Commentary on Philippians 2:1-13
God with Us
It would be difficult to find a more influential passage in all of Scripture than today’s epistle reading from Philippians.
Often called “the Christ Hymn,” on the supposition that Paul is quoting at least in part a very early hymn from the worship of the church, these verses have generated and shaped endless debates about the nature of Christ’s humanity and divinity, his saving work, and its relationship to the Christian life. So much can be — and has been — said about this passage.
One thing is needful. This is the drama of Christ’s redemptive incursion into the depths of our bondage and despair. This is the story of God with us, told from the standpoint of his incarnation as a slave. Last week’s lesson gave us a glorious picture of free citizenship in the kingdom of heaven, and of the boldness and freedom of Paul’s and the Philippians’ witness to the gospel.
Today we hear of Christ himself taking the form of a slave, humbling himself even to the point of death by crucifixion — the execution reserved for slaves and traitors in the Roman Empire. Paradoxically, our liberation comes from Christ’s voluntary bondage, which is his entry into our bondage. This movement by Christ is the heartbeat of the exhortation that begins and ends today’s passage. If we want to become like Christ, we begin by hearing how Christ became like us, and continues to come among us. Then, and only then, are we ready to hear about “the imitation of Christ.”
The movement in this drama is one of descent and ascent: First it tells of Christ’s descent from a position of being in the form of God and equal with God, to being in the form of a slave, in the likeness of human beings, in the appearance of a singular human being, obedient even to the point of death by crucifixion. Having been raised on a cross, Christ is exalted even higher by God, so that all creation will bow down and confess him as Lord.
This exaltation echoes in 3:20-21, where Christ the “Savior,” a name which Caesar Augustus took to himself, will subject all things to himself. This powerful Savior also will transform our body of humiliation to be conformed to his body of glory, so that we ourselves are caught up into the divine movement of humiliation and exaltation.
For this very reason, the story of Christ also moves from separation to solidarity, and from difference to likeness, as Christ moves into the most despairing depths of human experience. In the form of a slave, he mirrors back to us the reality of our own enslavement to sin and death. He comes very near, so near that he “gets under our skin.” This is the “kindness” of God, in that God becomes one of our kind, kin to us. This is the incarnation, and it is the source of the life-transforming power that animates Paul’s ethical teaching: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (2:13).
A better translation might be, “God is the one working in you both the willing and the working.” The Greek word translated “work” is the source of our word, “energy” or “energize.” God gives us the desire and the energy to enact Christ’s compassion in the world. The “you” is plural, showing that God is among us, having come among us as a slave, as one who serves. This divine condescension and companionship thus is not only or even primarily an example for us in our dealings with one another, but the actual motivating power operating in and through those mutual relationships.
Similarly, the “salvation” we are to work out is not our private, individual destiny, but rather, the quality of our corporate life as it is lived under the rule of the Savior. Paul already has described this quality of life in terms of mutual love and affection, sharing in the Spirit, unity, humility, putting others first — and all of this “in Christ” (2:1-4). Here is real “quality of life!” And it is a public life, a public “politics.”
Just as last week’s lesson told us to let our manner of life, our “politics,” be worthy of the gospel so that it is a public demonstration of the meaning of salvation, so immediately following today’s lesson, Paul tells us we “shine as lights in the world” (3:15). Echoing the story of God’s revelation on Mount Sinai, the “fear and trembling” (2:12) evoked by Christ’s incarnation, death and exaltation tell us we are in the presence of God. This is the language of theophany. God’s self-revelation issues in a transformed community that itself becomes a kind of theophany, a manifestation of God’s presence in the world.
Finally, the drama of salvation enacted by Christ (2:6-11) and embedded in exhortations to act in ways that mirror Christ’s humiliation, service and obedience (2:1-5, 12-13), is a kind of street theater that involves the audience in the action. This is not a television show or a movie; it is not virtual reality; it is God’s action in the flesh, invading our worlds, catching us up into the saving work of God, making us also participants, actors in the drama. No longer mere spectators, we are part of the “spectacle” of God (1 Corinthians 4:9).