The Formula for Church Unity
July 26, 2020
Today, we are looking at Philippians Chapter 2, verses 3 and 4. Last week, if you remember, we looked at the first two verses in Philippians Chapter 2, and we saw in them Paul’s emphasis of the importance of church unity. These verses are flowing out of the strong imperative from that section that makes up Chapter 1 verses 27 through 30, where the understanding is to live a life worthy of the Gospel. Last week we talked about how strongly Paul emphasized church unity as a hugely important mark for those who are striving to live a life worthy of the Gospel. In verse 1, we saw Paul succinctly remind them of all the benefits of the Gospel and how those benefits should be a strong and a powerful motivation that leads to the result of church unity. Then in verse 2 we saw a description of what church unity looks like. This week we are going to be looking at verses 3 and 4, which will describe the means for church unity—what we need to be doing to see this happen.
The description we see in verse 2, “Being of the same mind, having the same love and being in full accord and of one mind,” is not so much a command for us to obey; rather, it is more of a goal for us as a church. It is how we want to be described. But if Paul were to state that as a command, how would we obey it? What would we do to obey it? You can’t just try hard to make this a description of you and your relationship to the church by just focusing on the description. Rather, the description serves as kind of like a diagnosis. You have good or poor health when it comes to the issue of church unity.
So if you were to go to the doctor and they may tell you, “This is what a healthy person looks like—one who has a heart rate at this level, one who has blood pressure that measures at this level, cholesterol level is at this level”—you would hear that information—whatever it might be—and then you compare it to what you look like and how you are measuring up in all those areas, and that is how you can determine your health. Once you have that diagnosis, you need to know what to do about it because you would think, “All right. That is what I’m supposed to look like. That is how I am supposed to be. So I need to do everything I can to make sure those levels, those numbers describe me and what I am supposed to be.” You can’t just try to, for instance, lower your blood pressure by recognizing high blood pressure and mentally focusing on lowering it. There are actual actions you must take, and there are other actions you must avoid. So you do this amount of exercise, you eat these kinds of foods. And you avoid sitting around and doing nothing and you avoid eating these other types of foods and that will help you with your cholesterol level, your blood pressure—probably all those things.
What we have seen in these first two verses is Paul giving us the reason that we should pursue church unity. It should be the natural desire of the one who really understands all he has received from God in Christ through the Gospel. We should naturally have the desire to move toward church unity. And then we also saw the description of what church unity looks like. What we will see in today’s passage, then, are the practical things we should do and that we should not do to have the type of unity that Paul is pleading with us to strive for, which is the unity we saw in Jesus’ prayer in John 17. As we look today at these verses, we are going to find Paul’s formula for striving for church unity and how to attain it without surprise. You should not be surprised by what he says.
Let’s take a moment right now and let’s remind ourselves of these verses in their context. Let’s start in 1:27.
*Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. 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. So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, and 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. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.*
So, again, last week we saw the foundation for church unity and the description or the marks of church unity. This week we are going to be looking specifically at verses 3 and 4 and discover the formula for church unity—what it is that each of us needs to be doing in order to make this description of church unity the constant reality in Grace Church. If we have been at all convicted or captured by the understanding of church unity that we have seen Paul pressing us toward not only in this passage, but throughout the book of Philippians—if we have been at all moved by Christ’s prayer for his church in John 17, his desire for his church, for his bride he purchased with his own blood—then these two verses tell us the way we need to be living in order to ensure this unity is the constant mark of our church.
We are going to see this unfold in three points—two negative and one positive. I’ve broken the passage up a lot differently than a lot of people have, but we are going to see two things we need to notice and fight against, and then one characteristic that must describe us. That characteristic will be evident through a particular way of living. Here are the three points, and I’ll repeat them as we get to them throughout the sermon. Number one, we are to Run from Sinful Ambition. Number two, we are to Root Out Sinful Deception. Number three, we are to Remember our Sinful Condition.
You will notice that the last point uses the language of returning to a previous understanding, and that is because the characteristic of humility described here is the logical extension of what we must have understood at least on some base level when we first believed the Gospel. Therefore, the actions described here make total sense. In fact, this whole section flows out of what should be our natural response when we come to truly understand the Gospel. We talked a little bit about that last week, and we’re going to point that out in several places today. The first two points are about negative actions or things that worm their way back into our lives after we’ve come to a true understanding of the Gospel. And that Gospel should have soundly repudiated all selfish thinking and all selfish living because it is impossible to embrace the Gospel while thinking highly of yourself. Again, the rest of verses 3 and 4 represent a natural response of one who has truly believed the Gospel. Hopefully, that will make sense more as we go through these points.
Point number one, Run From Sinful Ambition. You can see this in the text immediately in verse 3. “Do nothing from selfish ambition.” When we think of selfishness, we all have examples that come immediately into our minds of what it looks like. For example, last night—late into the night—the neighbors in our neighborhood made the decision that to listen to music at an extremely high level was more important than anything anyone else wanted to do that night in the whole neighborhood—like sleep. We think of examples like that. We think of the selfishness we’ve seen in other people. But we tend not to think of examples in ourselves. This means that we are never to do anything to advance our own cause or our own desires at the expense of another. That is what selfish ambition is. The understanding here isn’t of someone who legitimately needs help and is asking for help. It’s not that. It has to do more with a mindset that really doesn’t care about someone else as much as caring about oneself. That is why we quickly think of people like neighbors who play music really loud in the middle of the night.
It might even be someone who makes it sound like they are acting in a noble way, but they are really trying to get something for themselves or maybe promote themselves. It doesn’t necessarily have to look like the neighbors who are playing music really loud. It can also be someone who is trying to disguise some sort of noble motives, but really, it’s an attempt to gain notoriety for himself. The word Paul uses that is translated as “selfish ambition” he actually used earlier in Chapter 1 verse 17, where he was talking about his detractors—“those who proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to inflict me in my imprisonment.” These were the people who were preaching the Gospel in a way that was to mainly discredit Paul and Paul’s ministry and to elevate their own ministry. So there is every reason to believe, based on Paul’s wording in this letter, that these Philippians who loved Paul were outraged by those who would use the imprisonment of this faithful man who meant so much to their church as an opportunity to undermine him and to make themselves and their ministries look greater.
Now, Paul is using the same word that described those men to challenge these Philippians to be extremely careful to examine their hearts and ensure that none of their actions, especially in the church, could ever be put in the same category with those men, whom they no doubt have taken such great exception to. By using this same word, he keeps them from doing that which we are so prone to do, which is to think of selfish ambition in other people’s categories. When it comes to almost any command in the Bible that we just know to be obviously true, we tend to take it for granted and move on. We do it so often. We take this word from God, something we’ve read over and over again—something we know we should do, and we’ve seen it and heard it all of our lives—we take this word from God that he has given us for his good purposes in order to make us into this unified church that he has declared we must be—we take a clear word of command we know to be true and we do something like this: We say, “Yep, okay, yeah, of course, we shouldn’t do that. I got it. What’s next? Yes—no selfish ambition. I learned that in kindergarten, every year—I know that.” That is how we tend to be.
As you see this command, “Do nothing from selfish ambition,” I’m guessing, unless this is your first time in a church, or you’ve never read a word in the Bible, you probably didn’t hear that point and go, “What? Nothing from selfish ambition? Hang on! Let me write that down. I’m going to need some cross references. You are going to have to make that point a little better.” That is not how we hear a command like, “Do nothing from selfish ambition.” But Paul brilliantly set them up just a few verses earlier by using that same word to describe those whom he knows the Philippians were very bothered by. He is trying to calm the Philippians down. He knows they are angry at those people, and he wants them to see God’s greater purpose for what’s going on in even their selfish proclamation of the Gospel.
But here, now, by bringing this word to the Philippians and this command to them, he is saying, “You guys need to see there is a danger of your becoming no different from those people whom you have taken such great exception to. You are in danger of becoming like them. So you need to be very concerned with making sure you are doing nothing from selfish ambition.” That is why he is being so emphatic. He’s not merely saying, “Do not be selfishly ambitious.” He is saying, “Do nothing, have nothing to do with—make sure this in no way can be used to describe you. Search your whole life. Make sure none of that is there.” Because while this is something all Christians probably understand to some degree, Paul wants to make sure these Philippians, whom he loves, think again about this issue and are serious about it. He wants them to be reexamining their lives and not being dismissive.
He is trying to communicate to them that this is a danger to them, and they must be vigilant in thinking it through. It is not enough to just to acknowledge the truth of that statement. Again, it is something we’ve learned over and over again. That’s not enough. The idea is that this is something you must be constantly aware of in all you are doing—all day, every day. You must be constantly making sure you are not motivated by selfish ambition. That means even while you are by yourself. You must be battling to make sure that you are not doing anything out of selfish ambition even while you read your Bible and pray. There is a way to read your Bible and to pray through the motive of selfish ambition. In fact, unfortunately, it is the most common way both of those activities are done right now. That is the way those things are thought of—they are both things about you and God—and you and God alone.
I don’t mean we should be reading our Bibles and asking God to show us how other people need to change because of the truth that is in there. We don’t say, “God, there’s Ryan. You know what’s wrong with Ryan. Please help me to understand from your Word and better equip me so I can help Ryan understand this stuff better.” We are not to read our Bibles like that. Of course, we are not to read our Bibles like that. It is perfectly good and perfectly right that we ought to read our Bibles and see it like a mirror. To borrow from James, we must look for the Bible to expose all that is wrong in our own hearts and what needs to change in our lives and then ask God to help us grow in those areas. But personal application is not the end for which I read and study the Bible. It’s not the end. When you read and study the Word of God with only your own good in mind as the end goal, then you are doing it at the expense of others. God has given you others as fellow members of the church. You are to be a tool for their sanctification.
So I am reading the Word of God, wanting to be changed by it, but not merely for my own sanctification—I do focus on that, but also so that as I am made more holy, as I am conformed more to the image of Christ, I can become a better tool for his purposes, a better fellow member of the church, better equipped to fulfill the Great Commission, so I can be a more effective and more efficient member in his body. Again, remember that Paul’s command here isn’t to a bunch of unbelieving children. He’s not scolding them to stop being selfish. It’s to a church that he loves and regards highly. He’s trying to help them think through every area of their life, placing a priority on church unity. Therefore, you need to get into every area of your life, every closet in your life, every room in your house—get into your own kitchen and look for every possible area where you can see selfish ambition.
That word “selfish ambition” in other translation is translated as “rivalry,” which is also a helpful way to think of it. He is warning us to not do anything from selfish ambition. Think of what has just been said and what we just discussed last week about being of one mind, one soul and one purpose. There is an obvious application of not being selfish that we can tend to easily look at and then quickly absolve ourselves as we see ourselves doing more and more for the sake of the church and for others. We say, “Oh, I am serving in this area and that absolves me of any kind of thinking when it comes to selfish ambition.” But when we’re thinking in terms of the context of “one mind, one soul, one purpose,” and that this is a good church Paul is writing to, this is practical application for guarding those things that slip in and become primary driving forces in people’s lives. It is application for guarding against those things we talked about a little bit last week—the things people can begin spending a good amount of time thinking about and prioritizing when it comes to their time and energy.
As we talked about last week, that is a temptation for all of us. There are all these cultural issues, social issues, and even ministry issues that are not necessarily bad and, in fact, a grounded Christian worldview is probably going to land you on a position on many of those things. And some of these things might even be good things Christians should be speaking about—issues we should be engaging in. But when the line is crossed and those good things become ultimate things in our lives in our thinking and our actions, that leads to dissension and rivalry. That leads to selfish ambition that needs others to submit to your understanding on this issue. You become obsessed with making people come to your understanding—maybe even enjoying and laughing about the confrontation and enjoying seeing others humiliated in order to see your argument win. The danger comes when these things—which may be good things—become ultimate things in your mind.
This causes us to start seeing people—and this is where the danger lies—seeing people on different sides than you. If you look around this church at all your brothers and sisters in here and based on your interaction, the first thing that comes to your mind is something along the lines of, “They’re on a different side from me in this area.” If that is what comes to your mind rather than the unity in Christ that has made them part of the same body as you, then you are in a dangerous place. You start looking down on and dismissing others over an issue that isn’t even really related to the Gospel. You naturally start thinking highly of your own understanding, and you want to see your way proved right. Again, not that it’s not okay for Christians to have open disagreements with each other and try to help each other understand how each is thinking. But when you’re willing to step on them, to belittle them in your words or in your thoughts in order for your position to win in your mind, then that is dangerous.
This is the type of Christian rivalry or selfish ambition we are in danger of. If you want to figure out how big a danger that might be for you, then just take a large sample size of your life—maybe the last three months or so of your life—and think through all the conversations you’ve had with others, and ask, “What is it I have been the most passionate about in my conversations with others?” If there had been a witness to every conversation you had in the last three months, what would that person say is most important to you now—not necessarily what they know to be true of you from the past. This helps you see whether any type of rivalry or selfish ambition is growing in you. Just base it on these last three months. Maybe look at your social media posts and ask the same thing. “What would someone who only looked at all my social media in the last three months say is the most important thing to me?” Be honest with yourself. In whatever way those things are not about Christ, his church, or his commission to his church, that is where your danger of rivalry lies—or your danger of selfish ambition and dissension.
As we think through the all-encompassing nature of the command, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition,” we also need to think through our ministry involvement in the church, which is another area we maybe don’t think about in terms of selfish ambition. Is selfish ambition creeping in there? Each of us is, or should be, involved in at least one different aspect of ministry within the church. Some of us are involved in several things. It is very easy to see the thing we are most involved in as of primary importance. It is an important ministry that not everyone understands, right? Even in our various areas of service to our church, we must be so careful of selfish ambition because in your ministry you are so close to this one specific thing that you can really see its importance. That is not necessarily to say you have a wrong view of it or you have an elevated view of it. You might have an accurate view of it, but you also need to see and understand that you most certainly do not have a right understanding—or that you may have a deficient understanding—of all the areas you are not involved in. You must always remember it is much easier for you to see the value in the ministry that you are involved in and much easier for you to fail to see the value of the ministry you are not involved in. That is how it’s going to be. We must always be on guard when it comes to selfish ambition and rivalries in our minds and in our speech even when it comes to ministry in the church.
We must always keep that in our minds, knowing that someone who is involved to a higher degree in one area than another—we need to know we are probably not seeing the overall picture accurately. When those thoughts start creeping into your head about why the ministry of someone else is noticed and yours is not—or maybe noticed more than yours—or you wonder why some person isn’t doing as much as you are, and yet others are still recognizing them maybe just as much or more than they recognize you, when some other ministry is receiving more time, attention or funding than yours—as those thoughts start to form in your mind, they are a warning sign that there is something there that should truly terrify every Christian. There might be something in you that exists at least in seed form in your heart.
There is a real danger that you are taking your ministry to the church—the ministry which Christ has saved and called you to for the sake of his bride, the ministry God created you for and put you in your exact body in this exact moment in time with your exact gifts and talent, the ministry he has placed you here for and that which the Holy Spirit of God has gifted you to accomplish—you’re in danger of maybe having taken that ministry and made it about yourself. And that is selfish ambition at its worst. It is something we are vulnerable to because we can easily dismiss it with the understanding, “I’m doing ministry. I’m serving. Therefore, not selfish.” This is why Paul is so emphatic. “Do nothing from selfish ambition.”
That is the mindset that leads us to our second point, Root Out Sinful Deception. We are to “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit,” or depending on your translation, “vain conceit,” or “vainglory,” or “empty conceit,” or “vain pride.” That word is a compound word in the Greek that literally means “empty glory.” This is not saying the same thing—as I’ve heard some people say before—he is not saying again to do nothing for the sake of your own glory; that is covered in that first point. The first word for “selfish ambition” refers to one who is concerned for what he can gain or how he can make things work to give him more or to make much of himself. The second word has to do with one who is impressed by what he already thinks he has or already thinks he is. But he wrongly thinks that he has or is. This is saying to do nothing from a wrong understanding about yourself, a wrong-headed belief of who you are. This is something that makes you out to be a lot bigger deal than you in fact are, one that allows you, for a moment, to put on the back burner the fact that at your core, you are a sinful wretch and a rebel against a holy God, one whom God has predestined to justify and adopt as his own child through the shed blood of his own Son, which is the unbelievable truth of what it means to be a Christian. It is something you did not do, but rather was done to you.
Those who are suicidal or those who hate themselves—that’s not necessarily the problem. The pride is still there; the wrong evaluation of the self is still there. They are still giving far too much weight to what they believe. That is why a suicidal person can even entertain the thought of destroying one who is made in God’s image; they are giving far too high a value to their own thoughts. But for the most part, we have a world that doesn’t want people thinking poorly of themselves. And they do not want this so badly that they are continually programming everyone to think that everything they say, everything they believe has merit and is worth listening to.
That is why parents—we can’t be surprised when our kids get angry with us when they don’t get their way no matter how many times we’ve instructed them otherwise. If they are watching any TV shows or any movies, they’re being fed the lie that the way they see the world and understand things in their little 6- or 8-year-old heads is totally valid and should always be respected and considered. Of course that is going to influence their thinking, and we would be naive to think it doesn’t do the same to us, also. Disney princess movie after Disney princess movie validates the opinion of the girls over their parents—that is the main message. The main message, the main moral, the main thing they learn is that they come to the understanding that their parents were wrong and they were right—and then we’re stunned when they throw fits when we ask them to go to bed. Of course it’s going to influence their thinking; of course it’s going to influence our thinking.
In addition to that, there is a particular danger that many of us face when we come into the church, and one that can lead to vain pride in our understanding of ourselves. This is a particular danger that is unique to the church because it is not only one of the most wonderful things about the church, but can also pose this danger. Fortunately, the church is also the environment to help those who would never know they have a heart controlled more by pride than they think they might. In the church, we have a variety of people with different personalities from different backgrounds with different occupations. We have people in all forms of trades, all sorts of educational backgrounds, various degrees, various levels of experience and so many different things. God in his wisdom has placed us all here together in this church. Each member here has been placed here because he has been created and gifted in such a way that our church should be more effective—more efficient in our mission—as each of us selflessly works toward the same goal with the same mind.
It is truly an amazing work of God when you just step back and think of what he’s done in the church. Nothing else is like it. Every other organization is made up of like-minded people with some sort of similar experience or background. This is God taking a variety of people, changing them and making them all about one new thing. It’s an amazing work. The very existence of the church with its structure points to the amazing, sovereign hand of God. People who have been successful in a number of different ways in many different areas of life unite themselves to those who maybe have not had the same success as defined by the world, but uniting and submitting to one another anyway. This is such an awesome distinction that demonstrates in a visual way the supernatural work of God that the church is. But in this, there is also a danger for all of us. Right?
There is a danger for all of us in that we can sometimes let our positions and our relationships in the world negatively influence the way we think of ourselves in the church. Not that it is okay—that is not what I am saying—for anyone to pretend that God hasn’t given them any of the strengths or gifts that allowed them to become a success in their jobs or in the outside world. Many times those very same talents that he put in you that have made you successful out there, he wants to use in the church. The issue comes when we get used to people saying a certain thing about us—people who answer to us, getting the final say, being the one that everyone goes to with whatever problem, being the one where the buck stops sometimes. This is a question each of us needs to think through when it comes to our position inside the church. “Are there ways in which my success and my status and my career or anything else I’ve got going on outside the world—are there ways in which that is influencing my thinking wrongly and my reactions and interactions wrongly within the church? Are there ways in which what I’ve got going on in the world causes me to think more highly of myself than I ought? Is that happening?”
It is no accident that when it comes to biblical counseling that those who are successful and highly esteemed in the world’s eyes—they are the ones who have the most difficult time seeing how the Bible needs to correct their behavior or an attitude. It’s not that they can’t, it’s just harder—especially if God is using someone from a less well-respected profession to help them see this. There is a realization that this will be more of a struggle for some than for others, but it is the responsibility of each of us to remember that even what God has given us to make us successful in the world—even though we may have been faithful to cultivate those gifts and we’ve used them wisely—even those talents—even your own mind—those all fall into the category of “given to you.” So we need to be watching our reaction when a decision or a direction goes a way we did not agree with. Any time you find yourself angry at something going on at the church or at someone in the church, there is a really good chance it is pointing out pride in your own heart. If you are thinking you or your opinions are more significant than their understanding—if you are successful out there in the world, you need to know this could be a particular issue for you and something you need to regularly guard against.
All of us need to be making sure we are regularly reminding ourselves of the Gospel that has united us to these people in this room. We need to be reminding ourselves of who we are in Christ and who it is that has made us united in Christ. It is impossible for someone who is truly thinking through who they are through the filter of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to have anything to boast about. That is exactly the problem from the Corinthian Church that Paul addresses in a fairly cutting way in 1 Corinthians 4 if you were to keep reading from where we started in the service today. In verses 6 through 7, Paul says:
*I’ve applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it? *
If all that we have and all that we are is a gift from God and our purpose is to advance his church, then we have to be on guard to make sure that the gracious way in which he has lavished his gifts upon us is never in any way something that we would actually use to damage the unity of the church that he so desires.
Those first two points have been negative in nature and strongly so—“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit.” But again, they only become an issue and something we need to become aware of as the truth of the Gospel dulls in our hearts. Because nobody can truly be saved while thinking highly of themselves and having a desire to make a big deal about themselves. No one comes to Christ thinking anything like, “Of course, Jesus would save me. I mean, I’m a pretty big deal. He’s probably excited to have me on his team. This is a win for him. I can see that.” It is impossible to come to Christ with that mindset—even though over time, we might be tempted—as silly as it sounds—to begin to adopt that kind of attitude, that kind of thinking. It’s giving into the temptation and beginning to re-embrace that which we first rejected about ourselves at the beginning of our Christian walk.
That is why in this third point, I’ve used the word “Remember”—the rest of this passage is just a call to rightly reflect on that which each of us truly had to have understood when God saved us. So point three: Remember Your Sinful Condition. You can see where I’m coming from right there in verse 3. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” You can see that right there: “In humility count others more significant than yourselves.” That characteristic of humility governs what we see in our actions. It governs how you apply the rest of this. “With humility,” he says do these things. You have to humility to obey the rest of verses 3 and 4.
Most commentaries and Bible references are quick to point out the Greek word for humility, or “lowliness of mind,” as a uniquely Christian virtue. Only Christians at the time the New Testament was written used that word in a positive way. The Roman culture the Philippians were a part of—and, remember, were proud members of—viewed that word as a vice, as a negative characteristic. It was thought of in a derogatory fashion because it carried the mindset of a lowly slave, someone who was despised and thought to be of no account. Why would you want to be that? It’s a put-down. It was an insult to be described with that word until Christ—until the New Testament was written. We see that only those who joyfully embrace this definition of themselves will see the Kingdom of God. Humility is necessary to truly understand the Gospel message and be saved by it.
God must open your eyes to the truth that the most important way in which you need to understand yourself is as a sinner before a holy God. You’re not a pretty good person. You’re not someone who tries to do the right thing and occasionally messes up. You’re not someone who is just not perfect—you know, like everyone else. And when people are saying that, they are just justifying their mistake. You’re not those things, but you are a rebellious sinner against a holy God, one who has never even done a single good thing in your entire life that wasn’t tainted by sin. You deserve to spend eternity in hell as the just penalty against someone who is as worthy of that punishment as we all are.
Because of that state, you are hopeless, and you are helpless ever to do anything to save yourself or impress God. There is nothing you have to offer him. You have nothing to barter with. All that you have to bring to the table—all you have to offer him—is that which is an offense to him, that which is an affront to his holiness. All you can give to God is a life of evidence that he would be good and just to punish you in hell forever. That is what we have to offer. And since you were a helpless enemy with no hope, he did the only thing that could save you. He acted. He stepped in. And, as we’re going to look at in the next part of the chapter—the Second Person of the divine Trinity became a man and lived a life each of us is commanded to live, but never could. And even though the divine Son is the only person in history who did not deserve the wrath of God for the life he lived, he took our wrath upon himself in our place.
Even though he did this amazing work on our behalf, in our sinful state, we still reject it. Or even worse, we hear that message and we still try to make it about ourselves. God also must regenerate your heart in order for you to believe that message because you are that sinful. There is no place for anything but humility within every Christian. That is why I refer to this point as “remembering” your sinful condition because that is what produces humility. When we are reflecting on the Gospel and what it truly means and says to us, there is no choice but to be humble. As we do that, we have no choice but to be absolutely humble.
Not only does this message lead to humility, but also every single aspect of our daily sanctification should continue to humble us even further, to remind us to make us humble. We are reading the God-breathed Word. The Creator of the universe has chosen to communicate to us in this book so that we won’t get confused or doubt or forget what he said. And as we read the Word of God, we are dependent on God to cause us to understand it through the Spirit he has given to live inside of us. God invites us to pray to him. When we do that, it is an admission that we ultimately don’t control anything. We don’t control anything and we’re desperate for him to sustain us and help us. Part of our sanctification is the trials that he allows us to go through. Every single one of them is helping us to understand more and more our own finitude. We call out to God to give us the strength and grow through it without complaining or sinning because only he can do that.
The commission he has given us—our mission as a church—is impossible for us to accomplish on our own. Any success in our evangelism is fully dependent on him working in the other person’s heart. Any success in discipleship is dependent on his Spirit convicting your brother or sister of their sin or the areas of needed growth as they look at the Spirit-inspired Word of God. As we come together to worship, as we sing songs like we just did about how holy, great, awesome, gracious, merciful, and loving God is, it humbles us. We don’t sing, “Holy, holy, holy,” and start thinking, “Yeah, I’m a great guy.” You can’t do it. The songs we sing point to him and how great he is and how much we need him. We read his Word when we are gathered in worship because it alone has the power to give life. And we preach a sermon from that Word and that’s just an effort to understand his Word better because nothing that I or Bret or Travis or the greatest orator in the world could say to you would have any real significance unless it is in connection to God’s Word.
Our life as a part of the church is designed to show us that God saved us to be a part of a body with no part of the body able to say it has more value than another. Every part is needed to make it the body. You don’t get saved into part of the body and then start thinking you’re something unique and special and it’s all about you. Reflect on Bret’s sermons. Every moment of our existence in eternity that we look forward to so much will be a reminder of his greatness, his goodness, the worthiness of the Lamb, not of those he purchased for himself. Every single aspect of the Christian life should produce humility in us.
In the rest of verses 3 and 4, Paul tells us what it should look like. “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.” The word that is translated as “count” or “regard” has an air of authority to it. It is to determine in your mind that something is true. It is not to be confused with a momentary feeling or something that is impulsive. It is counted, it is a certain knowledge, a certain understanding you have. You are to firmly fix in your head and in your heart the understanding, the belief that others are more significant than you are and act in accordance with that. It is not merely affirming; it is something you believe. It is not just saying, “Yes, I believe that to be true. Others are more important than me.” It’s not just a statement you affirm; it’s a way you live, counted to be a truth in your life. Others are more significant than you, and you live that truth out.
When I was in Drivers’ Ed in high school, my teacher taught the rules about driver safety, and he passionately talked about them to us as if they were true. He was telling us about seat belts saving lives, and not being a distracted driver, and how selfish that is because it puts people in danger, and that we must always have our hands on “ten and two”—those types of things. Then, on my last day of observed driving, after we stopped to get gas, the rest of the day—for four hours—he left his seat belt off! And he said it was to be more comfortable. And then he bought a big old bag of popcorn at the gas station and he set it between us and told me I could have as much as I wanted. “Ten and two”? When he was teaching these things, it sounded like he really believed them. But he had not actually counted these things as true in his head and his heart—and he lived accordingly.
Paul is saying here that you don’t just verbally affirm this thing about others—that they are more significant than yourselves. That is something that everyone in the world would say, right? Everyone in the world—you even hear that message in Hollywood. “Others are more important.” “Live like others are more important.” We are actually to believe that in our hearts and live it out. It is not something you are merely trying to do. These are actions based on a conclusion that you have made through a proper understanding of the Word and the Gospel of Christ and what it says about you.
Then in verse 4, he goes on to say, “Let each of you look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others”—and demonstrating how truly off-base and naturally selfish we all are. In fact, the primary way I’ve heard this verse used is to try to say that God is teaching us that we do need to be concerned with our own interests—that we need to be thinking of ourselves so we understand better how to think about others. That’s the primary way I’ve heard this verse taught. Paul’s point here is that it is just understood that people naturally think of themselves. You’re naturally thinking of yourselves—that is not something you need to be commanded to do; that’s just how you are. The point is that we are to make other’s interests our interests. In the same way you can’t help but notice certain things you need in your life or could really help you out, you are to make it your business to know those same things about others. And to prioritize those things.
In our church, as far as physical and practical needs go, I see that going on here a lot. There is a team who notices when others might need help with meals during difficult medical situations and other difficult life situations. And the thinking behind that is, “If we were in that situation, it would really help if someone would make meals for us. Therefore, let’s reach out and do that for them.” There is a bunch of men in this church who notice things—landscaping, construction, moving help—all of those types of things, and because they know if they were in that position, they would need help, they notice that in others and do that for them. I love that these things are going on regularly in our church. I love the testimony about our church we see in these ministries. I think they only need to increase. It is fantastic.
But I also think in light of the context of church unity, there is another component to this verse—not merely physical. It involves being your brother or sister’s keeper in a spiritual way—to understand, as we’ve talked before, that the sanctification of everyone in this body is the business of every other member of this body. When we see each other faltering spiritually, we help them because we would want someone to do that for us, right? When we see them growing, we encourage them because that is what helps us. We need to get as far as possible from the mindset that going to the church service and being a part of the church is primarily about what I’m getting out of it. I pray you’re getting a lot out of it. But it doesn’t stop there.
We don’t evaluate everything in the church on whether we liked it and how it ministered to us. This is another reason it is so important for all of you to try to be involved in as much of the church as possible, whether you think certain lessons will apply better to you or not. If you are looking out for the interests of others, then you must be around others as much as possible. If you’re going to be really looking out for them, then you have to be learning together so you can help each other grow and apply truth from a unified understanding from the teaching and from the life of the church. Whenever we’re able to start up a parenting class, whether you come is not dependent on whether you have kids. It’s dependent upon whether you are united in Christ to anyone who does.
Church, as we’ve come through these four wonderful verses, we have seen the foundation for church unity. We have seen what church unity looks like—how it’s described. Today, we have seen what we’re to do to ensure this is what our church looks like—the mindset we’re to have, the way we’re supposed to act. I find it interesting that in verse 4 he says, “each of you.” That is a little different because when you look at the epistles in general, the commands and imperatives are almost always given in the plural because we’re supposed to think about them corporately. But here, since we’re talking about unity, Paul calls on each individual in the church to think through individual application.
I find that interesting because that leads to the understanding that church unity happens not necessarily when we are all focused on, “All right, let’s be unified.” Not like that. But when each of us is living out a life that has been changed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ in humility, then this is going to be the natural result—unity. As we live out a God-glorifying and others-focused life that comes from the humility the Gospel produces, if we are a church of individuals who are living like that, we will be a unified church. We will be a church that is constantly focused on a true understanding of Christ and of the Gospel, and we will live in that sweet understanding of unity that Jesus prayed for us in John 17. And when we, in the future, come back to this text in Philippians, we are going to see Paul bringing that point home.
Father, thank you so much for your Word. Thank you for the way it guides us and teaches us and doesn’t let us off the hook. God, I do pray you would help us as a church to read and understand verses like these, with commands that are familiar, freshly evaluating every area of our lives. I pray that the Gospel would always be at the forefront of our thinking, that we would live in this church as those who have a true understanding of the Gospel, of who we are, of who you have made us and who you have partnered us with, who you have unified us with. Thank you so much, Father, for your Word. I thank you for this church. Continue to grow us together, please, in unity. Help us to be diligent in fighting for it. In Jesus’ name, amen.