Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
– Philippians 2:3-4
In Paul’s day, Roman society was made up of a hierarchy of social classes that determined just about everything. They determined what a person could wear, whom they could marry, even where they could sit! So naturally, many people desired to climb the social ladder. One way they could do this was by gaining honor for themselves. We can see this especially in the lives of Roman emperors. Around this time, Roman emperors began to call themselves gods and welcomed the worship of themselves as gods. In doing so, they gained honor for themselves and solidified their spot at the top of the social ladder.
In Philippians 2:1-11, Paul critiques this social structure. He does this in part by contrasting Jesus and Caesar. He writes in verses 6-7, “[Jesus], being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant.” Here, Paul implicitly distinguishes Jesus from Caesar. Whereas Caesar was a man who wanted to be worshiped as God for his own advantage, Jesus was God but became a man for our advantage. In fact, He became a “servant,” a member of the lowest class in Roman society, and died on a cross, a form of execution reserved for servants. The irony of this is that Jesus’ humiliation ultimately resulted in His exaltation with every person, including Caesar, acknowledging Him as the one true Lord (Philippians 2:9-11)! Jesus therefore flipped the Roman social structure upside down.
Paul does not stop there. He continues to critique the Roman social structure by teaching readers to imitate Jesus: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4). Apparently, some Philippian Christians had sought to advance their social status to the detriment of others and this created division in the church. So, Paul let them know that as citizens of heaven they were not to do as the Romans do, but to do as Jesus did. Jesus did not try to gain honor for Himself. Jesus humbled Himself because He valued people over His position and His pride.
A lot has changed since Roman times, but many of us still feel the impulse to climb the social ladder. Paul’s message for us is to imitate Jesus by putting others first. It was through an act of humility that Jesus repaired His relationship with us, and it is through humility that we can maintain healthy relationships with others.
IMITATING CHRIST’S HUMILITY
1 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.