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It’s good to be with you again this morning, Christ Covenant family, friends, joining with us. Let’s take a moment to pray.
Father, we want to see again Your beauty this morning. To be refreshed by what we find in Christ. To have our hearts grown in love as we encounter Your love for us in Him, and that even through the preaching of Your Word this morning we might be further changed into His image for Your glory. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Well, grab a Bible if you’ve got one handy near you, or I guess turn in your phone, or even if you need to, just Google the passage, you could read along with us that way, to our text this morning which is Philippians chapter 2, verses 1 through 11. So obviously we are taking a little bit of a break, a one week break, this week from our current series in the Gospel of John, which, Lord willing, we will complete next week.
But hopefully we’ll see this morning that even our text this morning is not removed from what we have been looking at and learning and finding encouragement in as we’ve considered the life, the death, the resurrection, and even the ascension of Jesus Christ. And with Ascension Sunday, which we’re celebrating today.
But as we get started this morning, I want to ask you a question, something for you to consider how would you answer this particular question: If someone came to you and asked what is it that’s central in the Christian life, or what is the fundamental disposition one ought to have in living the Christian life?
Augustin, addressing that very issue in writing a letter to one of his students, said it this way: The answer to that is threefold. First of all, humility. And then second, humility. And then thirdly, humility.
Which certainly goes a long way towards commending the focus of our text this morning, which is humility.
But before we get to that text, I do want to, because we aren’t in a series on Philippians, I thought it might be helpful then if we give a little bit of background quickly as we get started. You might be aware that Philippians is a letter written by the Apostle Paul to a church that he actually helped to start on one of his missionary journeys after he was called to preach the Gospel there in a vision. It’s an incredible story in its own right, one that you can read about in Acts chapter 16, but a church is born from that mission trip and by the time Paul writes this letter, that church has grown and Paul seems to be on the whole very encouraged by how they’re doing. They’ve even become now partners with him in that Gospel mission.
There are a number of reasons why Paul writes this letter to the Philippian church, which we don’t have time to get into this morning, but one of those is to encourage the church regarding his current imprisonment. Paul’s been imprisoned for preaching about Christ, and you can understand how for a young church seeing the founder of your church suffering in that way might provide occasion for discouragement or even fear. He wants to settle them, Paul does, as he writes this letter, so he’s trying to tell them, explain to them, the significance of what’s happening in his life.
He writes, in chapter 1, I want you to know that what has happened to me has really served to advance the Gospel. Paul is positive that his imprisonment has been an avenue for advancing the Good News about Jesus, and he rejoices in that fact and he wants the Philippians to see things the same way, to join with him. And he seems optimistic about his future. He’s optimistic that he will get out of prison but he leaves open, certainly, the possibility that his departure from prison will come about through his own death.
Chapter 1, verses 19 and 20, he says: “For I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, this will turn out for my deliverance. As it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.”
So Paul’s writing with confident joy in the midst of his own difficult circumstances to encourage the Philippians. He is confident about where the Lord has him. And he’s also confident about where the Lord has the Philippians.
In the first few verses he shares his gratitude for their partnership in the Gospel and the joy that this has brought to him. And in chapter 1, verse 6, he says this: “That I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” He’s confident about God’s work in the Philippian church.
But that confidence does not eliminate a healthy pastoral concern that Paul has for them, a concern that’s born out of love for them, but that’s concern for their continued perseverance and growth in the Gospel. You see, one of those concerns expressed in chapter 1, verses 27 and 28: “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the Gospel of Christ so that whether I come to you and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind, striving side by side for the faith of the Gospel and not frightened by anything in your opponents.”
So Paul wants them to stand firm in the Gospel. He wants them to remain unified, one together, in the face of external threats to that unity, to opposition to the Gospel or other challenges that they might encounter. But Paul recognizes that threats to the unity of the Church don’t just come from the outside, they come from inside the Church as well. You can see that reflected if you looked on ahead to chapter 4 where Paul actually addresses two individual Christians in the church. Imagine yourself being addressed in a letter from the pulpit, but that’s what Paul does, addressing two saints who seem to be struggling to get along, and urging them to agree in the Lord.
Which brings us then to our passage this morning, where we find three points to consider. First that we must seek humility. We must seek humility. Second that we must see Christ. And third that we must increasingly be centered on Him. That we must seek humility, see Christ, and increasingly have our lives centered on Him.
Let’s look at our text this morning, Philippians chapter 2, 1 through 11.
“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. Do nothing from selfish ambition 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. 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 He emptied himself, by 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. 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.”
Let’s look first at those first four verses. You’ll see there four “if” statements. Now, usually when we hear the word “if” we are tending to think of something that we’re not certain about, something that we’re not sure, something that’s still in question. But that’s not the case here. Paul is sure that these things do exist within the Philippians church, so the “ifs” then could have just as easily been written as “since” or “since you have encouragement in Christ, since you’ve been comforted by love, since you know participation in the Spirit, and since as a result you’ve come to experience a warm affection, a sympathy for one another and for me, as I have for you,” Paul would say, “complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.”
There are slightly different, though not terribly consequential, ways that those statements, those verses, could be translated or understood, but it’s hard to miss the point here, that if you’ve experienced the benefits of knowing Christ, if you’ve enjoyed the sweetness of the grace of God, if you’ve tasted, experienced the fellowship given to you in the Holy Spirit that connects you not only with the life of God but with life together with one another in His Church, that if these are experiences are yours, Paul says, and I’m confident that they are, then this is what your life together ought to look like.
Any garden that I’ve planted would tell you that I’m no expert at growing plants, but I do know this, at least this: That if you’re going to grow something, you have to have the right conditions, and the fundamental condition of life in the Church is grace. That is, you can’t grow genuine God-honoring unity apart from grace. In fact, you can’t truly grow anything, genuine or God-honoring, in the Christian life without it. Grace has to come first. Grace always must come first in the life of the Christian and the life of the Church. The imperatives, or the commands from God, always follow the indicatives, or the conditions, from God. Or that what God calls us to do always comes within the context of what God has already done for us.
But where grace is truly present, where its benefits are truly known, there ought to be a certain kind of growth taking place. So Paul is saying here that you’ve been given everything you need to live together in harmony, to live united with one another, to be one-minded, and that this is what I want, this is what would complete my joy, because this is what God wants.
It’s right for us as Christians to grieve those areas of division, dysfunction, disunity, distrust, that exist out in the culture, in the world around us, and we have so many examples of that today in our world to grieve. But it’s especially true that those things ought to have no place within the Church of Jesus Christ, and that it ought to be our ongoing aim to see continued progress in unity. It’s noteworthy here to remember as we started that Paul is grateful for the work of God that he’s seeing in the Philippian church, for their partnerships, their prayers, for their growth by the hand of God that he’s seeing evidently at work among them.
Paul is grateful for what he sees among the Philippian church. He’s grateful, but he’s not satisfied. He’s notably gentle and gracious with the way he presents it, but he’s clear about what he desires.
And there’s a reminder for us here in that this morning, that there is always room for growth in the Christian life. That is that no matter where you are in your walk with Jesus Christ, there is always room for more, whether that’s individually or together.
And so as Paul goes on to point out, if we are to grow corporately in unity, we must all be growing personally in humility. I’ll say that again: If we are to grow corporately in unity, we must all be growing personally in humility.
Look at verses 3 and 4. In the Greek here there’s not a verb here at the beginning of the verse, which actually adds to the sense of urgency. Nothing coming from self-seeking. Nothing coming from empty conceit. But rather the alternative, that in humility you would count others more significant than yourselves. And verse 4 that each person would look out for the interests of others.
Alec Motyer makes a helpful observation here in noting that Paul sees humility as a move from wrong aims and wrong assessments to right aims, assessments, and right aims. From wrong aims and assessments to right assessments and right aims. That is, from a wrong attitude towards oneself in the area of aims or selfishness and in terms of assessment or conceit or vain glory to a right attitude towards oneself in terms of assessment or humility and in our aims, each looking out for the interest of others.
Another way you might say that is to say as it has been said that sin is life turned in on itself, and if that’s the case, and it is, then humility is the freedom to live life the way it was supposed to be, to let go of self-aggrandizement and self-advancement.
You probably don’t have to think back too far into this past week to think of places, areas, or ways that we’ve given way to one of those two temptations, do we? If you’re like me it can be difficult to make it past the breakfast table without giving way to one or both. Because in our sin we tend to think of ourselves more highly, or maybe more obsessively, than we ought and to think of others less often than we should.
But humility frees us to see ourselves rightly. Not first according to how we might rank among one another, but first as who we are before God, and then therefore to relate rightly to others.
Paul’s not calling us to ignore inevitable faults that we might encounter as we see one another. That’s only a reality, but to focus rather on how we might honor one another’s strengths and care for one another’s needs. Humility frees us to live life looking outward.
And so then the question then for us this morning, for you and also for me, is where our opportunities to grow in humility, even this week. To grow in valuing others ahead of ourselves. It could be in your home, it could be out in your neighborhood, it could be perhaps with the people that you work with, but thinking particularly this morning of those within the church, because we can’t grow in unity together unless we’re all growing in humility personally.
Admittedly, these are distressing days that we’re living in. But they have brought with them new opportunities for us to serve, to serve one another and to grow in deference to one another, and I’ve been greatly encouraged as I’m sure many of you have, to see that very thing taking place, to hear stories and to see examples, instances, and personally benefit ourselves as a family, for members looking to care for one another, looking to encourage and support, to give and to serve, setting aside our own interests in the interests of others. We have so much to thank God for over these recent days in that regard.
But like Paul and the Philippians, the temptations for distrust and division are always present among us, and this season is no different. That temptation could be especially high as we continue to move into these days of reopening public life together.
There’s an article that appeared this week in the Gospel Coalition by Brett McCracken titled Church: Don’t Let Coronavirus Divide You. As Derek was praying earlier, this certainly is a potential temptation. So as he comments about plans for the reopening of our life together in all kinds of areas but also especially in worship, he says “no one of us should assume that we’ve arrived at the definitive answer on how to do this well. So let’s model humility by acknowledging that everything is not obvious and we are all just trying to do the best we can in this build the plane in midair moment.”
Friends, that’s not to say that there are not difficult decisions that have and will need to be made, or that we all will or have to agree on all of them, but it is a reminder and a call that it is so important as we continue to move forward in these days that we continue to listen well to one another, to speak with charity and to practice patience and deference. That we look for opportunities that God would present us with to put one another’s needs and concerns ahead of our own. What a witness that would be to God’s grace and to God’s glory if He grants us that humility as we continue to navigate this season together.
So we must seek humility. We must seek humility. And wouldn’t it be nice if that’s all we needed to say this morning? Let’s seek humility. A good reminder, as we say here in the South, a good talkin’ to, or a swift kick in the pants, and we could all go home or I guess maybe get up from our living rooms and walk into our kitchens and just be more humble. Because I’m sure we would all agree on some level, yes, of course, I would like to be more humble.
But the question is, how do we get there? God has graciously given us the conditions necessary for humility and for unity, but how do we cultivate humility? Certainly prayer is important. Intentional decisions that we make are effective in shaping our hearts. But look where Paul turns next: We must seek humility and to do that we must see Christ. After calling the Philippians to seek humility, he holds up Jesus and says, in effect, see Christ.
Look at verse 5 through 8: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, or which is also in Christ, who though He was in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself by 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.”
Admittedly, we are coming to some very deep theological waters here. There have been reams and reams written on these verses. And they do provide some of the richest New Testament contemplation on the eternal nature of Christ. But I want to keep our focus this morning on the reason why Paul has included them in the first place. Not first for the sake of probing mysteries about the pre-incarnate Christ, but first for putting forward the supreme example of humility in all the universe.
As we see here that this kind of humility, this kind of self-denying, this kind of seeking the good of others, this outward-oriented life, is not something that God just made up and placed upon us arbitrarily to see what we would do with it, but it’s something that God himself has actually done for us because it’s the kind of God that He is.
Returning to the Gospel of John for a moment, this is the way that John begins that gospel, speaking of Christ here as the Word, he says, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Jesus Christ as the eternal Son is and always has been God, equal with the Father and with the Holy Spirit in every way, but Paul tells us here that Christ did not count that equality with God a thing to be grasped.
The language here is difficult and there are various translations that are possible, but we can fill out the sense of just a couple. If you actually have the ESV Bible, you might find an alternative translation down in your footnotes, which reads “a thing to be held onto for advantage.” That is, that Christ did not consider His being God a position to be exploited for self-gain, or a slight alternative, as Sinclair Ferguson puts it, “The Son did not grasp or jealousy guard His rights as Son of God.”
You know, there is a way in which this moment that we’re living in in history has kind of forced upon us a bit of humility. How can we pretend to be gods when a microscopic and invisible enemy confines us to our homes, swamps our hospitals, forces us from our jobs, devours incomes, bars us from a hug, or strikes fear into our hearts? There is one thing that is abundantly clear in this moment, and that is this: That we are not God.
But Christ was under no such requirement because He is God. And so the humility He exhibits then is not something forced upon Him by external circumstances, but it’s something that He has willingly chosen because of who He is. He doesn’t jealousy guard His rights or seek to take advantage of them for His own gain at the expense of others. No, quite the opposite. It says that He emptied Himself. Not by shedding some of His deity, not by becoming something less than God. He didn’t empty Himself of something. No, it says that He emptied Himself. That is, He poured Himself out. And that He did so, in fact, by taking something to Himself. By taking to Himself the form of a servant.
Again, we don’t have to go back too far into our Gospel of John to recall a vivid image of that. Jesus, the eternal God, there in a little room in Jerusalem, complete with all its first century cleanliness and conveniences, down on His knees, dressed in a towel, wash basin at hand, washing the crusted filth off of His followers’ feet. It’s stunning.
Donald Macleod draws it out so well this way. He says: “He possessed all the majesty of deity, performed all its functions and enjoyed all its prerogatives. He was adored by His Father and worshiped by the angels. He was invulnerable to pain, frustration, and embarrassment. He existed in unclouded serenity. His supremacy was total, His satisfaction complete, His blessedness perfect. Such a condition was nothing He had secured by effort. It was the way things were, and had always been; and there was no reason why they should change. But change they did… [because] Christ did not insist on His rights, but He poured Himself for others.”
And His humility continued by becoming obedient to God the Father, with whom He is eternally equal, and by following that obedience in perfect form at every turn, right up through to the very end, even to death, even to death on a cross, which would have in a Roman context been to emphasize the very lowest possible place.
There were no Philippian jewelry stores in that day selling little silver crosses to hand on necklaces. There weren’t teenagers running around with crosses tattooed on their ankles. It wasn’t fashionable. It wasn’t trendy. It wasn’t celebrated. It was the very vilest and most despised place that a person could find themselves, and for Jesus it was the place of the pouring out of God’s wrath for sin on Him, and He did it all by choice.
Again, Jesus says, “I lay down My life. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of My own accord.”
So you want to grow in humility, Paul says, then look at Christ. There never has been nor will there ever be any expression of humility like this. But as glorious as it is, we need more than an example to show us how to be humble. We need forgiveness of our sins for all the self-serving and self-seeking that alienates us not only from each other, but alienates us from God Himself and this is fundamentally what Jesus came to do and what no one else can and what makes His service to utterly unique.
And so Paul certainly holds out Christ as an example to the Philippians, but in telling this story, he’s not only setting for us the supreme example of humility, the supreme portrait of humility, but he’s also reminding us of Christ’s unique sacrificial provision for our pride, which He gladly chose because He loves us.
I don’t know how many of you are avid music fans or concert goers and if you are what might be your favorite concert that you’ve ever been to. For me it was a U2 concert I attended a number of years ago at Vanderbilt University football stadium there. It’s one of the few things I’ve been able to check off from my bucket list, actually, and it was an incredible evening. It was a wonderful concert by my favorite band. And, but this concert was unique in that it ended in a unique way. See, there was a man in the crowd that night who at the very end of the concert, as they were wrapping up, was actually pulled forward onto stage. We found out later that this man had been holding a sign that says “I’m blind and I play the guitar.” And so at the very end of the concert, Bono calls this man up on stage. He’s helped up onto stage and Bono asks him what song would you like to play, and he must have whispered “All I Want Is You,” and then he dedicated the song publicly to his wife. So incredibly they bring out Bono’s guitar, they hang it on the man, and he after loudly admitting “I’m really nervous, man,” understandably so, begins to strum away to “All I Want Is You.” And then Bono starts singing, and then the whole band kind of comes out and fills back in and pretty soon the whole stadium is singing together “All I Want Is You” and it was an incredible moment. But it was even more so for one person in that crowd. I couldn’t help but think about the unique experience of that man’s wife. Somewhere in that crowd was his wife, and while we could all sing along with him to this song, he was actually singing to her.
And there’s a massive difference, isn’t there? And a great love song that you can sing along to and a love song that’s been written to and is being sung to you.
There’s a good bit of evidence to support the fact that what Paul is pulling from here is actually an existent hymn to Christ, and it’s certainly something we ought to sing to Him. But I wonder if in these words this morning you can’t also hear God singing to you. God singing a love song to us, the very prideful rebels whose sin actually made the writing of this song necessary. It’s not a song that glosses over your sins and your failures. It’s not a song that looks aside from those things, but pursues you right through them and makes provision for them, to set them aside, out of you forever, and so Paul says look at Jesus, look at Jesus.
And as we consider His humility in serving us, how can we not loosen our grip on ourselves? Our focus on ourselves? When we look at Christ leaving everything, taking on servanthood, God humbling Himself, stooping to serve, even to die, even death on a cross, for love of us.
Of course, the story does not end there, because Christ doesn’t stay dead, praise God. He was raised from death and He ascended back to heaven where He’s currently seated and ruling at the right hand of God the Father. In fact, it’s captured here in these last few verses this morning, and which reminds us that we must be increasingly centered on Christ: 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.
There’s a noticeable shift here in these last few verses. You might have picked up on it, that now the subject, the actor is God the Father. In the previous verses it was Jesus the Son. God the Father here now is acting and Jesus is the object of His action. But the action of the Father here is directly tied to the action of the Son in the previous verses through the “therefore” at the beginning of verse 9. That is, that it’s because of who Christ is and all that He did that God the Father has now highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name.
But what is that exaltation? There’s a clear reference here to Isaiah chapter 45, verses 22 and 23. You can turn there, if you want to read along, or just listen to those verses, but Isaiah chapter 45:22 and 23, where God says, “Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By Myself I have sworn; from My mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To Me every knee shall bow, and every tongue shall swear allegiance.'”
So when Paul says that God has bestowed on Jesus the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, He’s saying that in the exaltation of Christ, in the ascension of Christ, God has vindicated Jesus. That what was hidden in the humiliation of Christ has now been revealed in His exaltation, that Jesus is God. That the carpenter from Nazareth is the same one speaking back in Isaiah 45, that He and He alone is the true hope of the world to the very ends of the earth, that He is God and that there is no other.
Is He your true and only hope this morning? Is He your true and only God today? Because sooner or later, Paul says, every person will see and acknowledge this fact, every single knee will bend in acknowledgement, every single tongue will move in affirmation that Jesus Christ is God, the Holy One, and the only Savior of the world.
Sadly, not all will do so to salvation, for this is the day of salvation, but all will do so in confession. We are, of course, not at that point yet, but the ascension of Christ is vindication that assures us that we will be, and here as we move to close, there’s one more encouragement for us towards our own humility, and it’s actually twofold.
First, we see that in the exalted Christ there’s a reminder of a general principle with God, that He lifts up those who humble themselves. That as it is with Christ, so it is for those who are in Him. Friends, this should be to us such freedom. Freedom from the enslaving temptation to want to exalt ourselves because we don’t have to. The exalted Christ shows us that God is faithful, that He does lift up the humble.
Psalm 147:6: The Lord lifts up the humble.
James 4:6: But He gives more grace, therefore, it says, God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.
Or Matthew 23:11 and 12, where Jesus says: The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
And so we don’t have to look out for ourselves, because God is looking out for us. We don’t have to lift up ourselves. As we trust ourselves to God in Christ, God will do the lifting for us. And so we see in Christ that we can trust God to lift up those who humble themselves.
And yet we must get more excited still about God lifting up Christ. We must be increasingly centered on that which God has made the center of everything, that is the glory of Jesus, which is to the glory of God the Father. And which is to know the blessing of humility in a life set free.
I want you to see that as we close by going back to where we started with Paul. Not here with the sinless Savior, but her with the saved sinner, being sanctified just like us. He’s in prison, he’s unjustly accused. He’s not sure of his future, whether he’ll live or die, and there are those trying to make things harder for him still. And with those circumstances, what is Paul concerned about? That Christ is proclaimed. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed and in that I rejoice. That Christ is honored, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body whether by life or by death. That the Philippians are doing well. I thank my God in remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you, making my prayer with joy and that they continue to grow. Complete my joy by being of the same mind.
Friends, that is true freedom. That is true freedom. When circumstances are at their worst, he’s not turned in on himself. Paul’s living a life looking outward, concerned for others, centered on Christ. He’s a man set free, because he’s a man recentered, and may it be so for us. May we never grow satisfied with the growth of humility in our lives with the experience of unity in our church. May we always want more of this grace of God.
Are you seeking humility? Are you seeing Christ? Are you increasingly centered on Him?
It’s what the Philippians needed in their day and it is what we need in our day as well.
Perhaps you’ve also heard it said that humility is not thinking less of yourself, but humility is thinking of yourself less. I think that’s partly true. But the truth that we’re seeing this morning is that humility is thinking less of yourself precisely because you are thinking of others and most importantly of Christ more and more and more and more, to the glory of God.
Let’s pray. Father, we thank You. We are humbled as we consider the magnificent work of Christ on our behalf. How often have we sought to raise ourselves up? We don’t need to. Father, would we desire and would You give to us this freedom, to have ourselves set aside as we increasingly see and savor the exaltation of Christ, that we might be freed to care first for others, to be centered on Jesus, to seek Your honor, Your glory, and Your fame. For we pray all this in Jesus’ name. Amen.