In 1973 a man named Robert Ringer wrote a book entitled “Winning Through Intimidation.” After the manuscript was rejected 23 times by publishers, he decided to self-publish the book. It became a #1 bestseller and spent 36 weeks on the NY Times bestseller list. In 1977 he self-published another book, “Looking Out for Number One.” That book also became a #1 bestseller and is still considered to be one of the top 15 self-help books of all time. That second book was based on the premise that since man’s inherent nature is to look out for number one, we need to do a better job of looking out for number one. Here’s a quote, “We sometimes lose sight of the fact that our primary objective is really to be happy as possible and that all our other objectives, great and small, are only a means to that end.”
That phrase—“looking out for number one”—has since become a part of our culture’s vernacular. But “looking out for number one” is nothing new to any one of us humans. We don’t need a book to tell us to do a better job of it. In sin, selfishness reigns. And since we are all born sinners, we are all born with a natural inclination to put ourselves first.
We are, in sin, self-worshippers at heart. At the beginning of the second chapter of his book, “Improving Your Serve,” Chuck Swindoll writes this: I, ME, MINE, MYSELF. Those four words stood out in bold print. They appeared as if they were forming an enormous monument, each letter seemingly chiseled out in granite. At the base of this strange “monument” were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people with their arms held up high, as if worshipping at a shrine. And then in very small letters, this caption appeared at the bottom of the editorial cartoon: “Speaking of American cults…”
This, beloved, is the culture in which we live. It is a self-consumed and self-preoccupied society. Worshipping at the idol of self we mistakenly assume that there is virtue and lasting benefit to be gained in the worship of self.
2 Timothy chapter 3 warned of the days in which we live, saying: “But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God; holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power.” Now we live in these difficult days. And each of the maladies spoken of in this passage are readily recognizable in our society. But note this about the passage, “lovers of self,” comes first. And it would be fair to say that the rest of the maladies follow that first malady. The “Looking Out for Number One” philosophy is, in fact, a recipe for social chaos and disaster. As it has been ever since Adam and Even fell in the garden and sin entered into the world. We read about that in chapter 3, then in chapter 4 we read how Cain, as he was “looking out for number one,” killed his brother.
The long history of humanity is filled with such examples. The reality is that in sin we are selfish and being selfish we don’t relate well to one another. In sin, we are impatient, unkind, envious, prideful, rude, self-seeking, easily angered and embittered.
There is but one example—in the annals of human history—of a man who lived a purely selfless life. And that man is Jesus Christ. Philippians 2:5-8 speaks of Him: “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond servant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance of a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
What happened when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us? Jesus Christ was the Divine Son of God. He was also a perfect man. He was a man without sin. In Him there was no sin. He never sinned. He was perfectly submitted to the Father in all that He did. And He lived His life according to the godly character that was innate to His person. And so what do we see and find in this God-man, Jesus Christ? He became man and took on the form of a bond-servant. He lived a life of servant-hood. He came into the world with no entourage. He had none of the trappings of royalty. He had no home and no possessions. He came as a servant and He served others. Purposefully. Relentlessly. Sacrificially. And when He had given all that He had but His own life, He gave that up too. And, as I said, His like is unique in the annals of human history. He never exercised a selfish thought. He never did a selfish thing. He never uttered a selfish word. Instead of looking out for number one, the Divine Son of God came into this world looking out for everyone but number one.
Now, by the Spirit, you—believer in Christ—have come to understand something of the beauty of the person of Christ. You’ve worshipped at the shrine of self, but you came to the realization that “self” if a false god that can never work to satisfy your deepest needs and desires. Christ alone can do that. You thought, perhaps, that the universe revolved around you, but you came to realize that it is Christ alone who is worthy of such love and devotion. But you nonetheless live in this flesh and are surrounded by worshippers of self. And that’s why this passage is so important. It reminds us of how God has called us, as believers, to a higher plane of living. A way of thinking and living in Christ that meets with Divine approval. And which proves to be a blessing not only to ourselves but to those around us.
“In the last days difficult times will come, for men will be lovers of self” (1 Timothy 3:1-2). But we need to purpose, by the Spirit, to think differently. Romans 12:2 speaks to the need for us to not be conformed to the world (to not allow the world to press us into its own mold), but to be transformed by the renewing of the mind. This is one of those matters where it is essential that we purpose in Christ to think and live differently.
We are to have the mind of Christ. Note the phrase in verse 5, “have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus.” The Greek term translated “attitude” is the same term translated “mind” in verse 2. It is in the present tense so it speaks of a continuous “mind” or a continuous “way of thinking.” The NASB has translated it attitude and that gives a good sense of it. What’s an attitude? Sometimes we must use that in a negative way. What’s up with your attitude? But one of the definitions of attitude is: “a mental position with regard to a fact or state.” Put simply, it is a way of thinking.
And as we look forward in the passage, to verses 6-8, we can readily identify that attitude in Christ that we are called upon to emulate. It is in respect to His servanthood. To “have this attitude…which was also in Christ Jesus” is to think about your life in relationship to others as that of being a servant.
Note the other phrase used to represent the mindset we are to maintain as believers: “with humility of mind” (2:3). The term translates a combination of terms, one meaning “low-lying” and the other “mind.” The idea is lowliness of mind. It is set against the other term in the verse, conceit.
God calls us as believers to this mind-set, one of lowliness of mind. Now humility is commonly disdained and likewise commonly misunderstood. It’s good for us to have a good, Biblical definition of what is meant by the term. Romans 12:3 is helpful, “For through the grace of God given to me I say to every man among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as god has allotted to each a measure of faith.” Humility involves having a proper estimation of ourselves.
C. J. Mahaney uses this definition: “Humility is honestly assessing ourselves in light of God’s holiness and our sinfulness.” In sin we are prideful and ignorant of these truths. But the Holy Spirit does a wonderful work in opening our eyes to the glory of God and His holiness and simultaneously convicting us of the depth of our sin problem. Humility is essential not only in our relationship with God, but it also impacts the way we relate to others. How important is humility in how we relate to God? The Scripture repeats this principle of truth three times: “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” And when it comes to our relationships with others, pride is at the source of all kinds of strife and divisions. That is why Peter says, “clothe yourselves with humility toward one another” (1 Peter 5:5).
There is a great quote regarding humility from Andrew Murray. He said, “Humility is perfect quietness of heart. It is to expect nothing, to wonder at nothing that is done to me, to feeling nothing done against me. It is to be at rest when nobody praises me, and when I am blamed and despised…The humble person is not one who thinks meanly of himself, he simply does not think of himself at all.”
We have a great example of this attitude of Christ provided for us in the gospel of Mark (Mark 10:35-45). James and John went to Jesus to ask of Him that he might give to them the privileged seats, on His right and His left, when He came into power. Now they didn’t understand some things. They believed Jesus to be the Messiah. But they couldn’t understand what He was saying when He spoke to them of His pending suffering and death. They were all headed to Jerusalem, and then Jesus would be made to be king. So they asked for those privileged positions of power. And Jesus responded by again speaking of His pending suffering and the sufferings that they themselves would eventually face. Now after this discussion ensued, the rest of the disciples “began to feel indignant with James and John” (Mark 10:41). This is not the only occasion when we read of such a thing. Later in Jesus’ ministry, after He shared the last supper with His disciples, a discussion ensued amongst the disciples as to which one of them was the greatest. So these disciples were far from perfect men, they were prone to the same “looking out for number one” way of thinking that has infected us all. But Jesus responded to the matter by distinguishing between two different ways of thinking and living. He said that the Gentiles function according to man’s way of thinking. Rulers “lord it over them.” People vie for the highest positions and when they get them they use their power to command others and demand certain things from them. And, according to man’s way of thinking, this is perfectly acceptable and normal behavior. We might even speak of it according to what is commonly called “upward mobility.” But Jesus said that that’s now how things work in God’s economy, “But it is no so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:44-45). In God’s economy greatness is not defined in terms of “upward mobility,” but “downward mobility.” Greatness in God’s kingdom looks like servanthood and Christ Jesus Himself is the great testimony to that truth.
In his book, “True Humility,” C. J. Mahaney differentiates between greatness as defined by the world and by God: “The difference couldn’t be more stark. As sinfully and culturally defined, pursuing greatness looks like this: Individuals motivated by self-interest, self-indulgence, and a false sense of self-sufficiency pursue selfish ambition for the purpose of self-glorification. Contrast this with the pursuit of true greatness as biblically defined: Serving others for the glory of God.”
Note that phrase there, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.” Philippians 2:5 is telling us that we are to think the same way as Jesus. And we ought to be able to say the same thing about ourselves.
• In our marriage: I am not in this marriage to be served, but to serve.
• In our family: I am not in this family, to be served, but to serve.
• In our relationships at work or at school: I am not here to be served, but to serve.
• In our church: I am not here to be served, but to serve.
We would say: “I am glad to serve you in Jesus’ name. My great goal and aspiration is to know and love and serve the Lord Jesus Christ, and these things I do by following His example.”
With respect to the radical way of thinking God calls us to, the hymn, “May the Mind of Christ, my Savior,” puts it well. And it is a prayer. That the Holy Spirit may work through the Word of God, so that in our walk with Christ we might have the attitude of Christ: “May the mind of Christ my Savior, live in me from day to day, By His love and power controlling, all I do and say.”
We are likewise called to a radically different way of relating to others. “Do nothing from selfishness” it says. The term translated “selfishness” denotes “ambition, self-seeking, rivalry.” Vine’s Expository Dictionary explains that “self-will” is the underlying idea in the word. So it is that in us that is self-centered and demanding and contributes to a spirit of divisiveness.
The cause of this self-seeking behavior is an overestimate of one’s own importance. “Empty conceit” and selfish behavior go hand in hand. And, as we’ve already stated, there are a host of miserable consequence that go along with this kind of behavior.
We’ve got a couple of great examples in Scripture of both the positive and negative to what is expressed here in verse 3. In 3 John we read of Diotrephes. It is said of him that he “loved to be first among them.” Apparently Diotrephes had a problem with pride. This was a man who called himself a Christian. But his behavior was hardly Christ-like. He denied the authority of the Apostle John. John was an apostle appointed by the Lord Jesus Himself. He had walked with Jesus and had witness Jesus’ death and resurrection. He had faithfully served Jesus for decades. He had suffered much in bearing witness of the Lord Jesus, but in his prideful arrogance, Diotrephes showed no respect to that wonderful man of God. And then there was the matter of showing Christian hospitality. When other associates of John would go there to visit, Diotrephes wouldn’t receive them. And if that wasn’t bad enough, if anyone dared to receive these friends of John, Diotrephes would put them out of the church. Diotrephes was not living his life according to the truths of this verse. He was of the “looking out for number one” mindset.
Look at Philippians 2:19-21. Here we find another man, Timothy—Paul’s beloved son in the faith. Paul was hoping to send Timothy to the church in Philippi so that he could receive a report on how things were going. He said that he had no one else of “kindred spirit who (would) be genuinely be concerned for (their) welfare” (2:20). Timothy was of kindred spirit with Paul, but they both were of kindred spirit to the Lord Himself. They had that “attitude which is in Christ Jesus.” Note what Paul went on to say. “For they all seek after their own interests, not those of Christ Jesus” (2:21). Timothy is a wonderful example of this Philippians 2:3 way of living. Now I know of nothing that will work to promote unity better in a marriage or home or church than for each member to adopt this approach to relating to others. If every member will seek after the interests of Christ Jesus, they will prove him or herself to be a source of great blessing to others. Philippians 2:3 is a verse to memorize and meditate on and allow it to become deeply rooted in your heart. That the Spirit might work to transform you through this Word.
“Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4).
I’m reminded of the story of Uncle Bob’s Shoes. It was on one of my first trips to Uganda. Pastor Bob and I had been leading a conference for pastors in Kabaale Village. We were walking back to the guest house for lunch. Bob stopped along the way to talk to one of the pastors. When he was approaching our dining area, I noticed that he was walking gingerly along the path. I looked then at his feet and noticed that he was wearing some crude and well-worn sandals. “What happened to your shoes,” I asked? He explained to me how the pastor had stopped him and asked him to pray that God would provide him with some shoes because his sandals were hurting his feet. So, Bob had taken off his shoes and gave them to this pastor in exchange for the man’s sandals. And as we were talking, Bob removed those pain-inflicting sandals. And we were both amazed at what we saw. The pastor had tried to repair the sandals, holding them together by punching a bunch of tacks through the soles. And though he had tried to stub the points on the upward side, they still poked through and caused some discomfort when you tried to walk in them. Why would Pastor Bob give away his sandals? Because he was living according to his mindset. He was living out what it says, “Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” He had another pair of shoes. He was glad to serve Jesus by serving this pastor and looking out for his interests.
History tells us of how a man named Copernicus studied the sky and came to a startling conclusion regarding the order of things. He said, “If man is to know the truth, he must change his thinking! Despite what we have said for years, our earth is not the center of the cosmos—but just one celestial body among many. The sun does not move around us; we move around the sun.” Years later someone did a study on children and concluded, “Each child must have his or her own “Copernicus revelation.” Indeed, we are all in need of such a thing.
Beloved, God has called you to walk in Jesus’ footsteps. There is no virtue or valor in selfishness. What does courage and strength and a purposeful life look like? It looks like Jesus. And God calls on all of us to follow in His steps. To adopt, by the Spirit, His way of thinking and to replicate, again by the Spirit, His way of living. And make no mistake about it—this radical way of thinking and living—is impossible for any of us in our own flesh. It will do us no good to try harder to be better when it comes to these matters. We can only do any of this as we are led and empowered by the Spirit to do them. But let’s pray that it would be so. Unto the glory of our Savior.