Jesus, the supreme example of humility

The lectionary readings for Sunday, April 5th (Palm Sunday in the church calendar), include Philippians 2:5–11. As the worldwide body of Christ, along with the rest of the global community, endures the current pandemic crisis, Paul’s observations about the humiliation and exaltation of the Messiah seem especially pertinent.

In verses 1–2, the apostle called the recipients of his letter to unity, humility, and obedience. As long as the congregation remained divided, they would not be able to withstand opposition from their antagonists (1:28).

Most likely, this hostility was linked to the resistance originating from the pagan residents in Philippi. They had created a mob scene in which Paul and Silas were arrested on their initial visit to the city (Acts 16:16–24).

The harassment Paul’s readers experienced undermined their Christian unity. Well aware of how this problem was manifesting itself among his friends, the apostle appealed to them in four important ways.

First, Paul highlighted his readers’ unified position in the Messiah (Phil 2:1). As believers, our starting point is always who we are in baptismal union with the Son—that is, we are all saved sinners because of what He has done for us on the cross.

What can be more encouraging to us than experiencing the Lord’s unconditional forgiveness? Also, what can be more unifying than for all of us to receive the same mercy? Put another way, Paul was saying to the Philippians, “We are all in this together.”

Second, the apostle reminded his readers about the Messiah’s love. Jesus died for each of them because He loved each of them.

The preceding knowledge can be a source of comfort for us. Being loved in this way should likewise prompt us to be compassionate and considerate, especially in times of uncertainty and distress. In fact, Jesus exhorted His followers to love one another and prayed that we would be one (John 15:17; 17:21).

Third, Paul stressed the Holy Spirit indwelling each of the apostle’s readers. Since there is one Spirit, there is one body of believers of which the Philippian Christians were a part. Consequently, sharing the one Spirit of God should have compelled them to avoid any action or attitude that would divide the body of Christ.

Fourth, Paul spoke about the tender feelings and deep sympathy his readers were to have for one another (Phil 2:1). This was prompted by the apostle’s earnest desire for these believers to be drawn together.

Paul could have commanded the Philippians to bury their resentment toward one another and behave as good Christians. Instead, the apostle appealed to their hearts to motivate them to be loving and forgiving toward one another.

Just as the apostle made four appeals to his readers, so also he listed four results from such an effort to be united. First, the Philippians would be of the same mind. This does not mean they would always think the exact same thoughts. Rather, Paul meant they would be in agreement about laboring together for the Messiah’s glory.

Second, the apostle’s readers would experience the love for one another that each had in the Savior. Third, they would work together in complete sincerity and commitment. Fourth, they would be united in purpose as a church (v. 2).

Next, Paul warned his readers not to succumb to those spiritual viruses that damage Christian unity. For instance, “selfish ambition” (v. 3) and “empty conceit” were evils that had stricken some of the Philippian believers.

Evidently, some parishioners were engaging in party strife and petty squabbles because of their self-centeredness. Instead, the apostle admonished them to be humble, not like a person who cringes before others, but like someone who treats others as being worthier than himself or herself.

Admittedly, in ancient times, the Greeks disdained the quality of humility, regarding it as being shameful. It was something to be avoided and overcome with positive thoughts and actions.

Believers, however, operated differently. God wanted them to recognize their true sinful condition and need for His grace. This is in keeping with the Greek noun rendered “humility,” which means to think correctly about one’s position in life.

Specifically, humility is a continual appreciation of our need for the Savior and our dependence on Him. This was the opposite of the Greek concept of freedom, which required that a person not be subject to anyone or anything, including God.

For the Son, humility meant a recognition of His role as a bondservant in becoming human. Since He was sinless, recognition of His true condition did not involve the presence of iniquity. He did, however, demonstrate the need to depend daily on the Father for strength.

Considering what has been said, how can we demonstrate such Christlike humility? Paul advised that believers should take an interest in others, not just address their own personal concerns (v. 4).

Without ignoring what is important to us, we can daily show others that we value and appreciate what is important to them. The supreme example of humility was the attitude that Jesus had when He rescued us from sin.

If we truly exist in baptismal union with the Messiah, then we will have an attitude of loving humility in our relationship with others and self-sacrificing obedience to God. This was the attitude that Paul wanted the Philippians to embrace (v. 5).

Paul characterized the Son’s humble attitude in what some scholars have suggested was originally a hymn sung in the early church. Even then, believers sang songs expressing their devotion to and faith in the Messiah (Col 3:16). Most of these hymns are now lost to us, but a few are probably preserved in Paul’s letters.

In addition to the possibility of Philippians 2:6–11, parts of other hymns may be found in Ephesians 5:14, Colossians 1:15–20, and 1 Timothy 3:16. Those in favor of this view maintain that Paul quoted the song in Philippians 2:6–11 to provide an example of humility.

These experts note the solemn tone of the apostle’s words, the way they fit together, and the manner in which they were carefully chosen. When read aloud in the Greek, the rhythmical quality of Paul’s words provide further evidence that this passage could have easily been sung.

There is no problem in seeing these verses as an incorporation of an early hymn. The words definitely reflect the apostle’s thought and support his point, which would make their inclusion natural. That said, Paul was capable of writing poetic passages (1 Cor 13, for example), and he should not be dismissed as the author just because of style.

Either way, Philippians 2:6–11 provides a wonderfully concise theology of the person of Christ and accurately reflects other statements of Scripture regarding the Savior. In particular, Paul wanted to emphasize to his readers the Son’s humility and exaltation.

Prior to the Son’s incarnation, He existed eternally as God with the Father and the Spirit. One of the key doctrines of the Christian faith is that Jesus is, always was, and always will be God. In fact, Paul declared in Colossians 2:9 that in the Lord Jesus all the fullness of the Godhead dwelt in bodily form.

Philippians 2:6 reveals that though Jesus is God, He decided not to exploit His privileges as God to seize even more glory and honor. Instead, He chose the path of lowly obedience.

The Son acted upon His decision to be obedient to the Father by emptying Himself. This is the literal meaning of the Greek phrase that the NIV translates as “made himself nothing” (v. 7).

In this selfless act, Jesus did not give up His divinity, but laid aside His regal privileges as God to become a human being. Neither did He choose to be an earthly monarch, a wealthy merchant, a powerful military leader, an idolized athlete or entertainer, or even a renowned philosopher. Rather, Jesus became a bondservant.

When Jesus took on full humanity through His incarnation, people who knew Him could see that He possessed the full nature of a human being—except that He was without sin. For instance, He hungered as any human would. He felt the discomfort of hot and cold weather as any person does. He became tired after a long walk in the same way His fellow travelers became exhausted.

In verse 7, Paul described three steps in Jesus’ mission: first, He “made himself nothing”; second, He assumed the “very nature of a bondservant”; and, third, He took on the “likeness of humanity.”

From birth to death, Jesus lived in humility. He was born in a stable. For a time, His parents were refugees in Egypt. Jesus grew up in obedience to His parents. He worked at a humble trade, that is, as a carpenter. Jesus cried with those who grieved. He washed the feet of His disciples.

Jesus chose to die—not just to leave this life peacefully like Enoch, but to perish on the cross in anguish and humiliation so that we might live in renewed and eternal communion with the Father. Paul summarized the Messiah’s self-emptying this way: “Though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that through his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).

The Son lived in complete obedience to His Father. This included the Son voluntarily allowing Himself to die on the cross like a common criminal for our sins.

To the Jews of Jesus’ day, crucifixion was the epitome of shame. This gruesome form of execution showed that the victim was languishing in disgrace outside the blessing of God’s covenant (Deut 21:23; Gal 3:13). To the Romans, crucifixion was repulsive and reserved for foreigners and slaves.

In Philippians, Paul did not dwell on the sordid details of Jesus’ unjust trials, and the way He was mocked, beaten, and nailed to the cross. This remains so, even though the apostle was quite familiar with the ignominy and disgrace of being crucified.

Instead, Paul emphasized the stigma of being executed in such a dreadful manner. The apostle’s provision of this key information enables us to grasp the horror connected with Jesus’ atoning sacrifice.

Paul could not end his extended illustration with the Messiah on the cross. The place of honor that Jesus willingly forsook was given back to Him with the added glory of His triumph over Satan, sin, and death.

In response to the Son’s humility and obedience, the Father supremely exalted Jesus to a place where His triumph would eventually be recognized by all living creatures (Phil 2:9). The apostle emphatically tells us that every person who has ever lived will someday recognize the Son for who He is, namely, the supreme Lord revealed in the Old Testament as Yahweh (Acts 2:33–36).

So, then, on one level, the “name of Jesus” (Phil 2:10) would be Lord (Greek, Kyrios; Hebrew, Yahweh). Yet, on another level, Paul was referring to the majestic office or exalted position the Father bestowed on the Son.

After all, in both Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures of the day, a person’s name had value as a symbol of one’s status and character. This emphasis is seen in the Good News Translation, “in honor of the name of Jesus.”

By bowing on their knees, every human being and angel will acknowledge Jesus’ deity and sovereignty. Also, everyone will confess that Jesus is Lord—some with joyful faith, others with regret and anguish (v. 11).

Centuries earlier, the prophet Isaiah had announced these words about the Messiah: “Every knee will bow to me, and every tongue will swear allegiance” (Isa 45:23; see Rom 14:11; Rev 5:13). Philippians 2:6–11 affirms that this universal acknowledgment of Jesus’ lordship will happen.

Key ideas to contemplate

In contemporary society, assertiveness and aggression are considered strengths, while humility connotes weakness. Occasionally, a servant—such as a devoted minister of the gospel—is honored.

Yet, for every one of these persons, there are innumerable prominent individuals who count ego and pride as virtues. Few among them would be willing to lift a finger to help anyone else, particularly in seasons involving acute need.

1. Choosing to be different. Being clothed with the humility of the Son means seeing ourselves as the Father sees us and respecting others by loving them unconditionally. Jesus did far more for us by leaving the glories of heaven to become a human being and eventually dying on the cross for our sins. Out of gratitude for Him, we should treat one another with kindness, sensitivity, and compassion.

2. Leading by example. Christian leaders are the role models for other believers. This includes demonstrating humble service to others, as our Lord did. He did not call believers to do anything He had not done or was not willing to do. He lived His life as a bondservant, died for the unrighteous, and loves the unlovely without limits.

3. Being others-focused. In this way of thinking and acting, Christian leaders become role-models of humility by submitting to Jesus, rather than advocating a personal agenda. These leaders also acknowledge the need for resources beyond themselves. Any church leader’s burden will be lightened by casting his or her cares on the Lord.

4. Affirming the value of others. A godly leader respects every person in the congregation. If that happens, each member will begin to see others as people of value who are appreciated without preconditions. The world’s theme song is, “I Did It My Way!” In contrast, every member of the body of Christ should say, “I will do this for God’s glory and in His love for others.”

Professor Dan Lioy (PhD, North-West University) holds several faculty appointments. He is the Senior Research Manager at South African Theological Seminary (in South Africa). Also, he is a professor of biblical theology at the Institute of Lutheran Theology (in South Dakota). Moreover, he is a dissertation advisor in the Leadership and Global Perspectives DMIN program at Portland Seminary (part of George Fox University in Oregon). Finally, he is a professor in the School of Continuing Theological Studies at North-West University (in South Africa). Professor Lioy is active in local church ministry, being dual rostered with the Evangelical Church Alliance and the North American Lutheran Church. He is widely published, including a number of academic monographs, peer-reviewed journal articles, and church resource products.

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