As the New Year begins many people are hoping for better things ahead in 2021 and some are making resolutions to that end. I have never been much for resolutions, and yet, after some reflection on my own life and the life of our church, the Lord has impressed upon me a focus that I want to introduce to you today in a special New Year message that I am praying will point us in the direction God would have us travel in together. The theme and focus is “more like Jesus.” I want my life, the life of my family, and the life of our church to look more like Christ. Throughout the year and in tandem with prayer meetings and during special series at different intervals throughout the year we will be visiting and revisiting this theme as we grow together as a body of believers. This starts today as we are introduced to one of the most foundational, most necessary, and most challenging ways to look more like Jesus—humility. Today we are going to witness THREE PARTS OF PAUL’S CALL TO HUMILITY in Philippians 2:1-11 and apply what we learn in appropriate ways in our lives as needed.
I. PART #1: THE CALL TO HUMILITY-2:1-4
It must have been a joy for Paul to write to the church in Philippi. He had planted this church while in the region and after some years had passed, this church had grown and was thriving in many ways. However, even good churches have their share of concerns. You know what a church needs to hear from Paul because, well, Paul will tell them in these letters the Lord inspired. One of the things Paul is willing to call out (literally by name) in the letter to Philippi involved a dispute between two women (Euodia and Syntyche) in chapter 4:2-3. Given this source of division and tension, Paul highlights one of the many characteristics that the church ought to consider and improve upon so that this example (and others like it) did not disrupt what God was doing in the life of this congregation. It just so happens that this needed area of improvement is also what Christ exemplifies and excels at so well—humility (but alas, I am getting ahead of myself).
So important is the call to humility for this church that Paul introduces it in the following way—“Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship off the Spirit, if any affection and compassion” (2:1). You can tell from reading this opening that what is coming is exceedingly important and to be investigated very carefully.
What proves exceedingly important and especially worthy of investigation as it pertains to humility in the life of the church is answered next in verse 2—“make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose” (2:2). Humility looks like unity and a body that is not united most assuredly has members operating from the opposite posture—pride. Pride, the opposite of humility, is the enemy of unity. Competition instead of cooperation among the members breeds discord and paralysis. This was true in the church of Philippi and it is true in the church today. Notice to what extent Paul goes to highlight how necessary unity is in the life of the church. Unity is said to not only “complete his joy” but words like “same,” “united,” and “one” are repeated again and again in this single verse. If you want to know whether a body of believers is adequately humble, Paul appears to argue that unity is a good gauge.
However, unity is not the only hallmark of humility Paul emphasizes. Next, Paul introduces selflessness as another test for a heathy body of believers—“Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves…” (2:3).
I have often quipped that if was ever called to give a graduation speech or present at a baccalaureate ceremony I would slowly walk up to the podium, lean into the microphone and very clear utter a single word—“others”—and quickly step away and return to my seat. After all, “others” ought to be our preoccupation in life, regardless of what God may call us to do. That is, after all, who we are left on this earth for—others. It is the second greatest command given to us by God—loving “others”—and one of the most important ways we obey the first greatest commandment –loving God. An “others”-focus is what we see modeled in the life of Christ and his apostles. Others is what this life is all about…not you…others!
Paul makes this very clear in his call to humility when he utters verse 3 which reads (again) “do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves” (2:3). A humble church is concerned about the feelings, needs, desires, etc. of others first and gives others precedent over personal agendas, personal campaigns for self-aggrandizement, and personal preferences.
In fact, Paul’s call of the church goes beyond merely treating others as equals. That is not a high enough bar to clear. Notice what he states: “but with humility of mind regard one another as MORE IMPORTANT than yourself” (2:3). Therefore, the old adage “treat others the way you want to be treated” ought to instead read “treat others even better than you would like for them to treat you.” This applies to the way one speaks to others as well as what one does for others. People in the church of Philippi may have been tempted to say “Well, I don’t need to hear that” or “I don’t handle my business that way” in their dealings with one another. Here, Paul responds with “So what? To do more than you may think is necessary in a situation is to be like Christ and that is ultimately what the church ought to be pursuing—Christ-likeness (but alas, again I am getting ahead of myself).
So far Paul has argued for the church at Philippi that a humble church is a united church and a selfless church. In verse 4 he adds that the humble church is a serving church—“Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (2:4). Oh how this must have spoken to volumes to the church in Philippi where so much was going on and the church was enjoying growth in many directions. Paul’s encouragement here is to avoid compartmentalizing the ministry of the body into tribes/factions/silos that are mutually exclusive. After all, when this happens, different campaigns, efforts, or endeavors begin to compete rather than cooperate and mini man-made kingdoms replace the mission of the kingdom of God. It is important that the members of the body support and pray for all efforts in the church, even/especially those in which one may not have direct involvement. The nature/proximity of our involvement in this or that ought have no bearing on our enthusiasm to see this or that succeed as the church is on mission. When we choose to serve only what interests us or supports our pet project, we rob ourselves of the joy that comes when God may be doing something elsewhere.
Paul’s call for the church of Philippi to be humble requires that unity win out against division, selflessness beat self-centeredness, and service overwhelm mini-kingdom-building. So urgent and important are these encouragements toward humility that Paul frames these many admonitions through present active participles, indicating that these practices are ongoing, progressive, and require consistent and deliberate work on the part of the members of the church. These are things—unity, selflessness, and service—to work at constantly. Such enterprises ought to be on the radar of every Bible-believing, God serving member of any church (be it in Philippi or in this one right here). Thankfully, Paul provides an example for the church to learn from as they are about these pursuits.
II. PART #2: THE EXAMPLE OF HUMILITY-2:5-8
When looking for a standard to judge oneself against or an example worthy following, you cannot get any better than Jesus himself. Paul introduces Christ as the humility expert in verse 5 when he says, “have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus” (2:5). While unity, selflessness, and service are good instructions to follow, Paul throws these up against a more general and all-encompassing test case to consider—the life and ministry of Jesus. Ultimately, the call to humility for the church is the call to Christ-likeness. So what did he do? How might the church follow in his footsteps?
Paul presents three expressions of humility in the life of Christ that believers can learn from in verses 6-8 that are of special significance. In fact, together these verses form one of the most powerful and aesthetically-pleasing hymns on the ministry of Jesus ever written. In it the incarnation is highlighted first with—“who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself…” (2:6-7a). Consider what Paul says here very carefully. First, Jesus existed “in the form of God.” In other words, his form perfectly expressed the inner reality that he was and is God himself. Hebrews 1:3 puts it this way: “And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power.” Paul says elsewhere of Christ that “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:15-17).
No other resume is higher than Christ’s—this one who preexisted time, created the world, and sustains all things in his power. He is unlike us in that there never was a time in which he was not. No higher status can be granted that he doesn’t already have and no greater glory can be enjoyed that isn’t already his. And yet, while possessing all of these things and all of the rights and privileges appertaining thereunto this same Jesus—the glorious son of God and second person of the Trinity—“did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped” (2:6). I love that. While Jesus could have insisted to embrace his glorious splendor undisturbed, he willingly chose to forego certain blessings that only he knew how to enjoy to accomplish God’s will. Though equal with the Father, he subordinated himself to the Father’s plan and left the comforts and wonders of heaven for others (a selfless service brought on by his unity with the Father).
To follow Christ and to look like Christ means taking on the same willingness to let go of what we think we need, what we may feel entitled to, or what we believe is owed to us either from God or from others to move forward with God’s plan. Oh how we love to grasp hold of our way, our agenda, our preferences, our public perception, or what we have worked so hard to achieve. Christ-likeness is not about grasping hold of things tightly, but about letting them go and placing the Father’s agenda first. People might say “but I know better!” or “it is comfortable here” or “I’ve always been” or “that isn’t what I had in mind.” I am glad Jesus did not say these things or stay where he was. His incarnation proves his humility and part of that incarnation involved letting go of what was rightfully his for the sake of God’s will. Some of us would look a lot more like Jesus if we would let go of what we believe we are entitled to and quit insisting that we get our way in everything. Jesus did not lean on what was his and demand what always was, he emptied himself. He became human! The only way for Jesus to empty himself would be to take on limits and this he did by wrapping himself in flesh and becoming a man. To do this he left (at least in some ways) his position, rank, and privilege, rendering these “of no effect” (Melick Jr., Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 103). Think of the quantum plunge this required, the levels to which God the Son stoop, the degree he was willing to condescend to accomplish this. We are talking about steps toward humility that make the Mariana Trench (the deepest known point in the earth’s ocean) look like a shallow puddle.
However, Jesus does not just exemplify humility in his incarnation, but while at this subterranean level of humanity, we see evidence of his modesty in the way he lived—“taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men” (2:7b). Though a king, he was born in a manger. Though God made flesh, the Bible says “there was nothing in his appearance to make us desire him” (Isa 53:2). Though he is of the highest stature, he became a servant. Though God, he lived life as a man. Perhaps this is why he consistently taught that the last shall be first and the first shall be last (Matt. 19:29-30) and that the greatest among you will be a servant (Matt. 23:11).
If the example of Christ’s humility could not grow any more acute, consider how his humility was expressed in his death! Paul continues “being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (2:8). As a true “bond-servant” Jesus chose to obey even when it cost him his life, and that further in a most ignoble and humiliating way” (Melick Jr., Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, 105). The impact of Jesus’s death by crucifixion would have been powerful for the Philippian audience. After all, no Roman could be subjected to such a death and the Jews took it as a sign that the victim was accursed (Deut. 21:22; Gal. 3:13). It was one of the most painful and humiliating ways to be executed ever conceived by man and Jesus humbled himself to this extent out of obedience to for the glory of the Father.
Christ’s humility in death is an especially important reminder to us today in our world that champions comfort and preaches safety, security, and health as ultimate virtues. Make no mistake brother and sister in Christ, God’s chief concern in your life and my life is not about your comfort, safety, security, or even health; it is that he receives the maximum glory from you regardless of what that entails and despite what that may cost. Such was true of Jesus himself and it ought to be true of those who follow him.
III. PART #3: THE RESULT OF HUMILTY-2:9-11
After exploring the call of humility and the example of humility, the apostle Paul explores the result of humility. For Christ, the result of his humiliation was exaltation—“For this reason also, God highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name,…” (2:9). Following Jesus’ condescension, service, and sacrifice for others, he was elevated greatly/exceedingly and bestowed a name higher than any other. This is not to say that Jesus became anything that he was not already. It is to say that what he was (and is) was confirmed in special ways. It is in his humility that his glory is most realized for those who are willing to accept him for who he is and what he accomplished.
In fact, accept him now or not, one day Paul says that “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (2:10-11). Here lies the ultimate result of Christ-like humility—the glory of God the Father. For Christ, his humility was awarded with exaltation because in exalting Christ, God exalts the One who is the “image of the invisible God” the “exact representation of his glory.” As followers of Christ, when the church models Jesus’ example of humility, she resembles him and returns to the Father the glory that is due his name. The church is operating best and glorifying God most when she and her members are at their most humble. That is when they look most like the one who humbled himself on their behalf.
This year as a church we will giving special focus to living and speaking more like Jesus. As Paul has indicated in this passage for the church in Philippi, humility goes a long way to that end. We have been called to humility, been given the greatest example of humility, and have the greatest reason to live humbly like our Savior (the glory of God). What does this look like? It looks like unity, selflessness, and service and less like competition, self-aggrandizement, and personal kingdom-building. It looks less getting our way and pursing God’s will. It looks less like grasping hold of what we believe we are entitled to or expect from others and more like letting go and giving God control in all things. It looks less like treating others how we think they should be treated and more like treating them better than we treat ourselves. It looks less like comfort, security, and safety and more like obedience, faith, and sacrifice, regardless of what it costs. This is a message I am convinced the church needs to hear in this moment, especially as we stand at the precipice of a new year and give ourselves to reflecting and thinking ahead. I’m convinced of this so much because of how I’ve wrestled with this message and its implications in my own life. Maybe I’m alone; but I think not.
You see, after ten years in full time ministry and some reflection during time away this past week, I can honestly say that this past year has stretched me more than any before it on so many various levels. Amid the trials and triumphs, frustrations and blessings, something has been made very clear to me after spending a lot of time with myself…I am relatively sick and tired of me. Because I know what is in me. I know what I am. I do not need more of me, my way, or my agenda, or my attitude, or my preferences, or what I believe I’m entitled to. I need more of Jesus. I need more of Jesus every day. Because as Paul says in Colossians 1:27, there is nothing about me that is exceptional, brilliant, prepared, or qualified. It is Christ in me that is the hope of glory.
Aren’t you tired of you? If you are not tired of you, maybe you have not thought hard enough about who you are. Maybe you don’t know yourself as good as you think you do. Maybe you have not thought about how much you struggle with that old ugly pride that like an unending whack-a-mole character rears its head again and again and again. Maybe you don’t know how debilitating the ancient foe of pride is to your pursuit of being more like Christ in the context of his church. If you want to be more like Jesus in 2021 and every year thereafter, let it start with less of you and more of him. Let it start with humility.