As much as we might like to think otherwise, living in unity with other believers is never easy, much less automatic. That the apostle Paul would devote so much time and attention to this aspect of being in the body of Christ—especially to an assembly, unlike the churches in Corinth and Galatia, that were filled with sin, error, and division—indicates both the defining nature of unity for the church and the challenge facing believers who are intent upon living as the Lord intended believers to live together. Having told the Philippians that in order to manifest the unity expected by the Lord of believers they must be of the same mind and must maintain the same love, Paul then explains that they must be “united in spirit” (Phil. 2:2).
We would make a grievous mistake to ignore the participle that governs three of the requirements Paul has mentioned or will mention: “being of the same mind,” “being . . . intent on one purpose [which we will examine next time],” and “being . . . united in spirit.” In other words, where unity is concerned, there is no such thing as a one-off action—one grand feat that forever delivers a body of believers to the state of perpetual unity. Unity occurs as the result of a constant “being”; it is both as immediate and as fleeting as this very moment. The right attitude[s] can at any moment give birth to Christ-honoring unity among a body of saints, but that unity can just as quickly vanish with a breath of selfishness or carnality.
So Paul advises that believers must be “being . . . united in spirit”—that is, both moment-by-moment and constantly. Our translators have wisely placed a lowercase “s” before the word spirit, indicating that it is our human spirit of which Paul speaks. In the first verse, he had written of the “fellowship of the Spirit [uppercase “s”], desiring us to recognize that true fellowship (an expression of the unity Paul calls believers to enjoy) has the potential to exist only among those who are indwelt by the Spirit of God. Without the Holy Spirit, there is not the slightest possibility of unity; however, the Spirit of God alone will not produce unity, which requires the will and the effort of those possessed of the Spirit.
It is by the spirit in a man, that part of his rational being that can know, understand, and fellowship with God, that he apprehends the truth of the Word of God. It is the seat of faith and that which enables the will to make right choices and do the right thing. However, to be united in spirit does not imply that all believers know and understand God to the same degree or that they comprehend doctrine to the same extent. Of course, that possibility does not exist this side of eternity. What it does mean is that for true unity to pertain among believers, all must have a reverence for the Word of God and must yield their wills and desires ultimately not to each other but to the authority of God’s Book.
This aspect of unity is inseparable from the call to be of the same mind. But in the case of a sound mind, Paul’s emphasis rests on the rational aspect of unity and in this case his emphasis focuses on the nature of that oneness. For example, when we speak of the “spirit” that someone demonstrates, we are referring to those intangible qualities that are expressed in his character. Another way of looking at Paul’s instruction, then, is to recognize that our human spirit is to be so united with and controlled by the Spirit of God that our character reflects godliness rather than fleshliness. We are to think as God thinks in order that we might behave as God behaves.
Believers will be united in spirit, not when we try to figure out what someone else believes or understands and not when we try to behave like someone else but when we are yielded to the will of God and living under the control of His Spirit. Where true unity exists, two or more lives are not living in some mechanical lockstep fashion but are enjoying the living vitality of a body that enables the legs to walk without stumbling, the arms to work in coordination to lift a box, the fingers to work in harmony to peel an apple—each fulfilling its individual task for the blessing of the whole body. Be united in spirit.
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