Stick With Humility

| Philippians 2:1-4; 12-16

The Point:  Humbly place the needs of others before your own.

A Call for Unity:  Philippians 2:1-4.

[1]  So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, [2]  complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. [3]  Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. [4]  Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.  [ESV]

The Worthy Life. Behind 2:1 lies Paul’s discussion of the worthy life in 1:27-30. In that passage his concern was more with the fruits or effects of the worthy life – how it issues, for example, in the steadfast stand. When, at 2:1, Paul writes the word So, he is returning to take up the great theme again – the theme of the worthy life. In both 1:27-30 and 2:1-4 we see that the central characteristic of the worthy life is Christian unity. Paul’s repetition of the subject of unity not only underlines its importance but lifts it to a higher level: unity is not just a useful weapon against the world, but rather it belongs to the very essence of Christian life, for it is the way in which Christians display outwardly what the gospel is and means to them. The life worthy of the gospel is a life of unity; the life of unity matches the apostolic ideal for the church. Needless to say, Paul meant a very specific sort of unity. It was not his way to leave abstract notions like unity without definition, and his procedure in the present case is typical of what he does many times over in his letters: first the facts and then the exhortations. Verse 1 gives us the facts, for the word if does not imply uncertainty: Paul means “if, as is certainly the case ….” He proceeds to declare four things which are true about every Christian and which lay a factual foundation on which the life of unity is raised up. The exhortations begin in verse 2 and are at first corporate, and then [3-4] individual. 1. Christian Oneness. Before the life of unity can be lived there are certain things which can be assumed as true about those who are to live as one. Paul is reminding the Philippians here of the great Trinitarian activity of salvation whereby they are in Christ, experience the reality of God’s love, and have been woven into a fellowship of which the Holy Spirit is both Author and Indweller. He separates this out into three strands and allows each one in turn to exercise its ‘pull’ on his readers. If they are in Christ, there is an encouragement which they have experienced. If they know the love of God, they know the truest consolation and the gentlest comfort. If they have been made into a fellowship by the Spirit, can they live in any other way than fellowship together? Both of the words encouragement and comfort are full of gentleness in their New Testament usage. They share the idea of a true concern, itself the product of love for the needy and productive of those words and deeds designed to lead folk out of their need into a fuller life. In Christ Christians experience the loving concern which has reached out to them in their need, which was unwilling that they should remain needy, and which gently invites and encourages into a new life. In the love of the Father, they have found deep consolation, the voice that speaks to their sorrows, the hand that touches their hurts. And, as Paul would have us see them, these blessings now encourage us to be to each other what God in Christ has been to each of us. This experience of the Son and the Father has come to us through the Holy Spirit, who is Himself the eternal bond of fellowship within the Trinity. To have received the gift of fellowship but to fail to exercise it must be a central denial of saving truth. What, now, of the fourth item, affection and sympathy? In relation to each other, these words are root and fruit. Affection is the inner source of the emotions, equivalent to our use of heart as the seat of feelings. Sympathy is the feelings themselves, emotions reaching out towards their object. Paul has, in fact, turned to the subjective side of salvation. The person saved by Father, Son and Holy Spirit is made, by them, into a new creature with a new heart and new sensitivities. This too spurs them on to a new life with new relationships and new possibilities of identifying deeply with each other: another motive and spring of unity. 2. Christian Unison.  Paul saw unity as a by-product of the great truths on which the gospel rests, but he did not see it as coming about automatically or effortlessly. It is ‘natural’ in relation to the gospel, but it will not ‘come naturally’ – only by effort, obedience and deliberate cultivation. For this reason, the truths of verse 1 lead into the exhortation of verse 2. We are at once struck by the ‘inwardness’ of Paul’s requirements. By contrast with 1:27, where he included striving side by side, he is here preoccupied with mind (twice), love and accord. These things involve the inner attitudes of the individual Christian. There cannot be true unity if there is inner antipathy. Paul is not saying here that we must be completely sanctified before we seek this unity of mind, love and accord. Sanctification is our aim on earth but not our solution. But the objective realities of the doctrine and personal experience of salvation must be in the forefront of our thinking about unity, and form the basis on which we strive for the deeper unity among ourselves. Paul emphasizes a unison of mind: being of the same mind … of one mind. The priority task is agreement in the truth. But within this there is unity in love: having the same love. Note that he does not say ‘loving the same things’, but ‘possessing the same love’. What can this be but a love identical with God’s love, His own love bestowed on us so that we act and react as He would do? It is also a unity of accord. Literally we are ‘like-souled’. The ‘soul’ is the ‘real person’ and particularly his affections and will. If we allow the word love to cover the emotional aspect of the unity we are to enjoy, then accord can be allowed to stress the volitional side. Paul’s vision of unity includes mind, emotions and will. 3. Christian Harmony. A new feature appears in verses 3 and 4, which, although not absent from verse 2 as we shall see, was not explicitly mentioned. It is the word each. The verbs in verse 2 are plural emphasizing the community over the individual. But now in verses 3 and 4 the focus shifts to the individual. Actually verse 3 has no verb in the Greek and could well be taken in with the plural of verse 2. It is better, however, to take it as part of the statement of individual responsibility. Paul does not leave the question of the worthy life which produces the steadfast stand until he brings it to rest on the worthy life as it is found in the individual, not self-seeking and conceited but with a correctly humble estimate of himself, seeking the welfare of others and putting them first. Steadfastness depends on unity. Where there is agreement in the doctrine and experience of salvation there must be unity – ‘must’ not in the sense of automatic outgrowth but in the sense of an obligation which cannot be evaded.”  [Motyer, pp. 101-107].

Christian Obedience:  Philippians 2:12-16.

[12]  Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, [13]  for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. [14]  Do all things without grumbling or questioning, [15]  that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, [16]  holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.  [ESV]

“God’s therefore [9] is matched by the Christian’s therefore [12], and that, in a nutshell, is what this passage is about. Just as God assessed and then reacted to the worth of His Son’s life of obedience [9-11], so the Christian must ponder the example of Christ and determine upon a worthy response [12-18]. Behind the Christian’s therefore we note, first, that, in verse 4, Paul was stressing the crucial importance of right relationships between individuals within the church fellowship, for otherwise the church could never stand firm before a threatening world. At that point [5] he adduced Christ, not only as our new life but also as the exemplar of the new life in practical terms. All this Paul recalls in the therefore of verse 12. He says, in effect, ‘Let me tell you how to react if the great goal of wholesome relationships in the likeness of Christ is to be reached’. Thus we learn from the Bible not only what is true but also how to respond to the truth; not only what is the example of Jesus but also along what lines to make it real. Let us therefore sense the proper seriousness of what lies in front of us in 2:12-18, for Christlikeness is the Christian’s greatest concern, and here is the procedure for attaining it. Turning now to review verses 12-18, there is an obvious division between verses 12-16a which are full of directives, and verses 16b-18 which are concerned with incentives. But there is more to verses 12-16a than a list of commands; it is also a list of reassurances. There is a balance created between what we are to do and to strive to be and, on the other hand, what is already true of us. By statement or implication the directives are Obey, Work, Do, Be blameless, Hold fast. The reassurances are God is at work, you are God’s children, you are lights. This is the balance and testimony of the verses: the Christian life, growing in the likeness of Christ, is a blend of rest and activity – not alternating from one to the other, but a blend in which, at one and the same moment, the Christian is both resting confidently and actively pursuing. Let us try to see this is some greater detail. 1. Christian Activity and the Indwelling God. There is a worker in each of these verses: the Christian ‘working out’ in verse 12, and God ‘working in’ in verse 13. This points to a blend, as we noted above, of commitment to what we have to do and reliance on what God is doing. The work of the Christian carries the marks of obedience, responsibility and sensitivity. The emphasis on obedience comes first. In verse 12 Paul starts by looking back – obedience has always been in evidence in their lives; the words as in my presence carry the implication that were he now with them he would be looking for the mark of obedience just as he used to; much more in my absence creates the impression of a duty which not only belongs to all future time but becomes more important as the years pass. It stands to reason that it should be so, for the task of the Christian is to be made in all things like the Son of God who took His obedience even as far as death on a cross [8]. Secondly, it is a responsible work in the sense that we are called, ourselves, to shoulder responsibility for seeing that the work gets done: work out your own salvation [12]. The care of the individual soul belongs to that individual; responsibility for personal spiritual growth is committed to the person – not at this point a work of God nor a work of the fellowship, but a work of individual responsibility, laying hold of grace, rejoicing in the benefits of fellowship. Thirdly, our work is to be sensitive; with fear and trembling. This is a sensitivity towards God. This is not the fear of a lost sinner before the Holy One, but the fear of a true child before the most loving of all fathers; not a fear of what He might do to us, but of the hurt we might do to Him. We now turn to the other side of the coin. Our work, as obedient, responsible, sensitive believers arises out of the internal work of God: work out your own salvation … for it is God who works in you. His is the basic activity; ours responds to what He is doing. His is the inner work of transformation and renewal; our obedience to Him is how we enter into the benefit of His indwelling. In the close-packed teaching of verse 13, the indwelling of God bears the marks of activity, effectiveness, completeness and free divine choice. Taking these in order, we note first that God is at work: He is active. There is the great, encouraging truth that God will never let His people go; He is always at work; He never sleeps; He is tirelessly active. We forget, He does not; we backslide, but we cannot halt, defer or deflect His work. He is the active indweller. The note of effectiveness is sounded by the verb which Paul uses and which characteristically describes work which achieves its purpose; the outcome is guaranteed in the deed. God’s working is effectual working: He cannot be deflected from His course nor fail to achieve His purpose. With our daily catalogue of failure and our not infrequent despair of ourselves, what unspeakable comfort lies in this truth! The sense of comfort is enhanced when we turn to note the element of completeness which now emerges. In every action there are two aspects to be considered: the will and the deed, and one or other of these is often our downfall. Either we cannot bring ourselves to choose what we know to be right, or else, having chosen it, we fail to do it. Sin has corrupted both the power to choose and the power to accomplish. But God is effectually and ceaselessly at work in you, both  to will and to work – to recreate our wills and to impart to us His own capacity for effectual working. It is important to ask why He does it. If He works only where He finds a promising response, or if only where there is evidence of progress, or if only when we really desire Him to do so, then none of us can entertain any hope of reaching the great goal. But it is not like that. He does it because He wants to. It is of free, divine choice: for His good pleasure. Nothing, then, can stop the ongoing divine work. 2. Christian Character and the Outshining Light. The opening words of verse 14 come like a shock of cold on a hot day. Paul’s emphasis [13] on the totality of the work of God has not prepared us for a command that we should do all things. Yet this is the scriptural logic which has been set out in principle in verses 12-13. Our obedience is the way we enter, in experience, into the totality of what God is doing in us. Since He, therefore, is doing all, we must do all: it is our total response to His all-sufficiency. The new nature is ours by gift of God, but the activation of that new nature in terms of new character and new conduct is through the responsive work of obedience. But another surprise awaits us. Having commanded us to do all things, Paul does not specify anything which we are in fact to do! He does not outline a course of action but calls for a kind of action: without grumbling or questioning; he does not specify a rule of life but a sort of person: blameless … innocent … without blemish; he focuses attention not on social involvement but on social contrast: a crooked and twisted generation among whom you shine as lights in the world. We note, therefore, first, the outward display of an inner nature [14-15a]. The ungrumbling, unquestioning conduct of the Christian has an aim: that you may show or prove yourselves to be children of God without blemish. The great glory of Christian ethics is that it calls us to be what we are. Children of God describes neither wishful thinking, nor a fond hope, nor a target for supreme endeavor, but a present reality waiting to be worked out in our conscious, responsive behavior. The Father has begotten us by His own will [John 1:12; James 1:18]; we are the sons whom He has brought to glory by His Son [Heb. 2:10]; we are partakers of the divine nature [2 Peter 1:4], as is the right of children. What, then, are we to do about it? If it is the glory of Christian ethics to summon us to be what we are, it is one of the glories of Holy Scripture both to tell us what we are (children of God) and to declare our characteristic way of life. The do all things is thus not the expression of a Pauline whim but an authoritative exposition of the proper outgrowth of the life of God in the child of God. There are three sides to it. First, the characteristic conduct of the child of God is without grumbling or questioning. Nowhere does the self-centered heart of man more quickly take control than through the machinery of criticism and the promptings of self-interest. Grumbling as used in the New Testament usually has an ethically bad sense: selfish complaining, unbalanced criticism of small matters, impatience towards what is not understood, grudging unwillingness to be helpful – all expressed outwardly. By contrast questioning is wholly inward – an attitude and activity of mind and heart corresponding to the outward display of grumbling, so that the two words taken together cover all our actions towards others and our thoughts about them. Paul’s use of the plural in each case makes his prohibition all-embracing. Secondly, Paul turns to something positive and personal: the child of God is to be blameless and innocent. Blameless speaks of the unmixed goodness of character, the wholly clear conscience of the true child of God [Acts 24:16; 1 Tim. 1:19]. The remaining dimension of the life of the child of God is the most searching of all. We call it, for convenience, the spiritual dimension, because it is concerned with how we appear before God. We are to be without blemish. This is what God had in mind when, in eternity, He chose us in Christ [Eph. 1:4]; it is what, in the end, He will accomplish [Eph. 5:17]; it was the perfection of the Passover lamb [Ex. 12:5], and is the unblemished character of Christ [Heb. 9:14; 1 Peter 1:19] – the character and life which not even the holy God Himself can find cause to criticize. Again, it is part of God’s gracious salvation to us who have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all [Heb. 10:10]. It is appropriated as we become in experience what we are by grace, unremittingly living the life of obedience to which the saved are called. Thus Paul sketches the outward display of an inner nature. But now [15b-16a] he turns to his second theme in these verses: the discharging of a responsibility. He speaks of the setting in which the Christian lives, of the contrast between the Christian and the world. Responsibility for the world around, outreach, making an impact, telling others about Jesus – these thoughts are entertained only after he has laid a foundation of Christian personal holiness. The description crooked and twisted comes from Deuteronomy 32:5, a general phrase for people turning away from the Lord and finding other gods. The world is astray from the true God, living the upside-down life of those who do not believe. By contrast, the Christian both holds fast and holds forth the word of life. The word of life has thus two distinct sides. It is the message which both tells of life and also imparts the life of which it tells. It stands broadly for the total message of the Scriptures, and specifically for the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation [Eph. 1:13]. Without this life-giving word Christian character is impossible. It is important to see why Paul brings his teaching to this point of the inner light whose radiance shines out in the darkness. The brightest and most glorious light was that of Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God and equal with God, brought His light into this poor world for the sake of sinners beneath the curse. It is the very life of Christ which the life-giving word imparts to us. This life must have its way, shining out into a crooked and twisted generation, exposing and condemning, illuminating and transforming.”  [Motyer, pp. 125-135] 

Questions for Discussion:

1.         List Paul’s four things that are true of every Christian in 2:1. In what ways are you conscious of these privileges in your life? What is the connection between these truths and the exhortations in verses 2-4?

2.         The New Testament places a great deal of emphasis on the unity of Christians. Why? What implications does this carry for our fellowship; for our witness to the world?

3.         What does Motyer mean by the following two statements: “the Christian life, growing in the likeness of Christ, is a blend of rest and activity”; and “the great glory of Christian ethics is that it calls us to be what we are?” Do you experience this blend of rest and activity in everything you do? Does your obedience and service to God flow out of a clear understanding of who you are in Christ? These two statements are important for correctly understanding the relationship between faith and works in our Christian life.

4.         Consider Paul’s unique description of Christians in verse 15 as a goal for your own life. What changes need to take place in order for Paul’s description to be true of us? In what ways are we holding fast to the word of life? In what ways do we fail to do so? What can we do to improve in this important area of our Christian lives? Note the connection Paul makes between the exhortations in 2:14-15 and holding fast to the word of life.


The Letter to the Philippians, G. Walter Hansen, Eerdmans.

The Message of Philippians, J. A. Motyer, Inter Varsity.

The Epistle to the Philippians, Peter O’Brien, Eerdmans.