Unity in Diversity

27 Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. 29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, 30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

1 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition 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.Philippians 1:18-2:4 ESV

Paul has expressed his desire to return to Philippi one day, and he has let them know that, while he would prefer to die and be with the Lord, he was of the impression that he would eventually be released from his house arrest in Rome. And that would be a good thing. It would allow him to continue his ministry of the gospel and to continue to encourage all the churches he had played a role in starting.

But, at the moment, Paul’s greatest concern was the spiritual well-being of his brothers and sisters in Philippi. And while he knew they would rejoice over the thought of him returning to see them one day, he had more pressing matters in mind.  It would seem from the content of this next section of Paul’s letter, that there was some serious disunity taking place in the congregation in Philippi. Paul is going to stress the idea of oneness. Three times in eight verses, Paul will use the word, “one.” He longs to hear that they are “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27 ESV).

Like any of the other churches of that day, the Philippian congregation was relatively new and trying to hold its own in the midst of a pagan and sometimes hostile culture.  They were constantly facing outside opposition. As a Roman colony, Philippi was filled with a plethora of false gods. One of the keys to Rome’s successful domination of the world was its willingness to accommodate and tolerate the gods of the nations they conquered. They allowed their subjects to continue the worship of their own particular deity(s). While this policy of tolerance made the management of Rome’s far-flung empire with its ethnically and religiously diverse populations much easier, it could also create an atmosphere of polarization and antagonism. In the atmosphere of forced pluralism, each group would go out of its way to maintain the distinctives of its religious traditions, resulting in a culture of conflict and competition.

And here was this fledgling congregation of relatively new believers trying to hold its own in an atmosphere that favored religious pluralism but actually fostered intolerance and open hostility. Christians were the new kids on the block. They were usually unwelcome and misunderstood. Some viewed them as a sect of Judaism, while others tried to portray them as a dangerous cult. And, each and every one of the members of the Philippian congregation would have been a convert to Christianity from some other and much older faith system. In accepting Christ as Savior, they had turned their backs on their former religion and, in doing so, alienated friends and family members who still held firmly to that ideology.

For Christians living in the 1st-Century, coming to faith in Christ was about much more than a decision to accept Jesus as their Savior. It could be an extremely risky and potentially deadly choice that had long-term and life-altering implications. And no one understood this better than Paul. His relationship with Christ had cost him dearly. And in his second letter to the believers in Corinth, Paul outlined all that he had suffered as a result of his faith.

Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not.[c] I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm. – 2 Corinthians 11:24-27 NLT

Being a follower of Christ was not easy. And Paul knew that the key to the Philippian church’s survival was going to be their unity. They had to see themselves as a family. They were in this together. And they needed to see themselves as distinct and different from the culture around them. Which is why he pleads with them to “live as citizens of heaven” and to conduct themselves “in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ” (Philippians 1:27 NLT). This was a corporate call, addressing the entire congregation, not individual believers. They were to do this together, not alone. Their display of unity in the face of adversity and hostility would strengthen their faith and spread the news of the life-transformative nature of the gospel. That this diverse group of people from all walks of life and a variety of religious backgrounds could live together with one mind and one spirit would be a testimony to the power of the gospel.

And Paul commends them for “standing together with one spirit and one purpose, fighting together for the faith, which is the Good News” (Philippians 1:27 NLT). He has heard of their unity, but he knows that the enemy is always seeking to divide and conquer. They must not allow that to happen. Paul flatly states, “Don’t be intimidated in any way by your enemies” (Philippians 1:28 NLT). There were outside forces pressing in on this young congregation and Paul wanted them to remain unified in their love for one another and their commitment to the cause of Christ. This unwavering display of oneness in the face of opposition would be proof of the ultimate victory Christ-followers will enjoy. As Jesus told promised Peter, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18 ESV).

Suffering was going to be a normal part of their faith experience. In fact, Paul tells them that they should see their suffering as a privilege, on equal footing with the privilege of trusting in Christ. For Paul, suffering was a necessary part of salvation. It came with the territory. And a bit further on in his letter, Paul will boldly declare, “I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death” (Philippians 3:10 NLT). This was not an isolated statement by Paul. He held this view throughout his life and shared it frequently. To the believers in Rome he wrote: “if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering” (Romans 8:17 NLT). He told the Colossian church, “I am glad when I suffer for you in my body, for I am participating in the sufferings of Christ that continue for his body, the church” (Colossians 1:24 NLT). And the apostle Peter shared Paul’s sentiments regarding suffering.

…be very glad – for these trials make you partners with Christ in his suffering, so that you will have the wonderful joy of seeing his glory when it is revealed to all the world.  – 1 Peter 4:13 NLT

Paul viewed the Christian life as a struggle. It was not meant to be easy. We are aliens living in a strange land. We are emissaries for the King and have been sent to declare the message of His Kingdom to a world that stands opposed to Him. We have the good news regarding Jesus Christ, but the majority of those with whom we share it will find it repulsive and simply reject it. And they will reject the messengers as well.

So, in order to survive in this hostile environment, we will need to remain unified and share a single-minded commitment to our mutual mission as the body of Christ. With all that the believers in Philippi were facing, Paul wanted them to understand that their shared faith in Christ had real value. Which is why he states, “if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy” (Philippians 2:1 ESV). Paul is not raising doubts concerning the efficacy of faith in Christ, he is doing just the opposite. There IS encouragement in Christ. There IS comfort that comes from Christ-like love. There IS real value in living together in the power of the Holy Spirit. There IS true affection and sympathy to be found in this thing called the body of Christ.

But all of this is available only when believers choose to accept the non-negotiable reality of their role as members of that body. Which is why Paul encourages the Philippian believers to be, “of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Philippians 2:2 ESV). There was no place for selfishness or self-centeredness in the body of Christ. Pride was out of bounds and of no value. Conceit and ego were to be seen as deadly to unity.

In order to survive and thrive, the believers in Philippi were going to have to have a different kind of attitude about life. It was going to require a counter-cultural take on what it means to succeed in life. And, just so they don’t miss what he means, Paul spells it out for them.

Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. – Philippians 2:4 NLT

And in the very next verse, Paul will provide them with the key to pulling all this off. It will not be accomplished in their own strength or according to their own standards of humility and unity. Christ is to be our model for living in Christ-likeness. He sets the standard for what it means to “live as citizens of heaven.”

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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