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Philippians 2 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

The Example of Christ

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).The Appeal--to the Mind of Christ (2:5) The transitional function of this sentence is a lot clearer in the Greek text than are some of its parts. Literally it reads: "This mindset have `in you' which also `in Christ Jesus.'" "This" points backward to verses 2-4; "which also" picks up "this" and points it forward to verses 6-8. What Paul says in effect is that "the attitude of mind I have been urging on you is exactly that of God himself, as it has been spelled out in the incarnation."

The phrase "in you" (obscured by the NIV's your) is nicely double-entendre here and elsewhere (e.g., 2:13). It primarily means "among you," that is, "in your community relationships." But the only way for that to happen, as noted in the commentary on verse 4, is for each one to assume the responsibility for such a disposition. Thus each is to have this mindset "in you" so that it will be fully manifested "among you." Since the second clause intentionally parallels the first (cf. "which also"), the phrase "in Christ Jesus" therefore parallels "in/among you" and looks to an attitude that can be found in Christ himself. The intended verb in the second clause is some form of "to be," either "was," pointing to the historical dimension of the story about to be narrated, or "is," pointing to the mindset that is always to be found in Christ and was historically demonstrated in the incarnation. Put together, the whole sentence means something like "In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had/has."As God He Emptied Himself (2:6-7) In displaying the mind of Christ, Paul begins with one of those sublime sentences whose essential intent and meaning seem clear as can be yet whose parts are full of mystery and wonder. The reason for this is simple enough; on the basis of what was known and came to be believed about Jesus' earthly life, Paul is trying to say something about what could not be observed yet came to be believed about Christ's prior existence as God. What is essential is this: In his prior existence as God, Christ demonstrated what equality with God meant, not by taking advantage of it for himself but by emptying himself, by taking the role of a slave/servant in becoming one of us. All of this, in the present context, is to portray the ultimate expression of "do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit." What that "mind" entails is spelled out in the narrative that follows.

The details that need special attention are four: (1) Why does Paul say "in the form" of God (NIV margin) rather than simply say "as God"? (2) What does the word harpagmos mean (NIV something to be grasped; put above as "taking advantage of")? (3) What did it mean for Christ to "empty himself" (NIV made himself nothing)? (4) Why in human likeness rather than "in his humanity" or something similar? Other details of significance will be noted in the process of looking at each of these matters in turn.

First, the opening phrase, "who, being in the form [morphe] of God," expresses as presupposition what the rest of the sentence assumes: that it was the preexistent Christ who "emptied himself" at one point in our human history. Why then did Paul use morphe, which primarily refers to the "form" or "shape" something takes? The answer lies in what Paul is about in this sentence. His urgency is to say something about Christ's "mindset" in both expressions of his being, first as God and second in his humanity. But in the transition from Christ's "being God" to his "becoming human," Paul expresses by way of metaphor the essential "shape" of that humanity: Christ "took on the `form' of a slave." Since morphe can denote "form" or "shape" in terms of both the external features by which something is recognized and the characteristics and qualities that are essential to it, it was precisely the right word to characterize both the reality (his being God) and the metaphor (his taking on the role of a slave). On the basis of Christ's resurrection and ascension, his earliest followers had come to believe that the One whom they had known as truly human had himself known prior existence in the "form" of God--not meaning that he was "like God but really not" but that he was characterized by what was essential to being God. This understanding (correctly) lies behind the NIV's in very nature God.

Second, in order to highlight the astonishing nature of the incarnation, Paul resorts to a typical "not/but" contrast. Reading such a sentence straight through without the "but" clause always helps to get at what is essential; in this case, "who, being in the form of God, . . . made himself nothing by taking the form of a servant/slave." That is glory indeed; but to heighten the glory Paul emphasizes two realities: first, that "being in the form of God" means being equal with God; second, that in Christ's "being in the form of God/being equal with God" he displayed a mindset precisely the opposite of "selfish ambition" and empty glory (v. 3). To accent this second point he uses an extremely rare (negative) word, harpagmos, which depicts the opposite of "in humility consider others better than yourselves" (v. 3).

Harpagmos is a noun formed from a verb that means to "to seize, steal [hence the KJV's `robbery'], snatch, take away." Although its meaning has been much debated, there is a growing consensus that its probable sense leans toward something like either "a matter of grasping or seizing" or "something grasped for one's own personal advantage." In the first option the emphasis lies on the verbal side of the noun, on the idea of "seizing" as such. Thus Christ did not consider "equality with God" to consist of being "grasping" or "selfish"; rather he rejected this popular view of kingly power by pouring himself out for the sake of others. The alternative, which is probably preferable, is to see the word as a synonym of its cognate harpagma ("booty" or "prey"), which in idioms similar to Paul's denotes something like "a matter to be seized upon" in the sense of "taking advantage of" it ("he did not think he needed to take advantage of this equality with God," Bockmuehl 1997:114).

In either case, the clause comes out very much at the same point. Equality with God is something that was inherent to Christ in his preexistence; but he did not consider Godlikeness to consist in "grasping" or "seizing" or as "grasping it to his own advantage," which would be the normal expectation of lordly power--and the nadir of selfishness.

Third, Christ's selflessness for the sake of others expressed itself in his emptying himself by taking the "form" of a slave. Historically, far too much has been made of the verb "emptied himself," as though in becoming incarnate he literally "emptied himself" of something. However, just as harpagmos requires no object for Christ to "seize" but rather points to what is the opposite of God's character, so Christ did not empty himself of anything; he simply "emptied himself," poured himself out, as it were. In keeping with Paul's ordinary usage, this is metaphor, pure and simple. What modifies it is expressed in the phrase that follows; he "poured himself out by taking on the `form' of a slave."

Elsewhere this verb regularly means to become powerless or to be emptied of significance (hence the NIV's made himself nothing; cf. KJV, "made himself of no reputation"). Here it stands in direct antithesis to the "empty glory" of verse 3 and functions in the same way as the metaphorical "he became poor" in 2 Corinthians 8:9. Thus, as in the "not" side of this clause (v. 6b), we are still dealing with the character of God as revealed in the mindset and resulting activity of the Son of God. The concern is with divine selflessness: God is not an acquisitive being, grasping and seizing, but self-giving for the sake of others.

That this is Paul's intent is made certain by the two explanatory participial phrases that follow. The first explains the nature of Christ's emptying himself, how it was expressed in our human history: "by taking on the `form' of a slave" (NIV taking the very nature of a servant). From Paul's perspective this is how divine love manifests itself in its most characteristic and profuse expression. Christ entered our history not as kyrios ("Lord"), a name he acquires at his vindication (vv. 9-11), but as doulos ("slave"; see on 1:1), a person without advantages, rights or privileges, but in servanthood to all. All of this, surely, with an eye to verses 3-4. It is further important to note that crucifixion was reserved by the Romans either for insurrectionists or for recalcitrant slaves.

The second participial phrase simultaneously clarifies the first by elaboration and concludes the present sentence by paving the way for the next (v. 8). Together these two phrases give definition to Christ's "impoverishment." The phrase "in the form of a slave" comes first for rhetorical reasons--to sharpen the contrast with "in the form of God" and to set out the true nature of his incarnation. It thus reflects the "quality" of his incarnation. The second phrase indicates its "factual" side. Thus Christ came "in the form of a slave," that is, by being made in human likeness.

This leads, fourth, to the troubling word likeness (homoioma), which is most likely used because of Paul's belief (in common with the rest of the early church) that in becoming human Christ did not cease to be divine. This word allows for the ambiguity, emphasizing that he is similar to our humanity in some respects and dissimilar in others. The similarity lies with his full humanity; in his incarnation he was "like" in the sense of "the same as." The dissimilarity lies with his never ceasing to be "equal with God"; while "like" us in being fully identified with us, he was not "human" only. He was God living out a truly human life, all of which is safeguarded by this expression.

Thus, to put the sentence all together, in Christ Jesus God has shown his true nature; this is what it means for Christ to be "equal with God"--to pour himself out for the sake of others and to do so by taking the role of a slave. Hereby he not only reveals the character of God but also reveals what it means for us to be created in God's image, to bear his likeness and have his "mindset." It means taking the role of the slave for the sake of others--the contours of which are delineated in the next sentence.As a Man He Humbled Himself (2:8) Apart from the absence of the "not/but" contrast, this sentence is formally very much like the preceding one. It begins (1) with a participle emphasizing Christ's present "mode" of being, in this case "as a human being," followed (2) by the main clause (he humbled himself), followed (3) by a similar participial modifier, again spelling out how he did so (became obedient to death), which in turn (4) is brought to rhetorical climax by specifying the kind of death (even death on a cross). Thus the two sentences in their essential parts are parallel:

Being in the form of God,

he emptied himself

by taking on the form of a slave,

by coming in the likeness of human beings.

Being found in human appearance,

he humbled himself

by becoming obedient to the point of death,

death, that is, on a cross.

But in contrast to the preceding sentence, full of mystery and metaphors as it is, this sentence is straightforward and literal. It tells how the divine self-emptying One showed the same mindset in his humanity.

The word found expresses the divine reality from our human perspective, while appearance puts the idea of likeness in a slightly different way, referring to the external qualities of something that make it recognizable. Christ Jesus, who came in the likeness of human beings (both similar and dissimilar to us), "appeared" in a way that was clearly recognizable as human. Together the two phrases accent the reality of his humanity, just as the first two phrases in verse 6 accent his deity.

As with true deity, true humanity is expressed in his humbling himself, picking up the language of verse 3. The obedience that characterized his entire human life found its definitive expression in his death on a cross. The emphasis on obedient to death points to his readiness, as one of us, to choose the path that led to a death "destined for our glory before time began" (1 Cor 2:7). Which is quite in keeping with him who, as God, impoverished himself by taking on the role of a slave.

The potency of the final phrase, death on a cross, lies in the repetition of death back to back: "to death, death, that is, on a cross." At the same time it combines with "in the `form' of God" (Phil 2:6) to frame the narrative to this point with the sharpest imaginable contrast: God on a cross. Here is the very heart of Pauline theology, both his understanding of God's being and his understanding of what God is doing in our fallen world. Here is where the One who is equal with God has most fully revealed the truth about God: that God is love and that his love expresses itself in self-sacrifice--cruel, humiliating death on a cross--for the sake of those he loves. The divine weakness (death at the hands of his creatures, his enemies) is the divine scandal (the cross was reserved for slaves and insurrectionists).

No one in Philippi, we must remind ourselves, used the cross as a symbol for their faith; there were no gold crosses embossed on Bibles or worn as pendants around the neck or lighted on the steeple of the local church. The cross was God's--and thus their--scandal, God's contradiction to human wisdom and power: that the One they worshiped as Lord should have been crucified as a state criminal at the hands of one of "lord" Caesar's proconsuls; that the Almighty should appear in human dress, and that he should do so in this way, as a messiah who died by crucifixion. Likewise, this is the scandal of Pauline ethics: that the God who did it this way "gifts" us to "suffer for his sake" in this way as well (see 1:29).

How radically different is God's view of our being fully human from the bland and shallow "beautiful people" Western culture exhibits to sell us on ourselves. Having abandoned both God and the one true Human, Christ Jesus, our culture fawns on--and takes advice from (!)--any and every celebrity, empty-headed as he or she might be, who appears on a television talk show. What fools we mortals be, whose truth about ourselves is finally to be found in the one truly human life that inhabited our planet.Divine Vindication of the Example (2:9-11) The "mind of Christ" as example for the Philippian community has now been narrated (vv. 6-8). But neither the narrative nor Paul's present concern about the Philippians' "affairs" is finished. So he concludes with this final sentence, whose function is twofold: to assert that God's yes to Jesus' life and death has been punctuated with the ultimate exclamation point, and thereby to reassure the Philippians that their now exalted Lord is sovereign over the entire universe--including the "lord" of the Empire, Caesar himself.

For a suffering community that has been repeatedly reminded of Christ's preeminent role in everything--both present and future--here is the necessary concluding word. Believers in Christ are both "already" and "not yet." Already they know and own him as Lord of all; not yet have they seen all things made subject to him. Here, then, they are reminded of who, and whose, they are: glad followers of him who is King of kings and Lord of lords, before whom at God's final wrap-up every knee shall bow to pay him the homage due his name.

What the sentence affirms is not reward but the divine vindication of the self-emptying, humble obedience that led Christ to the cross. As a yes to this expression of equality with God, God the Father exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name. Although expressed as a twofold action, most likely the two verbs point to a single reality: that God highly exalted Christ by gracing him with "the Name." Both parts of the sentence, however, raise issues that call for closer examination.

First, in asserting that God has "highly exalted" Christ, Paul uses a compound of the ordinary verb for "exalt" with the preposition hyper, whose basic meaning is "above." That might seem to suggest exaltation to a higher position than Christ held previously. But Paul virtually holds copyright to hyper compounds in the New Testament, and in the vast majority of cases they magnify or express excess, not position. Therefore for God to "highly exalt" Christ almost certainly means that God "exalted him to the highest possible degree."

But what does Paul intend by the name that is above every name? There is something to be said for the name as referring to Christ's earthly name, Jesus. That, after all, is what is picked up in the next phrase, at the name of Jesus. If so, then Paul does not mean that he has now been given that name but that in highly exalting him, God has bestowed on the name of Jesus a significance excelling that of all other names.

More likely, however, especially in light of how the rest of the sentence unfolds, Paul is making a kind of twofold wordplay. First, the name as "that which is above every name" unmistakably echoes the Old Testament use of "the Name" to refer to God and his character. To honor God is to honor his name above all. At his exaltation the name above . . . every name has been bestowed on Jesus. But not in its Hebrew form YHWH does Jesus receive the name, but by way of the Septuagint (LXX), in its Greek form kyrios ("Lord").

The fact that the LXX consistently translated the divine name as kyrios is substantial evidence that the habit of substituting adonai (Hebrew "lord") for Yahweh, which continues to this day in the Jewish community, goes back before the third century B.C.E. But this also makes for the happy situation that the earliest believers could use God's title, Lord, which also became God's "name" in the LXX, as their primary designation for Jesus. In so doing they expressed his equality with God but also avoided calling him Yahweh, which is reserved for God the Father.

The result of the exaltation of Jesus is expressed in two coordinate clauses taken directly from the LXX of Isaiah 45:23, both of which stress that the whole creation shall offer him homage and worship, presumably at his coming. Thus the narrative covers the whole gamut: It begins in eternity past with Christ's "being in the `form' of God," then focuses on his incarnation, and finally expresses his exaltation as something already achieved (v. 9), thus presupposing resurrection and ascension; now it concludes by pointing to the final future event when all created beings shall own his lordship.

First, at the name of Jesus, the Lord, every knee should bow. "Bowing the knee" is a common idiom for doing homage, sometimes in prayer, but always in recognition of the authority of the god or person before whom one is kneeling. What Paul does is full of import: for the "to me" of Isaiah 45:23, which refers to Yahweh, he substitutes at the name of Jesus. In this stirring oracle (Is 45:18-24) Yahweh, Israel's Savior, is declared to be God alone, over all that he has created and thus over all other gods and nations. In verses 22-24 Yahweh, while offering salvation to all but receiving obeisance in any case, declares that "before me every knee will bow." Paul now asserts that at Christ's exaltation God has transferred this right to obeisance to the Son; he is the Lord to whom every knee shall eventually bow.

Also in keeping with Isaiah (cf. 45:18), but now interrupting the language of the quotation itself, Paul purposely throws the net of Christ's sovereignty over the whole of created beings: [those] in heaven refers to all heavenly beings, angels and demons; [those] on earth refers to all those who are living on earth when Christ comes, including those who are currently causing suffering in Philippi; and [those] under the earth probably refers to "the dead," who also shall be raised to acknowledge his lordship over all.

Second, every tongue (of every person on bended knee) shall express homage in the language of the confessing--but currently suffering--church: "The Lord is Jesus Christ." This confession, which comes by the Spirit (1 Cor 12:3), is the line of demarcation between believer and nonbeliever (Rom 10:9). And here lies the ultimate triumph and irony in the passage. Those responsible for the suffering in Philippi proclaim that "the lord is Caesar." But at the end, when all creation beholds the risen Jesus, both they and their "lord Caesar" will join with all others to declare that Kyrios is none other than the Jesus whom the Romans crucified and whom Christians worship. But the confession will not then constitute conversion, but final acknowledgment that "God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:36).

One can scarcely miss the christological implications. In the Jewish synagogue the appellation Lord had long before been substituted for God's "name" (YHWH). The early believers had now transferred that "name" (Lord) to the risen Jesus. Thus, Paul says, in raising Jesus from the dead, God has exalted him to the highest place and bestowed on him God's own name--in the Hebrew sense of "the Name," referring to his investiture with God's power and authority. At the same time, Paul's monotheism is kept intact by the final phrase, to the glory of God the Father. Thus this final sentence begins with God's exalting Christ by bestowing on him the name and concludes on the same theological note, that all of this is to God the Father's own glory.

The grandeur of this passage can easily cause one to forget why it is here. Paul's reason is singular: to focus on Christ himself, and thus to point to him as the ultimate model of the self-sacrificing love to which he is calling the Philippians--and us. Here we have spelled out before us in living color both the "what" and the "why" of Paul's affirmation "For to me, to live is Christ." In Jesus Christ the true nature of the living God has been revealed ultimately and finally. God is not a grasping, self-centered being. He is most truly known through the One whose equality with God found expression in his pouring himself out in sacrificial love by taking the lowest place, the role of a slave, and whose love for his human creatures found consummate expression in his death on the cross. That this is God's own nature and doing has been attested for all time by Christ Jesus's divine vindication; he has been exalted by God to the highest place by having been given the Name: the Lord is none other than Jesus Christ. This is why for Paul "to live is Christ." Any faith that falls short of this is simply not the Christian faith.

But Paul's concern in all this is, in the words of the poet, "'Tis the way the Master went, should not the servant tread it still?" That Christ serves for us as a paradigm for Christian life reinforces a significant aspect of Paul's gospel, namely that there is no genuine life in Christ that is not at the same time, by the power of the Holy Spirit, being regularly transformed into the likeness of Christ. A gospel of grace that omits obedience is not Pauline in any sense; obedience, after all, is precisely the point made in the application that follows (v. 12).

The specific behavioral concern of this passage is of greatest urgency for Paul. Unity in Christ was the absolutely necessary evidence of the gospel at work in his communities. Redemption that does not redeem, that does not cause a Philemon to accept the runaway slave Onesimus back as a brother in Christ, is merely soft mush. Redemption that does not issue in forgiveness, that does not crush "complaining" against and "arguing" with one another in the Christian community (v. 14), mocks this narrative.

In the final analysis, this passage stands at the heart of Paul's understanding of God. Christ serves as pattern, to be sure; but he does so as the One who most truly expresses God's nature. That this is what God is like is the underlying Pauline point; and since God is in the process of re-creating us in his image, this becomes the heart of the present appeal. Thus we are not called upon simply to "imitate God" by what we do but to have his very mind, the mind of Christ, developed in us, so that we too bear God's image in our attitudes and relationships within the Christian community--and beyond.

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