Philippians 2 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

The Appeal Renewed: Unity Through Humility

Having acknowledged his friends' suffering by offering a christological reason for it, Paul now returns to the urgent matter at hand: the appeal in verse 27 that in the face of the opposition that is causing suffering, they stand firm in the one Spirit, contending for the gospel as a united body.

It is instructive to watch Paul deal with such matters, especially noting how he refrains from our own tendencies toward "saint-bashing" when the sins of others are clearer to us than our own. Again, their relationship to him as friends and his need to speak into their present situation combine to create another long and complex sentence. But the way the parts work is easy to see.

Verse 1 offers the basis of the appeal, which has to do (apparently) with their own trinitarian experience of God: Christ's comfort, God's love and their common sharing in the Spirit. But it is also based on their long-standing relationship with Paul, who has shared both the suffering (1:30) and these same graces with them, and now looks for tenderness and compassion from them.

The concern of the appeal is expressed in verse 2, where he piles up three phrases that all say essentially the same thing: that their community life should be characterized by unity of mind and love. Only thus can they complete Paul's own joy.

The content of the appeal (vv. 3-4) describes, first, those expressions of our human fallenness that altogether militate against unity within the household of faith, selfish ambition and vain conceit; and, second, those virtues necessary for it to happen, love and humility, which find concrete expression as God's people learn to live as Christ, to care for the needs of others as the matter of first priority--all of which will be gloriously displayed in the Christ narrative that follows.The Basis of the Appeal (2:1) The NIV and other translations, following the unfortunate chapter division at this point, obscure the clear relationship of this paragraph with what has immediately preceded. Paul's sentence begins with a "therefore" ( "for this reason"), which is probably intended to pick up on all of 1:27-30. Thus although he is primarily resuming the appeal to unity, he does so now in light of the Philippians' suffering, in a struggle they have in common with Paul. "Therefore," he says in light of that--and to return to the matter at hand--"if there be any comfort in Christ, as indeed there is, . . . then complete my joy."

So how does one entreat friends to get back on track? By appealing to relationships, both divine and human. It may not always work, but this is certainly the primary way. Paul begins by appealing to the encouragement or "comfort" that being in (NIV united with) Christ can bring, as a direct response to their common experience of suffering for Christ in the preceding clause (1:29-30). But right at that point, before dictating a "then" clause, he adds three more "if" clauses, whose studied accumulation is part of the rhetorical effect.

The second clause, "if any solace of love," on its own is perfectly ambiguous. Does it refer to Christ's love (as NIV), or to Paul's and their shared love, or to God's love? While all of these can be shown to fit in context, most likely it refers to God's love for them, placed as it is between clear references to Christ and the Spirit, similar to the trinitarian grace in 2 Corinthians 13:14 (and with the same language).

While fellowship with is common coinage for the word koinonia in the third clause, it is doubtful whether it ever means precisely that. The word has to do with "sharing in" or "participating in" something (usually with someone else), which is almost certainly what is intended here (see 1:5). Paul's appeal is to their common sharing in the Spirit, thus picking up the language of 1:27.Finally, he appeals, if any tenderness and compassion. This phrase brings into sharp focus the basic ambiguities of these clauses, in terms of the direction of the relationships implied. Is it God's love toward them (i.e., on the basis of the prior work of grace from their experience of the Trinity) that Paul appeals to, or the Philippians' common life in Christ that they have experienced together heretofore, or the relationship that they and Paul have together in the gracious work of God? While commentators tend to line up fairly evenly among the three options, my guess is that what Paul does is not quite as tidy as we would have it. Most likely the three-way bond between Christ, the Philippians and Paul that is central to this letter is once more in view.

At the beginning the focus is clearly on Christ--and the comfort that is theirs (the Philippians) by being in Christ. But as what immediately precedes (v. 30) makes clear, and the "therefore" implies, Christ's comfort is shared by him and them together. As Paul moves to the next two clauses, the primary focus again seems to be on the Philippians' experience of (presumably God's) love and their sharing in the Spirit; but again, he and they share these as well. When he reaches the fourth clause, however, which noticeably lacks a modifier, the direction shifts toward their relationship with him, thus leading directly to the imperative make my joy complete. While it is true that tenderness and compassion are regularly attributed to God, in Colossians 3:12, a letter written in close proximity to this one, the two words appear together to form the phrase "bowels of mercy" ( "heart of compassion," which the NIV reduces simply to "compassion") as an especially appropriate virtue for Christian community. Most likely it is to the Philippians' own "heart of compassion" toward him that Paul finally appeals.

Thus the basis of the appeal is first of all the Philippians' own relationship to the triune God, which he and they share together, and second, his and their relationship to each other, brought about by their common relationship to the Trinity.The Concern of the Appeal (2:2) Only the deliberately blind could possibly miss what concerns Paul. Just as he rhetorically compounds the basis of his appeal, so here at least three times he repeats: be like-minded; have the same love; be one in spirit and of one mind. But how he gets there is a bit surprising, although by now certainly not unexpected. On the basis of your own--and our common--experience of the trinitarian God and of your well-known tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by getting your corporate life together. Again, this reflects the three-way bond between him, them and Christ that holds the entire letter together. Their unity in the Spirit, based on Christ's comfort, will bring Paul's joy over the advance of the gospel, already noted in 1:18, to full fruition. What is probably in view is his eschatological joy at their being together with him at the day of Christ (2:16).

The key word in the appeal, and indeed a key word in the letter, is the verb phroneo (see on 1:7), which is repeated in the first and third instances and has to do with the set of one's mind, how one is overall disposed toward something (cf. Rom 8:5-7)--thus (literally) "set your minds on the same thing"/"setting your minds on the one thing." This is the word that is picked up again in Philippians 2:5 ("have this same mindset, as Christ did") and in 4:2, where he reproduces the identical language of this first phrase in urging Euodia and Syntyche to the same mindset. The second occurrence (third phrase) is accompanied by the adjective sympsychos ( "together in soul"), thus joining mind and soul together, while picking up the phrase "one soul" from 1:27.

The middle phrase, having the same love, points back to the second clause in verse 1, "if any solace from [God's] love." The context suggests that Paul is first of all urging them to have the same love for one another that they already have experienced in God's love for them--and in theirs and his for each other. In 1:9 Paul told them he prays that their love might "abound more and more." Love, therefore, is not lacking in this community. At issue is the danger of its being eroded by internal friction. Thus they will fill Paul's joy to the full as they return to full and complete love for one another, which by definition means to care for another for her or his own sake. As someone well said: "Love begins when someone else's needs are more important than my own," which is precisely what Paul will urge in the elaboration that follows.The Content of the Appeal (2:3-4) Whatever exactly Paul might mean by "having the same mindset," the rest of his sentence makes it abundantly clear that his concern is with the practical consequences of their life together as believers in Philippi. What he spells out is how having the same love (for one another) will take shape in their colony of heaven (see on 3:20) within this Roman colony at Philippi.

Although the NIV (and most translations) rightly turn these phrases into further imperatives, it is important to note that grammatically the first two (nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit) modify the final phrase in verse 2, "together in soul having minds set on the one thing." That is, to be one in spirit and of one mind eliminates altogether selfish ambition and vain conceit as options for one's mindset. It is also important to note that selfish ambition is precisely what Paul in 1:17 attributes to those who are trying to afflict him in his imprisonment, while vain conceit is conceptually related to their "envy and rivalry" (1:15). In fact, these words describe a mindset exactly the opposite of Christ's, who being in the form of God showed Godlikeness in "pouring himself out by becoming a slave/servant" (vv. 6-7). What exactly is going on in Philippi that calls for this appeal cannot be known, but these attitudes that are already dividing the church in Rome over their relationship to Paul--even as they are evangelizing--must not be allowed a foot in the door in Philippi.To the contrary, and again in clear anticipation of the story of Christ that follows, what being like-minded and having the same love calls for is in humility consider one another (NIV others) better than yourselves. Humility is a uniquely Christian virtue, which, like the message of a crucified Messiah, stands in utter contradiction to the values of the Greco-Roman world, which generally considered humility not a virtue but a shortcoming. Here Paul's roots are in the Old Testament--and in Christ. In the Old Testament the term indicates lowliness in the sense of "creatureliness," the truly humble showing themselves so by resting their case with God rather than trusting their own strength and machinations; and Jesus reveals "humbleness of heart" as something essential about God's character (Mt 11:29).

Humility is thus not to be confused with false modesty ("I'm no good") or with "milquetoast," that kind of abject servility that only repulses. Rather it has to do with a proper estimation of oneself, the stance of the creature before the Creator, utterly dependent and trusting. Here one is well aware both of one's weaknesses and of one's glory (we are in God's image, after all) but makes neither too much nor too little of either. True humility is therefore not self-focused at all but rather, as further defined by Paul, considers others better than yourselves.

As with humility, this last phrase does not mean that one should falsely consider others better. As Philippians 2:4 will clarify, we are so to consider others not in our estimation of them--which would only lead to the very vices Paul has just spoken against--but in our caring for them, putting them and their needs ahead of our own. Others in the community are not necessarily "better" than I am, but their needs and concerns "surpass" my own. After all, this is precisely how Christ's humility expressed itself, as Paul narrates in verse 8. This is how he elsewhere describes those whose behavior is genuinely Christian; they do not seek their own good, but the good of others (1 Cor 10:24). Here is the sure cure for selfish ambition or vain conceit, not to mention "complaining or arguing" (Phil 2:14).

The emphasis in verse 4, which thus spells out how verse 3b works, is on each and others. Here one finds a kind of tension between the individual and the community that occurs throughout Paul. As always in such passages, the accent rests on the community; it is only as a people of God together that God's people fulfill the divine purposes. But in the new covenant, persons become members of the people of God one at a time through faith in Christ. Therefore the concern is primarily with the community, but obedience must begin with the individual. Each one among them must have this care for the others among them. This emphasis is probably to remind some within the community who seem to be out of step with some others.

On its own merit this passage, read over and over again with prayerful hearts that are inclined toward obedience, could go a long way toward curing the ills that beset our Christian communities--including that most fragile of institutions, the Christian family, which after all forms the nucleus, or basic unit, of any larger Christian community. In the larger church community people can sometimes "get along" because they do not have to live with one another and they meet so seldom. But in the home it has to be worked out on a daily basis with those who are closest to us. The cure is the same for all: in humility before God, each of us putting the interests of others ahead of our own, rather than constantly looking at the other to supply our needs.

Happily, this passage, as wonderful as it is, does not stand on its own. Paul will now follow up with the sublimest of all New Testament passages, pointing to Christ's own story as the model of what he has urged in verses 3-4.

Next commentary:
The Example of Christ

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