For those of you who are visiting with us this morning, we have been studying the Book of Philippians together for the past few months. And we have subtitled this glorious letter from the Apostle Paul, “The Gospel-Driven Life.” And we’ve chosen that title on the basis of the letter’s thesis verse: Philippians chapter 1 verse 27, which says, “Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ.” All of the exhortations and instructions that Paul will give throughout the remainder of the letter are simply the exposition of this command.
And so the Book of Philippians is a call to live a life worthy of the Gospel, or—as we have put it—to live a Gospel-driven life. All of Paul’s concerns for his dear friends in Philippi—all of his desires for their growth in grace—are summed up by this overarching concern for them to bring the Gospel of Christ to bear on every aspect of their lives. Paul’s aim, his chief desire, is that the people of God would live in a manner that is consistent with the implications of what Jesus Christ has accomplished on their behalf—that every facet of their lives would be shaped and driven by the Gospel that they had come to trust and treasure.
And in these closing verses of chapter 1, Paul gives them three specific applications of the command to live worthy of the Gospel—three specific applications in view of their present circumstances. And we studied those in depth. In verse 27, he emphasizes their need to stand firm in the face of opposition—to hold their ground amidst attacks and amidst temptations to compromise. He also exhorts them to go on striving together for the faith of the Gospel—not just to have a good defense against external attacks, but to offensively go on proclaiming the Gospel of the cross of Christ to a hostile society. And he charges them to be fearless in the midst of that mission, trusting entirely in the sovereign Lord who is not only with them in their sufferings, but, as we saw in verses 29 and 30, is the One who sovereignly ordains their suffering-for-Christ’s-sake as a gift of divine grace.
And in our study of those texts we considered the application that such exhortations have for us in our own context—how we also must be marked by steadfastness, aggressiveness, and courage as we carry out our mission to take the Gospel of Christ to our communities.
And we have also noted Paul’s emphasis on unity in the midst of this opposition. He calls them not merely to “stand firm,” but to “stand firm in one spirit.” They are not merely to “strive for the faith of the Gospel,” but “with one mind [to] strive together for the faith of the Gospel.” And as we come in to chapter 2, we discover afresh that unity is the Apostle’s great concern here. In these opening verses of chapter 2, Paul appeals to his dear friends in the church at Philippi to make his joy complete by being unified.
Now, we mentioned last time that this unity that the Apostle Paul is calling for is not a doctrinal unity. It’s not that Paul doesn’t care about doctrine; nothing could be further from the truth. It’s just that this wasn’t the problem. The Philippians weren’t arguing with each other about the Gospel. They’re not debating fundamental matters of the truth. Paul consistently praises them as a sound church, as being solidly grounded partners in the Gospel. If doctrinal disunity was the problem, we sure would be able to tell by the themes Paul raises in the letter. But there isn’t a hint of any doctrinal reproof or any confrontation of error in the letter, except maybe to warn them of potential dangers from outside the congregation.
No, the Philippians could all sign the same doctrinal statement. The disunity that they were experiencing was relational. It had to do with something as practical and mundane as the way that they were getting along with one another. They weren’t having doctrinal disputes; there were just some things about each other—personal preferences, opinions on secondary matters, personality clashes—that just got on each other’s nerves. And this was being manifested particularly in a disagreement between two of the leading women of the church. Paul writes in chapter 4 verse 2: “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to live in harmony in the Lord.” Literally: “…to be of the same mind in the Lord.”
You see, if the Philippians are going to conduct themselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel by steadfastly withstanding opposition, by aggressively proclaiming the Gospel behind enemy lines, and by being fearless in the midst of the suffering that would result of it, they were going to have to be unified. The kind of petty grumbling and personal bickering with one another that was going on would only dull their witness and cripple their ability to “strive together for the faith of the gospel.” And so it’s in that context that Paul issues a clarion call to Christian unity in the opening verses of Philippians chapter 2. Read verses 1 to 4 with me.
Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.
And as I introduced to you last time, there are three components to this call to Christian unity. There is the motivation, the matter, and the means of Christian unity. — Why we are to be unified, what specifically that unity is marked by, and how we can go about pursuing it in our practical living.
Now we spent our time together last time looking at the first two of those—the motivation and the matter of Christian unity. And so the focus of our message this morning will be on that third component: the means. But before we jump right back in, I’d like to briefly review those first two components, just so that we capture the flow of Paul’s thought as he, guided by the Holy Spirit of God, intended for us to understand.
I. Review: The Motivation for Christian Unity (vv. 1–2a)
First we considered the motivation for Christian unity in verse 1. How does the Apostle Paul seek to motivate the Philippians toward obedience? Does he simply chide them, and tell them to grow up and get their act together? Does he shame them by calling their salvation into question? As if to say: “You call yourselves Christians and this is how you behave with one another?!”?
No. What he does is to call to their minds the gracious blessings that they have experienced as a result of their union with Christ. He reminds them who they are by virtue of the Gospel, and shows them that the only fitting response for a people who have been so blessed and so graced is to walk in unity with one another. Listen to that Gospel-driven motivation in verse 1. Paul writes: “Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind…”
This is a loving, pastoral, tender appeal to be reminded of their identity in Christ, and to let the experience of those gracious blessings that are theirs in the Gospel be the fuel for their fight for unity. And he stirs them up by using these “if” statements that he knows to be true of them. It’s like asking rhetorical questions that he knows the answer to.
He asks, in the first place: “Have you experienced the encouragement—or, better rendered, the comfort of the Lord Jesus, as He has attended to you in the midst of your suffering for His sake? In times when you have had to bear the reproach of the Gospel from the mocking and the slander of an unbelieving generation, haven’t you known the comfort of Christ’s own fellowship? Oh, I know you have.”
“And is there any consolation of love?” And we mentioned last time that that’s best understood as the Father’s love for His people. Paul is asking us, “Do you know the tenderness of your Father’s love? Have you experienced your Heavenly Father coming alongside you, and, as it were, sweetly speaking words of loving consolation to you? Oh, I know you have.”
“And is there any fellowship of the Spirit?” Haven’t you all been made sharers in the One Spirit of God? Haven’t you all been made to drink of the same Holy Spirit? Haven’t you all been baptized by that Spirit into one body, made members of the unified body of Christ? Well then, Ephesians 4:3, be diligent to preserve the unity of that Spirit in the bond of peace.”
And finally, “…if any affection and compassion…” If your experience of God’s tender mercy and compassion have had any effect on you so as to produce in you that same kind of loving affection that bears fruit in deeds of compassion, well then make my joy complete by being unified.
II. Review: The Matter of Christian Unity (vv. 2b–2c)
And so we saw that the Christian’s motivation to unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ comes from the grace that is ours in the Gospel and the experience of those blessings that are ours in Christ.
Then we observed the matter of Christian unity itself. What is Christian unity to be marked by? We know the “why.” Now we need to understand the “what.” And Paul uses four expressions in verse 2 that make up the content of his call to unity. Read verse 2 with me: “…make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose.”
To “be of the same mind,” is to be united in thought, in disposition, and in attitude. The ground floor of Christian unity is the unity of the mind. Any notion of Christian unity as a mushy sentimentalism that overlooks substantive differences in favor of a superficial togetherness is foreign to the pages of Scripture. We are, first of all, to “be of the same mind.”
But it goes beyond the intellectual. Christian unity most certainly is not less than intellectual and attitudinal agreement, but it is indeed more than that. We are not only to be of the same mind, but also to maintain the same love. Unity is not merely a matter of the head, it is a matter of the heart. We are not only to agree with one another, we are to love one another, fervently, and from the heart (cf. 1 Pet 1:22).
And Paul doesn’t even stop there. Not only are we to be of the same mind and maintain the same love. We must also be “united in spirit.” Literally: “together in soul.” You see, this Christian unity that is driven by the Gospel of Christ reaches the mind—the same attitude and disposition; it reaches the heart—maintaining the same love; and this phrase teaches us that it reaches our very soul, the whole animating principle of a person. We are called to cultivate a kind of unity with each other such that our hearts beat together—that our lives are driven by the same overriding passion and ambition.
And that brings us to the final phrase: we are to be “intent on one purpose,” directed by a single focus. And that single focus, of course, is the Gospel. This is what it means to be Gospel-driven. The realities and blessings we experience by our participation in the Gospel—as well as our commission to minister that Gospel to the world—both of those things are to shape our conduct in our relationships with one another. The disunity that comes from personal disagreements weakens our effectiveness in our common mission to proclaim Christ’s Lordship to a world that stands in opposition to Him. And we are not to let such discord get in the way of that one purpose of making disciples of all the nations by proclaiming the message of forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ.
III. The Means of Christian Unity (vv. 3–4)
So then, our extended review has taught us that the motivation for Christian unity is the Gospel and the gracious blessings that are ours in Christ Jesus. And it has taught us that the matter of Christian unity consists in Paul’s fourfold call to a unity of mind, of heart, of soul, and of purpose.
But now we come to the means of Christian unity. Our Lord, through the inspired pen of the Apostle Paul, has commanded us to pursue a unity with our brothers and sisters that is driven by the Gospel. But the question we’ve got to answer now is: How do we attain to that kind of unity? How can I go about pursuing such unity with my brothers and sisters?
Paul answers that question in verses 3 and 4. The means of Christian unity is a humility that manifests itself in helpfulness. We pursue unity by being humble, and that humility will issue in being helpful. Let’s read verses 3 and 4: “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.”
So follow this progression with me. Paul’s overarching concern is that the Philippians’ lives be driven by the Gospel, chapter 1 verse 27. And the way that will manifest itself in the particular context in which the Philippians find themselves is by their standing firm in the face of opposition and continuing to be an effective witness for the Gospel amidst hostility. But that steadfastness and effective witness will not be achieved without unity. And here we learn that that unity will not be achieved without humility. The key to experiencing the kind of Gospel-driven unity that Paul calls us to in verse 2 is to be characterized by the kind of Gospel-driven humility that he outlines for us in verses 3 and 4.
And he does so by means of two contrasts. We call them “Not/But” contrasts. These verses are structured by telling us what we are not to do, followed by the contrast of what we are to do. So he says in verse 3, “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves.” Verse 4: “Do not merely look out for your own interests, but also for the interests of others.” And so our pursuit of Gospel-driven humility has both negative and positive aspects to it.
A. Contrast # 1: Humility (v. 3)
Let’s look at the first contrast in verse 3: “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves.” John Calvin has called these twin vices, selfishness and empty conceit, “two most dangerous pests for disturbing the peace of the Church” (52).
The word translated “selfishness” here is the Greek word eritheia. And we’ve seen this word before. It showed up back in chapter 1 verse 17 to describe the rival preachers in Rome who “proclaim[ed] Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause [Paul] distress in [his] imprisonment.” And that’s a good translation of the word: “selfish ambition.” It speaks of a zealous lust for prominence and recognition that issues in self-serving self-promotion, no matter what the cost to others. The word was used of “career professionals who ruthlessly tried to climb to the top of their fields [of business] in any way they could, and of politicians who sought [to attain] office at any expense” (MacArthur, 67). This was a perfect word to describe the rival preachers, who sought to rise to prominence on the preaching circuit by taking advantage of Paul’s imprisonment.
And think about what the Philippians would have thought of when they heard this word. Could you imagine the antipathy that the Philippians would feel for those preachers who proclaimed Christ out of rivalry and evil intent toward Paul? As much as this dear church loved Paul—as zealous as they were for his welfare—I think it would have been difficult for them to harbor anything but ill-will against those who sought to distress their dear Apostle.
Well imagine the shock when they hear Paul using this same word to caution them against some of their own behavior! Imagine what they must have felt when they read verse 3, and discovered that some of their own number were in danger of being just as selfishly ambitious as those rival preachers! The desire for recognition and prominence in the church is every bit as ugly as people preaching the Gospel—not to bring glory to Christ!—but in order to get famous and cause other faithful ministers distress.
And the following phrase, “empty conceit,” is very similar. It translates the Greek compound word kenodoxia. It comes from kenos, which means “empty,” and doxa, which is the word for “glory.” This is what the old translations translated as “vain-glory.” And it’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s an inflated, exaggerated view of self that seeks glory and recognition because the person esteems himself better than he is. But in reality that glory and recognition that is so zealously sought after has no ground, no basis in reality.
And so selfish ambition and vain-glory are very related, but subtly different. Pastor John puts it this way: “Whereas selfish ambition pursues personal goals, empty conceit seeks personal glory and acclaim. The former pertains to personal accomplishments; the latter to an overinflated self-image” (111). And oh, the damage that this can do to a local church! When professing Christians are marked by desires to be recognized as superior over each other, my friends, unity doesn’t stand a chance! If everyone is comparing themselves with one another, trying to outperform one another, a spirit of bitterness and rivalry will infect that church at the speed of light, and they will have no hope of “standing firm in one spirit” against the attacks of outsiders!—no hope of “with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel”! This kind of selfish ambition and empty conceit absolutely cripples a church’s witness to the unbelieving world! It is no wonder that the Apostle James writes in James 3:16, “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing.”
Is there any more sad illustration of this than the infamy of Diotrephes, whom we learn about in the third epistle of the Apostle John? John dubs Diotrephes as the one “who loves to be first” among the church—the older translations say, “who loves to have the preeminence” among the other Christians (3 John 1:9). He calls him, literally, “first-place-loving Diotrephes.” This man could tolerate no rival! His insights were to be regarded as the most profound! His abilities and giftedness were to be hailed as the greatest among the flock! To the point that he became so puffed up with selfish ambition and vain-glory that he became absolutely impervious to correction. He wouldn’t even receive instructions from the Apostle John, who had walked with the Lord Jesus Himself! And anyone who dared disagree with him, he had put out of the church (3 John 1:10)! Disagreement with Diotrephes was grounds for immediate excommunication! Now dear friends I ask you: Could unity exist in that church? Absolutely not! That partisan, factious spirit—that love of the preeminence—chokes the life out of Gospel-driven unity faster than you can say, “Look at me!”
And my friend I plead with you: don’t let this be you. Don’t be the one who chokes the life out of the unity of the church by lusting after prominence and recognition, by refusing to receive correction and admonition, by always defending yourself, always insisting on your own way. Don’t conduct yourselves according to selfish ambition and vain-glory. That glory for yourself that you seek—can I tell you something?—it will never satisfy you! I know it promises satisfaction, and I know it feels good to be recognized and praised and patted on the back. But that pleasure is a counterfeit pleasure! It is a lust of deceit (cf. Eph 4:22)! The glory of self will not satisfy your soul for eternity! You just haven’t been designed that way! Human beings have not been designed to thrive on the glory of self! You’ve been designed to thrive on the glory of God!
That’s why Paul can rejoice as he sits in prison, awaiting his potential execution, while other preachers who name the name of Christ are roaming free and slandering him in the process! “Yes, and I will rejoice,” Philippians 1:19 and 20, “because I know… that I will not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness,” what? Paul will be exalted? No! “I will rejoice because even now, as always, Christ will be magnified! The Christian is the one who delights most deeply in the glorification and exaltation of Christ—not the glorification and exaltation of self. That’s why Paul writes in Philippians chapter 3 verse 3, “for we—true followers of Jesus—are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.” Oh, friends, do nothing from selfish ambition and vain-glory. “How can you believe,” John 5:44, “when you receive glory from one another and you do not seek the glory that is from the one and only God?”
No. Instead, verse 3, “with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves.” The antidote to selfish ambition and empty conceit, and the key to true Christian unity, is humility of mind. And the NAS gets it right-on with that translation. The Greek word is tapeinophrosune, from tapeinos, which means “humble” or “lowly,” and phronema, which means “mind,” or “thinking.” This is a lowliness of mind.
Before the New Testament, this notion of lowliness of mind was used exclusively in the Greek language as an insult. To be called someone who was “lowly of mind” meant that you were a few fries short of a happy meal—a sort of a dim-wit. To the Greeks, humility “connoted lowliness, weakness, lack of freedom, servility, and subjection.” And they sought to elevate humanity to nobility through the employment of human reason (Hansen, 115). It is only with the dawn of the New Testament, in the shadow of the glory of our self-denying Lord and Savior, that this concept becomes a virtue.
And let’s go to the passage in which Jesus explicitly turned this principle on its head. Turn with me to Matthew chapter 20. Jesus has just foretold His death and resurrection. And while Jesus is speaking about mocking, and scourging, and crucifixion, James and John—pretty much making clear that they aren’t hearing a word He’s saying—have a request to ask. Verse 20 tells us they enlist the help of their mommy to ask Jesus to grant that they would sit, one on His right hand and one on His left hand, in His kingdom. You see? They wanted to secure for themselves places of prominence. And when the disciples found out about it, verse 24, they became…what? Indignant with the two brothers. Now, before James and John made this request, there was, ostensibly, a unity and harmony that existed among the disciples. But as soon as selfish ambition and vain-glory reared their ugly heads, there was discord, and strife, and disunity among the twelve.
And how does Jesus respond? Verse 25: “But Jesus called them to Himself and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.’” “You’re all thinking like a bunch of pagans. You know that it’s the Gentiles’ way to lord it over those they rule and to force themselves into positions of prominence! But, verse 26, “it is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.” You want to be great? You want to have a position of prominence in the Kingdom of God? Become a servant. A diakonos. Become a table-waiter. You want to be first? Become a slave. Verse 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.” And we could say, in the language of Philippians 2: “just as the Son of Man, with humility of mind, regarded others as more important than Himself, and looked not to His own interests, but also to the interests of others.” And so, in the Lord Jesus Christ, humility of mind becomes a virtue.
And what does this humility of mind consist in? It consists in regarding one another—or counting one another—as more important than ourselves. This is a key concept in the pursuit of humility. A major focus in the pursuit of Gospel-driven humility is the mind—the way we think about ourselves and about others. And these opening verses of Philippians chapter 2 are just dripping with this emphasis on the mind. Let me read you a literal translation of verses 2 through 6. “Make my joy complete by being of the same (1) mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, (2) minding the one thing; 3nothing according to selfish ambition or vain-glory, but rather in lowliness of (3) mind, (4) regarding or counting or reckoning one another as more important than yourselves, 4not (5) paying attention merely to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5Have this (6) attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6who being in the form of God, did not (7) regard or count or reckon equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself.” In these five verses that expound on humility as the key to true Christian unity, the mind is mentioned seven times.
Humility is not a false modesty—that kind of phony courtesy and self-deprecation that pretends to be humble and to flatter others in attempt to get people to like you. That’s pride dressed as humility. No. In his excellent book on Humility, C. J. Mahaney captures the essence of humility as “honestly assessing ourselves in the light of God’s holiness and our sinfulness” (22).
This is the opposite of vain-glory, which we spoke about before. Vain-glory, as we said, is an inflated view of self that makes us believe we have reason to boast in ourselves. But the Apostle Paul says, in Romans chapter 12 verse 3: “For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith.” We are to have an honest, sober assessment of ourselves.
And in the light of God’s holiness and our sinfulness, the only proper estimation of ourselves is one of lowliness and humility. In fact, that’s why we call vain-glory vain glory. Calvin writes, “Vain-glory means any glorying in the flesh; for what ground of glorying have men in themselves that is not vanity?” (Calvin, 52). Do you hear his reasoning there? Glorying in ourselves is empty, because we have absolutely no good reason to boast about ourselves! Spurgeon called pride, “a groundless thing,” “a brainless thing,” and “the maddest thing that can exist” (Pride and Humility). And he’s right! I can think of nothing more absurd, nothing more irrational, nothing more absolutely insane than a sinful human being—a mere creature of the dust—boasting in the light of the white-hot holiness of their Creator.
It is this proper, sober self-assessment that keeps humility from just being a sort of mind game that we play. In regarding one another as more important than ourselves, we are not called to trick ourselves into believing that we’re the worst person on the planet, even though we might be better at something than this person or that person. No, when I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died, and then survey the darkness—the sluggishness of my own heart to believe and to do all that the Scriptures have said—the repeated failure, time after time, confession after confession —— I don’t care who I’m standing next to; I know the wickedness of my own heart, and that means in my eyes I’m the worst sinner in the room!
I love the way Pastor John puts it—just so helpful, so insightful. He says, “Think about it this way. You know more sin about your own heart than you do about anybody else’s right? So if we’re talking from the level of first-hand information, who is the worst sinner you have ever met? … Who’s got the most corrupt mind you know of?” That’s brilliant. The answer for every one of us in this room is, “Me.” Because none of us knows anyone else’s heart! Oh, but we know our own hearts, don’t we? And we know enough of our own hearts that we can honestly regard everyone else as superior to us. Each one of us knows enough of our own hearts to exclaim with integrity along with the Apostle Paul, “I am the chief of sinners!” (1 Tim 1:15). That’s what Paul said about himself! He said he was the least of all the Apostles and not fit to be called an Apostle (1 Cor 15:9). He said he was as one “untimely born” (1 Cor 15:8). That’s not false humility! That’s not a feigned modesty! That’s a man who knew his own heart!
GraceLife, do you know your own heart? I’ve spoken to some professing Christians—even here at Grace Community Church—who just seem to have no acquaintance with the sinfulness of their own heart and the absolute holiness of God. People who are so impressed with themselves, and so quick to give others a hard time. People who are impervious to correction—just unteachable. And people who believe they can judge the motivations and intentions of others. That is, as Spurgeon says, “the maddest thing that can exist!” Oh dear friends, don’t let that be you. Be acquainted with your own sinfulness. And with a proper estimation of yourself in the light of God’s holiness, in humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves.
B. Contrast # 2: Helpfulness / Self-forgetfulness (v. 4)
Well, that brings us to the second contrast, which is presented in verse 4. Follow along with me: “Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” We have said that the key to pursuing true Christian unity is humility. Well verse 4 teaches us that that humility will issue in being helpful.
And I choose my words carefully there when I say that humility will issue in being helpful. It’s not so much that humility and helpfulness are twin pillars standing side by side in the pursuit of unity. It’s really humility that is the key to unity. But helpfulness—this disposition to consider the interests of others as a greater priority than your own—is the necessary expression of a humble heart. And the grammar of the original bears that out. The modern translations begin a new sentence in verse 4, but literally, the verb “Do not look out,” is not an imperative; it’s a participle. So the text literally reads, “…nothing from selfishness or vain conceit, but with humility of mind, regarding one another as more important than yourselves; not merely looking out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” So verse 4 is really an elaboration on verse 3. It tells us what this humility will be characterized by.
It’s a way of putting some hands and feet on humility—of making humility tangible and concrete. Because of how central the mind is to humility, you might get the impression that all Paul is after is a disposition or an attitude—that humility is simply an abstract character quality. We might be tempted to think, “Well sure. I think of other people as more significant than myself, sure. I know my own heart. I understand my sinfulness in the light of God’s holiness. I’ve got this humility thing down!” Because of that temptation, Paul says, “The Christian who is truly humble tangibly, practically, and concretely puts other people’s interests ahead of his own.” If Jesus defined true greatness as humility, then it most certainly is the case that the greatest among you will be your servant. The humble Christian does not merely think a certain way about his brothers and sisters. His humility of mind issues in, or manifests itself in, being a practical benefit to one another as we serve one another in the fear of Christ (cf. Eph 5:21).
We were not saved to be spectators. Christ did not save us merely to gather in the same building once or twice a week, to smile and greet one another, to sing together, to listen to a sermon or a Bible study lesson, to pray, and then to retreat to our separate lives. It is a trustworthy statement, deserving of full acceptance, that we were saved to serve.
Now it’s important to note that Paul is not calling us to a kind of asceticism, where we don’t pay any attention at all to our personal interests. As one commentator put it, he’s not “prohibiting any interest in one’s own affairs. It is the selfish preoccupation with them that he condemns” (O’Brien, 185, emphases added). So Paul is not speaking here of a morbid self-denial, as if merely ignoring our own needs is a virtue. Rather, he’s speaking of a large-heartedness that makes the interests of others our interests—that makes others’ joy our joy.
And it’s because of that that I struggled to know what to call this principle of not merely looking out for your own interests but also for the interests of others. Ultimately I went with helpfulness because I think that does a fairly good job of capturing the idea, and plus it starts with “H” like humility does. But I wrestled with a number of other words. Some commentators call it self-forgetfulness. And I like that, but—and follow me here; think through this with me—Paul’s emphasis isn’t so much about going without good things yourself as it is about gladly laying your life down to make sure that others have those good things. And then I thought about the word “magnanimity,” which means large-souled. It speaks of a large-heartedness that embraces the good of others as one’s own good. In other words, I don’t just deny myself some good things and begrudgingly give those good things to you. I enlarge my heart to the point that I pursue your good as my good—I seek my joy in your joy—my happiness in your happiness.
That’s the idea here. See: by virtue of the atoning work of Christ, we have been freed from our enslavement to only ever find happiness and satisfaction in the exaltation of ourselves and the meeting of our own needs. Because God has opened our eyes to the glory of Christ, we are freed to find our joy in the magnification of Him. And in seeking to see Him magnified, we lay down our lives so that others will come to honor and worship and treasure His glory. And so we lay down our lives in faithful service to them in order to follow the command of the Lord Jesus to love our neighbor as ourselves. When we do that, we make much of Him.
And so that’s the echo you should hear in Philippians 2:4—the second greatest commandment to love your neighbor as yourselves—to not merely look out for your own interests, but to adopt the benefit and well-being of your brothers and sisters as your interest. When you become aware of an opportunity to meet a need, let not your first thought be to your own family, your own health and well-being, your own property, your own financial stability, your own education. Be reminded that Christ has provided for your every need in the Gospel, and therefore has freed you to be able to intentionally consider how you might serve your brother’s family, your brother’s health—how you might prioritize your brother’s property and financial stability and education and success above your own. If a church is filled with a people of that kind of heart, I’d be willing to wager that they would be intimately familiar with true, biblical, Christian unity.
Humility is the key to Christian unity. Disunity festers only so long as it’s fed by selfishness, pride, and arrogance. But when the members of a congregation have a proper view of themselves in the light of God’s holiness, all sense of entitlement—the sense that it is owed to us to be treated in a certain way—vanishes. Disunity simply cannot survive in a church that is permeated by the kind of Gospel-driven humility that issues in a large-hearted, self-forgetful, helpfulness that seeks its own happiness in the happiness of others.
Are you marked by this humility? This lowliness of mind? Are you marked by an honest, sober self-assessment, not thinking of yourself more highly than you ought? Do you genuinely regard others as more important than yourselves in the light of your own sinfulness and failures before our holy God? Or are there pockets of your character that are yet marked by a selfish ambition that needs to be nailed to the cross of Christ? By a yet-unmortified, uncrucified lust for prominence, for recognition, and for vain glory that is willing to debase others if it means your own exaltation, and that is envious and offended if honor is given to anyone else?
In order to ensure that it’s the former, before we close, I want to give you a few practical strategies for crucifying your pride and for cultivating the kind of Gospel-driven humility that leads to true Christian unity. I’ve adapted these from C. J. Mahaney’s book, Humility, which I mentioned before, and which I would highly recommend as a useful resource in your efforts to mortify your pride.
Number one: Study the character of God. The more acquainted you become with the beauty of the manifold perfections of God, the better you will know yourself. When you regularly fill your mind with absolute holiness of God, you will become intimately aware with how fall you short of that holiness. And that apprehension will bow you low.
Very related to that, number two: Remember you’re always getting better than you deserve. The reason we get offended when someone else wrongs us is because we mistakenly believe that we deserve better. But the truth is: we don’t! In the light of our sin against this infinitely holy God, we—all of us, you and me—right now deserve to be suffering the holy wrath of God in hell as the just punishment for our sins. So when someone offends you, insults you, mistreats you, or is inconsiderate, I want you to talk to yourself. Remind yourself: “This is better than I deserve.”
Number three: Invite correction and rebuke. This is so important. One of the clearest indicators of prideful heart is an unteachable spirit—an over-inflated view of self that can’t receive correction without wearing the other person out first. “Well what do you mean?! Are you sure I did that?! How do you know that’s how I meant it?!” Rather than foolishly despising reproof in that way, go out of your way to seek correction. Invite rebuke. Proverbs 12:1 puts it as plainly as you’ll ever hear it: “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid.” Don’t be stupid. Invite the watchful, caring gaze of your brothers and sisters into your life. And if others have the courage to bring something to your attention, don’t demand mathematical precision in order to benefit from their correction. Even if they don’t have it 100% right, and even if they’ve gone about it in the wrong way—this isn’t about winning an argument, it’s about discovering the sin in your life that needs to be mortified if we’re to rightly see and know and worship Christ. So invite and receive correction.
Number four: acknowledge dependence and transfer glory. At the beginning of every day, come to God in prayer and acknowledge your dependence on Him for your salvation, and just for getting through the day. It will be a humbling reminder that you can’t even get through the day on your own. And then, at the end of the day, come to God in prayer and deflect all glory to Him for any of the good things that have happened to you in that day. Don’t pat yourself on the back for the good things that happen to you. Don’t admire yourself for your accomplishments. Systematically acknowledge that you have nothing you haven’t been given (1 Cor 4:7), and transfer glory for good things to God.
And finally, number five. This is the most important one: Think much on the cross of Christ. And here I simply cannot improve upon the words of John Stott. Take this in. Let this arrive at home in your soul. Stott writes, “Every time we look at the cross Christ seems to be saying to us, ‘I am here because of you. It is your sin I am bearing, your curse I am suffering, your debt I am paying, your death I am dying.’ Nothing in history or in the universe cuts us down to size like the cross. All of us have inflated views of ourselves, especially in self-righteousness, until we have visited a place called Calvary. It is there, at the foot of the cross, that we shrink to our true size” (The Message of Galatians, 79).
Oh dear friends: Have you been cut down to size by this glorious Gospel? Have you been bowed in horror at the ugliness of your own sin? Have you come to terms with the offense that your sin is to your Creator? And have you cried out in repentance for God to have mercy on your wretched state? Oh, if you haven’t, I beg you to survey afresh the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died, to see that your sin is so heinous—your state is so hopeless—that the only remedy was the brutal murder of the innocent, sinless Son of God! Confess your helplessness to commend yourself to God by your own righteousness, and cast your hope for salvation entirely upon the righteousness of Christ. Wonder of wonders: He stands willing to receive you, even this morning, through repentance and faith in Him!
And for my brothers and sisters who have been cut down to size by this Gospel, let it continue to cut you down, day after day, so that it can be said that the people in this place—that Grace Community Church—is a congregation marked by Gospel-driven humility.