What Does Philippians 2: 3-4 Mean?
Philippians 2: 3-4 is a tough text and its one that many Christians may struggle to incorporate into their life, but before we take a closer look at the meaning of this verse, let’s take a look at who wrote it.
Who wrote Philippians 2: 3-4?
The Apostle Paul wrote the book of Philippians. It is a letter written to fellow Christians, thanking them for their support of his ministry and strengthening their resolve in following the way of Christ. Philippi was an important city in Macedonia, an area of modern Greece, which at that time was under the control of the Romans. Paul made two visits there, in A.D. 56 & 57, accompanied by Silas, Timothy and possibly Luke. The Epistle dates from A.D. 61-62. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Paul’s letter to the Philippians, which is so full of joy, optimism and goodwill toward others, is that he wrote it while he was incarcerated in a Roman prison.
What is the meaning of Philippians 2: 3-4?
‘Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others.’ NIV
‘Selfish ambition or vain conceit’. Doesn’t that just sum up most of us? Those Instagram posts or those ‘hurrah for me’ posts on LinkedIn, what are they if not vain conceit? We’re taught to be ambitious aren’t we? We’re told it’s a good thing. We heap adulation on some of the most vain and conceited people on the planet. When our entire social media world turns on vanity and conceit how are we to respond to Paul’s instruction? Humility seems pretty out of fashion; it’s hard to think of many role models. Christ said ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ but Paul takes that further, he says that the needs of others are more important than your own. How do you feel about that?
What kind of world would it be if we really did look after the interests of others? The poet William Blake wrote: ‘Pity would be no more, If we did not make somebody Poor. And Mercy no more could be. If all were happy as we.’
Humility is a path to mutual love and unity. Sounds good to me.
Now let’s consider how this verse appears in other versions of the Bible.
Philippians 2: 3-4 King James Version
‘Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves.
Look not every man on his own things,
But every man also on the things of others.’
The four hundred year old language of the King James Bible often proves a challenge to modern readers, so let’s unpick the language of this verse a little. This version of the verse doesn’t use the phrase ‘Selfish ambition’ but the word ‘strife’, a medieval English word meaning ‘a condition of antagonism, enmity or discord’. The meaning then is slightly different; in the King James Bible Paul’s words urge us to avoid making an enemy of anyone, a meaning that more modern versions of the Bible seem to have lost. This seems to me an important omission. What do you think?
The archaic phrase ‘lowliness of mind’ is replaced in modern versions by the word ‘humility’ and this seems to me a necessary and helpful updating of the language. I feel the same about the modern substitution of ‘interests’ for the word ‘things’, which to the modern ear sounds rather vague. As always the language of the King James Version carries a charge and charm which many Christians find an aid to faith.
Philippians 2: 3-4 New American Standard Bible
‘Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility consider one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.’
This excellent translation of the Bible is always clear and direct but for me that use of the word ‘merely’ slightly softens the challenge of Paul’s words. What do you think?
Philippians 2: 3-4 The Message
‘Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top.
Put yourself aside and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourself long enough to lend a helping hand.’
Often, I feel that in its attempt to make the Bible accessible to the modern reader, The Message oversimplifies ideas, but in this instance, although what I would have considered were key words, such as ‘ambition, conceit, humility’ have vanished, this direct, spoken language version seems to me to capture the full challenge of Paul’s instruction. What do you think?
Philippians 2: 3-4 in context
The first fives verses of Philippians 2 link the blessings which Christianity brings directly to how a Christian lives their life. It’s an obvious statement in a way, but it’s one that’s easy to overlook: how a Christian thinks is crucial to living a Christian life.
Reflections on Philippians 2: 3-4
According to search engine statistics, this verse isn’t visited nearly as much as many others. Why is that do you think? Is it because this verse strikes directly at our addiction to vanity and self-interest? Is it because it demands an ego sacrifice that many of us are simply not prepared to make?
Read next: What Does Philippians 4: 6-7 Mean? "Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God." Philippians 4: 6-7 are two bible verses which speak as directly to us today as they did to the people of Philippi two thousand years ago. They are a profound source of comfort and inspiration. What is its meaning?