This morning we’re going to focus our thoughts on the opening four verses of ch.2 of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Let me read them to you again.
vv.1-4 “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
In these verses Paul makes a strong plea for the Christians in Philippi to develop and to demonstrate an active Christian unity in their congregational life. So this morning our subject will be that of Christian unity.
The first thing for us to recognise is that thinking about Christian unity did not originate with the apostle Paul, or any of the other apostles for that matter, it began with Jesus himself.
Jesus spoke of his followers as forming one flock:
Jn.10:16 “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”
And he issued his followers with his new commandment of love, it was a commandment that called for a pattern of behaviour that would firmly unite them and at the same time distinguish them as belonging to Jesus:
Jn.13:34-35 “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. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
And then of course in his high priestly prayer recorded for us in John 17 Jesus clearly prayed for the unity of his followers:
Jn.17:11 “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.”
Jn.17:20-22 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 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. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one,”
And this unity was demonstrated by early church right from the very outset:
Acts 4:32 “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul,”
While it is true that there was something of a problem that had developed at Philippi – witness the way Paul would later in this letter specifically address the tension existing between Euodia and Syntyche in ch.4:2 – the concern for a genuine Christian unity was not to be limited to just one individual congregation as can be seen for example in what Paul wrote to the church in Corinth:
1Cor.1:10-11 “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarrelling among you, my brothers.”
2Cor.13:11 “Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.”
So it is evident that the matter of Christian unity is an important one in the NT. And now writing to the Philippians Paul was concerned to encourage the Christians there to do what they had to do, what they could do, to ensure that such unity was genuine amongst them.
Unity’s Source – God’s blessing in our lives
In order to press home his case Paul used a range of arguments and incitements. He wrote about what the nature of true Christianity is and the fruit it ought to bring forth. He also wrote about what was of great personal interest to him. In addition to this Paul also described the type of behaviour that would flow from a proper understanding of Christian unity, a behaviour that would at the same time help to maintain that unity.
Let’s look together at what he had to pass on.
Paul began with a series of phrases each of which began with the word ‘if’. In this way Paul was building his argument. Now when we begin a phrase with the word ‘if’ we can imply more than one thing. We can use it to introduce a hypothetical statement, something that is possible but not necessarily sure at all. But we can also use it in a more definite sense as the equivalent of since. And that is really the way in which we should understand what Paul was saying in v.1. Paul wasn’t wondering whether or not the Philippian Christians were currently enjoying in their own personal experience any encouragement or comfort he was rather asserting that since they were Christians they must be because that is the nature of the gospel.
It is as though Paul was asking these Philippians to reflect upon their conversion, their new life in Christ and the blessings that accompany that new life:
- Are you a Christian? Then you must know to some degree the comfort that there is in being in Christ.
- Have you been born again? Then you must know something of the love of God as he has brought you into his family.
- Have you been made a new creation? Then you must know something of a relationship with the Spirit who has come to take up residence in your life and to minister the blessings of the Father and the Son to you.
- Are you a Christian? Then you must have experienced a change of heart and a change of direction with a new set of emotions and feelings both towards God and towards other believers and that because Christ has acted with sympathy and affection towards you! What is it that the apostle John said? 1Jn.4:19 “We love, because he first loved us.”
You see things change when a person becomes a Christian, they have to. No-one becomes a real Christian and carries on living as they had done before – it simply isn’t possible. The life of God in the soul of man makes no change an absolute non-starter.
Do you ever reflect on your new life in Christ? You ought to you know. You ought to be growing in your understanding of what God has done for you in sending his Son to die for you on the cross of Calvary. And then as you grow and look back you’ll be able to count the blessings you have in Christ, blessings you knew nothing about before coming to faith in him. You’ll be able to count them and name them one by one and it’ll surprise you what the Lord has done for you!
Oh yes, before being a Christian you may have had many things going for you:
- you might have had many friends and you might have been the life and soul of the party;
- you may have had a good job and a good salary;
- you may have had many material comforts and you may have lived many years in relative peace and calm.
- but you didn’t know anything of the comfort that Christ brings.
- You didn’t know anything of the encouragement that comes from knowing that your sins have been dealt with
- Nor did you know the ensuing peace that follows from knowing that God is now your heavenly Father who loves you.
- You may have looked at groups of Christians and smiled to yourself but you didn’t realise that these folk had something you didn’t – a genuine spiritual fellowship with God that spilled over and influenced every area of their lives.
- You might have wondered about religion and been tempted to dismiss it all as mere emotionalism. But if you’ve now become a Christian you know that Christian emotions and Christian feelings are real and deep and authentic and they’re not at all to be confused with emotionalism.
Do you know what Paul has been talking about? He hasn’t set the bar so very high that only a handful of super-saints can ever be expected to clear it. Paul didn’t ask whether the Philippians’ experience of these things was full and perfect and complete. He didn’t say do you have the most wonderful Christian experience imaginable. No, all Paul asked the Philippians was whether they knew something, anything about these things.
And what about you? I’m not now asking whether your spiritual experience is as deep as you would like it to be. I’m not asking whether your religious feelings are as warm and lively as you think they ought to be. No, I’m asking whether you have any experience at all, any feeling at all however sparse that experience might seem however weak those emotions might feel. For indeed if you don’t know anything of these things Paul that wrote about then the reason is most probably because you have never become a genuine Christian at all or if you did you are in a very serious backslidden state. In either case the matter is urgent and you really need to do something about it.
Go to God in prayer and tell him what a mess you have made of your life. Tell him you know your sin has offended him and separated you from him too. Ask for his forgiveness. Ask Jesus to be your Saviour and the Captain of your life. Plead with him to have mercy on you and plead with him to graciously give you the faith you need to put your trust in him and in him alone. Believe on the Lord Jesus, he who died on the cross for sinners and who rose again that we might be declared from now on to be right with God, and you shall be saved. And be serious about it. Keep on until you know that God has heard you and responded favourably to you.
The Call to Work for Unity – the right mind set
Now back to what Paul was saying about Christian unity. I hope you realise that what we’ve just been talking about was not a digression because Christian unity can only ever occur between Christians. Paul was reminding the Philippian believers of the gospel and of the benefits they had already begun to experience in some measure in their lives. This experience was the fruit of the gospel, it was evidence of their standing as genuine Christians and now Paul told them what kind of mind set was appropriate for the genuine believer.
Paul wrote to them saying in effect that since they had experienced something of the blessings of being a Christian they must organise their lives in this particular way. It was personally important to Paul that they did because it would, in fact, make his joy complete if they did!
Once again Paul is modelling for the Philippians the type of Christian behaviour he expects of them.
Why do I say that?
Well Paul was going to go on to speak about not doing things out of selfish interest but of making a priority of the interests of others and that is what he is doing himself. Do you remember where Paul was when he penned these words? He was in prison facing an uncertain future. I wonder how I would react if I were to find myself in a situation like that? I would what you would do? I wonder what would make us most happy in such a situation. Would it be news that the charges had been dropped, that we’d been acquitted? Well for Paul it wasn’t that at all! Paul declared that his greatest joy, the completion of his joy, would be to learn that the Philippians were wholeheartedly committed to living lives worthy of the gospel of Christ and in the verse that follow he spells out in more detail what such a worthy congregational life would look like!
The Philippians could thrill Paul’s heart and doubtless the Lord’s too by working hard at Christian unity within their congregation. Christian unity flows from the gospel, it is the only appropriate response the Christian can make to the gospel but it is not something that comes without effort and resolution. We mustn’t think that we have nothing to do, that somehow unity amongst us will drop into our laps, we too must be prepared to work at this. Are you prepared to do that?
What then was it that Paul wanted the Philippians to do? He unpacked the matter for them and for us in v.2 where he addressed the mind set the Christian believer ought to have. Then in vv.3+4 he moved on to explain that such unity would only be attained when the individual Christian adopted a proper view of himself and of others.
So in v.2 we read:
“by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord (or united in spirit) and of one mind.”
Once again these qualities are not to be pursued or achieved by an individual Christian living a life of independent isolation. These are all qualities that are achievable only so far as Christians relate to each other and function together in the context of the local church – you see when Paul addressed his letter to “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons” in the opening lines of the entire letter he wasn’t messing about, he was being serious and very practical.
What are these qualities?
Well the mind is mentioned twice and this places an emphasis on the importance of thinking and hence of truth which is again in line with Jesus prayer in Jn.17 where he prayed for the unity of his followers. There he specifically prayed for them to be sanctified in or by the truth. And all true Christian unity will be determined by this concern for the truth – attempts to promote Christian unity while downplaying the place of truth are at best misguided and at worst downright deceptive.
Now we must be careful here because Christians, and in particular us Protestants, are very gifted at falling out with each other over matters of secondary importance but there are things that really are non-negotiable. We must be careful to hold on to these – Paul himself was ready to pronounce a damning curse of those who overturned the central truths of the gospel – but where there are differences concerning lesser matters we must be more tolerant.
The truth which is grasped by the mind must be embraced but the mind that embraces it must be coloured and sweetened by a loving disposition and that is the second element that Paul underlined. Mutual love is here encouraged. Christians are to be concerned for the truth and they are to be characterised by love. It is not for the church to let some fight for the truth while others do all the loving. No, the members of a congregation are all to be in all of it together. I should be growing in my grasp of truth and lovingly passing it on. You too should be concerned to understand and to embrace as much of the truth as you can and to do so with an increasingly warm and loving attitude. This is no place for choosing between these qualities - both are necessary.
The third element that Paul mentions is also necessary – that of being united in spirit, or of being of one accord. That means working cooperatively towards the same goal with the same purpose. There is no place in Paul’s thinking concerning the church for spectators or passengers – all are valuable and all have an active role to play, all have their participation to contribute. Genuine unity is worked out in the ongoing fellowship of God’s people – it is not attained when believers have so little to do with each other that that they simply have no opportunity of falling out with each other or of making mistakes!
Paul ended his mindset verse with a second reference to the mind preparing the way ahead to what he was about to write concerning the mind of Christ in vv.5-11. Why? Because it is Jesus who has supplied us with the most wonderful example of how a godly human ought to order their life.
The Way of Unity – a proper view of self and others
Before we close this morning we have just a little more to consider together. In vv.3+4 Paul tackled the issue that risked then and risks today spoiling the work of Christ in his church. And that is how we think about ourselves and how we think about and treat others. Paul’s instructions were these:
“Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
Selfish behaviour in a church will frustrate and hinder moves towards that increasing unity which brings honour to the Lord Jesus. If the pastor considers that his views are the only ones that carry any weight in the congregation then his conceit will be a blot on the life and witness of the congregation. If factions develop and are always insisting on their personal preferences whether that be with regard to the songs and music that is selected, to the particular Bible translation that is used, or whatever, it doesn’t matter because rivalry and scoring points will not promote that harmonious unity in a congregation which will commend Christ to others who might come in.
Instead of pursuing such paths Paul urged the Philippians to look at their neighbour in the church and to see them as significant, and their needs therefore as significant. Indeed Paul went so far as to maintain that their significance was to be viewed as higher than our own. This is a call for a radical humility on the part of each church member and I don’t mean the Uriah Heep type of humility which is false and hypocritical – we are not called to pretend that others are better by downplaying our own abilities and qualities. But and what a but it is – we can consider others as being more significant than we are and deliberately tailor our actions and decisions to promoting their interests rather than our own. After all isn’t this just what Paul taught elsewhere when he used body language to describe the church?
After declaring that no obviously useful member of the body can say to another that he doesn’t need him, Paul went on to say:
1Cor.12:22-26 “On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honourable we bestow the greater honour, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honour to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together.”
Do you believe that? Do you take any steps to try to ensure that you do that? When you have a decision to take concerning church life and your participation in it do you consider the interests of others or only those of your own personal preferences and comfort?
Paul is about to go on to speak in some glorious detail about how our wonderful Lord Jesus. Jesus was certainly better than any of us and yet he didn’t pursue his own personal comfort and ease but instead deliberately chose to treat us as the significant ones. He left heaven to come to save us, he went up to the cross which was certainly excruciatingly painful physically for us. He bore in his person the wrath of God that was rightly headed our direction. Oh yes, there are many voices in our godless world that urge us to look after our own interests because no-one else will but the Bible has a different message. Jesus looked out for our interests and would have us follow his example. I don’t claim that this is going to be easy but surely if you are a Christian you will want at least to try.
Well it is time to finish.
We have seen that for Christian unity to exist in a church its members must be real Christians. We have seen that Christian unity flows from the blessings that God bestows upon his people. And we have seen that for Christian unity to flourish in a congregation members must develop a certain mindset and adopt a particular attitude concerning the significance of others.
May the Lord make us such a congregation so that his name may be honoured amongst us.