Living Worthy of the Gospel Together
Main Idea: Paul exhorts the Philippians to live worthy of the gospel by standing together against opposition and by serving one another in humble compassion.
I. Just One Thing
II. Stand Together against External Opposition (1:27b-30).
A. Teamwork (1:27b)
B. Purpose and fearlessness (1:27c-28a)
C. A sign (1:28b)
D. Suffering (1:29-30)
III. Serve One Another with Humble Compassion (2:1-4).
A. The basis for unity: fourfold motivation (2:1)
B. The command for unity (2:2a)
C. The expressions of unity (2:2b-4)
You might call this a John Wayne passage. “The Duke” was known for being tough and tender. In the first paragraph (1:27-30) Paul emphasizes the need for the Philippian Christians to be tough or courageous as they stand against opposition. In the second paragraph (2:1-4) he emphasizes the need to be affectionate or tender in their humble love toward one another. Both paragraphs emphasize unity and togetherness. Faithful Christians have always displayed this combination of courage and tenacity mingled with humility and compassion. These virtues are the results of living out the gospel. We are made courageous and compassionate by God’s grace.
When sin entered the world through our first parents, Adam was told that he would be tempted to drift toward either passivity or abuse. These traits sadly typify many men today. But the gospel makes us both courageous (not passive) and humble (not abusive) at the same time. It liberates us to live in the freedom of the gospel, fearing no one (courage), and it reminds us that we are unworthy recipients of grace. Therefore, we should extend tender love to everyone (humility). If we want to turn the world upside down, like the early Christians who lived for King Jesus, not Caesar (Acts 17:6-7), then we must heed this passage of Scripture and pursue courageous, humble service together.
Just One Thing
For those who like things simple, set your eyes on verse 27. After Paul gives his report on his present situation (1:12-18) and his outlook on the future (1:19-26), he turns his attention to exhorting the Philippians. The following verse serves like a topic sentence over Philippians 1:27–2:18. Some versions translate the opening word as “Only” (ESV, NASB), but I like the way the HCSB expresses it: “Just one thing.” O’Brien says, “The word introduces an admonition ‘lifted like a warning finger,’ as Barth puts it” (Epistle, 145).
Paul is making one very important, serious, and comprehensive point, and we should pay attention to it. What is it? He exhorts the Philippians to live “worthy of the gospel of Christ.” Believers are making a statement about the gospel not only with their lips but also with their lives. The gospel is about love; therefore, we should be known as loving people. The gospel is about justice; therefore, we should be justice-seeking people. The gospel is about life; therefore, we should display visible vitality and joy in our gatherings and in our relationships. The gospel is about liberty; therefore, we should not live as stuffy legalists. The gospel is about humility; therefore, we should be a humble people, gladly serving others.
Paul has already filled his report with references to the gospel (1:5,12,16,18). Now he turns to exhort the Philippians about keeping the gospel central in their lives. The gospel should shape our lives, and it should be on our lips. We, too, must remember just this one thing! This type of life flows out of our identity as kingdom citizens. This emphasis on the kingdom is implied in verse 27. The phrase “your life” doesn’t capture the idea of citizenship imbedded in the verb politeuesthai (the verb is built on the noun polis—city). He essentially says, “Live as citizens in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” The same idea is conveyed later in Philippians 3:20, where Paul reminds the church that they’re citizens of heaven.
Paul uses this political word only here in Philippians. He probably uses it because of the Philippians’ pride over their Roman citizenship. If someone visited Philippi, they would have been reminded of Rome. It was a little colony of Rome. Whenever someone visits a Christian congregation and observes their way of life, they should be reminded of Christ’s kingdom. Churches are little outposts of the kingdom of God. Our love, life, liberty, humility, and other values of the kingdom should be on display. We should seek to make known in the present what life in the future will be like.
Just as Roman citizens enjoyed certain privileges and responsibilities, so do kingdom citizens—much greater privileges and responsibilities. We have the unspeakable privilege of being part of the kingdom! Paul reminds us of the gospel that brought us into the kingdom: “He has rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son He loves” (Col 1:13). And we have the awesome responsibility of living out the gospel and making known the gospel. As kingdom citizens, let’s not only live in such a way as to make the King known, but let’s also remember that this world isn’t our home. We can move to India and leave it all behind because we treasure Christ and because our citizenship is in heaven.
In exhorting the church to this end, there is an implicit encouragement: the gospel has changed them. For it would do no good to tell them to live worthy of the gospel if they hadn’t experienced salvation through Christ. Thus, believers have the power to live out this command (cf. 2:12-13). We aren’t trying to earn acceptance before God, but rather, out of our acceptance before God through Christ, we must now live in a way that’s consistent with the gospel.
In 1:27b–2:4 Paul gives us two concrete ways kingdom citizens can live worthy of the gospel, both of which emphasize our unity. This is not all that’s involved in living worthy of the gospel, but it’s the first subject Paul emphasizes, and indeed, much of the letter highlights this issue. We must live worthy of the gospel together, as good solders on mission of gospel advancement. One can pick up the strong military language of Paul in this central section. Many scholars have alluded to the similarities between Paul’s vocabulary and phrases and those of ancient military commanders.
In 1:27b-30 Paul focuses on unity for the purpose of withstanding external pressure. In 2:1-4 he focuses on internal care for one another. So let’s seek to apply this text in these two parts: stand together against external opposition, and serve one another with humble compassion.
Stand Together against External Opposition
In urging the Philippians to stand together, Paul uses several word pictures in this section that draw attention to unity, teamwork, and fearlessness for the mission. Following this, he explains the nature of Christian suffering and his own suffering. These ingredients—teamwork, fearlessness, and willingness to suffer for Christ’s sake—are essential for a unified stand against opposition.
Paul exhorts the church to live consistently on mission together. One mark of effective leadership is being able to leave without things collapsing. In the church, pastors are called to develop future leaders and to labor alongside other leaders so that if they do have to leave for some reason, for any length of time, continuity and progress remain. Paul tells the Philippians, “Hey, you don’t need me in order to move forward in the mission. Whether or not I’m there, keep pressing on.”
In addition to this note of consistency, Paul reminds the church that their unity isn’t superficial, but spiritual. Notice first these foundational expressions of unity: “one spirit” and “one mind.” Paul reminds the church of the deep unity they share as believers, and he elaborates on this fundamental unity in 2:1-4. We must always remember this about Christian unity. What binds us together isn’t age, similar economic category, or preferences, but the gospel of Jesus and the Spirit of God. We are more like magnets than a bag of marbles; there’s an internal unity among believers.
Paul then provides two word pictures illustrating Christian teamwork: “stand firm in one spirit” and “work side by side.” Believers are like soldiers and like athletes, fighting and contending together as they make the gospel known to the nations.
As soldiers. The metaphor “stand” was taken from the military (Melick, Philippians, 89). This word steko¯ means “to stand firm and hold one’s ground.” The term indicates the determination of a soldier who stands his ground, not budging one inch from his post. The Philippians were attacked for believing in Christ as King. Consequently, Paul urges them to remember that they’re engaged in a war. They must not disavow their loyalty to Jesus, but must instead faithfully stand firm in the face of intimidation.
We have strength to stand firm because of our union with Christ. In Philippians 4:1 Paul says, “So then, my brothers, you are dearly loved and longed for—my joy and crown. In this manner stand firm in the Lord, dear friends” (emphasis added). Here Paul grounds his exhortation in what God has done for us in Christ. We find our power to stand through our Warrior-King, Jesus. We are His. He loves us. He has purchased us. He has sent His Spirit to empower us. Now, stand together against external conflict in His power.
Perhaps you’ve read about the famous battle of Thermopylae (or saw one of the movies about it). In 480 BC an alliance of Greek-city states, led by King Leonidas of Sparta, fought against the mighty Persian army. The battle took place at the pass of Thermopylae in central Greece. Vastly outnumbered, the Greeks held back the Persians for three days in one of history’s most famous last stands. A small force led by King Leonidas, including his famous group of 300 Spartans, blocked the only road through which the massive army of Persia’s Xerxes the Great could pass. Likewise, the Philippian congregation may have felt vastly outnumbered, but they were called to stand courageously against hostile forces. And they were to do this together, under the kingship of Jesus, who has already won the ultimate battle.
As athletes. Paul adds to this image the call for “working,” “contending,” “laboring,” or “striving” (ESV) side by side. The word is synathleo (cf. 2 Tim 2:5). You can hear the word athleo in there, from which we get the word athlete. So, Paul shifts to the realm of athletics, a world with which he was familiar. This phrase is only used twice in the New Testament (here and in 4:3). Melick points out, “If the Roman military element appreciated the military associations with the word ‘stand,’ the Greek population would identify with the necessity of ‘contending as one man’ as was demanded in athletic games” (Philippians, 90).
Many commentators make a connection not only with athletic games but also with the gladiator arena. It’s like Paul envisions Christians in the arena of faith, with himself as a part of the contest (see O’Brien’s discussion, Epistle, 150). Others suggest that it’s a word descriptive of wrestling, but not wrestling as we know it—rather, a competition that involved a whole team wrestling together against another team. They battled in a united front. In contemporary sport, you might think of football, especially the linemen. They block, side by side, for the same purpose. In team sports, each person must do his or her part. You need the whole team contributing. So it is with the church. We advance the gospel side by side, working, contending, laboring together.
Let’s pause and make a few applications regarding teamwork. Remember you’re in a battle. What sort of images come to mind when you think of a Christian? Someone who spends all day in a library? Someone removed from society like a monk in a desert? Do you think of a celebrity? Notice what Paul thinks about: soldiers of the King and determined athletes. He uses images that denote warfare, perseverance, teamwork, and tenacity. He uses such metaphors often (cf. 2 Tim 2:3-5). We need to remember that this is the nature of the Christian life. You’re an athlete. You’re a soldier.
Why do athletes practice multiple times a day and go on disciplined diets? Why do soldiers put themselves through difficult training? Because the prize or the goal is worth it. We must engage in the war and contend faithfully because Christ is worth it. Paul tells Timothy that the aim of a good soldier is to “please the recruiter” (2 Tim 2:4). He goes on to tell him, “Keep your attention on Jesus Christ” (2 Tim 2:8). Remember Him when you go on those mission trips filled with unidentifiable bites, parasites, and sleepless nights. Remember Him as you go with that church-planting team to the urban core. Remember He is worth it when you keep serving and counseling that wayward brother or sister. He is worth it, and He is enough.
Realize that we don’t engage in this battle on our own. There’s nothing like being part of a local church on mission together; no group, no team, no organization is like the church, the fellowship of the gospel. Don’t be a secret agent, a little ninja running off by yourself! Be part of the unit! Be part of the team! Pray, give, go, encourage, invest, and support. Be a soldier. And do so in Christ’s power.
Fight alongside other believers, not against them. Unfortunately, some in the Philippian church started fighting each other. Such sideways energy output does no good in our efforts to advance the gospel in the face of the real enemy, Satan. Look at what Paul says regarding this matter, as he uses some similar language in chapter 4:
I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I also ask you, true partner, to help these women who have contended for the gospel at my side, along with Clement and the rest of my coworkers whose names are in the book of life. (Phil 4:2-3)
Previously, these two ladies were contending alongside Paul in the mission, but something happened, and they swerved off mission. How common this is in the church! Remember the Titans is one of my favorite sports movies. It’s the story of a high school football team in Virginia in their first season as an ethnically integrated unit. They had to overcome some serious internal strife before they could win games against their opponents. They resolved many of the tensions at a two-week training camp at Gettysburg. Before they could win, they had to become a unit. Don’t spend your energy on foolish debates and on things that don’t center on advancing the gospel. We have a mission field to engage; we don’t need fighting in the barracks and in the locker room!
Paul says the Philippians must contend in two complementary ways, which he explains both positively and negatively. The positive exhortation addresses our purpose, and the negative addresses the issue of courage. Positively, the church should contend “for the faith that comes from the gospel.” Just as Paul made it his ambition to advance the gospel in spite of opposition (v. 12), so must the church. This is the purpose for which we take our stand and for which we strive together as one. We want to make the gospel known. We are united both in the gospel and for the gospel.
Paul doesn’t call the church to make an ideology or a political party the main thing. He tells them to make the gospel—the good news about Jesus Christ, described in 2:5-11—the main thing. We, the church, must avoid foolish arguments that distract us from the mission—questions like, “Will all of our toenails that we’ve clipped in our lifetimes be put back on at the resurrection?” Like Jude says, let’s earnestly “contend for the faith” (Jude 3). Are you striving to make the gospel known through hospitality? Are you striving to make the gospel known by giving out books or inviting friends to worship gatherings? Let’s be committed to this mission of advancing the gospel.
Negatively, he says “not being frightened in any way by your opponents” (1:28). Paul uses a term that appears only here in the New Testament to speak of being startled like a horse. Whoever these opponents were, the Philippians were not to be intimidated by them. They were to stand boldly and seek to spread the gospel faithfully (cf. vv. 14,20). They were probably not the Judaizers mentioned in chapter 3, since Philippi had a small Jewish population. These bullies were probably their pagan neighbors, perhaps even the authorities (O’Brien, Epistle, 153).
Paul spoke of adversaries and opposition often. To the Corinthians he said, “But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost, because a wide door for effective ministry has opened for me—yet many oppose me” (1 Cor 16:8-9). Effective ministry doesn’t mean a ministry devoid of conflict. Paul says that “many oppose me,” and we, too, will have our adversaries. After all, the chief adversary hates everything we do in Jesus’ name. In light of the battle that we face, we need to stand together.
John Knox, a preacher in Scotland who showed remarkable courage, endured much opposition from the crown. During the dark reign of Bloody Mary in 1553–58, she burned some 280 Christians, including some of Knox’s friends. He was a small man with a weak constitution, but he had a burning desire to serve God. In view of his fearless ministry, one person said at his funeral, “Here lies one who never feared the face of man” (in Stott, Between Two Worlds, 304–5). You won’t fear the face of man if you fear God more than man. Jesus told His disciples, “Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28). If you’re a Christian, you’ve already been accepted by the only One who ultimately matters. You don’t have to fear condemnation, so what can a human do to you? Don’t fear them. Your Father is with you. Live in the freedom of your acceptance before God through Christ, and never fear the face of man.
Let me encourage you to speak the gospel fearlessly and to be prepared for conflict when you do. While some will be drawn to the grace of Jesus, others will not only reject it but may also deeply oppose you. We shouldn’t be surprised by hate, conflict, or persecution. We don’t go looking for it. We shouldn’t bring it on ourselves by non-gospel-reflecting conduct. But we must remember that we will suffer for proclaiming the message of a crucified, risen, reigning, and returning King. And we don’t do this alone; we do this together, by the Spirit.
As Paul describes the nature of Christian suffering in the mission, he says, “This is a sign of destruction for them, but of your deliverance.” Paul offers this as a word of encouragement to the Philippians, which is also a word of warning to unbelievers. When Christians are standing together in the face of external pressure, something is happening: a sign is given. It’s a “two-way sign.” It’s a sign pointing to destruction and salvation, to confrontation and confirmation, to judgment and assurance. Unbelievers are confronted with their unbelief and their impending judgment if they don’t believe. Believers have a word of confirmation, as God assures them in the struggle that they really are God’s people and they will be saved on the last day. Notice how non-politically correct this statement is. Contrary to what you hear, not everyone is going to heaven. We don’t all believe the same thing. Like the judge in the gladiator games, we give a “thumbs up” to some and a “thumbs down” to others. Therefore, the decisive issue is, What will you do with that man on the cross?
Paul encourages the saints with these words. While those on the outside may mock and torture them, they will be saved. And he reminds them of who saves, pointing them to the source: “This is from God.” God began the work of salvation in them, and He will sustain and keep them until the end. Paul tells them that their suffering is giving evidence of God’s glorious salvation, which they experience in the present, and of the final salvation they will one day enjoy.
We need to remember that our opponents won’t win. We shouldn’t live hopelessly. God the Judge will have the last word. Some Christians live this life in a very sad, hopeless way. But we shouldn’t. The wicked prosper only for a season (Ps 73). People may oppose you, but that doesn’t mean you should live in discouragement. Many of the pagans in Philippi probably looked at the small band of Christians and thought, We’re winning, and from the surface, the church may have looked like a small, weak, pathetic band of people. But God will have the last word; a sign is given, and it’s a “thumbs down” to those who persecute you and a “thumbs up” to those who take a stand for the gospel. Don’t panic. God is reigning, and God’s glory will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea (Hab 2:14). Go on speaking the gospel, and don’t be deterred by what you read in popular literature or online.
Paul rounds out this paragraph by touching on the nature of Christian suffering. What he says may surprise some believers. Most Christians understand salvation as a gift from God (John 1:12-13; Eph 2:8-9), but Paul points out that suffering for Christ’s sake is also a gift. Suffering for the sake of Christ is a privilege. Paul’s words are worth a careful, prayerful reflection. Do you recall how Peter rebuked Jesus for saying that He, the Christ, was going to die on a cross? At that time, Peter’s gospel didn’t have a cross in it, so he was rattled by this notion. Jesus then effectively told Peter, “You must follow Me to the cross” (see Mark 8:31-38). Peter had a hard time accepting this basic fact about following Jesus. How much more do we who live in relatively safe environments lose sight of this reality?
To be clear, we don’t suffer in the same way as Jesus; His death was an atoning death. But our symbol for life and ministry is a cross, not a recliner, not a flat screen, not first-class tickets on the airplane, and not plush golf courses. You may have those things, and they may be enjoyed appropriately at times, but let’s not forget that the call to follow Jesus is a call to follow Him down the Calvary road. And Paul adds this: It’s a gift to suffer for Him like that!
How exactly is suffering for Christ a gift? According to the previous verse, it provides a sense of assurance that we belong to Jesus. Suffering also brings you closer to Jesus. Paul relates this idea in 3:10-11. This attitude regarding suffering appears throughout the book of Acts. At one point, after the apostles had been beaten, Luke says, “Then they went out from the presence of the Sanhedrin, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to be dishonored on behalf of the Name” (Acts 5:41). They did not just tolerate suffering, they rejoiced in it! They saw it as a gift.
You will enjoy a special intimacy with Jesus as you identify with Him through courageous Christian witness. Suffering for the sake of the mission doesn’t mean He is abandoning you; rather, suffering is a sign that He is with you. Jesus calls us all to obey Him, and that will lead to varying degrees of conflict. You may face a mild form of opposition, like being mocked, insulted, or ignored. You may face severe opposition, like being tied up by Islamic extremists. In every situation, see your suffering as a privilege. We get to suffer for His name.
In verse 30 Paul tells the church that they were following his own way of life. They knew of his sufferings in Philippi and now in Rome, and he calls on them to share in these sufferings for the sake of the King. Paul and the church both received this gift of suffering. Full citizenship involves the grace of believing and the grace of suffering, together in the cause of Christ. Now let us live in a manner worthy of the gospel together, as we stand against external conflict.
Serve One Another with Humble Compassion
Unity is still on Paul’s mind, though the focus shifts to internal unity. The church must not only take a stand against outside pressure, but they should also pursue particular attitudes and actions within the body of Christ in order to overcome division. Let’s consider this classic passage on unity in three simple parts: the basis for unity, the command for unity, and the expressions of unity.
Paul opens with a series of “if” statements that may be better understood as “since” statements or “because” statements. They could be stated, “If, as is indeed the case” (O’Brien, Epistle, 165). The “if” refers to certainties, not possibilities. Together, these motivations remind believers of the cords of love that bind them together as God’s people (Hanson, Letter, 106).
The first reminder is that there is encouragement in Christ. We have the blessing of knowing Christ (3:10) and being found in Him (3:9). We have been given the gift of faith (1:29). Does anything lift our spirits more than knowing we are in Christ? In the midst of trial and suffering, find encouragement in your relationship with Jesus.
Second, we have the consolation of love. This is presumably a reference to the love of Christ that comforts us. He is ours, and we are His. What comfort! It may also be a reference to mutual love for one another that flows from this relationship with Jesus. This connection was made in Philippians 1:7-8. Paul loves the church “with the affection of Christ Jesus” (1:8). We know God’s love, and His love makes us love others.
Third, we’re reminded that we share in the fellowship with the Spirit. The Greek word translated “fellowship” (koinonia) is the same word as in 1:5. The Spirit unites us as brothers and sisters (1:27), partners in the gospel, and the Spirit helps in our weaknesses (Rom 8:26). Later Paul says that Christians worship God “by the Spirit” (Phil 3:3). Paul is aware that disunity threatened the Philippian congregation, so he reminds them of the Spirit-produced fellowship they share.
Fourth, we share affection and mercy. This affection (cf. 1:8) or “tenderness” (NIV) flows from our union with Christ. Christ has loved us with amazing tenderness. He has shown us infinite affection. Mercy or “sympathy” (ESV) or “compassion” (NIV) has also come to us from the source of all compassion, our great God (see Ps 103; Rom 12:1; 2 Cor 1:3). We share in a common experience of being the objects of God’s compassion. This tender care should cause us to look out for the interests of others (Phil 2:4) and serve sacrificially as illustrated by the life of Epaphroditus (2:25-30; 4:18).
We enjoy these amazing blessings as fellow believers. Notice Paul’s approach with the Philippians. He’s not only warm and pastoral, but he’s also quick to first mention the blessings of the gospel before giving certain exhortations. If all you ever do is tell people what they’re supposed to be doing, then they will get burned out. Remind people of the blessings while giving them the imperatives. Do this for your own soul, and do this for other Christians.
Technically, the one imperative in verses 1-4 is found here in the beginning of verse 2. The imperative is “fulfill my joy.” Paul wanted the church to be like-minded in order to complete his joy. This may sound strange, but not if you think about it. A minister’s well-being is always tied to the unity and growth of the church. John says, “I have no greater joy than this: to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 4). If you’re a parent, you know this as well. Proverbs says, “A wise son brings joy to his father, but a foolish son, heartache to his mother” (10:1). Parents’ well-being is tied to the maturity and growth of their kids. Paul, like a father to the Philippian church, naturally longs for the church to be unified, and so he requests like-mindedness.
To be united, Paul says, the church must have the same mentality. Instead of having petty squabbles and rivalries, they should get their heads on straight and remember their identity and common mission. Also, to be united, Paul says, we must pursue Christlike humility. This virtue had a negative connotation in Greek thought, carrying with it the notion of a slave, but Christians elevated it rightly as the soil of all virtue (see Luke 14:11; Eph 4:2; 1 Pet 5:5; cf. Col 3:12). Of course, the Old Testament extols this virtue, and the proud are regularly rebuked. The humble person will avoid “rivalry and conceit.” Paul just spoke about the wrongly motivated preachers who are driven by rivalry in 1:17, and now he tells the whole church to avoid this attitude. Rivalry will divide congregations in a terrible way. Every church member should beware of the presence of rivalry and seek to put it to death. They should seek the glory of Jesus instead of their own glory and rejoice whenever someone is being used by God to advance the gospel.
The Greek word for “conceit” is translated as “vain glory” or “vain conceit” in some versions. It’s an empty glory, a glory that doesn’t exist. People are literally conceited over nothing! The opposite of this is the person of Christ. He didn’t have vain glory; He had all glory, and yet He made Himself nothing for our sake. Follow the way of Jesus, not the way of our culture. We should ask ourselves some questions here: Am I competing for people’s attention and approval? Do I find it difficult or easy to rejoice in the success of others? Am I conceited? Do I think I’m superior to people? Am I concerned with the needs of others?
There will never be unity in a congregation apart from people walking in humility. Paul puts it like this to the Romans: “Be in agreement with one another. Do not be proud; instead, associate with the humble” (Rom 12:16). Catch the connection with agreement and humility. A humble person contributes to the unity of the church, and humility is a key theme of chapter 2 of Philippians. It will be at the heart of a gospel-centered church. Paul goes on to give us the amazing Christ hymn in 2:6-11. There we see the ultimate picture of humility. Jesus, who had every right to be conceited, instead emptied Himself and associated with us, the lowly. He’s our model for humility, and He gives us power to live out an others-oriented lifestyle.
Third, to be unified, we must live with sensitivity toward the needs of others. In verse 4 Paul tells the church not just to consider their own interests, but also “the interests of others.” In your conversation with others, do you really listen to them? Are you really concerned about others? In this age of taking selfies, such a lifestyle of thinking about others is uncommon. It was rare in Paul’s day, and it’s rare in our day.
I (Francis) remember waking up one Sunday unable to get a thought out of my head for about an hour. Do you know what it was? I was thinking about me. I was thinking about poor, pitiful me. I was feeling a bit sick. I got in from San Diego the night before at 1:00 a.m., and I had to get up and preach four services. Then I was convicted as I realized that I was about to preach on Philippians 2, which is all about considering others more than yourself. It’s so easy to think about ourselves and not others, isn’t it?
The practice of thinking about the needs of others flows from the attitude of humility Paul mentioned in verse 3. Others have pointed out that humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less. I’ve always enjoyed C. S. Lewis’s description of a humble person as he paints a picture of verses 3-4:
Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call “humble” nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all. (Mere Christianity, 128)
Only when we possess the grace of humility will we serve others with spiritual sensitivity. A humble person thinks of others. An arrogant, self-absorbed person thinks only of himself.
In light of the importance of humility, John Stott says, “At every stage of our Christian development and in every sphere of our Christian discipleship, pride is the greatest enemy and humility our greatest friend” (“Pride, Humility and God,” 2–3). Therefore, for the good of our own souls, for the unity of the church, and for the good of our witness before a watching world, we should want to know how to grow in humility. Drawing from other passages of Scripture, allow me to list a few disciplines necessary for cultivating humility. I’m not listing them as one who has mastered the art of humility; I list them as one who needs this grace as much as anyone!
Grow in humility by reflecting on the cross of Christ. After giving these exhortations, Paul immediately takes us to the cross. There is no room for pride at the cross. As the hymn says, “It was my sin that held him there, until it was accomplished” (Getty and Townend, “How Deep”). We see the holiness of God, the sinfulness of man, and the grace of our Lord on display at the cross.
Grow in humility by reflecting on the glory of Christ. After describing Christ’s incarnation in Philippians 2:6-8, Paul points us to Christ’s exaltation in vv. 9-11. He reminds us that Christ is now ruling and reigning and that one day everyone will bow before our glorified King. Allow Christ’s all-sovereign lordship to create in you humble adoration before Him.
Grow in humility by reflecting on God’s Word, which reveals to us Christ’s humility and exaltation. Studying the Bible can be an act of humility in itself if you’re going to the Bible with the attitude, “I need Your Word more than bread.” It is the arrogant person who thinks he or she doesn’t need to hear from God’s Word. Of course, some read in order to fill their pride, and that’s wrong. God is looking for people who humbly seek and submit to His Word. He tells Isaiah, “I will look favorably on this kind of person: one who is humble, submissive in spirit, and trembles at My word” (Isa 66:2). As you study, meditate on the greatness of God. Like Asaph in Psalm 73, get before God and realize that He rules over all; stand in the way of His greatness and regain your perspective on yourself and all of life.
Grow in humility through prayer. One reason for our prayerlessness is lack of humility. Prayer is a very hard thing to do because it seems like we aren’t doing anything. But it’s also hard because it’s a humble act. We must humble ourselves before God’s mighty hand regularly and cast our cares on Him (1 Pet 5:6-7).
Grow in humility through serving others. By doing humble actions, like serving without being noticed, you may begin to grow in humility. Paul encourages the church to think on the interests of others. So serve people humbly. As you do this, pray for God to cultivate in you the spirit of humility that was so gloriously displayed in our Lord.
How did the early Christians turn the world upside down? They obeyed a different King. They lived lives that reflected the values of the kingdom, lives that were worthy of the gospel. That involved standing together against external opposition with courage and serving one another with humble compassion. Let’s go and do likewise in humble dependence on our Savior.
Reflect and Discuss
- How does Philippians 1:27 encompass much of what follows?
- What does it mean to live as a citizen of the kingdom, not just a citizen of your country?
- How does this passage encourage churches to be “teammates”?
- What do you make of the military language in this passage? How is the Christian life like a war?
- What does this passage say about suffering?
- What kind of motivations does Paul give for the church to serve one another with compassion in 2:1-4?
- How does the command for unity in 2:2 strike you?
- Do you find it challenging to avoid rivalry and to put the needs of others ahead of your own? How would your church be different if everyone faithfully lived out Philippians 2:3-4?
- How does Jesus show us the Philippians 2:3-4 kind of life?
- How does this passage show us our need for the Savior?