A Lifestyle of Humility

Lesson Focus:  This lesson is about humility. Jesus exemplified humility when He washed the disciples’ feet and Paul called us to live that same lifestyle of humility.

Humility Defined:  Philippians 2:1-4.

[1]  So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, [2]  complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. [3]  Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. [4]  Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.  [ESV]

[1]  Paul spells out the motivation for seeking unity in the church in the four clauses that begin with the word if. In this context, the word if points to realities or certainties, not possibilities or probabilities. In these four clauses Paul is reminding believers of four certainties they can be sure are true. These confident indicatives of reality are the basis for the urgent imperatives to build unity. All four clauses reassure believers that God is binding them together with cords of love. The first if-clause points to any encouragement in Christ. Christ is the source of encouragement. In the community encouragement from Christ flows from one member to another. Encouragement includes both exhortation and comfort. The second if-clause draws attention to any comfort from love. This love should be taken as an inclusive reference to the experience of love within the community empowered by Christ’s love. The love that believers are to share with one another is the love they receive from Christ. The third if-clause refers to any participation in the Spirit. The word translated participation is koinonia. Paul’s first reference to koinonia is to joyful thanksgiving for partnership in the gospel [1:5]. Partnership united Paul and the church in Philippi in the joint venture of proclaiming the gospel. In this partnership, the church in Philippi gave financially to support Paul’s mission [4:15-18]. Now Paul deepens the understanding of his partnership with the church by calling it a koinonia of the Spirit. Koinonia is not simply a business relationship depending on the willingness and ability of the business partners to fulfill the terms of a business contract. The koinonia of believers is more than partnership, it is communion or common sharing in the Spirit. Paul was aware that disunity in the church threatened his partnership. His joint venture with believers in the church in the mission of proclaiming the gospel would collapse if those believers were divided against each other. To strengthen the unity of the church, Paul draws on another meaning of koinonia, that of common ownership. In Paul’s world, the term koinonia referred not only to voluntary association for the purpose of a joint venture, a business partnership, but also to common possession as a result of inheritance. Common possession did not entitle each heir to only a piece of the property; each heir was part owner of the whole property. Believers in Christ are heirs to the Holy Spirit; they have common possession of the Holy Spirit. The phrase participation in the Spirit emphasizes the experience of the entire community rather than the individual experience of possessing the Spirit. What all believers have in common is their experience of sharing together in the gift of the Spirit. They all know that they worship by the Spirit of God [3:3]. The fourth if-clause leads the readers to consider any affection and sympathy. Paul used the term affection when he expressed how he longed for his friends with the affection of Christ Jesus [1:8]. Paul’s affection for his friends was really the expression of Christ’s life flowing in and through him. He calls on them to remember how their lives have been touched by the tenderness of Christ so that they will tenderly care for the interests of others [2:4]. To intensify their recollection of his tenderness Paul adds the synonym sympathy or compassion which refers to the display of concern over another’s misfortune.

[2]  Because friendships are fragile and even close friends are all too easily divided by pride, selfishness, and preoccupation with personal interests, Paul appeals to the Philippians to make his joy complete by being of the same mind. In this appeal he is voicing the heartfelt desire of a true, committed friend. He is not an aloof apostle, untouched by the painful divisions in the church. Disunity among his friends diminishes his joy. The unity of his friends with each other will complete his joy. Paul uses three phrases to explain what his friends need to do to complete his joy. The first one, translated by being of the same mind, speaks of the dominant attitude and settled disposition of the entire person. So when Paul calls his friends to have the same mind, he is not asking them to have the same thoughts or feelings about everything. Paul is not squelching human creativity, nor is he prohibiting personal diversity. He is calling his friends to seek the same goal with a like mind. He identifies the common goal of the community in the next phrases and illustrates the common goal by the supreme example of Christ in 2:5-8. The next phrase, having the same love, defines what being like-minded means. In this phrase Paul moves from his prayer that your love may abound more and more [1:9] to an imperative, to have the same love. His prayer expresses his dependence on God to work in the community so that love will increase. His imperative calls the community to the work of love. The work of the community is the love that Christ displayed by taking the form of a servant [2:7]. Only a common commitment of all to love as Christ loves will restore unity to the divided community. Having the same love for one another requires giving up selfish ambition to compete with each other and out-perform each other. Paul extends his line of requests for unity with one more phrase, being in full accord and of one mind. Full accord is a translation of two Greek words literally meaning “one soul.” The unity of believers empowers them to work together as one person. Of one mind is a translation of a Greek phrase that literally calls for believers in Christ to be those who are thinking one thing. Divisions can be overcome only by taking on a common yoke and pulling together in the same direction. When believers are preoccupied with their personal agenda, they will pull in different directions and split the church into separate interest groups. By focusing on their own egocentric priorities, they will be disunited. Only by setting their minds on one thing will they be united by one common subject. The entire letter to the Philippians asserts that Christ is the one common Subject that unites and binds believers together. When Christians declare that to live is Christ [1:21], confess that Jesus is Lord [2:11] and desire to know Christ above all other things [3:8-10], then they will be of one mind because they will all be worshipping and serving together the One whom God exalted to the highest place [2:9]. In other words, being like-minded and of one mind means more than simply being agreeable; it means agreeing that Jesus Christ is Lord and submitting to His Lordship.

[3-4]  Paul lists two negative attitudes to eliminate and one positive attitude to cultivate so that believers will be of one mind. Since Paul is focusing on the attitude of the mind [2:2,5] in the immediate context, the sense of his double negative is a prohibition against two attitudes, two egocentric ways of thinking. To be of one mind believers must stop setting their minds on their own ambitions and their own glory. As long as Christians have the attitude that what matters most is self-fulfillment and self-advancement, they will never experience the unity of one mind. Paul confronts the cause of disunity by exposing these divisive attitudes. Paul has already exposed the rivalry or selfish ambition that motivated some preachers [1:17]. Though they preached Christ, their ministry was self-seeking: they sought to puff up their own reputation and put down Paul while he was in prison [1:18]. Now Paul points to those who are dividing the church in Philippi and admonishes them to purge themselves of this toxic attitude. This attitude of rivalry or selfish ambition drives a person to a vain conceit. This describes those who are devoid of the inner reality of spiritual vitality to match their exaggerated self-evaluation of themselves. The conceited person constantly provokes and puts down others to gain the highest place. The empty glory gained by selfish ambition stands in absolute contrast to the glory given to God when Christ, who made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant [2:7], is exalted by God to the highest place to receive universal worship [2:9-11]. Selfish ambition and vain conceit seek to take the glory that belongs only to God. Paul then commends the attitude that builds unity: in humility count others more significant than yourselves. No doubt this commendation of humility baffled Paul’s first-century readers in Philippi. Hellenistic authors at this time viewed humility with contempt because it connoted lowliness, weakness, lack of freedom, servility, and subjection. Whereas the Greeks despised humility because they sought to elevate humanity to nobility far above lowliness and weakness caused by afflictions, Paul desired humility because he believed that God exalted Jesus to be the Lord above all humanity. Reared within Judaism, Paul knew from many biblical texts that God humbles the proud and exalts the humble. Paul saw the ultimate proof of the biblical teaching on humility in the narrative of Christ, who humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death [2:8]. The humility of Christ is not the same as the humility scorned by the Greeks. Humility as exhibited by Christ is not passive inability or pathetic servility. Christ chose His destiny, becoming one with humanity and humbling Himself to obey the will of God. In humility He expressed immense compassion for humanity by enduring suffering and death on a cross. Since Christ humbled Himself, followers of Christ seek to practice humility in their attitudes and actions to others. Paul explains to his readers that the way to practice humility is to count others more significant than yourselves. Instead of being preoccupied with introspective, self-absorbed, egocentric thoughts, the mind turns outward to regard the value of others. This direction of thinking is not obsessed with negative thoughts about oneself; it is freed from thinking about oneself to consider others. Because Christ was not captivated by egocentric thinking about His own equality with God, He emptied Himself, taking the nature of a servant. Christ thought not of Himself but of those He came to serve. To count others more significant than yourselves is to place the needs of others first on your personal agenda. Paul is not counseling his readers to beat themselves up or put themselves down. Instead, he is urging them to build up and lift up others. The focus is not negative, but positive. Let the needs and interests of others surpass yours: put them in first place; give them the place of honor; respect them; listen to them; speak about them; serve them; strengthen them; encourage them. Putting others instead of ourselves in the center of our concern will cause a radical Copernican revolution in the community. Paul clarifies how to value others above ourselves by explaining that this reorientation will be accomplished by not looking to your own interests only but also to the interests of others. Paul does not advocate total self-neglect, but a reprioritizing of life so that each one gives the largest share of attention to others.

Humility Taught: Luke 14:7-11.

[7]  Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, [8]  "When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him,

[9]  and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. [10]  But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. [11]  For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."

After instructing the Pharisees about the obligation to be compassionate on the Sabbath, Jesus turns to another problem: pride. His teaching results from watching the guests head for the seats of honor. As Jesus watches the guests rush to claim the honored seats, He notes what such behavior reveals about them. Jesus tells a parable in order to show how one approaches God, as well as the call to humility. Jesus’ exhortation is clear: at a wedding feast or major meal, do not go to the seat of honor – just in case a more eminent person has been invited. Evidently, it was easy to recognize an invited guest’s stature, and the ranking protocol in ancient society required giving this person the best seat. The guest would then have to take one of the last seats, since all the others would have been filled in the meantime. Prudence and wisdom suggest that one not be anxious to take the honored seat. Jesus describes the embarrassing reversal: a self-appointed place at the front produces shame, as the host intercedes for the more eminent guest and asks the presumptuous person to move to the least honorable seat. In front of everyone, the guest must get up and move to the remaining seat at the end of the table. The Greek is graphic depicting the shame felt with each very public step away from the center of action. In effect, Jesus tells them that it is better not to overestimate one’s importance, which can put one at risk of public disgrace. Jesus advises the opposite course of action: take the last seat, not the first. By taking the last station, the host’s reaction may be entirely different: he may ask the person to take a better seat, and in doing so, rather than being shamed, that person will be honored before all who sit at the table. The main point of the parable is that it is better for others to recognize who you are than to suggest to them your “proper” place. Humility is the best course in all affairs. Verse 11 shows this to be the point. The remark works in two spheres at once: personal relationships and one’s relationship with God. An explanation is not found by relegating the point to God’s requiring humility. Jesus’ concern is comprehensive: God’s view and that of others. For Jesus, the real issue is humility, which God honors with exaltation.

Humility Exemplified:  John 13:3-5,14-15.

[3]  Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, [4]  rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. [5]  Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

[14]  If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. [15]  For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.  [ESV]

[3-5]  Verse 1 taught that Jesus knew His time had come to leave the world and go to the Father. Verse 3 expands the idea by noting that He also knew He had come from God and was returning to God. The question as to when Jesus first realized His heavenly origin is impossible to answer. We know that at the age of twelve, when He lingered in the temple to question the religious teachers, He was aware that He was in His Father’s house [Luke 2:49]. As Jesus entered His public ministry, the devil attempted to sow the seeds of doubt by challenging, If you are the Son of God [Luke 4:3]. At that time Jesus knew full well that He had come from God. We can only conjecture what that knowledge of divine origin entailed. Undoubtedly it was far more than an undefined awareness of preincarnate existence, yet how specific it was is impossible to know. Jesus had experienced a veiling of certain divine attributes [see Mark 13:32]. The beauty of His earthly life stems from the fact that even though He was truly God, He lived among us as the perfect man. Knowing that He had come from God must, as the end approached, have increasingly heightened His longing to return to God, even though that return involved the shame and cruelty of a public execution. Since no two human beings have ever known the joys of a perfect father-son relationship, none of us can grasp fully the infinite beauty of that intimate association. Jesus had come from God; yet in one sense He had never left Him. Now He returns to God and at the same time never really leaves us. Such is the mystery of the divine presence. During the meal Jesus rose from the table and poured water into a basin. He then began to wash His disciples’ feet and dried them with a towel. Ancient roads were dusty, and the sandals people wore made foot washing a common courtesy. The task was normally performed by a servant but none were present in the upper room. Any one of the disciples would undoubtedly have been willing to wash Jesus’ feet, but to offer the same service to another disciple would have been an admission of inferiority. Meals were eaten at a low table, with guests in a semi-reclining position. It appears that Jesus removed not simply His outer garment, but stripped down to a loincloth – the garb of a servant. The towel Jesus used would be long enough to go around His waist, with enough left free to dry the disciples’ feet. Foot washing was normally performed by pouring water over the feet and catching the runoff in a basin. What a sense of mingled shame and embarrassment must have welled up within the hearts of the disciples as Jesus knelt before each one and carried out the humble task of a servant. They were too proud to serve one another, but they were hardly ready to be served in this way by their Master. The disciples’ pride kept them from entering into a genuine understanding of and appreciation for the remarkable event they were privileged to witness.

[14-15]  Since the Lord of the disciples had washed their feet, it was incumbent on them to extend the same humble service to one another. Jesus had set an example so that they would do as He had done for them. The question inevitably arises: Did Jesus intend that the church incorporate foot washing into its worship and ritual? At various times certain segments of the church have answered in the affirmative. Verse 15 does not say that the disciples should do what Jesus had done but as He had done. It is the spirit of the act that is to be followed. The example Jesus set reflects an all-inclusive attitude toward others. It should not be limited simply to the act of washing another person’s feet.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         What is Paul doing with the four “if” clauses in verse 1? How do these four clauses relate to the imperatives in verse 2?

2.         What three things does Paul instruct his readers to do in order to complete his joy? What does Paul mean by these three phrases?

3.         How would you define humility from verses 2:1-4? Why is humility essential for church unity?

4.         How does the parable in Luke 14:7-11 and Jesus’ actions in John 13:3-15 also show what true humility is?


Luke, Darrell Bock, ECNT, Baker Books.

Luke, Robert Stein, NAC, Broadman.

John, Andreas Kostenberger, ECNT, Baker Academic.

John, Robert H. Mounce, EBC, Zondervan.

The Letter to the Philippians, G. Walter Hansen, Eerdmans.

Philippians, Moises Silva, ECNT, Baker Academic.

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