The apostle Paul is writing to these Christians so that they will focus on their manner of life being worthy of the gospel of Christ. One of the key characteristics of a life being lived for the gospel is unity and harmony among Christians. Philippians 2:1-2 records Paul’s plead to them that if Christ means anything to their lives, then be of the same mind, have the same love, be in full agreement, and have the same way of thinking. In this next paragraph the apostle Paul is going to teach us how to accomplish this. How can we have the same mind? How can we have the same love? How can we have the same way of thinking?
Nothing From Selfish Ambition or Conceit (2:3)
This is a very forceful declaration. The word “do” is not in the original but is supplied to make a proper English sentence. The phrase is: “Nothing from selfish ambition!” Selfish ambition is anything that pushes ourselves forward. Any activity that is self-serving or seeks personal advantage or gain is to be avoid. Unity is destroyed when people push themselves forward. Discord and division are the result of selfish ambition. Conceit is along similar lines of thinking. Conceit is advancing ourselves to enjoy glory from success. We look for personal glory and acclaim thus leading to pride. The connection between selfish ambition and conceit shows that the concern for self-centeredness that seeks credit and praise from what one has done is what is being condemned. The idol of self is an enormous idol in our lives that can be easily ignored. We think that we are due more than what we have received and we are worthy of more honor than we are getting. There is to be nothing in our lives from this kind of thinking. We will not act on those thoughts and we will war against this kind of self-centered thinking.
Count Others More Significant (2:3-4)
Humility is the opposition of selfish ambition and conceit. We are going to put self-concern aside. Instead of looking at ourselves, we are going to count others more significant. This word “count” is really important to this sentence. We are going to count, consider, value, think, esteem, and regard others as more significant and more important than ourselves. Notice that it does not matter if the person is more significant or not. It does not matter if the person deserves such regard and consideration. Paul says that you consider them more significant regardless of what they have done or who they are. This command was just as challenging in Paul’s day as it is in our day. Authors in Paul’s time depicted humility as weakness, a lack of freedom, servility, and subjection. People think the same about humility today. Humility is considered weakness today. Successful presidential candidates today are not the humble ones, but the assertive, self-ambitious ones. Humility and counting others more significant than ourselves is not natural and against our self-preserving instincts.
The apostle Paul presses what he means even further into our hearts in verse 4. Do not just look out for your own. The word “interests” is also not in the original but is supplied to make sense of what Paul is saying. Do not look just to your own things, your own interests, your concerns, your own life and so forth. We must not simply ask what is good for me, like the world tells us to do. We must ask what is good for others. Self-centered consideration of plans, rights, and interests must be replaced by concern for other’s plans, rights, and interests. So how do we do this? Since this is not natural, we need help to change our way of thinking to that we are counting others more significant than ourselves and looking out for the interests of others. Paul gives us the example of Jesus to show us what this life looks like.
The Humbling, Self-Sacrificing Example of Jesus (2:5-8)
We are called to have the same thinking that Jesus had. What we read next is the glorious description of the work of Christ. Before we soak in these beautiful words, I want to make sure that we read this is the right context. This paragraph has often been turned into a battleground about the humanity and deity of Jesus. There is much discussion about how the Son of God was God but also human. But this is missing the point of the text all together. This paragraph is not here for a theological argument. Rather, Paul is reminding us about what Jesus did so that we can have the same way of thinking as him.
Verse 6 reminds us of the heights from which our Lord came. Verse 6 says that Jesus was in the form of God. This does not mean that he had a shell of God, like some sort of facade. The point is that Christ is completely God. His substance is God. The NIV gives a good reading of the meaning of this: “Being in very nature God.” His form, his substance, his nature is God. As God, he is worthy of great honor and worship. He is supreme and possesses all authority. Though he is God, he did not consider his deity a reason to operate for his own selfish purposes. He did not cling to his rights. He did not use his deity to his own selfish ambition or personal advantage. The point is that not even Christ was above sacrificing himself. In verse 3 we were told to do nothing from selfish ambition but in humility look to the interests of others. Christ did this as an example for us and his way of thinking is to be our way of thinking. Though the highest, he did not use his rights or position to his own personal advantage or selfishly. What he had as the divine Creator and Lord was used for giving not for grasping.
Rather, he made himself nothing. Some translations read, “He emptied himself.” This is a Greek idiom for giving up all your rights. It is a word that is used elsewhere in the New Testament to speaking of depriving (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:15). Jesus abandoned his rights that he could have demanded as God. Think about that truth in the life of Jesus when people are mocking him, trying to kill him, spit on him, and finally do kill him. Jesus did not exercise his rights and liberties as God. He gave up those rights and privileges. He deprived himself. He embraced insignificance. The text does not say that he was no longer God. Rather, Paul is describing how Christ emptied, deprived, sacrificed himself. He sacrificed himself and gave up his rights by assuming the form of a slave when he became human in external form. Jesus added humanity to himself which by its very nature is limiting and humiliating for God.
So listen to what God did: “He humbled himself” (2:8). He showed his humility by being obedient, yielding himself to death, even the most horrible way to die: the death on a cross. Christ died, not for his own advantage, but for our interests. He looked out for the interests of others rather than himself. He counted us more significant than himself, even though he is God. This is what our Lord means when he tells us to in humility count others more significant. This is what that looks like. We give ourselves to others. The interests of others are more important than my own. Jesus showed us how to do it.
God Exalting (2:9-11)
Verses 9-11 describe the glorious exaltation of Christ after he sacrificed himself for his creation through his death on the cross. Why is this description here? Did we need the theology about what happened to Jesus after he died? Why are we told that God highly exalted Christ and gave him a name above all names?
Here is the point: Humbling, self-sacrificing lives leads to exaltation from God. Why else is this exaltation included except to teach us that this is our motivation for humbling ourselves and sacrificing ourselves! If you make yourself nothing and no one knows your works, you know that God knows your effort and will reward you. Our problem is that we want the reward now. We want exaltation now, from people, not from God. We want people to pay attention to us. We want people to focus on us. We want people to pat us on the back. We want people to recognize us. The picture is that Christ made himself low (2:5-8) and afterward God lifted him high (2:9-11). We are to have the mind of Christ and God will exalt us.
Our humility and sacrifice is not to be painful or begrudging. We are to joyfully sacrifice ourselves. The reason we can joyfully sacrifice today and put the interests of others ahead of our own because God has promised to reward and exalt us. Listen to the scriptures which teach this:
For the joy set out for him he endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2 NET)
Notice that it was for the joy set before Jesus that he endured the cross and disregarded the shame that came with it. The reward that was set ahead of him gave him the reason for joyful obedience and sacrifice. Listen to some other scriptures.
…and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:17 ESV)
The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; (2 Timothy 2:11–12 ESV)
Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. (James 4:10 ESV)
For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14 ESV)
To live is Christ and to die is gain. We see one facet of the gain: God exalting us! Could there be anything more amazing or shocking or glorious? We cannot begin to comprehend what this looks like. Listen to what Paul said:
For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. (2 Corinthians 4:17 ESV)
Underline the word “glory.” We are being prepared for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. This is the joy set before us so that we can endure shame and suffering. This is the joy set before us that we can look at the thinking of Jesus and have the same attitude. This is the joy we have before us so that we can count others as more significant than ourselves and look to the interests of others and not simply my own. We were not worthy of what Jesus did for us. Others do not have to be worthy of our sacrifice and yielding. We are serving God and bringing him glory in our sacrifice. We are showing that Christ is more valuable to us than any recognition and attention we can receive in this life.