Week of May 24, 2020

The Point:  Humbly place the needs of others before your own.

Christ’s Example of Humility:  Philippians 2:1-15.

[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. [5] Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, [6] who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, [7] but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. [8] And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. [9] Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, [10] so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, [11] and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. [12] Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, [13] for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. [14] Do all things without grumbling or questioning, [15] that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.  [ESV]

“Secrets of Unity [2:1-4]. Unity in our fellowships is essential to our witness. There are several reasons for that. One is that the gospel is a message of reconciliation and peace with God. How can non-Christians be convinced that Christ reconciles us to God if we are not reconciled to each other? Another is that disunity always has the effect of turning a Christian fellowship in on itself, wasting energy on itself. Now Paul turns the spotlight even more directly on the fellowship at Philippi. In the gentlest possible way he hints that he knows that there are frictions and tensions among them. In these opening verses of chapter two he shows us how unity is based on humility [1-4], then in the famous section that follows he sets before us a magnificent portrait of Christ as the source and model of true humility [5-11]. When we see failures in a Christian or a fellowship our natural tendency is either to be critical or simply to demand improvement. Paul’s response is wiser and deeper. He recognizes that only through grace are we able to change and develop a pattern of transformed attitudes and actions. So he constantly appeals to the privileges of grace before urging us to the obedience of faith. Paul’s ‘Ifs”. Verse one contains four ‘ifs’. His logic is as follows: because these Christians have experienced so much blessing, they ought to exhibit the effects of grace in their lives. But what are these blessings to which Paul appeals? (1) Being united with Christ. To be in Christ is to share in all of the blessings he has gained for us. It means to have been chosen in Christ before time began [Eph. 1:3-4]; to have died to the reign of sin and to be raised into a new life of consecration [Rom. 6:2-4,6-7]. It means sharing in a new creation altogether in which all things become new [2 Cor. 5:17]. (2) Comfort from his love. Had they not felt the grip of Jesus’ love for them. He had died for them! Did they not experience what Paul did? (3) Fellowship with the Spirit. We are bound to Christ through the gift of the Spirit. The Spirit who dwelt on our Lord also dwells in our hearts. The same Spirit dwells in all of our fellow-believers! We are one with them in the fellowship of the Spirit. (4) Tenderness and compassion. This reminds us that Jesus is ‘gentle and humble’ [Matt. 11:29]; he possesses ‘meekness and gentleness’ [2 Cor. 10:1]. If we belong to his family it follows that these will be the family characteristics produced in us. Paul’s ‘Thens’. Such privileges bring responsibilities. If these things are true, then certain implications follow. If we have received all these blessings in Christ and from Christ, then we are responsible to live to Christ and for Christ. (1) The joy of others. Paul exhorts them on one mind, one love, one spirit, one purpose. That alone is consistent with their new life in Christ. But it will also bring joy to Paul himself [2]. Which is more important – your self-indulgence, or giving me – who brought the gospel to you – the joy of seeing you live mature and gracious Christian lives? Here, then, is one (but not the only) test for our motives and actions. Will this bring joy to those who care for me spiritually? (2) Unity with others. Paul also summons them to be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind [2]. To live in the truth means more than having our theology right. It means embodying its implications in lives of graciousness and humility. (3) The value of others. Here is the secret of a genuinely united Christian fellowship: its members count each other more important than themselves [3]. Paul is telling us that we should count each member of our fellowship more important than ourselves. Notice the alternative. It is not merely being a mediocre Christian. It is selfish ambition or conceit. The alternative to valuing others for Christ’s sake is to become spiritually disfigured ourselves. How sad if we should claim to have received all these privileges – united with Christ, the incentive of love, fellowship with the Spirit, tenderness and compassion – and yet bear none of their fruits!

The Attitude of Christ [2:5-8]. These verses constitute one of the great New Testament passages on the person and work of Christ. In a piece of magnificent exposition Paul expounds the humility and the exaltation of the Son of God. Paul is urging us to live out our fellowship with our humble Savior in practical ways in our lives. To be proud is to act out of character for those who are Christ’s. To be humble-minded is to be our truest selves in him. Here again Paul points us to the basic framework for Christian living. Over and over again in his letters he employs a basic formula which he fleshes out in many different ways: we are in Christ; we are, therefore, to become more and more like Christ. The imitation of Christ is not an activity we engage in out of our own resources, but depending on the graces of Christ himself. The greatness of our Lord’s self-humbling is measured by how low he was prepared to stoop from the great heights which were his natural and rightful environment. Christ possessed equality with God. The Son was willing to come to our fallen, helpless world on our behalf. He was under no obligation to do so. Yet Jesus emptied himself. Paul explains that his words mean that Jesus took the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men [7]. Lord of glory though he was, he emptied himself not by subtraction of his divine attributes but by the assumption of human nature. Then there took place a second stage in this amazing humbling: as the servant of God he became obedient to his Father, even to the extent of dying on a cross in naked shame as a condemned criminal. Several expressions Paul uses help to illuminate the wonder of Christ’s grace. (1) Though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped [6] reminds us of Adam’s failure. He was created as the image and likeness of God [Gen. 1:26]. But he grasped after equality with God [Gen. 3:5]. By contrast, Jesus, whose right equality with God always was, did not refuse to become obedient [8]. (2) The Son emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant [7]. He did what Adam refused to do: serve God. (3) The incarnate Son became obedient to the point of death [8]. In Romans 5:12-21 Paul gives us an exposition of these words by means of an extended comparison between Jesus and Adam. Adam’s disobedience brought sin and death into the world; by contrast, Jesus’ obedience brings righteousness and life into it. So a twofold contrast lies hidden in Paul’s description of Jesus’ self-humbling. The contrast between who he is by nature and the identity he has taken on by grace; the contrast between what the Last Adam became and what the First Adam had been. We have seen that these verses illustrate a great principle of Pauline theology: union with Christ should lead to the imitation of Christ. Consider what Christ-like humility means: not standing on our so-called rights, but being willing to give them up for the sake of others.

Name Above Every Name [2:9-11]. Paul moves from his description of the humbling of the Son of God – making himself nothing, taking the nature of a servant, becoming obedient to death – to a magnificent description of Jesus’ exaltation. What is the name that is above every name? Since Paul goes on to speak about the whole creation bowing before Jesus as Lord, it is usually argued that it is this name that Paul has in view. But if may be closer to the truth to suggest that Paul is thinking of the meaning of Jesus’ name ‘Savior’, combined with the title ‘Lord’. For lying behind these verses we can detect the shadow of Isaiah’s prophecy in 45:15,18,21,23. Paul is saying that Jesus has been publicly exalted to the position which was his before his humiliation. In the flesh through which he identified himself with us, his glory and majesty were normally hidden [Isa. 45:15]. Now, exalted at the right hand of the Father, his true identity is clear, his eternal majesty is revealed. God is the only Savior; but Jesus is that Savior! To the Lord alone every knee should bow … and every tongue confess; but Jesus is that Lord! Christ’s Deity. There are few more impressive expositions of Jesus’ identity than Paul gives us in these three verses. (1) He employs an Old Testament passage in which God as speaker gives a description of himself which applies exclusively to himself. Paul now applies that description to Jesus. (2) He calls Jesus Lord. The Greek word is Kurios. It appears over six thousand times in the Greek translation of the Old Testament which Paul used. In the vast majority of these references the word translates the sacred Hebrew divine name Yahweh. For Paul, to say that Jesus Christ is Lord is not primarily to make a statement about his personal consecration, but about his Savior’s divine identity. (3) Paul says that the exaltation of Jesus to heaven’s highest place is to the glory of God the Father [11]. In other words, Jesus’ exaltation, and our recognition of it please God. The Lord who brooks no rivals to his divine throne rejoices in the divine glory of Christ. Why? Paul has already given us the answer: our Lord ‘was in very nature God’; equality with God is his eternal right. We could not ask for a clearer or richer statement of the deity of Christ. But there is another penetrating implication of this teaching. If the Father exalts Jesus to the highest place, he will find any lesser honor being accorded to his Son to be intolerable. Here, then, is one way in which we can recognize those whose hearts are really in tune with God’s: what do they make of Jesus? If we do not desire to see him honored then we are at odds with the Father; the reality of our faith in his Son is very much in doubt. The question is: Has Jesus’ humiliation for our sake led us to the logical conclusion that our knee should bow to him here and now? But Paul has in mind a particular application of his teaching to the church fellowship at Philippi. Has all that Christ has done and become made any significant impact on their lives? Has it made them humble-minded? That is the only way in which true exaltation becomes possible.

Working out Salvation [2:12-13]. We have already noticed the importance of the word therefore in Paul’s writings in the way in which he connects the exaltation of Christ with his humiliation [2:9]. His glory is the logical result of his suffering. Now we find Paul pointing out that there is a logical connection between the work of Christ and the life of the Christian. Christ obeyed. He was obedient to his Father even although that meant going to the cross. Paul underlines the obvious implication: those who are in Christ and belong to him must also be obedient [2:12]. No Christian ever reaches perfection in this life. But Paul did not trivialize disobedience. For the apostle, for a professing Christian to live in persistent and habitual disobedience was not merely a sign of immaturity; it was an absurdity. For how can those who belong to the obedient Savior sit lightly to obedience themselves. It is unthinkable. The inner logic of the gospel makes it impossible for a true Christian to live as though he were ‘worldly’. Paul urges the Philippians to be just as obedient when he is absent as they are when he is present. Dare we face up to the embarrassing truth that Paul’s words suggest? Are we models of faithfulness in order to please those who lead us, and perhaps ingratiate ourselves with them? Does our zeal falter when they are absent? Do we display different degrees of obedience depending on the identity of our leaders or the public nature of the service we share with them? But in what way are the Philippians to show this obedience? By working out their salvation with fear and trembling. Paul is not thinking here of any ‘good works’ we may contribute to our salvation, but about how we are to respond to the salvation which is ours already in Christ. We are not to work for it or work it up but work it out, that is, to make sure that its influence and implications permeate the whole of our lives. It is a lifelong process of obedience in which we see the significance of what Christ has done for us in the ever-changing and developing context of our lives. How, then, does this happen? Paul’s words draw our attention to three elements. (1) Salvation has to be worked out. It is, of course, a free gift; those who receive it are God’s workmanship [Eph. 2:8-10]. But ultimately salvation means the transformation of our lives into the likeness of Christ [Rom. 8:29]. This implies that, like Christ, we become obedient, we bear the fruit of the Spirit. Salvation takes place in our thinking, willing, feeling and doing. The fact that we are in a right relationship with God demands that we live out the practical implications of that relationship. Paul wants to see salvation transforming every aspect of our lives. This is what it means to be ‘saved’. God’s grace does not destroy the individual Christian’s responsibility to be obedient; rather it makes it possible for that obedience to become a reality in every area of life. (2) The outworking of salvation must be done in fear and trembling. Paul is thinking of the way in which the Christian should always be conscious that he or she lives before the face of God. There should always be a sense of awe in the life of the believer; a sense of living where we are always visible, always understood through and through, and – amazingly – always loved by the Holy One. This sense of awe produces a special quality in our obedience; it gives it direction; it gives it integrity; it is an obedience suffused with humility in which self-projection has given way to devotion to the Lord. (3) Working out our salvation is a high calling. But Paul does not throw us back on our own resources. We are to work out our salvation, not only because God has worked it into us by his grace, but because he continues to work it out in our lives! He is constantly at work in us so that we have both the will and the power to do what pleases him! In these verses Paul protects us from two very common errors in thinking which lead in turn to errors in living. We are prone to think either: (1) If I am to work hard in relationship to salvation then I contribute my part to it, or (2) If God works in me, then I do not need to work hard at following Christ. But this is not Paul’s logic. He teaches as follows: Our salvation is God’s gift. God’s gift summons us to work out that salvation into every part of our lives. We are to work out salvation into our lives in the confidence that God is always at work in us to achieve that goal. Understand this, and we will receive both the challenge and the encouragement of these verses to pursue the holiness without which none of us will see the Lord [Heb. 12:14].

Let Your Light Shine [2:14-16]. Now Paul moves from the general principle to a specific illustration, one which is particularly relevant to the Philippians. If the God of grace and peace is at work in their lives to give them the ability to will and to do what pleases him, certain things follow. Paul states them first negatively and then positively. Negatives. The Philippians are called to do all things without grumbling or disputing [14]. Why was this such unacceptable behavior? Because it was deep ingratitude in the face of the saving grace and continuing activity of God. A complaining or arguing spirit is an expression of ingratitude to God’s providence and of lovelessness and pride towards others. It is a denial of grace; it is working against salvation rather than working salvation out into every aspect of our lives. In the face of the self-humbling of Jesus and the servant-spirit which was his, murmuring and argument are ugly monsters. But we cannot live healthy lives only on the basis of negatives. That is a trap Christians have too often fallen into, but it is one that Paul always carefully avoided. His teaching on putting away specific sinful patterns of life is always joined to exhortations to develop Christ-like graces. In fact both negative and positive exhortations are rooted in the fact that we are united to Christ and therefore have both the resources and the motivation for a new life-style. Positives. When we see the benefits to be gained by denying self as we follow Christ we realize why that self-denial is so important, and so worthwhile. We are called to be blameless and innocent, children of God [15]. Those who truly know God know that he is a gracious and open-hearted Father. Christians need to remind themselves many times a day, ‘I am a child of the heavenly Father.’ Meditate on that blessing and its far-reaching implications. It will change your life; it will sweeten your spirit; it will put a touch of heaven into your soul. Underlying Paul’s thinking here is a principle: Christian witness is dependent not merely on what we say but on what we are. How often we deny the truth of the gospel by the spirit in which we speak, or the un-gospel-like tendencies our lives exhibit! But, says the apostle, when we work out our salvation which is ours in union with Christ, and these negatives and positives are in place, our whole life becomes a powerful witness to those around us. We may not be conscious of it; but they cannot ignore it. They will either be drawn to Christ, or will repel him. When salvation is worked into our lives we shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life [15-16]. Christians are the bright lights in an otherwise dark world; they are the stars by which others may learn to chart a course to the safety which can be found only in Jesus Christ.” [Ferguson, pp. 37-60].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. List Paul’s four things that are true of every Christian in 2:1. In what ways are you conscious of these privileges in your life? What is the connection between these truths and the exhortations in verses 2-4? Note the ‘if’, ‘then’ logic of Paul’s thought here.
  2. The New Testament places a great deal of emphasis on the unity of Christians. Why? What implications does this carry for our fellowship; for our witness to the world?
  3. What is the difference between working ‘for’ and working ‘out’ our salvation? In what ways can you say that God is working in you both to will and to work for his good pleasure? Ferguson writes: “The fact that we are in a right relationship with God demands that we live out the practical implications of that relationship.” Another way Ferguson expresses this thought is “union with Christ should lead to the imitation of Christ.” Paul writes in Romans 8:29 that every believer is predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son. How are we to work out these truths in our daily living with fear and trembling?
  4. Consider Paul’s unique description of Christians in verses 14-15 as a goal for your own life. Why are grumbling and questioning such serious sins against God? What changes need to take place in order for Paul’s description to be true of us? In what ways are we holding fast to the word of life [16]? In what ways do we fail to do so? What can we do to improve in this important area of our Christian lives? Note the connection Paul makes between the exhortations in 2:14-15 and holding fast to the word of life [16].
  5. What is the function of 2:5-11 in the context of Philippians 2? In verses 6-8, trace the steps in Christ’s self-humbling. What does it mean for you to share this ‘mind of Christ’? In what ways should Paul’s teaching on Christ’s incarnation transform our lives? How is Christ the source and model of true humility?


Basics for Believers, D. A. Carson, Baker.

Let’s Study Philippians, Sinclair Ferguson, Banner of Truth.

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

The Message of Philippians, J. A. Motyer, Inter Varsity.

The purpose of this article is to provide additional reference resources for those Sunday School teachers who use Lifeway’s Bible Studies for Life material.

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