READ : Philippians 2:1-11
In one of the most stirring and challenging passages in the whole Bible, the apostle Paul tells us what the mind of Christ is really like, what went on inside his mind when he decided to become a man. The answer might surprise you.
The apostle Paul has already set before his friends in the church of Philippi the standard by which Christians must measure their lives. Each follower of Jesus Christ must strive to live a life that is worthy of the gospel. “No matter what happens,” Paul wrote, “live in a way that brings honor to the good news about Christ” (Phil. 1:27, NIrV).
The apostle goes on to develop this idea of the worthy life in the second chapter of his letter to the Philippians. The life that brings honor to Christ and the gospel has an inward aspect. It involves our attitudes – the way we think and feel about ourselves and others. And these attitudes, in turn, determine our actions; what we do depends on how we think. Paul is particularly concerned in the first part of Philippians 2 about the way Christians treat each other. If steadfastness is the way for Christians to live in relation to the world, then harmony is their watchword for relating to one another. And the key to this Christian unity lies in humility. That’s the one idea that runs like a thread all through Philippians 2.
THE CHRISTIAN MIND
Paul opens the chapter by describing the crucial attitude he is looking for in the Philippians. He is talking about what could be called “the Christian mind,” or the Christian way of thinking. It’s a way of thinking marked by two distinctives: unity and humility, or humility in unity.
. . . make my joy complete by agreeing with each other. Have the same love. Be one in spirit and purpose.
Don’t do anything only to get ahead. Don’t do it because you are proud. Instead, be free of pride. Think of others as better than yourselves. None of you should look out just for your own good. You should also look out for the good of others
The unity Paul calls for here is a unity of belief (“agreeing with each other”), of experience (“have the same love”), and of will (“be one in spirit and purpose”). That is to say, as Christians we must share a common faith in the truth of the gospel, a common participation in the love of God (which produces love in us for God and others), and a common purpose in life – to live to the glory of God.
Next, Paul turns to the idea of humility. Unity and humility are closely related, for nothing makes it more difficult to come together than pride and selfish ambition. Instead of competitive self-assertion, Paul counsels his readers to “think of others as better than yourselves.” Does that mean we are to attempt to cultivate a low sense of our own value or ability? Must I try to pretend that everyone else in the world is better in every way than I am, even if I know that’s not true? No, humility doesn’t mean that. It isn’t being humble to underestimate ourselves while overestimating others. What Paul means is that we should think of others as better in the sense of being more important than ourselves. God wants us to consider our neighbor’s interests as being – at the very least – equal in importance to our own. “None of you should look out just for your own good,” he writes. “You should also look out for the good of others.” God intends Christians to be a community of those who humbly and genuinely serve one another. Imagine what such an attitude would do if it genuinely took root in your family, or church, or city, or country.
THE MIND OF CHRIST
Placing ourselves at the service of others isn’t easy. Why should we try to develop such humility? Why put other people’s interests ahead of our own? That doesn’t make sense at all – unless you are a Christian. Then you have all sorts of reasons for humbling yourself. The apostle helpfully spells some of them out. If belonging to Christ carries any weight with you, if Christ has any claim upon your obedience, if you know anything of the gratitude that fills those who are the undeserving recipients of God’s love, if you really have experienced the life that comes from God’s Spirit, if you even just feel something for me, “then,” says Paul, “make my joy complete” – by humbling yourselves in serving one another (vv. 1-2).
But Paul saves his best argument for last. Why should we be humble? “You should think in the same way Christ Jesus does,” he writes in verse 5. The most compelling reason why Christians need to demonstrate humility is because that is exactly what Jesus did. This is the mind of Christ; his entire life is an illustration of what it means to be humble. The career of Jesus Christ traces a parabola, which begins and ends in the glory of eternity with a descent into the humiliation of suffering and death in between. It is the career of one who consistently humbled himself in order to put the interests of others before his own, as Paul describes in one of the most justly famous and beautiful passages in all the Bible.
In his very nature he was God.
But he did not think that being equal with God was something he should hold on to.
Instead he made himself nothing.
He took on the very nature of a servant.
He was made in human form.
He appeared as a human being.
He came down to the lowest level.
He obeyed God completely, even though it led to his death.
In fact, he died on a cross.
So God lifted him up to the highest place.
He gave him the name that is above every name.
When the name of Jesus is spoken . . . .
Every knee in heaven and on earth and under the earth will bow to worship him.
Everyone’s mouth will say that Jesus Christ is Lord.
And God the Father will receive the glory.
Philippians 2:6-11, NIrV
These verses in which Paul describes Jesus’ descent into humility and subsequent glorious exaltation are believed to be one of the earliest Christian hymns. The opening stanza of the hymn (vv. 6-7b) establishes a pattern which subsequent verses maintain. It begins by describing Christ’s life as pre-existent God. Before all time began, he was “in very nature God.” All that God was in eternity, Christ also was. God the Son possessed inwardly and displayed outwardly the very nature of God the Father. The Nicene Creed, one of Christianity’s most important early statements of faith, explains this phrase from the Philippians hymn by describing Christ as “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made; of one being with the Father.”
Next we learn of Christ’s attitude while he was pre-existent God. He “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,” that is, he did not regard the supreme position and infinite glory that were his by nature and by right as treasures to be clutched and held onto at all costs. Instead, he freely gave it all up.
This results in a corresponding action. Christ “made himself nothing,” or emptied himself, “taking the very nature of a servant.” He surrendered the glory of heaven to take on the trouble and pain and humiliation of life as a man on earth. He committed himself wholly to another mode of being; the Son became a servant. One who was by nature fully God became by nature fully human. The mystery of Jesus’ nature is not that he was a man on the outside and God on the inside, but that he was completely God and completely human at the same time.
That brings us to the hymn’s second stanza (vv. 7c-8) which deals with Christ’s life as incarnate God. He was “made in human likeness” and “found in appearance as a man.” The careful wording in those phrases is intended to safeguard the truth that, while Jesus was really and fully human, he was more than that as well. So while Christ was like us, one of us, he was not identical to us. To most of the people who passed him in the street, Jesus looked just like any other man, and in one sense he was. But, he was also infinitely more than just any other man.
Now Jesus’ attitude as incarnate God is described, and it was exactly the same as it had been when he was pre-existent God: “he humbled himself.” Deliberately, consciously, voluntarily, willingly, he stripped himself of every honor, descending lower and lower into humiliation, into the very depths, and all out of love for lost people. The action which resulted from his humility was obedience to death – even death on a cross. Christ’s entire earthly life, from its beginning in Bethlehem’s stable to the last breath he drew upon the cross, was dedicated to perfectly obeying his Father’s will in all things.
What was that Father’s will? It was to give himself, in the person of his Son, in order to save lost human beings. This is what it means to be God. To be God means to give, not to get; Christ gave and gave until his life was spent and he had nothing more. We think that having power and position and glory and wealth means that you have the ability to get whatever you want for yourself. And so it is, among the mighty here on earth. The world’s rule is R.H.I.P.: “Rank Hath Its Privileges.” But the only privilege Jesus Christ exercised was the privilege of emptying himself and giving up everything, including his very life, on our behalf. Power, for God, means having the strength to make himself weak enough to die, in order to save all those whom he loves. God’s power is revealed in the depth and intensity of his love. He uses his power to redeem and renew, not to dominate and destroy.
Finally, in the hymn’s last stanza (vv. 9-11), we come to Christ’s life as exalted God. The crucified Christ did not stay in the grave. He was not left in lowly humiliation. God raised him in power and glory to the highest place of all. The Christ Hymn describes God the Father’s action in glorifying his Son Jesus: “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place.” God’s response to Christ’s self-giving, self-humbling, self-sacrificing service was to honor him above everything and everyone in the universe.
Christ’s exaltation is the Father’s “Amen!” to the Son’s “It is finished!” Because Jesus now has the highest place, “every knee shall bow” to him, and the glory and adoration which belong to God alone will be specially focused upon him. Because Jesus has been given “the name that is above every name,” every tongue will confess that he is Lord. His claim to be one with the Father will be openly vindicated before the whole creation. That is how God responds to Christ’s attitude of humility.
The key point to remember is that if you want to end up where Christ is, then your mind should be the same as his.
Jesus’ career – glory punctuated by lowliness, voluntary humiliation followed by exaltation – illustrates like nothing else the topsy-turvy, upside-down nature of God’s thinking. The way up is down. If you want to be exalted in heaven, you must lower yourself on earth. Whoever would be great must become the servant of all. God will humiliate the proud and lift up the humble.
It sounds crazy, but it isn’t. It’s the mind of Christ.