The English Puritan William Gurnall once said,
How can God stoop lower than to come and dwell with a poor humble soul, which is more than if he had said such a one should dwell with him? For a beggar to live at court is not so much as the king to dwell with him in his cottage.
That quotation captures so much about the spirit of Christmas. Christmas is a celebration of humility.
Humility in the Circumstances of Christ’s Birth
The Gospel narratives point to humility as they tell us about the environment the Godhead chose for the Messiah’s birth. Luke 2:24 indicates that Jesus’ parents were among the lowly in Judea. It records that for the ritual of Mary’s purification they brought the offering allowed for the poor: “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons” (Lev 12:8). The place where Jesus was born also speaks to humility—a shelter of some kind, probably a cave. Here he was laid down in a feeding trough. And who first came to visit and worship Jesus? Shepherds, who were among the lowest on the social ladder at the time.
“But,” someone might say, “what about the magi of Matthew 2, those wealthy men who traveled from far away to honor the long-awaited Messianic King and present lavish gifts to him?” Yes, but the irony is that Gentiles should bow before a member of the oppressed Jews and that this should happen in some unnamed house rather than a luxurious palace. And recall that the wise men had to flee for their lives. Then there’s the devastating reality that other Jewish babies lost their lives because of these visitors from the east. And Joseph and Mary had to run away to Egypt lest their Child be murdered as well. So even when it comes to the wise men, we see that the Messiah was born in abasement rather than glory.
Humility in the Attitude of Christ’s Mother
Humility surfaces also in the attitude of Jesus’ parents, especially his mother Mary. When the angel tells her about the virginal conception that would result in such shame and suffering for her, she replied: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Note as well what Mary emphasized when she praised the Lord for favoring her (Luke 1:47–48, 52–53):
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. . . . he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
Mary’s Magnificat is all about God showing mercy specifically to the humble!
Augustine’s Reflections on Christ’s Humility
In one of his famous Christmas sermons, dated to AD 411 or 412, the church father Augustine highlights Christmas humility. He reflects on a series of titles and roles of the Son of God and shows how each one stands in paradox with a humble reality regarding the incarnation and the death that resulted from it.
The Maker of man, he was made man,
so that the Director of the stars might be a babe at the breast;
that Bread might be hungry,
and the Fountain thirsty;
that the Light might sleep,
and the Way be weary from a journey;
that the Truth might be accused by false witnesses,
and the Judge of the living and the dead be judged by a mortal judge;
that Justice might be convicted by the unjust,
and Discipline be scourged with whips;
that the Cluster of Grapes [the Vine] might be crowned with thorns,
and the Foundation be hung up on a tree;
that Strength might grow weak,
eternal Health be wounded,
Life die. . . .
[He] was made in the mother whom he had made;
so that he might exist here for a time,
being born of her who could never and nowhere have existed except through him.
Christ’s Humility in Philippians 2
In making such statements, Augustine was following the lead of the Apostle Paul in Philippians 2. Verse 6 affirms that Christ is equal with God. But verse 7 says that he “emptied” himself. That doesn’t mean Christ somehow divested himself of deity. Instead, the rest of the verse explains what this metaphorical emptying language means: he emptied himself specifically “by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” The emptying wasn’t by way of subtracting something from his divine nature but by way of adding something: taking on a human nature so that he could serve human beings.
And the emptying didn’t stop there. The incarnation wasn’t an end in itself. Its purpose was to make possible an even greater humiliation: “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (v. 8).
But that isn’t the end of the story or the ultimate goal either. The Christ who humbled himself has now been “highly exalted” by the Father through his resurrection and enthronement (v. 9). And one day every human being will bow before him and acknowledge “that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (v. 10).
If the Holy Spirit had directed Paul to write this passage simply to explain the doctrine of the incarnation, that would have been a worthwhile purpose. It would naturally have moved us to worship our Savior for his astonishing self-humiliation. And that is one effect it ought to have on us, especially at Christmastime. In fact, many of our Christmas carols highlight the humble condescension of the incarnation. Consider a few lines:
“Lo, He abhors not the Virgins’ womb.”
“See within a manger laid, Jesus, Lord of heav’n and earth!”
“Mild he lays His glory by, Born that man no more may die.”
“Thou didst leave Thy throne And thy kingly crown When Thou comest to earth for me.”
“The King of kings thus lay in lowly manger, In all our trials born to be our Friend; He knows our need, To’our weakness is no stranger.”
Those beautiful words capture the spirit of Matthew 2 and Luke 2 and Philippians 2. Nevertheless, they don’t express the main application of Philippians 2. Paul doesn’t teach about Christ’s humiliation for general purposes of theology or doxology. His purpose is more down to earth and practical.
The Application of Christ’s Humility
Remember how Philippians 2 begins (vv. 1–5):
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus. . . .
All the doctrine about Christ’s incarnation and death comes up in this chapter to bolster and to motivate Paul’s appeal to unity in the Philippian church. The Apostle teaches the theology of Jesus’ humiliation to melt away any attitude of self-promotion and to inspire Christians to prioritize the interests of fellow believers above their own interests.
So if we are to apply this passage according to its context to our celebration of Christmas, it wouldn’t be so much by singing carols or giving gifts (worthy as those actions may be). The most appropriate application would be in terms of recognizing and repenting from any pride in our hearts that divides us from other followers of Jesus. Christmas is a celebration of humility—the humility of Christ in the incarnation and our own need for humility.
Yet there is more that can be said about humility from Philippians. Typically we hear that this epistle is all about joy. That is certainly a key theme, but one could easily make the case that humility is just as important a theme as joy. Philippians 2 is like the proverbial rock that’s thrown into a lake. This center regarding Christ’s humility generates encircling waves of application that develop what Christian humility looks like.
So Many Other Applications
In the very first verse of this epistle, Paul introduces himself and Timothy as servants of Christ Jesus—using the same word for servant or slave he uses of Christ in 2:7 (doulos), which happens to be from the same root as the word Mary had used for herself (doulē, Luke 1:38). So we can expect that Paul will model what he is urging on the Philippians.
In 1:12 Paul begins to discuss his present circumstances. He is locked up and unable to minister like he wanted. His ministry might seem to be at a standstill, yet his imprisonment had emboldened others to advance the gospel. On the other hand, verse 15 he mentions that some of these people were preaching Christ from “envy and rivalry”—no humility there! Yet Paul concludes in v. 17, “Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.” Here’s another application of Christmas humility: rejoice in the proclamation of the gospel even when your ministry doesn’t seem too productive and the ministry of those with wrong motives seems to be thriving.
As he concludes chapter 1, Paul speaks further about his own life. He deeply wants to depart this world and be with Christ, but he knows it’s better for him to stay on earth longer so that he can help people like the Philippians make progress in their Christian faith (v. 24ff). Is that not also an example of humility? Putting the spiritual needs of others above one’s own deliverance and comfort.
What about the parts of Philippians that come after the great passage on the incarnation in chapter 2? In 2:17 Paul writes, “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.” Here the themes of humility and joy are inseparably intertwined and reinforce each other.
Starting in verse 19, Paul goes on to speak of Timothy. He is unlike others in that he seeks the interests of Christ rather than his own (v. 21). In fact, verse 22 says that Timothy “served” with Paul in the gospel “as a son with a father.” Here the verb translated “serve” (douleuō) comes from the same root used of Paul and Jesus as servants. Similarly, we read of Epaphroditus, who “nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me” (2:30).
In all of this talk about Christmas humility and servanthood, it’s important to note that humility doesn’t mean you’re mealy-mouthed or avoid confrontation at all costs. Philippians 3 starts with Paul going after false teachers he calls “dogs” (v. 2). And the strong language continues at the end of the chapter (v. 19). So we shouldn’t mistake humility for silence or weakness or cowardice.
Jumping ahead to chapter 4, verse 2 is also confrontational: “I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord.” What’s the application of this blunt statement urging two Philippian women to get along? Perhaps Christmas humility would look like going to someone with whom you’ve had a falling out and confessing your sin and seeking forgiveness and reconciliation.
Another application arises at the end of chapter 4 (vv. 11b–13):
I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
Thus, Christmas humility can also take the form of trusting God and drawing on Christ’s power even when we go through seasons of great material need.
To sum up, Philippians teaches us that Christmas is a celebration of humility and that Christmas-inspired humility takes many forms. It moves us to . . .
- Pursue unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
- Rejoice in gospel proclamation regardless of who the messenger is and even if our own ministry seems stuck.
- Live lives of self-denying service for Christ and others, regardless of the results.
- Confess our offenses to one another.
- Trust in God’s care rather than giving in to anxiety.
These aren’t all the applications of humility in Philippians. Here’s an idea for a Christmas devotional project: read over this epistle and keep developing the list of applications. And when you think of the King of glory lying as a helpless Baby in a manger, ask the Lord to grow you in that same humility.
The Foundational Application of Christ’s Humility
But there’s one more dimension of humility in Philippians that I must include because it’s foundational to all the others. We find it in Paul’s classic testimony in chapter 3. There he gives a long list of ethnic and religious and lifestyle credentials that would naturally give him “confidence in the flesh” (v. 4), stoking pride before people and even before God.
“But,” verse 7 says,
whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.
Here is the only true starting point for Christmas humility. Recognize that all your achievements are garbage as far as gaining you a standing of acceptance with your Creator. Admit that you are morally and spiritually bankrupt before a holy God. Turn from your sin and rely exclusively on the righteousness provided as a gift by Jesus Christ.
That gift of righteousness is what the Son of God came to work out for us through his incarnation. He humbled himself by becoming a man, by living a life of obedience to the Father, and by dying on the cross for our sins. Christmas is a celebration of humility. At Christmas the Messianic Savior and King humbled himself in the extreme. To enjoy the blessing of that, we also must humble ourselves and come to him in simple faith.
References: William Gurnall, cited in Elliot Ritzema, ed., 300 Quotations and Prayers for Christmas. Augustine, Sermon 191, On Christmas Day, adapted from The Works of Saint Augustine, A Translation for the 21st Century, trans. Edmund Hill, ed. John E. Rotelle, III/6: 42. “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” Latin hymn, trans. Frederick Oakeley, et al. “Angels We Have Heard on High,” French carol, trans. James Chadwick. Charles Wesley, “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.” Emily E. S. Elliott, “Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne.” Placide Cappeau, “O Holy Night,” trans. John S. Dwight.