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.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.