If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation
from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy,
make my joy complete: be 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 regard others
as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own
interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in
you that was in Christ Jesus.
Like much of the New Testament, the book of Philippians is someone else’s mail. Not only that, it’s jail mail, written by the apostle Paul when he was imprisoned for the gospel.
Philippians 2:1-11 is dazzling. It culminates with a cosmic vision of an exalted Christ, where every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Jesus is the name above every name. This is a universal, worshipful realization that Jesus was and is and always will be every blessed thing he said he was. We would do well to read, reread, even re-reread verses 9 through 11, to be still in the light of that glory.
But before the glory comes the humility. Jesus the living Word becomes physically embodied, made flesh, Emmanuel, God-with-us. The mysterious, pre-existent God climbs down and crawls inside a simple earthly existence. Eternity enters time. The Creator slips quietly into creation, tiny and soft, alive and kicking in the womb of Mary. How could God possibly come closer? This is no distant deity.
The God who chooses a human life also chooses a human death. And not just any human death; Jesus died on a cross. To grasp the significance of this, we 21st century believers need to be re-sensitized to the cross. We need an unsanitized understanding of the cross.
The original cross wasn’t jewelry; it was naked public torture. More than just a method of execution, crucifixion was a gruesome advertisement, a bloody, humiliating PSA that made an example of an enemy: “Don’t mess with us. Don’t mess with our interests. Don’t mess with our power. This can happen to you.” The cross sent a message.
It is one thing to choose the limitations and frailties of a human life. It is another thing entirely to fully embrace the cross. It is one thing to “put yourself out there” and risk possible rejection. It is another thing to do so knowing that your vulnerable overture will be violently refused. It is the cost of coming close, the inherent danger of embodied love. Jesus counted the cost. Then he paid the price.
That’s when the cross took on a very different message: The cross is what love looks like. The cross is God turning the other cheek. The cross is not Jesus acting out of self-interest, but acting in the best interest of others, whether or not those “others” realize it or accept it.
This enormous theological vision (v. 6-11) lands hard on a single point of practical application: Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus (v. 5). Go and do likewise. If Jesus was humble, you can be too.
Humility is hard. Some of us struggle with low selfesteem. Some of us struggle with high self-esteem. On the surface, self-aggrandizement and self-hatred look like polar opposites. But deep down, they have a common core: a wounded soul turned in on itself, self-centered and self-absorbed. Pride and self-loathing are not opposites of each other. Together, they are the opposite of humility and the opposite of Christlikeness. So whether we think too highly of ourselves or too lowly of ourselves, all of us need something—or someone—to come close, go deep, and pry us off ourselves.
Verses 2-5 can and should be turned into deep interpersonal questions for the body of Christ. Are we like-minded? Do we have the same love? Are we one in spirit? Are we of one mind? Do we do anything—anything—out of selfish ambition? Do we do anything out of vain conceit? Do we value others above ourselves? Do we look to our own interests, or the interests of others? And if so, how do we conspicuously demonstrate this?
My friends in the Church of the Brethren may be inclined to apply these questions to our own churches. That is necessary. It is also insufficient. I am told that, according to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, there are now over 40,000 Christian denominations worldwide. Please let that number sink in.
I consistently meet people—believers and unbelievers— who do not even know what a denomination is. I would be very hard pressed to describe more than a few denominations, and I am a lifelong religious professional. I’m an enthusiastic Protestant, but I am completely at a loss to give an account for the existence of 40,000 different Christian brands in light of Philippians 2:2-5. These verses are not “gray areas” of the Bible where “scholars disagree”; they are painfully clear commands. More than that, in the context of this scripture, these directives are rooted in our view of Jesus.
Jesus is infinitely more than a role model, and humility is more than a nice virtue. Christians have a generous view of others and a modest, honest view of ourselves for one reason: because we have a high view of Jesus. Christians believe that Jesus was and is and always will be every blessed thing he said he was. And this high Christology demands relentless humility. The body of Christ should have the mind of Christ. In theological terms it’s not a stretch. In practical terms it may be a miracle.
So I hold on to miracles, because I hold on to Jesus. His entire existence was and is a universe-bending concert of miracles. Perhaps Christlike humility is more than a tame, moral virtue. Perhaps Christlike humility is the self-emptying, message-sending, knee-bending, tongue-confessing, death-defeating, servant-leading, other-loving, God-glorifying, world-changing miracle all of us need.
Jeremy Ashworth is pastor of Circle of Peace Church of the Brethren in Peoria, Arizona.