In humility count others more significant than yourselves. Philippians 2:3
This passage is about Christmas and Easter. We see Christmas in verse 7: “He made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” When the Son of God came down into this world as one of us, he made himself nothing. That’s how community grows. That’s why Paul is saying this. The passage is all about growing community. All over the world people are asking, How are we going to get along? In our diversity, how can we be one together? We might think the answer is love – that we’ll stop blowing each other up through the power of love. Okay. But there’s a problem with that. People who think they’re loving can do bad things with no self-awareness because their benevolent psychology tells them they’re acting in love. “Love” can justify anything. In a way, there’s way too much love in this world – false love. That’s why we can’t grow community by our love. There’s another way, and it works. Community grows through humility. And the only humble person anywhere is God. The first Christmas was all about the humility of God. The Second Person of the Holy Trinity came down and was born a baby for us. Something new came into our world that day – something more helpful than our love. Humility came down.
What would we lose, if we didn’t have Christmas? We’d lose more than a day off. What would we lose? For starters, this passage implies that the world would go into a meltdown of unchecked rivalry and conceit. You see those two words in verse 3: “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit.” That’s the opposite of humility. What do those words mean? The word translated “rivalry” – Aristotle used that word for people hustling up political power by working the angles, people who are out for themselves. And that’s how the world runs, isn’t it? Then the word translated “conceit.” That’s a good translation, but none of us thinks of himself as conceited. Other people might be conceited, but me? So the translation of this word in the old King James Version helps. The King James reads “vainglory,” a literal translation. What is “vainglory”? It’s the narrative going on inside our heads. There are two versions of it, basically. One version goes, “I am so wonderful. Why doesn’t everyone praise me?” The other version goes, “I am so wounded. Why doesn’t everyone pity me?” What do those two mentalities have in common? “It’s all about me!” And that glory is vain, false, empty, fraudulent, phony. It doesn’t work, because everyone is thinking that way. Everyone wants to be the center, and everyone finds everyone else frustratingly uncooperative with their own narrative. No one gets it. No one gets that it’s all about me. That’s vainglory. It’s how we all think. And it destroys community. But 2000 years ago true glory came down into this world – in the form of a servant.
I’m reading a fascinating book, A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives. Chapter one is entitled “The Vain Brain.” Here’s how the author describes it:
The vain brain that embellishes, enhances and aggrandizes you. The vain brain that excuses your faults and failures or simply rewrites them out of history. The brain so very vain that it even considers the letters that appear in your name to be more attractive than those that don’t.
Take R, for instance. See it there next to Q? There’s no comparison. Who would want a name with Q in it? Don Quixote was an idiot. But Ray…. We’re all playing a game in our minds defined by rules that make us the winners – because we’re so empty deep inside. But Jesus came down in humility, to fill us with his true glory.
I got a speeding ticket several years ago, so I went to traffic school. There were about 25 of us there. The teacher polled my fellow-criminals and me on our own driving skills. She had us rate ourselves on a scale of 1 to 10. The class average was 7. We were better-than-average drivers. Then she polled us on the other drivers on the road, and their average in our judgment was 4.5. And we were there because we’d gotten tickets. Friedrich Nietzsche put it bluntly: “‘I did this,’ says my memory. ‘I cannot have done this,’ says my pride. Eventually, my memory yields.” Without Christmas, the world would be swallowed up with rivalry and conceit, Bedford Falls would forever become Pottersville, and we would never experience community in our separate worlds of personal delusion.
Let’s all admit how much we need the humility of God. I like the way C. J. Mahaney puts it in his book on humility: “I’m a proud man pursuing humility by the grace of God.” Okay, we’re proud. But we’re pursuing humility by the grace of God
God came down to show us how to grow community. How? Verse 7: “He made himself nothing.” That’s amazing to me. God came down into our world of rivalry and conceit, and what did he do? God made himself nothing. That’s what God did to himself on that Christmas night. God the Son made himself a little baby. Then he grew up to be an egoless nobody names Jesus of Nazareth. He spent his whole life serving others, and the thanks we returned was to crucify him. And he knew it all in advance, and he still made himself nothing. Another translation says, “He stripped himself of all privilege.” That’s what came down at Christmas. And he is how community grows.
Community is attractive
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. —Philippians 2:1-2
See what Paul is doing? He’s taking an inventory of the powers that are in Christ. What is it that’s exploding right now out of the risen Christ? The first thing Paul notices is encouragement. When we get Jesus, that’s what we feel, that is his impact. And Paul’s point is, receive it, inhale it, feast on it. It’s there for you in Christ. We don’t go to one another for encouragement, not primarily. Our supplies run low. That’s why we don’t put community first. Christ comes first. We go to Christ for encouragement. He is always loving and wise and kind and all that we need. Our encouragement is in Christ, and he is inexhaustible, and he is creating a new social environment through the gospel, and the feel of that new social environment is his encouragement.
Who wouldn’t want to live in a family, a dorm room, a church, of felt encouragement and felt comfort and felt participation in the Spirit? That is real, and it’s all ours in Christ. In other words, what helps us get there is not our relational skills; what makes the difference between rivalry and conceit versus encouragement and comfort is Christ: “If there is any encouragement in Christ . . . .” We don’t create community. He does. How? Through the gospel he enters in with his encouragement and comfort and affection and sympathy, especially when life is hard. There’s nothing like pain to make Jesus real to us. That’s the context here. At the end of chapter 1 Paul is talking about how hard it is to be a Christian. But we have Christ right here right now giving himself to us, putting heart back into us on terms of grace.
What am I talking about? I’m talking about a member of this church telling me, “I want to join Immanuel because Jesus is here.” I’m talking about an email from a visitor last Sunday that said, “I felt the Spirit of God resting there.” I’m talking about the risen Lord telling your heart how much he loves you. He makes you know it deep inside. And it isn’t a mind-game just between your two ears. Wherever the gospel goes in power, whatever the culture, whatever the denomination, whatever the personality type, Jesus gives encouragement, comfort, participation in the Spirit. And that’s how he creates community. No one wants to be judged and scrutinized and belittled. Everyone wants to be welcomed and forgiven and included. That’s what Christ does. His humility banishes rivalry and conceit, they’ve been on the run for 2000 years, and Jesus is still winning.
As you sit around your table for your Christmas dinner, why not go around the table and encourage one another in Christ? Someone take the lead – the dad, if there’s a dad – and let each person encourage one other person sitting there, for Jesus’ sake: “Here’s why I appreciate you. Here’s why you matter to me. Here’s why I’m glad you’re in my life. Here’s why I praise God for you. Here’s how I see Christ in you.”
God is calling us here at Immanuel to be that beautiful community all year round. What’s the cost? What do we have to sacrifice, to experience it? Everyone wants it, but it isn’t easy. What’s the catch?
Community is difficult
Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests but also to the interests of others. —Philippians 2:3-4
The word “humility” is the key. God himself led the way by coming down as a humble man in Jesus. But the word translated “humility” is surprising. Literally, it’s “lowlimindedness.” That Greek word had a negative connotation in the classical authors. In Aristotle it was associated with “servile” and in Plato with “low-class.” To be of a lowly mind was uncool then, and it’s uncool now. Who wants to be servile, unworthy of attention, a doormat? That’s hard for us in Nashville. This city is one huge platform for getting noticed. Being underappreciated and unapplauded – who’s okay with that? Only one person in this town – God.
Here’s what God did. With lowliness of mind, he came down in Christ and his life said to us, “You are more significant than I am. I’m not out for myself. I don’t care about my comfort, my safety, my prestige. I’m here to serve you.” Here’s how far he took it:
Have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. —Philippians 2:5-8
The Son of God did not nervously cling to his heavenly glory. He let it go. He stepped down to our level. C. S. Lewis described it like this:
The Second Person in God, the Son, became human, was born into the world as an actual man – a real man of a particular height, with hair of a particular color, speaking a particular language, weighing so many pounds. The Eternal Being, who knows everything and created the universe, became not only a man but before that a baby and before that a fetus inside a woman’s body. If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab.
His humility didn’t stop there in Bethlehem. He kept humbling himself, time after time, all the way to the cross. It wasn’t easy. I find humility a beautiful concept, but when it costs me in my actual life, it isn’t easy. That’s why I need Jesus time after time. So do you. Humility costs us our ego, it deconstructs the self-centered narrative in our heads and makes Jesus central and makes others important because he considers them important. And when we follow Jesus in his humility, do you know what happens? Community grows.
Here’s the best part. Humility and lowliness of mind and lifting others up – it isn’t a suicidal plunge. The “what about me?”-thought is in the back of our minds, isn’t it? Here’s why humility is a smart policy for you and me living real life:
Community is glorious
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on 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 that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. —Philippians 2:9-11
Why are these verses here at all? The passage isn’t about God becoming man just as a sentimental Christmas theme – the theological equivalent to a Hallmark card. This passage is about community and how humility grows community. So why doesn’t the passage end with verse 8? Paul has made his point. He has shown us the humility of God. But Paul adds verses 9-11 to answer the “What about me?”-question. We want to know if humility will succeed. It will. God will see to it. The Bible is clear: “He who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11). “God gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). “The meek shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). “Though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly” (Psalm 138:6). “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit” (Isaiah 57:15). These are not ideals we’re supposed to make happen; this is how reality works, because God is in charge. And he proved one thing in Christ: the way up is down. Community thrives and the presence of God dwells and we are happy and the joy spreads where humility reigns. We see it in Jesus, here in verses 9-11. We see it today in churches where he is Lord.
I got an email on Friday from a pastor friend who is suffering, but humbling himself beautifully. Here’s how he described Jesus humbling himself as one of us at that first Christmas:
The Creator becoming creature for us
The Almighty becoming helpless for us The Lord becoming servant for us
The Law-Giver becoming law-keeper for us
The Holy becoming sin for us
The Honored becoming shame for us
The Blessed becoming curse for us
The Son becoming enemy for us
The Beloved becoming forsaken for us The Judge becoming criminal for us
The Rich becoming poor for us
The Life becoming death for us
The Magnificent becoming marred for us
The Exalted becoming humble for us
May the humility of the Son of God encourage us and change us and give us a Merrier Christmas together than ever before.