United through Humility and Service (v1-4)

Having received a generous gift at the hand of the Philippians, Paul knew that the ecclesia was overflowing with a spirit of comfort, love, fellowship and compassion. Yet there was one further characteristic he dearly wanted to see flourishing in the Philippian ecclesia and he appeals to them as he commences chapter two: “If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies.” These “if” statements would clearly be accepted by the Philippians and Paul uses this assent to draw them into accepting something further: “Fulfil ye my joy that ye be likeminded, hav­ing the same love, being of one accord, of one mind”.

Paul, a prisoner in Rome, was overjoyed to re­ceive a gift from his brothers and sisters in Philippi, yet this joy would only be made complete when he knew that the Philippians were likeminded; like- minded in love and lowly service that left no room for contention or ambition1.

The mind that Paul so dearly longed to see in the Philippians is the mind that God longs to see in each of us today. It is not something great by the world’s standards, but it will transform our life: lowliness of mind; humility; service. It is a mind free of thoughts for ourselves; filled with care for our brothers and sisters. It is a mind at liberty from our own ambitions to tenderly serve our family, ecclesia and those around us; a mind that does not envy others or create strife; a mind blameless and harmless; aware that our own works are of no value. It is a mind free from selfish thinking, so that God’s mind grows within, giving us the motivation and strength to serve.

The Example of Christ (v5-11)

Paul goes on to describe the perfect example of humility in motive and service by highlighting the work of Christ. This section of Philippians (2:6-11) may have been written in verse, which could explain why this section is not straightfor­ward to read and understand. Paul is not writing a scripted treatise on the saving work of Christ, he is appealing to the Philippians to consider the work of Christ in a beautiful and passionate way. Each phrase is selected, not only for its meaning, but for its meter and phonetics; the section is written as a sequence of parallels and contrasts. The following translation from Bro TJ Barling gives some sense as to how these verses might read2:

  1. Who being of divine status Deemed equality with God Not a prize to be grasped
  2. But emptied himself, Taking a servant’s status, Making himself like men.
  3. And existing in human guise He humbled himself, Showing obedience to death even death on a cross.
  4. God has accordingly highly exalted him And bestowed on him the Name Superior to every name –
  5. That at the name of Jesus Every knee should bow In heaven, on earth and under the earth,
  6. And every tongue acknowledge, ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’, To the glory of God the Father.

Though flesh and blood, Christ was the Son of God and had divine characteristics, together with limitless spirit power. How did he use the opportu­nities he had? Christ never pursued, or grasped at, his own advantage but chose to become a servant to everyone around him. His humility and obedience was so great that he died in service. Even his death was extraordinary; the death on a cross. However, God raised Christ to heights that no man has or can ever reach. Every knee shall bow to the man who bent the knee in service for others; to the glory of God the Father.

Encouragement to Respond to the Example of Christ (v12-18)

Paul now calls the Philippians to heed his call to follow the example of Christ. Paul instructs them to “work out their own salvation with fear and trembling”. The context in which “work” and “salvation” are used together in Scripture is always worth considering closely. Paul’s well-known words in Ephesians 2:8-9 state, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast”. At first reading, Philippians 2:12 appears to say the opposite, but a closer reading is warranted.

Verse 13 goes on to say, “For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.”. It is true that our own works cannot guarantee salvation because salvation is a gift from God. What God is looking for is His own mind within us, a mind which motivates our work and gives us the strength to serve. When the works we do are in fact God working within us, we can “work out our own salvation”. When God works in us, our work is not our own and with grateful fear and trembling, we await salvation.

A Collage of Ideas

Paul now presents a series of snapshots, each in quick succession, to show what the mind of Christ looks like in action.

An ecclesia where each member esteems others better than themselves is one without murmuring or dispute 3, either spoken openly or thought inwardly. The outcome of such a mindset is remarkable and noticed by many around. These brothers and sisters are referred to as “blameless4 and harmless the sons of God5, without rebuke” “shining as lights in the world; holding forth the word of life6”. The world, by contrast, is “crooked and perverse”. Similar analo­gies are used elsewhere in Scripture, particularly by Christ who names the peacemakers “children of God” (Matt 5:9) and also speaks of good works shining as a light to those around (Matt 5:16). The lowly mind of Christ attracts high praise from our Father in heaven.

Moses uses the phrase “crooked and perverse”, not to describe the world, but to describe the na­tion of Israel in the wilderness (Deut 32:5). As it turns out, this ecclesia was full of murmuring and disputing.

Paul now uses the analogy of running a race7 to illustrate his life. Paul’s race of life is all about preaching and bringing the gospel to others. The race is much more than simply speaking the gospel word to those who know nothing of it; it is about growing the mind of Christ in those who hear and then seeing the light shine forth in everything they do. Would the Philippian ecclesia have this mind in the day of Christ? If they did, Paul knew the prize would be his and he rejoiced at the prospect of victory.

Paul next uses the analogy of a drink offering to describe his relationship with the Philippians and the joy he has in working with them: “Even if I am poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all” (Phil 2:17 ESV). The symbol of libation would have been familiar to the Philippians. The ritual of pouring liquor on the ground next to a sacrifice, was common in Greek and Roman worship as well as in Hebrew. Paul is convinced that the faith of the Philippians is evidenced in a far greater sacrifice than his own, something that brings him great joy.

The Example of Timotheus (v19-24)

Paul now provides an example of an individual who exemplified a life ruled by the mind of Christ: Timothy. Timothy had joined Paul on his second missionary journey and was with Paul when the gospel was first preached in Philippi (Acts 16:4). Timothy knew all about humble service. He served his brothers and sisters wherever he went and, of all people, Paul could say that Timothy cared most for the needs of the ecclesia – and least for himself. The Philippians had seen Timothy in action. He had come to their city with Paul as a servant of God. He diligently preached and went on preaching when persecution and opposition came. When he left the city, he never stopped caring for the ec­clesia he had helped to form. It was only Timothy who was so likeminded with Paul in his natural care for the ecclesia. This characteristic and others, no doubt led Paul to refer to Timothy as his son, a phrase echoed throughout the writings of Paul (1 Cor 4:17; 1 Tim 1:2,18; 2 Tim 1:2).

The Example of Epaphroditus (v25-30)

Paul’s final example of the mind of Christ in action was that of Epaphroditus. Mentioned only twice in Scripture (Phil 2:25; 4:18), this brother dearly loved his ecclesia and the Philippian ecclesia loved him in return. Epaphroditus was chosen to show the ecclesia’s care and compassion to Paul by giving a gift on their behalf (4:18). He fulfilled his role with passion and brought enormous joy to Paul in his time of affliction. The work, however, came at a personal cost. Epaphroditus nearly died in his effort to bring comfort to Paul (2:30). What better example of the mind of Christ than humbly work­ing in the Truth, a selfless service without regard for his own life, even to the point of death? Hold such in reputation, says Paul.

Footnotes

  1. Paul observes members in the ecclesia in Rome motivated by love (1:17) and also those set on creating strife (1:15)
  2. Philippians 2:6-11; TJ Barling, The Letter to the Philippians, page 63
  3. The Greek word translated here as “disputings” is often translated “thoughts” in the New Testament and on no occasion is there a positive application. One example is Matthew 15:19 “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts…”. The principle that our thoughts tend naturally to evil is well established in Scripture (e.g. Gen 6:5)
  4. The only individuals in Scripture described as having this characteristic are Zacharias and Elisabeth in Luke 1:6
  5. Elsewhere, Paul refers to the sons of God as those who are led by the Spirit (Rom 8:14), a frame of mind which is certainly free from murmuring and disputing
  6. Compare 1 John 1:1 “the word of life”
  7. See also 1 Cor 9:24; Gal 2:2; 5:7 and Heb 12:1