The Example of Humility (Philippians 2:5-11)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Consider carefully these words, written by Charles Erdman, which form a wonderful introduction to the verses with which we are concerned in this study:

The most important events can be traced quite commonly to comparatively insignificant causes. Thus a slight discord in an obscure church, possibly a misunderstanding between two women, became the occasion of what is possibly the most significant statement ever made by Paul in relation to the incarnation and death and exaltation of Christ; and upon this statement he bases his most inspiring appeal to imitate Christ. For the true imitation of Christ does not consist merely in trying to imagine and to do the things which Christ would do, but in seeking to cultivate the spirit and the disposition which Christ revealed.

Any preacher approaching this particular passage of Scripture must surely do so with a great sense of fear and trembling. D. L. Moody once commented that any young preacher who runs to John 3:16 for his first sermon is a fool, for the preacher must be wary of delving into such rich truth hastily. The same can be said of Philippians 2:5-11.

As we have seen in our studies of Philippians, the apostle Paul was concerned about the unity of the church at Philippi. He obviously sensed that the church’s unity was in danger, and he desired to head it off at the pass. Though the problem had not yet grown out of hand, it was obvious that something needed to be done before things got worse.

At the same time, Paul was not interested in a false or a forced unity: his desire was a Christ-centred unity, one that was gospel driven. And a gospel-driven and thus Christ-centred unity would necessarily be one driven by humility, which is the theme of the second chapter of this epistle. As noted in our previous study, we might divide this chapter into four sections.

  1. The Exhortation/Mandate for Humility (vv. 1-4)
  2. The Example/Model of Humility (vv. 5-11)
  3. The Exercise/Manifestation of Humility (vv. 12-18)
  4. The Expansion/Ministry of Humility (vv. 19-30)

In this study, we will observe (and be awed by) the example, the model of humility: the Lord Jesus Christ. I trust that this consideration will help us to avoid some conflicts, to endure other conflicts, and to be united as the people of God.

From the outset I must say that I feel wholly unqualified to expound this text. The story is told that the first time John Knox was scheduled to preach, he was nowhere to be found when the time for preaching came. When certain men from the congregation went looking for him, they found him hiding, scared to death at the prospect of preaching God’s Word. I feel somewhat the same. This text ought to be expounded by one who has learned its lessons, and who models its injunctions, well, but I do not feel that that is true of me. Nevertheless, as a pastor of a local church, I have the responsibility to deal faithfully with the text of Scripture, and my prayer is that God would use this exposition to produce humility, not only in my life, but in the lives of all who read this.

The Supreme Humiliation

There can be no doubt that the humiliation of Christ was the supreme humiliation in history. There is no one and nothing that can claim to compare with the humiliation that He suffered. We can say three things about Christ’s humiliation.

A Deliberate Humiliation

First, we see that Christ deliberately humiliated Himself. “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” (vv. 5-7). His humble disposition was a matter of choice: He was under no obligation to do so. It was in His “mind” to allow Himself to be humbled as He was.

It is clear that Christ was under no obligation to humble Himself, because He was “in the form of God.” This phrase literally means that Christ was, in essence and nature, God. Martin Luther correctly commented, “To worship Jesus Christ is to worship God.” The two are one and the same.

Moreover, Christ “thought it not robbery to be equal to God.” The phrase “thought it not robbery” speaks of holding forcibly to something. Some newer translations of the Bible help us to understand what is being said here by translating the phrase in another way: “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (ESV). Homer Kent has commented on this phrase, “Christ already possessed equality with the Father and resolved not to cling to it.” And Sinclair Ferguson writes, “Jesus didn’t grasp or jealously guard his rights as the Son of God.”

There was no doubt that He was equal with the Father, but He did not count this right as something that He must hold onto. Instead, He “made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant.” We will consider this more in depth in our next point, but for now note that Christ (literally) “emptied Himself” and then “took upon him the form of a servant.” Whatever it means that He “emptied Himself” (see below) we see once again that it was a deliberate decision to lay aside something of what it meant to be God and instead to embrace servanthood.

In light of Christ’s deliberate humiliation, we must make the conscious choice to let go of our rights. We must humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord and before others. The King James Bible reads in v. 5, “Let this mind be in your, which was also in Christ Jesus.” I am of the opinion that some modern translations blur the emphasis of this. The ESV, for instance, reads, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” Notice the subtle shift in emphasis: this mind is yours in Christ Jesus (ESV) versus this mind was also in Christ Jesus (KJV). I believe that the King James has the best translation at this point: we are to have the mind of Christ; we are to humble ourselves because Christ did so.

Importantly, this teaches us that our disposition is a choice. When we are tempted to assert our rights, we can choose not to. We may, for example, be tempted to demand certain things from our spouse, which we believe to be our right, but we can—if we have the mind of Christ—choose not to grasp onto those rights, but to relinquish them for the good of another.

Significantly, Christ had the right—as equal with God—to refuse humiliation, yet He deliberately chose to be humiliated. We, on the other hand, as sinful human beings, have no right to cling jealously to our pride. If we understand something about ourselves, then humility ought really to be no problem. A young pastor once went to Martyn Lloyd-Jones, told him that he had just been ordained to the pastorate of a small parish, and asked, “Please pray that I would remain humble.” Lloyd-Jones considered the man for a few moments and then, with witty wisdom, said, “Pray for humility? What do you have to be proud about?” The truth is, we have nothing to be proud of. We are sinners, saved only by grace, and grace leaves no room for pride. Just as Christ made a deliberate choice to be humiliated, so we must deliberately choose every day to have the mind of Christ.

A Descending Humiliation

Second, Christ’s humiliation was descending in nature. There are several “steps” of humiliation defined in vv. 7-8, and each time we see Christ—by deliberate choice—going one step lower. He “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” (vv. 7-8).

The phrase “made himself of no reputation” literally means that Jesus “emptied Himself.” This has been a point of much discussion amongst theologians: what exactly does it mean that Christ emptied Himself? The technical theological term for this is the “kenosis” theory. I have attended many a ministry ordination in which the panel of interviewing pastors have asked the young man, “What does it mean in Philippians 2 that Christ ‘emptied Himself’?” I understand why the question is asked: it is a difficult term to understand, and the interviewing pastors—who don’t fully understand it themselves—are always hopeful that one of the young men being ordained to ministry will be able to explain it to them!

We have to admit that it is a difficult concept to grasp. What does it mean that Christ “emptied Himself”? It cannot mean that He laid aside His deity, for He was “in the form of God.” (The word “being” is in a tense which indicates that He was, is and always will be God.) It further cannot mean that He laid aside all His divine attributes, for He was clearly no mere man. Even in His humanity, He performed miracles, had supernatural knowledge (Matthew 12:25; Luke 6:8), and even claimed at times divine attributes like omnipresence (John 3:13). Clearly He still possessed His divine attributes, even though He at times seems to have laid them aside for particular moments. Nevertheless, He did in some way deliberately empty Himself. Consider some attempts to explain what it means that Christ “emptied Himself.”

  • Louw and Nida: “To completely remove elements of high status or rank by eliminating all privileges or prerogatives associated with such status or rank.”
  • Erdman: “He did not lay aside the divine attributes but [rather] the insignia of majesty. … He could never lay aside his divine nature but he could lay aside his glory.”

If you are familiar with the story of The Prince and the Pauper, you may understand something of what is meant here. In that story, the prince lays aside his royal robes and, though he is the prince throughout the story, he lives like a pauper. In the same way, though Jesus never ceased being God, He appeared to be a mere man.

Having emptied Himself, Jesus “took upon him the form of a servant.” You will remember that “the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister” (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45). His servanthood is perhaps best illustrated in His washing of the disciples’ feet at the last Passover meal, a task that was normally reserved for the lowest servant of the household (John 13). Clearly, His goal was to serve rather than to be served.

Importantly, Christ’s embracing of servanthood in no way implied an exchange. That is, He never became less God in order to become a servant. Instead, it implies an addition: He embraced servanthood in addition to His divinity. He “took upon him the form of a servant” not by subtraction of divine attributes but rather by assumption of human nature. Simply stated, He chose to step down, to lay aside the robes of glory and to take on the form of one who gives that robe to others.

It is an incredible thought to contemplate that the Creator of all things became a servant to His creation! Certainly that is humility that none of us can ever claim to have exercised!

Paul then adds that Jesus “was made in the likeness of men.” The word “likeness” here means “similitude.” It speaks of being outwardly but really like something else. Romans 8:3 speaks of “God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh.” This does not mean that Christ was sinful, only that He appeared in what looked like sinful flesh. Christ appeared outwardly just like any other man—fallen and affected by sin—and was subject to the same things as fallen man: bodily weakness, poverty, etc. The first Adam was created in paradise; the second Adam came to a world cursed by sin.

In similar terms, Paul goes on to state that Jesus was “found in fashion as a man.” The word “fashion” speaks again of the outward form of something. We have just been told that Christ “was made in the likeness of men,” but here we have a slightly different emphasis. Being “found in fashion as a man” means that other people saw Him as a mere man. Not everyone beheld His glory. The creation treated Him as a commoner and even His own family did not all (initially) believe Him (John 7:5), at one point even resigning themselves to the belief that He was insane (Mark 3:21). It is probably safe to say that most did not see Christ as anything special. Yes, He may have been seen as more moral than most men, but He was considered nevertheless to be merely a man.

We are told next that Jesus “humbled himself.” Literally, this means that He “laid Himself low.” Of course, we have read throughout this passage that Christ laid Himself low, and so we should understand here that He laid Himself even lower! Before the unappreciative generation amongst whom He lived—before Herod, before Pilate, before the mob, before the thieves—He humbled Himself even further! It was humility enough for Him not to jealously guard His right to divinity, but He did not stop there: He “humbled himself.”

The result of His humiliation is that he “became obedient.” The writer of Hebrews adds some astounding commentary to this: “Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). Quite how the Son of God learned obedience we may never understand, but obedience was clearly the result of His humiliation. God—the One to whom we owe our obedience—became obedient Himself! What humility!

We see this very early in Christ’s earthly life. At age 12, He remained in the temple—unbeknown to His parents—holding discussions with the theologians of the day. When Joseph and Mary eventually found Him, they rebuked Him for causing them such concern. His reply to them clearly displayed His priorities: “How is that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?” (Luke 2:49) But then we read a most incredible statement: “And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them” (v. 51). What an astounding thought: the Creator of all things subject to His creation; equal to God, yet submissive to sinful humanity! He was obedient to all the law—law which was intended for sinners! He was obedient in the face of temptation. When He replied to Satan in the wilderness, “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God” (Matthew 4:7), He seems to have intended a twofold meaning: first, that it was sinful for Satan to tempt Him since He was God; and second, that He Himself would not sin by tempting His Father. His obedience shone through in the face of temptation. And thus we see—in Christ—the Sovereign willingly in a position of submission.

But attention is drawn not only to the fact that He “became obedient” but that He “became obedient unto death.” Ralph Martin has shown the significance of this, “His obedience is a sure token of his deity and authority, for … only a divine being can accept death as obedience; for ordinary men it is a necessity.

Jesus claimed this unique authority on several occasions by making claims like, “Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father” (John 10:17-18). An ordinary man could not claim to ultimately lay down His life willingly: as Martin has indicated, “only a divine being can accept death as obedience.”

Jesus, of course, spoke much of His death during His ministry. His death—and the life that would result from it—was the commandment that He received from His Father:

For I have not spoken of myself; but the Father which sent me, he gave me a commandment, what I should say, and what I should speak. And I know that his commandment is life everlasting: whatsoever I speak therefore, even as the Father said unto me, so I speak.

(John 12:49-50)

At another time, He told His disciples that His love for them was manifest most clearly in His death: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). The apostle John picked up on this theme many years later: “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). The famed American general, George Paton, once quipped, “No war was ever won by men laying their own lives down for this country, but rather they are won by making the other die for his.” That may hold true in the military world, but in the kingdom of God the war was won—and could only be won—by a Man laying down His own life for those whom He had come to save.

But just as we might be tempted to think that Christ could go no lower, Paul adds: “even the death of the cross.” The Assyrians had invented a crude form of crucifixion centuries before Christ walked this earth, but their crude invention was perfected by the Romans. Death by Assyrian crucifixion was quick and (comparatively) painless, but Roman crucifixion could take days. (It is for this reason that the Roman soldiers were surprised that Jesus had died so quickly.) Crucifixion was the most ignoble, humiliating, degrading form of death known to mankind. It was reserved for the worst of criminals and, under Roman law, no Roman citizen could suffer death by crucifixion. Unlike the pictures that we often see of Christ on the cross, those crucified were nailed to the cross completely naked, their nakedness bearing witness to their shame. And, as if all that were not enough, crucifixion was a sign of God’s specific curse: “he that is hanged is accursed of God” (Deuteronomy 21:23; cf. Galatians 3:13). No wonder, then, that Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46) In fact, Paul tells us that on the cross Jesus became sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21). The worst sin you have ever committed, the worst sin you can possibly imagine: Christ became that sin as He hung on Calvary!

Are you beginning to have something of a concept of the humiliation that Christ suffered when He emptied Himself and became obedient to death on the cross? If so, how can you possibly struggle to, in lowliness of mind, esteem others better than yourself (v. 3)? Ought the communion table not to remind us of the terrible humiliation that Jesus suffered, and to instil in us a deep sense of humility? May this be our mindset—our deliberate mindset!

A Devoted Humiliation

Third, we must note that Christ’s humiliation was one of devotion. We are told in v. 11 that all of this—His eventual exaltation included—was done “to the glory of God the Father.” The primary thing that drove and sustained Him in His humiliation was not His love for humanity, but His devotion to the glory of His Father.

And so we must be driven! We have the highest motive and the greatest model to drive us and we therefore have no reason not to be entirely and unselfishly devoted to the glory of God.

The Super-Exaltation

But Christ’s humiliation would not (and did not) last forever. He was rewarded for His deliberate, descending, devoted humiliation; and His reward was the highest exaltation, which results in tremendous encouragement for us:

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.

(Philippians 2:9-11)

The phrase “hath highly exalted” means “to elevate to a surpassing position,” “to elevate beyond all others,” or “to give exceptional honour.” In a word, it means “super-exalted.” Jesus was also “given … a name which is above every name.” The “name” speaks of His character, position, place and nature. That name was not “Jesus,” for many have been called by the name Jesus. The name was not “Christ,” though He was unique in being the Christ. No, the name that He was given—above all other names—was “Lord.” John MacArthur tells us that Jesus is spoken of as “Lord” no fewer than 747 times in the New Testament. It speaks of His absolute sovereignty, which was His reward for His deliberate, descending and devoted humility.

We ought then to be encouraged: deliberate, descending, devoted humility will be rewarded. If we have the mind of Christ—if we follow Him in the humility that He exercised—we can expect to be ultimately rewarded. As the apostle Peter said, “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time” (1 Peter 5:6). Or to put it in James’ words: “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up” (James 4:10).

A Supplemental Application

I close this study with what I call a “supplemental application.” It is supplemental because, whilst it can certainly be gleaned from the overall context of the passage, it is not actually the application of the text. Nevertheless, it is an important principle for us to learn, and so I must deal with it here.

As we read this passage, we may be tempted to interpret vv. 10-11 as an eschatological passage. That is, we may be tempted to think that one day at the end of history all of humanity will eventually acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord. Whilst that is no doubt true, I am not sure that Paul intended these words to be interpreted eschatologically. Whilst it will be culminated at the judgement day, I suspect Paul means that through evangelism and missions obedience to the Great Commission, all men will bow to Christ as Lord. That is, even in our lifetime, God will make sure that the Lord Jesus Christ receives His due.

Paul began his challenge for humility with these words, “Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ: that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel” (1:27). He then moved in 2:1-4 to a plea for unity in the church, making it clear that unity can only be achieved through humility. We have seen in vv. 5-11 the Example of humility in Christ, which resulted in His super-exaltation. And Paul will add immediately on the heels of these verses:

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.

(Philippians 2:12-16)

If you follow the line of reasoning here an important principle stands out: Christ will receive exaltation if the church will embrace humility. The reason for this is obvious: humility results in unity, which results in more effective witness, which obviously results in Christ being exalted as people submit to the gospel. If we will take to heart Paul’s exhortation here, and esteem others better than ourselves, we will be used of God to bring the Lordship of Christ to bear on the lost. Knees will bow and tongues will confess if we will exercise, as local churches, humble unity for the glory of God.

We ought then to strive for humble unity in the church, for then Christ will be lifted up to the glory of God the Father. May we have this humility and unity, and thus may Christ be exalted in our lives, in our churches and in this world to the glory of God.