Disunited soldiers cannot win a war. Lack of focus on a goal grand enough and glorious enough to set aside personal agendas and preferences will decimate any army. How much truer is this of the Lord’s army in fulfilling the Great Commission! In order to obey the apostolic command to “stand firm in one spirit” (Phil. 1:27b) that the gospel and the whole counsel of God might advance, God’s people must be unified in truth.
Last week, the focus of our study was on the incentives (2:1) and elements (v. 2) of Christian unity. This week, we explored the means to Christian unity: humility expressed in helpfulness. Steadfastness is impossible without unity; unity is impossible without humility!
A. Humility (v. 3)
In both verses, Paul uses two “not…but” statements to paint a vivid portrait of what humble helpfulness isn’t and is. In this way, it echoes his frequent put off/put on statements in that the first half is something we are to reject and the second is, by God’s enabling, something we are to embrace.
It is most instructive to see with what Paul contrasts humility: “selfishness and empty conceit.”
“Selfishness” is the same word translated “selfish ambition” in verse 17. In both cases, it refers to someone who possesses a zealous lust for prominence and recognition. One commentator writes that it is “an inordinate self-love, prompting one, for the sake of personal gratification or advantage, to disregard the rights or feelings of other men.” Further, it carries the idea of divisive factiousness, in that people motivated by a selfish propensity of clinging to their opinions and rights have split the church s, into smaller factions, each rallying around their self-focused agenda.
“Empty conceit” amplifies the first word, carrying the idea that the self-glorification sought after by the selfish (whether their image, their rights, their agenda, their expectations, or whatever else) is vain, and not rooted in reality. Selfishness, of course, is ultimately an illegitimate and overinflated view of self that is unwarranted, at least because of our reality in the light of a holy God! So empty conceit underscores the foolishness of pursuing inordinate self-glorification. The glory so sought after is ultimately hollow, corruptible, and valueless. It is simply not real!
These ugly vices are contrasted with the grace of “humility of mind.” The added phrase “of mind” is key, because this humility begins as a mindset or attitude. The Greek word carries the idea of lowliness, and in extrabiblical literature it was always connected with the menial, degrading position of a slave or else was weak or stupid. It was abhorred in Greek culture. The New Testament took that word and infused it with biblical meaning, conveying the chastened, no-confidence-in-the-flesh, fear-of-God estimation of self and one’s rights and circumstances the Bible everywhere enjoins us to.
Lowliness of mind is not preoccupied with what one is owed, what one demands, or with one’s own interests. Instead, it looks beyond itself to others and invests in them. Moreover, biblical humility is inexorably connected to one’s vision of God—this is not mere thinking about other people, giving old people rides to the store, and opening doors for others. This attitude about yourself and others is built upon the shattering of your self-righteousness and any high view of yourself by seeing the blaze of God’s glory. You see your sinfulness and your need, and your view of yourself is radically and forever altered. Out of that, you no longer are preoccupied with your own way, but seek to exalt others and serve them.
Paul elaborates on this lowliness by saying it regards others as more important than self. “Regard” is to esteem, reckon, or count something as true, It implies an intellectual process leading to a certain conclusion. And isn’t it the very essence of pride to think of self and its plans/desires/wants/intentions/ideas as far more important than anyone else? If you count others more important than yourself, you will not demand your rights, recognition, own way, or a thousand other things. You will not fly into a smothering rage of bitterness when you feel slighted. That isn’t to say you don’t confront people when you are mistreated, but it does men your whole attitude and motivation for it has changed.
But humility is not merely an attitude; it captures the affections and will in self-expression. We turn now to the chief way it does so.
B. Helpfulness (v. 4)
Helpfulness is simply another “h” word for service! Truly humble people do not demand to be served, but are eager to serve. Rather than looking for ways for their own needs and desires to be met, and getting upset when they aren’t, the humble are willing to set aside their own desires and seek to meet the needs and wants of other people.
The way these things are connected to humility is very clear in the Greek text. Both “do not look out” in verse 4 and “regard” in verse 3 are participles. This means they explain how humility of mind is to be expressed.
We are told to not look out for our own interests but for the interests of others. Of course, this does not condemn all self-interest everywhere en toto. Rather, it is condemning the preoccupation with self-interest to the utter (or meager) exclusion of the interests of other people. This is key. A humble mind is not utterly wrapped up in itself and its desires. It is not turned in on itself. It is rather bent outward, arms open, eager to listen and learn about others and serve them (whether the servants gets anything out of it or not). The humble person is so consumed with the vision of God which has humbled them that they are willing to forego their desires and spend their energy on meeting the needs of others. When you realize our nature is to be overwhelmingly self-focused and preoccupied, this is nothing short of a miracle!
Now: We have talked so much about how humility expresses itself and that its fundamental nature is a lack of self-focus—but what makes this Christian humility? Aren’t their unsaved people who are unusually interested in serving others? What makes this Christian, first of all, is that it is rooted in a God-centered understanding of God and self. It is not moralism or “the right thing to do” divorced from a biblical worldview and right vision of God. Second, it is consistent. This means it is not done only when it is convenient, or for ulterior motives (such as feeling good about oneself or to advance one’s own agenda), but out of a self-crucifixion of one’s own way, borne of a fresh filling of the Spirit and humbling view of God, out of mind-renewing meditation on the cross of Christ. This is what makes humility truly biblical and truly God-honoring.
Selfish people demand their own way. Humble people are willing to stay in the background and lift others up. God is glorified thereby. Which one are you? (One useful tool to help you examine yourself, can be found here.)
Only the truly humble can unite to advance the glory of God in the world, because only humble people are consumed with His glory and not their own way. May he baptize us with fresh humility, that we would advance together the purposes of our glorious God!