We pick up our journey through Philippians at 1:27 and this reflection will take us through to 2:11. I’m not altogether sure that the chapter break is helpfully placed here.
The previous section closed with the imprisoned Paul meditating on the implications of his life and death for himself and here he shifts his focus to the Philippians.
Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel…Phil. 1:27
Paul’s desire is that whatever happens to him, the Philippian Christians should live in a way which is worthy of the Gospel and he spells this out as meaning striving together as one for the faith. After a slight digression on the subject of suffering, Paul returns to the subject of the Philippians working together as one. In a very famous passage he starts off like this:
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.Phil. 2:1-4
Paul’s concern is that the Philippians should be united, not allowing their own concerns of vanities to get in the way of their unity. He develops this by referring to the example of Jesus. The passage in Phil. 2:5-11 is well known and whole volumes have been written about the theology that it contains. I don’t particularly want to add to everything out there, but let me make one remark. These few verses lay out a rich Christological theology, but Paul’s intention is not theological, it is pragmatic. He expands on the nature of Jesus’ incarnation, death and glorification in order to provide an example for the Philippian Christians to follow, not in order to give them a doctrinal statement to believe in. Though no doubt, he would expect them to believe it, too.
To me, this whole section raises a background question; why does Paul, writing from prison, lay so much emphasis on working together and living humbly?
I think that there are two reasons why Paul lays so much stress on this issue. The first one is that it is a key Christian theme. Jesus prayed for unity in the Garden of Gethsemane, and Paul’s own writings place a lot of stress on the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles. Pride and self interest are a major enemy of true unity, but Jesus’ example shows how these are simply not options for Christians.
The other reason is more speculative. I believe that from his vantage point in prison, Paul could more clearly see the folly of pride and division in the church. Not being able to get out and minister himself, he would be keenly aware of how much time, effort and good will was lost in the church because of faction fighting, pride and a lack of unity. Being locked up or under house arrest gives you plenty of time to consider these sorts of issues.
So, what issues are we seeing in a new light during our “house arrest”? We are in a privileged situation at the moment in as much as we have the time to reflect on our lives and to consider what we could or should do differently if things were normal? Rather than wishing that things would return to the way that they used to be, perhaps we should be using this unusual time to ask God to show us lessons about ourselves and our attitudes that we couldn’t learn when the normal rules applied.