What is this central theme in this reading? What is the one thing that we might focus on as important? Is it the humility of Christ? Or the exaltation of Christ? Or the hope that in the end every knee – all of the knees – will bow to Christ? Or that we have responsibility to “work out salvation” somehow? Or that God is the real worker? Or? Or? Or? This passage is so glorious that we will be tempted to go in too many directions – all of them good and true. This week I have attempted to find one thing to focus on within this, one of the most studied and debated passages in the New Testament.
There are three imperatives in the reading (English, of course, has many more – but in Greek there are only three). The imperatives occur verses 2, 5, and 12. They read (according to the CEB) : “Complete (!),” “Adopt the attitude (!),” and “carry out (!).” Each of these imperatives – especially and clearly the first two – point to the one theme I see. That theme is an ethical demand on followers of Christ: that we are to live humbly for the benefit of others.
The first section makes the point in both positive and negative ways:
2:1Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, 2 complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. 3 Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. 4 Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.
The negative statements here are helpful, for they point out the very opposite of the attitude Paul is asking us to adopt. The CEB translates two different words into one idea, simply, “selfish purposes.” In most other translations (and in Greek) there are two words: “selfish ambition” and “vain conceit.”
These words – “selfish ambition” and “vain conceit” – identify clearly how NOT to be. These are the opposites of what Paul is after – to live humbly for the benefit of others. Ambition does not belong in the Christian. Thinking highly of oneself does not belong in the Christian. Rather, and Paul says it clearly, “with humility think of others as better than yourselves. 4 Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.”
Then comes the next imperative, “Adopt the attitude [!] that was in Christ Jesus.” And here Paul launches into the famous passage about Christ. But the point Paul is making (by talking about Christ) is that are to live humbly for the benefit of others. We certainly could spend our time just in this marvelous passage and mine the depths of the wonder of God – but that is not the direction I have taken this time around. This time, I’m focusing on the fact that Christ is used as an example for us. We should be like Christ, who lived humbly for the benefit of others. Adopt that attitude! Live humbly for the benefit of others because that is what God in Christ does.
Verses 6-8 illustrate how God in Christ displayed the very opposite of “selfish ambition.”
6 Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.7 But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human,8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
We are tempted to “selfish ambition.” We look out for number one. We want to advance. We want the goods. We want to “get something out of it.” We want to “have control” over what goes on. But God wants us to live like Jesus who gives up benefit and gives up control.
Verses 9-11 illustrate the very opposite of “vain conceit,” for the honor given to Christ is granted by God after Christ’s display of utter humility on behalf of others.
Therefore, God highly honored him and gave him a name above all names,10 so that at the name of Jesus everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
We are tempted to “vain conceit.” We want to feel and to be important. We want honor. We want recognition. We want to be noticed. We often think we are more important than we really are. But God wants us to live like Jesus, in humility, and receive from God whatever honor God might wish to grant us in the age to come.
The last imperative section, verses 12 and 13, points backwards to all that came before it.
12 Therefore, my loved ones, just as you always obey me, not just when I am present but now even more while I am away, carry out [!] your own salvation with fear and trembling. 13 God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his good purposes.
The “therefore” connects this to what comes before. The command to “carry out [!] your own salvation” implies that our salvation is bound up in humbly living for the benefit of others. John Wesley’s brief commentary on these words is helpful, “Work out your own salvation—Here is our duty: for it is God that worketh in you—Here is our encouragement. And O! what a glorious encouragement, to have the arm of Omnipotence stretched out for our support and succour.”
The passage as a whole sets out an ethic, based in and empowered by God. We are to get away from “selfish ambition” and “vain conceit” and live humbly for the benefit of others. We all need this word. We all need God to give us the example (in Christ) and the ability (through the Spirit) to actually live this way.
Paul says it beautifully. These are words that sing sweetly on their own. Sweet and, if we hear rightly, perhaps sour. For our hearts are bent toward selfish, ambitious, vain, conceited desires. Oh, that God would enable us to want and to actually live out God’s good purposes, to live our lives humbly for the benefit of others.
 John Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament (Fourth American Edition; New York: J. Soule and T. Mason, 1818), 526.
Pastor, Scottsdale First Church of the Nazarene