By Christopher VanDusen

If you’re a Christian, you know that the church is supposed to work together to promote the spread of the good news of Christ, and the spiritual well-being of one another. But what’s supposed to motivate us to do that, and how do we do this? In Philippians 2:1-4, the apostle Paul answers these questions.

In the first chapter of his letter to the Philippian church, Paul begins by sharing his joyful thankfulness for the Philippians’ partnership with him in his missionary work, and how he prays for them. They were a church that gave him money to support himself while he preached the gospel, started churches, and instructed churches in Christ’s teachings. At the time that he wrote the letter, however, he was imprisoned by the Roman Empire, since Jews had accused him of wrecking their society. He then asked to defend himself before the Roman Emperor, so he could be proven innocent, and so he could go to Rome to preach the gospel.

Hence, when Paul wrote Philippians, he was under house arrest in Rome, unable to go about the city to preach. Nevertheless, he shares in Philippians 1 that his testimony to those who visited him, and the response of professing Christians in Rome to his imprisonment, was still spreading the gospel through the whole city, including among the Emperor’s palace workers.

He concludes the first chapter by assuring the Philippians that he will be released from prison, but he instructs them in how they ought to live while he’s away from them. In this instruction, he commands them to live in light of the gospel by working together to promote it, and to be at peace with the opposition they’re facing from persecutors.

So, in Philippians 2:1-4, Paul explains why and how they are to work together to promote the gospel in the face of persecution:

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition 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.” (ESV)

In this passage, Paul does five things for the Philippians:

  1. He Reminds Them of Christ’s Goodness (v. 1)
  2. He Requests that They Complete His Joy (v. 2a)
  3. He Requires Them to Commune Graciously (v. 2b)
  4. He Relegates Them to Counting Others Greater (v. 3)
  5. He Reinforces Companion-Centered Goals (v. 4)

Paul Reminds Them of Christ’s Goodness

Even before Paul reminds the Philippians of Christ’s goodness, he bases his appeal to them on what he’s just said, by beginning with the word, “so” or “therefore”. And what did he just say? That they were sharing with him in being persecuted for Christ:

“For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.” – Phil. 1:29-30 (ESV)

For this reason, he’s requesting them to complete his joy. However, he has many more reasons why they should do this, and he lists them in 2:1:

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

When Paul uses the word “if”, is he implying that it’s possible that the Philippians don’t possess these things? No, since he’s using them as the reasons why they ought to complete his joy. He wouldn’t use them as reasons if he wasn’t sure that they could be used as reasons.

So what are the reasons? First, there’s “encouragement in Christ”. That is, the Philippians are encouraged, or helped, “in Christ”. When Paul says that this encouragement is “in Christ”, he means that Christ is the reason, basis, and source of their encouragement, or help. Why does he call Jesus, “Christ”? Because this refers to Jesus as the christos, or “anointed One”, of God, whom God appointed as the Christian’s Prophet, High Priest, and King. As Prophet, he encourages His people by showing them who God is. As High Priest, He encourages His people by giving them the assurance that He has taken their punishment from God, and now stands as their Representative and Advocate before God. As their King, He encourages them by giving them instructions, and by ruling over everything for their good.

The second reason Paul gives the Philippians to complete his joy is that they have “comfort from love”. That is, even though they’re being persecuted, Christ comforts them with His love for them, so they’re able to comfort Paul in his affliction.

Third, they have a “participation in the Spirit”. The Greek word translated “participation” here is translated “fellowship” in the New American Standard Bible. It means “sharing” or “commonness”. In other words it’s something they have in common, and in this case, it’s someone they have in common — “the Spirit”. This refers to God the Holy Spirit, whom Christ has given to all believers as their Helper and Comforter; who has given them spiritual life, and will continue to do so for eternity. Paul is saying that, because the Philippians all are possessed by the same Spirit who possesses Paul, they should complete his joy.

Fourth, Paul says that they possess “affection and sympathy”. The word “affection” refers to a delight and care for someone else, while “sympathy” means the ability to understand and share what others feel. Because the Philippians have affection and sympathy for Paul and one another, they ought to complete his joy.

Paul Requests that They Complete His Joy

The first command that Paul gives the Philippians in this passage is to “complete [his] joy”. The word “complete” means to provide what’s lacking, and to reach an intended goal. The word “joy” refers to an inner feeling of happiness and delight that isn’t based on temporal circumstances, but based on the unchanging truth of God’s Word, and belief in that truth.

The Philippians brought Paul joy because he knew they were fellow believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, had eternal life, were spreading the gospel to people, and bringing glory to Christ. However, there obviously was something lacking in Paul’s joy, and that was due to something missing in the Philippians.

Paul Requires Them to Commune Graciously

The thing that was lacking in the Philippians was what he commands them to do to complete his joy — commune graciously,

“. . . by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”

The first thing he commands them to do is to be “of the same mind”, or like-minded. In other words, they were to think in the same way. Second, he commands them to have “the same love”, or to love one another in the same way, so they all have the same love for one another. The Greek word for “love” here is agapao, which, in this context, refers to sacrificial and selfless devotion to the spiritual well-being of others. Third, he commands them to be “in full accord and of one mind”. The Greek translated “in full accord” literally means “united in spirit” or “soul”, meaning to share the same life and essence. The Greek translated “of one mind” literally translates to “minding the same things”, or thinking about the same things. To put it another way, their life purpose was to be the same for all of them, and they were to work together toward that one goal. There was to be unity of heart, mind, soul, and love.

He Relegates Them to Counting Others Greater

In verse 3, Paul explains how this unity that he’s called them to is to be achieved. He says,

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”

First, he tells them what they must avoid in order to be united. They must “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit”. “Selfish ambition” means any goal that is worked toward for the purpose of only benefiting oneself. “Conceit” is translated from the Greek word kenodoxian, which literally means “empty glory”. In other words, Paul is forbidding the Philippians from doing anything out of pride or arrogance, which is the attitude that you ought to be known and set apart from everyone else because of some better quality in yourself. This is an “empty” belief because no Christian is better than any other in value or worth.

Second, Paul relegates the Philippians to counting others greater than themselves. He begins by saying that this must be done “in humility”. Humility is the attitude of viewing oneself as “low” or no important than anyone else, and therefore undeserving of special treatment due to being better or more valuable than anyone else. With this attitude, Paul commands the Philippians to “count others more significant than yourselves”. That is, they are to view others as more worthy of attention and care than themselves. How can this be done? When a Christian sees himself as he truly is, or is humble. When one thinks little of himself, then he’s able to think much of others.

Paul Reinforces Companion-Centered Goals

In the final verse of this passage, Paul further explains how the Philippians are to “count others more significant than [themselves]”. It’s by being focused on others’ needs. Paul commands them,

“Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

First, Paul recognizes that each of them has to look to their “own interests”. However, he commands them to make others’ interests their own. In other words, the concerns and needs of others are to be their concern. And if they’re treating others as more important than themselves, then sometimes they’ll have to forget about their own interests in order to think about their brother’s or sister’s. The beauty of this is that if the whole church does this, everyone’s needs will be met!

Use Christ’s Gifts to Unite, Esteem Others, and Aim at Their Needs

So, how does this passage apply to you?

First, have you been encouraged by the Christ, or Messiah? Have you been comforted from His love? Do you participate in the Holy Spirit? Do you have affection and sympathy for other Christians?

If you can’t answer “yes” to all of these questions, then you probably don’t belong to Christ, and don’t have His comforting love, because all these things are true of Christ’s people. If that’s the case, then you’re an enemy of Christ and God, and you don’t believe the gospel of Christ, which is the only message that can save you from God’s eternal judgment and punishment. The good news of Christ’s encouragement and love is that God sent His eternally divine Son to earth to become a man, Jesus the Christ, to live the perfect life, and to be hung on a cross to suffer death and abandonment by God for our crimes against Him. Then, He raised Him from the dead and took Him into heaven as the King of the universe. He commands everyone to change their minds and trust in Christ as their Substitute on the cross and King in heaven to receive His forgiveness and peace with Him. Please make sure that you’re trusting in Christ alone as your King and Savior from God’s wrath, because God has promised to judge everyone perfectly through Jesus according to all they’ve done, and to punish His enemies with eternal torment. God forgives all who do this.

If you can answer “yes” to those questions, then let’s think of Paul’s request for the Philippians to complete his joy. Basically, Paul was a missionary supported by the Philippians, but also served as one of their pastors, since he was the apostle who planted that church. As one of their pastors, he asks them to complete his joy by being united. Your church’s leader or leaders, assuming they’re true Christian leaders, have the same desire to have their congregation united. Do you try to complete the joy of your church’s leadership?

Third, do you basically think in the same way, love in the same way, live in the same way, and have the same main purpose as the rest of your church family? This doesn’t mean you don’t have any disagreements or differences, but are you united with your church in its goals?

Fourth, do you do anything from selfish ambition or vain glory? If you don’t think so, then do you humbly count others more important than yourself?

Finally, do you look out for the interests of others in the same way that you look out for your own?

If you have all the things from Christ that are listed, but aren’t following Paul’s instructions, then remember that Christ has encouraged you, comforted you with His love, given you His Spirit, and given you affection and sympathy, even though you deserve His hatred, and are no more important than any other Christian. Then you’ll be able to be united with the church and be others-centered.

Unless noted differently, all Scripture quotations are taken from the:

English Standard Version (ESV)

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.