In Philippians 2, Paul points us to humility as the foundational attribute needed for harmonious relationships. As Alistair Begg explains, Paul turns our gaze to the Lord Jesus Christ instead of giving us principles for how to develop a humble heart. He encourages us to consider Jesus’ attitude as the very example to replicate in our relationships with each other.
Can I invite you to take your Bibles, and we’ll turn to Philippians and chapter 2. And as you follow along, I’d like to read the opening eleven verses:
“If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”
Thanks be to God for his Word.
In our study of the Bible this morning, and on every occasion when we study the Bible, it is important that we ask of the Scriptures the right questions and not the wrong questions. Of course, there are many questions that are correct to ask in coming to a passage of Scripture, but these are of vital importance. We need to ask of the text, “What is it actually saying?” Not “What would I like it to say?” or “What emphasis can I seek to give to it?” We need also to ask, “Why is this particular passage of Scripture here? Why does it fall in this particular place at this point in the biblical revelation?” Thirdly, we need to ask the question, “Why is it saying what it’s saying in this particular way?” For example, Paul addresses the issue of temptation in 1 Corinthians 10; James addresses temptation in his first chapter of his letter. It’s the same subject, but it’s treated in different ways by each of these men, and we need to know why. Why is it saying what it’s saying in this way? And then also we need to be asking of the passage, “What is surprising about it?” What is surprising about it? Paul, when he writes to Timothy, says, “Timothy, I want you to reflect on these things, and the Lord will give you insight.” Many of us come to our Bibles assuming that we know exactly what it means. We’ve been brought up with it for so long that we think that we understand it perfectly, and there’s very little surprise involved in coming to the Bible.
Now, those questions are the right questions, and they’re important questions, and they dare not be replaced by a parody. For example, we should not be asking of the passage, “How does it make me feel?” or “What does it remind me of that I would like to share with someone?” or “If I had been there, what would I have written?” or “Is there anything in this that I would like to change?” Now, I mention this to you because those last four questions are very common in small group Bible studies. You haven’t gone five minutes into the Bible study until somebody says, “What this makes me think of is this,” or “How this makes me feel is this,” or “The way I like to think about it is this,” or “What this means to me is…” Need to be very, very careful. We may be interested in what it means to you, but we may not. And we certainly are totally disinterested in what it means to you until first we have found out what it means. Because if we don’t know what it means, then we may make all kinds of wrong applications from the text.
All that by way of introduction. I want to talk to you in the time that we have concerning attitude. Attitude. Paul was concerned for the attitude of people in Philippi. He wanted to make sure that they would have harmonious relationships, that they would live in tenderheartedness towards one another. It was important for them as a church family to be enjoying this kind of unity of heart and mind and purpose. And surely, it is of vital importance that on a large campus such as this, with people coming from all kinds of backgrounds and bringing to the place all kinds of attitude, it is of significance that we pay attention to what the Bible has to say concerning the kind of attitude that will foster unity.
And the interesting thing is that in seeking to inculcate a spirit of unity amongst these Philippians, Paul does not give them seven principles on establishing unity. Rather, he points them to the foundational element which will be the forerunner to the kind of harmony of relationships that is necessary. And the foundation, he says, is to be found in humility. He then does not give them seven principles on how to develop a humble heart. But he then turns their gaze to the Lord Jesus Christ, and he says, “If you will consider the Lord Jesus Christ, then you will find in him the very example and pattern of attitude which needs to pervade your relationships with each other. I want you,” he says, “to be humble, to be unselfish, to be concerned for the well-being of others.” And so he focuses their attention on the humility of the Son of God. That’s why he says, “Your attitude”—verse 5—“should be the same as that of Jesus Christ.” In other words, he addresses this very practical concern—with theology. Instead of coming up with seven practical pointers, he says, “I want you to consider the theological underpinnings that will give rise to the humility that is necessary for the fostering of unity, so that the watching world may realize who Jesus is and why he has come.” And so he’s going to tell them of how Jesus has humbled himself, and they too must humble themselves.
Of course, to imitate the Lord Jesus Christ in this way is not some activity that we muster up within ourselves. We put it in our diaries: “Must muster up an approach to obeying this command.” Rather, we do not muster it up from our own resources, but we depend upon the Holy Spirit to enable us as he conforms us to the image of Christ. He’s going to mention that in verses 13 and 14, when he says, “Work out your [own] salvation with fear and trembling”—12 and 13, I should say—“for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” So he holds before them this example of self-sacrificing love.
Now, what I want to do this morning is simply hold up what he holds up. I’m not going to say a lot in practical terms about it. You can perhaps use time throughout the day in thinking the implications out for yourself—in examining yourself, as I must, against the example that Paul provides for us. The material is rich. Many have spent a long time on this; some of your own faculty may have got PhDs for studying just verses 5–8, and we could spend the rest of the week here with great ease. We’re not going to do that. Indeed, I’m not going to go beyond verse 8. We’re going to deal only with Christ’s humiliation, not with his exultation. We’re going to look at the passage, if you like, telescopically rather than microscopically.
Look at what he says: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus”—notice—“who, being in very nature God…” By starting here, the extent of the humility of Christ is made most apparent. Notice the participle that is there, “being”: “who being in very nature God”—indicating that Christ was already “in very nature God” before he came into this world. He always was God. John says that in his prologue: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” There was never a time when Jesus was not God.
Now, you say, “Well, this is, you know, a Tuesday morning in Cedarville, Ohio. Do I really need to know this kind of thing? It seems such arm’s-length theology. Give me something far more practical.”
I’m not a prophet, but listen to me: if you get this wrong in your generation, it is unthinkable to conceive of what Christianity will look like in the North American continent twenty-five years from now. The average young person coming into an institution like this is singularly unable to argue against Unitarianism, Mormonism, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, except with a knee-jerk reaction to spit out one or two prelearned verses, but with very little knowledge at all of why it is so vitally important that we would understand this phrase.
Now, of course, part of your university career is going to give you the opportunity to unpack this, to think it through, to learn it. You’re in an immensely privileged position here. I hope you will never forget that. I hope you will embrace it with open arms, that you will seize every opportunity that is provided in the days that you have—not only to learn in your own academic discipline of study but also to soak up every opportunity to become students of the Bible.
Those of you who have studied church history at all will know that for the first three or four hundred years of the church, there were great debates which ensued over the identity of the Lord Jesus Christ. People came up with an idea, then they convened a council, the council discussed it, rebuked the heresy, and they moved on. There were those who denied the reality of the divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ, and so they resisted this phrase, and they taught that Jesus—this Jesus—was only a man. That is just as the Unitarians teach today. The people who fell into this error were concerned to safeguard the doctrine of what is called monotheism, the belief that there is only one God. And so they felt that if you asserted that Jesus Christ is God, then that would mean that there are two gods, and when you added the Holy Spirit into that, then, of course, that would make three. And so, in attempting to avoid that—of course, which they must do, since there is only one God—they went to the other extreme of denying the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ.
At the other end of the spectrum, there were those who denied Christ’s humanity. The first group were saying, “He isn’t really divine,” and the second group were saying, “He isn’t really human. He has a phantom body, and the eternal Christ came on him at his baptism.”
A third group denied the integration of the two natures of Christ, both human and divine. Arius, and Arianism which emerged from it, is the father of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and all others who have a deviant view of Jesus. They denied the reality of the divine nature of Christ, declaring Christ to be neither God nor man but something in between: the first being, the first created being, the highest of all the beings that God has ever created. Paul says, “No. Being in very nature God…” “Without him nothing was made that has been made.” Phillips paraphrases it helpfully. “[And] creation took place through him, and none took place without him.” Therefore, he cannot be a created being.
Now, I could go on, but I can see that some of you are already bored with this. The Nestorians said that Jesus wasn’t one person with two natures but that he was actually two persons. And they got themselves all tied up in their theological underwear and made a royal hash of everything.
You say, “Well, this is the twenty-first century. What has all this to do with us?” Let me tell you where it is. It’s on the high streets, young people. All of this stuff is alive and well on the main street of Chagrin Falls. It’s in Lake Placid, New York. It’s in Boulder, Colorado. It is everywhere you turn your head. It is in the lyrics of James Taylor’s songs. It is all over the place. And it is imperative that you as thinking, educated, and being-educated young people get to grips with this. Our current New Age milieu has a place for a mere man or for a phantom, but they have no place for he who is God incarnate.
Now, it took till about the middle of the fifth century, the Council of Chalcedon, to get it all sorted out. And they put together a statement that would keep most of us awake at night. Let me give you just a little flavor of it, for those of us who are tempted to think that this is somehow marginal. They refer to the Lord Jesus “Christ, [the] Son, Lord, the only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.” You think they’re trying to make a point here with these words? “The distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son … [the] only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ.” And Graham Kendrick, in the twentieth century, grabs all that, and he says, “Meekness and majesty, manhood and deity, in perfect harmony, the Man who is God.” Paul says, “Your attitude should be like God’s attitude.” “Who, being in very nature God…” Jesus is eternally, truly, totally God.
Now, that, you see, is the starting point to make this humility so incredible. In light of that, look at what he says: “[He] did not consider equality with God something to be grasped.” Again, Phillips: “He … did not cling to his prerogatives as God’s equal.” The highest place that heaven affords was his by sovereign right, but he had a greater priority than his own uninterrupted glory—a priority that emerged from all of eternity, that he would deliberately and voluntarily set aside the prerogatives which were his in the eternal context of harmony between Father, Son, and Spirit.
And he “made himself nothing.” Or, if you like: “He … stripped himself of all privilege.” Now, what this means becomes clear when we read the phrases that follow. What does it mean that he “made himself nothing,” or that “he stripped himself of privilege”? It’s not that he gave up the qualities and the attributes of deity. He made himself nothing not by subtraction but by addition. He made himself nothing not by the subtraction of divinity but by the addition of humanity. Says B. B. Warfield, “The Lord of the world became a servant in the world; He whose right it was to rule took obedience as His life-characteristic.”
Now, let’s just pause for a moment. We’ve done enough just to pause for a moment, to say, “Okay, hold on here.” You know you don’t have to last very long in a dorm before friction sets in. You know how easy it is for friends to be divided as a result of misplaced words and unkind glances. You know that it is possible for a whole academic year to suddenly take a major left-hand turn, and when people—faculty, counselors—try and trace it to its root, it discovers that there at the center of it all is the ugliness of pride, the exultation of self, and the disunity is born of this. And the temptation, of course, is to go to the Christian bookstore and see if we can’t find a book that will help us to dismantle all of this dreadful superstructure that we’ve been building.
There will be helpful pointers there, but that’s not the answer. If that had been the answer, then Paul would have done that in Philippians 2. When he got to the end of verse 4 and he said, “I want you to live in harmony with one another, I want you to live in unity of purpose,” he would have then followed it with seven or eight very, very practical pointers as to how you’re able to achieve this. But he doesn’t. He says, “Your attitude should be like the Lord Jesus Christ: he was in very nature God, but he didn’t hold on to his prerogatives. Instead, he made himself nothing.” It’s back to where we were last night: “‘This is the man to whom I will look. This is the girl to whom I will look,’ says the Lord. ‘He or she who is humble and contrite in spirit and who trembles at my word.’”
Now, how does this work out? Well, in practical terms, he took the very nature of a servant: “taking the very nature of a servant.” He became as much an earthly servant as he had been a heavenly sovereign. Of course, this is most wonderfully worked out in the experience of the disciples in John chapter 13, you will remember, when, just before the Passover Feast, with the evening meal already served, Jesus “got up from the meal,” and he “took off his outer clothing,” and he “wrapped a towel [round] his waist.” And “after that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.” He put his hands in H2O, which he had formulated—the Creator recognizing that the solid state of most substances is more dense than their liquid state, but he made water the other way around. Which is the reason that ice floats rather than sinks. Because if water were like virtually every other liquid, it would freeze from the bottom up rather than from the top down, thus killing aquatic life, destroying the oxygen supply, and making earth unlivable. The Creator puts his hand in the bucket and attacks the dusty feet of his motley crew of followers.
And yet, how easily we say, “If she thinks I’m going to apologize, she’s got to be crazy! If he wants me to say sorry, he’s going to have to do something first. I didn’t start it; therefore, I don’t need to end it.” My dear friends, look at Christ. Look at Christ! There die all our selfish aspirations.
“Taking the very nature of a servant, [and] being made in human likeness.” “Being made in human likeness.” He became what he had never been before without ceasing to be what he had always been. He chose to be born as a baby, to live as a man, to suffer as an outcast, to die as a criminal. He exchanged the homage of angels for the hatred of men. He remained everything involved in being God and at the same time became everything involved in being man.
Do you realize how distinctive this is on the panorama of world religions? There is nothing like this anywhere else. Go and study them. Don’t let your friends and neighbors back you into a corner in relationship to these things. Learn what they have to say. Listen to what they have to say. The Zen Buddhism which is increasingly prevalent, the thoughts of Islam which are sweeping across the country, as people who don’t know very much are saying, “Why should we be concerned about these issues?”—be prepared to think them through. And be prepared to uphold this amazing picture, this quite unfathomable picture, that the creator of the universe doesn’t call down to humanity from some vast territory in the netherworlds but comes down and invades our planet, takes his form with us, walks with us, hits the dusty earth, you see. And in it all, he is establishing an attitude which is to be the attitude of those who are the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ.
And that’s why Paul says, he was “found in appearance as a man.” “Being found in appearance as a man”—that phrase is misleading to many at first reading. Because it appears to be saying what we’re saying it isn’t saying—namely, that he wasn’t really a man, but he looked like he was a man. When you read that phrase at first, you say, “That seems to be what it’s saying.” But if you look more carefully, you realize it is conveying the reverse of that—namely, that at first glance, Jesus appeared to be a man and nothing more. After all, he came walking down the street like a man. He had the sandwiches with the other men. He drank the water that was provided. He fell asleep due to fatigue. He grew up, and he learned the alphabet. His mother explained to him the difference between red, green, blue, yellow, and purple. And at first glance, it would appear that what we have here is just a man. He didn’t have a halo that was hanging off the top of his head so when he walked down the Galilean streets, people said, “Aha! There he comes!” Nor did he have a supernatural glow to his countenance. The people said, “Which one is Jesus?” He was “found in appearance as a man”—yet he was not nearly what he appeared to be. For there was to him more than meets the eye.
And that’s the point in the phrase. He was “found in appearance as a man.” He had all of those constituent characteristics. And yet when you gazed into him, you realized, “There is more here than meets the eye.” That’s why Jesus Christ Superstar and all of those old musicals render to us a picture of Christ which is at best sentimental, but it is earthly. “He’s a man, just a man,” sings Mary Magdalene. “And I’ve seen so many men before, in many different ways. He’s just one more.” No he’s not. Why would you ever give your life up for a mere man—for a Galilean carpenter who walked across the stage of history two thousand years ago? And for whom salvation came to a crushing end in the cul-de-sac of a Palestinian tomb?
And having gone to this extent, this humiliation was not yet complete, because you will notice that “he humbled himself.” And his obedience… I don’t like the NIV here; it says, “[And] he … became obedient to death.” The King James Version says he “became obedient unto death.” That’s better. His obedience was not to death. His obedience was to his Father, and in obedience to his Father, he became obedient unto death.
As the Son of God, he became man. He came to undo the disobedience of Adam, to experience the judgment of God which Adam brought crashing down on the human race. And to do so, he had to become obedient to the Father’s will and plan. The hymn writer says,
O loving wisdom of our God!
When all was sin and shame,
A second Adam to the fight
And to the rescue came.
Can you imagine Mary, in those early moments after the angel is gone, sitting and scratching her head and saying, “I don’t know.” You imagine in the arrival of the shepherds, as they come and bow down at that strange little scene, and then the wise men with their gifts. And then watching the growth of this boy. And then the trip to Jerusalem. And then the loss of him in the midst of all of the comings and goings. And then the backtracking to Jerusalem, and then finding him there in the temple, as he discusses with the intelligentsia of the day and as he dialogues with the rulers and the leaders. And they say to him, “Jesus, you know, we were looking for you. We were halfway home, and we’ve come back for you.” And he says, “Did you not know that I had to be in my Father’s house?” And the Mary who had gathered up all these things and pondered them in her heart looks into the eyes of this twelve-year-old boy. And finally, you fast-forward the video, and there she stands at the foot of the cross. And she looks up, and she hears him speak down to his disciple, and he says, “Hey, here’s your mother. And Mother, here’s your son.”
Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned he stood,
And he sealed my pardon with his blood:
Because he’s a wonderful Savior.
The eternal God, by whom all things were made, walked down that Jerusalem street because it was the only way whereby you and I could be saved, the only way whereby you and I could have our sins forgiven. He alone could bear that punishment. “Even angels,” Peter says, “long to look into these [matters].”
And it is in light of all of that the introductory phrase grabs hold: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” I don’t know what your SAT score was—and frankly, it’s none of my business or my concern. I don’t know whether you’re athletic or pathetic. I don’t know whether you’re ten pounds higher than you want to be or ten pounds less than you long to be. I don’t know whether, fellows, your chest is as large as your waist or the other way around. There are precious few things that you have control over from this point forward into this academic year. But I can tell you two. One is the level of your effort. You might not be particularly brilliant, but you can try as hard as anyone else around you. And the other is your attitude. A and E: attitude and effort. Where is our attitude to be? We have seen. What, then, should our effort be? To “press on toward[s] the goal to win the prize for which [he] … called [us] heavenward[s] in Christ Jesus.”
I hope that whatever else happens on this campus in the next twelve months, that people will drive away from here saying, “There is such a sense of unity and harmony amongst the faculty, amongst that student body, amongst the administration. It would seem as though they are all for Christ, and they’re all for one another. And they seem to be committed to being that way forever. There’s a Christlike attitude about that place.”
Father, grant that it may be so. We rely entirely upon your Spirit to be at work within our hearts—working, prompting, changing, nudging, urging. We gaze on the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ, and all our selfishness, all our pride, it all looks so dreadfully ugly. Take, Lord, every vestige of our arrogance away, we pray. Conform us to the image of your Son. Guide us in the steps of this day and throughout the days of this week. To the glory of your Son we ask it. Amen.
 2 Timothy 2:7 (paraphrased).
 John 1:1 (NIV 1984).
 John 1:3 (NIV 1984).
 Chalcedonian Definition (AD 451).
 Graham Kendrick, “Meekness and Majesty (This Is Your God)” (1986).
 Philippians 2:7 (Phillips).
 Benjamin B. Warfield, “Person of Christ,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, eds. James Orr, John L. Nuelsen, Edgar Y. Mullins, and Morris O. Evans (Chicago: Howard-Severance, 1915), 4:2340.
 Isaiah 66:2 (paraphrased).
 John 13:4–5 (NIV 1984).
 Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” (1970). Lyrics lightly altered.
 John Henry Newman, “Praise to the Holiest in the Height” (1865).
 Luke 2:49 (paraphrased).
 See Luke 2:51.
 John 19:26–27 (paraphrased).
 Philip P. Bliss, “‘Man of Sorrows,’ What a Name” (1875). Lyrics lightly altered.
 1 Peter 1:12 (NIV 1984).
 Philippians 3:14 (NIV 1984).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.