Most Christians would agree that unity is a good thing. We’d like more unity in churches and in our relationships, not less. But what often impedes progress is we don’t like what’s required to make unity possible. There is no unity without humility.
There is no joining ourselves with others apart from some dying to self. Each of us must decide, is the payoff of peace worth the price of a gut-punch to my pride? We might desire the beauty of oneness and the sweetness of harmony, but we wait for others to bend and come to us. We want peace on our terms, without the baggage of humility, empathy, and selflessness. Unity is important, but do we value it as much as being heard, exercising our freedoms and rights, and expressing my opinion?
In Philippians 2, we’re taught if we want to arrive at the destination of true unity, then it requires taking the road of humility. We pursue unity, by practicing humility. Thankfully, we have a Savior who not only gave us an example of what this looks like, but he helps us walk in his footsteps. Jesus unites us (Eph. 2:11-22), but he also prays for us to live in this unity (John 17:20-23) and models what it looks like (Phil. 2:1-11).
Paul exhorts us to live out the unity Jesus purchased through the humility he practiced. Here’s a three-point outline to summarize the argument in Philippians 2:1-4.
Motivation: The Cause of Unity…Grace (2:1)
Exhortation: The Command of Unity…Oneness (2:2)
Application: The Cultivation of Unity…Humility (2:3-4)
The Cause of Unity…Grace
“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy being of the same mind” (Phil. 2:1)
Have you even been encouraged, comforted, participated in fellowship, or tasted the gracious care and concern of other believers? These are gifts, purchased by Jesus and gifted to us by his people in everyday acts of grace and love. Not only that, but we are joined together through these shared experiences of what we have in Jesus. Shared experiences strengthen the bond of our unity.
We receive all four of these realities or experiences by grace. These statements motivate us to unity by reminding us we have nothing on our own. They come from God and through others. This strengthens our unity because what we’ve received by grace humbles us.
The gospel is the great humbler of the soul. We can never earn God’s favor or gifts by our good works. And if that’s true, then there’s no room for boasting or pride. This is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Only he who lives by the forgiveness of his sin in Jesus Christ will rightly think little of himself.” No relationship can survive for very long if taken off of the life-support of grace. Grace makes us humble and humility unites.
The gospel makes unity possible because it removes the barrier of pride and paves the way for humility. Grace plants in our hearts the humility, gentleness, and gratitude that can germinate into selflessness and unity.
The Command of Unity…Oneness
“Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” (Phil. 2:2)
Let’s look at the three commands Paul gives, which are really one command.
Be of the same mind
We are to be of the same mind and of one mind. The verb for be like-minded is used ten times in Philippians. The repetition makes it clear that not being like-minded is a big problem for the church.
This doesn’t mean we must agree on every issue or see life in the same way. Paul encourages unity, not uniformity. There is diversity in the body. We have different gifts, personalities, experiences, strengths, weaknesses, backgrounds, opinions, and convictions. Diversity doesn’t have to be a threat to unity. Because differences should cause us to recognize gifts and experiences in others we might lack, it should lead to greater unity. That’s the beauty behind Paul’s metaphor of a body to describe the Church.
“The entire letter to the Philippians asserts that Christ is the one common Subject that unites and binds believers together. When Christians declare that to live is Christ (1:21), acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord (2:11), and desire to know Christ above all other things (3:8-10), then they will be of one mind because they will all be worshiping and serving together the One whom God exalted to the highest place (2:9). In other words, being like-minded and of one mind means more than simply being agreeable; it means agreeing that Jesus Christ is Lord and submitting to his Lordship (2:10-11).”
If the glory of Jesus and the good of others is our common goal, we can have unity in our differences. Keeping the main One the main thing protects unity. It’s when my agenda is made central that I see others as threats to my kingdom, and then I go to war when I should be making peace.
We’re to love Jesus more than we love ourselves and more than we love getting our own way. Not only that, but the same love we all share for Jesus leads to loving one another in Christ-like ways. “Only a common commitment of all to love as Christ loves will restore unity to the divided community.”
Jesus provides us with a picture of love in 2:5-8. He loves in a selfless, humble manner. He’s more interested in our long-term good than his short-term rights and comforts. He’s willing to suffer shame and hurt, have his reputation smeared, and become a lowly servant for the sake of loving others. We all share the same love for Jesus, and we can together love others like Jesus.
The NIV translates being “of full accord” as “being one in spirit.” This phrase puts together the greek preposition “with” alongside the noun for “souls” so that it literally means, “’souls together,’ people in harmony with one another.” Think of how a choir, orchestra, or band must work together as one. The goal isn’t to have any stars or standouts but to be in unison. This is beautiful, whether it’s in a music group or in the Church.
The Cultivation of Unity…Humility
“Do nothing from rivalry 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.” (Phil. 2:3-4)
There seem to be clear two “put off “and “put on” practices here. It doesn’t get much more practical than this. What makes unity in the church hard isn’t that we don’t know what it looks like or that it’s important, but we don’t like what it requires of us. Here are two ways to live that would literally change our lives.
Put off rivalry and conceit and put on a humility that esteems others (2:3).
Put off looking only to my interest and put on considering the interests of others (2:4).
Don’t Exalt Self; Esteem Others
Some synonyms to rivalry might be selfish ambition, a competitive spirit, one-upping others, or always seeking the glory. Don’t try to outdo or out-maneuver one another to exalt yourself. Closely tied to this rivalry is conceit, which signifies vanity, self-superiority, or to be arrogant or prideful. “Paul challenges his friends to do nothing to obtain empty glory—the glory of position, prestige, power, and possessions.”
Instead, Paul says, “in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” Esteem others higher than you. Put others before you. John Calvin said, “Now if anything in our whole is difficult, this above everything else is so.”
Humility is counter-cultural and contrary to our self-seeking fallen natures. When we you turn on the news, scan social media, or read articles, it’s all about getting my opinion across, exalting myself and my gifts or my tribe, and exerting my agenda as the only possible agenda. These are the ways of the world but they are not the ways of Christ. Though he was the only one full of glory, he humbled himself to exalt others. He laid down his rights out of love for others. He held his tongue for our sake. He put our life and our good before his own. Imagine if the church followed Jesus in seeing humility as a virtue even while the world laughs and calls it a vice.
Don’t Be Selfish; Be Selfless
Count others more significant by taking their concerns into mind. Instead of living with your eyes solely focused on your needs and wants, proactively consider and care about others.
“Look” means pay careful attention too. Look to their needs, their desires, how you can lift up or build them up, or what encouragement they need. Look to how you can treat them not as someone who can serve you but as someone you can serve, not as an impediment to getting your way but as a person to love. Put them before you.
Our natural inclination is to want our way and put ourselves first. But many of our natural responses are fallen and must be fought. When disagreements surface, something in you will rise like a powerful tide and demand to be at the center and to get your way. But this verse tells us Jesus checks our ego into the wall and asks us to consider how we might step out of the center to put others first.
Not an easy task, I know. But Jesus again provides us the model and motivation in how he did this for us. The Son of God gives up his place in heaven to take on the humble flesh of man. He comes to serve and to die for sinful mankind who rebel against him. Christ’s lowly incarnation and humiliating death are the ultimate example of selflessness. In humility, Jesus counted our lives more significant than his own.
This type of grace humbles us. It reframes our mindset from wanting to be kings to embracing servanthood. Jesus creates unity through humility and he exemplifies what it looks like to live out that humility.
In your conversations, social-media presence, relationships, groups, and posture toward others, do you count others more significant than yourself? Do you look to their interests or just your own? Are you concerned with hearing and understanding them or only being heard and expressing your thoughts? Does having freedom to express your personal rights mean more to you than suppressing some freedom to love others well? Can you bend just a little or will you only wait for others to bend for you?
Unity is a great thing and we should all desire it more. But it requires humility, something we all want little of. But if we truly prize unity we must prioritize humility. The two go hand-in-hand. Pursue unity, by practicing humility.
See also “Christ Purchased the Church’s Peace” and “Help from Bonhoeffer on Humility and Unity.”
 G. Walter Hansen, The Letter to the Philippians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 113.
 Hansen, Philippians, 112.
 Hansen, Philippians, 112.
 Hansen, Philippians, 114.