Where the world comes to study the Bible

Exhortation to Unity—Part II (Philippians 2:1-4)

I. Translation

2:1 Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort provided by love, any fellowship in the Spirit, any affection or mercy, 2:2 complete my joy and be of the same mind, by having the same love, being united in one spirit, and having one purpose. 2:3 Instead of being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity, each of you should, in humility, be moved to treat one another as more important than yourself. 2:4 Each of you should be concerned not only about your own interests, but the interests of others as well.

II. Outline

    A. The Command: Be Unified (2:1-2)

      1. The Grounds for an Appeal to Unity (2:1)

        a. Encouragement in Christ

        b. Comfort Provided by Love

        c. Fellowship in the Spirit

        d. Affection or Mercy

      2. The Command to Unity (2:2)

        a. The Command Proper

        b. The Nature of the Command

    B. The Application: Looking Out for Others (2:3-4)

      1. Treat Others as More Important than Self

      2. Be Concerned about Interests of Others

III. A Literal Translation and Clausal Structural Outline

Philippians 2:1-4 is one long, somewhat convoluted sentence in the Greek text. There are times when it helps to do a fairly literal translation and clausal structural outline so that a person can see where everything connects, as well as the difficulty of some of the issues facing interpreters. This exercise is primarily for the person who does not have an acquaintance with the original language. You can take your English Bible and do the same thing with any paragraph in order to reveal its structure.

        Therefore

        if any encouragement in Christ (#1)
        if
        any comfort of love (#2)
        if
        any fellowship of spirit (#3)
        if
        any affection or mercy (#4)

      complete my joy

        by being like-minded
        by
        having the same love
        by
        being one in spirit
        by
        having one purpose
        by
        (doing) nothing according to selfish ambition or vanity, but
        by
        regarding one another as more important than yourselves
        by
        each one not being concerned about their own interests only, but also
        by
        (being concerned) about the interests of others

The clausal structural layout above helps the reader understand the major connections in the paragraph.97 The only command in the paragraph is highlighted in black and moved to the left. The “if” clauses modify the command and are therefore shown above it (because they precede it in the text) and indented a bit. See the commentary below for an understanding of how these “if” clauses are functioning. Hint: sometimes “if” clauses actually mean “since.” The “by” clauses are underneath the main command and indented slightly to show that they too modify the command. Thus, Paul wants the Philippians to make his joy complete by being and doing certain things.

IV. Context

From the very outset of his letter to the Philippians, Paul has maintained a focus on the church as a whole, with an attempt to promote unity. In his opening address in 1:1 he addresses the whole church and not just those who are living right. He says, “to all the saints in Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons.” He regards them all as saints, though certain ones had caused a measure of division within the church (4:2-3). We said in lesson 2 of this series that Paul’s focus on all of the church carries on throughout the entire letter (1:4; 1:7; 1:8; 1:25; 2:17; 2:26; 4:21). Further, he attempts to promote humility and unity through his own example in the introduction when he includes both himself and Timothy together under the title “servants of Christ Jesus.” He could have referred to himself as an apostle and Timothy as a servant—which is his custom—but instead he realizes that he is first and foremost a “servant of Christ Jesus,” just like every other Christian.

In his thanksgiving and prayer section (i.e., 1:3-11), Paul focuses on the church as a whole and aims at their love and unity. He thanks all of them for their participation in the gospel from the time they had become Christians until the present (1:5). He also relates to them how confident he is that the God who had begun a good work in them would carry it on to completion (1:6). Paul was convinced that all of them shared in God’s grace with him (1:7). The focus on the church as a whole continues into the prayer section. When 1:9-11 is taken in light of larger concerns in the book regarding unity and persevering under trial it is easy to see that Paul’s comment about love in v. 9 concerns their learning to be unified and do what is right in any and every circumstance.

In 1:12-26 Paul recounts for the Philippians his circumstances and how he is responding to the difficulties. As he describes his circumstances and his joy, his life becomes a model for the Philippians of how to deal with those who attempt to cause division and disunity. His humility and confidence in God shine through (1:19-20) and his priorities reflect those of his master (cf. 1:20; John 5:30).

It is only after addressing them as a unified whole (1:1-2), praying for them to this end (1:3-11), and giving his own life as a model (1:12-26; cf. 4:9), that Paul turns in 1:27-30 to urge them to lives worthy of the gospel of Christ; they are to stand firm by contending for the faith as one man and by not being frightened in any way by those who persecute them. The emphasis in 1:27-30 is on unity in the face of pressure from without.

In 2:1-4 Paul continues to urge the church to maintain unity, but now in the face of problems from within. Thus 2:1-4, insofar as it focuses once again on the theme of unity, is a further development of the command in 1:27, to walk worthy of the gospel of Christ. It is of little value to be unified against opposition from without and then fail to be unified within.

V. Exhortation to Unity—Part II
(2:1-4)

The passage is built around a single imperative which is preceded by several “if” clauses and followed by several “by” clauses, the latter of which indicate the means or manner in which the command is to be carried out. As far as the “if” clauses are concerned, they are not to be interpreted as indicating some doubt on the part of the apostle: Paul is not saying that “if you have any encouragement in Christ” and I’m not sure that you do….” Rather, he is certain that they do. The “if” is simply a rhetorical way of forcefully saying “since you have encouragement in Christ, since you have comfort provided by love, since you have fellowship with the Spirit, and since you have affection and mercy, then complete my joy.… The passage as a whole is predicated on the idea found in 1:6 where Paul says that he is confident that the one who had begun a good work in them would carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. God’s work in their hearts included such experiences as comfort, love, and fellowship with the Spirit, as well as affection and mercy toward one another and in their relationship with the apostle.

I. The Command: Be Unified
(2:1-2)

Paul begins this new section in 2:1-4 with the transitional term, therefore (oun). Generally speaking, the “therefore” draws on what was said in 1:27-30, but has its specific focus on what Paul says in 1:30. That is, Paul appeals to them out of his suffering and struggling for the advancement of the gospel. Since he is doing this, they ought to stand firm and remain unified in love. He can appeal to them as such since he has a great love for them (1:7) and since he considers them his joy and his crown (4:1).

A. The Grounds for an Appeal to Unity

Paul gives a fourfold basis for his appeal to unity, though the details of what he states are difficult to understand and commentators have taken them in various ways. Not only are they difficult to understand individually, they are also difficult to understand when taken together. Some scholars see parallels between #1 (see clausal structural layout above) and #3 since the former concerns realities in Christ and the latter seems to speak of the Holy Spirit. Those who take the passage in this way often see a further parallel between #2 and #4 where both seem to be taken up with human compassion and love, for example, Paul’s love for the Philippians and vice-versa. There are numerous other ways they have been taken, but it would be impossible to give satisfactory treatment to them here. We simply mention this so that the reader knows that certain literary features of this passage are uncertain. This in no way, however, diminishes their value, since no matter how they are interpreted, whether referring primarily to God’s work or primarily to human relationships, God is the ultimate author of all of the qualities in 2:1 and we are responsible as Christians to demonstrate them.

Having said that, it is nonetheless my opinion that the first three “if” clauses in v. 1 refer to God’s work on behalf of the Philippians. The fourth clause has to do with relationships within the church and between the church and Paul. In short, the ethical teaching of the NT consistently springs from certain spiritual realities established by God and here it is no different (cf. Rom 12:1ff). We move now to a consideration of the four clauses.

      a. Encouragement in Christ

The first thing Paul mentions concerns his certainty that the Philippians have some encouragement in Christ (paraklesis en christo). The term paraklesis can yield the sense of “encouragement,” “exhortation,” “appeal,” or “comfort.”98 Since the Philippians were suffering, the idea of “encouragement through comfort” is perhaps the intended sense.99 But they had this “comfort” in Christ. The expression “in Christ” lies at the heart of Pauline theology and among many things denotes the sphere of the Christian’s blessing (Eph 1:3-4). And so it is, that those in Christ are those who can receive comfort from him in the midst of their trials. This applies to Paul in prison as well as to the Philippians who are undergoing the same struggle as their apostle. A similar idea can be found in 2 Cor 1:3-11 where Paul refers to his hardships in the province of Asia. In 1:3 he speaks about God as the “God of all comfort who comforts us in all our trials.” Then, in v. 5, he says that “through Christ” his comfort overflows.

Further, since paraklesis is a general term, it may serve as an overview to steer the content of the remaining ideas of “love,” “fellowship,” “affection” and “mercy.” They all work toward the encouragement and comfort of the suffering believer.

      b. Comfort Provided by Love

The phrase comfort provided by love (paramuthion agapes) is literally “comfort of love.” The elliptical nature of the expression contributes to the difficulty in its interpretation. The meaning seems to be “comfort received from love or “comfort which comes from love.” It can also carry the meaning of “to alleviate” with respect to poverty.100 There is not a great deal of difference in the two nouns paraklesis and paramuthion in this context and any attempt to force a rigid distinction is probably misguided.101 If there is a minor difference, it is in temporal focus. The former term can apply to the future, whereas paramuthion applies consistently in the NT to comfort in the present.102

The real question in the phrase comfort provided by love is to whose love does Paul refer? Most likely Paul is appealing to the love God shows toward believers, the love he has poured out in their hearts through the Holy Spirit he has given them (Rom 5:5). Fee concludes that Paul is referring to the love God has for believers as well. He gives several convincing reasons for this, including a possible Trinitarian substructure behind Phil 2:1 (cf. 2 Cor 13:13) and the fact that love in the OT most frequently refers to Gods’ love for his people. He also points out that the expression “comfort of love” occurs after the mention of “encouragement in Christ” and “fellowship of the Spirit.” This may further confirm that “love from God” is the meaning.103 Thus the Philippians who have experienced comfort in Christ, have also experienced (and are experiencing) love from God.

      c. Fellowship in the Spirit

Paul appeals to yet another common Christian experience as forming the grounds for the command to be unified in v. 2: the Philippians have experienced fellowship in the Spirit (koinonia pneumatos). The expression koinonia pneumatos is literally “fellowship of spirit.” Its elliptical nature make it difficult to interpret as well. Nonetheless, it seems that the term “spirit” is probably a reference to the Holy Spirit since it is consistent with the mention of Christ and God (implied as the one who loves; see discussion above) in the context. The idea of fellowship, then, has to do with participation with or communion with the Holy Spirit enjoyed by each and every believer. He is the one who will give the Philippian believers strength (cf. 4:13) to love each other, courage to seek the interests of others, and generally do the will of God (2:13-13). In other contexts Paul refers to the Spirit as the One who lives in Christians, sanctifying them (1 Cor 2:12; 3:16; Gal 5:16; Eph 5:18), and making Christ known to them (Rom 8:16) and through them (2 Cor 3:3). Thus the Philippian believers could count on encouragement from Christ, comfort from the love of God, and communion with the Holy Spirit to enable them live in unity with one another, each of them seeking first the interests of others in the community.

      d. Affection or Mercy

Next Paul refers to their affection (splagchna) and mercy (oiktirmoi). These terms are not modified by any reference to deity and seem to be directed at the strained relationships within the church at Philippi (4:2-3), as well at relations between the Philippians and their imprisoned apostle. Paul is saying that as a result of enjoying encouragement in Christ, love from God, and fellowship with the Spirit, they ought to have compassion and mercy toward one another and toward him. Since the Philippians have experienced all these things, he urges them to make his joy complete by being of the same mind;104 whatever grievances have developed, they ought to be forgiven and relationships restored.

B. The Command to Unity

Having reminded them of their experience in Christ and God’s deep love for them—a love mediated primarily through the Spirit who dwells in them—as well as the compassion and mercy they share with one another and with the apostle, Paul now moves on in v. 2 to exhort them to unity. His appeal to the Philippians is straightforward: complete my joy (plerosate mou ten charan).

The term plerosate from pleroo has a wide range of uses in the NT. In this case it has the meaning of “to bring to completion.” Paul uses it similarly in Romans 15:19 when he talks about having fulfilled the preaching105 of the gospel all the way from Jerusalem to Illyricum. What he means, in part, is that he had completed his task of preaching the gospel everywhere. The same sense is evident in Colossians 1:25 where he says that was given the ministry to fulfill, i.e., complete the word of God (cf. 2 Thess 1:11). Here in Philippians 2:2 Paul has great joy when he thinks of the Philippians (4:1) so he wants them to make his joy complete, i.e., let there be absolutely no room for anything but joy in his thoughts of them. They can do this by being of the same mind.

The phrase the same mind (hina106 to auto phronete) occurs in Paul four times (Rom 12:16; 15:5; 2 Cor 13:11; Phil 4:2). It does not mean that Paul wants the Philippians to hold to exactly the same opinion on every issue. Such a command would be ludicrous and as Hawthorne comments, would cause more dissension than otherwise. Though certain cults operate in this manner, it is not Christian and is repudiated by passages such as 1 Corinthians 12 where Paul argues for unity in diversity and diversity within unity. In Romans 12:16 the expression seems to indicate “living in harmony” and in 15:5 it carries the idea of “unity” in strained relationships (2 Cor 13:11). The expression is focused on an attitude and not on critical thinking per se. It is a call for the church to focus on what they have in common in Christ and their relationship bound up together with him. The same expression is used in 4:2 in a similar way.

The following phrases in v. 2—i.e., “having the same love,” “being united in one spirit” and “having one purpose”—are virtually synonymous and their piling up on top of one another is Paul’s way of emphasizing to the Philippians’ their need for genuine unity. Thus they are qualities that the Philippians will possess if they desire to be of “the same mind.” The word same in the same love (ten auten agapen) once again stresses unity in the body. It argues that people ought to love each other equally and not give preferential treatment to some over others. Such is inconsistent with the gospel where Christ died for men who were all equally undeserving (2:8). This love, of course, is the outflow of the love they have received from God and which Paul has just spoken about in v. 1. The references to being united in one spirit (sumpsuchoi) and having one purpose (to hen phronountes) continue to stress the need for unity in the Philippian church.

II. The Application:
Looking Out for Others
(2:3-4)

Nothing is more diametrically opposed to unity and being one in spirit and purpose than selfishness and seeking one’s own interests. The two attitudes—unity and selfishness—cannot coexist. One has to give way to the other. Paul says in light of encouragement in Christ, love from God, and fellowship with the Spirit, that there must be no selfish ambition among the Philippians. Such an attitude is totally inconsistent with Christ who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking on the nature of a servant (2:6-7). God loves us, so he requires that we lay down our selfish goals!

The term selfish ambition (eritheian) denotes an ugly attitude, with attending actions, which themselves leave a train of misery in their wake. Such is the bulk of the human story. This one desire has lead to the slaying of innocent people, brutal dictatorships, hatred for God and fellowman, divorce, corruption, and a host of other ills equally disastrous. Apart from Christ it can never be overcome in human beings. It stands at the heart of what it means, practically speaking, to be a fallen person with a totally corrupt nature. It describes those who engage in ‘base self seeking’ and “cannot lift their gaze to higher things.”107

The term is “found before NT times only in Aristotle (Polit. 5, 3 p. 1302b, 4; 1303a, 14), where it denotes a self-seeking pursuit of political office by unfair means.”108 It is found in the NT seven times, five of which are in Paul and two in James. We’ll look at each one of these passages.

In Romans 2:8 Paul uses the term to refer to those who are so “selfish” that they disobey the truth and are persuaded that wickedness is right. For them, Paul says, there will be wrath and fury. In 2 Cor 12:20 the term means “selfishness” and appears in a list of vices which taken together could spell the end of the Corinthian church. The list includes such sins as quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. He also mentions impurity, sexual immorality, and licentiousness in 12:21. It is no wonder that coupled with such sins as selfish ambition one also finds sexual immorality and general licentiousness. James connects the term with “bitter envy” in 3:14 and calls on his readers to admit and renounce such attitudes. He goes on to say in 3:16 that when such attitudes are present there is disorder and every kind of wickedness (pan phaulon pragma). In fact, he regards such “wisdom” as “earthly, unspiritual, and of the devil” (3:15). Thus there is nothing positive about the term and the sinful practice it denotes.

Paul uses eritheia earlier in Philippians 1:17 to describe the motivations of those who preach Christ from selfish ambition. Here it probably also carries the sense of “factions” and is connected to the idea of “false motives” (prophasei) that is, preaching Christ under the pretext of zeal for God when in reality it is nothing of the sort. These Christians were trying to cause Paul problems in his imprisonment (cf. Acts 27:30; 1 Thess 2:5). So here in 2:3 Paul does not want Philippian believers seeking their own interests and pursuing selfish, “me-centered,” agendas. Such individualism would destroy the church then, and it will destroy it now.

“Selfish ambition” is coupled with the idea of vanity (kenodoxian) and both are strongly prohibited under any circumstances. The believers at Philippi are to do nothing out of selfish ambition and vanity. The term kenodoxian occurs only here in the NT. In the Apocryphal work, Wisdom of Solomon, the making of physical idols and idolatry are regarded as the product of kenodoxian (14:14). Interestingly enough, as in 2 Cor 12:20, so also in Wisdom of Solomon, there is a connection made between selfish ambition, vanity, and sexual immorality. It seems that selfish ambition which is often produced by vanity is not enough for us. It only leads to further sin (cf. Eph 4:17-19).

On the other hand, Paul says there is another way. It is the way of Christ—humility. In profane Greek literature humility (tapeinophrosune) occurs only rarely and usually with a derogatory nuance indicating “servility, weakness, or a shameful lowliness.”109 Such is not the case in the NT, however! It occurs seven times in the NT, five of which are in Paul (Acts 20:19; Eph 4:2; Phil 2:13; Col 2:18, 23; 3:12; 1 Pet 5:5). The cognate noun tapeinos occurs eight times and signifies lowliness or humility. Jesus is the example par excellence of one who was humble (Matt 11:29) and, therefore, he was a refreshing place people could come for respite. Jesus is also the example of humility to which Paul refers his readers later in Phil 2:8. There Jesus is said to have humbled himself to the point of accepting death on a cross for the sake of others (on “humility” in the OT see e.g., Prov 3:34; 11:2; 15:33). Humility is the fruit of a life lived consciously in the grace and mercy of God.

Therefore, instead of doing things out of selfish ambition and vanity, Paul wanted each of the Philippians, in humility and lowliness, to regard others as more important (huperechontas) than themselves. They were to be focused on other people and serving them (cf. 1 Pet 5:7). Thus he continues in v. 4 to say that each of the Philippian believers should be concerned not only about his/her own interests, but the interests of others as well. The command was not just for a few competent outgoing people; it was for each and every one of them. Each Christian, says Paul, is to look not only to their own interests, but to the interests of others as well.

The key term in 2:4 is concerned (skopountes). It is found in Homer, Josephus (Ant 12.30) and Philo and generally means “to look (out) for, notice, keep one’s eyes on.”110 Paul uses it in Romans 16:17 to exhort the church to “look out” for those who cause divisions in the church. In 2 Cor 4:18 he uses it metaphorically in reference to “fixing the eyes [of faith] on a target,” i.e., what cannot be seen as opposed to what can be seen. In Gal 6:1 he tells the Galatian believers that they ought to help their brother who has sinned, but that they should do so looking or watching themselves carefully, lest they fall into sin as well. In Phil 3:17 Paul uses the word again, this time in reference to watching or examining the lives of those who walk properly so that such examples might be imitated. So the term in 2:4 is not just to be concerned in a passive sense. It means to take a good look at the needs and interests of others and do something about it. Jesus was someone who sought to meet the needs of others in a legitimate way and so also was Timothy (2:20-21).

VI. Principles for Application

    1. How is your relationship with the Lord? There can be no unity among brothers and sisters in the Lord until they have dealt with the sin they know to be in their lives. We do this by confession (1 John 1:9) and drawing near to the Lord (cf. 1 Peter 2:1-3). Further, it seems that when Paul talks about “encouragement in Christ,” “love from God,” and “fellowship with the Spirit,” he is talking about a person having intimacy with the Lord (cf. 3:10-11). One way to draw close to the Lord, especially in times of distress (a la the Philippian situation), is to pray. Drawing close to God in this way, with a clean and pure heart, allows us to experience the filling of the Spirit and strength, as well as encouragement, and warmth from God. There is a time to act, and there is a time to pray. Unfortunately, most Christians in the West live such cluttered lives that they never make time to invest in prayer. Unfortunately they are also, on many occasions, powerless Christians.

    2. But we must not lose sight of where Paul is going in 2:1-4. He is deeply concerned with Christian unity. What can you do this week to promote goodwill and unity among the Christian brothers and sisters at your church? Just this week I had a discussion with a Christian woman who knew of two other Christian couples who were at odds with one another. She rightly decided to pray for them and seek an opportunity to either be a peacemaker herself or encourage another person—who knew the couples better—to bring them together. It grieves God’s heart when Christians cannot live in unity. After all, this was one of the last things Jesus prayed for us (John 17:22-23).

    3. Take time this week to think seriously about the needs and interests of another Christian. Ask God to lead you to translate that thinking into some specific actions. God bless you as you reach out to others.


97 If you are uncertain about how to study the Bible and you want some help, please consult the article on this website entitled, “How to Study the Bible: For Beginners” (/studies/splife/study/bs1.htm). It will get you started.

98 BAGD, s.v. paraklhsis. They list three basic senses: (1) encouragement or exhortation; (2) appeal or request; (3) comfort or consolation.

99 See Fee, Philippians, 179-80.

100 BAGD, s.v., paramuqion.

101 See O’Brien, Philippians, 172.

102 Sthlin, TDNT, 5:821. He says, “Nor does paramuqeomai ever denote eschatological comfort, as parakaleo so often does. It is always the comfort granted in this present earthly sphere.”

103 Fee, Philippians, 180-81.

104 But see O’Brien, Philippians, 174-76, who regards splagcna and oiktirmoi as referring to God’s compassion and mercy. Admittedly, nailing down the source for the compassion and mercy is a very difficult task and one that lends itself to little certainty, but it seems better, since the terms are not modified by a reference to deity, to take them as operating primarily in the sphere of human relations. On the other hand, the ultimate source for these qualities, is, of course, God himself.

105 See James D. G. Dunn, Romans 9-16, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 38b, ed. Ralph P. Martin (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1988), 864.

106 This is a difficult phrase to translate. The iJvna (Jina) clause could be a direct object clause, an imperatival clause, or a clause indicating the means by which the action of the main verb plhrwsate (plhrwsate) is fulfilled. The latter seems preferable in this case and the end result is not greatly affected. In each case, it is related to and explains the idea of “making Paul’s joy complete.” See Hawthorne, Philippians, 67.

107 Buchsel, TDNT, 2: 661.

108 BAGD, s.v., eriqeia.

109 O’Brien, Philippians, 180.

110 Cf. BAGD, s.v., skopew.

Related Topics: Fellowship, Spiritual Life