The disciples traveling with Jesus to Jerusalem must have stopped their conversations in mid-sentence. A middle-aged woman dropped to her knees before them. They all recognized her immediately as the mother of James and John. When Jesus asked her what she wanted, she replied, “Command that in Your kingdom these two sons of mine may sit one on Your right and one on Your left.” (Matt 20:21) A humble posture betrayed an audacious request.
Matthew writes, “And hearing this, the ten became indignant with the two brothers.” (Matt 20:24) The incident was imbedded in Matthew’s mind because he was one of the ten who was infuriated. There were angry exchanges and hot tempers. Had Jesus not intervened immediately this band of disciples could have fractured on the road to Jerusalem.
Jesus responded, “…whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many. (Matt 20:26-28)
Christ-like Servanthood is the Key to Unity
Self-centered, self-aggrandizing, self-glorifying pride is the modus operandi of human existence. It is the fuel for division. It is the train operator that derails whole churches from their mission while leaving spiritual carnage scattered across a city. Every local church faces many threats. False teaching and persecution threaten from without. But the one that threatens from within is selfish pride.
The Apostle Paul saw just such a threat brewing in Philippi. The church in Philippi was faithful in its partnership with Paul in the gospel. His earnest desire was to see them continue unified in their mission of bringing the gospel to their city. Paul writes to the Phillipians, “Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I will hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel.” (Phil 1:27) Later in his letter, he directs attention to alleviating this threat before it wreaks havoc in the church. “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves.” (Phil 2:3)
The model and power of Christian unity is found in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Imitating Jesus’ unparalleled humility will bring unparalleled unity in our mission.
Do you want to defuse explosive divisions? Do you want to find healing for a fractured family? Do you want to see a culture change in your home? Are you at odds with someone in your church or find yourself on one side of a faction? Imitating Jesus will produce the most fruit in bringing harmony and peace. So, how can we adopt the same mindset as Jesus (Phil 2:5)?
Don’t Cling to Your Own Glory
…who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped. | Philippians 2:6
Jesus did not exploit His supreme position. His journey to atone for our sin on the cross began in heaven in the full glory of His deity, but He did not cling to His deity for selfish ends. The word “form” refers to the outward appearance that displays what something truly is. Jesus existed in the glory and splendor of deity in the second person of the trinity. He shared the supreme position with the Father and the Spirit, yet He did not exploit it for His own personal interest. Instead he embraced the mission of the incarnation and accepted the humble mission of the cross.
The principal we must follow is to not consider our advantages, position, or gifts as something for our glory but as assets to serve others. Whether you are a founding member, a pastor, a generous giver, or a respected deacon, we cannot resort to ‘do you know who I am?” in conflict. We don’t demand respect, we don’t refuse menial tasks as ‘beneath us.’ When we think in terms of spiritual gifts we should well remember wisdom from Derek Prime and Alistair Begg, “the purpose of all spiritual gifts is not selfish enjoyment but the profit of other members of God’s family.” (On Being a Pastor p. 57) Jesus’ incarnation, life, death, and resurrection was to save us from self-glory and deliver us from sinful treasonous idolatry. Christ’s work on our behalf gives us the power to live for the good of others and the glory of God.
Take on the Basest Mindset—Slave
…but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. | Philippians 2:7
Jesus took on the lowest status of slave. The Lord and Master over all became the slave of all. The word “emptied” has caused a great deal of debate over the centuries. Better explanations include, “render to no effect” or “laid aside rights and privileges.” To be clear, God cannot stop being God.
The best way to define the word is in it’s context. Two phrases show us what it means. First, “taking the form of a bond-servant” We have the same word “form” as verse 6. The form of the thing is the thing. Jesus became a servant. And the word “bond-servant” is always better translated ‘slave’ from Greek. Jesus did what humans regard unthinkable. Second, he took on human flesh. As the hymn line says, “He the theme of heaven’s praises robed in frail humanity.” (Come Behold the Wondrous Mystery, Matt Boswell)
The one who could have rightfully claimed the highest position in human history and justly received supreme honors deliberately sought the lowest position and submitted himself to extreme humiliation.
We may have a high social position in the community, a leadership position in the church, or earned a prestigious degree, but when we look at other believers, our hearts should want to serve them. Again, Jesus is our power. By the indwelling Spirit we can disregard any earthly status and take the attitude of a slave.
Obediently Serve, Even in The Most Belittling Tasks
Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. | Philippians 2:8
Jesus was obedient to the Father in the mission of saving sinners, even to the point of embracing the most shameful situation. For God to take the form of man could be considered a great indignity in and of itself. He, being equal to God, became the slave of God. Yet in the Roman world, the lead slave of a king would still be considered by many a great man. While David was King, he was certainly the slave of Yahweh. While Isaiah was a great prophet among men, he was a slave to Yahweh.
But, Christ’s descent continues “by becoming obedient to the point of death.” The self-humbling is the voluntary submission to another. Likewise, obedience is voluntarily doing what someone greater commands. But, again, many soldiers would give their lives for their country, president, or general. They would run into battle, or if captured they would die rather than betray a secret. Jesus humility went even further when He went to the cross.
The Roman philosopher Cicero said, “To bind a Roman citizen is a crime; to flog him is an abomination; to slay him is almost an act of murder; to crucify him is what? There is no fitting word to describe so horrible a deed.” (quoted by G. Walter Hansen in The Letter to the Philippians, p. 157) To the Roman citizens of Philippi, the cross would emphasize the absolute degradation of Christ’s humanity. He descended to the lowest rung on the ladder; down from the position of noble radiance of deity, down from Lordship to slavery, down from creator of flesh-to flesh created, down from noble humanity to humble obedience, down from noble obedience to obedience to death, down from noble death to the humiliating death of the cross.
Here is the example that snuffs out the fires of selfish ambition. Jesus, Lord of all, died the most shameful death to save vile and guilty sinners. Here too is the power. If Jesus stooped so low to save me, can I not be fully satisfied in His love and grace in the midst of conflict in which I might be belittled? Can I not eagerly initiate ways to serve that bring me no attention or advance my personal agenda? Paul rounds out the section with the exaltation of Christ (Phil 2:9-11). We offer this kind of mindset toward others as humble submission and worship to the exalted Savior who did the same for us.