A Formula for True Unity, part 1 (Philippians 2:1)

Welcome back to our study of Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  In this section today we continue the primary reason for which Paul is writing this letter—to encourage the Philippians to pursue unity and harmony.  That theme was begun in the last four verses of Philippians 1.  When we see the word “therefore” at the beginning of chapter 2, verse 1, we understand that this chapter is built upon the foundation of what Paul said back in chapter 1.

The difference is this:  Whereas 1:27-30 identifies the danger to Christian community to be enemies from the outside; 2:1-4 indicates that there is another danger to Christianity community, and this one is on the inside.  In fact, Paul indicates that the greatest enemy to Christian community and unity is all the way inside us—our very own hearts.

As Pogo observed, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”  The source of quarrels and conflicts is our own desires (James 4:1-3).  The cause of divorce, according to Jesus, is our own hardness of heart (Matt. 19:8).  And, before you say, “Yes, my ex-mate really did have a hard heart,” Jesus says, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matt. 7:5).  Alexander Maclaren put it, “To live to self is the real root of every sin as it is of all loveless life” (Expositions of Holy Scripture [Baker], 14:252).  If we want harmonious relationships, each of us must confront self, put self to death, and live to build up others.

You might remember the Peanuts cartoon in which Lucy demanded that Linus change TV channels so she could watch what she wanted to watch.  He retorted, “What makes you think that you can just walk right in here and get what you want?”  Lucy said, “These five fingers.  Individually they are nothing, but when I curl them together like THIS [and she shows him her fist] into a single unit, they form a weapon that is terrible to behold.”  Sheepishly, Linus says, “Well, what channel do you want?”  Then he turned, looked at his hand and said to his fingers, “Why can’t you guys get organized like that?”

We must work as a team, right?

That is what Paul was saying back in 1:27-30 that he wanted them to be “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel.”  The emphasis on unity was begun there.  Now Paul will expand upon it.

If you read the book of Acts, you can see the power of unity, where time and time again you read “one heart, one accord, one voice” and “one mind” and when that happened there would be a spurt of growth and the gospel would be advanced.  Whenever they encountered an obstacle—whether persecution from without or some grumbling within—they would work together towards “one mind” and there would be another spurt of growth.

On the other hand, there can be nothing more discouraging that disunity and church conflict.  When criticism and grumbling abound, it saps our morale and stops our momentum, it sours our love and stains our testimony.  Satan would rather stop the church through internal strife than external opposition.

Leslie Flynn in his book with the dubious title Great Church Fights quotes a story from a Welsh newspaper about a church that was looking for a new pastor.

Yesterday the two opposition groups both sent ministers to the pulpit. Both spoke simultaneously, each trying to shout above the other. Both called for hymns, and the congregation sang two — each side trying to drown out the other. Then the groups began shouting at each other. Bibles were raised in anger. The Sunday morning service turned into a bedlam.

Through it all, the two preachers continued to outshout each other with their sermons. Eventually a deacon called a policeman. Two came in and began shouting for the congregation to be quiet. They advised the 40 persons in the church to return home. The rivals filed out, still arguing. Last night one of the group called a “let’s-be-friends” meeting. It broke up in argument.

The newspaper article was headlined, “Hallelujah! Two Jacks in One Pulpit.”

Many of us have been affected by church conflict.  Some people have been so deeply hurt that they have vowed never to step foot in a church again.  I hope and pray that you will find healing because now, more than ever, we all need a Christian family.

Before we get into Philippians 2, let’s affirm three important facts about unity that reflect God’s heart for us:

First, unity means a great deal to the Father and to Jesus Christ.  In John 17:20-23, Jesus prays to the Father…

20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.

The Trinity itself expresses a perfect unity, with each member of the Trinity fulfilling their role, but with the intent of glorifying, celebrating, loving and enjoying each other.  There is no selfishness or jockeying for position in the Trinity.

And Jesus asks that we “may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you.”  Why this emphasis on the importance of unity?  That unity is needed “so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”  Disunity destroys our witness to the world and stymies Christ’s mission to save.  Jesus wants us to “become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”

It is through unity that we experience the same love that exists between the Father and the Son!

Earlier, Jesus had told his disciples that unity is a key part of our witness to the world.  In John 13:34-35, Jesus said,

34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Although the word “unity” does not occur here, Jesus is telling them to love one another just as Jesus loved them.  That kind of love produces unity.  Jesus’ kind of love is totally unselfish and un-self-promoting.  It results in unity and that unity would reveal to the world that they really were disciples of Jesus.

Thirdly, God has already done everything needed for us to have unity.  So, if you are united to Christ through faith in the gospel, you are united with the body of Christ.  So, in Ephesians 4, Paul tells the Ephesians not to attain to unity, but to maintain that unity.  Look at vv. 1-3…

1 I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

This unity is already in place, because we are united with Jesus by faith and enjoy the life and benefits of the Trinity.  But we are to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit” and Paul tells us that the fundamental attitudes that help us do that are “humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.”  So be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Back in Philippians 2, Paul gives us a formula for unity.  So what is our formula for unity?

First, start with the proper motivation (2:1)

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy,

What do you think Paul means here?

Well, first we have to understand that Paul introduces the four clauses with the Greek preposition ei (“if” in English) containing two nouns in each one, but not verbs at all.  That is what makes these verses somewhat difficult to interpret.

The first interpretive issue relates to the use of the world “if,” which makes it almost sound like these motivational factors are all “iffy,” up in the air, undetermined.

Greek conditional sentences are made up of a protasis and an apodosis, what we call the “If” clause and the “then” clause.

The Greek language had four ways to express conditional ideas.  The first class conditional sentences affirmed the positive.  They express the idea, “If (and it is so, or and it is true_)…” and could often be translated “since.:  “If the sun rises, we will work.”

The second class conditional sentence affirms the negative.  If expresses “If (and it is not so, or could not be so).  “If you are Superman, then jump off this building and fly.”  The Greek would indicate that you are not Superman.  Any arguments there?

The third class conditional sentence is what we are most familiar with—it leaves the outcome up in the air.  “If it stops raining, we’ll go fishing.”  Maybe it will and we will or maybe it won’t and we won’t.”

The fourth class conditional sentence is rarely used in the New Testament.  It expresses a more probable condition, though not quite as certain as the first class conditional sentence.

OK, so what does this have to do with our passage?  Well, it means that, since Paul is using the first class conditional sentence, then he is not leaving any of these attitudes as mere possibilities, but rather certain realities.

Perhaps this can best be seen as a conversation:

  1. Paul: “Is there any encouragement in Christ?” The Philippians: “Yes.”
  2. Paul: “Is there any comfort from love?” The Philippians: “Yes.”
  3. Paul: “Is there any participation in the Spirit?” The Philippians: “Yes.”
  4. Paul: “Is there any affection?” The Philippians: “Yes.”
  5. Paul: “Is there any sympathy?” The Philippians: “Yes.”

Paul is building his case for the command in verse 2.

There IS encouragement from being united to Christ; there IS comfort from His love, there IS fellowship with the Spirit. There IS tenderness and compassion.  So these are not just intellectual possibilities, but experiential realities.  If you are a believer, YOU HAVE experienced these things.

So, by identifying what each of these attitudes or motivations are, they provide us with the first piece of our formula for unity—four great motivations for unity.

Right motivations are important in the Christian faith, for right motivations provide a certain power that allows us to successfully and consistently obey God’s commands.

Is there “encouragement in Christ”?  There certainly is.  All of us who are “in Christ” have His encouragements.  That word can mean encouragement or exhortations—cheerleading and challenge.

So what Paul is likely referring to here are the promises and word of encouragement that Jesus had shared with His disciples that help us now.

David Guzik notes:

Luke 2:25 says that one of the titles for Jesus as the Messiah is the Consolation of Israel.  Paul could say in 2 Corinthians 1:5For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ.  In 2 Thessalonians 2:16, Paul says that God has loved us and given us everlasting consolation and good hope by grace.  Of course there is consolation in Christ!

We are encouraged simply be being “in Christ,” but we are also encouraged by all the promises and challenges He gave to us in the Gospels.

What sets us apart as Christians in times of conflict is that we can depend upon receiving encouragement from God, either directly or through the Word.

“Any comfort from love” is the next clause, and it speaks of the reality that we receive comfort from being loved.  Most of the time we have conflicts with others because of insecurities we feel—whether we feel we’re being attacked, or whether we feel like something precious to us will be lost, or whether we feel like we are not being heard.

But the fact is, we are loved, and greatly loved, by God and Jesus Christ.

Since we’ve received this love and been comforted by it, we need to love and comfort others.  We don’t have to be concerned about ourselves when we feel such love and comfort.

What is unclear here is whether Paul is speaking about God’s love for the Philippians or Paul’s own love for them.  Either way, they should experience that love and that should give them confidence to risk, rather than insecurity which chooses to keep things for ourselves.

Because God, or Paul, loved them, they could bring comfort to others rather than compete with others.

In Romans 5:5 Paul tells us that one of the benefits of being justified by faith is that

God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

The idea here is that God’s love has flooded into our hearts.  Not just a trickle, but an overwhelming food.  This is an experiential love, the kind of love that Paul prayed that the Ephesians would “get” when he prays that they…

18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

When we are overwhelmed with love from God, them we can love others.  When we are comforted by God, then we can comfort others.

The idea behind this word for “comfort” in the New Testament is always more than soothing sympathy.  It has the idea of strengthening, of helping, of making strong.  Even the Latin “comfort” has the idea of fortifying or strengthening one’s spirit.

“Any participation in the Spirit” hearkens back to Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:2 in the words “unity of the Spirit.”  The Greek behind “participation” is koinonia, which we often translate “fellowship.”  Our fellowship, our community, is created by the Spirit.

God took the initiative to create fellowship with us, to overcome the rift caused by sin, and placed us into a body which unites Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female.  We are all part of one body now, so we should maintain that unity.

This fellowship in the Spirit came when, as Paul explained, “in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body —Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13). And now it rests as the lingering, final word of the sublime Trinitarian benediction that we repeatedly invoke: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14). This is the enduring reality of our lives — fellowship in the Spirit.

The final motivations are “any affection and sympathy” refers to what we have received through Christ.  His great affection and sympathy were expressed to us through the cross.  He entered our pain and suffering because of His great love and His desire to sympathize with us.

The writer of Hebrews says…

15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Jesus died on the cross, not only to fully pay the penalty for our sins (that is great affection) but also to sympathize with our weaknesses, pains and sufferings.

Paul is so emotionally compelling here.  He has taken the Philippians back to the graced memories of the supernatural work of Christ in their souls at salvation.  They all had experienced encouragement and comfort in Christ.  They remembered the consolation of Christ’s love when they became his.  They, through Christ, had found fellowship in the Spirit.  And the compassion and sympathy of Christ had not only graced their souls but had flowed from them to others.

Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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