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Bible Commentaries

James Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary
Philippians 2



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Verse 3-4


‘Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.’

Philippians 2:3-4

I. There are two great notes in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians:—

(a) The note of joy: ‘Rejoice,’ he is always crying, and this is the more noble because, as you remember, he wrote as a prisoner and as one in chains.

(b) There is the note of love. There is no Epistle in which the fire of love burns more brightly. We can see quite early that it is an anxious love that he has for his Philippian converts.

II. Yet even here it is not all perfect: he has heard of discord and differences; he has noted the growth of party spirit and personal rivalry. We have sometimes seen something of this sort in the modern Church, and indeed this warning of St. Paul’s may very well save us from the common danger of idealising the past. St. Paul urges on the converts as a remedy for this the cultivation of the spirit of humility. ‘Let nothing be done in the spirit of strife or vainglory,’ he says. It is, I think, beyond dispute that we are in need of some such warning. There are not wanting certain signs of the rekindling of party spirit. The English Church, in spite of the service she has done for the nation, has been vexed and troubled by matters of little importance. The time has come when we should concern ourselves more with the things that really matter; that we should throw ourselves heart and soul into the work which Christ has given us to do here in England.

III. It may be well for us to take and hear the words of the Apostle: ‘Let nothing be done in strife or vainglory.’ He exhorts us to that lowliness of mind so far removed from party spirit and self-assertion. There are two things which will help us here.

(a) Religion will present itself in different fashions to different classes of minds. St. Paul, St. John, and St. James held the same faith, but hardly in the same fashion.

(b) We must consider the incompleteness of our knowledge. Human knowledge widens every year, and the more it widens the more it brings home to us our ignorance.

—Rev. H. R. Gamble.


(1) ‘No chain can ever fetter the free spirit:

Stone walls do not a prison make,

Nor iron bars a cage.

Even so one thinks of Bunyan, with his body indeed in Bedford gaol, and with his spirit in the House Beautiful, or treading the Delectable Mountains, for in spite of circumstances he finds more in Christ to make him glad than in the world to make him sad.’

(2) ‘I will not rest from mental strife,

Nor shall the sword rest in my hand,

Till have built Jerusalem

In England’s green and pleasant land.’

Verse 5


‘Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.’

Philippians 2:5

What is the humility for which the Christian must strive? If the Bible seems to give an uncertain answer, remember there is a great distinction between the teaching of the Old Testament and that of the New.

I. The great distinction.—In the Old Testament, for the Jew humility meant a feeling towards God only; towards a man who was rich or powerful he would bow down, but he felt no regard for him. Even those who were described as poor and humble were often full of pride—pride of wealth, pride of birth, pride of intellect, pride of virtue. Turning next to the New Testament, we see that while the words ‘humble’ and ‘humility’ are not often found in it, yet the quality they represent can be found on almost every page. There was the example of Jesus and of St. Paul, His chief follower. In the Epistle to the Philippians St. Paul condemns instances of pride as enemies of the Christian life. St. Paul, after enumerating his own qualifications, condemned all boasting when he said, ‘Howbeit, what things were gain to me I counted loss for Christ’; and the same thought is brought out elsewhere when he says, ‘If I must needs glory, I will glory in my infirmities.’

II. In what does this Christian humility consist, and how does it answer to some current ideas on the subject?—It does not mean the repudiation of the powers that God had given to man: that would be ingratitude. St. Paul gratefully recognised his gifts. Nor does it mean that a man must distrust himself, as those who, to avoid doing wrong, do nothing. St. Paul lent no countenance to any such idea. The Roman Church has always insisted upon the submission of the intellect of all its sons to those in authority above them—the layman to the priest, the priest to the Bishop, the Bishop to the Pope—but how far such submission was from St. Paul we may see from his Epistle to the Galatians. It is ours to seek to know and to obey the truth, and that demands a large measure of independence of thought and action. To submit one’s intellect to another is not true, but false, humility. Wherein, then, did St. Paul’s humility consist? Three points may be observed which will help us.

(a) He valued few things so much as his own independence of thought and faith, yet he sacrificed it for the sake of others. He was prepared to be all things to all men that he might save some.

(b) He was accused by his own converts at Corinth of deceit and unfairness, yet he suppressed his natural feelings of indignation and answered their charges.

(c) He occupied a foremost place among the rulers of Jerusalem, yet he placed all his gifts at the service of each little Church; and, lest they should begrudge the cost of food and lodging, he worked with his own hands for his own support. Thus we see that St. Paul’s humility was simple, direct, unaffected.

III. We pass on to consider the example of the Lord Himself.—But one incident will suffice, that of the washing of the disciples’ feet, and we lay stress upon the teaching of the words ‘If I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.’ What can we learn from this?

(a) That perfect humility is consistent with the full recognition of power.

(b) That as there could be no question of self-discipline in our Lord’s case, me see that the action was right and beautiful in itself. It was an act done to poor fishermen. Is there, then, such great worth in man? Yes; and that brings us to the root of the matter, for nothing is more prominent in our Lord’s teaching than the value He set upon individual souls. Thus we see that Christian humility has two aspects: it bows with the deepest reverence before the Majesty of God, as in the Old Testament; and it recognises, as in the New, the brotherhood of man.

IV. How, then, shall we describe the humble Christian?—He is one who knows that the nature which all men share is something very great and very precious; and he learns this truth, not from the Psalms, but from the Gospel of the Incarnation. He is one who knows that the value of each single soul is equal to his own. That is one way of stating the truth, but there is another. Let us turn our prose into the poetry of St. Paul by quoting that wonderful passage from another of St. Paul’s Epistles, changing only the word ‘charity’ into ‘humility,’ thus: ‘Humility suffereth long and is kind,’ and so on to the end of the ‘poem.’ Is it not plain that humility is nothing but charity in its earthly aspect? Humility is charity’s earthly cloak, but it will fall from her shoulders when she enters the courts of the King Whose name is Love.

—Rev. Canon Glazebrook.



‘Behold My servant!’ (Isaiah 42:1). ‘Ich dien’ (‘I serve’) is the motto of our royal prince, but it is also the motto of the Prince of princes.

Let us endeavour to contemplate our Blessed Lord as the servant of the Father; in His descent; His dependence; His devotion.

I. Let us contemplate Him in His descent.—If we would understand what it cost the Lord of glory to become a servant, we must remember who He was and who He is. What is the great hindrance to service? It is unwillingness to stoop. How the Master by His blessed descent has abased the pride and self-consciousness of men! How He bids us take the lowest place, that we may lift up those we go down to seek!

II. We see more fully this lesson of humility when we consider our Lord’s dependence.—‘The Son can do nothing of Himself.’ Oh, wondrous pattern of an emptied life! Then, if this be so, do I not see the necessity of being self-emptied? If I am to live a life of faith, must I not be self-emptied? Christ emptied Himself of His glory; must not I be emptied of my meanness?

III. Consider the devotion of His life of service.

(a) Its voluntariness.

(b) Its unobtrusiveness.

(c) Its compassionateness.

(d) His sternness.

(e) His laboriousness.

(f) Its faithfulness.

Sacrifice lies at the foundation of service. To this He calls us; may we hear His voice, obey His Word, follow His example, and accept His power, for His name’s sake.

—Rev. E. W. Moore.


‘Sweetly sings George Herbert:—

“‘Hast thou not heard that my Lord Jesus died?

Then let me tell thee a strange story.

The God of power, when He did ride

In His majestic robes of glory,

Resolved to light, and so one day

He did descend, unrobing all the way.

“‘The stars His tire of light, and rings obtained,

The clouds His bow, the fire his spear,

The sky His azure mantle gained.

And when they asked what He did wear,

He smiled, and said as He did go,

He had new clothes a making here below.”’



Here St. Paul is discussing mainly the necessity of certain Christian duties and certain Christian virtues, and he points to the example of the God-Man, Christ Jesus.

I. The model.—The mind which was in Christ Jesus. It was—

(a) Disinterested.

(b) Humble.

(c) Gracious.

II. The imitation.—‘Let this mind be in you’: the same moral and spiritual excellences. His thoughts, desires, motives, actions, must all be ours. A higher or better model to imitate we could not have; and a less perfect one would neither have sufficed for Him nor for us. Is it possible to copy it? Yes. The standard is high—exceedingly high; but it is not altogether above and beyond us. By longing for it, praying for it, and believing for it, we shall gradually and certainly ‘come unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.’ Our mind a transcript of His mind, His heaven will ultimately be our everlasting home’ (1 John 3:2-3).


‘Those are true and beautiful words, which the little shepherd boy was singing at the bottom of the valley, in the Pilgrim’s Progress:

“‘He that is down, needs fear no fall;

He that is low, no pride:

He that is humble ever shall

Have God to be his guide.”’

Verse 8


‘Even the death of the Cross.’

Philippians 2:8

I. The Cross of Christ affords the only justification for an optimist outlook on life.—For the Spirit of God by which Christ was inspired and sustained is the same Spirit which is striving to influence the lives of all men. Whilst then the contemplation of the sufferings of Christ begets within us an increasing horror of sin, it should also beget an unlimited exercise of charity in judging others to whom His sufferings make little appeal. For even in their case the Spirit of God is striving, and not altogether in vain, to reproduce His life. The death of Christ was a crowning proof of the omnipotent power of that Spirit which was given to Him without measure, but which is still an active force in the world and is striving to inspire the lives of all men.

II. The fortitude of Christ is one the most inspiring features of His character. As we gaze with reverent awe upon the scene enacted in Gethsemane we feel that His victory is in a real sense the victory of mankind. When we are brought face to face with a dreaded and threatening future; when the will of God seems so hard to accept that the flesh shrinks in horror from the sacrifice involved; when we are tempted to lose all trust in human friendship, as the sympathy which might with right have been expected fails us at the last; when it seems, in very deed, that this is the ‘hour’ and ‘the power of darkness’; then the knowledge that Christ strove and conquered as a man, under real human limitations, will prevent despair, and will help to explain to us the assurance given to His earliest followers, ‘Be of good cheer; I have overcome.’

III. Christ’s death is not an isolated event to be gazed at from afar.—Even in His death He was very near to us. Although in one sense His death represents a sacrifice which can never be repeated, it is nevertheless true that that unique sacrifice must be reproduced in the sacrifice and offering up to God of every human being for whom it is to be made effective.

IV. His character does not represent for us an unapproachable ideal.—The Spirit which inspired the life of our Saviour is striving to inspire our lives. His fortitude, his confidence in the presence of overmastering evil. His self-surrender and self-sacrifice even unto death, may be reproduced in our own experience.

Rev. Canon C. H. Robinson.


‘If we may believe Christ to have possessed any clear foresight of the actions and conduct of those who should become His nominal followers, it becomes hard to place any limit upon the suffering which this foresight must have caused Him.

‘“Face, loved of little children long ago!

Head, hated by the priests and rulers then!

Say, was not this Thy passion to foreknow

In Thy last hour the deeds of Christian men?”’



We are to meditate on the Cross—

‘… the wondrous Cross

On which the Prince of Glory died.’

I. The Cross is an altar.—‘We have an altar,’ says the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 13:10). The perfect sacrifice was offered there.

II. The Cross is a lever.—It uplifts souls that lay in the shadow of death.

III. The Cross is a key.—It reveals the very heart of God.

IV. The Cross is a pulpit.—From it Christ preaches to-day as He did on the first Good Friday.

V. The Cross is a throne.—From it He promises Paradise.

VI. The Cross is a bridge.—It brings heaven and earth together. It is the anti-type of Jacob’s ladder.

VII. The Cross is a gathering-place.—For Christ died on the Cross to ‘gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad.’

—Rev. F. Harper.


(1) ‘A little child was brought into a London hospital suffering from a most virulent form of diphtheria. It was seen that all hope of saving his life lay in one operation. That was the sucking up, by means of a tube, of the obstruction in the throat. Although he knew that death was a great probability, the physician, Samuel Rabbeth—young, with a brilliant future opening up before him, willingly stooped over the boy, put the tube in his lips, and sucked out the poisoned pus. He paid the penalty. In a day the fell disease appeared in him; in a week he was dead.’

(2) ‘To Christ’s Cross his soldiers are gathered, and from the Cross they go forth to battle against the powers of wrong. There is a beautiful illustration of the latter in Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake. I refer to the passage of the fiery cross. You remember how, when the clan was to be rallied to a certain place in battle for their chieftain’s honour, it was customary that a cross, a rough wooden one, should be first set on fire, and then the blazing cross had the flames extinguished in the blood of a slain kid, and with that blood-stained, charred cross a herald, swift-footed, was sent forth to summon all the clan to battle for their chieftain and for victory.’

Verse 10


‘At the name of Jesus every knee should bow.’

Philippians 2:10

We cannot take the old Gospel story as a poetic symbol, as a mystical embodiment of an inner verity, free from the perils of historical inquiry. For what we hold in it is a deed done once for all, by which God forced for Himself an entry upon the drama of our affairs.

I. A deed wrought in power by God!—Is not that the Gospel that we need to-day? Would anything short of that be a Gospel at all?

(a) In the world of morals we have found to our cost that mere knowledge is not power.

(b) We are beset by many social problems for we see no solution. We grope in great darkness, and see no light. But is this blindness not judicial?

(c) In the personal life is not the cry that goes up so plaintively, so deplorably, a cry for power?

II. The great consolation.—It is to those stricken with this terror, for society, and for themselves, that the great consolation is given. The Gospel is proclaimed yet once again of a deed of power wrought in our very midst; wrought once for all. Lift up your head, oh! ye that tremble Lift up your hearts, oh! ye that faint. The Breath of God is come from the four winds. It blows over you; it enters in you. Stand up, stand up upon your feet, an exceeding great army. Stand up! Rise! Walk! Move out on your vocation!

III. The name given to Jesus is no record of a frail visionary dream, haunting the stormy story of man, even as the tremulous lustre of a rainbow hovers, suspended and unsubstantial, over the thunder of a cataract. No; the name Jesus, the Deliverer, witnesses to a fact done in grim earnest; to an act of force achieved through sweat of blood, by which God’s will enters to strive with yours, and to prevail. The name of Jesus is a power which energises in you, to shatter bonds, to revive flagging power, to kindle a fire that will purify, and deliver, and redeem. Rise, then, walk; go forward; do not shrink or fear what the dark days may bring for you. Within you you may possess the royalty, the supremacy, the victory of Him Whose Name is above every name, the Name at which ‘every knee shall bow.’ Trust yourself wholly to the power of that living Name done into you, at work within your being; and you will find yourself swept along in the movement of a mighty force that makes, surely and fearlessly, towards that great hour where every tongue shall confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

—Rev. Canon H. Scott Holland.

Verse 12-13


‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God Which worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure.’

Philippians 2:12-13

You may divide the world roughly into three classes, (a) There are those who are looking for physical, moral, and social salvation solely to human effort, (b) There is the man who grows impatient when he hears about the laws of nature at all. (c) There are those who see nothing inconsistent in combining both ideas. Just as in their spiritual lives they work their hardest by moral effort, by bringing their will-power to bear upon their tempers, so in their social efforts, while they investigate, and learn, and study, they look to God, Whose lesson-book they feel that they are slowly spelling out, with faltering accents, letter by letter; they work out their own salvation, and that of others, with trembling hope, just because it is God that worketh in them both to will and to do of His good pleasure.

Let me take four pressing problems which illustrate my point.

I. We set about discovering the causes of infant mortality.—If the report on physical deterioration is right in its figures, the mortality of infants, which was 154 per 1,000 forty years ago, remains at the same figure to-day. But a number of diseases which attacked children have been greatly diminished, and there ought, therefore, to be among boys in the town districts twenty-eight lives per 1,000 more saved, and twenty-three per 1,000 among girls. The annual waste of child life appears still to be in this country about 140, 000 a year. Now, I feel absolutely certain that in attacking this gigantic evil, when we have discussed and remedied every physical cause, we shall find that more than half, probably three-quarters, of it is due to moral causes; that many deaths are due to the avarice or carelessness of those who take money from property without keeping it in sanitary condition, from the drunken habits of those who overlay their children, from the immorality of men and women who have broken the laws of God, and that, therefore, the social reformer will need the moral help of all religious people of every denomination, who can strengthen and reinforce character. But, further than that, we shall discover, as we go on, that all that any of us can do is to come back and bring others back to the primæval laws of God, ‘without Whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy’—the primaeval laws which are the foundations of the world’s health, as they are the secret of its happiness. ‘Thou shalt not steal,’ ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery,’ ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.’ In other words, our only hope is to bring back the world under the rule of God.

II. Take the housing question.—We are all agreed as to the advisability of garden cities. Some have been established; others might be and ought to be. What are we waiting for? For the rich really to care how the poor live, to care enough to run the very moderate risk of investing their money in what might, at first, bring an interest not so great as in other enterprises, but which would have an immediate interest in human lives and human happiness which no gold could buy. And who is to give this love of others, this true Christian charity, but God alone? And who is to bring home the love of God but those who minister to the rich in holy things, and have their confidence, and speak to their souls? And it is here where the Church of the West can help so truly the Church of the East in spreading the kingdom of God, which should at least comprise for every living child of God ‘the common liberty of earth and air.’

III. Or when we glance at the physical effects of certain breaches of the moral law, so terribly familiar to those who have spent years in the rescue and preventive work of our great cities, do we not all know that not all the sanitary laws in the world can by themselves alter character, that as a matter of fact the character of Jesus Christ and the ideal He set the world—as the historian Lecky said—‘has done more to regenerate mankind than all the disquisitions of philosophers and all the plans of statesmen,’ and that if all the world would obey the royal law ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,’ it would do more to abolish certain forms of disease than all the Public Health Congresses that will ever be held?

IV. And so with the drink question.—We are told, not by so-called temperance fanatics, but by cool-headed magistrates, that nine-tenths of the crime of the country is due to drink. We all know the physical effects of drunkenness, and the effects which it leaves, not only upon children, but upon children’s children. But how are you going to cure it? You can always do something by legislation, and no one has urged legislation on certain points more than the various Christian bodies in the country; but when it comes to the real cure, nothing but the grace of God can change a man’s inner nature, nothing but the love of Christ can give the Divine patience to bear with a drunken man or woman until they are reformed, nothing but the power of the Holy Spirit can really plant in any heart the virtue of self-control.

We come round, then, to the point from which we started—‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God Which worketh in us both to will and to do.’ Study on, investigate on, scrutinise every opening, follow up every clue. God trains our intelligence and our character by making us find His gifts for ourselves. The gifts are there waiting for our work, ready to our hand. We are fellow-workers with God all the time, and our work is only permanent and effective because behind all the human workers in the world ‘It is God that worketh both to will and to do of His good pleasure.’

Bishop A. F. Winnington-Ingram.


‘If it is not inconsistent for a great scientific man to be religious, still less is it inconsistent for the most devout man in the world to be enthusiastically scientific. I believe that it is still a popular idea that the clergy and other religious men are opposed to science, and live in the midst of such transcendental ideas that drainage and insanitary dwellings and infant mortality are beyond their ken. All I can say is that (and any one who knows the real life of the slums would tell you the same) the man who, side by side with the doctor and the sanitary inspector, is fighting the slum-owner, rescuing the children, and denouncing insanitary areas is the slum parson.’



So far from there being any contradiction in this text in its relation to others which show salvation to be a free gift, there is complete harmony.

I. The work we have to do.—‘Work out,’ says the Apostle, ‘your own salvation.’ If we were to give the command its full force we should be content to use two words: confession and completeness.

(a) Confession. I like to lay a little emphasis upon our translation here, ‘work out.’ I am not prepared to say that the primary idea in the original language is that of making work conspicuous, but yet the thought is fairly deducible from it, and there is no more important injunction to any Christian than that which bids him let his light shine before men. It is our duty, not only to be Christians, but to let it be known that we are such. We are to work out our salvation. Lay stress upon the little word out. It is well enough to have our religion beneath the surface, but God wants it known and read of all men.

(b) The further thought undoubtedly, however, in the passage is completeness. Salvation is a mighty word. Observe the Apostle does not say, ‘Work for your salvation’; he says, ‘Work out your salvation.’ The two things are quite distinct. It is as if God said to us, ‘You have an estate now, develop its resources.’

II. The spirit in which it should be done.

(a) In sincerity—the same at all times and in all places.

(b) Submissively—avoid the assertion of self-will.

(c) Sensitively—‘with fear and trembling.’

(d) Strenuously—‘work out.’

III. The encouragements to do the work.

(a) The Divine pattern.

(b) The Divine power.

(c) The Divine pleasure.

—Rev. E. W. Moore.


‘Very great is the blessing of work done for Jesus Christ in sincerity and simplicity and love. Every Christian ought to have some work of which he says, “I do this for Christ’s sake.” It is a glorious opportunity that we can and may work for God. Very blessed is it to seek lost souls and bring them near for the Saviour’s blessing, and to spare no pains to lay the sick brother at the feet of the heavenly Physician. For Christ’s Gospel insists on good works, but only as a thank-offering, only as the outcome and evidence of faith. And lo! He cometh, and His reward is with Him to render (i.e. to pay it off—even to the uttermost farthing) to each man according as his work is (Revelation 22:12). And I am sure, if you first receive Christ yourself, and then

‘Do all the good you can,

In all the ways you can,

At all the times you can,

To all the people you can,

With all the love you can,

you will be working out your own salvation.’



The important question for each one of us is, ‘How shall I work out my own salvation? What shall I do?’ Begin by asking God to make it quite plain what your work is—what your work is that He has given you to do.

I. A ‘work’ in your own heart.—To obey inwardly; to cherish and cultivate those good feelings which are now in you; to discipline your thoughts; to rule your temper; to keep your own heart in good order; to form right habits of daily life; to struggle against your besetting sin; to maintain a Christian spirit in all your daily intercourse; to carry out at once every good emotion and desire which God has put into your heart.

II. A ‘work’ in the secret chamber.—Every one knows that it is very definite and difficult work to fulfil faithfully the duties of private prayer and self-examination and meditation; to maintain the habit regularly and to do it spiritually; to get rid of wandering thoughts; not to slide into reverie; to make his own room a little sanctuary which he never leaves without carrying from it a better mind, a holier frame, a higher aim, and a blessing.

III. A ‘work’ in your own sphere in which it has pleased God to place you.—In the family and home circle, try to act lovingly; try to be faithful and useful; to be ready to sympathise with the joys and sorrows of every one; with the little troubles and the great troubles. Live to be a true friend; a wise counsellor; a ready helper; to live for the Christ you profess; everywhere to speak the truth candidly; to sit in the lowest seat, and yet to take the lead without showing it, or without yourself knowing that you do take the lead.

IV. A ‘work’ outside.—No Christian should be without some work which is done definitely for Christ. It may be for the body; it may be for the mind; it may be for the soul. It should be a ‘work,’ not an amusement; not playwork, but earnest, self-denying, and religious, done with a distinct object, in Christ, for Christ.

In so doing you are ‘working out your own salvation’—the salvation you have received.

—Rev. James Vaughan.


‘When a man receives Christ, and with Christ and in Christ a new life, he enters on a new work. He has been saved to serve: “Let My people go”—there is liberty; “that they may serve Me”—there is service. God has joined together salvation and service, and no man may put them asunder. It is the very law of life, as God has made it, that everything that has life in it must be working. It cannot stop. If your heart stops it is death. Therefore living souls must work.’


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Bibliography Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Philippians 2:4". Church Pulpit Commentary. 1876.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, November 26th, 2020
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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