James Montgomery Boice has passed along an interesting story he heard first from Watchman Nee.
Watchman Nee, the Chinese evangelist, tells of a Christian he once knew in China. He was a poor rice farmer, and his fields lay high on a mountain. Every day he pumped water into the paddies of new rice, and every morning he returned to find that a neighbor who lived down the hill had opened the dikes surrounding the Christian’s field to let the water fill his own. For a while the Christian ignored the injustice, but at last he became desperate. He met and prayed with other Christians and came up with this solution. The next day the Christian farmer rose early in the morning and first filled his neighbor’s fields; then he attended to his own. Watchman Nee tells how the neighbor subsequently became a Christian, his unbelief overcome by a genuine demonstration of a Christian’s humility and Christlike character.
It is an intriguing story because it hits at the core challenge in human relationships: the inability to see and understand one another as a result of our anger at one another or our need to be first or right. This farmer, in fact, did something profoundly counterintuitive. He subjugated his own needs to the needs of another. In essence, he considered his neighbor as more important than himself. In doing so, he broke down the growing wall of hostility that was between them and allowed the grace of God to move.
I believe that the New Testament calls us all to precisely this kind of thinking. I further believe that this kind of selflessness will result in a powerful movement of God in our midst. This idea of considering one another as more important than ourselves, while difficult, is the concluding statement in the first section of our covenant.
As a body of born again believers,
We covenant to become an authentic family by
loving one another as Christ loves us,
praying for one another,
speaking truth to one another in love,
being patient with one another,
protecting one another,
considering one another as more important than ourselves.
Again, these are daunting words and we might wonder if such is even possible. But I want to argue not only that it is possible, but that, to the child of God, it should become more and more natural to us.
God calls His church to a seemingly impossible ideal in the area of relationships.
The most important words in life usually end up being the words that seem most impossible: “I will love you forever.” “I will never leave you.” “I will never let you down.” If you think about it, these are the words that make life worth living, yet they are also the words that, again, seem most impossible! In Philippians 2, Paul gives the church some more seemingly impossible words, this time in the form of a command. He writes:
3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.
“Count others more significant than yourselves.” We have put these words in our covenant in this form: “considering one another as more important than ourselves.” Our covenant wording is closer to the wording of the New American Standard Bible and the Holman Christian Standard Bible than to that of the English Standard Version, but it is interesting to observe how other translations have rendered it.
New International Version
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves
New Living Translation
Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves.
English Standard Version
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.
New American Standard Bible
Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves
King James Bible
Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.
Holman Christian Standard Bible
Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves.
American Standard Version
doing nothing through faction or through vainglory, but in lowliness of mind each counting other better than himself
Let nothing be done through contention, neither by vain glory: but in humility, let each esteem others better than themselves
Young’s Literal Translation
nothing in rivalry or vain-glory, but in humility of mind one another counting more excellent than yourselves
What an unbelievable thought, that we might consider one another as more important than ourselves. Everything within our self-centered hearts revolts at the idea and, in truth, even if we desire to reach this place (which I hope we do!) we likely have no idea where to begin to reach it! What can it mean to consider one another as more important than ourselves? How do we begin? John MacArthur has offered some helpful words concerning the first step toward being able to do this:
It is clear that Paul has in mind a view of others that is not natural to man and is extremely difficult even for believers to achieve. Perhaps the best way to approach that seemingly unrealistic and impossible challenge is for believers to consider their own sins. Believers know far more about their own hearts than about the heart of anyone else. Recognizing the sinfulness of their hearts should exclude any boastful self-exaltation. If Paul viewed himself as “the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle” (1 Cor. 15:9), “the very least of all saints” (Eph. 3:8), and even the foremost of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15), how could any believers honestly think of themselves in any higher way?
This is wise! The first step to considering one another as more important than yourself is to see the reality of yourself as a sinner in need of grace. Our self-obsession and our pride are rooted in an overly-inflated view of our own selves. But in truth, why do we think so highly of ourselves? Why should we not consider one another as more important than ourselves given what we know of ourselves: our sinfulness, our selfishness, and, ironically, our need for others. On this last observation, if our need for others is not rooted in genuine interest in others as significant and as having value, then we simply end up using others toward our own ends! We need them, in that sense, only to advance ourselves. But this should not be the way of the people of God. No, we must consider one another as more important than ourselves.
The next step in considering one another as more important than ourselves is to understand rightly what “as more important than ourselves” means. Wrongly understood, this can lead to all kinds of problems and even harmful attitudes. New Testament scholar Gordon Fee observes of the phrase:
As with humility, this last phrase does not mean that one should falsely consider others better. As Philippians 2:4 will clarify, we are so to consider others not in our estimation of them—which would only lead to the very vices Paul has just spoken against—but in our caring for them, putting them and their needs ahead of our own. Others in the community are not necessarily “better” than I am, but their needs and concerns “surpass” my own. After all, this is precisely how Christ’s humility expressed itself, as Paul narrates in verse 8. This is how he elsewhere describes those whose behavior is genuinely Christian; they do not seek their own good, but the good of others (1 Cor 10:24).
This is most helpful. Lest you think that Fee is trying to take the sharp edges off these words, consider the absurdity of approaching these words as if they mean that you should never acknowledge one person’s skill or giftings or “being better at something” than others. Think, for instance, of going to a Christian surgeon. You need him to do surgery on your heart. You say, “Doctor, please help me! Will you do the operation?” Then imagine he says, “Well, I would, but the Bible says that we should consider one another as more important than ourselves, so who am I to say that I can do heart surgery on you better than anybody else could do it, or that I know more about this than others. I must resist pride. I must not elevate myself above others. I think I will call one of the deacons and ask them to do the surgery instead.”
What would you do? You would say, “NO!! That is not what that verse means! It means we are to love one another, look to one another’s interests more than to our own, and seek to value one another and serve one another more than we do ourselves! But it does not mean that you do not recognize the ways in which God has gifted you! In fact, doctor, you will see me as more important than yourself if you use your considerable gifts as a doctor to minister to my body! And I will see you as more important than myself when I thank you, praise God for you, and seek to honor who you are!”
Do you see the difference? Paul is not calling for a phony abasement of self. He is not calling us to be unaware of how God has blessed each of us and what He has equipped and called us to do. He is calling for a genuine valuing of one another.
How are we to genuinely value each other? We do so when we remember that God made the person next to you just like God made you and that the person next to you, regardless of what you do or do not feel about him or her, bears the image of God just as you do! If we could really grasp this truth of our neighbors as being created in the image of God, we would simultaneously humble ourselves and think more highly of others. Then we will have taken a step towards considering one another as more important than ourselves. Richard Melick writes that “humility begins with a realistic appraisal of oneself and others as being in the image of God.”Indeed it does!
Church, we must come to consider one another as more important than ourselves!Only then will we move toward becoming an authentic family around the whole gospel for the glory of God and the reaching of the nations. I think one of the more beautiful expressions of what Paul was driving at in these words is found in the following 1932 statement by Charles Erdman:
This Christian ideal is surprising; by some it is regarded as unreasonable. It is asserted that proper self-respect could not admit such an estimate of others. It is argued that we may have conclusive proof that others are less worthy and less able than ourselves. However, is it safe for us to act on such a judgment? We know our own weakness and defects; if we are lowly-minded these will be painfully obvious. Do we know the motives and temptations, the latent possibilities and actual capacities of others? Usually it is unwise to proceed on the assumption of our own superiority and our greater importance. Nor is the phrase to be pressed too far. The obvious intention of the apostle is to enjoin upon Christians real humility and unselfishness. Where these kindred virtues prevail Christian unity is ever maintained, and believers are certain to be “of one accord, of one mind.”
Consider one another as more important than yourselves!
Yet the ideal is rendered possible by the life, example, and empowering of Jesus Christ.
We have considered first steps to take toward this amazing ideal. Fortunately for us, in the verses that follow our text, Paul tells us how such an ideal is rendered possible and how we might ultimately attain it. We will pick back up with verse 5 of Philippians 2:
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Here, church, is how one ultimately comes to “consider one another as more important than yourselves”: taking on the mind of Christ Jesus. How so? Because Jesus and Jesus alone is the one who truly considered others as more important than Himself. The thought sounds strange to our ears, but taken as Paul intended it, it is certainly true! That is, Christ left the glories of Heaven and came among us. Indeed, He came as the least of us and showed us how to love one another like this, how to care for one another like this, how to serve one another like this. Only one has ever truly considered others as more important than Himself, and it is the One that none of us are more important than, Jesus Christ!
Think of it! If Christ could show such compassion and love and concern for you and for me, can we not show the same for one another? And how did Christ consider us as more important than Himself? He:
- “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped”
- “emptied Himself”
- took on “the form of a servant”
- “humbled himself”
- became “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Truly the mind reels at such a thought! How could He, God in flesh, love me like that? Then we understand: He loved us like that not only to save us from our sins but to show us how and to empower us to be able to love one another in the exact same way. This is what it means to take up your cross and follow Jesus (Matthew 16:24). It means to die for one another just as Christ has died for us, to let loose of our grasp of our own lives, our own agendas, and our own desires so that we can wrap loving arms around each other. It means that we are now free to love as we are loved.
Church, hear the challenge of the word of God: consider one another as more important than yourselves!
James Montgomery Boice, Philippians. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), p.107.
John MacArthur, Jr., Philippians. The MacArthur New Testament Commentary. (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 2001), p.113.
Gordon D. Fee, Philippians. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), p.88-89n.2:3.
Richard R. Melick, Jr., Philippians, Colossians, Philemon. The New American Commentary. New Testament, vol. 32 (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1991), p.95.
Charles R. Erdman, The Epistle of Paul to the Philippians. (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1932), p.71.