Wednesday, August 30, 2006

New Testament Reflections: Phil 2:1-5

Philippians 2:1-5

Adopting the Right Mindset: The Exhortation

NASB: 1 If therefore there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, 2 make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. 3 Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; 4 do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. 5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus,

Literal: If, therefore, any encouragement in Christ; if any consolation of love; if any fellowship of spirit, if any tenderness and compassion; fulfill my joy so that you all think the same thing, the same love having, together in soul, the one thing thinking. [Do] nothing according to selfish ambition nor according to empty glory, but in humility regarding each other of more value than yourselves. Not each one paying attention to the matters of yourselves, but [also] the matters of each other. Have this way of thinking in you which was also in Christ Jesus.

2:1-2 Paul has exhorted the Philippians and comforted them in a variety of ways in his first chapter. He has also attempted to communicate to them the mindset of joy he himself has in the midst of the suffering that stems from opposition and persecution. He now appeals to them, on that basis, to adopt that same mindset: If therefore there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose.

One question that arises in this passage concerns the reference point for the conditionals ("if") in v. 1. Does Paul intend to be completely open-ended here? “If there is any encouragement in Christ—anywhere”; “if there is any consolation of love—anywhere”; “if there is any fellowship of the Spirit—anywhere”; “if any affection and compassion—anywhere.” Although the Greek of v. 1 is vague in this regard, the clauses are almost certainly intended to be elliptical. On such a reading, the phrase “if there is” almost certainly means something like “if I have left you with . . . in this letter.” Hence, v. 1 should be understood as: “If therefore I have left you with any encouragement in Christ in this letter, if I have left you with any consolation of love, if I have affirmed any fellowship of the Spirit, if I have shown you any affection and compassion in this letter.”

Paul has indeed left them with all these things. He has “encouraged them in Christ” in his affirmation of the continued advance of the gospel amid adverse circumstances (1:12-14). He has “consoled them in love” by affirming to them that he holds them in his heart (1:7-8). He has affirmed their “fellowship in spirit” (koinonia = participation) with him in the ministry of the gospel (1:5, 19, 29-30) (“spirit” here may be a reference to the Holy Spirit, or may just as likely be a reference to the fact that Paul and the Philippians are of one spirit in the ministry of the gospel). Paul has also, throughout all this, shown them both “affection” and “compassion.” The conditionals (“if”), however, are not an end in themselves. They act as a basis for an appeal. Paul says in essence, “If I have left you with these things, then in fair exchange, make my joy complete (lit., “fulfill my joy”). How does Paul suggest the Philippians do this? At first blush, it appears Paul merely wants the Philippians to be united with each other, to maintain the same love for each other, to be united in spirit with each other, and to be intent on one purpose among yourselves. There is some indication, not only from these exhortations but others as well (e.g., 1:27, “standing firm in one spirit, contending with one soul”), that the Philippians may have had problems with disunity. Certainly, Paul’s plea to Euodia and Syntyche in 4:2 suggests some kind of internal conflict (however, see my notes on that verse for an alternative understanding of this conflict).

Without minimizing the goal of Paul’s appeal as one of internal unity among the Philippians, it is doubtful that is precisely what Paul intends here. Certainly he wants them to be of the same mind with each other; but more importantly, he wants them to be of the same mind as he. That is the point he is trying to convey here—to adopt his mindset; so that the Philippians are of the same mind (literally, “think the same thing” or “have the same mindset”) as Paul himself, that they have the same love for him as he has for them, that they are united [with him] in spirit, and that they are (literally) thinking the one thing (i.e., the same thing as Paul). This last phrase is nearly identical to the first (“of the same mindset”), and is purposely redundant to bring focus to Paul’s core point—that of having the right mindset. Just what that mindset entails is the topic of vv. 3-5, which crescendos toward the ultimate example of this mindset in vv. 6-11.

2:3 Paul uses the word “to think” (phroneo and cognates) several times in this passage alone. Both the NASB and the NIV translate it as “attitude” in v. 5. That comes close, but in each instance the word “mindset” more nearly captures Paul’s intent. “Attitude,” at least to my thinking, conjures up a fleeting, in-the-moment adjustment of mental behavior; whereas “mindset” is much more a way of thinking or a point of view that carries a sense of permanence.

What exactly is this “way of thinking” Paul wants them to adopt? Negatively, it is to do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit; and positively, it is with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself. The word “selfishness” is more correctly “selfish ambition,” which Paul equates with “empty conceit” (literally, “empty glory”). Our actions are the fruit of the way we think. Christianity is not so much about doing the right thing as it is about thinking the right way. Right thinking results in right actions and right behavior. Faulty thinking results in the opposite. If we are self-absorbed, we will act in our own best interest; in the interest of self-preservation rather than in the best interest of the church. “Selfish ambitions” is, in fact, “empty glory”; an attempt to elevate ourselves (or maintain the status we have achieved) so that we can promote our own “glory.”

If our focus is instead on the church, we may end up doing even those things that prove detrimental to us personally. But that is just the mindset each one of us is called to nevertheless: to regard others (Paul has in mind the church in particular) as of higher value than me—more, to do this in humility (tapeinophrosune, literally, “lowliness of mind). A word which in itself encompasses the word “to think,” tapeinophrosune is a distinctively Christian concept, at least in its positive connotation. It is almost invariably a pejorative term when used outside the context of the New Testament. Status was measured (and still is) by being in a position to be called lord, rather than in a position that multiplies the number of people one might address as lord. That required (and still does) looking out for number 1, investing in and boating about one’s own achievements, regardless of how many people must be trampled in the process. To think “in lowliness of mind” was/is, of course, counter-productive to all that. Only a fool would take such an approach to life because it meant (and means) certain failure of personal goals. Hence, one who is “lowly of mind” was not, in the first-century world, thought of in very flattering terms.

2:4 But Paul calls us to be just that, and explains just what he means by regarding others of higher value than self: do not merely look out for (that is, pay attention to) your own personal interests (your own affairs or the matters that concern you), but also for the interests (or matters) of others (lit., “each other”; i.e., those in the church). In a Christian culture in which self-love, self-esteem, and self-affirmation have taken center stage (owing far more to pop-psychology and proof-texting Scripture than to exegesis), and in a church driven by “relevance” and “purpose,” one of the swiftest remedies to the self-absorption that always accompanies such fads is to get your mind off self and onto the church. When one is not constantly thinking about himself, the issue of whether he has a good self esteem or a bad self esteem—and the like—becomes incredibly moot. “Esteem” is something given to those in the church, and particularly to those who have devoted their lives to the ministry of the saints (1 Thess 5:13). It was never intended biblically to be directed toward self.

2:5 Paul finally introduces as the pinnacle of his point the ultimate example of selfless humility—Christ himself: Have this attitude (this way of thinking) in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus. The mindset Paul wants to impart to the Philippians, he’ll go on to argue, is the self-same mindset operating in Christ himself when he became a man and died on the cross. Philippians 2:6-11 is one of the most hotly disputed passages in the entire New Testament, both in terms of its theology and the precise meaning of the words used. Our treatment will by no means be exhaustive, and will assume certain readings that (to my mind) have been argued successfully elsewhere. There is little to be gained—and much to be delayed—by entering the fray on each disputed point in a commentary of this type. We will instead adopt what I deem the most certain (Evangelical) reading, and comment on the text from that starting point, allowing indulgent exceptions where I think more detail is needed to demonstrate just why we have adopted that particular reading. Having made all the necessary disclaimers, I will no doubt be unable to resist addressing the disputed points.