“I want you for U.S. Army.” “We do more before 9AM than most people do all day.” “Be all that you can be.” Most of us will recognize these statements as maxims used in the past by the U.S. Army. One of the Army’s more recent slogans was, “An army of one.”
The Apostle Paul urged a favorite church of his to advance the Gospel as an “army of one.” He wrote the letter to the Philippians, most probably from Rome in A.D. 62, while under house-arrest among Caesar’s praetorian guards. He anticipated a trial soon. He sent the letter to the church folk at Philippi to inform them of his circumstances, but primarily to urge them to advance the Gospel together with him.
Paul considered the Philippians “partners” (κοινωνία, “partnership,” 1:5) with him in achieving that aim (1:3–6), even in the face of opposition (3:2), but a problem was present in the church. The Philippians could not participate in advancing the Gospel as an “army of one” the way that they should because disunity existed amongst them (1:27; 2:1–4; 4:2). A civil war of sorts was apparently taking place in their midst, and a church in disunity cannot advance the Gospel as effectively—if at all—as one that is unified.
Paul wanted the Philippian church to have a “united front” as they advanced the Gospel. To do so, the church members needed to focus on having a selfless mindset (found only in Christ) that produced unity.
The Lord desires unity amongst His people. He does not want believers to be in one accord “at all costs” in which they compromise or sacrifice the faith or their convictions, but He does want them to have a unified front as they partner together in spreading the good news of Jesus Christ in this unbelieving, and sometimes hostile, world.
Paul prayed for the Philippians in 1:3–11 toward this end, and we can learn much from his prayer about advancing the Gospel together. The apostle’s prayers for the churches that he wrote were often in keeping with his reason for writing, and that practice is no different here.
First, Paul thanked God for the Philippians (1:3–8). Central to his prayer for them is the reason for his thankfulness: because of their “partnership in the gospel” (ἐπὶ τῇ κοινωνίᾳ ὑμῶν εἰς τὸ εὐαγγέλιον, 1:5). Paul was grateful that he was not alone in advancing the Gospel. No wonder that his prayers for the Philippians were always offered to God with joy (1:3-4), and that he “longed” for them “with the affection of Christ Jesus” (1:8). Further, Paul was confident that God would complete the work of their partnership and participation in the Gospel that He had begun in them.
Just as Paul realized that he was not alone in the Gospel enterprise, so also we are not alone in the Gospel initiative. No one can do it alone, and we ought to thank God for our partners in this endeavor. Southern Baptist churches give through the Cooperative Program to support their state conventions and the SBC’s missions and ministries. All of these constituents work together toward a common goal that no one person or church can accomplish on their own: sharing the Gospel with every person on the planet.
Second, Paul prayed a petition prayer for the Philippians that they might have an increased love that results in a pure and blameless status at Christ’s return (1:9–11). Interestingly, the word “love” (ἀγάπη) in the text does not have an object. One might wonder, therefore, whether Paul referred to loving God, loving others, or both. Though the church cannot love others as they should without first loving God, the letter strongly indicates that the apostle had in mind the Philippians’ love for one another (1:16; 2:1–2). Love for one another is needed if the church is to achieve the united front that is needed to advance the Gospel. Paul especially prayed that his readers’ love would abound/increase in “knowledge/moral insight” (ἐπίγνωσις) and thorough “discernment” (αἴσθησις) (1:9). Their love needed to be accompanied by this overflow of insight so that they might approve after testing, i.e., discern (εἰς τὸ δοκιμάζειν, indicating purpose, or possibly result) the things that really matter when it comes to the advance of the Gospel. Paul prayed that this practice might result in them standing blameless (concerning their motives and the Gospel’s advance) on the day of Christ (1:10). Fruitful activity and living of this sort is all done “to the glory and praise of God” (1:11).
Churches can get easily distracted from their primary mission of advancing the Gospel and making disciples. They do so often by arguing over things that do not really matter when it comes to the Gospel’s propagation, like what the color of the carpet should be, having pews versus chairs, singing only hymns or no hymns, using PowerPoint in sermons or not, etc. If we are not careful, matters like these can detract from or prevent effective Gospel ministry. So, it is extremely important for us to discern the things that are most excellent when it comes to Gospel ministry. We need to make the best possible decisions and focus on the things that really do matter as we all seek to spread the Gospel in our communities and across the globe.
How else could the Philippians achieve the united front necessary to advance the Gospel effectively? They would achieve that essential selfless mindset by embracing the mind of Christ, who epitomizes unselfish thinking. Paul commanded the church,
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5–8, NASB).
Though He is God, Jesus did not take full advantage of His deity while on the earth. Rather, He selflessly “emptied” Himself. How? The biblical text tells us the means by which He did so: He “emptied” Himself by taking on the form of a servant. He left the glories of heaven and became human, and he became humbly and wholly obedient to the point of death on a cross.
Paul offered some ways to put the mindset of Christ into practice. For example, just prior to the kenōsis passage, he encouraged the church to live together in harmony in 2:1–4. He directed the Philippian believers to have “the same mind,” to maintain “the same love,” to be “united in spirit,” focusing on one purpose (2:2). He instructed them to “do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit,” but in humility to regard others as more important than themselves (2:3, NASB).
Consequently, we should make it a point to shelve any disputes that threaten unity in our churches (4:1–2). We should never allow a spirit of divisiveness or bitterness to permeate our lives or our congregations. Our time on earth is far too short to be spent upon having bad attitudes or arguing over petty matters. Believers in the Lord Jesus should love one another and live in harmony. When they do so, a powerful message is sent out to the world (John 13:35)—“Jesus Christ has saved us from our sins; He makes a difference in people’s lives, and you need Him!”
So, ponder those qualities that are necessary as we work together to share the Gospel. Focus on Jesus Christ and His attributes (4:8–9): things that are true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, excellent, and worthy of praise. Both Paul and Jesus exhibited these attributes, and so should we. When we practice these things, the Lord will bless our evangelistic efforts in the Gospel’s advance. Preach the Word! Reach the world!
The overarching theme of Philippians is “partnership for the advancement of the gospel,” not “joy” or “contentment,” as many teach. The latter two are sub-themes but not the main themes.
Interestingly, Paul used language in this letter found in accounts describing the Battle of Philippi, a civil war fought in 42 B.C. that took place among the Romans to avenge the assassination of Julius Caesar. Marc Antony and Octavian led forces on the one side, while Brutus and Cassius did so on the other.
Unless otherwise noted, the Bible translations are mine.
The “work” in 1:6 to which Paul refers is found in 1:5—the Philippians’ “partnership in the gospel.”
Greek: “the things that differ.”