Commentary on Philippians 2:1-13
There are likely five or six sermons in this one passage—and so many exegetical possibilities for it as well. I want to offer just two angles that pose a different approach to not only this lection but to reading these letters as an exercise in discerning multiplicity in community. Often, we seek to see what Paul has to say about x or y issue. What if we discerned a larger context, namely, the community to which Paul writes?
Unity for whom?
First, a preacher may want to build on last week’s reading and draw out the themes of unity, compassion, and care for common goals. The first verses of this week’s text (verses 1–5) continue a theme that many commentators find uplifting and unifying—a theme that the NRSV translation certainly carries. But there are nuggets of ambiguity and prisms of theological light that only the Greek text conveys.
Paul’s vocabulary here is less lofty and more gritty, in the gut kind of language—he uses splagxna in verse 1, a word that literally means guts or bowels but figuratively suggests the most deep-seated place of human emotion. Paul appeals to the Philippians’ gut-level feelings about their joint venture in the gospel (see previous commentary). In verses 1–5, his rhetoric intimates that unity is one of the qualities lacking in their joint venture. And while we often assume this unity is a call for the Philippians to become more Christ-like, it’s worth examining our assumptions about the relationship Paul has to the community in Philippi. Recognizing that we only have Paul’s version of the relationship, it’s worth asking what he is trying to persuade the Philippians to think. Should they all think like each other, having one mind as a community (2:3–4)? Why would Paul start this section of the letter this way?
Paul is a good rhetorician, meaning that he is good at persuasion.1 He knows how to make an argument, and once we see where this argument is going, it’s clear why he starts this way. So often interpreters assume that the community in Philippi is fractious—they are politicking among themselves and disagreeing about things that are consequential for their communal life. And that could be.
But it could equally be true that the Philippians are unified with each other, but they don’t agree with Paul and Paul’s requests, guidance, or advice. How do we know? Because after the lofty Christ hymn, in which the middle portion emphasizes Christ’s obedience—even unto the torture of crucifixion—Paul drops this line on the community (verse 12): “Therefore, my beloved ones, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more in my absence…” Paul asks for obedience to him, even if he is not present in the community. And by suggesting that obedience is a Christ-like virtue, he raises the stakes for that obedience. Thus, their lack of unity is a lack of unity between Paul and the Philippians, not among the Philippians.
Their disagreement clearly isn’t one that has kept them from corresponding with each other or led to tears (see 2 Corinthians 9–11), but it is one that might just be an overreach on Paul’s part. After all, he’s sitting in the Praetorian camp (Phillippians 1:12–13), hasn’t been with the Philippians for a while, and isn’t in the local situation with them.
Perhaps he has furthered their joint venture through his conversations with the guards, but obedience to Paul may not be the best strategy in the local context of Philippi. And besides, investors usually tell us that a diversified portfolio is much stronger. Why, then, is unity and sameness so stressed in these verses? If all the major stakeholders in this joint venture in the gospel understand themselves to be faithful people “in Christ,” then why does singularity of mind prevail in the rhetoric of this letter? What if we held the text itself more lightly and tried to understand the communal dynamics at work that produced it?
It is worth thinking about who is in the Philippian community and what might be at stake for them in their relationship with Paul. That opportunity leads to another: we should look at our communities to understand who the stakeholders are and what our own calls for unity and obedience really entail. Whether it’s a church community or a broader civic community, likely there are voices that may be hidden, misunderstood, politicking, shouting to persuade rather than working alongside—and sometimes those voices are voices with power, sometimes they aren’t.
Whether you as a preacher or your community identifies with Paul or with the Philippians, it is worth asking what the real questions, fears, and differences are between people trying to live “in Christ” in our world. Might those differences be precisely the reason that this joint venture we all share in the gospel still has power among us? How might difference become one way to understand the power of Christ?
The Christ hymn
Second, the so-called “Christ Hymn” is embedded in this reading (verse 6–11). It is the oldest expression of who Christ is in the Christian scripture.2 So often we preach and teach about this piece of poetry as a kind of “proof” text for the pre-existent Christ who descends to the humiliation of the human condition, and then is vindicated after the crucifixion with a resurrection that guarantees his divine worth and extra-worldly adoration. While this interpretation is not wrong—these movements from godly equality to human emptying to suffering and death to resurrection and restoration do exist in the text—that is not the only story we can tell with this text.
We could focus more closely on the social and political context of the Roman Empire at the time that the New Testament was written. Those who ran the Roman Empire erected stone monuments carved with images celebrating the empire’s power over the people it had enslaved.3 In these images, Roman emperors hold female figures by the hair exposing anguished faces and twisted bodies. These “patriotic” images celebrate the Roman Empire’s power over the people (both men and women) it has enslaved. The emperors are depicted god-like in their triumphs. There is no mistaking the bald power over those deemed weak and/or dangerous enemies. They are the form of a god.
In some ways, the Christ hymn in Philippians (2:6–11) explicitly rejects such grotesque celebrations of power. The hymn celebrates Jesus Christ as one who is in the form of God and is equal to God (2:6). And while the NRSV translates the second half of verse 6 as saying that Christ Jesus, “…did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,” the Greek is much harsher. The Greek says that Christ Jesus did not “regard rape and robbery to be equal to God” (oux harpagmon hegesato to einai isa theo; 2:6). This rape and robbery (harpagmos) is, indeed, exploitation. But the harsher imagery of Roman propaganda suggests that exploitation is much more concrete in the Philippians’ and Paul’s contexts.4
Contrary to Roman images, the poem states clearly that divine power does not include the right to dominate and subdue other people. In fact, when juxtaposed with Rome’s propaganda images of god-like emperors subduing grotesquely positioned women, the Christ hymn argues that Jesus became like the women in the Roman reliefs (2:6–8), he took the form of a slave (morphen doulou labon), and he was executed on a cross as an enslaved criminal.
Through verse 8, the Christ hymn is clear: domination, conquest, exploitation—exactly the “patriotic” images that the Roman Empire embraced—are antithetical to divine power. Jesus’ death and resurrection reject our human displays of power and violence precisely because we know the divine was present in the worst kind of violence, fear, stigmatization, and brute show of force. Violence, fear, and death are not God’s plan. Structures of human leadership that glorify dominance over other people, who criminalize black and brown bodies, who objectify women, and who exploit poverty work against God’s justice. They are sin.
The Gospel in the Christ hymn is not so much the imperial-style adoration in the cosmos that verses 9–11 depict. The good news comes in the sure knowledge that Jesus’ equality with God is not in the form of a kingly ruler or an imperial victor. Jesus, Christ, the one equal to God, is in the form of the most vulnerable and marginalized in our world—and in the recognition and practices of dignity that honor their confession and their worthiness to bear the name of Christ.
- For a good overview of this argument see Joseph A. Marchal, “Expecting a Hymn, Encountering an Argument: Introducing the Rhetoric of Philippians and Pauline Interpretation,” Interpretation 61 (2007): 245–55.
- Whether we understand this section of the letter as Paul’s original composition or a quotation of a still older piece of poetry does not matter for this interpretation.
- For an example of these images see Claudius and Britannia on the Aphrodisias Excavations website through Oxford University: http://aphrodisias.classics.ox.ac.uk/sebasteionreliefs.html. Accessed August 21, 2021.
- Katherine A. Shaner, “Seeing Rape and Robbery: Harpagmos in the Philippians Christ Hymn (Phillippians 2:5–11),” Biblical Interpretation 25 (2017): 342–363.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of love,
With praise we celebrate Jesus, who humbled himself so that every knee should bend and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Amen.
Children of Peace, Anne Kilsofte