OVERVIEW – The obedient death of Jesus is the paradigm for Christian service, the pattern we are called to emulate – Philippians 2:5-11.
The Apostle Paul pointed to the obedient death of Jesus as the paradigm for proper conduct by his disciples. His submission to a shameful death on a Roman cross established the pattern for his followers to emulate. The elevation of the Son of God to reign over all things was the result of his “obedience unto death” – His exaltation did not precede his death, it followed it.
In his opening exhortation to the Philippians, Paul summoned believers to conduct themselves properly while living in a hostile culture. This begins by “standing fast in one spirit, with one soul, joining for the combat along with the faith of the gospel, and not being frightened in anything by the opposers.” Note Paul’s stress.
(Philippians 2:5-11) – “Be thinking this among you, that even in Christ Jesus. Who, commencing in form of God, considered being like God something not to be seized, but 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 the cross. Therefore, also, God highly exalted him and granted him the name that is above every name, that at 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.”
The Apostle called for concord and humility among believers, especially in the face of trials and opposition. His first argument for this is found in the second chapter of Philippians – An appeal to emulate the example of Jesus, especially his humble submission to an unjust death. Anyone who would follow him must follow his example by “thinking the same thing” that he did – deferring to the needs of others – (Philippians 2:1-18).
Paul exhorted the Philippians to imitate the humility epitomized in the self-sacrificial death of Jesus Christ – self-denying obedience to God even when doing so meant suffering or even a shameful death.
To illustrate what Jesus did, Paul employed Old Testament language from the stories of Adam and the “Suffering Servant” of the book of Isaiah. Unlike the former, Jesus did not attempt to seize “likeness” with God. Instead, like the latter, he humbled himself by submitting to an unjust death. For this reason, the “Suffering Servant” 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 began 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 just that, “like.” The clause that alludes to the story when the “serpent” tempted Adam:
(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 this choice, Adam chose disobedience and attempted to “seize” the likeness of God. To the Philippians, Paul contrasted the failure of Adam with the refusal of Jesus to grasp at the same “likeness.”
“Being in form of God.” This clause corresponds to the creation account when “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 – #5225), which means “to commence, begin, start.” In other words, Jesus “commenced” or began in the form or image of God, just as Adam did.
The Greek noun rendered “seize” means “plunder, booty” – Something that is 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 echoes from the “Suffering Servant” of Isaiah in the preceding statement. Note the parallels:
(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.”
Like Isaiah’s “Suffering Servant,” rather than grasp at God’s likeness, Jesus humbled himself, even to the point of suffering an unjust death. This is how “he poured himself out.” Paul completed his picture by utilizing allusions to two more passages from Isaiah:
(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 self-denying example of Jesus was used by Paul to illustrate his exhortation for believers to defer to others. He stated that Jesus died the death of a “slave,” an image drawn from the surrounding Greco-Roman culture. Crucifixion was considered the most shameful form of death imaginable; so much so, that by law Roman citizens were exempt from execution in this manner (Romans guilty of capital offenses were sentenced to decapitation). The most horrific aspect was the public humiliation attached to crucifixion.
Christians are called to have this very same mind – to seek nothing from self-interest or for “empty glory.” They are to emulate Jesus, the Messiah who did not seek to exalt himself, and instead “poured himself out” in humble obedience to his Father. Believers must conduct themselves in “humility” toward one another, just as he did.
Exaltation follows obedience, humility, and self-sacrifice; it does not precede them. This is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.