In the Religion Today section of a recent Dallas Morning News,38 there was an article about Dr. Peter Singer, who serves as DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. Dr. Singer is quoted in the article as saying, “The only God I could believe in would be a bumbler,…How could an omnipotent, omniscient being permit there to be so much suffering in the world.”39
The problem of suffering has always troubled man. Dr. Singer is no different from many others who have found human40 suffering to be an impenetrable barrier to belief in God. Dr. Singer does not appear to leave room for factors like the fall of man and human sin. And he most certainly does not seem to have any interest in our text, although it would put the problem of pain in an entirely different light. Dr. Singer finds
it impossible to believe in an omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful) God, who allows the kind of suffering we see on this earth. He cannot bear to think of a God who (actively or passively) imposes suffering. Our text tells us that the God who allows suffering is the same God who endured the greatest suffering ever endured. Our text is about the ultimate in suffering, which our Lord Jesus Christ endured in obedience to His Father’s will. It is also about the mindset of our Lord that enabled Him to suffer as He did. It is this mindset of humility that every Christian is to possess, and this is what will enable us to set the interests of others above our own.
Paul is writing the Philippian saints from a Roman prison cell, probably in Rome itself. He is awaiting his trial before Caesar, to whom he has appealed. Paul has a very strong sense of attachment to the Philippian saints. He was the one who first came to Philippi with the gospel. He and Silas suffered a cruel beating and a night in prison before leaving Philippi. When Paul left Philippi, these saints continued to stand with him in the defense and proclamation of the gospel. Now, they were beginning to experience suffering for the sake of the gospel first-hand (Philippians 1:29). Paul is writing to comfort and encourage them in their adversity and to encourage them to strive to maintain Christian unity among themselves.
After reminding the Philippian saints of his deep affection for them, and his confidence regarding their spiritual growth (1:3-11), Paul turns to his own suffering. He informs the Philippians about his present situation, its impact on the gospel, and his state of mind in the midst of his adversity. The false charges that led to his incarceration were seen for what they were, even by the most cynical group possible—his prison guards. They understood that Paul’s imprisonment was for the sake of the gospel, and not due to civil disobedience as the Jews claimed.
Christians also were greatly impacted by Paul’s imprisonment, with the result that the gospel was being even more boldly proclaimed. Not all were preaching Christ for the right reasons. Some, sad to say, were using Paul’s imprisonment as a pretext for questioning his motives or methods. They were competing with Paul, and thus they saw his incarceration as an opportunity to gain some ground at his expense. Other Christians had a deep love and respect for Paul. His courage in declaring the gospel strengthened their courage to proclaim Christ boldly as well. Whether out of pure motivation or selfish ambition, the gospel was being preached, and people were coming to faith. Paul was not going to allow the malice of some to rob him of his joy. Paul’s ambition was not to advance his position and status, but to advance the gospel. And God was doing just that, through Paul’s friends and through his adversaries, because they were preaching Christ.
But what of Paul’s future? He would soon stand trial before Caesar. There was a good chance that he might be found guilty of treason, and if this were the case, he would be put to death. Paul could rejoice in the fact that the gospel was being advanced by his imprisonment, but how did the apostle feel about the very real possibility of his death? Paul tells us what we all should know: “to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Living means living out the life of our Lord, depending upon God, proclaiming the gospel, and suffering rejection and persecution for doing so. Dying means instant entrance into the presence of God, free from suffering and pain and sorrow. Obviously, death is “gain” for the Christian. Paul knows that to remain behind not only meant suffering for him, but continued service to the saints. It was his conviction that God would most likely leave him on earth for a time, so that he might continue to strengthen and encourage the saints. Assured of this, Paul could boldly carry on his life’s mission, knowing that death held no fear for him, but only the promise of greater things to come.
At verse 27 of chapter 1, Paul changes the focus from his suffering, his perspective, and his practice to that of the Philippians. The Philippians are now entering into the same suffering they had seen Paul endure, and now hear about from a distance. Paul calls upon the Philippian saints to conduct their lives in a manner befitting the gospel. They are to stand together in unity, practicing and proclaiming the gospel. They are not to be alarmed by those who oppose them. They are to diligently pursue Christian unity and harmony with their fellow-believers as they proclaim the gospel.
The unity that Paul urges them to practice works itself out in various ways, but it is rooted in one crucial attitude: humility. It is this humility that Paul describes in verses 3-11. Our Lord Jesus Christ is the model for the mindset of humility. His atoning work on the cross of Calvary saved us from our sins and makes us new creations in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). His incarnation and death laid the groundwork for all Christian humility, because we in no way contribute to His work of saving us, since this is all of grace. His saving work on our behalf also provides us with a heart filled with love and gratitude, so that we desire to please Him by having a heart of humility. But in addition to all these things, our Lord’s incarnation, life, and death provide us with the ultimate example of humility, an example Paul exhorts us to follow.
3 Instead of being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity, each of you should, in humility, be moved to treat one another as more important than yourself. 4 Each of you should be concerned not only about your own interests, but the interests of others as well.
I came across a great definition of humility this week, 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.41
Paul begins by contrasting humility with its opposites: selfish ambition and vanity. Selfish ambition is what motivated those who sought to take advantage of Paul’s imprisonment (see 1:17). Selfish ambition seeks to gain at the expense of others. Humility desires the advance of others, at our expense. This is the way Paul felt toward the Philippians (1:8-11, 18-26). It is the way Timothy felt as well (see 2:19-22). Pride and ambition are a part of our fallen nature, inciting us to compete with others, rather than to contribute to their well-being.
If we are truly humble, we are not impressed with ourselves, and we are not desperately seeking to enhance our own standing. Paul’s words in the last half of verse 3 are crucial to us, and it is most urgent that we properly understand what he is saying, and what he is not saying! We are to treat one another as “more important than” ourselves. The translations differ here, and some are misleading, in my opinion. A number of them render the verse in such a way as to indicate that we must consider others “better” than ourselves. Our Lord is the model for humility, and we would surely not think that He considered sinful men “better than” Himself. The danger is that we will only consider those “better” than ourselves whom we think are better—and if we are arrogant, that won’t be very many people!
The NET Bible is very careful here, indicating that we are to treat the other person as “more important than ourselves.” This does not mean that in every case they are “more important” than we are. It does not mean that they are “better” than we are. It means, as verse 4 indicates, that we set the interests of our brothers above our own. Their interests are to come higher on our agenda than our own selfish interests.
Let’s imagine that I am a doctor, working in the emergency room of a hospital. It may be my lunch hour, and I am on my way out the door to get something to eat at a nearby restaurant. An ambulance may arrive just as I am leaving, bringing in a street person who has overdosed on drugs. Indeed, this person might even be a murderer. Yet at the moment, his life is in great peril. Without prompt attention, this man will die. Regardless of his previous sins, and without regard for my desire to eat, I give this man my full attention and seek to provide medical assistance to him. At this moment in time, he is “more important than” my agenda and my hunger.
Humility prompts me to serve others, assigning my interests a lower priority than their needs. I should hasten to say that putting the interests of others ahead of my own does not mean that I should be subject to the selfish desires and whims of everyone who makes ungodly demands of me. Sometimes seeking the “best interest” of others calls for a rebuke on my part. Sometimes it means that I must say “No” to a request, or a demand. There are many who would like to inform us as to what constitutes their “best interests.” We must seek the best interest of our children, but they do not necessarily know or appreciate what this should require of us.
5 You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had, 6 who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature. 8 He humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross! 9 As a result God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow—in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess to the glory of God the Father that Jesus Christ is Lord.
We need to begin this section with a few observations. First, we must observe the structure of this passage. As mentioned earlier, verses 5-11 fall into two major parts: (a) the humility and humiliation of Christ (verses 5-8); and, (b) the exaltation and glorification of Christ (verses 9-11). Second, let us constantly keep in mind the monumental importance of this text. This passage is one of the great texts of the Bible; it has been called the “centerpiece of the book of Philippians.” Third (and closely related to what has just been said), this text has been the subject of great debate over the course of church history. While we do not have the time to pursue this matter in detail, this passage was hotly debated in the fourth century because of its implications regarding the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. Was Christ 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 true and orthodox position that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man. Undiminished deity took on perfect and sinless humanity at the incarnation. We may not be able to fully comprehend this mystery, but we must acknowledge it to be true because the Bible says so.
Fourth, Paul is not teaching some new doctrine, nor is he seeking to defend a doctrine; Paul is calling attention to a doctrine commonly and strongly held by the church as the basis for maintaining unity and harmony in the church. In the Book of Galatians, Paul strongly defends the doctrine of salvation by grace, apart from works (i.e. circumcision and law-keeping). But while the doctrine taught here is foundational to the Christian faith, Paul does not feel obliged to defend it. It is not under attack, at least by those inside the church. And so Paul turns to the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ as the ultimate example of humility and uses our Lord’s humility as the example for every Christian to imitate.
Finally, as we study these verses, we should beware of becoming lost in the multitude of details and minute observations which could be made here, and concentrate on the point which Paul is trying to make. This is where some commentaries can be very frustrating, pointing out many small details, and not focusing on the argument Paul is developing. I was overjoyed to read these words in Gordon Fee’s very excellent work on Philippians:
Understandably such a passage has elicited an enormous amount of scholarly attention, which will not detain us here…. Two matters are important as we approach the passage: first, that in going through the passage we not miss the forest for the trees—that is, that we not get bogged down in the details so that we miss the grandeur of the whole; and second, that precisely because in some ways the passage can stand on its own (it is a complete narrative, after all), we not miss its very clear and essential ties to the present argument.42
Paul has been exhorting the Philippian saints to practice unity and harmony among themselves. He has indicated that the basis for such unity is humility, considering the best interest of others more important than our own (2:3-4). Paul now moves to the ultimate example of humility—our Lord Jesus Christ (2:5ff.). He begins by establishing His position and status, which would give Him claim to certain rights and prerogatives.
Taking into account the additional information supplied by other biblical texts, the essence of verses 2:6-8 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 (John 1:1-3; 8:58; Colossians 1:15-16). 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 seize43 this as an opportunity to independently further His own interests.
How different our Lord was from Satan. Equality with God was never a possibility for Satan because he was a created being, vastly inferior and subordinate to God. Nevertheless, Satan sought to assert himself and to attain equality with God (Isaiah 14:13-14). This brought about his downfall and will ultimately end in his eternal destruction (Revelation 20:1-10). Satan later tempted Adam and Eve to do likewise, assuring them that in disobeying God by eating of the forbidden fruit, they would gain knowledge that would make them like God (Genesis 3:4-5). It was, of course, a lie, resulting not only in the sin of Adam and Eve but also in the fall of the human race.
Satan sought to do the same thing to our Lord when he sought to tempt Him in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-12). Satan sought to persuade our Lord to lay hold of His rights as the Son of God, so that he would act independently of the Father. Our Lord’s humility, expressed by His rebuke of Satan, and in His submission and obedience to the Father, is what Paul is talking about in our text as well.
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 the form of a slave” (2:7). A great deal of discussion and debate has occurred over this word “emptied.” We know from other Scriptures what it cannot mean. 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 less God (however that could be). Our Lord did not set aside any of His divine attributes. What He set aside, so to speak, was the pursuit of His personal interests, interests that would have been in competition with the Father.
Here is the best illustration that comes to mind. Let’s suppose that a very successful businessman—Bill Gates, for example—decided to run for the office of President of the United States. Let’s further suppose that he is elected to that office. You can imagine some of the ways that a businessman could seize the power of that office as the opportunity to further his own business interests. He could insist that all government agencies use his products. He could punish foreign countries (trade agreements, tariffs, customs inspections) for not using them. He could use his position and power to destroy his competition. This is why a man who runs for office divests himself of his business interests, usually by placing his business in a kind of blind trust that leaves decisions and control to someone else, making it difficult (if not impossible) to further his own interests by the misuse of his position and power as a public official. 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 bring about the salvation of lost sinners. Our Lord did not reduce His deity by taking on human flesh; He added perfect, sinless humanity to His deity, and this was prompted by His humility.
The humbling process had several facets. The first element of our Lord’s humbling would be His leaving the glory and splendor of heaven and coming to dwell on earth. Think of this for a moment. It would be like owning a chauffer-driven limousine, and choosing to give that mode of transportation up to ride a broken-down bicycle. It would be like living in a castle, constantly attended by servants, always having the finest in food and clothing, and choosing to live in the squalor and poverty in the streets of Calcutta. Since the glory of heaven is beyond our human ability to comprehend it, we have difficulty grasping the sacrifice that was required for our Lord to leave heaven and to live on earth.
But that is not all. Our Lord’s humbling also involved living on earth as a man, living on earth with men. I don’t think we really grasp all that is involved here. I fear we are inclined to think of our Lord’s suffering as being limited to a few hours on the cross. I believe his “suffering” lasted all the years of His life on earth. This is implied by the writer to the Hebrews:
For when he “put all things under his control,” he left nothing “outside of his control.” At present we do not yet see all things under his control, 9 but we see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by God’s grace he would experience death on behalf of everyone. 10 For it was fitting for him, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. 11 For indeed he who makes holy and those being made holy all have the same origin, and so he is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, 12 saying, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers; in the midst of the assembly I will praise you.” 13 Again he says, “I will be confident in him,” and again, “Here I am, with the children God has given me.” 14 Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he likewise shared in the same as well, so that through death he could destroy the one who holds the power of death (that is, the devil), 15 and set free those who were held in slavery all their lives by their fear of death. 16 For surely his concern is not for angels, but he is concerned for Abraham’s descendants. 17 Therefore he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he could become a merciful and faithful high priest in things relating to God, to make atonement for the sins of the people. 18 For since he suffered and was tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted (Hebrews 2:8-18).
14 Therefore since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin. 16 Therefore let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace whenever we need help (Hebrews 4:14-15).
1 For every high priest is taken from among people and appointed to represent them before God, to offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2 He is able to deal compassionately with those who are ignorant and erring, since he also is subject to weakness, 3 and for this reason he is obligated to make sin-offerings for himself as well as for the people. 4 And no one assumes this honor on his own initiative, but only when called to it by God, as in fact Aaron was. 5 So also Christ did not glorify himself in becoming high priest; but the one who glorified him was God who said to him “You are my Son! Today I have fathered you,” 6 as also in another place God says, “You are a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek.” 7 During his earthly life he offered both requests and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death and he was heard because of his devotion. 8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience through the things he suffered. 9 And by being perfected in this way, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, 10 and he was designated by God as “high priest in the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5:1-10).
Our Lord not only suffered as a man, He suffered by living among men. Think of the agony of living among unbelieving men who were hard-hearted (Matthew 19:8; Mark 3:5; 10:5). Even the disciples of Jesus were hard-hearted (Mark 16:14) and slow to believe (Luke 24:25). We should not be surprised when we read,
11 Then the Pharisees came and began to argue with Jesus, asking for a sign from heaven to test him. 12 Sighing deeply in his spirit he said, “Why does this generation want a sign? I tell you the truth, no sign will be given this generation” (Mark 8:11-12).
Even His closest friends failed to grasp what Jesus taught. When He spoke of His crucifixion, they were thinking and arguing about who was the greatest among them. As He prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, they were thinking about the privileges they would enjoy in the kingdom. Jesus humbled Himself by taking on humanity, by becoming a man; He humbled Himself by living among sinful men. Peter was right when he said, “But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, for I am a sinful man, Lord!’” (Luke 5:8). Jesus humbled Himself by becoming a man, and by dwelling among sinful men.
His humbling goes beyond this, however. Our Lord came to earth as a man.. He was, of course, without sin, the spotless Lamb of God (John 1:29, 36; 1 Peter 1:19). Jesus could have come as One born of noble blood, but instead He was born into a very poor family. He was born in Bethlehem, and raised in Nazareth, not places of great standing (see John 1:46). But beyond this, He came as a servant, a slave. He “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The Lord of Glory came to earth as a man, not as a man of nobility, but as a most humble man, a servant.
His humbling is not yet complete. It was not enough for Him to come as a man, even as a servant. He came as the “Lamb of God” who would become sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21). He came to bear the wrath of God in the place of lost sinners. He came to die the most cruel and ignoble 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 than this.
He who stooped so low in His humility was elevated to the highest possible place of honor by the Father. In Philippians 2:9-11, Paul turns to the glorification of our Lord by the Father, due to His humility and obedience. As a result of our Lord’s humility and obedience, God highly exalted Him, giving to Him a name above every name. He who dwelt among men, and who was rejected and crucified by men; is the one to whom every knee will someday bow. Every tongue will confess Him to be Lord of all. It does not seem to be only men who will acknowledge Him as Lord, either. 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).
Many are the “gnats” which could be “strained” in this text (see Matthew 23:24), but let us seek to focus our attention on the “camels.” I fear that most of my life I have misunderstood this text. I was inclined to think that the main emphasis was on the sacrifice of our Lord for my benefit. I believed that our Lord put my interests above His own by coming to earth and dying on the cross of Calvary. I am now forced to re-think my understanding of the text—and its implications.
Please do not misunderstand. Our Lord did lay aside His heavenly privileges, take on human flesh, and suffer on the cross for our sins. But as much as I would like to think of this text in terms of its personal benefits for me, it is contrary to the context and to the content of our text. Let’s back up and look at our text in terms of what the apostle has already written. Paul has spoken of his great love for the Philippian saints and of his willingness to remain here on earth so that he may continue to serve the saints, even though this necessitates suffering on his part for the sake of the gospel. Paul urges the Philippians to practice love and unity among the brethren. This is the outworking of an attitude of humility. Paul then turns to the humility and humiliation of our Lord as an example for us to imitate.
Our text will be understood correctly only if we answer the questions correctly:
With whom was our Lord equal?
To whose interests did our Lord subordinate His own?
What was the intended goal of our Lord’s attitude and actions?
I submit to you that, according to Paul’s words, our Lord’s equality is with God the Father, not with man. He became one of us, but we are surely not equal with Him. He set aside His divine privileges as One equally divine with God the Father. Paul is not stressing the fact that our Lord subordinated His interests to ours, but that He subordinated His interests to the interests of the Father. And the intended goal in our text is not our salvation (though this is certainly a goal of His incarnation and atoning work at Calvary), but rather the glory of the Father (verse 11). The focus is not just on the elect, who are saved by the atoning work of our Lord at Calvary. Paul insists that “every knee shall bow…and every tongue shall confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11). In other words, the incarnation and atoning work of Christ not only produces praise from those who believe in Him for salvation, it also results in the praise of every living thing.
What a word of warning this text has for those who have not yet trusted in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the assurance of eternal life! My friend, who is reading these words, do you think that if you reject Jesus Christ and His offer of salvation that is the end of it? You are wrong! All mankind, dead and alive, believing and unbelieving, will bow the knee to Jesus Christ as Lord. Those who die without trusting in Him will acknowledge Him as Lord, but not as Savior. The most terrifying thought I can imagine is being one who must bow the knee to Jesus Christ as His defeated enemy. The remedy is to acknowledge Him as Lord and Savior now; to trust Him for the forgiveness of your sins, and for entrance into heaven. Then, like Paul, you will no longer dread death, but welcome it. Then you can look forward to bowing before Him as your blessed Savior and Lord. I urge you not to leave this life without first trusting in Him. I urge you not to end this day without doing so.
Our text was not primarily written as a warning to unbelievers; it was intended to be an incentive and an example for Christians. It was meant to teach us about humility, using our Lord Jesus Christ as the supreme example of humility. As I now understand this passage, I can see that I have misunderstood and misused it in the past. I have always wanted to think of our Lord as subordinating His interests to mine, and His happiness to mine. I have wanted to think of God as serving me, rather than of myself as His servant (remember Paul’s words in 1:1). Now our Lord did come to serve, rather than to be served (Mark 10:45), but my whole focus and orientation in looking at this text has been wrong if I think only in terms of the benefits I have received from our Lord’s incarnation, suffering, and death on the cross of Calvary. Paul’s words remind us that our Lord put His Father’s interests above His own, and the fruit of this is seen in His obedience to the Father’s will, even unto death. The result is that our Lord is exalted, but the primary aim of our Lord was to bring glory to the Father. He did not subordinate His interests to the interests of the Father in order 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, as I view it, and not His primary goal.
What a lesson there is here for leaders. The disciples were eager for our Lord to establish His kingdom because they wanted leadership positions in this kingdom. They argued among themselves as to who was the greatest; they avoided situations where they could serve one another (like washing feet—see John 13). Jesus made it very clear that leadership was a stewardship. Authority and power are given to leaders so that they may serve those they lead. Leaders are especially to look out for the weak and the vulnerable. The attitude God requires of leaders is the exact opposite of the attitude unbelievers have toward leadership:
14 When you come to the land the LORD your God is giving you and you take it over and live in it and then say, “I will appoint a king over me like all the nations surrounding me,” 15 you must without fail select over you a king whom the LORD your God will choose. From among your own kin you must appoint a king—you may not designate a foreigner who is not one of your kin. 16 Moreover, he must not accumulate horses for himself nor allow the people to return to Egypt to do so, for the LORD has said, you must never again return this way. 17 He also must not marry many wives lest his affections turn aside, and he must not amass much silver and gold. 18 When he sits on his royal throne then he must make a copy of this instruction upon a scroll given to him by the Levitical priests. 19 It must be constantly with him and he must read it as long as he lives so that he might learn to revere the LORD his God, and observe all the words of this instruction and these statutes in order to carry them out, 20 so that he will not exalt himself above his fellow citizens and turn from the commandment right or left, and so that he might enjoy many years over his kingdom, he and his descendants, in the midst of Israel (Deuteronomy 17:14-20).
20 Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling down she asked something from him. 21 He said to her, “What do you want?” She said, “Permit these two sons of mine to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” 23 He told them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right and left is not mine to give. Rather, it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” 24 When the other ten heard this, they were angry with the two brothers. 25 But Jesus called them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high position use their authority over them. 26 It must not be this way among you! But whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant. 27 And whoever wants to be first must be your slave—28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:20-28).
In short, leaders are not to abuse their power and position to further their own interests, but to pursue the best interests of others.
If leadership is one context for humility and servanthood, so is equality. It is not just leaders who are instructed to be humble; we are all to have the “mind of Christ,” and to put the interests of others above our own. In the case of our Lord, His equality with the Father was not seized for His own personal advantage. The benefits of being equal with the Father were set aside and He became a servant, so that the Father’s interests could be served.
Equality is a very dominant theme in our culture. For many years, women were not treated as equals in the workplace and elsewhere. This was even more true with racial minorities. The cross of Jesus Christ is the great equalizer of men:
26 For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith. 27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise (Galatians 3:26-29).
Those who have been unfairly oppressed rightly rejoice at the fact that unjust inequalities are finally being addressed and confronted in our society. The problem is that this newly-found equality often tempts some to “seize” it for personal gain. This is contrary to the gospel and to the teaching of Paul in our text. Equality is the context for humility and for submission. Humility is most evident in relationships that are at least on an equal level, as they were between the Father and the Son. Here is where subordination is not mandatory, but voluntary. And it is here that true humility, submission, and unity can best be demonstrated.
Let me suggest some other areas in church life where humility and servanthood are desperately needed. First is in the area of Christian liberties. I may have Christian liberty in food or drink, but humility and servanthood require me to surrender the exercise of my liberty when it will cause a weaker brother to stumble (see 1 Corinthians 8-10; Romans 14). 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.
Another area of application is that of spiritual gifts. Some seem to think that just because they have a certain spiritual gift, they have the “right” to exercise it when, where, and as often as they choose. 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 Corinthian saints (1 Corinthians 12-14). There are times when our silence will most edify the church, rather than our speech (see 1 Corinthians 14:26-40). Having a spiritual gift—even an excellent gift—is no license to use it at the expense of others, for our own gain. Here, too, humility will prompt us to put the interests of others above our own.
True humility, Christian humility, should prompt us to leave our “comfort zone” for the benefit and blessing of others. Our Lord left the comforts of heaven and came to suffer here on earth, in order to obey His Father’s will and to promote His Father’s interests. Many of us tend to withdraw into the safety and comfort of our “comfort zone”—our place of comfort, security, and ease—rather than to venture out into deeper waters, for the benefit of others. We seek to hide behind our strengths, when God may choose to manifest His power through our weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:8-10). In slightly different terms, we can see from our text that God may call us out of comfort and ease into suffering for the sake of the gospel and our Christian brothers and sisters. The path of suffering which our Lord humbly chose to walk (to the glory of the Father) makes any suffering on our part seem pathetic in comparison.
I think we need to take note of the fact that in our text Paul does not take doctrine lightly. In our text, we are dealing with some of the most important doctrines of the Christian faith. Why is it that the doctrines of our Lord’s “emptying” and of His atoning work at Calvary are often subjects over which Christians heatedly argue and divide, when in our text Paul expects these doctrines to be the basis for Christian unity and harmony? Right doctrine is crucial, and heresy is deadly, but why is it that we tend to hold these truths as “upper story” truths, which we file away in our minds, or over which we fight with others, when they are set forth in the Word of God to change our thinking and conduct? Let us see that Paul is strongly committed to pure doctrine, but he is also committed to seeing to it that we put our doctrine into practice.
There is one last lesson that I would like to call to your attention. Quite honestly, I was not prepared to see it, here or anywhere else. Our text calls our attention to an attribute of God I never really considered—the humility of God. Just recently I taught a series on the attributes of God. The attribute of the humility of God never even entered my mind. I must also say that I do not recall encountering it in any of the other works I consulted in preparation for my study.
First of all, let’s take a moment to determine whether or not humility is an attribute of God. It seems quite clear that our text attributes humility to our Lord. In Philippians 2:2, Paul urges the saints in Philippi to “be in agreement,” or as the NASB puts it, to “have the same mind.” That “mind” is the attitude of humility, the attitude that prompts us to “regard one another as more important” than yourself (2:3). This humility is the attitude that Jesus Christ had, prompting Him to leave the glory of heaven and to come dwell on this earth in human flesh, dying the death of a criminal (2:5-8).
Surely we must say that our Lord Jesus Christ was humble in His coming to this earth and dying for lost sinners in obedience to the Father’s will. This humility was acted out in the washing of the disciples’ feet in the upper room:
1 Just before the Passover feast, Jesus knew that his time had come to depart from this world to the Father. He had loved his own who were in the world, and now he loved them to the very end. 2 The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, that he should betray Jesus. 3 Jesus, because he knew that the Father had handed things over to him, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, 4 got up from the meal, removed his outer clothes, took a towel and tied it around himself. 5 He poured water into the washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to dry them with the towel he had wrapped around himself. 6 Then he came to Simon Peter. Peter said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus replied, “You do not understand what I am doing now, but you will understand after these things.” 8 Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet!” Jesus replied, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, wash not only my feet, but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus replied, “The one who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean. And you disciples are clean, but not every one of you.” 11 (For Jesus knew the one who was going to betray him. For this reason he said, “Not every one of you is clean.”) 12 So when Jesus had washed their feet and put his outer clothing back on, he took his place at the table again and said to them, “Do you understand what I have done for you? 13 You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and do so correctly, for that is what I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you too ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example: you should do just as I have done for you. 16 I tell you the solemn truth, the slave is not greater than his master, nor is the one who is sent as a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you understand these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13:1-17).
Our Lord’s humility is also reflected in these words, recorded in Matthew’s Gospel:
27 All things have been given to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son, and those to whom the Son decides to reveal him. 28 Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy to bear, and my load is not hard to carry” (Matthew 11:27-30, emphasis mine).
I believe that this messianic prophecy in Isaiah also calls attention to our Lord’s humility:
1 “Here is my servant whom I support, my chosen one in whom I take pleasure. I have placed my spirit on him, he will make just decrees for the nations. 2 He will not cry out or shout, he will not publicize himself in the streets. 3 A crushed reed he will not break, a dim wick he will not extinguish; he will faithfully make just decrees. 4 He will not grow dim or be crushed before establishing justice on the earth; the coastlands will wait in anticipation for his decrees” (Isaiah 42:1-4, emphasis mine).
The question must arise, “Why are we inclined to overlook humility as an attribute of God?” I suspect that it is because we believe (wrongly) that power and humility are incompatible. We expect the poor to be humble, and the powerful to be proud and forceful: “A poor person makes supplications, but a rich man answers harshly” (Proverbs 18:23).
Paul is contrasting the “mind of Christ” with the mindset of the world. Our Lord had all power and glory. He could have demanded man’s homage and praise. 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 problem is that we tend to think of humility as the fate of the poor and the powerless, rather than the choice of the powerful and successful. 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 you and I can manifest humility when we are on equal terms with our fellow-believers.
There is a great deal of difference between the humility of our Lord and our humility. Our Lord was humble when He had everything to be proud of. We are often proud when we have nothing to be proud of. Think of it for a moment. What is there they we can be proud about? Salvation, our spiritual gifts, and our ministries are all given to us by God. We cannot take credit for anything of spiritual value. As Paul put it, “For who concedes you any superiority? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Corinthians 4:7).
We should be humble, because there is no basis for pride. Our Lord has every reason to be proud, and yet He manifests humility. Meekness is not weakness; it is power focused on the good of others, even at one’s own expense.
As I think of this text and the humility of our Lord, I am overwhelmed by Him. Who can fathom a God who is infinitely powerful and worthy of all praise, who would humble Himself to dwell among men, and who would even suffer and die, to bring glory to God the Father, and bring salvation to sinful men like us? Hallelujah, what a Savior!
39 It is frightening to see how far Dr. Singer is willing to go. In a very recent “BreakPoint” commentary, Chuck Colson writes, “In an article entitled ‘Killing Babies Isn't Always Wrong,’ philosopher Peter Singer writes: “Perhaps, like the ancient Greeks, we should have a ceremony a month after birth, at which the infant is admitted to the community. Before that time,” he says, “infants would not be recognized as having the same right to life as older people.” BreakPoint commentary #000920, “Are Newborns ‘Persons?’” 9/20/2000. (www.breakpoint.org).
41 Christian Quotation of the Day. April 30, 2000. Commemoration of Pandita Mary Ramabai, Translator of the Scriptures, 1922. (http://www.gospelcom.net/cgod/)
43 As the reader can infer from my words, I do not understand the word “seize” in the sense of “clinging to, and being unwilling to let go of His divine privileges and prerogatives.” I understand seizing in the sense of “seizing the day,” of “grasping or laying hold of” an opportunity.