The 6th-century BC Greek storyteller Aesop, whose oral tales compose the famous Aesop’s Fables, has been credited with the origin of the phrase united we stand, divided we fall. Aesop’s sentiment highlights the fact that unity brings joy, order, and peace—and unity was Paul’s priority for the Philippian church. In fact, much of Paul’s writing in this epistle addressed the church’s problems with fostering unity and harmony.
Paul’s Appeal For Unity
Paul based his formula for unity on four sources manifested through Christ’s life and ministry: “Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind” (Phil. 2:1–2).
In English, the four “if” clauses might express doubt, depending on how they are used. In Greek, the clause is a first-class conditional statement and assumes that what follows in verse 1 is factually true and should be translated “because” or “since.” Believers should strive to maintain the principles set forth in these four clauses.
1. Consolation. “If [since] there is any consolation in Christ” (v. 1). The Greek word consolation has various meanings, such as “exhortation,” “encouragement,” and “comfort,” which were exhibited through Christ’s life and ministry. Consolation is also associated with the Holy Spirit, who comes alongside the believer as a helper (Jn. 14:16). Since the Holy Spirit indwells believers at the time of their salvation, He ministers to and through them.
2. Comfort. “If [since] any comfort of love” (Phil. 2:1). Paul taught that God’s love fills believers through the Holy Spirit and urges them to live in harmony with their brothers and sisters in Christ. When Christians disagree, they should always seek the other’s highest good. Christ’s love promotes peace and unity to all involved and brings Him honor.
3. Communion. Paul said, “If [since] any fellowship of the Spirit” (v. 1). The Greek word for fellowship is koinonia and refers to those things that Christians share through the Holy Spirit, who works in each believer’s life. Thus, spiritual harmony and unity should be present in Spirit-indwelt Christians within the church; and they should enjoy communing with one another. Sadly, this is often not the case in many churches.
If each believer is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, why do many Christians lack unity? Often Christians do not allow the Holy Spirit to fill their lives. If they were living Spirit-filled lives, unity and harmony would exist. Paul was speaking of spiritual unity, not organizational unity within the local church. A vivid example of spiritual unity is seen in the first church, formed after the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41–47).
4. Compassion. Paul wrote, “If [since] any affection and mercy” (Phil. 2:1). The word affection expresses the tenderheartedness believers should have for other Christians. The word mercy [Greek, oiktirmos] refers to God’s deep love and compassion for all Christians. Thus, Paul exhorted the Philippian believers to show the same affection and mercies to other Christians that God had bestowed on them.
“Since” Christ has bestowed on believers His consolation, comfort, communion, and compassionate (tenderhearted) love and mercy through the Holy Spirit, Christians should be likeminded with one another in their daily experiences.
Christians who practice these four principles are equipped to share spiritual unity with other believers within the church, but this is not always the case. Paul had to remind the Corinthians that their envy, strife, and division were signs that they were carnal, still babes in Christ (1 Cor. 3:1–3).
Many churches have been disrupted by disputing members who have demanded their own ways, causing conflict and chaos, resulting in division, and sometimes destroying the local church.
Paul’s Approach To Unity
Having appealed to the Philippians to maintain spiritual unity, Paul asked them to “fulfill [his] joy” (Phil. 2:2), or make his joy complete. He wanted his cup of joy to be filled to the brim and overflowing. This would happen if the Philippians heeded Paul’s admonishments, continuing to practice the principles Christ manifested. Thus, Paul listed four practical approaches to keeping the unity they possessed in Christ:
1. Likeminded unity: “By being likeminded” (v. 2). The Philippians needed to set the same goals through discussion, Bible study, and prayer in order to have harmony with one another. Paul did not mean that believers will always agree on everything. Some issues divide Christians because of each person’s cultural background, personality, or interpretation of the Bible (cf. Acts 15:36–41). Paul wanted the Philippian believers to approach divisive issues as Christ instructed so harmony could be restored.
2. Moral unity: “Having the same love” (Phil. 2:2). Paul wanted the Philippians to work through issues with brotherly love and the type of love Christ would possess in dealing with disagreements.
3. Mutual unity: “Being of one accord” (v. 2). The Philippians needed to work through issues in harmony of soul and spirit. They were to be united or linked together by having the same love for one another.
4. Mental unity: “Of one mind” (v. 2). Literally, this phrase means “thinking the same thing,” or possessing one and the same heart and purpose within the church. Thus, the believer’s mind, heart, soul, and spirit in the local church must be knit together to gain unity in making decisions on spiritual issues.
Paul’s Attitude On Unity
Paul continued to exhort the Philippians: “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (vv. 3–4).
In these two verses, Paul provided the attitudes the Philippians must possess and practice to achieve spiritual unity.
Paul told them to depart from “selfish ambition” (v. 3). The phrase selfish ambition was used in Philippians 1:16 and referred to men preaching Christ for their own glory. It characterized those who opposed Paul and tried to destroy his ministry. Such people are described not as spiritual individuals but as carnal, acting as unredeemed men (1 Cor. 3:3).
They were to do nothing through “conceit” (Phil. 2:3). The word conceit refers to people full of arrogant pride, manifesting groundless self-esteem or selfish ambitions to promote themselves. Doing so at the expense of others results in emptiness or vain glory.
Paul said, “In lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself” (v. 3). The phrase lowliness of mind (Greek, tapeinophrosune) means “humility of mind.” This phrase is only used here in the New Testament. Jesus commanded lowliness of mind as well and exhibited it during His ministry on Earth. He said, “I am gentle and lowly in heart” (Mt. 11:29).
Paul used this phrase intentionally while addressing the Philippians. The Greeks, including the Philippians, were known for being high-minded in dealing with others. To say a Greek was lowly of mind was a personal insult.
Christians today also sometimes think of themselves more highly than they should. The apostle was saying that the Philippians were to demonstrate a spirit of humility when dealing with a fellow believer, especially when dealing with conflict due to differing opinions (cf. 2 Tim. 2:24).
Paul taught the Philippians how to develop a correct attitude when dealing with other Christians: “Let each esteem others better than himself” (Phil. 2:3). The word esteem means to “consider,” “count,” or “think” of others as superior to oneself. Believers should set this example when dealing with others by being servants as Jesus Christ modeled (cf. Mt. 20:26–28).
Paul admonished other believers to follow Christ’s example when ministering to brothers and sisters in Christ under every circumstance: “Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4).
The word look speaks to Christians’ responsibility concerning one another. We are not to be so self-absorbed with our own interests that we neglect the needs of those around us. We should all be ready to help needy brothers and sisters in Christ, as we would expect them to do the same for us (cf. Rom. 15:1–3). As believers, we should always remember God’s love, grace, and care for us, especially in our times of need.
May we always pursue the unity and like-mindedness that Paul encouraged the Philippians to have!