Commentary on Philippians 2:5-11
This hymn raises questions that Christians have wrestled with for centuries: Who is this Jesus whom we call Messiah and Lord? How is he related to God, on the one hand, and to us as human beings, on the other? And, given who Jesus is, how are we, in turn, to relate to one another?1
The passages immediately preceding this hymn set the stage for addressing these questions. There Paul urges his readers to “pay careful attention” (skopeō) not to themselves, but to others—or, better, to those who are different (heteros) from them (2:4).
Our hymn then goes on to describe how we can, in fact, share in the Messiah’s “mind,” that is, his mode of perceiving and responding to life (2:5). It does this by way of a literary structure (called a chiasm) that presents themes and then repeats them, but in reverse order.
The messiah humbles himself
Paul draws on the figures of Adam, and probably also the personified figure of Wisdom, to play on what it means for the Messiah Jesus to share in the image of God. He uses three different words for this—“form” (morphē) to indicate the Messiah’s equality with God (in 2:6), and “likeness” (homoiōma) and “shape” or “way of life” (schēma) to signify how he “empties” himself in human form (in 2:7).
Of course, images are inherently problematic in the Bible. Yes, we are created in God’s image and thus reflect God’s glory within our very humanity. Yet, we often misuse our God-given capacities to fabricate idols—or in more contemporary terms, socially constructed phenomena—that take on a force of their own over us, like money or mechanisms for controlling others. To describe how we do this, Paul conjures the image of something that is grasped or exploited, using a word (harpagmos) that vividly portrays how our idolatry is often intertwined with injustice. The verb form of this word (harpazō) is often in Scripture to depict how religious and political leaders greedily plunder and steal from the poor and the oppressed, even as they boast of their piety and spiritual exploits.
In contrast to all this, the Messiah Jesus shares in the human lot of others—even to the point of shamefully being put to death by religious and political authorities. Much like the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, he redefines our concept of who the Messiah is, and in so doing also redefines for us what it means to be created in God’s image.
Paul’s hymn resonates with the Gospels’ picture of Jesus’ messianic identity—that the Messiah Jesus is not only the “Son of Man,” but also the Suffering Servant. This confession runs throughout stories of his baptism, of his being tempted to misuse wealth and power, of his prayer in the Garden before his death, and ultimately of his death itself. And, in the same way that Paul links a confession of Jesus’ identity with a call to share his “mind,” so the Gospels link such a confession with a call to share in his mode of life and death.
However, the hymn’s point is not merely ethical—that we are to follow Jesus’ example. Rather, its point is to identify where and how we might see and reflect the divine image—and that is precisely amidst the Messiah Jesus’ union with our poverty.
God exalts the messiah
This now is why God “hyper-exalts” Jesus, giving him the name above all names (2:9-11). Specifically, God gives him the name “Lord” (kurios), which signifies not merely a ruler, or a god or transcendent being, but indeed the tetragrammaton (YHWH), the unnamable name of God in the Hebrew Bible.
But we must not interpret this exalted name as some kind of reward for sacrifice. Jesus is not being rewarded with ultimate power for sacrificing himself, just like we are not rewarded with ultimate power—or the ultimate vindication that we are “right”—just because we sacrifice things.
Rather, this hymn depicts what Jesus’ resurrection actually signifies. The point of the biblical witnesses to his resurrection is not that a dead body has been resuscitated, or that a human personality has now been given superhuman powers. The point rather is that in Jesus’ life and death for others, God’s reign of mercy and justice has been vindicated, and that this kind of self-giving love is indeed stronger than death. Amidst the dysfunctional relationships and worlds that we have become accustomed to—with their abusers and victims, and their distinctions between rich and poor, and powerful and weak—Jesus as Messiah brings about “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). This is a new way of being based on mutuality, service, and the sharing of sorrows and joys, of poverty and wealth, and of the profound link between “having nothing” and “possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:10).
Finally, this hymn brings together two ways the Scripture renders God’s presence among the people of Israel.2 If the “name” of YHWH signifies God’s presence as goodness and mercy as they sojourned through the desert, then “glory” refers to God’s descent to dwell in a sanctuary or sacred place. In this Pauline hymn, Jesus is exalted with the “name” above all names because his sojourn into self-emptying poverty is precisely where the glory of the one he called, “Abba!” is manifested (2:10-11). As in the Prologue of John (1:14), true divine glory is marked by indwelling the other—for the other’s sake.
In our own lives, we confess and call on the exalted “name” of Jesus so that we can enact not just the example of his life, but the new way of being which his union with our vulnerable, and often corrupt, mortal lives brings about. In this way, we see and behold—in faith and hope—how God’s “glory” is becoming manifest amidst whatever is taking place within and around us.
- Scholars debate whether this hymn was or was not written by Paul.
- See Samuel Terrein, The Elusive Presence (New York: Harper & Row), 463.