Commentary on Philippians 2:5-11
In the 1990s, Gatorade launched a campaign: “Be Like Mike.”
Though the advertisements were for a sports drink, the implicit message was that you would perform like Michael Jordan if you drink Gatorade. However, the ability to soar to those heights and play basketball at the highest level was not found in the sports drink or the shoes. Jordan’s success is attributed to his hard work, dedication to the sport, and discipline. He studied tapes, exercised in order to create the strongest possible body, and practiced various elements of the game until he perfected them. While good shoes and refreshment may be helpful, they did not make him extraordinary. On the contrary, he made Gatorade seem extraordinary.
Throughout the Christian scriptures, believers are encouraged to be imitators of God, to be like Jesus.1 We are told to walk like Jesus (1 John 2:6), to forgive one another (Colossians 3:13), to be kind to one another (Ephesians 4:32), and to love as Jesus did (John 13:34). And, here in Philippians 2:5-11, this hymn encourages us to have the same mind as Christ. The Greek here, (phronēte, translated: mind), can also be translated as “thinking.” So, “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” can be understood as a directive for us to think as Jesus thought.
In our contemporary context, we think of the mind as the seat of our intellect; it determines how we feel and think, processes what we know, and ultimately determines how we behave. However, in the ancient philosophical world, some schools of thought held that the mind was part of the soul. Others suggested that the mind (nous) held eternal truths. As such, to have the same mind as Jesus means more than merely thinking good and happy thoughts; it implies taking on the nature or character of Jesus.
In this hymn in particular, and throughout Philippians, two aspects of Jesus’ character are emphasized—his humility and obedience. If we are to have the mind of Christ, we must be humble and obedient. These are relational terms. Humility is one’s posture in relation to another; obedience is a form of deference, to act or respond out of respect. They are neither weak nor passive conditions. This hymn also makes clear a relationship between humility and exaltation. “Therefore God exalted him and gave him a name that is above every name” (2:9). God exalts in response to our obedience. Jesus did not exploit his equality with God. He did not wield his power in ways that he could have. He did not seek fame or fortune. Though acknowledging our ability and work is important, our success will ultimately come from the recognition that we will receive from the one who has called and equipped us. In order to be like Jesus, we must not exploit our relationship with God, but respond to it by demonstrating our willingness to serve.
Throughout the hymn, we also find the word “form” (morphē), which can also mean shape or likeness. The various forms that Jesus takes suggest that we must also be flexible in order to be like Jesus. We must be able to adjust, change, and adapt to meet the current need. Jesus is found in the form of God, in the form of a slave, and finally in the form of a human. Jesus was not stagnant. He was a shape-shifter. He was obedient to God’s will by becoming what God needed him to be.
An example of this shape-shifting is exemplified by Jesus emptying himself (2:7). Perhaps the image of a pitcher of water being poured into a glass is instructive. Though we often focus on the pitcher and understand the act of emptying as a loss, we should concomitantly focus on the glass or the act of filling up. The water shifts and takes the shape of its object, ultimately changing it. When Jesus pours himself into the form of an enslaved person, he dignifies, indeed, deifies this likeness. Jesus lowers himself to uplift. Jesus emptied himself into humanity in order to change it. In the ultimate act of empathy, Jesus becomes who and what we are, so we, in turn, can become who and what he is.
Minding the gap
While traveling on trains, we are often reminded to mind the gap. It is a cautionary statement; to be careful of the distance between spaces, the holes and cracks where one might fall, trip, or be injured. I think this warning is implicit in the text, even while Paul warns explicitly of evil workers in this letter. Growing to be more like Jesus can be filled with pitfalls. When we do not have the mind of Jesus, we are likely to behave in ways that do not glorify God. When we do not have the mind of Jesus, there is discord, confusion, and destruction. How, then, do we keep our minds stayed on Jesus?
Like Gatorade, Christians have a tool, the Bible, that can prove helpful to becoming more Christ-like. We must refresh ourselves by studying the life, words, and actions of Jesus. We must practice kindness, love, forgiveness, humility, and obedience until we have perfected them. To avoid the gaps, we must be focused and intentional. We must demonstrate our willingness to be shape-shifters. We must exercise our empathy, not just in words, but by becoming what God needs for us to be.
Palm Sunday serves as a reminder that a triumphant beginning and ending is possible, indeed inevitable, though the journey between these places will be difficult. These seemingly impossible moments present us with opportunities to practice being humble and obedient, to extend forgiveness, and to have a willingness to change so that we can become more like Christ. Let us mind the gaps and not fall for things that would separate us from God or from each other.
During the season of Lent, as we journey with Jesus to the cross, let us walk mindfully, being concerned about what concerns him. In this particularly challenging moment, let us be reminded that the God who meets us at the cross is the God who will give us resurrecting power. The Psalmist posits: What is humanity that God is mindful of us?2 But perhaps the question that we should carry with us is how we can be mindful of God as we follow Jesus and mind the gaps.
- Some examples include: 1 Peter 2:21, 1 Corinthians 11:1, 1 Thessalonians 1:6, and Ephesians 5:1-2
- Psalm 8:4