SYNOPSIS: The obedient death of Jesus is the paradigm for Christian service to others, the pattern disciples are summoned to emulate – Philippians 2:5-11.
The Apostle Paul used the example of the obedient death of Jesus as the paradigm for Christian service to others. His submission to an unjust and shameful death is the pattern his disciples are summoned to emulate. The elevation of the Son of God to the lordship over all things was the result of his “obedience unto death,” and his exaltation did not precede his death on a Roman cross (Philippians 2:5-11).
In his opening exhortation in the letter to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul calls for believers to conduct themselves properly while living in a hostile culture. They begin to do this by “standing fast in one spirit, with one soul, joining for the combat along with the faith of the glad-message, and not being affrighted in anything by the opposers” (Philippians 1:24-30). Note well, the stress on Christian unity for the sake of the Gospel.
(Philippians 1:8-11) – “For God is my witness, how I long for you all in the tender affections of Christ Jesus. And this, I pray—that your love may be yet more and more pre-eminent in personal knowledge and all perception, To the end, ye may be putting to the test the things that differ, in order that ye may be incorrupt and may give no occasion of stumbling unto the day of Christ, Filled with that fruit of righteousness which is through Jesus Christ unto the glory and praise of God.” – (The Emphasized Bible).
This letter calls for concord and humility among believers in the face of trials and opposition. Its first argument in support of this is recorded in Chapter 2, an appeal to emulate Christ’s example of submission faithful obedience even when doing so meant his unjust death. His followers must emulate him by “thinking the same thing” he did and, thus, deferring to the needs of others. Insisting on personal “rights” and privileges does not fit this pattern (Philippians 2:1-18).
Paul exhorts the Philippians to emulate the humility epitomized in the self-sacrificial death of Jesus. His example is not presented as a “divestiture of divinity” or a “descent from heaven,” but as the willing obedience of Christ to God even when it meant a shameful death. The Apostle is not engaged in metaphysical speculation or attempting to make abstract theological points.
To illustrate Christ’s example, Paul weaves in Old Testament language and imagery from the stories of Adam’s disobedience and the “Suffering Servant” from the book of Isaiah. Unlike the former, Jesus did not attempt to seize “likeness” with God. Instead, like the latter, he submitted to an unjust death on the cross and, therefore, was highly exalted by Yahweh. Adam was created in the image of God but grasped at divine “likeness” when he ate the forbidden fruit. In contrast, Jesus obeyed God and suffered the consequences.
Paul begins by describing the attitude of Jesus: “Who, commencing in form of God, did not consider being like God something for plunder.” The Greek adjective isos or “like” is in the dative case and means “like,” not “equality with.”
“Being like God” – This clause alludes to the story of the temptation of Adam by the Serpent in the Garden of Eden:
(Genesis 3:5) – “For God knows that in the day you eat thereof your eyes will be opened and you will become LIKE GOD, knowing good and evil.”
When confronted with a choice of whether to obey God, Adam chose disobedience and attempted to “seize” the likeness of God. Paul now contrasts the failure of Adam with the refusal of Jesus to grasp at God’s likeness.
“Being in form of God” – This phrase does not mean that Jesus was God; that notion is precluded by the genitive construction or “form of God”; he was in the “form of God,” not God Himself. This corresponds to the creation account: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him”. Likewise, Jesus was in the “image” or “form” of God. In Greek literature, the two nouns are used synonymously. The term “being” represents a Greek present tense participle or huparchō (Strong’s #G5225). It means, “to commence, begin, start,” not, “to exist.” It does not signify eternal existence but, rather, that Jesus commenced or started in the form or image of God, just as Adam did.
The Greek noun rendered “seize” means “plunder, booty”; something seized by force (Strong’s #G725). Unlike Adam, Jesus did not attempt to seize likeness with God. Instead, he “poured himself out, taking the form of a slave, having come to be in the likeness of men. And having been found in fashion as man, he humbled himself becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”
There are several verbal allusions in this statement to the “Suffering Servant” of Isaiah. Note the following phrases that correspond to what Paul writes in Philippians:
(Isaiah 53:12) – “Therefore will I give him a portion in the great, and the strong shall he apportion as plunder, BECAUSE HE POURED OUT TO DEATH HIS OWN SOUL, and with transgressors let himself be numbered, Yea, he the sin of many bare, and for transgressors interposed.”
(Isaiah 53:7) – “Hard-pressed, yet HE HUMBLED HIMSELF, nor opened his mouth, as a lamb to the slaughter is led.”
In fulfillment of the “Suffering Servant” prophecies, Jesus chose to humble himself even to the point of death rather than grasp at God’s likeness. In this way, “he poured himself out even unto death” in humble obedience. Paul completes his picture by utilizing allusions to two more passages from Isaiah, as follows:
(Isaiah 52:13) – “Behold, my Servant prospers, he rises and is lifted up and BECOMES VERY HIGH.”
(Isaiah 45:23) – “By myself have I sworn, gone forth out of my mouth is righteousness as a decree and shall not turn back, THAT UNTO MYSELF SHALL BOW EVERY KNEE SHALL SWEAR EVERY TONGUE.”
The passage in Philippians is an example from the life of Jesus used by Paul to illustrate his appeal made in verses 1-5. Note the conceptual parallels between the two passages, especially the stress on denying one’s “rights” and needs for the sake of others:
(Philippians 2:1-5) – “If, therefore, any encouragement in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any partnership of spirit, if any affections and mercies, fulfill my joy that you be thinking the same thing, Having the same love, of one mind, in unity thinking the same thing; Nothing according to self-interest, nothing according to empty glory; but with humility be regarding one another surpassing yourselves, Not each watching out for their own things, But even everyone for the things of others. Be thinking this among you, that even in Christ Jesus.”
(Philippians 2:6-11) – “Who, commencing in form of God, considered the being like God something not to be seized, but he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, having come to be in the likeness of men. And having been found in fashion as man, He humbled himself becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore also God highly exalted him and granted him the name that is above every name, that in the name of Jesus every knee should bow of beings heavenly and earthly and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, To the glory of the Father, even God.”
Paul stresses that Jesus died the death of a slave to enhance his picture with ideas about crucifixion common in the Roman world. It was the most shameful form of death imaginable to a Roman; so much so, that, by law, citizens of Rome could not be executed by crucifixion. What horrified them the most was the public humiliation attached to public crucifixion.
Christians are called to have this same mind, to seek nothing from self-interest or for “empty glory.” They are to emulate Christ who did not seek to be “like God” or to exalt himself. Rather than grasp at “empty glory,” Jesus “poured himself out” in humble obedience to his Father for others. Believers are to conduct themselves in “humility” towards one another, just as Christ “humbled himself.” That is the real point of the passage.
The exaltation of Jesus that followed his humiliation is described in verses 9-11:
“Therefore also God highly exalted him and granted him the name that is above every name, that in the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of beings heavenly and earthly and under the earth, and every tongue should confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of the Father, even God.”
Exaltation follows obedience and self-sacrifice; it does not precede them. This is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.