Commentary on Philippians 2:5-11
To our present American culture obsessed with taking selfies and getting the most likes, views, and follows on social media, Paul’s message to the Philippian church about having the mind and attitude of Christ is a slap in the face.
Significantly, it is worth noting the kenosis passage of Philippians 2:5-11, which ends with one of the highest Christological declarations in the Bible (vv 9-11), is written in direct response to the exhortation to put others first and place our own interests second (vv 3-4). To capture this, the New International Version transitions between the exhortation and example with the phrase: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (v 5). Thus, our reading of this passage on Palm/Passion Sunday is a much-needed sobering reminder that Christ’s road to exaltation came by way of the self-emptying of his life for others.
In the Philippian Greco-Roman context, Paul’s exhortation to humility following the example of Christ would have been heard as completely counter cultural. Roman culture placed great emphasis on fortitude, self-reliance, and indifference to circumstance. On the contrary, humility would be considered a shortcoming. More to the point, Philippians felt great civic pride due to their unique status as a Roman colony, which granted them Roman citizenship and absolved them from paying taxes to Caesar. In addition, their allegiance to Rome had given them considerable political and economic privileges that translated to higher social standing. First century Philippi was a city preoccupied with the procurement of honorific titles and offices: a culture where social standing was everything. So what happens when Roman citizens anxious about their social standing and desirous to move up the social ladder become part of the community of Christ? How would their sense of superiority and self-sufficiency be placed in check? Through a hymn (Philippians 2:6-11) meant to subvert arrogance, pride, and selfish ambition by juxtaposing these sinful vices with Christ’s supreme example of humility.
With great irony one has to acknowledge that a passage theologically mined to excessive depths seeking to understand the very nature of the person of Christ in his pre-existent form, earthly manifestation and future glorification was in its origins a simple hymn sung by the early Christian communities. It defies theological snobbery to dwell upon the probability that Paul may have simply copied and pasted this poetic hymn from a worship set of the early church. It is almost like Paul is forcing the Philippians to listen to the actual words of one of their most precious hymns in order for them to reckon that their attitude and corresponding actions do not align with those of Christ who is the Supreme Lord of the church. What a great wake up call to consider how at times our beautiful rendition of worship lyrics might be nullified by behavior that denies we have the mind of Christ. Through this Christ hymn, the original readers were challenged to see the humility of Christ as the highest virtue for being in community.
Perhaps as they hummed the familiar melody while rereading the words of the Christ hymn, they would realize the folly of their presumptuous conduct with one another. Such is the power of worship transforming our hearts; for as we gaze at his presence we become more aware of our shortcoming of being more like Christ. Even the most educated person of high social or political rank in the Philippian congregation could not compare him or herself to the equal nature and standing that Christ Jesus had with the God of the universe (Philippians 2:6). And yet, he stepped down from his glorious position with God and entered into our earthly realm by triply emptying himself becoming a nobody, living in the condition of a slave, and dying the death of a criminal on account of his divine selflessness. Here is the divine mystery of the ages: the glorious Son of God became one of us through his incarnation in order to serve us and die our death. What utter contradiction of terms for the Philippian community to fathom: the Servant Lord dying out of love for those who are lesser than he. In a culture obsessed with attaining social status, where lords are served and servants are expected to die for those in power, supreme status and authority are given to Him who humbled himself. Thus, if Christ’s road to exaltation came by way of his passion, suffering, and death, our aim as his followers should be to imitate him in his humble service toward others.
As we prepare our hearts to virtually walk the way of the cross this upcoming week as we meditate upon his passion, let us remember his self-emptying as a model for living in relationship with others. A life well lived is a life lived with others’ best interest in mind. But unlike Philippian society much of our life is lived in the world created by social media platforms, and at times we measure our status by the number of likes and followers we are able to generate. Don’t get me wrong; social media can be a great tool for cultivating relationships. Yet, the narcissistic abuse of social media is such that at times even Christians cannot escape it. Even for pastors and church leaders the virtual reach of our message becomes more important than the content and its edifying purpose for others. Let’s face it; we covet likes, shares, and retweets as if they were really worth something. What if in the modern extension of our lives through social media as well as in our face-to-face interactions we sought not so much to be ourselves, but to truly be Christ-like in our words and actions. Beware the contemporary vice of worshipping with phone in hand as we take pics and upload selfies being more worried about someone liking our most recent post instead of worshipping Christ and seeking to live like Him for others.