The Example of Christ (2:5-11)

You probably know people who, like the present author, when all else fails finally read the manual! That's what Paul is now up to, showing the Philippians "the manual." The ultimate paradigm of a genuinely Christian mindset is Christ himself, who is the premier manifestation of the character of God, which God is trying to reproduce in his people so that they might also thereby be truly human. Paul thus presents the essential matters of Christ's story—which he narrates in such exalted fashion, full of passion and poetry, that what serves as the centerpiece of our letter is in many ways the centerpiece of the entire New Testament. Not only does all of the present section (1:27—2:18) lead up to and flow out of this passage, but when Paul tells his own story in 3:4-14, as a further model for the Philippians to imitate, he clearly ties his narrative to this grandest of all narratives.

Understandably such a passage has elicited an enormous amount of scholarly attention, which will not detain us here (see the note for details). Although it is often set out in English translations as a hymn, there is no historical evidence that it was ever a hymn in the liturgical sense of having been sung in Christian churches, and in any case verses 9-11 are very much like argument (therefore . . . [in order] that), whose only poetic element comes from Paul's use of Isaiah 45:23 in verses 10-11. Two matters are important as we approach the passage: first, that in going through the passage we not miss the forest for the trees—that is, that we not get bogged down in the details so that we miss the grandeur of the whole; and second, that precisely because in some ways the passage can stand on its own (it is a complete narrative, after all), we not miss its very clear and essential ties to the present argument.

We begin with the former. After the appeal with which it begins (v. 5), the narrative itself presents what has historically been called "the mind of Christ" in two major parts, referred to as his "humiliation" (vv. 6-8) and "exaltation" (vv. 9-11). The story of his "humiliation" is likewise in two parts: verses 6-7, which tell us that as God he poured himself out by taking the form of a slave/servant in his becoming human; verse 8, which tells us that as a human being he humbled himself, obediently going all the way to death on a cross. Part 2 (vv. 9-11) narrates the divine vindication of this self-emptying humbling of Christ: he has been exalted to the highest place and given the Name before whom every created being shall eventually offer obeisance. The glory of all this is that the self-emptying, humbling One never ceases to be God in his "humiliation"; indeed this is the full revelation of God's essential character—in the words of Graham Kendrick's wonderful hymn, "this is our God, the Servant-King."

But in telling the story in this way Paul clearly shapes the language to the context. In order to help the Philippians toward a common mindset (v. 2), he presents as a model the divine mindset (v. 5), graphically portrayed through Christ's incarnation and crucifixion. Instead of "empty glory" (kenodoxia), Christ "emptied himself" (heauton ekenosen); instead of "selfish ambition," he took "the form of a slave"; he did not consider his equality with God selfishly, just as they in humility are to "consider" the needs of others ahead of their own (a form of hegeomai in each instance); as a human being he humbled himself (etapeinosen; cf. tapeinophrosyne in v. 3); and all of this to God's glory (doxan, v. 11), over against the "empty glory" (kenodoxia) of selfish ambition. And beyond these clear linguistic ties are the conceptual ones: the whole narrative offers the highest expression of God's love (v. 1) urged on the Philippian believers (v. 2), not to mention that it is the ultimate example of not looking only to one's own interests but also to the interests of others (v. 4).

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