Paul frequently uses the language of prayer in the exhortatory sections of his letters, framing the exhortation to believers in terms of a wish or request which he would make to God. The customary verb for prayer in the New Testament is proseu/xomai, a compound middle deponent verb from eu&xw + the prefixed preposition pro/$ (“toward”). Fundamentally, in a religious context, it means “speak out toward (God)”. However, when referring to a specific request made to God, often the noun de/hsi$ is used, even as Paul does at a number of points in his letters—see especially here in Philippians (1:4, 19; 4:6). At 4:6 he uses proseuxh/, related to the aforementioned verb, together with de/hsi$; the former denotes the act of speaking to God, the latter the specific request(s) being made. In 1:9, Paul clearly states that he prays to God on behalf of the Philippian believers, with his specific request—the goal and purpose of his prayer—being:
“…that your love would go over (and above), more and more, in (deep) knowledge and all insight”
This love which is manifest in wisdom and understanding—the true knowledge of God—is characteristic of the believer who is complete; and it is Paul’s fervent wish that all believers would come to be complete in Christ (cf. verses 10-11). It is not just a question of the character and development of the individual believer, but also of believers in community, united together as the body of Christ. This is realized in the Spirit, but the goal is for such unity to be demonstrated within the local community—the congregation or local group(s) of believers—as well. Paul’s experience in founding and guiding congregations, however, had taught him all too well that it can be a most difficult (and at times painful) process to see this ideal of unity in the Spirit realized within the local congregation at a practical level. He very much has this challenge in mind as he begins his line of discussion in chapter 2.
Though prayer is not mentioned, as such, in 2:1-4, there can be no doubt that Paul’s exhortation here is fully in keeping with the prayer-request expressed in 1:9ff. He re-emphasizes his wish for unity among believers in 2:1-2:
“(So) then, if (there is) any calling alongside in (the) Anointed, if any impulse of love alongside, if (there is) any common bond of the Spirit, if any entrails (of compassion) and (feeling)s of mercy, you must make full my delight, (in) that you should be of the s(ame) mind, holding the s(ame) love, like souls (united) together, being of one mind…”
Paul understood that the sort of unity he desires for believers requires a willingness to sacrifice one’s own interests for the good of others. This kind of self-denial, an attitude of meekness and humility, is part of the active work of the Spirit in and among believers (the “fruit of the Spirit”, Gal 5:22-23ff), but it requires a receptivity on the part of the believer, a willingness to be guided and transformed by the Spirit of God and Christ (Gal 5:16, 25, etc). For this reason, Paul introduces in verse 3 the ideal of a unifying humility among believers in Christ:
“…(with) nothing (done) according to selfish work [e)riqei/a], and not according to (a desire for) empty esteem [kenodoci/a], but with a lowliness of mind [tapeinofrosu/nh] (you should) be (one)s leading (by) holding others over themselves”
The syntax of the last phrase, in particular, is difficult to render literally in English; but the goal clearly is for believers to conduct themselves in a manner that puts the interests of other believers (in the community) over their own. This point is elucidated in verse 4:
“…(with) each (person) not looking at the (thing)s of himself [i.e. his own things], but (instead) each (person should look at) the (thing)s of others.”
How often do we pray in this manner—for the needs of others rather than our own needs? It is, however, a fundamental principle of Christian prayer in the New Testament, as discussed in recent notes in this series. A prayer for the needs of others more properly reflects the Spirit of God at work in us (cf. the previous study on Rom 8:26-27), and we can be confident indeed that such a prayer, under the guidance of the Spirit, will be answered by God.
This brief study on Phil 2:1-4 is preparatory, in certain respects, to a series of daily notes I am now beginning on the famous “Christ hymn” of 2:6-11. I recommend that you follow along with these notes, as they will help to expound and illustrate the teaching and exhortation Paul gives here in vv. 1-4. Verse 5 is transitional in this regard, and this is where the series of critical and exegetical notes on the passage will begin.