In this fifth posting, we are continuing the blog series with content from biblical scholar Scot McKnight. McKnight has recently published New Testament Everyday Bible Study series with HarperChristian Resources. McKnight combines interpretive insights with pastoral wisdom for all the books of the New Testament. Each volume provides original meaning, fresh interpretation, and practical application.

In this blog series, we’ll be sharing Scot’s insights and wisdom on the book of Philippians. It is available as a book as well: Philippians and 1 & 2 Thessalonians: Kingdom Living in Today’s World.

For twelve weeks, Bible Gateway will publish a chapter from the Bible study book, taking you through the full text of McKnight’s study on Philippians. For this week, here is the fifth study, A Common Example | Philippians 2:1-4.

Living in unity as a fellowship, or a common life together, is a great idea. Until you have to get along with someone you don’t like. It only takes a little while to encounter such a person. We cannot expect uniformity or agreement on everything, but we are to attempt for an achievable unity.

The emphasis on a common life and unity in this short letter requires that we assume fractures and fissures had formed among the believers in Philippi, and Paul is urging them to transcend their divisions.

The apostle proposes in our verses a theological basis that appeals to the “affective faculties.” Just as Philippians 1:27–30 was one long sentence, so 2:1–4 is another one and a rather complex one at that.

Verse one is the ‘If’-clause and verses two through four are the ‘then’-clause: This “if” could be translated “since” or “supposing” or “assuming.” That is, assuming verse one to be the case, verses two through four should happen! That is, if you’ve got all these blessings then you can also achieve unity with one another. The translation above is reformat- ted to make the listing more visible.

If . . .

Notice that there are four terms here in verse one – “encouragement,” “comfort,” “common sharing,” and the doubled expression “tenderness and compassion.” The “encouragement” and “comfort” result “from being united with Christ,” and the “common sharing” or fellowship, along with “tenderness and compassion,” derive from “the Spirit.”

Encouragement and comfort in Christ. Common life, tenderness, and compassion in the Spirit.

Verse one then describes what we get from God, that is, these items are God-Given, emotionally experienced redemptive realities. They are not human virtues. They are palpable caring we feel in our relationship with Christ and the Spirit. Cohick observes that “The church’s life force is the breath of the Spirit, the Blood of Jesus, the Mind of Christ, the Will of the Father.”

Let me then just jump ahead to get right to the point:

If God is at work in you in Christ and in the Spirit, you can grow as well to experience unity’s virtues.

The blessings of verse one, then, are not hard-earned moral accomplishments. They are instead Grace-empowered, Christ-achieved, and Spirit-drenched Acts of God in us.

. . . Then

If God is at Work in you, Paul says, Make me happy! That is, “make my joy compete” or “fill me up with joy.” What makes Paul happy? Let’s broaden that: What makes the Christian discipler, the pastor, the mentor, the parent, the teacher happy? God-Established unities.

Paul lists four of these unities in 2:2–the “like-minded,” the “same love,” “one in spirit,” and “one mind.” Monya Stubbs puts it all into a three-word package: “communal mental cohesiveness.”

Before we move on, a brief clarification: the NIV’s “one in spirit” surely misleads as much as it helps.

The Greek expression, literally, is something like “co-souled” or “one-souled” or “together in soul.” It combines the term for with and the term psyche, which is often translated “soul.” The normal word for “spirit” or “Spirit” is not here. What Paul wrote says it all: he wants them to be co-souled, or together at the core of their very being, together in life’s basic principle for living.


We are not going to get everyone on the same page about the same concerns. We can’t get people to agree on songs, or lengths of sermons, or women preaching, or the rapture or war, or racial reconciliation, or financial equities. The Bible’s not creating a dream world. It knows we don’t agree and Wants us to try for unity in the midst of differences.

I can worship with someone who is either Democrat or Republican because unity in Christ transcends partisan politics.

The ‘onenesses’ in verse two are God-Formed participations in Christ and the Spirit that yield capacities to live with one another’s differences in behaviors and attitudes and feelings. But this unity transcends differences. Yes, something needs to be heard because we easily miss it.

Paul’s emphasis on equality and sameness horrified those intoxicated with the Roman system of upward mobility. A God-Shaped unity empowers the believers to shed “selfish ambition” and “vain conceit” (or ‘airheadedness’), two habits of life that flourished in the lives of those committed to the ways of Rome. Bockmuehl cleverly describes them as “that strangely addictive and debasing cocktail of vanity and public opinion.”

The Christian solution is so un-Roman but it is just as un-American. God calls us to “humility,” a Christian virtue that turns the way of Rome upside down into valuing others above oneself. In that world humility was the same as humiliation.

The Christian solution is so un-Roman but it is just as un-American.

A Christlike and Spirit-Given life opens up for us a way of life that turns away from our “own interests” to favor “the interests of others.” Paul speaks here into the world of vain-seeking glory in the public sector.

He is not criticizing the need for a healthy self-image or denying the sacred importance of emotional, psychological boundaries. Tension between boundaries to protect ourselves and actions for the sake of others accompanies all genuine Christian living. Respecting the boundaries others have for themselves reflects what “the interests of others” actually means.

You may know what comes next in Philippians, and it is best to put this book down now to read Philippians 2:1–11 straight through. We are done now with 2:1–4 and Paul is about to write up an early Christian song about Jesus that becomes the paradigm of paradigms for how the Philippians were to live with one another in a most un-Roman of ways!

The selfish tendencies of a Philippian life are challenged by the Christlike life, all visibly embodied in the life of Jesus (2:5–11). Think about it this way: Kingdom Citizens (1:27–30) who are led by Christ in the Spirit (2:1) can achieve a unity (2:2) by living like Christ (2:5–11), that is, denying self-interest and thinking of the others (2:3–4) Easier said than done.

Questions for Reflection and Application

How does the Holy Spirit work in us to generate fellowship and community?

What is the difference between unity and uniformity in the church?

What has been your experience with church unity or church disunity? How have those experiences impacted you?

How is humility un-Roman and un-American?

McKnight writes about the tension between our boundaries to protect ourselves and the actions we take on behalf of others. How do you balance caring for yourself in healthy ways with also living a life of service to others?

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