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Philippians 2:5-11 Biblical Commentary
To understand the beginning of chapter 2, we need to look first at chapter 1. In 1:12-26, Paul describes his own situation. He is in prison, but assures the Philippian Christians that his imprisonment has actually served to spread the Gospel, because it has given him opportunity to witness to the imperial guard (1:12-13). He emphasizes this reassurance to counter any inclination on the part of the Philippian Christians to interpret Paul’s imprisonment as evidence that God has abandoned him.
Also in chapter 1, Paul used phrases that spell out the problem that he is addressing in this letter:
“Some indeed preach Christ even out of envy and strife,
and some also out of good will.
The former insincerely preach Christ from selfish ambition,
thinking that they add affliction to my chains” (1:15-16).
This kind of envy, rivalry, and selfish ambition plagues the Philippian church.
In 1:27-30, Paul gives his prescription for this problem. He calls Philippian Christians to live their lives “worthy of the Good News of Christ” (1:27a) so they can stand “firm in one spirit, with one soul striving for the faith of the Good News” (1:27b).
In 2:1-4, Paul continues to emphasize that they should work out the problems among them—to work together harmoniously—and to consider the needs of the other person. He asks them to make his joy full by “being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind; doing nothing through rivalry or through conceit, but in humility, each counting others better than himself; each of you not just looking to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others.”
PHILIPPIANS 2:5-8. HAVE IN YOUR MIND WHAT WAS ALSO IN CHRIST JESUS
5 Have this in your mind (Greek: phroneite), which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, existing in the form of God, didn’t consider equality (isos) with God a thing to be grasped (harpagmos), 7 but emptied (ekenosen from kenoo) himself, taking the form (morphe) of a servant (doulos), being made in the likeness of men (homoiomati anthropon). 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross.
Many scholars have pronounced verses 5-11 an ancient Christian hymn. We have no way to know if the early Christians used it as a hymn, but we can see the loveliness of expression that would make it usable in that way.
“Have this in your mind (Greek: phroneite—from phroneo), which was also in Christ Jesus“ (v. 5). This verse serves as a bridge between verses 1-4 and verses 6-8—between what we think and what Christ thought.
Phroneo has to do with our understanding—our attitudes—our mindset.
This is the point toward which Paul has been moving through verses 1-4. He is calling us to emulate Christ Jesus, who committed himself to serving undeserving people at great personal cost. Without adopting Christ’s attitude, we could never accomplish what Christ wants us to do—to be united in mind, love, and accord (v. 2). We could never repeal the law of self-interest to put the other person’s interest first (vv. 3-4).
But it becomes possible for us to do these things once we have an example—once we see it done. That is what Christ Jesus has done for us. He has given us a visible example of a life of pure love—of pure service. He has shown us what it looks like—when someone puts aside his/her self-interest to do something for others. Even with his example always before us, we will never do these things perfectly well—but with God’s help we can get better and better at bringing our lives into congruence with Christ’s life—our attitudes into congruence with his.
“who, existing in the form of God” (v. 6a). This introduces the idea of the pre-existence of Christ. The clearest reference to Christ’s pre-existence is found in the Prologue to the Gospel of John. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him. Without him was not anything made that has been made…. The Word became flesh, and lived among us. We saw his glory, such glory as of the one and only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1-3, 14; see also 1 John 4:6).
Christ was in the form of God from the very beginning—before the creation of the world. Paul’s purpose in mentioning Christ’s pre-existence is to show us how much Christ had to give up to dwell among us. He gave up being God so that he might become a human baby. He gave up heaven to be born in a stable.
Consider that for a moment. Aren’t there moments when you would give your eye-teeth to possess God-like power! Well, Jesus had Godly power and splendor. He gave those up to come to Earth to die on a cross for our salvation.
“didn’t consider equality (isos) with God a thing to be grasped” (harpagmos) (v. 6b). This Greek word isos is also found in John 5:18, where the Jews were seeking to kill Jesus because he was calling God his father—and thereby “making himself equal (ison) with God”—i.e., claiming for himself Godly status and authority. Their error, of course, was their assumption that Jesus’ claim of Godly status and authority was false.
Christ did not count his Godly status and authority something to be exploited (harpagmos). The Greeks used the word harpagmos to speak of seizing a prize—or seizing booty—or grabbing and holding onto anything of value.
The point of this verse is that Christ did not consider his Godly status and authority something to be grasped for his own personal benefit. He understood their value, but was willing to sacrifice them in the service of a higher value—the salvation of humankind.
“but emptied (ekenosen from kenoo) himself“ (v.7a). The Greek word kenoo means to empty—or to make void in the sense of rendering a thing harmless or powerless.
We know what it means to empty something. To empty a pitcher, we must first have a pitcher that is full—or one that at least contains something. Then we must pour out the contents until the pitcher contains nothing.
Of course, scientists would protest that the pitcher would still contain air, and in most cases they would be correct. On first thought, I considered this to be an academic point having no application to Christ emptying himself. However, on second thought, it occurred to me that Christ—although in human form and fully human—continued to carry within him divine power. He was able to stop a storm in its tracks (Mark 4:39). He was able to heal people—and even to raise them from the dead (Luke 8:40-41, 49-56; John 11:1-44). That is why we speak of Christ as fully human and fully divine. So there is a sense in which Christ emptied himself, but retained something of Godly power.
To understand the full import of “emptied himself,” we must first start with what Christ was prior to his emptying—he was “in the form of God” (v. 6a)—equal with God (v. 6b). We must then look at what he became as a result of his emptying—he took on the form of a slave—took on the appearance of an ordinary man (v. 7b)—was born of an ordinary woman in an ordinary place in rather sub-ordinary circumstances. Who would expect the Son of God to be born in a stable and cradled in a manger? For that matter, who would expect the Son of God to die on a cross?
“taking the form (morphe) of a servant” (doulos) (v.7b). To take the form (morphe) of a servant means to take on the essential nature of a servant. He who was in the form of God took on the form of a servant.
The Greek word doulos means servant or slave. A gentler Greek word, diakonos, means servant but not slave. Diakonos is the word from which we get the English word deacon. Paul described himself and Apollos as diakonoi—”servants through whom you believed” (1 Corinthians 3:5). The point is that a diakonos (servant) enjoyed a considerably higher status than a doulos (servant or slave).
Christ did not divest himself of his Godliness to become a diakonos (servant) but a doulos (slave). He came from the highest of the high to the lowest of the low. This was not a demotion forced on him from on high. He took it on himself voluntarily to serve the needs of humankind.
“being made in the likeness of man” (homoiomati anthropon—the likeness of men or humankind) (v.7b). The idea conveyed by homoiomati is that Christ was born looking like an ordinary baby—resembling an ordinary person. But as the church would later determine, Christ was both fully human and fully divine—God in human form. His resemblance to an ordinary man did not mean that he was, strictly speaking, ordinary.
Paul uses this word, homoiomati, in Romans 8:3, where he says that God sent “his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh.” In that verse, Paul did not intend to say that Christ was a sinful man—but that he looked like an ordinary sinful man.
“And being found in human form, he humbled (etapeinosen—from tapeinoo) himself” (v. 7c-8a). See the comments in verse 3c above on the noun “humility.” Now in verse 8a, we have the verb “humbled” (tapeinoo). In this context, it means that Christ brought himself low—reduced himself to lowly circumstances—took a lower place than he could rightly have occupied.
“becoming obedient to (mechri—unto) death, yes, the death of the cross” (v. 8b). Christ went to his death willingly, but it was in obedience—the text doesn’t specify to whom. While it could have been obedience to his highest impulses, it was surely obedience to God the Father (Matthew 26:39; John 5:19; 8:28; Romans 5:19; Hebrews 5:8; 10:7).
This is the “stumbling block (Greek: scandalon) of the cross” (Galatians 5:11; see also Romans 9:30-33; 11:9)—that God would come into the world in human form and take upon himself the consequences for the sins of the world—that Christ would redeem us “from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us. For it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree'” (Galatians 3:13, a reference to Deuteronomy 21:22-23).
That was difficult for many people, Jew and Gentile alike, to believe in the days of the early church, and it is still difficult for many people to accept. It became the stumbling block over which many people stumbled on the way to the cross.
This would be especially difficult for the Philippian Christians. They were Roman citizens, and were therefore exempt from crucifixion—a punishment that could be exacted only on non-citizens.
PHILIPPIANS 2:9-11. THEREFORE GOD HAS HIGHLY EXALTED JESUS
9 Therefore God also highly exalted (Greek: hyperupsosen) him, and gave to him the name which is above every name; 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (kyrios), to the glory of God the Father.
“Therefore God also highly exalted (hyperupsosen—from hyperupsoo) him” (v. 9a). The word hyperupsoo combines two Greek words, hyper (high) and hupsoo (exalt). Therefore the two English words “highly exalted” translate one Greek word, hyperupsosen.
To be exalted is to be lifted up—raised high—praised.
Christ’s exaltation began with his resurrection, which attested to his power over death. That was followed by his ascension (his return to heaven) and his heavenly enthronement. His exaltation will culminate with his Second Coming, at which he will sit on his throne judging all the peoples of the world—separating sheep (those who are fit for God’s kingdom) from goats (those who are not) (Matthew 25:31-46; see also 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10; Revelation 20:11-15).
“and gave to him the name which is above every name“ (v. 9b). In that culture, people considered a person’s name to be more than a simple label to identify that person. They believed that something of the person’s identity was tied up in the name—that the name expressed something of the person’s essential character. As is obvious from this verse, they also assumed that a name—at least some names—possessed something of the power of the one who wore that name.
While that might sound foreign to us today, it is not. When we talk about a person’s reputation, we are talking about something that expresses the essence of that person. A person’s reputation also conveys a certain power or lack of it.
Scholars debate whether the name above every name is Jesus or Lord:
• That it could be Jesus is supported by verse 10, “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow….”
• That it could be Lord is supported by verse 11, “that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord….”
In that debate, the preponderance of scholarship seems to favor Lord. One reason is that Paul, in verses 10-11, uses wording from Isaiah 45:23, “to me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall take an oath,” wording that was meant to describe the response to Yahweh, who was also known as Lord. By applying this Yahweh language to Jesus Christ, Paul is placing Jesus on a plain with Yahweh.
But there is no reason why we must choose between Jesus and Lord. Consider how hymns of praise to Jesus are sung all over the world today. Consider the many other tributes made to Jesus—and to Jesus Christ—and to the Lord Jesus. All three of those expressions, as well as others, point to the one man whose earthly name was Jesus—and whose messianic title was Messiah or Christ—and who was known in his own day as Lord (Mark 1:3; 2:28; 11:3; 12:36-37; 16:19-20), and is still known as Lord today.
“that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow” (v. 10a). As noted above, the wording of verses 10-11 is taken from Isaiah 45:23, which says, “to me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall take an oath,” Paul also refers to this Isaiah 45 text in Romans 14:11.
The Isaiah oracle contrasts Yahweh, “who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it” (Isaiah 45:18)—with Babylonian idols, gods of wood who could not save (Isaiah 45:20). Yahweh said, “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear'” (Isaiah 45:22-23).
As noted above, by applying this Yahweh ascription to Jesus, Paul is placing Jesus on the same plane as Yahweh. That interpretation is supported by the Prologue to the Gospel of John, which says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it…. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1-14, 14; see also 1 Corinthians 15:24-28).
The bowing of the knee, of course, is a sign of obeisance—deference—homage. It is the lesser person acknowledging the greater—the human acknowledging the divine—the creation acknowledging the creator. It shows submission to a higher power.
“of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth“ (v. 10b). Bowed knees shall acknowledge Christ’s divinity throughout the created order—in the heavens, on earth, and under the earth.
• The angelic host will sing his praises in heaven.
• People (and possible all living beings) will bow their knee on earth. This will include those who failed to acknowledge him during their lifetimes (or prior to his Second coming) but who will see him sitting on his divine throne and pronouncing judgment.
• “under the earth” could refer to those who have died and been buried.
“and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (kyrios) (v. 11a). In the Old Testament, God’s name was YHWH—Yahweh. The Jewish people, to avoid violating the commandment against using God’s name wrongfully (Exodus 20:7), used instead the word Adonai (Hebrew: adonay), which means “the Lord.” When the Jewish people translated their Hebrew Scriptures into the Greek language (the translation known as the Septuagint or LXX), they translated the Hebrew word, adonay, into the Greek word, kyrios—so Jewish people were accustomed to using this Greek word, kyrios, to speak of God even though kyrios can also be used for human authorities.
The New Testament frequently uses kyrios to speak of Yahweh (Matthew 1:20, 22, 24; 2:13, 15; Mark 13:20; Luke 1:6; Romans 11:34, etc.). It also uses kyrios to apply to Jesus various Old Testament references to Yahweh (Mark 1:2-3; Acts 2:21; Romans 10:13; 1 Corinthians 1:8; 2 Corinthians 3:15-18). Paul links the lordship of Yahweh and Jesus with his words, “Jesus Christ is Lord.”
Early Christians lived in an environment where people were expected to say, “Caesar is Lord.” While this was intended to designate Caesar as ruler over the Roman realm, it also tended to take on spiritual connotations—that Caesar was Lord in some sort of spiritual sense. Believing that Jesus is the one and only Lord, early Christians often refused to say, “Caesar is Lord”—and often died violently at the hands of the Romans as a result. In that time and place, to say, “Jesus Christ is Lord,” required faith and courage. Keep in mind that, as he writes these words, Paul is sitting in a Roman prison, awaiting the opportunity to stand before the emperor to defend the charges that led to his imprisonment. Nevertheless, he writes words that could be interpreted as subversive—that Jesus Christ is Lord.
“to the glory of God the Father“ (v. 11b). The word “glory” is used in the Bible to speak of various things—but is used especially to speak of God’s glory—an aura associated with God’s appearance that reveals God’s majesty to humans.
Paul says here that confessing Christ’s lordship gives honor to God the Father. Jesus Christ is the manifestation of God. God the Father and God the Son are so inextricably linked that we can say that they (along with the Holy Spirit) are one. So to honor Jesus Christ is one way of honoring God the Father.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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