Jesus Christ, being equal with God the Father (Php 2:6), submitted Himself as an obedient servant to the Father (7-8) and esteemed His Father greater than Himself. (Jn 14:26) In highlighting this attitude in Christ and calling us to be like Him (5), Paul is telling us how to walk in humility by esteeming others better than ourselves. (3)
The Greek word translated better is ὑπερέχοντας, huperechōntas, which means superior, surpassing, above, over, better than. The word compares and contrasts one with another. The renowned theologian Albert Barnes, in his exegesis here, understands better in a moral context: the humble consider others to be, apart from God’s grace, morally superior to themselves.
While saints are currently being trained and equipped to judge all human behavior (1Co 6:2-3), it’s tempting to practice on our own before the time (1Co 4:5), without full knowledge of God’s Way, or of the human heart. (1Co 2:11) Not a good move. (1Co 4:3)
While we’re not to evaluate others’ moral goodness yet (Mt 7:1), trying to decide how good or bad someone is or determine what punishment or reward they deserve, we may act as if others are morally superior to ourselves, above us; we may esteem or consider them to less evil than we would be without God’s restraining grace. This violates no law of God, and in following Christ, in emulating His lowliness and meekness (Mt 11:29), God tells us to do exactly this: “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.” (Php 2:3)
God will judge us all according to our works (Ro 2:6), measuring and evaluating our thoughts, motives and actions according to His perfect, righteous standard (Jn 5:45); we’ll each score on the moral spectrum uniquely, no two of us being exactly alike. If we think to place ourselves above anyone else on this scale, with no way of knowing precisely where we stand, or exactly where anyone else does, we’re being presumptuous, proud (1Pe 5:5), thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought. (Ro 12:3) Rather, in lowliness of mind, we’re to avoid any tendency to exalt ourselves. (Ga 6:3)
In esteeming others better than ourselves, we should not conflate moral superiority with significance (ESV95), or value (NIV) or importance (NASB95); in providing His Son as an atoning sacrifice for each and every individual, God has infinitely valued each human being equally; we ought not to consider any person more or less valuable, significant or important than any other. Doing so is partiality, being a respecter of persons (De 16:19), which violates the law of Love. (Ja 2:8-9) In love and humility we’re to prefer one another in honor (Ro 12:10), not value, pleased as others are lifted up above ourselves.
Further, we should not confuse humility merely with a call to serve others. While it’s clear Christ humbly submitted Himself to His Father as a servant, it doesn’t follow that we’re to submit ourselves as servants to others; this is actually forbidden. (1Co 7:23) We’re to consider ourselves servants to Christ, not other people, and order our lives to as to please God and not men. (Ga 1:10) In submitting to God we will generally serve others in love (Ga 5:13), and defer to the needs and interests of others (Php 2:4), yet this is always in a context of stewardship and wisdom before God, not a blanket, boundaryless neglecting, disvaluing or demeaning of ourselves in interpersonal relationships. (2Co 8:13)
Christ, our example in humility, though He didn’t consider God the Father morally superior to Himself (for both are morally perfect), He did defer to the greatness and majesty of His Father, to the Father’s Headship within the Trinity itself. (1Co 11:3b) We’re called to follow His steps (1Pe 2:21), to emulate Christ’s lowliness of mind in our relations with one another, yet we can’t do exactly as Christ did here, using the same scale He did with His Father, since on that scale of headship all those within each gender are equivalent with one another. (3a)
Since we’ve eliminated importance, significance and intrinsic worth or value as proper ways to rank ourselves, the only relevant scale or ranking we may rightly refer to here in esteeming others better than ourselves is a moral one, the scale God Himself will use to rank us. (Mt 5:18) However, we’re forbidden to make any formal judgements of ourselves or others for the time being. (7:1-2)
Thus, our default position, if we’re going to esteem others better than ourselves, must be one of considering ourselves to likely be at the very bottom of this moral scale, to potentially be, apart from God’s grace, the most evil person who has ever lived, as Paul the Apostle evidently did (Ga 3:8, 1Ti 1:15), and in this God calls us to follow his example. (Php 4:9)