The Practice of Unity

  • Author: Ray C. Stedman
Read the Scripture: Philippians 1:27-2:4
Philippians 1:27-2:4

27Whatever 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 one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel 28without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God. 29For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, 30since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.

1If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. 3Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. 4Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

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Now we come to the main purpose for which this letter to the Philippians was written. It concerns the unity of the church there at Philippi. Someone suggests that the key to this letter is really found in the fourth chapter. You find the key at the back door rather than the front door. It is found in the mention of two women who are odds with one another and threatening the unity and peace of the church. The strife was evidently growing so strong as to threaten the development of the church. The names of the two women were not "Odious" and "Soon-touchy", as we often hear, though that may be suggestive of what the trouble was. They were Euodia and Syntyche.

There has been a lot of speculation as to just what the trouble was between them. Some have suggested they were rival soloists, but no one knows exactly what it was threatening to the church. It is still a very serious one when Paul writes to try to settle this matter. A little later in the letter we learn that Epaphroditus has come from Philippi to Paul in Rome bringing news of this problem in the church. Perhaps there had been other word as well, and now Paul is sending this letter by the hand of Epaphroditus to settle this problem. 

I think that schism in the body of Christ is the worst sin that can be contemplated in the Christian community. We sometimes treat this lightly, but the Bible never does. It is always regarded in the Word of God as a terrible thing among Christians, because it hurts everyone involved. Most of all it hurts the cause of Christ in the eyes of the world. I think there is nothing more shameful that is sometimes aired in the newspapers concerning the divisions between Christians. Schism is never justified in a church, except on grounds of serious doctrinal error, or grievous inconsistency between faith and practice. If we would remember that, we would avoid the divisions that sometimes run rampant in churches. Only serious doctrinal error involving the essentials of the faith or some terrible inconsistency between faith and practice ever warrants division.

No one was more aware of this than the apostle himself. He realizes that it requires God's wisdom and the tact given by the Spirit to handle such a delicate matter, so I think it is exceedingly profitable to give our attention to what the apostle says to this church, especially if there is any one among us this morning who is resentful toward someone else, or bitter, or unwilling to contact or work with someone. You may be feeling, "well I love him, but I don't have to like him," or "I'll forgive him but I'll never forget." These are signs of incipient schism, and it will be profitable to hear what the apostle has to say.

In verse 27 of the first chapter Paul sets forth first of all the Christian's position:

"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 stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel."

Now these are very interesting words here, translated in our RSV, "your manner of life", or as it is in the KJV "your conversation". It is a word from which we get our English word "politics", or "politician". The Greek word is politeuma, a word that means your conduct as a citizen or a colony, and this is the first indication in this letter of a very interesting condition that prevailed in the city of Philippi. Everyone who read this letter, or heard it read in the church, would be aware that the citizens of this city were members of a Roman colony, actually citizens of Rome even though they were a thousand miles away. This was because of the great battle that had been won by the Roman Emperor, and in gratitude to the residents they were made citizens of Rome. They were colonists, citizens of Rome, a thousand miles away in Macedonia. 

Paul builds on this idea and says to them, in effect, you Christians in Philippi are members of another government. You cannot, therefore, have a similar attitude to the rest of the citizens of Philippi. You belong to a colony of heaven; therefore you must behave like citizens of heaven. This is a very illuminating picture of the Christian in the world. We are a colony of heaven. So the word of the apostle is let your manner of conduct be worthy of the government to which you belong, the kingdom of God and the gospel of Christ. That consists of two essential things. What should you be as a citizen of heaven? 

First, "stand firm in one Spirit (I think he means the Holy Spirit), and second, "with one mind strive side by side for the faith of the gospel." Those are the essentials. That is conduct worthy of the gospel of Christ. In other words, Paul is saying never depart from complete dependency on the Spirit of God to do through you everything that needs to be done. That is the first essential of a Christian life. That's very important, you know! I hope you begin to grasp that the Christian life is lived by a totally different process than you lived before you came to Christ. It is God's life through you. It is the indwelling Lord Jesus expressing Himself in terms of your human personality. Never depart from that, he says. Never let anything shake you, or remove you, or cause you to turn back to the basis on which you once lived. That is the first essential. The second is, never let anything but serious heresy keep you from working side by side In the gospel. Those are the great essentials.

Now interestingly enough, all the wiles of the devil, all the thrust and power of his activity is aimed at these two things. To keep us from observing them, the enemy tries first one and then the other. He tests us first on one point, and if he can't derail us there he goes to the other point. He tries to get you to depend upon yourself, not on the indwelling life of Christ, and to make you therefore fearful, worried, discouraged, impatient, or upset with something. Haven't you felt this? This is the attack of the enemy, trying to budge you from your position in Christ which makes for victory.

That is why in the close of the Ephesian letter Paul refers to the same thing. He says we are not engaged in wrestling against flesh and blood. Our enemies are not human beings. They are those invisible powers ensconced in high places which are working through human beings. We wrestle not with flesh and blood but with principalities and powers, invisible wicked spirits working in high places. What does he say to this? Stand fast! Don't let them budge you from that essential relationship in which your life is dependent upon the inner life of God.

Whenever we get discouraged we are depending on ourselves. We're discouraged because we were expecting that we could do something and we failed. We've been self-confident, counting on ourselves, thinking we have all it takes to do the job. We think we don't need any help from God. We then move from that position of dependency on God's Spirit. We get worried, anxious, fearful, timid, impatient. We have yielded to the attack of the enemy and temporarily have shifted from that position of dependency.

If that doesn't work, and we stand firm, then the enemy tries another strategy. He tries to make a breach between us and those who labor with us. He tries to split us up, divide us, create suspicion, smoldering resentments and personality conflicts. He tries to get us to not talk with each other, have nothing to do with one another, look down on others, cut them off from our fellowship and conversation and contact.

Now I know you feel, as I have often felt, that in this warfare in which we are engage it seems as though we have to face a thousand fronts. Every time we turn around we're under attack, and we never know when he will strike next and we have to be constantly on guard. But that isn't true. We have only two things to watch, that's all. These two things mentioned by Paul, that we stand firm in one Spirit, and that we strive side by side together in the gospel. That's all. If we are careful to keep our eyes open to the power of God working within in these two areas, our conduct will become worthy of the gospel of Christ.

Now Paul goes on to reveal to us in detail the weapons that Satan employs to try to dislodge us from these positions. These are very practical passages. They deal with a specific situation, just where these people are living.

vv. 28-30: "..and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear omen to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. 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, engaged in the same conflict which you saw and now hear to be mine."

What is the method the enemy tries to use in your life to keep you from depending upon the Spirit of God? The answer is: fear! Primarily, fear of man. Fear of ridicule or scorn, fear of ostracism from the group to which you would like to belong, fear of patronizing pity, of losing popularity, or even of physical torture or punishment. If the enemy can make the Christian afraid that he will lose popularity or his position or undergo some unpleasantness, then we fall from our dependency upon the Spirit of God.

Now this opposition always comes from the flesh, the fallen nature of man against God. The Lord Jesus said of some in His day, "the world cannot hate you because you are of it." The world hates the exercise of true faith in Jesus Christ, and opposes it. But opposition can also come from other Christians--any Christian who operates or thinks from the flesh and turns to what we call "human nature" We sometimes excuse our behavior by saying, "Well after all I'm only human." That is the flesh. Opposition from this source is sometimes what hurts most, when those we expect to be on our side are really opposed to us. Every young Christian experiences this. All of us have known the searing, torturing worry that because of our Christian faith we are going to lose status or lose the acceptance of our friends. We try to compromise and to work out some median position. 

There is only one way to handle fear, and that is to face it at its worst. What is the worst thing this thing or these people I fear can do to me? Will it be to cast me out of the group? Is it to kill me? Whatever it is, face its worst threat, and then make a clear choice between Christ and your fear. When you take Him at His Word and recognize there is no possible compromise, that it must be one or the other, that is the way to be delivered. Putting it in those terms, a true Christian will inevitably choose Christ. Once we face it on this basis we are delivered from the power of this fear. Danger comes when we think we can work out some kind of compromise that allows us to continue in the situation or activity and not give it up for Christ.

Then we begin to stray from dependence on God, and are choosing to be less than all that God want us to be. We all think we can work it out, that God ought to be willing to discuss the matter and negotiate. When we try this, we are in deadly danger of missing all God wants us to be. It is so human to compromise. 

My little daughter, Laurie, is only one year and a half, but she is already trying to compromise. Yesterday I wanted to take her with me for a car ride. She was chewing on a greasy chicken bone she was holding and I tried to dispose of it before it was spread all over the upholstery in my new car. I said, "Laurie, throw the bone away." She looked at me rather puzzled. I repeated it and she knew what I meant. She went to the lawn and made gestures as though she was throwing it away, but held on to the bone. I reached down to take it from her and she snatched her hand away. I got the message; I realized that what she was saying was "Look, dad, I'm willing to go along with you and go as far as I can, You want me to throw the bone away and I'll act like I am, but I'm not going to let go of this bone. I want it, and if it will please you for me to look as though I'm throwing it away, I'll do that.

I'll go as far as I can, but I'm not going to let go of the bone. You can apply that to our adult experience and find us doing the same thing, can't you?

Do you remember the wonderful message we heard from Major Thomas on Moses and the rod, and how God told him to drop it? Only when he dropped it did God give it back to him, and when he did he took the snake out of it. It was the rod of God's power. This is what Paul is saying here. The only way to escape this nagging, worrisome fear is to face it at its worst and choose Christ. When we look at the worst thing that can happen to us and say even if it does I'm going to be faithful to the Lord, then an amazing thing happens: we destroy the power of that fear to harm us, and when our opponents see we are no longer afraid, another remarkable thing happens: they begin to be afraid themselves. That's what Paul says, "and not frightened in any way by your opponents, for this (lack of fear) is a clear omen to them of their destruction but of your salvation." And that is from God. They begin to see who they are opposing--they see they are fighting almighty God!

Just this last week I was talking with a business man who is a new convert in Christ, a man who sought for scores of years for peace of heart and tried every religion, became a disciple of Hinduism, Buddhism among other religions. For awhile he went down to the desert, let his hair grow and lived on berries, hoping to find peace. He finally found it in Christ. He told us how he went out by himself one night, realizing he needed God but not knowing quite how to address Him. He said, "Now God, if there is a God, I want to know you, and if there are a thousand gods I want to know the Boss, and if there isn't a Boss I want to know the one who thinks he's the Boss." Someone asked, "Did you find the Boss?" He said, "there's no doubt in my mind that I've found the Boss because my life is so entirely different." He said, "One of the signs is that my friends see the difference." Then he told us he has a friend who is a gangster, a man who wears a gun under his armpit always. He told how that man said to him the other day, "What's happened to you? What makes you different?" He replied, "what do you mean, haven't I always been honest with you?" The man replied, "Yes, but it doesn't bother you any more." 

Then he explained that four years previously when he first met this man they went out together for an evening and the man turned to him and said, "I'd like to do some gambling this evening, and I have more money than I like to carry around with me, so would you keep my wallet for me?" Our friend took the wallet, put it in his inside coat pocket and thought no more about it until the next morning. He then began to wonder how much money was in the wallet, thinking it might be two or three hundred dollars or so. He opened the wallet and found there was $55,000. He was in a dither to return this money, and finally saw the man that afternoon returned the wallet to him, saying, "Here's your money."

The man took it, put it in his coat pocket and didn't even count it. Our friend asked, "aren't you going to count it?" "Oh no, he said, I'm not going to count it. You didn't take any of it." Our friend said, "How do you know?" He said, "If you had, you wouldn't have given it back to me this way."Our friend said,"Well what if I had taken it--what would have happened?" The man reached in his other pocket, pulled out a gun, laid it on the table and said, "I'd have killed you." For four years he knew he was honest because he held the threat of a gun over his head in case he wasn't. He is now impressed because he knows the man is honest anyway. He could see that it was no longer fear that was making him honest, but something else. He began to realize that here was one who had come into a new and different relationship with God, who was at work in his life.

This is what the apostle is teaching here, how frequently the absence of fear because of our trust in God will remove the problem of opposition. But what if it doesn't remove the problem? Even so, we are to remember that suffering for Christ is not a sacrifice--it's a privilege. "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." Remember, the Lord Jesus himself said, "He who saves his life shall lose it. But he who loses his life for my sake and the gospel's shall save it." We continue to try to hold on to our lives, to enjoy the things we want and insist on satisfying our desires and pleasures without realizing that inevitably and irresistibly that life is slipping through our fingers and we are losing it. The one who is willing to abandon it, throw it away if need be--waste it, seemingly-- on those concerns that involve the cause of Christ and the gospel, has saved that life. If you are not prepared to suffer, then just forget about being a Christian, for the Word warns us that they who would live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer some degree of persecution, and the Lord said, "In the world you shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world." 

Inevitably in the Christian life there will be some degree of putting up with misunderstanding, patronizing pity, ridicule or scorn and the like. Someone has well said when we appear before the Lord he doesn't look us over for medals, but for scars. They may not always be physical scars. It is the trials and suffering we go through that deepen our lives. I ran across this quotation from Oswald Chambers, which I think is beautifully expressive of this.

"God can never make us wine if we object to the fingers he uses to crush us with. If God would only use his own fingers and make us broken bread and poured out wine in a special way. But when he uses someone whom we dislike, or some set of circumstances to which we have said we would never submit, we object. We must never challenge the scene of our own martyrdom. If ever we are going to be made wine to drink, we will have to be crushed. You cannot drink grapes. Grapes become wine only when they have been squeezed."

So God has wisely designed that life involves suffering. And it is not a sacrifice; it is a privilege that we are granted, for Christ's sake. Paul said, "this is the same conflict you see and hear in me". He suffered both emotionally and physically.

From Paul's friends he endured criticism, difficulty, suffering and rejection. It is necessary to our growth in grace . But there is one thing we need not ever do under conflict, and that is to be afraid. Fear is the enemy that will remove us from faith.

The next passage shows us Satan's weapon to divide Christians.

2:1, 2 "So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of 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.

There are three strategies of the enemy we can infer from this passage. The first one is what we might call the power of negative thinking, the snare of a critical attitude toward others. Do you ever catch yourself picking someone apart flaw-by-flaw? Perhaps you salve your conscience by interjecting the phrase, "Now don't misunderstand me. I think the world of him, but..." and off we go again. What's happened? Well, we're irritated, and unconsciously seeking some justification for not seeing this person again or breaking off relationships, by pointing out all the terrible faults in him that make it necessary. The trouble with this philosophy is that we treat it as though there were no alternatives left to us. You know how this works, don't you? 

Paul says that is not true. We say there is no way to reconcile our personality differences. He says that isn't true. We say there is no way we can work together on a level because our spiritual maturity is so much superior to their immaturity. Paul says that isn't true. He says there are resources in Christ which make it possible. Believe me, I know what he is talking about because I've been wrestling with this problem this very week. Paul says you have forgotten something when you think that just finding fault is an excuse to break with them. You've forgotten what you share in Christ. You've forgotten the power of the life of Christ within you to overlook injuries and forgive insults, and be patient with weakness and immaturity. There is an alternative to breaking off diplomatic relationships. You can forget it. You can forbear it, you can bear with him. 

Then he says, these are the resources and the ground on which you can do this: "Is there any encouragement in Christ"; that is, is the encouragement of Christ's presence and His example anything to you? Is there any incentive of the Spirit in you to love even the unlovely? Is there any participation in the Spirit of God so that you and the other person have something in common, and you know that God is at work from his end as well as yours? Is there any affection and sympathy for problems the one who is irritating you may be undergoing? Have you looked at it from his point of view? Have you tried to put yourself in his place, and sympathized with the pressures he may be undergoing? Paul says if there is any reality in these things, then act on that basis--not with the harsh, caustic, critical, negative attitude that tears someone apart, but stop that attitude which is one of Satan's best weapons for dividing Christians. Remember these things, which are inevitably true,

Paul is going to say this again in chapter four, verse 8:

"Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."

That is not simply abstract. That has to do with a person. When you are thinking about that person, think this way about them. 

There are two more of the enemy's strategies revealed in chapter 2:3,4:

"Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others."

There they are named for us, those two hideous elements of the flesh: selfishness and conceit, or pride. These are the causes of the critical attitude we've already referred to. They are the two most deadly dividers of all human history. I've observed that most marital failures come from the presence of these two things in the home. For the Christian, the apostle gives two simple suggestions which, if obeyed, will effectively counteract the effect of these two things. 

First of all, he deals with pride. What practical suggestion can you give us, Paul, about how to handle pride? He say, in humility count others better than yourselves.

Just look at them and say to yourself, "that person is a better person than I." He doesn't mean to ignore obvious differences of ability or maturity. He doesn't say we should think everyone is equally competent, because sometimes experience is a factor. What he is saying is that when we look at someone else we can realize that at their stage of Christian maturity they are probably more faithful to what they know than I am to what I know at my stage. Remember that others in God's eyes are probably more faithful to what they know than you are to what you know, and are better Christians even though they may be younger in the faith. It is this attitude that is the mark of true humility, that will counteract the awful activity of pride. Try this, and when you do you will discover there is no ground for superiority or condescension. 

How can we handle selfishness in a practical way? He answers, "Let each of you look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others." Deliberately ask yourself, "How much time am I giving to someone else's interests, if possible giving priority to other's needs rather than my own." Be sure that the results that accrue fro your actions give advantage to others as well as to yourself. In other words, continually be alert to how much you can help someone else. What am I doing to give aid to another person? As you set your mind to that, reckoning on the indwelling of God's life in you to respond to others, you will discover you no longer act in selfishness. 

These things are always possible to a Christian. When selfishness and pride are removed from our relationships, we find Christian fellowship is always possible, and when we are together the gospel is advanced.

Prayer

"Our holy Father, this has been a very practical admonition from the pen of the apostle to our hearts this morning. We pray it takes rich effect , that we may see that these marvelous truths of Thy life in us are designed to find expression and practice. They are not merely theory, but to be carried out in our daily lives. Grant to us understanding of this, and willingness to yield our stubborn spirits to Thee in these very practical areas. Let no one go from this place with resentment against another, or wanting to avoid or cover up in any relationship an awareness of the encouragement that there is in Christ, the incentive of His love in our hearts.

Make us mindful of the participation in the Holy Spirit, that there may be affection and sympathy in active friendship. We pray in Christ's name. Amen

Title: The Practice of Unity Author: Ray C. Stedman
   Date:1963
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