Commentary on Philippians 2:5-11
What’s in a name? From a biblical perspective — everything!1
A name was believed to represent the essence of a person’s character. On this eighth day of celebrating Jesus’ birth, we remember that he was circumcised on the eighth day and named Jesus, “the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb” (Luke 2:21). The name Jesus, of course, is the Greek version of the Hebrew name Joshua, which means “he saves.”
“The name that is above every name…”
In Philippians 2:6-11, Paul incorporates into his letter what is most likely an early Christian hymn. In this hymn we see how Jesus embodies his given name, “he saves.” Being “in the form of God,” he did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped or exploited, as something to be held onto at all costs and used to his own advantage. Rather, he willingly “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point to death — even death on a cross” (2:6-8).
Jesus is not a passive victim, but enters fully and willingly into his mission. He empties himself of all claims to divine glory and honor to become a human being — not a human of high status and honor, but a lowly slave serving other human beings. He humbles himself even to the point of dying a slave’s death, for the shameful and tortuous form of execution by crucifixion was reserved for slaves and rebels against Roman rule.
This Jesus is the one whom God highly exalts and to whom God gives “the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend… and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (2:9-11). In exalting Jesus, God gives Jesus his own name — “Lord” — and confers on him Lordship over all creation. One day every knee will bend before him, “in heaven and on earth and under the earth,” and every tongue join in confessing together that Jesus Christ is Lord.
This hymn makes the astonishing claim that the one we call God and Lord is most fully revealed in the crucified one. The one who humbled himself and took the form of a slave shows us who God is and how God acts. God’s essential character is shown to be one of self-emptying love rather than self-aggrandizement or grasping for power and glory. God’s high exaltation of Jesus confirms the divine nature of his mission and ensures that one day he will be acknowledged by all for who he truly is. Jesus, the one who saves, is God’s anointed one (the Messiah or Christ), and Lord of all.
“Let the same mind be in you…”
Paul incorporates this hymn into his letter in the service of pastoral theology. He is thankful for the Philippians’ care for him and support of his ministry (1:3-8), yet there are some problems in the community. In particular, Paul is concerned about dissension among members (2:2-4; 4:2-3), and about “opponents” who preach righteousness based on circumcision and law observance (1:28; 3:2-3, 7-11, 18-19). Paul urges the Philippians to live “in a manner worthy of the gospel” so that he will know that they are “standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel” (1:27).
Paul continues on this theme of unity of mind and spirit, urging the Philippians to “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (2:2). In encouraging the community to be “of one mind,” it is unlikely that Paul expects no differences of opinion within the community, for he is not so naïve about congregational life. Rather, he implores them to be united in a spirit of love and concern for the common good. This becomes clearer in what follows, as he urges them to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves,” and further exhorts them: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (2:3-4).
Paul then introduces the Christ hymn by saying, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (2:5). The phrase “in you” is plural (en humin), and perhaps better translated “among you.” Paul envisions the life of the community being formed by the mind of Christ — by a spirit of humility and loving service to one another rather than competition and grasping for power and control.
On this Sunday celebrating the Name of Jesus, a preacher might explore with hearers what it means to bear his name. Does our life together reflect “the same mind that was in Christ Jesus”? Are we looking to the interests of others rather than our own interests? Are humility and servant hood evident among us?
Having the mind of Christ ought to shape not only the internal life of a congregation, but its relationship with its community and the world. While some may mourn the passing of “Christendom” and the waning influence of the church in society, Paul calls us to relinquish our grasping for worldly power and embrace the role of servant.2 Power struggles and pining for glory do not honor the name of Jesus. Rather, by following Jesus in identifying with the lowly and giving ourselves away in humble service to a suffering world, we honor “the name that is above every name.”
1Commentary first published on this site on Jan. 1, 2012.
2Marsha L. Moore-Keish, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008) 174.