has:
- Encouragement in Christ
- Comfort (consolation) in [God’s] love
- Fellowship in the Spirit
We have everything we need in order to live freely. We’re known and loved. We commune with our Savior through His Spirit. He stands with us. He gives us strength. He gently encourages and loves us. And through His Spirit we have fellowship both with Him and with His children. Our confidence, our assurance, our self-worth, our mission – everything that gives meaning to life – come from our relationship with Christ through the gospel.
In short, our identity is in Christ. And if that’s true, it means our identity isn’t in the world and isn’t in the approval of others. We don’t make others meet expectations. Instead, we can serve them and love them with no ulterior motives or designs. We don’t seek affirmation and meaning and approval. We don’t demand justice or fair treatment. We’re free to lovingly give.
This is what Paul refers to in the last words of the verse. The one changed by Christ looks at others with affection and practices compassion. He’s known for his actions that stem from love. And notice that Paul includes this in his list of rhetorical statements to mean that it’s a given of the faith. The one in Christ IS this way – it’s who he is.
Because verse 1 is true, verses 2-4 are possible. Paul now turns to how believers should live in light of all they are in Christ – all they are because of the gospel. Remember, he’s continuing the thought of living in a manner worthy of the gospel.
He first tells them to “make my joy complete.” He’s already said the spreading of the gospel causes him to rejoice (1:18). Here he adds that seeing believers live in unity gives him joy also. This is another picture into the life of a man wholly committed to the gospel. His joy is built around the gospel going forward and in seeing its effects on the lives of those who believe it.
He uses the truths of verse 1 to admonish them in verse 2. Because we have encouragement in Christ, we must be of the same mind. Because we have the comfort of God’s love, we must maintain the same love. Because we have the fellowship of the Spirit, we must be united in spirit, intent on one purpose. To sum up, because we all stand only in Christ and all are what we are because of Christ, we must live in unity.
He refers back in this verse both to 1:27, where he urged them to stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel, and to his prayer for their love in 1:9. Love is the gauge of their sanctification, and unity is the measure of their love.
And it’s only because of Christ that we can unite with each other. There’s a reason verse 2 comes after verse 1 (it’s teaching like this that you just can’t get anywhere else). There’s no reason to tell unbelievers to live in this kind of unity. Unity comes from the freedom of living in Christ and looking to Him. The love of God allows us to love others. The encouragement and fellowship of the Spirit enable us to stand with others and strive for the gospel. We are united in one purpose because we’re saved by one sacrifice and live for the same good news.
He elaborates on the effects of verse 1 by issuing two pairs of commands. Each pair consists of a negative command followed by a positive one. In both cases the commands show the Philippians how they can individually foster unity. All the commands have to do with putting off selfishness and instead serving and thinking of others first.
They are to do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit. Instead, with humility of mind let each regard one another as more important than himself. Don’t do anything without thinking of others. Don’t do anything that’s purely for your benefit at the expense of others. As a matter of fact, you need to think of others BEFORE yourself. You should consider them to be MORE IMPORTANT than you. Your humility should cause you to cater to others’ needs before your own.
The second pair of commands is similar to the first. They are not to merely look out for their own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Once again, self is second. Don’t just look out for yourself, look out for others. Don’t just be concerned about your interests; further the interests of others.
In both cases, he’s telling them (us) to live in a manner and with a perspective that’s 180 degrees from how we naturally want to live. And it – just like his admonition to live for the gospel – affects everything and every relationship. There’s no way we can take his words seriously and not have them affect every interaction we have with every other human for the rest of our lives.
But the only way we can live with this perspective is if we stand in Christ. When we have our identity in Christ we can regard others as more important than ourselves. We can look for the interests of others when our interests are met in Christ.
James – in James 4:1-3 – gives us a picture of what it looks like when we don’t live this way and instead live for ourselves and forget what we are in Christ. What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. And you are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures. Notice the theme running through the James passage – selfishness. The James 4 man is all about himself. He doesn’t care about others because his eyes are only on himself. He doesn’t look to Christ; he looks to himself. And his eyes full of himself see others only as obstacles to getting what he wants. He quarrels with others because they aren’t living for him like he is. And the James passage shows how counterintuitive Paul’s words are. The one who lives in Christ and for others lives in peace and unity. The one who lives for himself lives in strife and conflict. We would expect – and the world tells us it’s the case – that the opposite would be true; that we have to live for us to ensure our happiness. But God’s way is to live selfless lives based in Him and serving others, and it’s His way that leads to contentment and joy. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy – James 3:16-17.
In this text Paul sheds more light on what it means to live in a manner worthy of the gospel. The life based on the gospel approaches every circumstance and person with the thought of, “What can I do right now to honor Christ and further His message?” The selfless approach to others that Paul advocates here dovetails with that mission perfectly. It is when we understand who we are in Christ through the gospel that we become free to give and serve and further the unity of the body.
That said, this is a radical way to live. And it truly affects every relationship we have. It’s easy to read these words and give mental assent to them. But it’s much more difficult to live them when we are so naturally wired to protect ourselves. When that difficult person in our life does something unwarranted or unfair, it’s hard to think of him as more important than us and put his interests above our own. When a spouse is harsh or insensitive or unaware, it’s hard to look at him or her with humility of mind. All of us have a natural bent toward a perspective that says, “I deserve better,” and it’s extremely difficult to get beyond it. And it’s especially difficult when we realize that just like the golden rule, the kind of thinking required by Philippians 2:2-4 always resets to zero – it always starts now regardless of what’s just happened. No matter what the other person has done or what’s just been said or what I’ve done or thought or said, my responsibility as a believer is to treat my brother or sister in Christ as more important than me and look out for his/her interest. It’s an enormously tall order that sets our internal sense of justice and fairness on its head.
But that’s why we have to live in verse 1. We practice verses 2-4, but we have to live in verse 1. It’s why no unbeliever can live this way. We have to have the gospel for any of this to be true in our lives. What’s more, we have to continually rehearse the gospel and what it means to our status in Christ. Without understanding and celebrating all we have and are in Christ we can’t do this. Lastly, we have to live every day through His Spirit. Remember that Paul tells the Galatians, “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh” (Gal 5:16). Included in the desire of the flesh – listed in the subsequent verses – are enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying. All of these things are based in selfishness and pride and destroy the unity of the body. We will not carry them out, however, when we walk by the Spirit and live in verse 1.
When we add these verses to what Paul’s already told us in this letter, it becomes clear that unity is a key characteristic of a community living on and through the gospel. It’s also critical for surviving suffering and persecution. The components of unity are love and humility that come from an understanding of who we are in Christ. So the gospel changes our status in Christ, and living through the gospel causes us to act toward one another in love and humility that leads to unity in Christ. When our lives are all about Christ and His gospel, we live in unity with others whose lives are all about Christ and His gospel.
Here’s another picture of what it means to live Philippians 2:1-4:
Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Romans 12:9-18