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Philippians 2011

Unity of the Church

Philippians  2:1-13

Lesson audio

We now come upon a section of Scripture which has been variously interpreted. In this particular lesson we have chosen to provide an overview which sometimes is missing from the more detailed treatments. The section includes some of the most soaring words in the Bible. For that reason, many authors miss the major point of the first half of this chapter: the unity of the church.


Philippians 2:1-4 NASB  Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion,  (2)  make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose.  (3)  Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves;  (4)  do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.

Some Thoughts

A bit of historical reflection must come first. The usual method of looking at this section of Scripture focuses on either the nature of Christ or the perceived dilemma between faith and works. It is a fact that the "faith only" aspects of the Protestant Reformation produced one of the great divide in Christianity. One of the effects this is had in recent times is that the church no longer teaches on the subject of the unity of the church. We have accepted the great divisions in the church as being something which cannot be overcome. This will come as something of a surprise to our ancestors, who regularly strived to reunify the church.

But it is clear today, at least for the evangelical churches, that the unity of the church in any sense is no longer a priority. Church leaders split and establish new denominations fairly often. This is rather a new thing; not so much that we split, but that we consider it such a trivial thing to do. Our ancestors would've been appalled at this behavior. They might've come to the same conclusions we have, and participated in such a split, but they would have taken the subject much more seriously. There are many factors in this, but may I suggest one factor which is predominant? The Scripture says of Satan:

Isaiah 14:12-14 NASB  "How you have fallen from heaven, O star of the morning, son of the dawn! You have been cut down to the earth, You who have weakened the nations!  (13)  "But you said in your heart, 'I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God, And I will sit on the mount of assembly In the recesses of the north.  (14)  'I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.'

Perhaps this is the difference: our ancestors understood that humility is a virtue, and that pride is the sin of Satan. Today, when a leader in the evangelical church is offended, it seems nothing to go off and establish your own denomination. Indeed, the growth of the mega-church has encouraged this. The church to which your author belongs previously was accustomed to hosting gatherings for all the other churches in our movement in the local area. This was considered a blessing, particularly by the smaller churches who could not afford to put on the training being given. We have since become a mega-church whose pastor is clearly a celebrity. We no longer have any public interaction with those other churches. It is left to the reader to weigh whether this is, on balance, good or bad.

Is Unity Important?

You might well ask: is unity all that important? After all, our church seems to get along quite well without it. The only unity we are concerned with is within our own congregation. And things are going well; so why should we worry about this?

·         On the night in which he was betrayed, Christ prayed for the unity of the church.[1]

·         Over and over again, the Scripture proclaims that the church is one body — the body of Christ.[2]

·         This unity is so strong that Christ proclaims it to be a characteristic of his disciples — that they love one another.[3]

Far from being an unnecessary item, the unity of the church is the heartfelt desire of all who love her. Paul, in this passage, is no exception. We may now consider his appeal for the unity of the church.

Paul's Appeal

Paul bases his appeal upon the common bond he has with the Philippians. In so doing he cites the following things:

  • Encouragement – the same root word that is translated “comforter” for the Holy Spirit, it means coming along side (paraklesis). It is the sensation of one who comes to you with a hug when you are down.
  • Comfort – (the word “his” in front of “love” is supplied – it is not unique to Christ’s love) – the word comes from two Greek words. The first is para, from which we get our word “parallel.” The second is the root of our word “myth.” It means one who shares the same or similar story with us. Have you ever received comfort from someone who’s been through the same trouble you are having?
  • Fellowship – it is koinonia – meaning that deep and abiding companionship of an old friend.
  • Tenderness and compassion – Sometimes “tough it out” is distinctly the wrong advice. Even the tough need to know when to be tender.

These things are the basis of the friendship and love he holds with them, and therefore the basis on which he appeals for their unity. Notice please that he asks that they make his joy complete — Paul is not trying to solve a problem here. He is trying to make things better; it's the act of the teacher raising his students to the next level.

If you want to see the practical side of the virtue of humility, consider what Paul asks them to do. He tells them to be humble, and consider themselves as less important than others — but he follows that with his instruction to look out for the interests of others. It's not just a question of attitude, but action. Let me give you an example. My wife, who completely understands my total inability to pick out the right clothes, will at interval come home with a new shirt for me. She loves me and therefore she looks out for my interests. Left them I own devices I would probably be wearing the same shirt for 30 years. She does not ask me to come to the store and try it on, or even look at it, but goes ahead and does what is in my best interest. It is that kind of love that Paul is encouraging here. To answer the ancient question, yes, you are your brother's keeper.

The Example of Christ

Philippians 2:5-11 NASB  (5)  Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus,  (6)  who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped,  (7)  but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.  (8)  Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  (9)  For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name,  (10)  so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  (11)  and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Concept: Exemplar

Much of the work of Jesus Christ is to be taken in the concept of Christ as our exemplar. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, an exemplar is defined in these two possible ways:

·         An exemplar is an ideal model. This carries with it the idea that you can look at the model, follow the model, and be right in your conduct. Shipwrights used to work this way; they would make a model of the ship they intended to build, show it to a potential purchaser, and then use the model to determine the dimensions of the actual ship. Military officers will be familiar with the example of Robert E Lee. Evangelists will be familiar with Billy Graham. The idea is simply that you look at what that person would do, and you do the same.

·         And exemplar is also a standard of comparison. The idea here is to ask whether or not you measure up to the person who is your exemplar. It's a moral comparison.

We might cite one example from Jesus Christ. You will recall that he was baptized by John the Baptist. John, rather puzzled by Christ's request, said something to the effect that Christ should baptize John the Baptist, not the other way around. Christ told him it was fitting to do this to fulfill all righteousness. It's an answer that doesn't seem to answer. Chrysostom laid out a very good reason for the answer. He imagined that a person of royalty might object to being baptized on the grounds that this was for peasants. After all, they bathe once a year, he bathes every day. The answer that the evangelist should give is that the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, ruler of Heaven and Earth, went through this same baptism. He set the example; he is the exemplar. I leave it to the reader to work out the moral details.

Exemplar of Humility

In this passage Paul is using Jesus as the exemplar of humility. To understand just what a great example this is, you need first to understand the nature of Christ. He is a person of the Trinity, sharing the very essence of God the Father — his existence. He is in no sense inferior to God. He is equally divine.

Consider therefore what happens to him when he becomes a man. He didn't arrive and pop out of the spaceship; he was born just like the rest of us. He grew up just like the rest of us. For our sakes, he died on a cross; suffering the penalty we should pay. It is the greatest come down in the history of the universe. He did this willingly. Now you know what humility truly is.

For that exact reason — the humility demonstrated at the cross — God has exalted him. The last is now the first. It is a general principle in the kingdom of God that those who humble themselves before God will be lifted up. The more humble, the higher the lift is. If he is willing to do that for us, what part of "look out for the other guy's interest" is so difficult?

Christ Among Us

There are three words here that are used to describe Christ. You can understand the completeness of the transformation in looking at these three words:

  • Form – the Greek is morphe – it means the external likeness, that which is visible.
  • Likeness – the Greek is rooted in the prefix homo, from which we get our word homogenized – it means the internal workings.
  • Fashion – the Greek is schema, which is related to the fitting into circumstances – meaning the external circumstances.

So you see that Christ became completely like us. The formula to remember is simply this: fully God, fully man. The one who is fully God became fully man for our sakes; therefore it is said that he humbled himself.


Paul now reaches the height of his argument for church unity:

Philippians 2:12-13 NASB  (12)  So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling;  (13)  for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.


This passage is famous as being that closest and most accurate expression of the dilemma between faith and works. It has been a cause of division in the church for hundreds of years. How can works be required if faith is all that is necessary? It is a puzzle that is occupied the best minds of Christendom for a long time.

So how does the average stupid clod in the pew deal with such a thing? The question is more general than that; how does the man in the pew deal with any problem for which he has neither the training nor intellect to solve? What you do when Christ commands don't fit in your logical way of doing things? The answer is also well known. The solution to a dilemma is always obedience. Do what Christ commands you and leave the theology to others.

It's not that these positions don't have some common ground; they do.

  • Faith without works is dead. So says St. James, so say both debaters. One views it as an essential element, the other as a natural outcome of living faith. But both agree: if your faith is real and living, it will produce good works.
  • Reward is to be distinguished from salvation. When reading the Scripture we must be careful of context. If the passage is talking about blessings in heaven, we must not confuse that with salvation. Reward for good works is also a common ground.
  • God provides a task and gift for each Christian. This implies a responsibility to do something with that gift, namely that task. Our Lord makes this clear in the parable of the Talents.
  • Growth in the faith comes, at least in part, by works. If you are not performing the works of the Lord, you are not growing in the faith. But if you are growing in the faith, you cannot help but grow in the works you perform.
  • There is also a sense of works as the completion of faith. That is the sense used here; the good ship Faith is launched by Grace, but fitted out by Works – for whatever purpose God might have.

As you can see, there is plenty of agreement — and your duties as a Christian are clear. With a little look at the Greek, we shall see that Paul himself disambiguate this passage by the verbs he used.

Work Out Your Salvation

We are told to "work out" our own salvation. The word used here is katergazomai. It carries with it the connotation of finishing something, or fashioning it into something useful out of a more general-purpose item. Perhaps an example will make this clearer:

If you decided you wanted to build your very own battleship, you would discover that the standard method for building a battleship starts with building the hull. Once you have the hull with the engines and armor, you shove the thing into the water and finish working with it there. The process is called "fitting out." There are a number of reasons for doing it this way, not the least of which is that if you wait any longer, the thing gets heavier and harder to push. That's the sense that is being used here; by grace God launches the good ship Faith, by works he fits her out.

You are to do this in fear and trembling. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, we are told. Here's a good example of it. If you take your salvation by grace as a casual thing, no big deal, and no real reason for you to get to work – you've missed the point. Understand that God does not wish to launch that ship and have it idle in the basin. Ships are meant to sail; Christians are meant to work.

God Working in You

The word used for work that God does is energeo, from which we get our word energy. There's a big difference between working out a math problem, and working in the yard. The Greek makes that distinction; the English uses only the one word for both situations. It is clear then that God is at work within us. To repeat previous metaphor, once God has launched the good ship Faith, by his work he fits her out for service. This carries with it some implications:

·         The first is that God works, and therefore we can work. If God launched us in faith and then did nothing, we just sit there. But he does not just launch, he works to perfect this. Therefore we are able to work ourselves because of what God has enabled us to do.

·         The second is that God works, and therefore we must work. He did not design his people to sit around and watch; we are not spectators in the football stands, but players on the field.

This lesson has been about the unity of the church. One of the most destructive forces opposing the unity of the church is laziness. It is so easy for many Christians simply to sit in the pew, tell a preacher what a great sermon he delivered, and then go home and do nothing. There is nothing of obedience in that. The solution to the dilemma of faith and works is in obedience.

[1] John 17:20-23

[2] See, for example, Ephesians 4:4-6

[3] John 13:35

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