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What does it mean to “esteem others better than himself”?

These words are quoted from Philippians 2:3, in the Authorized Version, but we must read the entire context to understand what Paul is saying.

The entire passage, beginning with verse 2 and ending with verse 8, reads in the Authorized Version:

“Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.”

What does the word “esteem” convey? It can be defined as, “to think valuable. If you are esteemed, then people think you’re a valuable person to have around, and have a lot of respect for you.” It has also been defined as “to regard highly or favorably; regard with respect or admiration and with a certain value.”

The word “better” can be defined as “of a more excellent or effective type or quality”. To be better than others means, to be more skilled or adapt as well as being superior.

“Esteeming others better than oneself” would mean, then, that the other person is being perceived as more valuable, more skilled, and more capable.

Inasmuch as the entire passage in Philippians 2:2-8 draws a comparison between ourselves and the mind of Christ, the translation “esteem others better than himself,” as applying to Christ, could be problematic and misunderstood.

Note how other translations are rendering this verse, and many understand the phrase “lowliness of mind” as “in humility”:

The Literal Emphasis Translation states:  “Do nothing according to rivalrous self-interest and not according to empty conceit, but rather in humble perspective, supposing one another superior to themselves.”

The New International Version reads:  “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.”

The Berean Study Bible says: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or empty pride, but in humility consider others more important than yourselves.”

The Interlinear Literal Translation renders the phrase as, “… nothing according to contention or vainglory, but in humility one another esteeming above themselves, not the things of themselves each consider, but also the things of others each.” Another Interlinear rendition states: “surpassing themselves.”

As far as could be ascertained, virtually all German translations, including all Luther Bible renditions, the Elberfelder Bible, the Schlachter Bible and the Menge Bible, render the words in Philippians 2:3  as “higher” [“höher”] and “humility” (“Demut”) (“in Demut achte einer den andern höher als sich selbst”).

Also, the Latin Vulgata renders the phrase in that way (“sed in humilitate superiores sibi invicem arbitrantes”–“superiores” meaning “higher” or “superior.”)

Most Spanish Bibles, including Reina Valera, translate the phrase as “higher” or “superior” (“como superiores a él mismo”) or “more important” (“más importante”).

French Bibles say „above“ or „beyond“ (“étant au-dessus de vous-mêmes”), or „higher“ or „superior“(“supérieurs”) or “more important” (“plus importants que vous memes”).

In the Greek, the word which is translated as “better” in the Authorized Version is “huperecho” and means, according to Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Bible, “to be above, higher.”

It is used in the Authorized Version in Romans 13:1 (“higher”); 1 Peter 2:13 (“supreme”); Philippians 3:8 [“hyperechon”] (“excellency”) and in Philippians 4:7 (“passeth”; “surpassing” in the New King James Bible, in the sense of being “higher”).

And so, we explain in our free booklet, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians – How to Understand It, that this phrase, as written in the Greek, actually describes the attitude of humility, considering others and their needs as more important or more significant than our own selfish ambitions.

We state the following in our booklet:

“Paul is pointing out that selfish ambition and conceit are in opposition to love…  God’s way of love and life is a way of give, whereas our human carnal way of life is a way of get. Selfish ambition, which is caused by pride, is detrimental to love and unity. Rather, we need to develop an attitude of lowliness of mind, or humility, and this attribute enables us to look at others as being better or more important than ourselves. The Jamieson, Fausset and Brown commentary explains: ‘… “esteeming each other superior to yourselves.”’… When we do that, then we are not looking at what is seemingly ‘best’ or most advantageous for us, but we also concentrate on what is helpful for others.

“This is the kind of mindset that Jesus Christ had, and we as followers of Christ must develop the same attitude and outlook…

“Gill’s Exposition to the Entire Bible makes the following comments…:

“‘Let this mind be in you,’…. The Arabic version renders it, ‘let that humility be perceived in you’. The apostle proposes Christ as the great pattern and exemplar [example] of humility… ‘which also was in Christ Jesus.’”

This is in fact the correct understanding. The entire context in Philippians 2:2-8 shows the great humility of Christ who was willing to suffer and die for us so that we could live.

We continue with quoting from our booklet:

“In order to develop an attitude of love and humility for others, we must be willing to sacrifice our own preferences. Jesus Christ proved beyond a shadow of any doubt His love for us, in that He was willing to give up His godly attributes, become a man, and live and die in the flesh. This act of love for us was necessary in order for Him to pay the penalty for our sin, so that we, condemned to death, could obtain forgiveness and live, and inherit eternal life in the Family of God, a life of peace, love and complete harmony with God and each other.

“Christ was in the form of God before He became a human being. He was equal with God the Father, insofar as His nature was concerned. But He did not consider it robbery to be equal with Him; that is, He did not want to selfishly grasp and maintain that status for His own good. He was willing to give it up for the good of others… “

We also point out in our booklet that the phrase that He “made Himself of no reputation” should be translated as “He emptied Himself,” in the sense that He emptied Himself of His divinity and became a human being.  We said this:

“We read in Philippians 2:6–7, in the Revised Standard Version: ‘[Jesus Christ]… though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped (better: retained), but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men…’… The New Jerusalem Bible leaves no doubt in its translation as to what Jesus became: ‘… he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, becoming as human beings are; and being in every way like a human being…’ The Bible is very clear that Christ emptied Himself of existing as a Spirit being, and He emptied Himself of the glory that He had before the world was (compare John 17:5). He BECAME a human being (compare 1 John 4:1–3)….”

This is what it means to have the mind of Christ and to treat others and their needs as more important than ourselves and our own needs. We say this in our booklet: “Christ was God Eternal, who BECAME man, so that man COULD ultimately become God! Christ was tempted, He suffered, and He died as a man (Hebrews 12:1–4), so that human beings could become ‘gods’—members of the God Family, unable to die (Luke 20:35–36; John 3:36; 10:28; compare also John 10:34–35).”

No human being could do what Christ did, but it is His mindset which we must emulate. This mindset can also be seen in Paul (Romans 9:1-5) and in Moses (Exodus 32:32-33). 

In general, we read in Matthew 18:4 about the little child which humbles itself. The German Menge Bible states that the phrase „humbles itself“ („ erniedrigt“) can be understood as “to place oneself humbly under others” (“demütig unter andere stellt”).

Luke 14:11 adds that “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Also see Luke 18:9-14.

There are many biblical examples where human beings humbled themselves towards others, or gave preference to them, treating them as superior or more important, even when this would not have been necessary from a human standpoint.

We find an interesting example, even in a merely physical matter, in the relationship between Abraham (Abram) and Lot, in Genesis 13:2-13:

“Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold… Lot also, who went with Abram, had flocks and herds and tents… Now the land was not able to support them, that they might dwell together, for their possessions were so great that they could not dwell together. And there was strife between the herdsmen of Abram’s livestock and the herdsmen of Lot’s livestock. The Canaanites and the Perizzites then dwelt in the land. So Abram said to Lot, ‘Please let there be no strife between you and me, and between my herdsmen and your herdsmen; for we are brethren. Is not the whole land before you? Please separate from me. If you take the left, then I will go to the right; or, if you go to the right, then I will go to the left.’

“And Lot lifted his eyes and saw all the plain of Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere (before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah) like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt as you go toward Zoar. Then Lot chose for himself all the plain of Jordan, and Lot journeyed east. And they separated from each other. Abram dwelt in the land of Canaan, and Lot dwelt in the cities of the plain and pitched his tent even as far as Sodom. But the men of Sodom were exceedingly wicked and sinful against the LORD.”

Abraham let Lot choose what land he wanted, even though it would have been Abraham’s prerogative because God’s promises were directed at Abraham, not Lot. And as it turned out, Lot’s choice was very poor, but due, in part, to Abraham’s humility, God blessed him greatly with extraordinary promises (verses 14-17). We also recall that God the Father highly exalted and blessed His Son Jesus Christ for His willingness to become a Man and suffer and die for us (compare Philippians 2:9-11).

We also read that the Apostle Paul became everything to everyone to gain a few. He said in 1 Corinthians 9:19-22: “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”

Paul made clear that he was not disobedient to the Law of God, but that he did not cause unnecessary offense, because it was his goal to save some. This included giving up certain personal preferences if that would have prevented him from achieving his goal. The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges comments: “… by the operation of a wide reaching sympathy, which enabled him, without compromising his own convictions, to approach all men from their most accessible side.”

Paul also said in 1 Corinthians 10:33: “… just as I please all men in all things, not seeking mine own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved.” In 2 Timothy 2:10, he explains what the reason for his selfless conduct was: “Therefore I endure all things for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.”

Paul admonished us to follow his example, by having the same motivation of love which he had: “Let no one seek his own, but each one the other’s well-being” (1 Corinthians 10:24).

Matthew Poole’s Commentary states:

“It is the duty of every one who is a disciple of Christ, not merely to look at his own pleasure or profit, but the profit and advantage of others.”

Barnes’ Notes on the Bible adds:

“The injunction… is applicable to all Christians… It does not mean that a man is not in any instance to regard his own welfare, happiness, or salvation; it does not mean that a man owes no duty to himself or family; or that he should neglect all these to advance the welfare of others; but the precept means, that… when a man’s example would have a great influence, he should be guided in his conduct, not by a reference to his own ease, comfort or gratification, but by a reference to the purity and salvation of others. And the observance of this simple rule would make a prodigious change in the church and the world.”

We are not to hate ourselves, but we are to love others as ourselves, with their interests in mind as well.

We can see then that Paul had Christ’s mind. Christ said that he who wants to be great must be a servant (Matthew 23:11). Christ did not come to be served but to serve (Luke 22:27). He considered those whom He served “superior” or “more important” than Himself. He was willing to humble himself in order to exalt or help others. Even at His return, we read that He will serve others by preparing a meal for them (Luke 12:37).

John the Baptist followed Christ’s example, not willing to consider it robbery to be of great reputation—Christ called him one of the great human beings (Matthew 11:11)—but he was willing to make himself of no reputation (compare again Christ’s example in Philippians 2:6-7), as he had the goal and purpose of Christ as the Savior of mankind in mind. He was willing to decrease so that Christ could increase (John 3:30).

Paul’s admonition in Philippians 2:3 applies to husbands and wives as well, who are to submit to one another in the fear of God (Ephesians 5:21). We say the following in our free booklet, Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians—How to Understand It” 

“Even though it is the foremost responsibility for the wife to submit to her husband as to the Lord (verse 22; Colossians 3:18)—that is, submitting to him when his requests are in conformity with Christ’s teachings and not contrary to the will of God (compare Albert Barnes’ Note on the Bible)—so the husband is to love his wife as Christ loves the Church (Ephesians 5:25).

“And still, Paul introduces this section in verse 21 with the admonition to submit one to another in the fear of the Lord. Even though the husband is the head of the wife (1 Corinthians 11:3), as Christ is the head of the husband, he is not to act selfishly and pursue just his own interests. Rather, he has to have the mind of Christ, and if he does, then he will also look out for and submit to the interests of his wife—as his wife will to the interests of her husband (Philippians 2:5, 4).

“When a husband loves his wife in that way—as Christ loves the Church and gave Himself for it—then it will be easier for the wife to submit to her loving husband. Christ is the Savior of the Church (Ephesians 5:23), sanctifying and cleansing it to present it spotless (Ephesians 5:26–27). It is that kind of love that a husband ought to have for his wife. As Christ has the welfare of the Church in mind, so should the Christian husband look after the welfare of his wife.”

This command is not limited to the husband-wife relationship. Rather, we read in 1 Peter 5:5: “Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for ‘God resists the proud, But gives grace to the humble.’”

Younger and older people are to submit to one another, which means, parents should look at the interests and needs of their children and, in that sense, treat them in certain circumstances as more important than their own desires and preferences. When we do this, we will be greatly rewarded by God, as, in the ultimate sense, our humility towards others reflects our humility towards God. Verse 6 says: “Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time…”

Jacob did not have, at first, the mind of Christ when he deceived his father Isaac to receive or “get” his blessing, but he later learned the bitter lesson that when selfish interests, ambitions and conceit rule us, it will backfire (As Jacob deceived Isaac one time to get his blessing, so he was deceived by his uncle Laban when he gave him Leah rather than Rachel as his wife, and when he deceived and changed Jacob’s wages “ten times”, Genesis 31:7 ). But later, Jacob was willing to share much of his flocks with his brother Esau.

The selfish rich farmer is another example of someone who did not care for others. His ground had yielded plentifully, but rather than sharing his rich harvest with others, he built more storage places and bigger barns for himself (Luke 12:16-21). But he died the same night, leaving his riches behind, while not being rich toward God (compare Matthew 6:19-21; see also Hebrews 13:16).

We might also think of the young man who was not willing to follow Christ as he was not ready to get rid of his great riches (which had become a “god” to him) and to give them to the poor (Matthew 19:16-22). Selfish greed prevented him at that time from developing the mind of Christ in his life. Nothing further is reported about that rich man, and we do not know whether he ever repented of his selfishness.

Considering these good and bad biblical examples, and there are many more, let us allow Christ to develop His mind in us by focusing not just on our own interests, but also on the interests of others. Romans 12:10 puts it quite succinctly: “Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another…”

When we do this, we develop, emulate and acquire the mind of Christ (compare 1 Corinthians 2:16), while continuously applying Paul’s admonition in Romans 12:2: “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…”

Lead Writer: Norbert Link