Commentary on Philippians 2:1-13
For many scripture readers, Philippians 2:5-11 is a favorite. But this Sunday we have the rare privilege of hearing it in its original context.
Paul does not write Philippians 2:5-11 apart from the appeals of verses 1-4 and 12-13. Often as Philippians 2:5-11 is mined for answers to questions of dogma, Paul’s rhetorical purpose is primarily to give a pattern of thinking and living for believers in Philippi — one grounded in the way of Jesus.
The appeal: unity and humility
Building on the primary appeal of the letter in Philippians 1:27-30 (“live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ”), in 2:1-5 Paul narrows in to appeal for community unity and individual humility. He asks his hearers to “make [his] joy complete” by being “of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (2:2). The emphasis on unity is hard to miss (compare to 1 Corinthians 1:10). In Greek, Paul’s language is more succinct (about 25% shorter), giving more rhetorical punch than is visible in English.
Along with unity, Paul appeals for humility. Believers are to be characterized not by “selfish ambition or conceit,” but by “humility” (Philippians 2:3). This entails esteeming others and their interests more highly than one’s own concerns. Contextually, this “humility” (tapeinophrosyne, “thinking lowly/ humbly”) is grounded in Christ’s “humbling” (etapeinosen) himself to the point of crucifixion (Philippians 2:8; compare to Philippians 3:21). What is more, it stands in stark contrast to the honor-seeking that prevailed among Roman aristocrats in society. Paul does not recommend a traditional cursus honorum (course of honor) — the way of upward mobility and aspiration — but a course of downward mobility: the way of relinquishment and honoring others, seen foremost in the life of Christ.1 In living out this counterintuitive course of life, Jesus is ultimately proclaimed “Lord” of all domains, a title superior to that of the highest Roman aristocrat (Caesar).
These realities contextualize the strong language of self-denial (for example “regard others as better than yourselves”). Paul’s aims are neither self-degradation nor the affirmation of power discrepancies, but to call out individualistic quests for societal status and honor as contrary to the spirit of Christ — and potentially harmful to community.
All of Philippians 2:1-4 reads as a long, singular sentence (in Greek), making Paul’s appeals to unity and to humility inseparable. In Paul’s mind, humility is a necessary ingredient for community unity. And true humility is measured, not by low self-evaluation, but by demonstrable concern for others.
The complementarity of these virtues (humility, unity) raises a question for us today, who live in predominately individualistic societies: If humility and community unity complement one another, does a lack of focus on intentional community (visible in various sectors today) itself imply a similar lack of true humility?
The way of Jesus
Verse five bridges Paul’s appeal (Philippians 2:1-4) to what follows: “have this mind among you that also was in Christ Jesus” (my translation). These words couch what follows as a mindset or way of thinking (touto phroneite, “Think this”), which for Paul plays a critical role in ethical behavior (see Romans 12:1-2; also Colossians 4:10-11; Ephesians 4:17, 23). Stated otherwise, how we think profoundly influences how we live.
For nearly a century, Philippians 2:6-11 has been known as a “Christ hymn” that may predate Paul. But whether it is pre-Pauline or a hymn are both uncertain. Clearly the passage matters to Paul, and here it issues a masterfully evocative contrast between the pattern of life and actual status of Jesus the Messiah:
- the form of God vs. that of a slave (verses 6-7)
- being equal to God vs. in human likeness (verses 6-7)
- humbled vs. highly exalted (verses 8-9)
- obedience vs. lordship (verses 8, 11)
- death vs. eternal glory (verses 8-11)
- earthly vs. heavenly realities (verses 8, 10-11)
The verses that follow only affirm further Paul’s primary rhetorical aim in Philippians 2:6-11 as encouraging obedience (verse 12) and constructive public witness (verses 14-16). The language “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (verse 12) is routinely troublesome for Protestants, who fear it implies a form of “works righteousness.” But Paul’s focus in Philippians 2:1-13 has nothing to do with salvation (how one is saved). Instead, Paul is concerned here with how “saved” (believing) people live out their salvation here and now in the world. And these are matters of obedience, humility, and public witness — “for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure” (verse 13).
In conversation with the day’s other readings
Reading Philippians 2:1-13 alongside Exodus 17:1-7 and Matthew 21:23-32, preachers rightly reflect on the relationship between our patterns of thinking and patterns of living. For the wilderness wanderers in Exodus, the response of despair was more natural than faith; and for the Philippians, “selfish ambition” was perhaps more natural than humility. In both cases, certain patterns of thinking yielded certain patterns of living. But as Jesus’ parable points out (Matthew 21:28-32), affirmative responses alone are not praiseworthy as much as a life pattern that embodies them.
But that is not all. More than merely a moralistic lesson against hypocrisy, Philippians 2:1-13 invites hearers to reflect on Jesus Christ and to orient their lives around him. Not only is Christ an example, he embodies God’s will and work for humanity, and so deservedly is the object of our devotion (Philippians 2:10-11). The passage is not merely instructional — it is doxological. We believers not only learn from this Jesus Christ, but we join all creation in professing he “is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:11).
1. For more on this, see Joseph Hellerman, Reconstructing Honor in Roman Philippi: Carmen Christi as Cursus Pudorum (Society of New Testament Studies Monograph Series 132; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).