Supreme Humility

Philippians 2:1-11

Today we move from the first to the second chapter in Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. In his letter, he is teaching the believers of this church how to experience regular, consistent, satisfying joy through any difficulty. Throughout this series, we are defining joy as “a calm, confident, and contented enthusiasm that comes from a life centered on Christ. This is a summary of how Paul describes joy in this letter.

In the first chapter of this letter, Paul has focused on teaching the church members in the church at Philippi to persevere in service and maintain a joyful mindset through pressures and suffering brought upon them from outside the church. As we begin Chapter 2, we find that he now shifts his focus to navigating challenges which can arise inside the church.

Having experienced church life for more than forty years now, I can say that it is these challenges and pressures which may bring about the greatest frustration and pain – those which come from inside the church. When a stranger hurts or treats me badly, that’s difficult to handle. But when a close family member or friend – esp. within the family of God – hurts or treat me badly, that’s even more difficult to handle because in theory, brothers and sisters in Christ should be our most loyal, loving, and lifelong friends.

It's this very challenge to which Paul turns his attention in Phil 2:1-11. In this section, which may very well be the center and heart of this entire letter, we learn that Christlike humility is the key to experiencing a unified church. And a unified church is something that all of us here at Brookdale desire to experience and enjoy. According to Paul, a unified church family is something that all of us should work hard to develop.

A church family should aspire to unity.
Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.

In these opening two verses, Paul describes the sort of character and quality that should describe or mark the relationships within a church family. First, when Paul says “if,” you should know that he is not asking whether or not such relationship dynamics existed within the church at Philippi. He is using what’s called a didactic ‘if,’ which is asking a question to which he already knows the answer is ‘yes.’

By stating his thoughts this way, he is prompting the listeners to say, “Well, yes, of course these things are in our church!” This approach engages the audience more actively and personally than just saying “since these things are there” or more plainly “these things are there.” In doing so, Paul is preparing the audience to see the importance of what he is about to tell them to do in a personal way. But before we look at what he tells them to do, what are these qualities that Paul knew existed within the church?

  • Consolation can mean a range of things such as “encouragement, comfort, enjoyment, or support.” In the big picture, it seems to emphasize one way or another the idea of providing help when needed, whether that help is needed in an emotional or relational way or in a material or physical way. And Paul makes clear that this desire and readiness to help comes from Christ himself. Since Christ has this mindset towards us, we then share this same impulse towards one another as his followers.
  • Comfort means “consolation, alleviation, cheering on someone gently.” This word is similar to the former consolation but seems to emphasize our mentality towards one another when we’re discouraged, disheartened, and downcast. This kind of desire to encourage one another in difficult times comes from a heart of brotherly and sisterly love which God gives us for one another.
  • Fellowship refers to “cooperation, sharing, generosity, and close relationship.” This word emphasizes a willing association and partnership with one another in which we are eager and prepared to work together closely, not as business partners or social acquaintances but as friends and family, no matter the personal cost. This sense of “togetherness” is given to us by the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit.
  • Affection and mercy describes our inner feelings of empathy, sympathy, and compassion for one another. It means that we feel sorry for one another in our hardships and want the best for each other. It means that our first, second, and third impulse is to show mercy and pity, not judgment.

Having reminded the Philippians believers that God had placed the seeds of these qualities into their hearts as followers of Christ, he urged them not to suppress those inner, spiritual tendencies since they are from God. He urged them instead to follow and foster those tendencies even more than they had been doing, to not neglect them.

Can you tell that these qualities are within our church and among us? Can you tell that they are within your own heart for one another? These are feelings and impulses from God which we must take seriously and must let them motivate us to take resulting actions towards one another, showing comfort and love to one another through words of encouragement and deeds of service and support.

When we foster these attitudes towards one another, then we will become increasingly unified as a church family rather than divided. As Christ taught in Matt 12:25, “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” also indicating that it is a strategy of Satan to do damage to the kingdom of God and its progress by encouraging and enabling discord and division within the church.

Paul urges a better way here. He urges the believers to follow their God-given love for one another onward, fostering it carefully so that the church would become increasingly focused and unified together in their feelings, values, and actions. He desired for the church to become more like a finely choregraphed marching band than a crowd of people at a street fair.

But how could such unity be achieved? He gives some clear instructions in the next two verses.

Unity grows as we commit to one another.
Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.

With these instructions, Paul encourages believers to work towards a growing unity in the church by promoting a deeper commitment to one another. In particular, he emphasizes our need to commit to one another so devotedly that we choose to elevate others rather than promote self. To explain this crucial, personal- and church-transforming mindset, he gives a negative instruction followed by some positive instructions.

“Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit.” Selfish ambition refers to a contentious, hostile, or rival spirit. It describes someone who is motivated by loyalty to a particular party, faction, or subgroup within the church which represents or caters to their own personal desires or interests. Conceit refers to vanity, excessive ambition, the illusion or delusion of being more important, influential, or knowledgeable than reality. It describes a church member or group of members who feel entitled to be acknowledged, respected, and catered to more than others.

Paul insists that these attitudes have no place in the family of God for they run contrary to the spirit of love and unity that God has placed into our hearts as his children. There is no time, place, or setting in which these attitudes should be tolerated. “Let nothing be done” this way, Paul says. Nothing.

Rather than tolerating such self-centered, egotistical attitudes, Paul gives some positive directives instead. Maintain a modest, realistic view of yourself (“lowliness of mind”), recognizing you have serious limitations and need other members in the church to help you out. In fact, you should learn to assume first that other members have advantages, maturity, skills, perspectives, and wisdom that you do not have (“let each esteem other better than himself”). In other words, stop taking yourself too seriously and start taking others more seriously than you currently do.

So, Paul is urging us as members of the church to let our inner, God-given impulses to love and value one another play out in real time by truly valuing and viewing one another as entirely necessary and specially gifted by God for our personal and mutual success. We need each other and are equipped by God to help one another succeed. None of us can live the Christian life successfully on our own.

As a result, we should “look out for” (which means “to scope, pay attention to, look closely at”) the things of one another. This means that we should pay close attention to what God is doing in one another’s lives. We should weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice. We should look for those who can help us learn and grow in our walk with Christ and we should look for those whom we can help.

Sadly, we easily tend to focus our primary energies on our own personal success, leaving any focus or ministry to one another to the side. We consume ourselves with ourselves and leave one another to fend for themselves. Paul is urging the opposite approach. Compare, for instance, how much effort, energy, emotion, and focus you put into paying attention to and investing in the personal and spiritual wellbeing and development of other people in your own church family. Can you truly say that you are a committed, contributing, serving member and participant in your church? We’re talking about involvement and service, of course, not just attendance.

But how is this kind of mindset possible? How can anyone of us live so selflessly, so humbly, so devotedly, so focused on one other in the church? To answer this question, he gives us the ultimate example – the example of supreme humility, Jesus Christ himself.

Christ’s humility is the example for us all.
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who …

The following section of verses present to us with Christ as the ultimate example of humble, others-focused service. To better understand what Paul has in mind, let’s look at how he describes Christ’s mindset and approach towards people like us.

“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus” Mind here is the same word Paul used in Phil 2:2 to describe the mindset we should have and share towards one another in the church. So, we see that Christ himself has this very mindset towards us. By saying, “Let this mind be in you,” Paul indicates that this is not a mindset we must conjure up on our own.

Instead, it is a mindset that God is already working in us if you are a born-again follower of Christ. It is something that you need to acknowledge, cooperate with, and yield to. Christ is working internally and supernaturally to develop this Christlike mindset in your life, replacing your selfish mindset with his own selfless one. If you are a follower of Christ, can you sense the God is doing this? Are you cooperating or resisting?

Now, how did Christ himself demonstrate or work out this mindset for himself? First, he did not insist on being publicly acknowledged or treated as God.
who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God…

This is a challenging statement to understand in English.

First, “being in the form of God” does not mean that Christ merely resembled God as a mirage resemble an oasis in the desert, but that he was – in fact – God. It means that he possessed all the attributes and qualities of God in their completeness, making him God.

“Robbery” means something like “grabbing” or “holding/grasping onto.”

So, Paul is saying that though Christ himself has eternally acknowledged, adored, and worshiped as God – equally to God the Father – when it came to rescuing us from our sins, he did not insist (or “consider”) being acknowledged as God a prohibiting requirement. In other words, he was willing to let go of being treated as God in order to rescue us from our sins.
but made Himself of no reputation …

This also is a difficult phrase to translate from Greek into English. The more literal meaning, reflected in some translations, is “but emptied himself.” The technical term used means “to self-empty” or to “empty oneself,” yet even that meaning is difficult to explain because it doesn’t mean to empty yourself like you empty a box of cereal by pouring it out or like draining the oil from an engine block before pouring new oil in.

Instead, it means something more like our English idiom “going all out” or “pouring yourself out.” These idioms explain “getting deeply involved” in some activity or cause and “going to extreme measures” to accomplish a goal or mission. Perhaps the best way to describe this is to translate it as “holding nothing back.” Christ held nothing back when he came into the world to save us. He didn’t even insist on being treated as God.

Paul then goes on to describe a four-step process of the humiliation which Christ not only accepted but personally pursued.

  • He became a servant. Rather than be served, he served. Rather than insist on being treated as the King of the world, he willingly chose to be a servant to the world. As the highest ranking being of all, he accepted the lowest possible social position for a human being.
  • He became a human being. It’s fascinating that Paul lists becoming a human being after becoming a servant because there does seem to be a progression of increased humiliation here, yet we tend to view being a human as more prestigious than being a servant. But Paul lists being a human as even more humiliating for Christ than being a servant. That’s humbling, right? But the stunning thing about this is that the Creator of all mankind himself became a human. The Creator became a created being. What humility. As a human being, Christ experienced all the difficulties of being a human. He was a helpless infant. He hungered. He thirsted. He grew tired and weak. He lost his father at an early age, was unliked by his siblings, and lost his close friend Lazarus to death. He endured incredible temptations, yet without sin. He was hated and misunderstood. He was abused and mistreated. He chose to understand the human condition not just in theory but in reality by becoming a human being like you and me.
  • He died. This is the worst part about being a human – dying. We all die eventually and Christ did not avoid or circumvent this experience. This is remarkable, of course, because he had never sinned, and only those who sin die. Therefore, Christ could not have died – except for the fact that he willingly accepted and took upon himself the guild for our own sins instead, so he died in our place.

But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone. (Heb 2:9)

  • He suffered a criminal’s death. Finally, Paul points out that Christ didn’t simply die. As God, he could easily have chosen the most optimal, painless form of death, perhaps breathing his last breath quietly in his sleep, or something like that. But he did not take the easy way out. The way Paul writes this here, he writes emphatically – “the death of the cross.” This means that Paul wishes to underscore that Christ died the most embarrassing, humiliating, painful death possible. Only the worst criminals died by crucifixion. Political traitors (treason), murderers (esp. serial killers), pedophiles, etc. – these were the sort of people that Rome crucified. The worst of the worst. Christ accepted this sort of death knowing that it would not only obscure his identity as God but would publicly identify him as the most heinous kind of person.

Have you taken this mindset towards others in the church? Have you chosen to actively involve yourself in service to others? Have you accepted that you may be misunderstood and not fully or properly acknowledged for who you are academically, financially, professionally, reputationally, etc.? Or do you focus more on being served by others and being treated respectfully and favorably by others, instead? Which do you focus most upon – insisting on your rights or doing what is right for others, even if it costs you something?

Did Christ lose out by taking this approach – by allowing his deity to be obscured and accepting the life of a servant, a human being, and the death of a criminal? No, he did not.

Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:9-11).

When we choose, like Christ, to commit ourselves to serving one another and we set aside all expectations for acknowledgment and reputation, then we may feel like we are losing out, like we’ll be overlooked, underappreciated, and in some cases misunderstood or wrongfully treated.

Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. (John 12:24)

For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it. (Luke 9:24)

Just as Christ won not only in spite of his humiliation but through it, so we will triumph in the end for and with Christ if we take the same pathway of humble service in the church.

Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, (1 Pet 5:6)

Let me encourage each on of you to strengthen the unity of our church family by committing ourselves to serving one another in Christian love, by caring for one another just as we care for ourselves. Such compassion and service requires us to step out of our isolated, self-focused, self-protective lives but doing so is where joy truly begins.

Christ’s humility is the example for us all. If he can leave heaven to be treated as he was, what steps of care and ministry can you take to imitate him?

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