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Being like Jesus Means Being Humble -- Paul's advice in Philippians 2:1-15

Being humble is not a suggestion.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Philippians 2:1-15

In this most beautiful passage of who Jesus is and what Jesus did, Paul tells us that we must have that same mindset of humility if our churches are going to fulfill our mission. If our priorities are our self-interests, then we will fail. But if our priorities are other people, with the attitude of fear and trembling before God, then we will shine like the stars.

This passage, and thus this lesson, is all about Jesus, specifically how we should be like Jesus. Therefore, everything you can do to talk about Jesus and learn about Jesus and be inspired to be like Jesus is time well spent. (Like always.) Paul's focus is Jesus' humility, so that's why all of my opening comments are about being humble. Some group members might think that Jesus is an impossible standard, but that would be missing Paul's point. No, we will never be Jesus, but Jesus is the best model we will ever have for these important human traits (like humility). If we choose a lesser model, we will hit a lesser goal.

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Who Are the Most Humble People You Know (and why)?

This is a tougher exercise than I thought because being humble is something that lends itself to anonymity, and (as we will see below) not everybody can agree on what makes a person "humble". But I think that makes this exercise all the more valuable. If you can think of people you consider humble as well as why you think they are humble, you already have a working definition of what you think it means to be humble, right?

Here are two examples from my past:

  • One of our family friends is an astronaut, best of the best, a very important part of the space program for a long time. When I talked to her, somehow the conversation always turned to how I was doing in school. One of my favorite childhood memories is going to her freezer where they always had a box of Hostess Ding Dongs (seriously tasty). When she has lunch with my mom, they talk about kids and grandkids and church. Mainly grandkids. When I think about humility, I think about her.

  • An acquaintance I have from seminary stuff is a prolific author and vital leader in conservative biblical scholarship. He teaches 2s and 3s in Sunday School. At big events, he's organizing games for the kids. When his schedule allows, he drives the bus for the senior adults. A wow guy who does wow things that very few people even realize. A great model of humility to me.

Anyway, those two people have shaped what I mean it thinks to "be humble". How about you? I think there are some great models of humility in our church family, but bragging about them would kinda send a mixed message, don't you think?

What Does It Mean to "Be Humble"?

I think our culture has a distorted view of humility. When I tried to get an internet sense of what it means to be humble, sites were all over the map. Certainly, a number of secular websites appreciated the value of humility and even seemed to understand what it meant, but I also read a lot of misconceptions.

  • Humility means having low self-esteem

  • Humility means feeling less important than others

  • Humility means lacking confidence

Goodness, who wants to be that? The Google definitions start with "having or showing a modest or low estimate of one's own importance" and "being lower (someone) in dignity or importance". (Do you think you can apply that understanding of "being humble" to Jesus?) Humorously, when I looked up examples "humble people", I basically got lists of very rich people who occasionally do things that we consider ordinary.

So, let's try to correct this.

What do you think it means to "be humble"? Perhaps, going along with this, what are actions you consider to be humble (and why)?

The internet quote machine has some helpful (and some not-so-helpful) offerings:

  • “There is a great honor in being humble.” — Shola Allysen

  • “Humility is the surest sign of strength.” — Thomas Merton

  • “It is always the secure who are humble.” — G. K. Chesterton

  • “Without humility there can be no humanity.” — John Buchan

  • “Humility is not a trait I often associate with America.” — Mira Nair

  • “Humility is to make a right estimate of one’s self.” — Charles Spurgeon

  • “If you’re not humble, life will visit humbleness upon you.” — Mike Tyson

  • “The biggest challenge after success is shutting up about it.” — Criss Jami

  • “It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am.” — Muhammad Ali

  • “Never look down on anybody unless you’re helping them up.” — Jesse Jackson

  • “Pride must die in you, or nothing of heaven can live in you.” — Andrew Murray

  • “We learn humility through accepting humiliations cheerfully.” — Mother Teresa

  • “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.” — C. S. Lewis

  • “No matter how high up you get, never forget where you came from.” — Beeru Singh

  • “Humility is nothing but truth, and pride is nothing but lying.” — St. Vincent de Paul

  • “The proud man can learn humility, but he will be proud of it.” — Mignon McLaughlin

  • “Pride is concerned with who is right. Humility is concerned with what is right.” — Ezra T. Benson

I bolded four quotes from Christian leaders that are thought-provoking. (Just FYI my favorite quote is from C. S. Lewis.) What do you think those bolded quotes mean? How about the other quotes? Do you think any of the quotes are right? Why?

My handy-dandy Holman Bible Dictionary defines humility as "the personal quality of being free from arrogance and pride and having an accurate estimate of one's worth". Self-worth is another mountain of a topic that we really don't have time to get into, so let me just offer one Bible verse: "But God proves his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Rom 5:8)

I'd love for you to have a "working definition" of humility as well as a realistic idea of how well you live up to that definition. In our passage this week, we are going to learn about how Jesus was humble, and we're going to be challenged to pursue that target.


This Week's Big Idea: What the Bible Says about Humility

In the Old Testament, the key verse for this topic is Micah 6:8:

Mankind, he has told each of you what is good and what it is the Lord requires of you: to act justly, to love faithfulness, and to walk humbly with your God.

The Hebrew word family for "humble" includes "afflicted", and the key image for this was Israel's slavery in Egypt (Deut 26:6, 2 Sam 22:28). God's prophets called out to Israel to remember that they were slaves in Egypt when God rescued them, the lowest of the low. All that they have is from God. They are God's chosen people -- infinitely valuable to God, but that by God's grace and not their merit.

The ultimate picture of humility is Jesus Christ, for reasons that this week's passage will make clear. If anyone in the universe doesn't have to be humble, it's Jesus. And yet, He submitted Himself not just to the most humble position, but to the most humiliating position. We had better not think of ourselves more highly than Jesus!

Here are some quotes from the New Testament on the subject. Have these in mind as you study this week's passage!

  • Matt 5: 5 "Blessed are the humble, for they will inherit the earth."

  • Matt 11: 28 “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take up my yoke and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

  • Matt 18: 4 "Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child—this one is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven."

  • Matt 20: 26 "On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

  • Matt 23: 10 "You are not to be called instructors either, because you have one Instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted."

We learn from Paul's writings that the Roman Empire was a bit like America in that "humility" was not a desired trait, and that the Christians needed to learn how to stop thinking like the world around them and more like Jesus.

  • 2 Cor 10: 12 For we don’t dare classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. But in measuring themselves by themselves and comparing themselves to themselves, they lack understanding. ... 17 So let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord. 18 For it is not the one commending himself who is approved, but the one the Lord commends.

  • Col 3: 11 In Christ there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all. 12 Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and forgiving one another if anyone has a grievance against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you are also to forgive. 14 Above all, put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.

  • Eph 4: 1 Therefore I, the prisoner in the Lord, urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 making every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

And if you think that's amazing, just wait until we really dive into the example of Jesus!


Bonus Big Idea: What the Bible Says about Jesus

This week's passage, Philippians 2, is one of the "Great Christological Hymns" which tell us so much about Jesus. Any time we read a soaring passage like this week's, I like to pile on with some additionally soaring passages. Please take a moment to read these!


Where We Are in Philippians

Here's the working outline I gave of Philippians:

I. Introduction (1:1-26)

a. Greeting (1:1-2)

b. Thanksgiving prayer (1:3-11)

c. Paul’s situation in prison (1:12-26)

II. Paul cheers on the Philippians (1:27-2:18)

a. Unity (1:27)

b. Courage (1:28-30)

c. Humility (2:1-11)

d. Obedience (2:12-13)

e. Blamelessness (2:14-18)

f. Partnership (2:19-24)

g. Care (2:25-30)

III. Paul warns the Philippians (3:1-4:1)

a. Legalism (3:1-3)

b. Self-confidence (3:4-11)

c. Satisfaction (3:12-16)

d. Opposition (3:17-4:1)

e. Dissention (4:2-3)

f. Being anxious (4:4-7)

IV. Paul shares his heart with the Philippians (4:2-20)

a. Be reconciled with one another (4:2-3)

b. Don’t be anxious about anything (4:4-7)

c. Keep your thoughts on Jesus (4:8-9)

d. Be content in your circumstances (4:10-13)

e. Stay generous (4:14-20)

V. Closing (4:21-23)

Paul takes the opportunity to encourage the church in the right behaviors and traits. The transition was 1:27 (which we skipped), "Whatever happens, live your life worthy of the gospel of Christ," after which he goes on to explain what that means. The ultimate model of the worthy life is Jesus Himself, which is what Paul describes this week.

Let Paul do the majority of the talking this week. There are a few topics that might be questioned in your group, and I will describe them below (just in case), but this passage is so powerful that it will probably just sweep your group up in Jesus.


Part 1: In Relationships (Philippians 2:1-4)

If, then, there is any encouragement in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, 2 make my joy complete by thinking the same way, having the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves. 4 Everyone should look not to his own interests, but rather to the interests of others.

"Then" (sometimes translated "therefore") points us back to the previous section: when you live worthy of the gospel, you will be united and standing firm in the face of any opposition (1:27-28). These verses, then, explain what Paul means by that.

The structure Paul used for this "if" clause is better translated in English as "because". Paul starts with what we should have in our church family:

  • encouragement in Christ (what Christ has done for us should lift our spirits);

  • consolation from love (love from God and from one another should help us get through the dark times of opposition and affliction);

  • fellowship with the Spirit (the Spirit literally shares life with us);

  • compassion and mercy.

There's definitely a Trinitarian structure here. And that makes the fourth item so stark -- no qualifiers on compassion and mercy. If we have any chance of surviving as a church through the tough times, we must have unqualified compassion and mercy for one another.

There is a very clear result of being united in love: "same".

  1. same way of thinking

  2. same kind of love

  3. same spirit (way of thinking and feeling)

  4. same purpose

Paul is not saying "identical". God did not make us identical. But even in our diversity, as a church we can share the same overarching passion and goal and purpose. And indeed we are supposed to.

Remember Paul's prayer from earlier? "9 And I pray this: that your love will keep on growing in knowledge and discernment, 10 so that you may know what really matters and may be single-minded and blameless in the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God." Just another example of how amazing this letter is. Not only is Paul instructing the church on how they should live, he has already prayed that for them!

And then Paul hits us with the big whammy: in order to live the way God wants us to live, we must put others before ourselves. We cannot act solely with our own interests in mind; we must always be thinking about the interests of others.

There is a part of the atheist/naturalist worldview that says the fundamental ethic of human life is self-preservation. In other words, human are going to choose to behave in such a way as to preserve their own interests. And certainly that seems often to be the case! But Paul is saying that Christians cannot live that way. If Jesus had lived that way, we would all be doomed to hell.

And Paul is not using this is a "rising tide floats all boats" sense (even though I believe that adage to be true) -- even if there were no rising tide, we would still need to put other's interests before our own.

Let's look at what Paul is discouraging:

  • "Selfish ambition" -- this is the same word Paul used of those "rival evangelists" who were trying to stir up trouble for Paul. "Rivalry" means that in order for us to "gain", someone else has to "lose".

  • "Conceit" -- this is basically "self-bestowed glory". Making up a title for yourself. Giving yourself an honor or award. (My guess is that people in the church are appointing themselves to positions they created for themselves.)

And then what Paul is encouraging:

  • Considering others as more important than yourself. Note that Paul says that in order to do so, you must be humble. In other words, being humble happens when the other person is not "more important" than you are. And in God's family, every one one of us is just as important to God.

  • Considering the interests of others to be more important than your own interests (this is a natural product of the previous item).

Apparently, there was petty bickering and grumbling going on in the church. People were angling to get into positions of influence in order to push their own agenda, regardless of how it affected the other people in the church. Paul makes it clear that such patterns of behavior will destroy a church.

An easy way to illustrate this would be a basketball team -- when one person tries to take every shot and get every rebound, what's the long-term prognosis for the team? I'm sure you have other examples that come to mind.

What do we need to do as a church to reflect this attitude Paul talks about? I'm so grateful to say that we have church leaders and deacons who care about the interests of others. When they make decisions, they try to take everyone's needs into account (knowing that "best interests" and "self-perceived interests" don't always align!).

Finally, think back to those quotes about humility (what the world thinks about humility). How does the world's view of humility show up in relationships? In what ways are they likely to get relationships wrong?


Part 2: By Example (Philippians 2:5-11)

5 Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus, 6 who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. 7 Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, 8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death— even to death on a cross. 9 For this reason God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow— in heaven and on earth and under the earth— 11 and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Spend all the time you can with these verses. They are some of the most important words in human history.

You'll notice the strange line breaks; that's because many scholars think this was an early hymn. Verses 6-8 is the first part (Christ's humility) and verses 9-11 is the second (Christ's exaltation). So many songs we sing today in church are based on these verses! How many can you think of?

First, note in verse 5 that Paul is not giving us the option to be like Jesus in this way; this is a command -- be humble as Jesus was humble. And how was Jesus humble? By putting the needs of others first.

Verse 6 is critical for explaining that Jesus is indeed God. He is the "form" of God (NIV correctly translates this as "in very nature God", although that's not the only way it can be translated). What it means is "whatever it is about God that makes God God, Jesus is that". Obviously, that's really clunky. There's no short way to translate what Paul means. He clarifies in the next verse by saying that Jesus is "equal with God", again in the sense that Jesus is God in the same way that God is God. (Shortly, Paul will use this same word to explain how Jesus also became a servant.)

[Note: we're getting deep into Trinitarian theology, which is at the very edge of what the human mind can even remotely grasp. Here is my favorite diagram on the topic:

Jesus is God, but Jesus is not God the Father. Right?]

Jesus had all the power and all the authority, but He didn't feel the need to exploit it. Other translations bring out the idea that Jesus didn't feel the need to selfishly grasp on to His rights and privileges. Chesterton's quote above is based on this idea: “It is always the secure who are humble.” Jesus was utterly secure in Himself as the Son of God, and therefore it was within Him to set aside His rights, privileges, power, authority and put us first.

To do so, He "emptied Himself" (more on the Greek word kenosis below). Jesus was God, but He willingly chose to take on the limitations of being human. (The song "Here I Am to Worship" words this as "all for love's sake became poor".) This is a very favorite theme for Christmas carols. What Christmas songs can you think of that try to express the idea of what Jesus "gave up" to be born in a manger? (But read below for how the point might not be about what Jesus gave up.)

You should know these words well. Anything I can think to say to explain them just take away from their power. Jesus humbled Himself to the lowest place for the sake of God's plan to save humanity from our sin; in response, God elevated Him to the highest place. This is where James was coming from: 4:10 "Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you." Like Jesus said above, if we try to exalt ourselves, we will always be humbled. Instead, let God exalt us after being humble before Him.

As far as Paul is concerned, it's all about Jesus. If you are ever wondering how you should behave in a situation, just think about Jesus.


Aside: Kenosis

This is the Greek word Paul used of Jesus "making Himself empty". But what did Jesus empty Himself of? A long time ago, a lot of people read this term as meaning that Jesus "gave up some or all of the divine attributes that were incommensurate with a fully human existence". In other words, Jesus gave up the ability to be all-powerful or omnipresent, etc. But that's actually a rather problematic view! That would mean that when Jesus was human, He was also less than God. And we all should know that's not true.

A more recent way of explaining this is to say that Jesus "emptied Himself of the independent use of these attributes in order to live a normal human life". This explains how Jesus would, say, cast out demons by the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:1) or ask God for strength (John 5:19). But even that view cannot explain Colossians 2:9: "For the entire fullness of God’s nature dwells bodily in Christ."

Modern scholars focus on the following phrase which isn't about what Christ gave up but what Christ took on: human likeness (the Incarnation) for the purpose of our salvation through the crucifixion. In other words, Paul wasn't trying to explain what Jesus emptied Himself of. Paul is saying that Jesus emptied Himself. He poured Himself out. Jesus' role in God's plan was to give His life as a ransom for many. To do so, He took on our flesh.

The term the early church used to describe this was "hypostatic union of Christ" -- Jesus combined the divine and the human into one person without ceasing to be fully divine and fully human. Here's how the Nicene Creed words it:

[We believe in] one Lord Jesus Christ,

the only Son of God,

begotten from the Father before all ages,

God from God,

Light from Light,

true God from true God,

begotten, not made;

of the same essence as the Father.

Through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation

he came down from heaven;

he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary,

and was made human.

Very heady stuff, but no less important because of it.


Part 3: In Lifestyle (Philippians 2:13-15)

12 Therefore, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, so now, not only in my presence but even more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. 13 For it is God who is working in you both to will and to work according to his good purpose. 14 Do everything without grumbling and arguing, 15 so that you may be blameless and pure, children of God who are faultless in a crooked and perverted generation, among whom you shine like stars in the world,

Therefore. "Because Jesus did what He did, we should live with that same mindset."

What was Jesus mindset? Try to explain Jesus' mindset in one or two sentences. (Remember, it should have something to do with laying aside self-interests in order to pursue the interests of others.) The whole point of this passage is for us to adopt that mindset in our own lives.

Paul chooses what seems to be a strange phrase to explain this: "work out your own salvation". This is actually really simple. Paul did not say "work for your own salvation". Our salvation is something we live out on a day to day basis. Some days we do that better than others (obviously that's the case, or else Paul wouldn't be putting in all of these admonitions about right behavior!). Perhaps it would make more sense to read this as "live out your salvation". But even that's not really Paul's point here!

The operative words are "fear and trembling". What Paul is telling us to do is nothing we should take flippantly or half-heartedly or occasionally. There is a seriousness and reverence that should apply to every day of our life -- and if we approach our mindset with this kind of reverence and awe, we will live in the kind of humility that we should. Does that make sense? If you are serious about "fear and trembling" as you live your life before God Almighty, you will never drift into arrogance or haughtiness or self-promotion.

This is the "accurate estimate of one's worth" that defines humility. Before God, we are less than nothing. Our best thoughts are foolishness. Our most righteous deeds are filthy rags. That's who we are ontologically. AND YET. We are also made in the image of God, and God loves us so much that Jesus willingly died for us. That's who we are -- nothing in ourselves, everything in God. And the only way we can handle that incredible truth is through fear and trembling.

Paul ends with the only logical conclusion to this breathtaking passage: don't cut your legs off at your knees by grumbling and arguing. We were meant to stand firm together in this messed up world, holding forth the word of life to a generation dying separated from God, and we cannot do that when we are fighting with one another.

"Blameless and pure" is the same idea as a few weeks ago -- innocent of putting up stumbling blocks in people coming to Jesus, and single-minded of intent for the gospel.

Sadly, we fall way short of this. We can't seem to get away from self-interests and self-promotion. We don't seem capable of stopping our grumbling and complaining.

So let's end with this: imagine a church in which every member tried to live according to these characteristics (humility, service, sacrifice, unity, singlemindedness). What would that church be like? Would you want to be a part of it?

What does it take to get there? Well, let's just be as blunt as we can be: you only have one person you can "control" in this topic, and that's you. If you spend all of your time complaining about how other people in your church aren't being humble and selfless enough, then, well, I think you can see where I'm going with that.

God has given us a purpose. He's given us a model. Now, we have to do it.


Closing Thoughts: A Checklist for Humility

I know what many of you are thinking. You want a a checklist of behaviors. I found so many "how to exercise humility" and "ways to be humble" webpages, it was silly. But, some of the things I read stuck out as biblical (even if the author wasn't trying to be). So, here is my condensed and filtered practical checklist taken from online:

  • Be a good listener

  • Accept feedback

  • Put others first

  • Take time to say thank you

  • Admit when you are wrong

  • Deflect praise to others

  • Open the door for others (they mean this literally)

  • Don't make the conversation about yourself

  • Assume responsibility

  • Ask for help

  • Clean up after yourself

  • Don't be offended by criticism

  • Protect others' dignity

  • Don't brag

  • Appreciate others

That's not half bad. Indeed, you can see how many of them reflect biblical truth! And they're just a step away from being truly spiritual. Where "to others" is implied, also realize that we should understand it as "to Jesus".

How can the internet say things of such value? I guess it's the image of God, baked deep into all people, coming out. Or maybe they're remembering what they learned in Sunday School a long time ago. :)


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