Recently I came across a great definition of humility attributed to John Newton: “If I ever reach heaven I expect to find three wonders there: first, to meet some I had not thought to see there; second, to miss some I had expected to see there; and third—the greatest wonder of all—to find myself there.”
Imagine I am an emergency-room physician. During my lunch hour I am on my way to eat when an ambulance arrives. Inside is a street person who has overdosed on drugs. He might even be a murderer. Yet without prompt attention he will die. Regardless of his sins and without regard for my desire for food, I give the man my full attention. At this moment he is “more important than” my agenda and my hunger.
The apostle Paul said we’re to treat one another as “more important than” ourselves (Phil. 2:3, NET). In his letter to the Philippians he contrasts humility with its opposites, selfish ambition and vanity. If we are truly humble, we are unimpressed with ourselves, and we avoid seeking to enhance our own standing.
As the NET Bible indicates, we are to treat the other person as more important than ourselves. Others’ interests are to come higher on our agenda than our own selfish interests. Like a doctor delaying lunch, we’re to serve others in humility, assigning our interests a lower priority than others’ needs. Of course putting their interests ahead of our own does not mean that we should be subject to the selfish whims of everyone who makes demands. Sometimes seeking the best interest of others calls for us to rebuke them.
The Example of Humility
Paul continues, “You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had, who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature. He humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross! As a result God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow—in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess to the glory of God the Father that Jesus Christ is Lord” (2:5–11, NET).
This passage was hotly debated in the fourth century because of its implications concerning the person of Jesus Christ. Was He merely “like” God (in theological terms, “of similar substance”), or was He fully and completely God (“of the same substance”)? Thanks to the courage and tenacity of Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, the church stood behind the orthodox position that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human. Undiminished deity took on perfect and sinless humanity at the Incarnation. We may not fully comprehend this mystery, but we believe it because the Bible says so.
In keeping with Paul’s argument in the passage, we remember he has been exhorting the Philippians to live in harmony. And the basis for such unity is humility, considering the interests of others as more important than our own (vv. 3–4). Paul then moves to the ultimate example of humility—our Lord Jesus Christ (vv. 5–11). Paul first affirms Jesus’ position and status, which give Him claim to certain prerogatives. Taking into account the additional information supplied by other biblical texts, the essence of verses 6–8 might best be summed up this way: Our Lord Jesus Christ has always existed as the second person of the Godhead, and He was actively involved in the creation of this world. He existed as God and was fully equal with the Father in His essence. Even though He was equal with God the Father, He did not seize this as an opportunity to further His own interests independently. That is, though equal with God (or we might say, equally God), our Lord did not seize this as an opportunity to further His own interests at the expense of the Father. Instead He “emptied Himself by taking on the form of a slave” (v. 7).
Much debate has occurred over this word “emptied.” We know from other Scriptures that it cannot mean that our Lord set aside His deity, that He ceased to be God when He took on human flesh, or even that He diminished His deity, becoming somehow “less God.” Our Lord did not set aside any of His divine attributes. What He set aside was the pursuit of His personal interests, interests that would have been in competition with the Father.
Suppose a successful businessman is elected president. We can imagine some of the ways in which he could seize the power of that office to further his own business interests. He could insist that government agencies use his products. He could punish other countries through trade agreements, tariffs, and customs inspections for not using them.
He could use his position to destroy his competition. This is why one who runs for office must divest himself of his interests by placing his business in a blind trust, which leaves control to someone else. The businessman does not give away all that he owns; he simply divests himself of the power to profit from his position.
So it was with our Lord’s “emptying” of Himself. He did not cease to be God; He divested Himself of self-interest so that He could glorify the Father and save lost sinners. Our Lord did not reduce His deity by taking on human flesh; He added perfect, sinless humanity to His deity—prompted by His humility.
The Sacrifice of Humility
The first element of our Lord’s humbling was His leaving the splendor of heaven. Imagine living in a castle, attended by servants, always having the finest in food and clothing, but then choosing to live in Calcutta’s squalor. Since the glory of heaven is beyond our ability to comprehend it, we have difficulty grasping His sacrifice to leave heaven and to live on earth.
But that is not all. Our Lord’s humbling also involved living among humans. His “suffering” lasted all the years of His earthly life. Think of the agony of living among the unbelieving (Matt. 19:8; Mark 3:5). Even His disciples were hardhearted (Mark 16:14) and slow to believe (Luke 24:25). Jesus’ closest friends failed to grasp what He taught. When He spoke of His crucifixion, they argued about who among them was greatest. As He prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, they discussed the privileges they would enjoy in the kingdom. Yet it was not enough for Christ to come as a man, even as a servant. He came as the “Lamb of God” who would become sin for us. He came to bear God’s wrath in the place of sinners. He came to die the most cruel death possible—crucifixion. It is one thing to come as a servant, but our Lord’s service consisted of being condemned as an enemy of the state and as a sinner against God. You can’t get any lower.
The Exaltation of Humility
He who stooped so low in His humility was elevated to the highest possible place of honor by the Father. God gave Him a name above every name. He who dwelt among men and who was rejected and crucified is the one to whom every knee will someday bow. Every tongue will confess Him to be Lord of all. Every creature in heaven, on earth, and under the earth will confess that He is Lord—all of this achieving what our Lord intended: the glory of God the Father (2:11).
Our Lord put His Father’s interests above His own, as seen in His obedience to the Father’s will, even unto death. Our Lord is exalted, but His primary aim was to bring glory to the Father. Christ did not subordinate Himself to further His own interests. He subordinated His interests to the Father’s so that the Father’s best interests would be served. Our Lord’s exaltation was a fringe benefit, not His primary goal.
The Implications of Humility
Paul charges his readers to have the mind of Christ. And I can think of a couple areas where His bride, the church, desperately needs His mindset:
• Christian liberties. We may have Christian liberty in food or drink, but humility and servanthood require us to surrender the exercise of our liberty when it will cause a weaker brother to stumble. As our Lord surrendered His rights as one equal with the Father, so we should surrender our rights for the good of our brothers and sisters.
• Spiritual gifts. All too often spiritual gifts are “seized” as the occasion for promoting our own interests rather than for serving our brothers and sisters. This is why Paul spends so much time on the subject of spiritual gifts in his correspondence with the Corinthians. Sometimes our silence rather than our speech will most edify the church. Having a spiritual gift—even an excellent gift—is no license to use it for our own gain. Here too humility will prompt us to put the interests of others above our own. Also, because Christ is exalted, all humanity, dead and alive, believing and unbelieving, will bow to Him as Lord. Those who die without trusting in Him will acknowledge Him as Lord but not as Savior. The most terrifying thought is being one who must bow to Jesus Christ as His defeated enemy. The remedy is to acknowledge Him now as Savior and Lord.
The Point of Humility
The text calls our attention to the humility of God. Paul contrasts the “mind of Christ” (2:5) with the mindset of the world. Our Lord had all power and glory. He could have demanded homage and praise. But instead of seeking His own interests our Lord humbly submitted His interests to those of the Father. Jesus submitted to the Father’s will, left the glory of heaven, took on human flesh, and then endured suffering, even unto death. Our Lord is the extreme example of humility in the context of power and glory. If He could manifest humility as the one who is equal with God the Father, then surely we can manifest humility when we are on equal terms with other believers.
Still, there is a great difference between the humility of our Lord and our humility. Our Lord was humble when He had everything to be proud of. We should be humble because we have no basis for pride. Jesus has every reason to be proud, yet He manifests humility. Who can fathom a God who is infinitely powerful and worthy of all praise, who would humble Himself to dwell among humans, and who would even suffer and die to bring glory to God the Father and salvation to sinful people like us?
Bob Deffinbaugh (ThM, 1971) is teaching elder at Community Bible Chapel in Richardson, Texas. You can find hundreds of his expositional articles at bible.org.