Unpacking the mystery of biblical humility is a challenge for every believer. However, we cannot escape this task because the foundation for Christian discipleship is “humble-mindedness” as Jesus himself demonstrated and taught (cf. Matthew 11:29; 18:3-4). In his letter to the Philippian believers, which Paul writes while under house arrest in Rome awaiting his appeal to Caesar, he urges them to “focus their minds and wills on one thing (to hen phronountes)” so that they express complete “harmony (sumpsuchos)” (Phil. 2:2). This requires that they “with humble-mindedness (tapeinophrosunēi) consider others better (huperechontas) than yourselves” (2:3). Note how Paul links the verb form phronountes (focusing mind and will) with the noun tapeinophrosunē (humble-mindedness). I think he wants these believers to discern that this virtue of humility must soak into and permeate their entire thinking and doing. It is the shaping of our moral and spiritual intelligence as believers.
These Philippian believers would surely know that “humility” (tapeinōsis) was not valued as a virtue by their peers in Greco-Roman society. Humility was associated with slaves, people who had no status or rights and were regarded as non-persons. For people of any status to become Jesus followers by embracing humility required an incredible change in world-view and personal attitudes. They truly had to become “new creatures in Christ Jesus.” But Paul goes on to define at least one expression of “humble-mindedness” as “considering others as better (huperechontas) than oneself.” It is important to clarify what “better” means in this context so that we discern the meaning of humility.
Paul used the present active participle huperechōn three times in his Philippian epistle (2:3; 3:8; 4:7). It also occurs in Romans 13.1 with a sense that Peter parallels in 1 Peter 2:13. Paul used the cognate noun huperochē which means a natural feature that protrudes and then by extension “the state of excelling” (1 Corinthians 2:1) or “the state of high official rank” (1 Timothy 2:2) (BDAG) several times as well.
We discover the same uses of this term in the Greek translation of the Old Testament (Septuagint) as we find in the New Testament. Usually the term describes those who possess a superior quality. When Rebecca discovers that she will have twins (Gen 25.23), Yahweh tells her that “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from your uterus shall be divided, and a people shall excel (huperexei) over a people, and the greater shall be subject to the lesser” (A New English Translation of the Septuagint [NETS]). Among the stories of Joseph we read of his appointment by Pharaoh to lead Egypt. When Pharaoh makes this declaration he says: “You shall be over my house, and all my people shall comply with your mouth; only with regard to the throne will I be above (huperexei) you” (Gen. 40:41 [NETS]).In his great vision recorded in Daniel 7 the fourth kingdom is said to “surpass (huperexei) all of the kingdoms” (7:23 (Theodotion) [NETS]). The quality expressed here is one of power and authority. Baltashazar’s mother reminds him of Daniel who was “prudent and wise and surpassed all the sages of Babylon, and a holy spirit is in him” (5:11-12 (Old Greek) [NETS]). Sirach urges pious people to “Glorify the Lord, and exalt him as much as you can, for he will surpass (huperexei) even still” (Sirach 43:30 [NETS]). The sense of surpass or excel or “standing out” in some sense can also be documented in Classical Greek sources (e.g. Plato, Ps-Xenophon, Cyn. 1, 11 “surpass” those around in wisdom; Demosthenes).
The use of this term to describe those who have authority or occupy a superior position is a later development. The author of Wisdom of Solomon (first century B.C.) warns leaders that “a severe judgment falls on those in high places (en tois huperechousin)” (6:5 [NETS]). Writers in the later Hellenistic period use the term to describe superiors who exercise authority (e.g. Polybius).
Philo provides a good example of the basic sense “exceed, surpass” when he uses this term to describe harmonic and mathematical progressions (e.g. the numbers 6, 8, and 12) (On Creation 108-110; cf. The Decalogue 21). Philo can use this participle to describe two people walking together with neither surpassing (huperechōn) the other or being surpassed (huperechomenos) (The Migration 166; cf. Special Laws 4. 231). He can describe the portion of a tree that is above the ground as ho men hupereiche (The Worse, 107). In one context he describes cities as “swallowed up and…disappeared overwhelmed (huperschousēs) by the sea” (Eternity 140). In war soldiers hold their shields over (huperechein) their comrades to protect them from danger (On Husbandry 151). God’s hand of protection extends over (huperechousan) and shields those who trust him (On Dreams 2.265; cf. Special Laws 4. 199; The Embassy 220). He can describe the Hebrews during the plagues as “shielded by justice whose arm was extended (huperechontos) to defend them” (Moses 1.142). The priests are described as “the superior” (huperechontōn) in comparison with temple attendants (Moses 2.277). Those who demonstrate virtue should be praised, even if they are not the most successful because “they escape the envy which ever attaches itself to pre-eminence (tois huperechousin)” (On Husbandry 121). I have reviewed most of the occurrences in Philo in order to demonstrate the variety of applications this term has. It describes mathematical progressions, extensions, divine protection by an “extended arm” or shields, being overwhelmed by flood, superior position or pre-eminence. The essential ideas of excel, surpass, be superior or extend (over) clearly find association with this verb.
Paul’s usage of this participle in Romans 13:1 expresses the idea of superior or surpassing as he describes exousiais huperechousais (superior or preeminent authorities — rendered in NIV as “governing authorities”), which he defines as archontes (rulers) in verse 3. Peter is more specific when he describe a king as huperechonti (superior, preeminent — rendered in NIV as “the supreme authority”). The use of the noun huperochē in 1 Timothy 2:2 carries the sense when Paul urges that prayers be offered on behalf of kings and all those en huperochēi (in preeminence — rendered in NIV as “in authority”).
Paul’s usage in Philippians 2:3; 3:8; 4:7 is more challenging to assess. Let’s begin with Philippians 4:7. Paul describes the gift of God’s peace as that which “surpasses (huperechousa) all understanding.” In the context he addresses their “anxiety” (v.6) and urges them to make known their requests to God in various kinds of prayers. Verse 7 follows logically as a consequence to these actions. Despite how their human understanding may attempt to deal with such “anxieties,” it will fail. Only God’s peace which surpasses or excels human understanding can deal with such anxieties with the result that it can “protect your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” The sense of the participle in its adjectival function is “surpass, excel” in some respect.
In Philippians 3:8 Paul is in the midst of his great passage that contrasts his pre-conversion situation with his current relationship with Messiah Jesus. He continuously regards any kind of status, wealth, understanding, authority, etc., he may have had prior to his conversion as “loss.” He then explains the reason for this, introducing it with the phrase dia to huperchon tēs gnōseōs Christou Iēsou tou kuriou mou (because of the supreme value of the knowledge of Messiah Jesus, my Lord). The participle is expressed as a neuter noun, i.e. that which surpasses, excels, is preeminent, in some way. Given the analogy of profit and loss that Paul has been using, presumably the aspect of superiority is one of value.
Finally, we come to Philippians 2:3 where Paul discusses the nature of humility and its expression. Paul has denounced attitudes and attitudes the arise from a spirit of selfish rivalry (eritheia) and empty, deluded conceit (kenodoxia), both of which occur in standard lists of vices. He contrasts this with an attitude of mind that is saturated with humbleness. These believers need to embrace a certain perspective, a careful assessment, about others, particularly those in the faith community. Spiritual and moral intelligence imbued with humility regards others as “superior to, more prominent, excelling.” The verb in this indirect discourse takes a double accusative, i.e. “regard someone as something.” So the sense is that the subject, the Christians in the Philippian church, will regard/assess and treat one another as “excelling themselves” or “their own superiors.”
In the Christological exposition that follows (verses 5-11) Paul describes Jesus as “regarding [same verb as in verse 3] equality with God as not something to be grasped” (v.6), “taking the form of a slave” (v. 6), “humbling himself by being obedient” (v.8). Jesus takes this action first in service to God, the Father, and secondly, in service to human beings. I suggest that Paul urges the same perspective for the Philippian Christians. They are to regard one another as their own superiors because in this way they serve God and serve other humans, fulfilling the two great commands. They become servants/slaves of one another and this requires them to perceive and assess one another as worth serving, i.e. as excelling themselves and being in superior positions which deserve such service.