In Summary: Paul opens Philippians 2 with conditional statements. “If there is…then….” All of his “ifs” are assumptions that are assumed to be true. It’s the equivalent of saying that I’ll only do something if it’s a day that ends in “Y.” Since all days end in “Y” (Sunday, Monday, so on…) then you can count on me fulfilling that.
Paul’s purpose, then, is to motivate the Philippians through these statements. The rhetorical effect is to leave the decision up to the readers—you don’t have to be unified in spirit, intent on one purpose. You have an option, if there’s no encouragement in Christ or consolation of love, then you can do whatever you like. If you are not yet certain about the conditions, though, Paul provides evidence for them. This evidence is the remainder of the chapter.
First is the passage about having the same attitude as Christ Jesus. Other translations use “the same mind,” but the overall idea is equivalent. Have your attitude and decision-making based on these ideas. We’ll come back to those.
Second are the passages detailing the travel plans of Timothy and Epaphroditus. Paul uses these not only to inform the Philippians of events, like Epaphroditus’ illness, but also to show ordinary men who are walking in light of the opening “ifs” of the chapter.
In Focus: One cannot look at this passage without giving Philippians 2:5-11 a closer look. This is a moment where Paul gets caught up in his worship as he writes, and many commentators consider this passage as derived from a hymn or song of the church. Whether that is accurate is a zone for more study than we are doing here, but this is possible. It would reflect a high view of Christology in the early church and also a wise writing by Paul to evoke commonly held words. It would also inform our usage of music in the church, as we would understand using common hymns and referring to them in teaching moments.
Overall, this passage summarizes Christology, or the understanding of who Jesus is and what He did. He was God, equal with God, fully God, and chose to empty Himself to become also fully human and suffer. Empty Himself of what? is a major question that theologians have wrestled with for years. Some take it to mean He left behind all of His Godhood, but I side with those who see this as a self-imposed limitation on such divine attributes as omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence. He chose to be in one place at one time, rather than every where at every time.
Further, we see that there is no one who will not, someday, acknowledge Christ as Lord. This is in direct opposition to Cesarean goals of the time, that someday all would acknowledge Caesar as Lord. Caesar did not hope for the dead, but all the living. Christ will be acknowledged by the living and the dead. This also should inform part of our understanding of eternity: there is no place where Christ is not known and worshiped in eternity, no escape from glorifying God.
In Practice: Adding practical steps to this is easy, because Paul already did so. Look forward at verses 12-16 and see what our response should be.
First, we work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Why? Not because it can be lost but because we can tarnish the reputation of Him who saved us. Anyone who takes obedience lightly does not understand the depth of suffering of Christ on the Cross. Philippians 2:7-8 addresses the humility involved.
Second, we work together because together is how God has put us. The church of today is too often driven by how people want it to be, and what people want to be with each other. Scripture supports no such nonsense. Instead, the church should be about working together to demonstrate how God is at work in us. The light that the world needs shines brightly from the assembled people of God—if they do without grumpiness in all things.
Third, we hold fast to the word of life. We can lose our grip on understanding if we are not actively holding on. I think there is more to be considered here, that many times we are concerned about intentionally reaching out when Scripture points us to see that we should be intentionally holding fast the Word—and then the outreach is natural and automatic.
Finally, we see the need for unified humility. It’s not about you, or me, or the fame and fortune of our particular branch of Christianity. It’s about Jesus, who is exalted above all.
In Nerdiness: The Timothy and Epaphroditus section shows us something else of value for the setting in the early church. Paul hopes to send Timothy so that Paul can know what’s happening in Philippi. In other words, Timothy is going and then coming back. Epaphroditus is headed back to Philippi so that the church knows what is going on with Paul.
We see a two-fold messenger system here. The church is in place, doing the work they ought to do (hopefully) and sending out encouragers and support-carriers to apostles like Paul and perhaps evangelizing and doing mission work along the way. Meanwhile, the apostles, and possibly other missionary types, have their own associates who travel, teach, and report back on progress.
We see, then, that there was communication and interaction. This is helpful for understanding the interconnectivity of the church, and should inform our own interconnectivity as believers today.