Commentary on Philippians 2:1-13
The lectionary passage Philippians 2:1–13 continues Paul’s preceding recommendations on how followers of Jesus Christ should live (1:27–30).
Specifically, the apostle emphasizes the need for unity: “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (2:2 NRSV). His ideal for the congregation in Philippi is harmony and “to be one in intent and disposition” (Peter T. O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991, p. 176). The achievement of such an ideal is valuable in and of itself. However, Paul states that, by following his advice, the congregation in Philippi would make his “joy complete.”
Paul’s exhortation is thus relational; it is borne out of a personal concern and shows how much he cares for his addressees. Moreover, Paul’s concern points to his emotional involvement. He would rejoice if unity of mind and the same love were to be found among the Philippians. “Joy” is, in fact, one of the key words of this letter. We need to bear in mind that Paul writes these lines during his imprisonment in Rome. What keeps him going is his apostolic mission on behalf of Jesus Christ.
On the one hand, he is proclaiming the gospel message to other prisoners and the imperial guard (1:12–14). On the other hand, he remembers those whom he previously visited during his travels and hopes that the gospel message stays alive among them so that his efforts as a missionary are not in vain (2:16). Despite his precarious circumstances, Paul’s joy is his mission for Jesus Christ, nothing else. He hopes his feelings are contagious: “ … in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me” (2:18 NRSV).
The state of harmony that Paul exhorts leads to peace, conveyed by the Hebrew word shalom. Such peace associates comprehensive and corporate well-being, wholeness, health, security, and salvation. It has a theological dimension. According to the Hebrew Bible, only God can grant real and lasting peace. The Aaronite blessing conveys in graphic fashion that it is the result of being in the presence of God, literally in front of the face of God (Numbers 6:24–27).
Just as such a blessing is contingent on the presence of God, so Paul conveys that God grants the state of harmony. “For it is God who works in you, enabling you both to will and to work according to his pleasure” (Philippians 2:13, translation C.E.). It would likewise be possible to translate “it is God who gives you energy;” the Greek term employed here is energeo, denoting power, action, and work.
Paradoxically, such “energy” or “power” is not about realization of one’s own potential or strength. It is, rather, directed at one’s neighbor. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3–4 NRSV). Paul proclaims “energy” that realizes the potential in others, and thus of a community.
What is this power that changes humans so they can live in harmony? We could venture to consider the influence of the Holy Spirit. Paul, however, gives a clear answer to this question: the example and role model to attain this power is Jesus. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (2:5) is what he recommends. Therefore, the apostle inserts verses taken from a Christological hymn into his lengthy exhortation. This means that we encounter here a sample of the liturgical tradition of the early church. If Paul wrote his Letter to the Philippians between 61 and 63 C.E., then this hymn was probably composed just one or two decades after the death of Jesus.
In concise phrases, the hymn sketches the entire mission of Jesus Christ, starting with his preexistence (Philippians 2:6), continuing with his incarnation and life on earth (v. 7), highlighting his death on the cross (verse 8), and concluding with his exaltation and universal adoration (verses 9–11). This mission is the example par excellence for the attitude that Paul endorses, and thus for communal harmony. It displays how Jesus went from the summit of divine glory to the nadir of human suffering and death.
We need to remember that, in the ancient world, death by crucifixion was the worst that could happen to anyone. Crucifixion inflicted more than just excruciating pain and led to a slow and cruel death; it meant public display of such pain and death to invite the mockery of bystanders. Crucifixion hence meant hitting rock bottom; one could not possibly get any lower or be more shamed. For Jesus who had been one with the Father in the glory of heaven, the death on the cross showed the extreme of his humility.
Paul endorses humility in 2:3, and Jesus is his perfect example. In addition, Jesus died “for us,” as Christians have confessed over the centuries. It happened for the benefit of others; Jesus died to save us. This aspect thus illustrates that Jesus was looking “to the interests of others” (verse 4). Hence, those who commemorate the mission of Jesus learn a unique lesson for communal life in harmony.
Humility is considered an important virtue in the Christian Church (and in many other religions as well). However, it is necessary to point out that there may be limits to requesting such an attitude from others. For too long in history and in too many places of the world, godly virtues have unfortunately been imposed on people as a means of domination. I am thinking of, for instance, women, or members of certain social, cultural, and ethnic groups (often people in minority situations), or sometimes workers in unhealthy labor conditions (“workplace bullying”).
Humility and personal submission should not be forced upon individuals or groups of people in order to establish or perpetuate structures of domination or oppression. All humans have the right to question whether being humble and adopting a state of submission is the right thing to do under particular circumstances.
In recent history, movements courageously advocating for civil rights and liberation were successful in restoring status, freedom, and dignity to those who have been dominated and exploited. Many of these advocates also chose Jesus Christ as their example because his preferential option for the poor and oppressed was a characteristic feature of his mission.