In humility count others more significant than yourselves. —Philippians 2:3
The mystery of the Incarnation is that, in Jesus, God became man. That’s a mystery, because we cannot fathom it. But there is real comfort and joy in the Christmas event. We are real sinners and real sufferers, but God has not forsaken us. We have a comfort and joy from far beyond ourselves.
In addition to our fear of death and our fear of rejection, we also fear insignificance. This is the one that bothers me the most day by day. For a human being, created in the image of God, to become a zero is impossible to bear. We cannot endure being trivialized. We yearn to matter, because God made us for greatness. We don’t want the big-deal-ness and top-dog-ness and swagger of the egomaniacs. But we do understand why people act that way. We understand the cult of celebrity and ratings and status in our world. Deep within we all look out at the world and ask, “Would someone please reassure me that I matter?” We want someone to weep at our funeral.
Jesus takes a surprising approach to our need for significance. His Incarnation showed us where true significance comes from. He had equality with God, but he didn’t cling to it. He let it go, for our sakes. He was infinitely superior to us, but he came down, even below us, and treated us as more significant than himself. Then he taught us to do the same with one another: “In humility count others more significant than yourselves” (verse 3). It’s the humble, not the self-important, whom God lifts up in honor. This passage is about humility, obviously. But even more, it’s about honor and glory and significance. The Bible speaks approvingly of those who “seek for glory, honor and immortality” (Romans 2:7). But the secret to that greatness is not what we think. Jesus humbled himself, but God highly exalted him. And now God wants both parts of that to be ours too. If we will humble ourselves, we will be significant. God will make sure of it. We need not fear a wasted life. That’s the point of the passage.
What would we lose, if we didn’t have Christmas? We’d lose more than a holiday. We would go into a meltdown of unchecked rivalry and conceit, and that is a wasted life. You see those two words in verse 3: “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit.” 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. So the translation of this word in the old King James Version helps. The King James reads “vainglory.” What is “vainglory”? All self-exaltation, all self-display. And it’s vain, false, empty, because it’s made-up. It is image and appearance, not reality. But 2000 years ago a significant person came into this self-inflated world. God himself came down into our world of rivalry and conceit, and what did he do? God made himself nothing. That’s what God did 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. It is hard for us to accept this, here in our defensiveness and emptiness, which we cover over with all forms of vainglory. But his humility is the secret to true significance for you and me. His humility is the only way we don’t end up trivializing ourselves.
This passage summarizes the drama of the entire Bible. These verses are the Bible in miniature. So if you believe the Bible at all, this passage will be the most important words you’ll ever read in all your life. This is not one of those passages that a certain denomination champions as its own. This passage is the whole Bible in one distilled drop. So, you might be Protestant or Catholic or Orthodox. But if you’re a Christian in any sense, you will let this passage enter the depths of your heart. Let’s do that together now. The passage makes three points, as we move into a new understanding of significance, setting our hearts free from all jockeying for position and power, from all pushiness, from all rivalry and conceit into the beauty of true and eternal and satisfying significance.
The way of Jesus 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 beauty that is 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, feast on it. It’s there for you in Christ. We do draw encouragement from one another. But our supplies run low. That’s why we don’t put one another first. Christ alone comes first. He is our encouragement. He is always loving and wise and kind and all that we need. Our encouragement is in Christ, and he is inexhaustible.
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 this. He does. How? Through the gospel he himself 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 talks about how hard it is to be a Christian. But Christ is with us, giving himself to us, putting heart back into us. An ideal life, without Jesus, is a living hell. A hard life, with Jesus, is heaven on earth.
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 that said, “I felt the Spirit of God resting there.” I’m talking about the Spirit of God bearing witness to our spirits that we are children of the Father. He makes us know it deep inside. It isn’t a mind-game. Wherever the gospel goes in power, whatever the culture, whatever the denomination, whatever the personality type, Jesus gives encouragement, comfort, participation in the Spirit. It’s who he is, it’s what he does. 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 presence 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.” That communicates to one another, “You matter.” But really, it’s Jesus saying it.
The way of Christ is attractive. But it’s also costly. What is the cost? What do we have to sacrifice, to experience it? Everyone wants it, but it isn’t easy. What’s the catch?
The way of Jesus 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. In fact, God created the universe so that he could display his humility. His greatest glory is not that he flung the starts into space; his greatest glory is that the one who flung the stars into space is humble. That’s his ultimate significance. So, humility wasn’t our invention. It should have been. But humility began in heaven and came down to us. God has grandeur, but not grandiosity. We invented that. It’s vainglory. It’s fraudulent significance. God is, of all things, humble!
But the word translated here as “humility” is surprising. Literally, it’s “lowlimindedness.” That Greek word had a negative connotation in the classical authors. The English word “humility” has positive connotations for us today. It’s an easy sell for me as a preacher. But the Greek word Paul uses had negative connotations, the way our word “humiliation” does. In Aristotle this word 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 a doormat? That’s hard for us in Nashville. This city is all about getting noticed. Being being stepped on while someone else gets the breaks – who’s okay with that? Only one person in this town: God.
Here’s what God did. With lowliness of mind, he came down and treated us in a way that 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 the mystery of the Incarnation 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. I find humility a beautiful concept, but when it costs me in my actual life, that’s different. That’s why I need Jesus time after time. So do you. Humility costs us our ego, it crucifies the self-centered narrative in our heads and makes others important because Jesus considers them important. It cost him. My Epic sings a song entitled “Lower Still”:
Look, he’s covered in dirt
The blood of his mother has mixed with the earth
and she’s just a child who’s throbbing in pain
from the terror of birth by the light of a cave
now they’ve laid that small baby
where creatures come eat
like a meal for the swine who have no clue
that he is still holding together the world that they see
they don’t know just how low he has to go
Look now he’s kneeling he’s washing their feet
though they’re all filthy fishermen, traitors and thieves
now he’s pouring his heart out and they’re falling asleep
but he has to go lower still
there is greater love to show
hands to the plow
further down now
blood must flow
all these steps are personal
all his shame is ransom
oh do you see, do you see just how low, he has come
do you see it now?
no one takes from him
what he freely gives away
beat in his face
tear the skin off his back
lower still, lower still
strip off his clothes
make him crawl through the streets
lower still, lower still
hang him like meat
on a criminal’s tree
lower still, lower still
bury his corpse in the earth
like a seed, like a seed
Lower still, lower still
The earth explodes
she cannot hold him!
And all therein is placed beneath him
and death itself no longer reigns
it cannot keep the ones he gave himself to save
and as the universe shatters, the darkness dissolves
he alone will be honored
we will bathe in his splendor
as all heads bow lower still
As we go through life, we sometimes wonder, How much lower do I have to go, as I obey God? It’s costly, following Christ. It can be scary. Here’s what we have to keep reminding ourselves, because only the gospel will tell us this. Humility and lowliness of mind and counting others as more significant – it isn’t a suicidal plunge. The old familiar “what about me?”-thought is in the back of all our minds, isn’t it? But here’s why costly humility is a smart policy for you and me:
The way of Jesus is significant
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? If the passage were about humility only, then these verses wouldn’t be here. The passage isn’t about God becoming man only. It is also about us becoming significant. After all, the passage doesn’t end with verse 8. Up to that point, Paul shows 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 speak to our fear of being insignificant. It does, because God is committed to exalting the lowly. 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. This is why self-created significance is vainglory, fraudulent glory. God proved something in Christ: the way up is down. We see it in Jesus, here in verses 9-11, because God wants to give us a significance that’s non-oppressive and beautiful, a significance we never have to feel embarrassed by or apologize for, a significance that serves others, a significance that looks like God. T. S. Eliot understood that humility comes from God. It’s why he wrote, “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.” And then he also wrote to us here in church today, “You are not here to verify, instruct yourself, or inform curiosity. You are here to kneel.”
That low place is the only place of personal significance. This is one of the surprises of the gospel that we have to take by faith and venture out before we can see how it’s all going to turn out. But the low place is where the glory comes down, where the promises come true, where significance becomes real. God himself went that way, and it turned out really well.
Now it’s our turn.