Unity Through Humility – Part 2

Intro: We began a study of the first 4 verses of Philippians 2. Let us read the words again:

Phil 2:1-4 – Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, 2 fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. 3 Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. 4 Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.

The apostle is making an appeal. He tells the Philippians that what they chose to do can fill up the joy of his life. What does he say will make him happy? Unity. If these Christians choose to think the same thing and love each other equally, they will fulfill the joy of the apostle.

I think we can relate to this appeal. When the beauty pageant contestant is asked, If you had one wish for the world, what would it be? The most popular answer is…? World Peace! As you look at your own world (family, friends, church, those you know who are struggling with life) what do you want for them… peace – to live in harmony with themselves and others.

Paul’s appeal does not land on deaf ears. In fact, he even tells these Christians WHY they should care about getting along with each other – because Jesus has provided consolation (comfort), love, fellowship, affection and mercy to each of them alike. (v. 1-2). Last week we mentioned 3 elements of unity contained in these 4 verses:

  • The motivations for our unity (because Christ has provided for us equally)
  • The essential characteristics of our unity (thinking the same thing; loving each one equally, being united in spirit, having the same mind or purpose)
  • And the practical means of obtaining our unity.

We spoke about the first 2 last week. I want to consider the last element today:

I. The Practical Means of Spiritual Unity (vs. 3-4) Paul answers the question of how genuine spiritual unity is achieved. It is always based on the objective, revealed message but involves more than just doctrinal agreement. It is a matter of the mind. Like the four marks of spiritual unity, these means are interrelated and inseparable. We might notice that, as Paul often does, his words are fashioned into a “not… but” exhortation. Not this… but this… provides truth through contrast. This also helps us see ourselves as we are now in comparison to what God desires. Consider the two “nots”

A. “Nothing through selfish ambition” (v. 3) – The translators have added the verb “doing” or “do” to make better sense in the English versions, but the subject seems to continue to be predominately thinking that precedes doing.

1. The word used here is eritheia (er-ith-i-ah) which is also translated as selfishness, contention or strife. It was used to describe a hireling, or mercenary, someone who was driven by self-interest, and as such would contend, fight, or quarrel with others for position. Some translations use rivalry. What is your opinion of selfishness? Good or Bad? We will consider that question more in a moment.

a. Paul used the term earlier to describe those who were preaching from selfish ambition (NKJV) in order to add affliction to Paul’s chains (1:16). They had selfish motives; they were rivals.

b. This sin is listed among the works of the flesh in Gal. 5:20 (strife).

c. Consider James 3 – James contrasts the wisdom from above with the wisdom that is worldly, sensual and devilish (3:15). He writes… For where envying and strife (eritheia) is, there is confusion and every evil work. (3:16). He is telling us that this selfish ambition that strives to get on top at the expense of others is at the root of disorder (lack of unity) and every other evil in our world. It is certainly implicated in the arrival of sin in Genesis 3 – Adam & Eve selfishly placed their will above God’s will, and did what they thought was best for them.

B. “Nothing through Conceit.” (v. 3) The NIV translates that second clause as “vain conceit”. The compound Greek word kenodoxia (ken-od-ox-ee’-ah) appears only here in the New Testament. It is formed by the adjective kenos (“empty”) and the noun doxa (“glory”), hence the King James Version rendering “vainglory.”

1. It refers to a highly exaggerated self-view. Empty conceit is arrogant pride, being “wise in your own estimation” (Rom 11:25). In his letter to the Galatian churches, he warned, “For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself” (Gal 6:3). Once again we are drawn to the apostle’s list of the fruits of the Spirit vs. the works of the flesh in Gal. 5. After the contrasting lists he writes… –Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, we must also follow the Spirit. 26 We must not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. (HCSB) Because it is so easy to think too highly of ourselves and conceit is self-deceptive, believers must be on constant guard against it.

C. “Look out not only for his own interests…” (v. 4) The third “not” phrase of Paul’s admonitions is found in the first part of verse 4. Here again the words point to the problem of selfishness where a person considers only what affects him. We are prone to take this approach to life.

Someone you know is having troubles, so you come with words to comfort – to give them your perspective on their suffering… “Are you having a bad day? Remember it could always be worse… It could be me having a bad day!” George Bernard Shaw wrote “A man’s interest in the world is only the overflow from his interest in himself.” We are a self-centered bunch.

1. We need to fully understand what Paul is not saying. He is not commanding us to neglect ourselves in some ascetic false humility, but to choose the interests of others above our own. In fact, the scriptures assume that we will naturally care for ourselves… love your neighbor as yourselfEph 5:28-29husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it.

a. Good selfishness? A few moments ago I posed a question, is selfishness good or bad? We most often would say bad. Certainty what we read from James points us in this direction. (root of evil)

b. There is a popular and growing though among religious teachers that selfishness can be a good thing. The word selfish itself (no doubt because of its negative connotation) has been discarded and replaced with self-care. There is bad selfishness and there is good self-care. So if one chooses to place his own needs (legitimate needs) above the needs of another, he is not always being selfish, but exercising self-care. The thought is that if you do not take care of yourself first, how can you help others. Certainly, there is some truth to this thinking.

c. But, although one must take care of his needs, a rationalization of the text that decriminalizes selfishness is dangerous. Many who teach this new doctrine of “good selfishness” reject the biblical teaching on the value of self-sacrifice and propose that putting the other person before oneself is destructive to relationships and destroys one self-esteem. They preach vehemently that you need to stand up for yourself and your personal rights and love yourself first.

d. Nothing could be further from the perspective of the gospel message or the implications of Jesus’ own life. God calls us to serve others in direct contrast to what comes naturally (through the flesh).

The scripture moves from the nots to the buts… If we are not to be selfishly ambitious, conceited or look just at our own interests, how should we think and act?

D. “But In Lowliness of Mind…” (v. 3) Your translation may say “humility”. Humility is a state of mind. It is the thinking that forms the bedrock of Christian character and of spiritual unity. Humility has been described as “insight into one’s own insignificance” Like our culture today, the Greeks so hallowed self-assertiveness that a new word had to be coined to express self-insignificance.

1. In the context it stands opposite of the last phrase (vain conceit) – it is not an exaggerated view of myself, but a realistic perspective. Consider first, my self-view in relation to God Himself.

a. It is not coincidental that the first and foundational Beatitude of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount refers to being “poor in spirit” (Matt 5:3). This is the character of humility that flows from a realization of one’s true position before God. Albert Barnes describes it this way – To be poor in spirit is to have a humble opinion of ourselves; to be sensible that we are sinners, and have no righteousness of our own; to be willing to be saved only by the rich grace and mercy of God (Barnes)

E. “Let each esteem others better than himself” (v. 3) Contextually (as an appeal to unity) being humble or lowly minded, is defined by how I view others in relationship to myself. I must consider others better than myself. How does this verse fit into the modern doctrines of the self-esteem preachers?

1. “Esteem” refers to a carefully thought-out conclusion based on the truth. It does not mean to pretend that others are more important, but to believe that others actually are more important. The word for “better, or more important” (huperecho – from which we derive the prefix hyper) means literally to be superior to, to excel or surpass. It is more than just a nominal assent that the other person might be better at some things. The other person is more worthy than me. It is a call for the mind of a servant toward his master. Did Jesus really esteem me as better than Himself?

2. Paul told the RomansFor I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith. (Rom 12:3). It takes sober (realistic) thinking to not think too highly of myself. The emphasis in this context is on unity among God’s people, and the proper use of the gifts God has given. Humility is the true atmosphere of unity and service.

3. It is hard for humble people to be divided. When the scriptures enjoin or define unity, the discussion almost always flows from a call for humble thinking. In preface to Paul’s call for unity in Ephesians 4 he tells the Christians to walk… in lowliness and gentleness (4:2).

4. Having a lowly mind is a prerequisite to true obedient faith. When I realistically and humbly acknowledge that God is everything, and that I am not, I will be moved to praise and submit to Him, not myself. As I submit to Him I will learn to fully trust Him and depend upon Him in all things. When I esteem my brother or sister as more worthy than me, I will be able to serve them through even the most menial tasks, without complaining. If I hold in the back of my mind the thought that they are less deserving or less acceptable to God than me, I will struggle to serve them without hypocrisy, if I serve them at all. True humility removes all the obstacles to saving faith and un-hypocritical service.

5. As a lowly mind is the antithesis to vain conceit, and esteeming others as superior to oneself is the antithesis to selfish ambition, so looking to the needs of others is the answer to focusing only on my own interests.

F. “But Looking… to the interests of others.” How much time do you spend on the interests of other people?

1. Where does this apply? Even when your interests are good, wholesome and Biblical. Some may consider one aspect of the Lord’s work more vital than another (youth vs. older people; evangelism or edification) But even the most serious debate over critical matters should be carried on in a spirit of humility and mutual respect. Problems arise when defense of God’s Word becomes clouded by self-defense.

2. Look again to Romans 12 – Among other things, looking out for the interests of others requires believers to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15), to continually “pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another,” to not “eat meat or … drink wine, or … do anything by which [a] brother stumbles” (14:19,21), and to “bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves” (15:1). Paul says elsewhere we should “bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2).

Conclusion: Are you in Christ Jesus? To be in Christ you must be united with Him in His death, burial and resurrection. Die to sin, be buried in baptism, rise to a new life. Rom. 6:4-5

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