Paul’s Letter to the Philippians – 07 (“Striving for Humility”)

Paul’s Letter to the Philippians – 07 (“Striving for Humility”)

[Message: Kobus van der Walt (Three Rivers Baptist Church – 12 May 2019)]


Like most people today, people in the Greco-Roman world often lived in anxiety about the future. Would they be victims of disease, famine, war, and an untimely death? Into all this the Gospel brought the “encouragement”and “comfort”that a loving God created and controlled the world. It brought the Good News that God had shown His love through Jesus Christ, who in “tenderness”and “compassion”healed the sick and raised the dead. This was in anticipation of a day when disease and death would disappear. The preaching of the Gospel also established a “fellowship” of believers who, if they followed Jesus’ example, would help one another in the troubles of life until that final day.

Although the church at Philippi was exemplary in many respects, and Paul had occasion to commend the saints warmly, yet there was an undercurrent of strife. Amongst possible other differences and disunity, there was a difference of opinion between two women, Euodia and Syntyche (4:2). It may be unfair to centre the problem on Euodia and Syntyche, but they were at least involved. 

It is helpful to keep this in mind because in chapter 2 the apostle is dealing directly with the cause and cure of contentions among the people of God.


Phil.2:1-18 (ESV) ~ “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 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 disputing, 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, 16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labour in vain. 17 Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. 18 Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.”

It is said that boxer Muhammad Ali was once on a plane when the stewardess came by and asked him to fasten his seatbelt. Ali said, ”I’m superman and superman don’t need no seatbelt.” The stewardess replied ”Superman don’t need no airplane either, please fasten your seatbelt.” 

Ali wasn’t known for his humility but it’s humility that Paul is talking about in today’s Scripture reading.


We will be dividing our text for today, under the following three headings:

  • The Essentials in Humility (2:1-4);
  • The Example of Humility (2:5-11)and
  • The Exhortation to Humility (2:12-18).
  • The Essentials in Humility(2:1-4)

When we look at Paul’s words in 2:1-4, it is clear that there is a specific problem in the church in Philippi. It is really appalling to see that even a difference of opinion between two women was a very serious situation and Paul had to address this issue urgently. This is something that we as a church must seriously and urgently take notice of. We cannot and may not allow even such a minute thing (according us)to exist amongst us. In this modern age that we live in, a difference of opinion can be seen as something from Satan, trying to disrupt unity. Discord also grieves the Holy Spirit and therefore can be seen as a serious sin in the church.

This difference of opinion and seemingly disunity in the Church, breaks Paul’s heart. The “if”in this verse ~ “So ifthere is any encouragement in Christ” (2:1a) is not the “if”of doubt but of argument. The verse lists four great considerations which should draw believers together in harmony and cooperation. The apostle is saying, in effect: “Since there is so much encouragement in Christ, since His love has such a tremendous persuasiveness, since the Holy Spirit brings us all together in such a wonderful fellowship, and since there is so much tender affection and mercy in Christianity, we should all be able to get along in happy harmony with one another.” 

It is clear that the apostle is making an appeal for unity based on common devotion to Christ and common possession of the Holy Spirit. With all that there is in Christ, the members of His Body should have unity of purpose, affection, accord, and sympathy.

Paul’s point is simple but direct: his joy in Christ would be fulfilled by only one thing -the unity of the Philippian church. The leaders and members of a church usually have joy in Christ, but their joy can be fulfilled only if unity exists between them. Joy is always disturbed when there is criticism, dissatisfaction, grumbling, murmuring, cliques, opposition, and a host of other divisive negatives. 

We are to worship, plan, organise, finance, minister, etc. and serve in the joy of Christ. But the only way we can do that is to be likeminded (lit., “minding the same thing,” or to be “fellow-souled”); to have the same love; to be of one accord and to be of one mind. Paul says in Rom.14:17 ~ “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”And in 1 Cor.1:10 he tells the church in Corinth ~ “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”

How can we pursue humility?

  • Mutual love: Believers (we) should possess a mutual love. Inasmuch as all were indwelt by the same Spirit (2:1), love as a fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22)ought to be demonstrated in every one.
  • Set minds on oneness: We should set our minds on oneness “in spirit and purpose.”These words repeat what was said in 2:2 and reinforces the conclusion that there was a problem of disharmony within the congregation, as already mentioned.
  • Avoid selfish ambition:Believers should avoid “selfish ambition” and “vain conceit” and consider others above themselves (2:3). Paul himself had experienced adverse effects from selfish ambition among some unworthy preachers at Rome (1:17). Persons who seek to advance themselves usually enjoy glorying in their own success. Our attitude should reveal itself in “humility,”a concept not highly regarded among the Greeks. Believers should be humble toward one another, mindful of their spiritual brotherhood and their ultimate subjection to Christ. In their exercise of humility, they should “consider others better than yourselves.”This does not mean that we must have false or unrealistic views of our own gifts as compared with those of others. Rather, our consideration for others must precede concern for ourselves ~ “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honour” (Rom.12:10). This will go far toward removing any disharmony.
  • Look to the interests of others:Believers should be looking not only to their own interests but also to those of others (2:4). The self-centeredness that considers only one’s own rights, plans, and interests must be replaced by a broader outlook that includes the interests of one’s fellow Christians. Paul calls for a Christian concern that is wide enough to include others in its circle of interest. When each member of the Christian community exercises this mutual concern, problems of disunity quickly disappear.
  • The Example of Humility (2:5-11):

We must keep in mind that Paul wants to teach us humility and his teaching will mean nothing if he has not an example to illustrate his point. The only way to do this, is to refer to a perfect example in order for us to strive to become. The only perfect and complete example is Jesus Christ. 

We read the following in 1 Pet.2:24 ~ “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed”and in 1 Pet.3:18 ~ “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit…”Jesus Christ is the supreme example of humility. These verses tell us that Jesus Christ is God, yet He humbled Himself and became Man. Jesus Christ is the Person who dwelt in all the glory of perfection, but He humbled Himself and came to this corruptible world that knows little else other than selfishness, greed and death. Just imagine the enormous step down that Jesus Christ had to take to become a Man. It is utterly impossible to grasp the humility it took. Yet, this is exactly what He did and it is what we are to do.Even though He was God, He did not cling to His rights as God (2:5-6), on the contrary, He laid aside his glory (2:7a).He took upon Himself the nature of a human servant (2:7b). He humbled Himself (2:8a)and He became obedient and died on the cross (2:8b).

Beloved, we are to be humble – to walk in humility before each other – to go to the extreme of humility, even if it means humiliation before each other. Why? So that the church (we) can be unified. Unity is to prevail among us. We are to live and breathe unity. There is to be no discord in God’s church; no divisiveness; no grumbling; no murmuring; no criticism; no jealousy; no personal ambition; no self-seeking; no prejudice; no negative truth; no downing of others; no air of superiority. 

The only way we can ever know such unity is to let the mind of Christ captivate our mind. We must study, think, and learn the humility of Christ. We must let His humility flow in and through us.

The Exhortation to Humility (2:12-18)

In verses 12-18, Paul returns to the exhortations which he began earlier in verses 2-4. We find the word “therefore”at the beginning of 2:12 and this word “therefore”connects (as always) the following verses with what immediately precedes them.

We saw in the previous verses that Christ obeyed the Father and carried out His plan even to death on the cross (2:8). The Philippian Christians needed to obey, to follow Paul’s instruction which was drawn from Christ’s example – we need to obey and follow.

It is commonly understood that this exhortation relates to the personal salvation of the saints at Philippi. They were told to “work out,”to put into practice in their daily living, what God had worked in them by His Spirit. They were not told to work fortheir salvation but to work outthe salvation God had already given them. It was however, evident that some of the brothers and sisters in Philippi were not doing their work selflessly and with the interests of others ahead of their own (2:3–4)., therefore Paul’s admonition. 

Paul tells his friends that God must perfecton them His salvation (2:12-13). He emphasises that obedience is intentional and purposeful. Paul’s point is that salvation, once received, must be put into practice through obedience. This “putting into practice through obedience”can only be obtained if they do that in “fear and trembling.”

Pauls says in Phi.2:12 ~“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.”This verse is often misused to instil or to create fear into people, warning them that it means that they can lose their salvation. What does it mean to work out our salvation with fear and trembling? Paul can hardly be encouraging believers to live in a continuous condition of nervousness and anxiety. That would contradict his many other exhortations to peace of mind, courage, and confidence in the God who authors our salvation. The Greek word translated“fear”in this context can equally mean “reverence”or “respect.”Paul uses the same phrase in 2 Cor.7:15 where he refers to Titus as being encouraged by the Corinthians’ reception of him“with fear and trembling,”that is, with great humility and respect for his position as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul himself came to the Corinthian church in “weakness and fear, and with much trembling”(1 Cor.2:3), mindful of the great and awesome nature of the work in which he was engaged.

The Greek verb rendered“work out”means “to continually work to bring something to completion or fruition.”We do this by actively pursuing obedience in the process of sanctification, which Paul explains further in the next chapter of Philippians. He describes himself as “straining”and “pressing on”toward the goal of Christlikeness (Phil.3:13-14). The“trembling”he experiences is the attitude Christians are to have in pursuing this goal – a healthy fear of offending God through disobedience and an awe and respect for His majesty and holiness. We work out our salvation by going to the very source of our salvation – the Word of God – wherein we renew our hearts and minds (Rom.12:1-2), coming into His presence with a spirit of reverence and awe (see “”).

In 2:14 Paul says that all things must be done without “grumbling or disputing.”In pursuing humility, Paul tells the Philippians not to imitate the ancient Israelites (Ex. 15:24; 16:7-9; 1 Cor. 10:10). Unlike God’s ancient people, believers in Jesus are indeed God’s “children,”not “a crooked and twisted generation.”Amid their sufferings from external opponents (1:28-30), the Philippians may have grumbled against church leaders as the Israelites did against Moses (Ex.16; 1 Thess. 5:12, 13).

Instead of grumbling, Paul encourages them to be as “beacons of light in a dark world,”or“to let their lights shine in this world”(2:15). And in 2:16 he tells them how they can be “shining lights”“…holding fast to the word of life.” This refers to the Gospel as a declaration of the saving significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and to the life-changing teachings founded on the saving work of Christ, which we find in the Word of God (1:27; 4:8, 9).

We see in 2:17-18 that the Philippians and likewise us, must “rejoice with Paul in his sacrifice.”We are to work out our salvation by following the example of sacrificial labour. Very simply stated, Paul had offered himself as a sacrifice to serve men. The picture is that of the sacrifice and offerings made by people to the heathen gods. Paul had taken his body and offered it as a sacrifice and service for people. He lived for nothing else except to hold forth the Word of life to people. His body was totally sacrificed for that purpose and that purpose alone. Paul was obedient to Christ ~ “And he said to them all, if any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me”(Luke 9:23). And he practised what he preached ~ “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God”(Rom.12:1-2).


Why does the Lord want us humble? Why is this an important topic? What is the point? Here are some reasons God’s Word identifies for our being humble.

  • That He may exalt us in due time ~Therefore, humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time”(1 Pet.5:6).
  • So that we may learn, because only the humble are teachable ~Take my yokeupon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart” (Matt.11:29).
  • That God can use us in His service. He cannot use the prideful ~The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart – These, O God, you will not despise”(Ps.51:17).
  • To receive more grace “He gives more grace. Therefore He says, ‘God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble”(James 4:6).
  • To enter His presence ~“Thus says the High and Lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, with him who has a contrite and humble spirit…” (Is.57:15).
  • To be saved and enter the Kingdom~ “Unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt.18:3-4).
  • That our prayers may be heard ~ He does not forget the cry of the humble”(Ps.9:12).

If humbleness is this important, let us briefly look at a couple of points that could help us to cultivate humility in our lives:

  • Minute me: Look around at the billions of people. You’re just one of them. Look above at the jillions of stars. You’re sitting on one small planet circling one humble star. They’ve been around for eons, while you have only a few more years of life here. If that doesn’t humble you, you’re not paying attention.
  • The Holy Spirit: Be truthful and obedient to Gal.5:22-23 – The fruit of the Spirit, which is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, humility...”
  • Affliction, hardship: You shall remember that the Lord your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. So He humbled you…”(Deut.8:2-3).
  • Failure: Scripture cites so many instances of this, it’s hard to know where to start. God let Israel fail to conquer the tiny city of Ai to humble them because of sin in their camp. He let Samson fail because of his headstrong ways. Same with Nebuchadnezzar. Time and again, God allowed foreign nations to conquer Israel and dominate them until they humbled themselves and cried out to Him.
  • Criticism: Nothing drove Moses to stay so close to the Almighty like the constant carping of the Israelite people. Many pastors have had to stand in the pulpit and deliver God’s message to people who were looking for flaws and eager to pounce on any mistake he made. It’s an awful way to live, but God can use this in his life to build character and deepen his commitment to Christ.

The war to remain humble must be fought on many fronts every day of our lives. Even then, pride will slip up on us and enter from our blind side. Before we know it, we will start sounding as though we deserve more from God and others than we are getting, like we have been mistreated in life, as though the universe was built for our comfort and our being deprived of anything ranks is a great injustice. 

As followers of Christ, we cannot expect our path to be one of ease. Salvation by grace is totally free, but that does not mean there is no personal cost (Luke 14:28). God is at work, but there is strenuous work for us to do as well. And yet the strain of living for Christ cannot overshadow our joy. Jesus’ sacrifice was done in joy, without complaining, and we likewise are welcomed in the glad service of Christ and others. The Gospel that calls us to sacrifice also calls us to rejoice. The redemption into which we have been swept up is too great to be lukewarm (tepid) about. Reflecting on God’s grace to us, the very “children of God”(Phil. 2:15), our hearts are softened once more. What a Gospel this is!

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