The Expression of Humility (Philippians 2:19-30)

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We have learned in our studies in Philippians that proper, biblical humility begins as an attitude and is expressed in action. That is, it is not passive. Though humility is self-disinterested, and though it does not desire to draw attention to itself, it cannot help but be displayed. Humility in our world is like a diamond on black velvet. Paul said just a few verses earlier that we “shine as lights in the world” (v. 15). In the context, he is speaking of shining as lights against the arrogant, prideful backdrop of the world. And thus, though the last thing we want to do when exercising humility is draw attention to ourselves, we cannot help but stand out when we are truly humble.

Is it not interesting that we often refer to truly humble saints as “great” Christians? They are “great” because their lives express the humble character of the Lord Jesus Christ. Of course, they don’t see themselves as great, but we do. I remember introducing a preacher to the pulpit of a church, saying some nice things in my introduction. After the service, I said to him, “Sorry about that introduction. I think I went a little overboard. I imagine that you do not like me saying things like that about you?” He replied, “I hate it … because I like it so much.” He understood the sinfulness of the flesh. That is humility.

Though our goal is not to make ourselves of any reputation, we cannot avoid being visible expressions of humility if we follow this inspired chapter. We have examined thus far the exhortation to humility (vv. 1-4), the example of humility (vv. 5-11) and the exercise of humility (vv. 12-18); now we turn our attention to the expression of humility (vv. 19-30).

Anyone who obeys the words of this chapter will most certainly express humility in their lives. They will emulate the humility of Christ, and serious believers will no doubt look to such people as examples to emulate. So it was with Paul, Timothy and Epaphroditus. These three men were wonderful expressions of humility, whom we would do well to emulate. Their testimony was a practical expression of humility.

The verses under consideration in this study give three expressions of humility: Paul, Timothy and Epaphroditus. Paul, it would appear, intended to give two expressions of humility, but he inadvertently presented himself as a third. F. F. Bruce explains:

Paul did not set out deliberately to present three examples of the same self-renouncing attitude “as that of Christ Jesus” (v. 5). But in fact this is what he has done. His own readiness to have his martyrdom credited to the spiritual account of his Philippian friends, Timothy’s unselfish service to Paul and genuine concern for other Christians, Epaphroditus’s devotion to his mission at great risk to his health and (as it might have been) to his life—all these display the unselfconscious care for others enjoined at the beginning of this chapter and reinforced by the powerful example of Christ’s self-emptying.

In this study, we will look at Paul as an expression of humility. We will see at least six reasons why the apostle is an expression of humility to imitate. May we emulate him in our own lives. May our lives be an expression of the humility of Christ to the honour and glory of our God.

Paul was deeply dependent on the Lord

Paul clearly emulated the example of Christ. He practiced what he preached; he expressed the humility that he expounded. The first way in which he did so was in his dependence upon the Lord. This is clear from vv. 19, 24: “But I trust in the Lord Jesus to send Timotheus shortly unto you, that I also may be of good comfort, when I know your state … But I trust in the Lord that I also myself shall come shortly.”

As we have seen in previous studies, Paul was fairly confident that he would be released from prison. He was not absolutely certain of this, but he did suspect that this would be the case. In the event that his release did not take place, he was trusting in the Lord to send Timothy (“Timotheus”) to minister to them.

Let us remember that Paul was imprisoned under the Roman emperor Nero. Humanly speaking, it was Nero’s call whether he would live or die. And yet he makes absolutely no mention of Nero: “I trust in the Lord Jesus.” This is significant based on the preceding verses. He has just written of some of the highest doctrine in all Scripture: Christ becoming a man, humbling Himself to death, and thus being exalted to Lord of all. It is a glorious section of Scripture, the depths of which we can never plumb. But now, in vv. 19-30 Paul turns his attention to the comparatively mundane, speaking of his anticipated release from prison and the ministers whom he would send to Philippi. But he has not forgotten what he has written in vv. 5-11, and now he puts it into practice, so to speak. He now highlights the fact that Jesus Christ, the one to whom every knee will bow, and whom every tongue will confess as Lord, controls his fate. It is up to the exalted Lord Jesus Christ whether or not he will be released from prison, and whether or not Timothy will be able to make the journey to Philippi. As Bruce has noted, “The Lord Jesus constitutes the sphere in which Paul and his colleagues act and think.”

The high doctrine of Christ is to be worked out in our daily living. When we are incarcerated by problems, surrounded by difficulties, we don’t want to forget vv. 5-11. Instead, we want to bring those truths to bear in our mundane existence, realising that He controls our circumstances.

It is easy for us to forget about God in the midst of the daily grind of the world. We know that He exists, and we know who He is, but we often battle to bring His Lordship to bear in our daily lives. But if Paul could bring the Lordship of Christ to bear on his life in prison, surely we can bring that Lordship to bear in our daily circumstances.

The root of humility is submission to the sovereignty of God. One of our missionaries was recently scheduled to come home on furlough. About a year before that, the family’s visas were soon to expire, and he went through the right channels to get them renewed. As the time for their furlough drew near, the matter became rather urgent, for he needed to acquire an exit permit in order to return to South Africa. He travelled from city to city to meet with government officials. At one point, he had to borrow money from another missionary for a plane ticket, because he had used all the money he had already. On a few occasions, I called him to see how he was doing, and he had no idea where he would spend the night, or when he would return home to his family. At the time of writing, he has had to postpone his plane tickets three times, and he still has no idea when the exit permits will be granted.

What struck me about the situation is that every time I spoke to him, I never detected any panic in his voice. He always seemed calm, utterly satisfied in the sovereignty of God. I have lost sleep over the situation, but he has not! I spoke to his mother-in-law, who had called her daughter to see how she was doing. She told her mother that they had been going at that time through the book of Job in their family devotions, which had helped them to rest the matter entirely in the hands of their sovereign God.

Such an attitude is a clear expression of humility, for those who are truly humble are, like Paul, deeply dependent upon the Lord.

Paul was deeply interested in the welfare of others

As Paul sat in prison, I am sure the temptation was very real for him to think only about his own needs, his own difficult situation. He was in prison 24 hours a day, with no freedom to perform the gospel ministry that was his passion. And yet, in the midst of his dreadful incarceration, he is deeply concerned about the welfare of the Philippians. Therefore, he writes:

But I trust in the Lord Jesus to send Timotheus shortly unto you, that I also may be of good comfort, when I know your state. For I have no man likeminded, who will naturally care for your state … Him therefore I hope to send presently, so soon as I shall see how it will go with me. But I trust in the Lord that I also myself shall come shortly.

(Philippians 2:19-20, 23-24)

So concerned was he about the Philippians that he was willing to send them his right hand man. To Paul, there was no one better to send to them than Timothy. Timothy was obviously concerned for the Philippians, and cared a great deal for them. Paul’s own spiritual welfare depended heavily on the spiritual condition of others, and thus he was willing to send to these believers a man who was a great help to him personally. “The spiritual advancement of the church,” writes Homer Kent, “was always uppermost in Paul’s mind.”

Paul expressed a similar interest in the welfare of the Thessalonian church: “Therefore, brethren, we were comforted over you in all our affliction and distress by your faith: For now we live, if ye stand fast in the Lord. For what thanks can we render to God again for you, for all the joy wherewith we joy for your sakes before our God; Night and day praying exceedingly that we might see your face, and might perfect that which is lacking in your faith?” (1 Thessalonians 3:7-10). Paul was able to stand fast himself when he heard that other believers were standing fast in the faith.

Had Paul been concerned only with his own spiritual advancement, he surely would have kept Timothy and Epaphroditus close by his side. They were a great help to him, and doubtless encouraged him tremendously in the Lord. But his primary concern was the Philippians, and thus he was willing to send those who were of help to him so that they could be of help to others. It bothered him when his spiritual children were not doing well, and it encouraged him when they were.

Do we display a similar concern for others? Are we interested only in our own spiritual welfare, or do we concern ourselves with the welfare of others in the church? Do we ask how others are doing? Do we reach out to them in order to aid them in their walk with the Lord? I often think that if I die young it will be of a broken heart. I am confident to assert that the vast majority of our church is doing well, but I must be frank and admit that it bothers me when not everyone in the church is doing well. We should be like Paul: concerned about those who are straying and are not doing as well as they ought to be doing. The apostle Paul is a great example for us.

Those who are truly humble love the church. They love it because “Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it” (Ephesians 5:25). In His humility Christ loved the church; thus, if we are biblically humble, we too will love what Christ loved. We should thank God when love is evident in the local church, for that is a sure sign of a truly humble assembly.

Paul was willing to be inconvenienced for the sake of others

We have already touched briefly on this point, but we now consider the fact that Paul was willing to be inconvenienced for the welfare of the Philippians. We see this in the fact that he was willing to send both Timothy and Epaphroditus to Philippi:

But I trust in the Lord Jesus to send Timotheus shortly unto you, that I also may be of good comfort, when I know your state … Yet I supposed it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother, and companion in labour, and fellowsoldier, but your messenger, and he that ministered to my wants. For he longed after you all, and was full of heaviness, because that ye had heard that he had been sick. For indeed he was sick nigh unto death: but God had mercy on him; and not on him only, but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. I sent him therefore the more carefully, that, when ye see him again, ye may rejoice, and that I may be the less sorrowful.

(Philippians 2:19, 25-28)

Paul was willing to send Timothy to Philippi “shortly.” He was not quite ready to do so immediately, for he obviously needed Timothy at that moment. But the time would soon come that he would send to them the man who was such a great help to him.

Paul adds that he had sent Epaphroditus back to them. Again, Epaphroditus was a man who had helped Paul greatly in his life and ministry: he was Paul’s “brother, and companion in labour, and fellowsoldier.” In 4:18, we learn that Epaphroditus had been sent to Paul by the Philippians to take a love gift to the apostle. He was thus a member of their church, who had been sent on something of a short term missionary ministry. Now, Paul writes to the Philippians and says, in essence, “You need Epaphroditus more than I do.” It was not that Paul didn’t need him, but the Philippians needed him more. And thus Paul was willing to be inconvenienced for the sake of his brethren in Philippi.

Charles Erdman has stated it well: “There is a certain sublimity of unselfishness in the case of one who finds relief in a personal loss by which others are to gain.” Paul was indeed willing to find relief in a personal loss so that others might gain. And all those who express true, biblical humility will be willing to be inconvenienced in order to minister to others, even though it may cost them in some way.

Paul was happy to commend others as better than himself

Paul began the chapter by urging his readers, “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves” (v. 3). Now he practices what he had preached by a willingness to commend others as better than himself. Of Timothy, he writes: “For I have no man likeminded, who will naturally care for your state. For all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s. But ye know the proof of him, that, as a son with the father, he hath served with me in the gospel” (vv. 20-22). And of Epaphroditus he adds: “Yet I supposed it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother, and companion in labour, and fellowsoldier, but your messenger, and he that ministered to my wants … Because for the work of Christ he was nigh unto death, not regarding his life, to supply your lack of service toward me” (vv. 25, 30).

The word “likeminded” in v. 20 literally means “of equal soul.” Timothy had been with Paul for about ten years at the time of writing. The two had first met in Acts 16, and Timothy had at that point joined the apostle in his missionary journeys. Paul refers to Timothy as his “son,” but this does not mean that the young man was converted under his ministry. In fact, from Acts 16 and 2 Timothy 1:5, it is quite clear that Timothy was not saved under Paul’s ministry, but under the ministry of his mother and grandmother. Nevertheless, it was Paul who took Timothy under his wings and discipled him.

Paul now commends Timothy to the Philippians. No doubt, they desired to have Paul in their midst, but he now exhorts them that they actually don’t need him. In a sense, he is saying that Timothy is even better equipped than he is to minister to the saints in Philippi.

Again, in v. 25 he highly commends Epaphroditus. As noted above, Timothy would come to them “shortly,” but because Paul was unable to send Timothy immediately, he would send another beloved brother instead. Note that Paul is not concerned that the Philippians would enjoy Epaphroditus’ ministry more than his own. It mattered very little to him who they “preferred”; in fact, he again commends Epaphroditus as even more beneficial to them than himself. The apostle tells his readers to “hold [Epaphroditus] in reputation” (v. 29). In other words, “There is no honour to great for this man. He has ministered to my needs, even when he sick to the point of death. God kept him alive for my sake, and now I am sending him back to you.”

Thus, although Paul was a model to be emulated himself, he did not commend himself to his readers. Instead, he commended others as better than himself. Sinclair Ferguson stated it this way: “Paul’s words are a beautiful reminder of the gratitude and admiration that we should have for the graces and gifts of the Spirit in the lives of fellow Christians.” He was secure enough in his relationship with Christ that he did not fear that the Philippians might love Timothy and Epaphroditus more than they loved him.

If we are growing in humility, it will be manifest by our willingness to recognise the blessings of the lives of others to our congregation; the blessing that they are to us. For example, I may sit in the congregation and listen to our men’s choir sing a special music item. Having listened, I can either get jealous that I can’t sing like they can, or I can thank God that He has blessed the church with such gifted men. And not only should I thank God for those men, but I ought to thank them for exercising their gift.

Ingratitude can sour a church, and when God uses someone in your life, it is a healthy thing to thank that person for being a blessing to you. Don Carson has noted that we who call ourselves Calvinists can become so solemn that we become more “spiritual” than God. The Holy Spirit inspired Paul to thank God for those who were a blessing to him, and therefore there is nothing unspiritual about us expressing gratitude to God and to others. Paul was unafraid to speak well of Timothy and Epaphroditus and to commend them to the Philippians; we need to do the same.

We must be willing to recognise when others have gifts that we lack. Martyn Lloyd-Jones at one time pastored a Calvinistic Methodist church in Wales, where God used him in a great way for several years. One day, several years into his ministry, he was preaching and saw G. Campbell Morgan—considered to be “the prince of the expositors” in the early 1900s—sitting in the congregation. Morgan approaches Lloyd-Jones about joining his ministry at the Westminster Chapel. Lloyd-Jones accepted and the two men began to work together at that church. For about three or four years, the two men shared the pulpit, but eventually Morgan came to recognise the gifts of his fellow pastor and stepped aside from the ministry completely. The church went from strength to strength, so much so that around 3,000 people gathered weekly on a Friday night to listen to Lloyd-Jones preach through the book of Romans. To me, that incident has always commended the humble character of G. Campbell Morgan, who was willing to commend others better than himself, and to step aside in order to allow God’s work to progress more powerfully.

Paul put others in the best light possible

As noted above, Epaphroditus was a member of the Philippian church, who had been sent by the brethren to minister to Paul. Now, Paul was preparing to send him back to Philippi, and wrote to explain the situation to the saints there.

Yet I supposed it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother, and companion in labour, and fellowsoldier, but your messenger, and he that ministered to my wants. For he longed after you all, and was full of heaviness, because that ye had heard that he had been sick. For indeed he was sick nigh unto death: but God had mercy on him; and not on him only, but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. I sent him therefore the more carefully, that, when ye see him again, ye may rejoice, and that I may be the less sorrowful. Receive him therefore in the Lord with all gladness; and hold such in reputation: Because for the work of Christ he was nigh unto death, not regarding his life, to supply your lack of service toward me.

(Philippians 2:25-30)

It seems to me that Paul wrote these words to the Philippian saints in order to prevent a possible misunderstanding from arising. He feared, it would appear, that the Philippians might be tempted to accuse Epaphroditus of abandoning Paul and thus the ministry he had been sent to perform. The Philippians had heard of his grave illness, and perhaps they might think that he had decided it was safer to be at home than in Rome and sick to the point of death. Thus, Paul wrote to assure them that it was his decision to send Epaphroditus back to Philippi; Epaphroditus had not chosen to do so himself. Thus, as Ferguson has said, Paul “shows a wonderfully sensitive concern that his friend should not be subject to misunderstanding and criticism.” Or, in the words of Ralph Martin, “Paul is assuming full responsibility for Epaphroditus’ return home. They must see this as a providential ordering of the situation and a divine overruling of their plan.” He was sure to paint his friend in the best possible light.

If we have biblical humility, then we will look for the best in others, and paint them in the best light possible. How often are we tempted to say things like, “Well, I know that she did a really good thing, but …” We acknowledge the necessary compliment, but then we undermine it with a slant toward finding fault. Paul would not do that. He was by no means dishonest, but he sought the best in others.

If we will express humility, we must give people the benefit of the doubt. We must defend the integrity of others, in the same way that Paul did for Epaphroditus.

Paul was transparent about his own needs

The apostle Paul valued fellowship, and he was not ashamed to admit it. “But ye know the proof of him, that, as a son with the father, he hath served with me in the gospel … Yet I supposed it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother, and companion in labour, and fellowsoldier, but your messenger, and he that ministered to my wants … Because for the work of Christ he was nigh unto death, not regarding his life, to supply your lack of service toward me” (vv. 22, 25, 30).

Paul is transparent here about his own need for comfort and fellowship. He admits that if God had taken Epaphroditus’ life it would have been a tough pill to swallow. He confesses that he wants to send Timothy in order that he might be comforted by his report back. The apostle was not such a great Christian because he was a loner; he was transparent enough to admit that he needed fellow believers in Christ.

Paul expressed a similar need in his letter to the Roman believers: “For I long to see you, that I may impart unto you some spiritual gift, to the end ye may be established; That is, that I may be comforted together with you by the mutual faith both of you and me” (Romans 1:11-12). Notice that Paul wanted to minister to the believers in Rome, but he also wanted to be comforted by their fellowship and ministry.

Those who are truly humble are also transparent; they admit that they need the help of the church. That is why he was willing to express gratitude to people. If anyone deserved a missionary love gift it was Paul. But he did not take the Philippians’ gift for granted; he profusely expressed his gratitude to them for their gift to him. The apostle admitted later that he had learned to be content in all situations (4:11). He did not stoically declare that he had never been discontent; he admitted that he had needed to learn contentment. Most would agree that Paul was probably the greatest Christian who ever lived, and he was also one of the most transparent.

If we exhibit biblical humility we will be transparent. We will not be ashamed to admit that we need the prayers of others. We will not be embarrassed about weeping before others and pleading for their help. Like Paul, we will be transparent concerning our needs.

We should note in closing that Paul’s transparency was a great encouragement to others. Doubtless, the Philippians were encouraged. If Paul had to learn contentment, then it was understandable that they also needed to learn it. If Paul needed the fellowship of others, they could feel secure in their own need of fellowship. Humility is always a blessing, both to God and to His church.

May we indeed listen to the exhortation to humility. May we follow the example of humility in the Lord Jesus Christ. May we exercise humility, and then express it for the glory of God and the good of the Body of Christ.