Politicians & Academicians have made a fortune convincing the population that if someone else has more than you, it’s evidence of their privilege. They must have gotten that through oppression of underprivileged groups. The billionaires have gotta pay up. The sleight of hand here is that while they rant and rave about the top 1% paying a “fair share,” they are jockeying to move themselves up a percent or two. They see the world in terms of haves & have-nots. Christ’s example turns this way of seeing the world upside down.
If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies, Fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure. Do all things without murmurings and disputings: That ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world; Holding forth the word of life; that I may rejoice in the day of Christ, that I have not run in vain, neither laboured in vain. Yea, and if I be offered upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I joy, and rejoice with you all. For the same cause also do ye joy, and rejoice with me.
Summary of the Text
Paul lays before us Christ’s example of humility, and exhorts us to let this mind be in us. In short, we see here that the way up is down. There is consolation in Christ, comfort in His love, fellowship by the Spirit, and profound mercy (v1); therefore, Paul exhorts the Philippians to fulfill his joy by likeminded unity (v2). Their actions should be marked by lowliness of mind, rather than strife (v3); they should keep an eye towards defending the things of others as one would guard his own things (v4).
This is the mind of Christ (v5., CF. 1 Cor. 2:16), and the doctrine of Christ’s two natures is held up as the foundation which supports us while also being the example we must follow (v6). Paul doesn’t drift into thinly sliced systematic defense of Christ’s two natures, but chooses instead to poetically trace Christ’s pilgrimage from Heaven’s glory, to an earthly slave, returning to receive the name above all names: Lord of Heaven & Earth (vs. 6-11). This hymn shapes how we should understand who Christ is, in order that we might imitate Him rightly.
This leads into exhorting the Philippians to renew their vigor in obedience (v12); Their obedience shouldn’t be based on Paul’s presence; true obedience disregards circumstance, because God is the One who is, in fact, at work in them (v13). This obedience can be immediately carried out by refusing to murmur like Israel of old (v14), and this is how they can shine as lights in the midst of a dark world (v15). As they walk in blamelessness, they both hold forth Christ as well as bring joy to Paul, for his example of joy in sacrifice will be vindicated as they, too, joy in sacrificial service to each other (vs.16-18).
True Progress in Holiness
The Philippians were clearly a group of believers marked by zeal for moral obedience. In this epistle, we don’t see some of the same warnings which Paul gives in his letters to other churches. But primarily because of this uprightness and blamelessness Paul exhorts them to humbleness of mind, to work out their salvation with fear and trembling, to make his joy complete by not shipwrecking their testimony. To not soil their good start with a bad finish.
They had progressed in holiness, but the danger for them was letting the purity and zeal of their congregation be sullied by pride, rivalry, envy, and strife. Holiness doesn’t develop apart from humility. Indeed, it’s only by humbling ourselves in the first instance whereby we can receive Christ’s holiness. The proud won’t bend. But grace flows down to the humble.
In his wonderfully devotional book, Humility, Andrew Murray writes: “The whole self consciousness of the Christian is to be imbued and characterized by the spirit that animated the death of Christ. He has ever to present himself to God as one who has died in Christ, and in Christ is alive from the dead, bearing about in his body the dying of the Lord Jesus. His life ever bears the two-fold mark: its roots striking in true humility deep into the grave of Jesus, the death to sin and self; its head lifted up in resurrection power to the heaven where Jesus is. […] Let’s never forget that the highest holiness is the deepest humility (Andrew Murray, Humility, pg.86).”
And Charles Spurgeon, preaching on the Beatitudes remarks, “In proportion as men rise in the reception of the divine blessing, they sink in their own esteem—and count it their honor to do the humblest works.” Holiness––for individuals and communities––grows out of Christ-like humbleness.
Envy & Strife
One of the trademark moves that Satan uses to undermine a good work of grace is by introducing small doses of envy into the recipe. A joyful and united community of believers will inevitably, and perpetually, be tempted to become dissatisfied with their own things, and begin to desire the things of others. Initially this won’t manifest in actual robbery or theft. Rather, envy will grouse about how they have a better paying job, a more stable family background, better looks, a greater intellect, are more well-respected, more popular, and so on. Instead of defending what’s rightfully our neighbor’s, we look to either take or tarnish our neighbor’s things, reputation, or talents.
Paul, in Phil. 1:15-18, notes his own potential source of envy. Joyful gratitude for the gifts and graces, the talents and blessings which God has given our brother is how we embody Christ’s example of humility. Humility recognizes that the blessings which both you and your neighbor have received are all undeserved and come from the Father’s hand.
Strife wants to try to carve out its own glory, at the expense of others. This is why we see political alliances frequently turn into rivalries. At some point the egos are too big for the same room, and suddenly the friend becomes the enemy. But the way of Christ is that of joyfully receiving God’s assignment for you, God’s blessings for you, and refusing to try to take the blessings and assignments He’s given your brother.
Insisting that the grace and goodness God has shown to others must be taken from them and given to me is how strife and vainglory overtake an individual and a community. Instead, we’re to emulate Christ’s humility. We do this primarily by guarding the things of others, as readily as we would defend ourselves and our own property. This is simply a reworking of the command to “love thy neighbor.”
Living Upside Down
The envy of modern culture wants to saw everyone’s legs off so that we all stand at the same height. The hymn to Christ in this passage does not leave us with an acquiescing Christ, but an obedient Christ. He knows His rightful place, but obeys the Father in humility, and thus receives again His rightful place.
This is how the joy of God’s people is filled up. We follow Christ: the God who became a man, so that man in Christ might ascend to fellowship with God. Sinful man thinks that obtaining joy is like that children’s game Hungry Hippos: an obnoxious attempt to gobble up all the marbles. Humility doesn’t try to gobble up all the glory or joy. It sees the glory––regardless of the owner––and rejoices in it.
True Christian joy is found in living upside down from the world’s way of getting joy. You don’t get joy by rivalry. You don’t get joy from trying to strangle it out of your brother or his things. For the saints, your joy is not at the expense of my joy. Our joy is that the Christ who obeyed the Father and descended, is the same Christ whom the Father has now exalted as Lord over all.