Teaching series from Philippians

Two Insights into Christian Unity

Philippians 1:27-2:2

Teaching t12674


Briefly review the setting of this letter (MAP).  We learn more about the Philippians’ situation in 1:27-30 (read).  Like Paul, the Philippians are experiencing persecution for their faith in Christ.  They also have enemies who are mistreating and even imprisoning some of them.  Philippi was a Roman colony, and at least some of the people in the Philippian church were probably Roman citizens.  You might expect Paul to urge them to demand their civil rights, or to use their political clout to protest.  But Paul urges a different priority (read 1:27; 2:1-2) – that they conduct themselves “worthy of the gospel” (1:27) – i.e., respond in a way that demonstrates that Christianity is true, and that attracts people to Jesus Christ.

And what is that response?  That they maintain their unity with one another (1:27b; 2:2).  Paul is echoing what Jesus prayed for His followers in Jn. 17 (read Jn. 17:21,23).  This unity that Jesus and Paul emphasize is not an organizational unity.  It is a relational unity, which is why I prefer the term “community.”  Let’s look more closely at Paul’s insights into this unity – namely, its key elements and its spiritual source.

Its key elements

In 1:27 and 2:2, Paul describes three key elements of Christian unity.  What are these elements?  Why are they essential for real community?  How do they contrast with our culture?

One element of Christian unity is a common source of truth.  Twice, Paul calls on the Philippians to be “of one/the same mind” (1:27; 2:2).  This “one mind” has nothing to do with submitting your mind to the control of a human leader (CULTS) or to some super-human power that destroys all legitimate diversity and turns people into robots (‘THE BORG”).  Rather, it is recognizing that we have a common source of objective truth and learning to relate to one another on that basis.

In another passage (1 Cor. 2:16b,13), Paul defines the “mind of Christ” as God’s perspective on every major area of life as revealed through scripture.  On this basis, Paul calls the Corinthian Christians to be united (1:10).

This has titanic relevance for our culture!  Many Americans complain of loneliness and alienation, and express a desire for close relationships.  But most also insist on the freedom to define truth and morality for themselves – not realizing that this radical individualism is incompatible with close relationships and community.  In order to have real closeness, there must be trust.  And trust comes (in part) from submitting to “the truth.”  When each person insists on operating by “my truth,” there is no basis for healthy closeness (DIAGRAM).  Instead, there is irresolvable conflict, intimidation and unhealthy compliance, and “moving on.”  “The (postmodernist defines) a person as ‘something that can be humiliated.’  (Our) sense of human solidarity is based on a sense of common danger, not on . . . a shared (truth).”[1]

How tragic!  And how different the Christian position is!  As people who have received absolute truth, we can agree to live under God’s truth (DIAGRAM).  This is not some abstract ideal; it is very practical.  We agree to learn biblical truth together (Col. 3:16a).  We also agree to apply biblical truth by “speaking the truth to one another n love” (Eph. 4:15) – encouraging one another (reminding one another of God’s love, forgiveness, faithfulness, etc.) and admonishing (calling on one another to submit to God’s moral guidance in both behavior and attitude).  This leads to resolvable conflict, healthy closeness, and lasting unity

Do you regularly relate to other Christians on this level?  This is one of the big differences between “going to church” and “being in fellowship.”  This is non-optional if you want real unity!

Another element of Christian unity is a common outward focus.  In 2:2, Paul says that unity involves being “intent on one purpose.”  In 1:27, he defines this purpose as “striving together for the faith of the gospel.”  “Striving together” (sunathleo) means “competing as a team.”  In other words, Paul is urging them to work together to both defend and spread the message of God’s love to those who don’t know Christ.  Relationships must have a purpose/goal beyond just themselves.  Christian community exists also to reach out to others beyond us, to help them come to Christ and grow in Him.  Paul will talk more about this in 2:14-16 (2 WEEKS).  This common outward focus is an essential ingredient in successful community.

Christian community/relationships that are inward-focused (DIAGRAM: tribalism; fortress; self-healing only, etc.) will inevitably deteriorate in quality.  Things get boring, and then sooner or later conflict breaks out as people find things they don’t like about each other, the leadership, the ways things are being done, etc. 

But when we band together to reach out beyond ourselves to others (DIAGRAM) – engaging them, praying for them, discussing how we can help them, thanking God when they come to faith in Christ and have their lives changed, willing to multiply home groups to facilitate this, etc. – the result is a teamwork unity that is both productive and personally transformative! 

Are you already a Christian and considering making Xenos your church?  Please consider not only what services we have to offer you, but also whether you are ready to join in with the rest of us to serve and reach out to people outside our church.  If you are only interested in how we can serve you, you’re going to be like all consumers in our consumer culture - disappointed.  But if you are also ready to serve as teammates, you’re going to be enriched in our community!

A third element of Christian unity is a common understanding of love.  Paul speaks of “maintaining the same love” (2:2).  The word for “love” here is agape.  The early Christians used this little-used Greek word to emphasize that this love was different from the kinds of love that were popular in their culture (briefly define eros and philia).  This love is also very different than the superficial niceness that passes for love in our culture.  Paul describes this love in the next paragraph.

Read 2:3,4.  This kind of love is radically other-centered.  It isn’t self-absorbed (“Will he help me get what I want?  Does she praise and admire me enough?”).  It is self-forgetful – looking for and thinking about other people’s best interests and needs.

Read 2:5-8.  This kind of love is radically sacrificial.  It doesn’t insist on its rights; it willingly surrenders its rights to Christ in order to meet the needs of the loved one.[2]  It doesn’t subject relationships to a cost-benefit analysis (“What have you done for me lately?”); it gives itself away for the good of the loved one. 

If you want a closer look at this kind of love, notice the nouns in 2:2 – encouragement (strengthen; come alongside one who is embattled and afraid), consolation (empathize; comfort one who is sorrowful), affection (cherish; show delight for one who is small and needy), and compassion (show mercy to one who is undeserving).  Yes, this kind of love is also willing to discipline and set boundaries – but as an act of sacrifice for the person’s good, not as rejection or a pay-back.

Imagine the unity between people who are animated by this kind of love!  But if we base our relationships on how attractive and stimulating the other people are, or on how well they treat us, or on whether we have common cultural tastes, we won’t get very far!  The loss of community in American society (e.g., marriages, families, neighborhoods, etc.) is tragic.  Even more tragic is the lack of community in American Christian churches, because they should demonstrate the reality of Jesus and His unique power to unify people who follow Him.

Ask yourself: “Which do I focus on more – how well others are serving me, or how well am I sacrificially loving them?”  Your answer will go a long way toward explaining how successful your relationships are and how fulfilling Christian community is to you.

Review these three elements.  This is a tall order – especially the third one!  Who has within himself the resources to practice this kind of love?  Not me!  “The Christian life (including Christian community) is not just humanly difficult – it is humanly impossible.”  This is why 2:1 is so important (re-read) . . .

Its spiritual source

This verse is easy to misunderstand because it is poorly translated.  Paul is not saying: “If these expressions of love exist;” “if” (ei) means “Since they do exist.”[3]  Neither is he saying: “Since you possess this kind of love in yourselves.”  This kind of love comes only from “Christ” and through “the (God’s) Spirit.”  So Paul is saying: “God’s Spirit personally communicates His love to you.  Therefore you have a basis for giving this same love to others (2:2).”

God promises to personally encourage us when we are embattled – and therefore we can pass His encouragement on to others (2 Cor. 1:3-5).

God promises to personally console us when we are sorrowful – and therefore we can pass His consolation on to others.

God promises to personally communicate His delight in us though we are small and needy – and therefore we can communicate His delight to one another. 

God promises to personally communicate His mercy for us despite our many failings – and therefore we can communicate His mercy to others who have many failings.

This is exactly what Jesus said in Jn. 7:37b-39a (read).  The universal thirst of humanity (whether we realize it or not) is to experience God’s perfect and inexhaustible love.  Jesus is the only Person who makes God’s love personally accessible to us, because only Jesus died for our sins which separate us from God.  Jesus gives His Spirit to everyone who believes in Him, and His Spirit enables us to become a channel of His love to others.  What does it mean to believe in Jesus?  He implies a two-fold answer, which other New Testament passages make explicit:

First, you need to “come to” (middle mood) Jesus – decide to receive Him as your Savior.  This is a one-time decision, and the moment you make this decision, His Spirit comes to live in your heart so you can begin to experience His love for you (Jn. 4:14).  If you haven’t ever experienced 2:1, you probably have never received Jesus.  But you can do this today – you don’t need to clean your life up first, and you don’t need to have doubt-free faith.  You just need to open the door of your heart and ask Him to come (Rev. 3:20).  Why not decide today?

Then, you need to “keep drinking” (present tense) – keep receiving Jesus’ love from His Spirit day by day and situation by situation.  This is an ongoing decision to keep filled up with Jesus’ love so that you can give His love to other people in your life.  Jude 1:20,21 (read) provides a snap-shot of what this looks like: building yourself up with His Word, praying personally to Him, and looking forward to His return.    If you can’t relate to 2:1 except as a past and/or very irregular reality, you probably aren’t “drinking” on a regular basis.  But you can begin doing this today – you don’t need to undergo some spiritual catharsis.  You just need to begin relating to Him like Jude describes/like you have in the past.  Why not re-start today?

NEXT WEEK: Phil. 2:12,13 – “Work out because God works in”

[1] Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 91.

[2] “The only right Christians have is the right to give up our rights.”  Oswald Chambers, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Discovery House), p. 37.

[3] “When Paul introduced each of these clauses with εἰ, “if,” he did not intend by this to cast doubt at all on what he was saying. Just the opposite. The construction of these clauses in Greek, introduced by εἰ, is such that it becomes equivalent in meaning to an affirmative statement: ‘Since there is . . .’” Hawthorne, G. F. (2004). Philippians (Vol. 43, p. 82). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.