BACKGROUND & CONTEXT: Philippi was a prosperous Roman colony and the Philippians were Roman citizens, a fact in which they took pride (Acts 16:21). Most likely, there weren’t very many Jews, which would account for the absence of Old Testament citations. With such heavy Roman influence, the Philippian church would have to battle the influences of power and prestige and a hierarchical approach to leadership.
Paul’s reason for writing this letter is to thank the Philippian church for their partnership in the gospel (1:3-11), particularly for their gift to him (1:5; 4:10-19), and to update them on his current circumstances (1:12-26). This epistle can almost be viewed as a missionary support and update newsletter. In addition, Paul uses the letter to encourage them to further partnership in the cause of the gospel.
Just prior to chapter two, Paul says that when he receives an update on their progress he is looking forward to hearing how they are “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel” (1:27). Chapter 2 consists of Paul unpacking this idea of “standing firm in one spirit” or unity. Unity is achieved through humility (2:1-4) of which Christ is our model (2:5-11). In addition, unity is achieved through their work in the cause of the gospel, as they “appear as lights in the world” by holding out “the word of life” (2:15-16). Thus Paul is sending Timothy and Epaphroditus to partner with them.
REFLECTIONS: There were two insights, particularly regarding leadership and community, that arose in this passage. First, we see Paul’s continued emphasis on unity within the body. In this particular passage, Paul points us to Jesus as our example. Jesus was not concerned with status, power, or prestige, as he “did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped” (v. 6). Rather, he “emptied Himself” and “humbled Himself to the point of death” (v. 7-8). For the Roman-influenced Philippians, this message was absolutely radical. It was also necessary for them to understand in order to achieve unity.
Secondly, we discover that there is nothing that unifies the body like partnership in the gospel cause. In Philippians, the word gospel is used 9 different times. Paul informs the church that they are a light in this world (2:15) because they hold out the “word of life” (2:16), the gospel. Paul has poured out his life for this cause (2:17) and wants them to share in his joy (2:18). Fellowship events, potlucks, small groups, and other avenues are helpful things for building unity in the body, but nothing brings unity like partnering in the cause of the gospel. Even as a youth pastor, I saw how true this was. Fellowship events were helpful in building unity in the group, but nothing brought unity like a mission trip where we were immersed in the work of the gospel cause.