An Exhortation to Humility (Philippians 2:1-5)

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Unity in the church is a beautiful experience. David understood something of this when he wrote,

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments; As the dew of Hermon, and as the dew that descended upon the mountains of Zion: for there the LORD commanded the blessing, even life for evermore.

(Psalm 133:1-3)

The focus of the church since Jesus prayed in John 17 has been biblical unity. There have been times in church history when there have been wrong motivations for unity: political or ecumenical motivations. But many throughout the history of the church have also sought unity for the right reasons: to please the Lord, to obey the biblical instructions for unity, to respond to the Spirit, to facilitate evangelism, etc. The New Testament focuses heavily on the issue of unity.

  • Romans 15:5-7—“Now the God of patience and consolation grant you to be likeminded one toward another according to Christ Jesus: That ye may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Wherefore receive ye one another, as Christ also received us to the glory of God.”
  • Romans 12:5, 16—“So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another … Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate. Be not wise in your own conceits.”
  • 1 Corinthians 1:10—“Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgement.”
  • 2 Corinthians 13:11—“Finally, brethren, farewell. Be perfect, be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you.”
  • Galatians 5:26—“Let us not be desirous of vain glory, provoking one another, envying one another.”
  • Ephesians 4:1-6—“I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”
  • Colossians 3:12-15—“Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye. And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful.”
  • 1 Thessalonians 4:9-10—“But as touching brotherly love ye need not that I write unto you: for ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another. And indeed ye do it toward all the brethren which are in all Macedonia: but we beseech you, brethren, that ye increase more and more.”

Clearly, the apostle Paul was concerned about unity in the local church. The church at Philippi was a wonderful church, which did not have many of the internal problems witnessed in other churches. In fact, the apostle does not address any major internal problem in the church, though there is in the letter to the Philippians certainly a subtle hint at something of a problem with division. In fact, he even at one point names two women in the church who were at odds with one another (4:2).

Quite obviously, the apostle was concerned that the Philippians might waste their energies on conflict within rather than standing united for the gospel against problems from without. As we saw previously, Paul urged his readers, in light of the enemies they had without, to stand united as citizens, as soldiers, as athletes and as sufferers (1:27-30). As he moves into chapter 2, he begins addressing more specifically the subtle problem that existed within the church. We might outline the chapter in the following way:

  1. An Exhortation to Humility (vv.1-4)
  2. The Example of Humility (vv. 5-11)
  3. An Exercise of Humility (vv. 12-18)
  4. An Expression of Humility (vv. 19-30)

In this study, we will consider the truth that, if we will be united in the gospel, it will require a good dose of biblical humility. And four things are necessary to achieve biblical humility, and thus biblical unity.

The Constraint of a Christ-Centred Motivation

If we will have unity that remains, it will not be achieved by a humanistic, self-willed, stoic approach to unity. The only way to have unity worthy of the biblical name is to have the constraint of a Christ-centred motivation. The mandate for the church, as defined in v. 2, is unity, but that mandate is preceded in v. 1 by the motive for unity. As commentator Eerdmans puts it, “Paul first mentions the ground upon which his exhortation is based.” And, as Sinclair Ferguson adds, “If these things are true (v. 1) then these implications (v. 2) will follow.” Paul writes, “If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies” (v. 1).

The word “if” in the KJV can legitimately be translated “since.” Thus, Paul is saying, “Since we who are in Christ have experienced companionship, courage, communion and compassion, certainly we will be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.” Stated another way, if we have experienced the truth of the gospel, it follows quite logically that we will live in unity with the Body of Christ. Since the blessings of v. 1 have been experienced, the blessings of v. 2 should be expressed.

The first word in the Greek text is the word “therefore,” which means that we must connect what is said in these verses to what was said in the closing verses of chapter 1. There, as noted above, Paul had appealed to his readers to be united in the gospel, and in light of their unity in this regard, he now challenged them to be likeminded.

Paul is not questioning their salvation: as noted, we might legitimately render the word “if” as “since.” He assumes that the Philippians had experienced the blessings of v. 1. Let’s consider briefly the blessings that Paul mentions in this verse, which all believers in Christ have experienced.

First, he speaks of “consolation in Christ.” The word “consolation” speaks of companionship, and this companionship is “in Christ.” The word translated “consolation” in this verse is the same word that is translated “Comforter” when speaking of the Holy Spirit in John 14. Second, he mentions “comfort of love,” by which he means the courage that comes through experiencing the love of Christ. Third, Paul draws attention to the “fellowship of the Spirit.” The word “fellowship” carries the idea of communion. We have communion with Christ because His Spirit dwells within us. Fourth, the apostle talks of “bowels and mercies,” by which he draws our attention to the compassion that we have because we are in Christ. And since all who are in Christ have these four things, certainly we can dwell in unity.

When there is infighting in the church, it is no doubt because we have lost sight of the gospel. It is only when we lose sight of the companionship, courage, communion and compassion that comes from being in Christ that we are tempted toward disunity. But when we are focusing on our blessings in Christ, we will love and forgive one another. If we will experience and guard the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, we must realise what we have experienced in the gospel.

We sometimes say that a person has a face that only their mother could love. In truth, this is how we are before God: we have a face that only God could love. God has chosen to love us, sinners deserving of His wrath, and reconcile us to Himself. Since that is true—since God has reconciled us to Himself—certainly we ought easily to be reconciled to others. Thus, as we focus upon who we are in Christ, unity will be a visible reality in the church.

Of course, this humility is something that we need to work at, but it is something that we can achieve, because God is the One who works in us to achieve it (vv. 12-13). Through the gospel we have been reconciled to God, and through the gospel we can be reconciled to others in humility. Anything less than such unity will grieve the heart of the true believer, for it grieves the heart of God.

The Commitment to being a Christ-Centred Majority

Paul continues, “Fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind” (v. 2). Allow me to paraphrase: “If you all share the same Christ-centred motivation then you will all be a Christ-centred majority: there will be no divisive, factious minority party.”

Paul already rejoiced in his relationship with the Philippians, but he now reveals that his joy could be fuller if they remained unified. Paul is clearly emphasising here the need for unity: “likeminded” (“same mind,” ESV), “same love,” “one accord,” “one mind.” He hammers home the theme of being “one,” of being “the same,” which simply highlights the urgency of the matter. As J. B. Lightfoot has written, “The redundancy of expression is a measure of Paul’s earnestness.” The apostle will warn them in the next verse of the danger of factions in the church if they do not heed his warning. There was a danger that the church could end up comprising a lot of minorities, but Paul desired for them instead to be one Christ-centred majority.

Now, this is not to say that we must all be precisely the same in every way in the church. God does not expect a group of cookie-cutter Christians together in the same place. Instead, the emphasis here is the biblical truth that, though we are many, we are one body in Christ. God does not expect the members of a particular local church to share precisely the same personality, gifts or interpretation of Scripture. There is room for diversity, as long as we are unified in that diversity.

I can share on a personal level that this is precisely the understanding that our own church has grown in over time. When our church was first constituted, the doctrinal statement—embedded in the constitution—was very narrow, even sectarian, on issues in which there should have been more liberty. Our constitution has changed in recent years, and there are still changes to be made. Let me illustrate by means of one example.

Concerning the doctrine of last things, our founding constitution read: “The church believes … in the personal, premillennial return of our Lord Jesus Christ, that He will soon rapture His church and that He will return to earth after the tribulation period to rule and reign.” That is a pretty narrow statement: effectively, no one could join the membership of the church if they were not a dispensational premillennialist. Over time, we have come to see the error of defining issues so tightly which are not defined that clearly in Scripture. Thus, our most recent proposed constitution reads in the same place: “The church believes … in the visible, personal and final return of Jesus Christ, the bodily resurrection of the dead and the translation of those alive in Christ, the final judgement of the just and the unjust, and the final consummation of all things into the present glorious kingdom of Jesus Christ.”

You will immediately appreciate the significant differences between these statements. Whilst the first left room only for dispensational premillennialists to join the membership of the church, the latter statement can easily be embraced by premillennialists, amillennialists and postmillennialists. Rather than defining narrowly what Scripture leaves ambiguous, the revised statement affirms the essential elements of historic Christian eschatology: the second coming, the general resurrection and the final judgement. The statement allows for diversity in the details of interpretation, though it calls for unity on the essentials. Far better to be unified in diversity than to be sectarian in perceived unity!

The original intention of the church was never to be sectarian, but I’m afraid that that is precisely what resulted from such a narrow definition of eschatology. This is one issue in our church that needs to be addressed if we will guard the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Biblical unity does not mean complete, unquestioning agreement in every area; it does mean that we must be on the same page when it comes to the essentials.

Of course, truth matters. Paul assumed that the same thing on which they were unified would also be the right thing. We all have our own preferences, and there will never be complete agreement in every detail, but there ought to be unanimity in the faith.

This raises an important point of application: namely, that individualism has no place in the local church. Yes, we are all individuals, with our own personalities and gifts, but no individual in the local church ought ever to stand aloof from the rest of the Body. You cannot claim to be “likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind” if you are your own little minority, pulling away from the Body.

Consider this testimony in the life of Jesus Christ. He was the most unique Man who ever walked the face of this earth, and if anyone had the right to be individualistic, it was certainly Christ. And yet what was His approach to life? “The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). “I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:15). Furthermore, Jesus clearly expected believers to be done with individualism: “And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me” (Matthew 18:5). Clearly, Christ is part of His Body, and thus it is impossible to receive Christ without also receiving the Body.

If you begin to pull away from the Body and manifest a cynical, critical spirit, the problem is most likely not with the church. Most likely, you need to come to the point of repentance and once again embrace the brethren for the glory of God.

We should also be aware that our unity can help others in their adversity. The unity of the Philippians would act to fulfil Paul’s joy (v. 2), and the same can be said of our unity in the lives of fellow believers in adversity. There is a member of our church who, at the time of writing, is suffering terribly with cancer, and has been for some years. He has been physically unable to attend a full worship service for about a year now, and I have been to visit him in his home every week for the last 12 months or so. During a recent visit, with tears in his eyes, he said to me, “I don’t know what I would do without the Lord, and without the church.” He has not gathered for worship with the church for a long time, as a direct result of his adversity, yet he is blessed by the unity of the Body. We should never underestimate the blessed affect that our unity can have on others.

The Conduct of a Christ-Centred Manner

In light of the charge to remain a unified majority rather than a group of factious minorities, Paul now gives a necessary injunction concerning the manner of the Philippians. In essence, he charges them to avoid one manner and to embrace another: “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others” (vv. 3-4).

Paul employs two words to describe the manner that the Philippians must avoid: “strife” and “vainglory.” The word “strife” speaks of factiousness, of a party, sectarian spirit. It speaks of rivalry, contentiousness and selfish ambition. Greek scholars Louw and Nida have defined the word as indicating “feelings of resentfulness based upon jealousy.” In short, it is an ugly word with even uglier implications.

The second word—“vainglory”—speaks of groundless self-esteem, of cheap pride. It means to be falsely proud, to have pride without justification.

In short, the apostle is warning the believers in Philippi against an arrogant, sectarian spirit. Importantly, we should understand that such a spirit may arise from noble motives. That is, our desire may be zeal for biblical belief, but if we are zealous without being humble we will end up being sectarian. I am afraid that this is where much of conservative evangelicalism, along with Reformed evangelicalism, has ended up. In their desire for sound doctrine, fundamentalists have become intolerant to those who do not agree entirely with their teaching. This is an attitude that must be avoided.

The temptation for this is very real in the local church. Let’s assume that your whole outlook on life is changed as you come to terms with the doctrines of grace as taught in the New Testament. You are thrilled, and Christianity takes on a whole new meaning. But soon you discover that there are people, even in your own church, who are not entirely sympathetic with your newfound Calvinism. The temptation will be for you to get angry and become sectarian because not everyone agrees with your new conviction. But this is precisely the attitude against which Paul warns us here.

On the contrary, Paul exhorts the Philippians to “in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.” The word “things” in v. 4 might be rendered “interests.” The phrase “look not … on” means “to fix one’s attention on.” Thus, Paul is exhorting the Philippian believers not to be fixated on self-interest, but to be concerned also about the interests of others.

The phrase “lowliness of mind” in v. 3 translates a single Greek word, which speaks of humility. I found it interesting in my studies to note that, until the writing of the New Testament, there was no mainstream word in the Greek language that described humility. The Bible writers essentially had to invent new terminology to describe this Christlike quality. The reason for this is that humility was seen as a terrible vice to the Greco-Roman mind, and thus the word was seldom, if ever, employed in conversation and literature. Thus, for Paul to challenge the Philippians to live in humility was an extremely counter-cultural injunction. And yet that is precisely the type of life to which Paul was calling the Philippians: counter-cultural.

The temptation toward self-interest and pride was dangerously strong for the Philippians—and it is for us as well—but Paul wanted them to see that they had absolutely no justification for such pride and self-interest. Instead, if they were to maintain a commitment to being a unified majority, they needed to have the humble character of Christ.

A proper understanding of this passage calls for some sober self-reflection, because if we are honest, we will admit that we live in just as self-interested and arrogant a culture (at least in the West) as the one in which the Philippians lived in New Testament times. In Western culture, Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Phil are the respected gurus to whom everyone wants to listen. But their counsel—a drive for self-esteem—flies directly in the face of that which Paul encourages here: “let each esteem other better than themselves.”

Paul is by no means encouraging us to have a brow-beating, grovelling attitude about ourselves. He is, however, enjoining us to be done with arrogance, to focus on building up others rather than expecting them to build us up all the time. Esteeming others better than yourself is the surest way to the pity party mentality to which we are all prone. When you begin feeling sorry for yourself, the best cure is to find someone to whom you can minister. That will pick you right up!

In addition to esteeming others better than ourselves, Paul adds that we should be concerned about the interests of others rather than simply our own interests. The injunction of v. 4 is not to be interpreted by thieves in our culture, but by believers in Christ. We are to quit focusing only on ourselves, and to look intently and consider the interests of others.

You will no doubt appreciate the fact that, if this kind of selfless conduct characterised our lives as believers, we would be very different from the world. Of course, we are called to be different, and thus the selfless attitude described here is of the utmost importance to the Christian.

Someone once asked the great theologian Augustine, “What are the central principles of the Christian life.” After a brief moment of reflection, he replied, “First: humility; second: humility; and third: humility.” What is it that causes our Christianity to rise or fall? It is humility. And the proof of humility is seen in our final point for this study.

The Characteristic of a Christ-Centred Mind

Paul closes this section by challenging the Philippians to think as Christ thought. “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (v. 5). To paraphrase, “How Jesus Christ thought about things is the way that you should think about them.”

Obviously, this is the key to all that has been said: be Christlike! The word “Christian,” which we frequently apply to ourselves, is a word that literally means “little Christ,” or “Christlike.” It was first applied to the believers in Antioch, and it was given to them, not by themselves, or by a sister church, but by the unbelieving community in the city. It was initially a term of derision, given to those who so had the mind of Christ that they behaved like Him. And this is precisely what this verse is calling us to: to truly Christian living.

What follows in vv. 5-8 is most likely the words of an early hymn that was sung in the church of the New Testament. The words speak to the incarnation and humiliation of Christ, for which He was ultimately exalted (vv. 9-11). If that is the way that Christ thought and behaved, how much more ought we to live humbly in this world! Sinclair Ferguson summarises it well: “To be proud is to act out of character for those who are Christ’s. To be humble minded is to be our truest selves in him.”

There is nothing we can do that is less Christlike than to act pridefully. Christ’s entire life manifested an unselfish devotion to God, and that is precisely the way that we are called to live. Unselfish devotion to God is the key to unity in the church, and this is the essence of the gospel. If we take the gospel of Christ seriously, then we will have a Christ-centred motivation and, consequently, the mind of Christ. There is always room for improvement: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.”

Let us take the gospel seriously and thus selflessly and humbly respond to the Spirit’s motivation in our lives. May our unity glorify God before a watching world and before the continual and searching gaze of heaven.