The obedient death of Jesus is the paradigm for Christian service to others, the pattern disciples are summoned to emulate – Philippians 2:5-11.
In Philippians, Paul pointed to Christ’s obedience as the paradigm for proper conduct by his disciples. His submission to a shameful death set the pattern that his followers must emulate to have any hope of becoming like him. And his elevation over all things is the result of his “obedience to death” – Exaltation did not precede his death, it followed it.
At the start of his exhortation, Paul summoned the Philippians to conduct themselves properly while living in a hostile culture, and 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.”
He called for concord and humility, especially in the face of opposition, and Paul appealed to believers to emulate the example of Jesus. Anyone who would follow him must do so by “thinking the same thing” that he did, especially deferring to the needs of others. And this attitude was epitomized in the self-sacrificial death of Christ who submitted to death on behalf of others even when it meant an undeserved and shameful death.
- “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” – (Philippians 2:5-11).
To illustrate Christ’s example, the Apostle employed Old Testament language from the stories of Adam and of the “suffering servant” from Isaiah. Unlike the former, Jesus did not attempt to seize “likeness” with God. Adam was created in God’s image but grasped at divine “likeness” when he ate the forbidden fruit. In contrast, Jesus obeyed God and suffered the consequences. In contrast, like the “suffering servant,” he humbled himself by submitting to an unjust death. And for that reason, God “highly exalted” him.
Like Adam, Jesus began “in form of God.” But unlike Adam, he “did not consider the being like God something for plunder.” The Greek adjective isos rendered “like” is in the dative case and means just that, “like.” The clause 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.”
Adam chose disobedience and thereby attempted to “seize” the likeness of God. To the Philippians, Paul contrasted his failure with the refusal of Jesus to grasp at that same “likeness.”
“Being in form of God.” This corresponds to the creation account when “God created man in his own image.” So, also, Jesus was in the “image” or “form” of God. In Greek literature, the two nouns are synonymous. The term rendered “being” represents the Greek present tense participle huparchō, which means “to commence, begin; to start.” Thus, Christ began in the image of God just as Adam did.
The Greek noun rendered “seize” means “plunder, booty,” something that is seized by force. 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.” In this sentence, there are several verbal echoes from the “suffering servant” passages in Isaiah:
- (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 the “suffering servant,” Jesus humbled himself even to the point of suffering an unjust and shameful death, and that 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.”
And according to Paul, Jesus died the death of a “slave.” This uses an image from the Greco-Roman culture. Crucifixion was considered the most shameful form of death imaginable, and its most horrific aspect was the public humiliation attached to it.
Disciples of Jesus are called to have that same mind – to seek nothing from self-interest or for “empty glory.” They are to emulate 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 and to have his “mind.”