Contemporary culture often touts a “do whatever it takes to win” mentality. Paul, however, exhorted Christians to strive for unity by practicing genuine humility and charity. Since we are united with the Lord, we need to train our minds to think correctly, teaches Alistair Begg. Enjoying the blessings of Christ’s love and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit ought to lead us to express godly mercy and compassion to others with the goal of edifying, rather than conquering.
Now I invite you to turn again to Philippians 2, and we’ll pray together: “And now, Lord, make the book live to me. Show me yourself within your Word. Show me myself, and show me my Savior. And make the book live to me.” For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
I want to take just a moment to let you know that at the very beginnings of the church in Philippi there was a baptismal service. Not quite as we are having it this evening—it would have been outdoors; indeed, it was, and down by a river. But it would be similar to what is taking place tonight insofar as what led up to the service was entirely the same kind of thing as has led up to the baptismal testimonies that we’re now about to hear, insofar as there were people who were gathering for prayer, and the servant of God arrived—that is, Paul—and he began to explain the Bible to these people who had gathered for prayer, and one lady in particular responded, and Luke records it in this way: he says, “The Lord opened [Lydia’s] heart to respond to Paul’s message. [And] when she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home.” It is our firm conviction here at Parkside that it is the work of God to open people’s hearts to receive the message of his Word—that this does not come about as a result of human manipulation, nor does it come about simply as a result of the ability of an individual to talk or explain the Bible, but it only comes about when God chooses to do something. And I think you will find that that is one of the marks of the statements that are heard this evening from those who are about to speak.
I say that because what we now consider in the verses that are before us are words of encouragement to those who have professed faith in Jesus Christ, to those who have become members of the church, who have come to know Jesus not simply as a figure of history, but as a Lord and Savior, and bowing beneath his lordship have been baptized and have been added to the number of the worshiping congregation. And it is to this group of people that Paul addresses these words.
Those of you who were present this morning will note how clearly the opening verses of chapter 2 follow from the concluding verses of chapter 1. Of course, there were no chapter breaks in the initial material, and therefore it makes perfect sense that that would be so. If we were to consider verses 27–30 as instructions for the army, if you like, on the battlefield, insofar as it has to do with Christian citizenship living in the culture, then the opening verses of chapter 2 turn, if you like, to home base—the army not seen as out, as it were, on the field of battle, but back within the context of the fortress and in relationship to one another.
And if it is true that we discover what a person is really like by spending time in their home, then it is also fairly true to say that we find out what a church is really like by spending time in the church home. And that’s why we encourage people who are wandering around Parkside with a question or two about the place to poke their nose into everything that they can—find out what happens in these classes in various rooms, and find out what’s going on midweek, and so on—because if you want to get a flavor for what the place is like, one will need to do a little more than simply sit in attendance upon one of these hours of worship. Because it is in our interpersonal relationships that we reveal the nature of our hearts and our consideration of one another.
Now, I’d like to work my way through this material by noticing first of all the fourfold incentive which Paul provides here, and then following that up with his points of application. That may sound like we’re going to be here a long time, but do not be dismayed: we’re not. I’m going to move through the material with relative speed.
You’ll notice that he begins with the word If. It would actually be truer to the sense if he began with the word Since, because he is not asking a question here, expecting a negative response; he is essentially saying, “So, if there is any encouragement from being united with Christ,” and then parenthetically, “and there certainly is!” And he runs through these essentials of the Christian’s life, which provide the underpinnings for the exhortation that begins in verse 2 and continues into 3 and 4.
First of all, he reminds them of the encouragement that exists from being united with the Lord Jesus Christ. He has made it perfectly clear to the Philippians that their relationship is a result of God’s grace to them and that they are living as Christians because of the fact that God has united them to his Son. This is a favorite phrase of Paul; he says, “If any man is in Christ, he is a new creation,” and this whole notion of being “in Christ,” and then elsewhere of Christ being “in us,” weaves together this wonderful picture of what it means to be a Christian insofar as the two become one. Previously, as in a marriage, you had two single individuals. They came together, and as a result of their coming together their lives were now irrevocably interwoven with one another. Becoming a Christian is a bit like getting married: God accepts us in his Son, we embrace Christ in all of his love, and we are never the same again, and we are united with Christ. So, says Paul, “If there is encouragement from that—and there certainly is—then you should draw encouragement from it yourselves.”
And so, to be united with Christ means that we can never be out of his presence, means that everywhere we go he is with us. Quoting choruses earlier today, I was reminded of another one: “Jesus is with me wherever I go, Jesus is with me, I know.” Why is that the case? Because I have been united with Christ. It’s not that Jesus is with me at Parkside, and then I get in my car and I’m on my own, or Jesus is with me at a certain point, and then I go home to my house and I’m on my own. But if I am united with Christ, then I am always with him. He is closer to me than, actually, my hands and my feet. My life is irrevocably interwoven with the Lord Jesus.
David Livingstone, rejoicing in this immense truth, wrote in his journal on the 25th of March, 1873—on a day that was actually eight weeks away from his death, although he didn’t know it—he wrote to himself as he continued his searching in Africa, “Nothing earthly will make me give up my work in despair. I encourage myself in the Lord my God, and [I] go forward.”
So, he says, you have encouragement from your union with Christ. Then he says, “if there is any incentive in love—if there is any incentive in love, fellowship with the Spirit, comfort from his love…” One of the great prevailing predicaments of our contemporary lives is that so many of us are forlorn, lonely, bereft of companionship, feeling ourselves—even in a crowd—to be absolutely alone, managing to disguise it by our superficial conversation, by the thin veneer of a smile, but again walking away from companies of people and feeling absolutely, desperately lost. The Christian need never be in that predicament, because there is encouragement from being united with Christ, and there is comfort from his love. And the word that is used there for “comfort” is a word that isn’t just a simple cozy word, but it is a word which has a power and an attractiveness to it. It is a word that is a doing word, if you like; it is something that creates an element within our lives. And since there is comfort in the love of the Lord Jesus, we ought to draw from it and drink deep in relationship to it.
If we had time we’d turn to 1 John 4, and we’d look there at the nature of Christian love. We don’t, but if you want a little cross reference for your own study, then go to verses 7–12 of 1 John 4. This comfort in his love is something that obligates us as well as blesses us.
Thirdly, “if there is any fellowship with the Spirit…” And we’re back again at the word with which we’ve become familiar, the word koinonia, or the word partnership. And the fellowship or partnership that the Christian enjoys is first of all a fellowship with God and with the Spirit of God: that the resources of God the Holy Spirit have been made available to us in our lives; that when somebody comes to trust in Christ, not only are we justified and declared righteous in his sight, but God comes to indwell our lives and to fill us with his Spirit. It’s not that we simply exchange one set of rigmarole for a new religious rigmarole, but it is that we have been born from above.
And there is tremendous partnership in the Spirit. The Holy Spirit comes alongside to enable us, comes alongside to help us understand the Bible, comes alongside to make Jesus precious to us, in much the same way that if, as I’ve had the opportunity to do, to speak in another country where people spoke a language that I did not speak. And so I stood and spoke in English, and they couldn’t understand a word that I was saying, but another came along to my side and interpreted what I said so that those who saw my mouth move and heard noise would be able to understand what was being communicated. This was one who came alongside, a paraclete, a helper to enable something to take place. Such is the ministry of God the Holy Spirit. And it is the Spirit that not only unites us to himself, but unites us, as we will see, to one another.
And then fourthly, he says, “if there is any tenderness and compassion…,” or, “if there is any affection and sympathy…” Now, he is simply pointing out that the believer’s knowledge of the mercy and compassion of the Lord Jesus ought to lead us to express a similar tenderness and compassion to one another. It’s possible for us to be hardened by life’s bumps and bruises, possible for us to lack the grace which reveals itself in tenderness and in affection. Tenderness is not simply softness. The tenderness here is often firmness. Every parent understands the necessity of firmness in expressing affection, that it is possible to be firm and yet to remain one who displays genuine compassion. And that is the “tenderness and compassion” to which he refers.
Now, those are the four foundational bases of his incentive to them, of his exhortation that is to follow: “You are united with Christ, there is comfort in his love, there is fellowship in the Spirit, and he is the one who manifests tenderness and compassion.” These are not up for grabs. These are not questions. These are things that God does amongst his people. So he says, “Since that is the case, then I want you to make my joy complete.” He has already expressed his joy, and what he is saying is, “I’d like you to fill my cup of gladness up to overflowing.”
I don’t know if this happens anymore—it’s a long time since I ever looked underneath the bonnet or the hood of a car—but I remember I used to have to go, and the fellow would open it up, and he would “top up” the battery, and he would talk about, “It needs topped up.” I don’t know whether batteries get “topped up” anymore. But I remember he would get some old pail and unscrew the things, and I never understood it then, I still don’t understand it now. I mean, he got a bucket of water, he poured it in the top of this thing, and he said, “There you are,” and clamped the thing down. And I said, “Fine, I guess. There I am!” and off I went. And I understood that I was running low and I needed “topped up.”
And Paul says, “Top me up. That’s it: fill up my joy, charge my battery, don’t be a drain on my resources.” He was already in the jail. He was already on the receiving end of all kinds of rigorous treatment from those who were unsympathetic to his cause. What a tragedy it would have been for him to discover that the Philippians were unprepared to do this.
Now, the fact is that there were the hints of their selfishness. There were problems between Euodia and Syntyche. There were some within the fellowship who were beginning to rub one another the wrong way. And so he says, “Because all these things are true, then live in unity—live in unity. Be like-minded, have the same love, be one in spirit and purpose.” And he heaps these phrases on top of one another: “I want you to have the same mind,” he says, “I want you to have the same love, I want you to have the same spirit, and I want you to have the same purpose.”
It makes me think of the Phil Collins song, “Two hearts, [livin’] in just one [life]” (I think it’s “one life”): “Two hearts, [livin’] in just one [life]. [We’ll be] together till the end of time.” It’s a lovely song, really, because it’s a reminder of the nature of interpersonal relationships in marriage. And the Word of God moves frequently from the family to the church family, and Paul says, “Now, as you think about your relationships with one another as a family, I want you to think together, I want your hearts to beat together, I want you to have, like, one pulse, I want you to have one purpose, and I want you to be driven by one spirit.”
You go around churches, and they glory in the fact that everybody’s got their own notion and their own agenda and their own idea and “We’re thinking of this and thinking of that”—and I’m not talking about people having incentive and initiative, I’m talking about a church that’s like the man who got on his horse and galloped off in all directions. And they glory in this, you see: “Oh, well, we’re very diverse in our plans, and none of us think the same about anything,” they’ll say. “It’s a wonderful place, you know, it’s very rich. None of us have the same notion of where we’re going or what we’re doing. You should come along. You can do what you like and go where you want. It’s a wonderful place.” And it may well have some wonderful dimensions to it, but it holds no attraction for me, and it finds no basis in the pages of the Bible. If a church is to be anything like under the headship of the Lord Jesus Christ, then there needs to be this spirit of unity, which combines like-mindedness, the same love, one spirit, and one purpose.
It’s interesting that it begins with the mind, isn’t it? The Bible has so much to say about our minds, because as we think, so we are. And we need to train our minds to think correctly, and then we will begin to love properly, and then we will be able to be one in spirit and purpose.
So, that’s the first directive: “Live in unity.” And the second directive is, “Live in humility.” That’s verse 3: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” Surely the greatest obstacle to a life of harmony is the absence of humility. And the main problem is not hate, but it is self-love. An attitude of conceit and selfishness runs completely counter to that of the Lord Jesus himself, whose attitude is described for us in verse 5, which follows and to which we will come next time.
What is he saying in verse 3? He’s saying this: “Philippi, if you’re gonna have a church that is attractive, if you’re going to have a church that is making progress, then do not as individuals cultivate the spirit which is always seeking your own way. Do not become the kind of individuals who are always talking about your own progress, who are always parading your own achievements. Rather, realize that even your good deeds often have mixed motives, and learn to see the actions of others as coming from the best of motives and yourself as coming from the worst.”
I was in a university not so long ago, and I saw a sign on a door which has come into my mind as I speak, and I’m sure I can’t quote it, but I think it went something like this: “When I think about criticizing someone, I have decided always to start with myself. I then find that I don’t get much further.” If you think about that: if we could somehow learn to concentrate on our own bad points and other people’s good points, rather than concentrating on other people’s bad points and our own good points … isn’t that what we do? Say, “Well, look at what she said! I’m glad I didn’t say something like that. In fact, I’m really quite good, and he’s quite bad.” We turn around the other way and start on our own bad points, then we’ll have plenty of nervous energy left to extol the good points of others. And that is essentially what Paul is driving at here. And the key to it is a spirit of genuine humility—the kind of approach that doesn’t take the top seat, the kind of approach that doesn’t begin with ourselves all the time. As someone has said, it is “the [kind of] nothingness that makes room for God to prove His power”—“the [kind of] nothingness that makes room for God to prove His power.”
And then, finally, in verse 4: if verse 2 is a call to live in unity, and verse 3 is a call to display humility, then verse 4 is an invitation to charity. I use the word charity because it ends in -ity, and I like the symmetry of it. And it’s quite good for us every so often to pick a word from the past. Because charity is actually a word that has been dreadfully abused. But charity is the disposition which allows one to think first and most favorably of other people. And that’s what he’s saying here: “Each of you should look not first to yourself and to your own concerns and to your own interests, but you should look to the interests of others.” When he writes to Rome he says, “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to edify him. For Christ did not please himself.”
When I think of myself as the most important person in the equation, then it will be very difficult for me to put verse 4 into action. But when I learn to put others first, to see others as better than myself, then I will be far more ready to look for the interests and concerns of others than to look out for my own.
Now, with that point it almost begs the very next sentence, doesn’t it? Verse 5: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” Confrontation with Jesus is the Christian’s standard, and conformity with Christ is the Christian’s test. And to that we will come next time.
Let us pray together:
Gracious God and loving Father, thank you for the encouragement that there is in your Word. Thank you for all of the many blessings and benefits that you grant to your people. And we long to live in the fullness of these opening verses of Philippians 2. We long that people would know that we’re your disciples because we love each other, because we think your thoughts after you—not that we’re clones, but that we’re submitted to the Word of truth—that our hearts would beat together with the love of the Lord Jesus Christ, that we might be prompted and moved by the same Spirit, who leads us into all truth, and that we might be united in our purpose.
Stir up within us, then, that which will make one another’s joy complete: unity, humility, and genuine charity. And as we sit before the searching gaze of your Word and we think about the record of our sins and the nature of our lives, were it not for your grace we would never be able to enter your presence. Were it not for your grace we could never stand before you. And so we bless you for your grace and for all of your goodness to us as we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
 R. Hudson Pope, “Make the Book Live to Me” (1944). Paraphrased.
 Acts 16:14–15 (NIV 1984).
 2 Corinthians 5:17 (paraphrased).
 Harry Bollback, “Jesus Is With Me Wherever I Go” (1955).
 David Livingstone, The Last Journals of David Livingstone in Central Africa, from 1895 to His Death, ed. Horace Waller (London: John Murray, 1874), 289.
 Philippians 2:1 (paraphrased).
 Philippians 2:1 (paraphrased).
 Philippians 2:1 (paraphrased).
 Philippians 2:1 (paraphrased).
 See Philippians 4:2.
 Philippians 2:1–2 (paraphrased).
 Phil Collins, “Two Hearts” (1988).
 Andrew Murray, Humility: The Beauty of Holiness, 2nd ed. (London: James Nisbet, 1896), 50.
 Romans 15:2–3 (paraphrased).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.