Paul, in prison, is writing to thank and encourage Christians in Philippi. They face their own trials and have their own problems. They, like many churches today, had some petty disagreements and selfishness. Paul points them to a better approach to interpersonal relationships and gives them three examples they can imitate.
Paul begins by reminding them of blessings they have been given by Christ: "If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion..." — he assumes that they have enjoyed all of these — "then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose" (Phil. 2:1-2).
He is not just asking them to think like one another. As he will soon explain, he wants them to be like-minded with Christ — to be encouraging, comforting, sharing, tender and compassionate, as Christ is. He wants them to have the same kind of love as Christ has, being like him in attitude and goals. That is the only sure way to be united with one another. When the Philippians put this into practice, Paul’s joy among them will be complete, for his gospel will have produced its fruit.
The bottom line, he says, is to "do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit" (v. 3). Do not be motivated by selfishness or pride, for they destroy unity and are the essence of sin. Instead, "in humility consider others better than yourselves." Paul does not say that others are better — only that we should consider them better. Objectively, everyone cannot be better, yet Christian unity must be built on considering others ahead of self.
"Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others" (v. 4). We may consider our own interests, but we must also look out for others. This is the way of Christ. He, the best of all humans, did not put himself first, but considered the needs of others.
"Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness" (vv. 5-7). Scholars call this passage "the Philippian hymn," because its style and rhythm cause some to think that Paul is adopting words that Christians were already singing — words of praise for Christ Jesus.
Paul is using these words to remind his readers of the example they are to follow: someone who was divine, having the greatest of honor, yet who did not cling to his rights and privileges. The 2011 edition of the NIV puts it this way: Jesus "did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage." Though the Philippians had important rights as citizens of a Roman colony, they were to focus on others, not themselves.
Jesus willingly set his rights aside, in humility becoming a human, serving our needs. "And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross!" (v. 8). His humility, his desire to serve, was complete. He endured the most painful and most shameful form of death, just to serve our needs.
The result? God resurrected him and "exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 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" (vv. 9-11).
What is the name above all other names? The name of God. In Isaiah 45:23, God says, "Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear." Paul is saying that Jesus should be given the same honors as God. When we bow to Jesus, God gets the glory.
Jesus is in the highest place, worthy of worship, worthy of the name "Lord." Because he was humble, he is now exalted. Humility is the praiseworthy way.
How should we respond to Jesus’ humility and service? Paul pleads for action: "Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed — not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence — continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling" (v. 12). The Philippians have been a responsive church, eager to do what is good. Paul is asking them to take one more step, applying the humility of Christ to their interpersonal relationships.
They are to work not in order to get into salvation (salvation is a gift that they already have), but to work out its implications — to diligently apply it in their lives by imitating their Savior. They are to work, and yet realize that they are not working alone: "for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose" (v. 13). We cannot make ourselves more like God — only he can, and he does it by changing our desires and our actions. He does not force us, but enables us. We work, trust him to do his work, and give him all the credit (see 1:3 and 1 Cor. 15:10).
"Do everything without complaining or arguing," Paul writes, "so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life" (vv. 14-16). In other words, as you share the gospel, be aware of the example you set (see 1:27). Be content, be peaceable, and you will be seen as points of light. Society doesn’t make it easy to be Christlike, but instead of viewing this as an obstacle, see it as an opportunity to make the gospel attractive.
Paul then makes his appeal personal: "in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor for nothing." This will complete his mission, he says, bringing the people toward maturity in Christ.
Paul then elevates the significance of what they are doing — he is a sacrifice for God, and so are they. Their lives are given together as an offering to God. "But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you" (v. 17). Although I am in jail, he says, I rejoice because of the way that you serve the Lord. "So you too should be glad and rejoice with me" (v. 18).
"I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, that I also may be cheered when I receive news about you" (v. 19). Paul hopes to send a friend to them, who will (if we read between the lines) report on whether the Philippians put Paul’s exhortations into practice.
Without directly saying so, Paul writes that Timothy is a good example, already doing what Paul is exhorting. Timothy "takes a genuine interest in your welfare. For everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ" (vv. 20-21). Timothy does not act from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility he looks to the interests of others, of Jesus and the gospel.
"But you know that Timothy has proved himself, because as a son with his father he has served with me in the work of the gospel" (v. 22). Look to him, and hear what he says. "I hope, therefore, to send him as soon as I see how things go with me" (v. 23). As soon as I find out whether I will get out of prison, I will send him, my son in the faith, to serve your needs. "And I am confident in the Lord that I myself will come soon" (v. 24).
But Paul did not wait. He sent his letter with someone else: "But I think it is necessary to send back to you Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger, whom you sent to take care of my needs" (v. 25). Epaphroditus, apparently one of the leaders in Philippi, had come to visit Paul in prison. Now Paul is sending him back with special commendation:
"For he longs for all of you and is distressed because you heard he was ill" (v. 26). In other words, he is looking out for your interests. He is distressed not because he was sick, but because he doesn’t want you to be worried about him.
"Indeed he was ill, and almost died. But God had mercy on him, and not on him only but also on me, to spare me sorrow upon sorrow. Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety" (vv. 27-28). I care for you, too, and I will be less anxious about you when he is there.
"Welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor men like him" (v. 29). He is setting a great example, and if you honor people who serve, more people will serve. Epaphroditus put his life on the line: "he almost died for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up for the help you could not give me" (v. 30). Be willing to serve, Paul says, and you will be great. Humble yourself for him, and he will exalt you with Christ!
Questions for application
In my own experience, what role does self-interest play in squabbles?
When others consider me better, do I tend to agree with them?
Do I sometimes assume that other people want what I want? Do I "serve" them as a means of getting what I want?
What rights and privileges do I have? Am I willing to give them up to help others?
If I can’t complain (2:14), what can I say about things that are wrong?
Can I trust God to do his work within me? Does he sometimes seem to work too slowly?
What examples of humility do I know locally? Do I honor them?