On Ascension Sunday, we mark and remember the coronation of the Lord Jesus Christ. This crowning was the coronation of the ultimate example of humility. Now the Bible teaches us that in Christ, we are kings and priests (Rev. 1:6; 5:10). We will rule with Him, and in Him (Rev. 2:26-27). And the Scriptures also teach that our path to our little thrones will be just like His path to His great throne (2 Tim. 2:12). This means that we need to make a point of studying what actual humility is like, and how it actually desires what God promises us.
“Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:5–11).
Summary of the Text
We are told in the previous verse that our gaze should be outward—we are not to spend our time gazing on our “own things,” but rather on the “things of others” (v. 4). In doing this, we are not starting from scratch. We should have a mind within us that was previously in Christ Jesus (v. 5). If pressed for an explanation of what He did, Paul explains that though he was in the form of God (morphe, characteristic shape), He did not consider His equality with God something that He should grasp (v. 6). Rather, He emptied Himself and took the form (morphe) of a servant, that servant form being the likeness of men (v. 7). And being found in human shape (schema), He humbled Himself to the point of death on a cross (v. 8). As a consequence of this great act of obedience, God has exalted Him highly and given Him a name that is above every name (v. 9). The result of this gift is that at the name of Jesus, every knee will bow—in Heaven, on earth, and under the earth (v. 10). Every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, and this in turn will redound to the glory of God the Father (v. 11).
Humility is Ambitious
If God did not want us to be motivated by thought of reward, then why did He offer so many of them? In this passage, God sets before us the exaltation of Jesus, pointing to that as part of the story. When we are told to imitate Him in His humility, we are being directed to the glorious destination of all such humility. Jesus didn’t tell us to ban seats of honor at weddings; He taught us a trick for how to get into them (Luke 14:7-11). But there is a trick within the trick. The trick is that we have to die. Jesus didn’t say to rip out the chief seats in the synagogues—He pointed out the inglorious behavior of those who loved those seats (Luke 20:45-47). He promised us long life in the land if we honored our fathers and mothers (Eph. 6:1-4). But we have to pursue our inheritance of land the way He instructs (Luke 14:25-26; Mark 10:29-31). So we honor our fathers and mothers rightly by hating them rightly.
So humility is defined by what we are ambitious for, and not by whether we are ambitious. Those who pretend to want nothing at all are those who have entered on a deep course of self-deception. “Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God” (John 12:42–43, ESV). There are two, and only two, possibilities for us. We will either love the glory that arises from man, or we will love and seek after the glory that comes from God. We were created to pursue glory, and so we can do nothing else. Because we are fallen, it is easy to pursue the wrong kind of glory—but the problem is not that it is glorious, but rather because, at the end of the day, it is not glorious.
“Who will render to every man according to his deeds: To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life: But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath” (Rom. 2:6–8).
In short, there is a way of striving for glory, seeking it, that is not self-seeking. It is to follow the path that Jesus established.
So Humility is Not Craven
Humility is a perfection of grace, and so it is not surprising that the devil wants to counterfeit it. Just as he offers counterfeit glory, so also he offers a counterfeit path for getting there. But true humility does not crawl; it is not a quadruped. C.S. Lewis captured the biblical view perfectly when he said this: “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” Remember our text—we are to be thinking of the things of others. That is not the same thing as thinking of our “own things,” provided we do it with a morbidly self-critical eye. The egoistic self has an enormous gravitational pull; it is an ego-centric black hole. And so it is that we find the possibility of someone thinking about himself all the time, and believing for that entire time that he is being humble. But this self-focus is arrogance and pride, not humility. If you are in the center of that little television screen in your brain all the time, it does not matter if you see a creeping little worm or a glowing celebrity. The problem is pride.
Back to the Ultimate Example
Jesus did what He did for the joy that was set before Him (Heb. 12:2). The glory that Jesus now has is the glory that we have been promised. We are not told to wait and think about something else until the glory is dropped on top of us. No, we are told, commanded, summoned, to pursue that glory. And that is how we can understand affliction rightly. The Puritan Thomas Bridges said it well when he said that affliction is nothing but a dirty lane leading to a royal palace. And that lane is one that Jesus walked down, and He summons us to pursue glory by following after Him.