In the message that I gave just before leaving on vacation, I focused on my hope for a kind of relational culture at Bethlehem that would give rise to wisdom — the kind of wisdom that would help us discern how to cut through complex issues like the relationship between baptism and church membership.
A Corporate and Relational Attainment
I argued from Colossians 3:16 and James 3:13–18 that wisdom is marked by meekness and freedom from selfish ambition and bitter jealousy and boasting. In other words, wisdom rises in relationships of humility and love and servanthood, rather than jealousy and selfishness. Wisdom is not a solitary attainment. It is a corporate and relational attainment. Loners are not wise. Wisdom is given and found and forged in the fires of committed relationships.
Here’s a definition of wisdom that I think is biblical: Wisdom is the ability of the soul to perceive God-glorifying, Christ-exalting, gospel-fashioned, people-helping ways to live, with the knowledge God gives us. Wisdom is not the ability to memorize specific biblical rules of behavior. Wisdom is needed because so many of our decisions are not explicitly regulated by specific rules in the Bible.
Take three examples: personal priorities, parenting, and politics.
Priorities, Parenting, and Politics
How do you decide how to apply your personal priorities in what you do with the minutes of your days — eating, working, exercising, sleeping, reading, entertainment, conversations, evangelism, praying? There are no specific rules in the Bible that dictate the proportion of your time that go into these things.
“Wisdom is not a solitary attainment. It is a corporate and relational attainment.”
And parenting? I daresay that ninety-five percent of the daily, specific decisions we face in parenting are not laid down for us in Scripture. But we have to decide. Parents don’t have the luxury of postponing how they think a child should be reared. We are deciding every hour how to do it.
And politics? Here I don’t mean merely how you vote. I mean how you think about having your citizenship decisively in heaven, not decisively in America. How do you live on the earth when your life is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3), when you are an alien and exile on this earth (1 Peter 2:11), and yet called to submit to the powers that be (Romans 13:1), and to love your neighbor (Matthew 22:39), and to make a living (1 Thessalonians 4:10–12), and to subdue the earth (Genesis 1:28)? How shall we be in the world and not of the world (John 17:15)? This is a call for extraordinary spiritual wisdom. It’s a call to me and all the elders: How will you help Bethlehem grow in this?
Our Relational Culture
So I return today to this issue of the relational culture of our church — a kind of relational atmosphere where God may be pleased to give us wisdom for our personal priorities and our families and our citizenship in ways that are God-glorifying, Christ-exalting, gospel-fashioned, people-helping.
I invite you to turn with me to Paul’s letter to the Philippians, chapter 2. What I am about to show you I have shown to the pastoral leadership at our Prayer and Planning Retreat on June 28 and to the Desiring God staff on June 25, and with Noël and Talitha as we worked our way through Philippians on vacation. It has become in the last two months my most relentless prayer for myself. And I think it is close to the heart of the relational culture we are talking about.
It’s stated most clearly in verse 4, and then it is illustrated in the lives of Jesus, Paul, Timothy, and Epaphroditus. I don’t mean incidentally illustrated; I mean that Paul intentionally illustrates verse 4 by bringing in Jesus, himself, Timothy, and Epaphroditus the way he does. So that is what we will do. We will take note of verse 4, and then look at four ways that it is lived out in four different people’s lives in Philippians 2. My prayer is that you will join me in making this your prayer: “Lord, work so deeply in my heart that I am freed from the bondage of self-centeredness and given the disposition to look not only to my own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
Looking Out for Others’ Interests
Look at Philippians 2:4: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” The word “interests” is a filler. In the original, it’s open-ended. All that is specified is “your own (something)” or “the other’s (something).” So it could be, “Let each of you look not only to your own financial affairs, or your own property, or your own family, or your own health, or your own reputation, or your own education, or your own success, or your own happiness — don’t just think about that, don’t just have desires about that, don’t just strategize about that, don’t just work toward that, but look to the financial affairs and property and family and health, and reputation, and education, and success, and happiness of others.”
In other words, verse 4 is a way of saying the words of Jesus, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Matthew 22:39). That is, make the good of others the focus of your interest and strategy and work. Find your joy in making others joyful. If you are watching television and your child says, “Would you play with me?” don’t just think about how tired you are. By an act of gospel-fashioned, Christ-exalting will, put the child’s interests before the pleasures of your relaxation.
Counting Others as More Significant
One of the keys to this radical way of living is in the second half of Philippians 2:3: “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” Or as the old King James says, “Let each esteem others better than themselves.” I remember when I was in the ninth grade thinking this was impossible. My sister could read, it seemed, ten times faster than I could. I was simply amazed that she could read an entire Bobbsey Twins novel in one night — about 150 pages. There is no way, I thought, that she could esteem me better than her in reading. But I got As in Algebra, and my sister struggled. So there was no way I could esteem her better than I in Algebra.
“The point was not what others are. The point is what you count others to be.”
But I missed the point. The point was not what others are. The point is what you count others to be. And the focus is not on how they read or do math, or any other skill or trait. The focus is: Will you count them as worthy of your help and encouragement? Not are they worthy? But will you count them as worthy? Will I serve my sister? Will I take thought not just for my interests but for hers? Will I encourage her and take the time to help her and build her up? Will I stop shooting buckets in the driveway and show interest in her?
Humility and Its Source — The Cross
And where does that other-oriented commitment come from? Verse 3 says, “In humility count others more significant than yourselves.” It comes from humility. Literally: “lowliness.” This is the great opposite of a sense of entitlement. Humility is the opposite of “You owe me.” Paul said, “I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish” (Romans 1:14). In other words, they didn’t owe him. He owed them.
Why? Why do Christians walk through life feeling a humble sense that we owe service to people, rather than them owing us? The answer is that Christ loved us and died for us and forgave us and accepted us and justified us and gave us eternal life and made us heirs of the world when he owed us nothing. He treated us as worthy of his service when we were not worthy of his service. He took thought not only for his own interests but for ours. He counted us as greater than himself: “Who is the greater,” he said, “one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves” (Luke 22:27).
That is where our humility comes from. We feel overwhelmed by God’s grace: bygone grace in the cross and moment-by-moment arriving grace promised for our everlasting future. Christians are stunned into lowliness. Freely you have been served, freely serve.
So the crucial relational mark of the culture of our church should be Philippians 2:4: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” This is the “mind” or the “mindset” that we should have in life together. This is the relational atmosphere where God will grant wisdom for the perplexing work of living in this world.
Four Examples of Jesus’s Mindset
Now take a very brief glimpse at four examples of this mindset. All we can do is glance. But later you can read this chapter slowly with this one verse in view and see how central it is to Paul’s purpose in the way he illustrates it four times.
First is Jesus himself. Verses 5–8:
Have this mind among yourselves [the mind of verse 4!], which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count [notice the word!] equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing [literally emptied himself], by taking the form of a servant [that is what it means to look to the interests of others], being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself [he laid down all his legitimate entitlements] by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
If you ever struggle with humility or self-denial or serving those who are hard to love, think on this picture of Christ. This is what he did for you. He is the great example of verse 4: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” That is what he did when he came to die in your place.
To be sure, verses 9–11 show that he was gloriously rewarded for this self-emptying, servanthood even unto death: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9–11). And it will be true for you as well. “Whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12).
Second is the example of Paul himself. Verses 17–18:
Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise, you also should be glad and rejoice with me.
Paul loved this church. He loved all the churches. And he died every day to serve them. “I die every day!” (1 Corinthians 15:31). He compared his life to a drink offering poured out on the sacrifice of their faith. In other words, he didn’t take thought just for his own interests; he took thought for their faith and was willing to deny himself over and over, and in the end die, that their faith would be strong.
Third is the example of Timothy. And here the wording is an explicit recall of verse 4. Watch how Paul contrasts Timothy with others. Verses 19–22:
I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon, so that I too may be cheered by news of you. For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare [literally: your interests, your things]. For they all seek their own interests [there’s the exact wording of verse 4], not those of Jesus Christ. But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel.
“It was beautiful when Christ put our interests above his own earthly comforts and died for us.”
Oh, how I pray that this mind of Christ — to take thought not only for our own interests but for the interests of others — will not be as rare at Bethlehem as it was in Paul’s experience. “They all seek their own interests.” “I have no one like Timothy.” Would you, with all your heart, join me in praying for this and pursuing this and willing this in the power of God’s Spirit? Make this the mark of the relational culture of our church.
Finally, the example of Epaphroditus. Verses 25–30:
I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. [Notice how amazingly their interests dominate: He was not distressed that he was ill, nor was he distressed that they had not heard he was ill, like most of us who want others to know if we are sick; instead he was distressed because they heard he was ill! Would they be too worried? Would they fear he died? Their interests were on his heart.] Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. . . . So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.
The Beauty of Looking Out for Others’ Interests
There you have four illustrations of what I long to become, and what I long for our church to be like. Call it “the mind of Christ.” Call it “the two-four factor” (Philippians 2:4). Call it whatever you will. It is beautiful.
It was beautiful when Christ put our interests above his own earthly comforts and died for us.
It was beautiful when Paul suffered every day to plant the churches that brought us the gospel.
It was beautiful when Timothy served side by side with Paul, putting the interests of others first.
It was beautiful when Epaphroditus risked his life to complete the Philippian service to Paul.
And it will be beautiful in your personal priorities and families and politics as God makes his wisdom grow up among us where the mind of Christ is so alive.
Lord, do it. For Christ’s sake.