Commentary on Philippians 2:5-11
The Imitation of Christ, likely written by Thomas à Kempis in the early fifteenth century, is widely held to be the most popular and influential book of all time outside the Bible.
The author provides a devotional reflection on how to pursue true understanding and holiness by modeling oneself after the character and life of Jesus Christ. He describes the realization of the highest goal in words that reflect our text from Philippians: “To account nothing of one’s self, and to think always kindly and highly of others, this is great and perfect wisdom” (II.4).
The Story of Jesus in a Hymn
Like The Imitation of Christ, Paul looks to the story of Jesus for the pattern of Christian living in our text. Most often, Paul imparts propositional truths that make statements about the story of Jesus, such as Christ died, Christ was buried, and Christ was raised (1 Corinthians 15:6-8). But in our text Paul portrays the story of Jesus in the adaptation of an early Christian hymn in order to capture and transform the imagination of his readers. In other words, Paul shows rather than tells what it is to imitate Christ.
Connecting the Story of Paul’s Audience to the Story of Jesus
In the verses preceding our text, Paul has told his readers to act with humility and to consider others in their community as more important than themselves (Philippians 2:1-4). Paul connects the story of his audience to the story of Jesus in verse 5. The RSV translation accurately brings out the sense of the language: “Have this mind among yourselves.” Paul does not call on individuals to imitate Christ in the privacy of their prayer closets, but he calls on the community to imitate Christ as individuals live among one another. Paul aims to form a collective mind that informs collective actions.
Today we may consider a collective mind to be a bad idea. Social psychologist Irving Janis coined the word “Groupthink” in 1972 to describe the phenomenon in which group pressure results in flawed or senseless decisions that may hurt others. Paul calls for a different kind of Groupthink, in which a community of people exhibits a transformed mind by following Jesus’ example of humility and service to others.
The Shape of the Hymn
Verses 6-11 are divided into two sections: what Jesus did for humanity (verses 6-8) and what God did for Jesus (verses 9-11). We may explain the movement of these sections by following three key verbs: Jesus emptied himself (verse 7); Jesus humbled himself (verse 8); God has exalted him (verse 9).
What Jesus did, verses 6-8
Let’s start with verses 7-8. Paul portrays a double downward movement with the first two key verbs. Jesus emptied himself by taking the form of a slave (in the incarnation), and he humbled himself by submitting to death on a cross. Paul defines “he emptied himself” not by what Jesus gave up, but by what he took on. That is, Jesus emptied himself not by divesting himself of equality with God, but by assuming the form of a servant (verse 7). The pre-existent, divine Jesus did not consider his status to be a reason to avoid the incarnation, but to embrace it. True humility meant using his status not for exploitation but for self-sacrificial service to others. Ultimately, Jesus’ humility took him to the cross where he demonstrated the magnitude of his love for others (verse 8).
Now we may look back at verse 6. The language ambiguously states, “existing in the form of God….” Most translations render this verbal form similarly to the NRSV, “who, though he was in the form of God.” However, we may correctly render it “because he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.”
This would mean that Jesus did not reveal his character in spite of his divine nature (“though…”), but because of it (“because”). That is, it is the very nature of the divine to act in humble, self-sacrificial service. In the Gospel of John, Philip asks Jesus to show them the Father, and Jesus answers, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:8-9). The hymn suggests that Jesus’ revelation of God is most conspicuous in his humility and death.
What God did, verses 9-11
Notice that Paul does not portray the imitation of Christ only in terms of self-sacrificial service. The example Paul gives to his audience continues, “Therefore (because Jesus so humbled himself) God has exalted him to the highest place. Imitating Jesus does not only mean to follow his example of humility, but also to follow his example in exaltation. It is God who makes the promotion, not Jesus himself. So Paul’s audience must not be concerned with self-promotion, but with God’s promotion of them. James expresses a similar point: “Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you” (James 4:10).
Connecting Our Story to the Story of Jesus
Later in his letter, Paul tells the Philippians that he wants to send Timothy to them because “I have no one like him, who will genuinely be concerned for your welfare. They all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 2:20-21). Timothy could have pulled rank as Paul’s right-hand man and sought his own welfare. But Timothy knew what it meant to imitate Jesus by not insisting on his own interests but acting in humility and service to others.
Like Timothy and like Paul’s audience, leaders and members of our own congregations are called to imitate Jesus by refusing to insist on their own prerogatives or status, whatever they may be, and serving others in humility. In fact, the example of Jesus shows that to serve others sacrificially is not to deny our rights or status but to exercise them truly. As we reflect on the passion of Christ in a cultural climate that values self-interest and self-aggrandizement, let us help our congregations to enact his imitation.