Monthly Archives: October 2016

Jesus’ Example of Humility (Philippians 2:5-11)

In “Christian Unity (Philippians 2:1-4)” I observed that in Philippians 2:5-11 Paul presents Christ Jesus as an example of humility for the Philippians to follow. In this article, I shall consider what that passage says about Christ. Although many scholars consider it to have been an early Christian hymn which Paul inserted into his letter, I think that he was capable of writing poetically and so in my discussion of it shall refer to him as its writer.

5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,(ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV)

According to the ESV rendering of verse 5, Paul is encouraging the Philippians to display an attitude (humility) which belongs to them because they are in Christ Jesus. However most other versions render the verse similarly to the KJV’s “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus,” according to which Paul is encouraging the Philippians to look upon Christ Jesus as an example of humility. Although Paul undoubtedly believed both, I think that the traditional translation fits the context better.

Christ’s Self-humiliation

6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Paul begins by making two assertions about Christ before he took on human flesh and nature: he was “in the form of God” and he “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” In the passage that we’re considering two different Greek words are translated “form,” morphe in verses 6 and 7 and schema in verse 8. The change from morphe to schema seems to indicate a change in meaning. In his classic commentary, Bishop Lightfoot reviews several New Testament passages in which one or the other or both of these occur and concludes that “in the passage under consideration morphe is contrasted with schema, as that which is intrinsic and essential with that which is accidental and outward” (J. B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, 12th ed.,London: Macmillan & Company, 1913; reprint, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1953, page 133). Thus in verse 6 “form” signifies that which is intrinsic and essential and the “form of God” is His divine nature. What Paul is saying then when he describes Christ as being “in the form of God” is that Christ was (and is) God by nature, the very “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15).

Commentators disagree on whether “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” designates being equal with God as something to be attained by Christ or as something to be retained by him. In my opinion, since Christ was already in nature God, his possessing equality with God was hardly something totally future and as yet unexperienced; for example, in John 17:5, he asks the Father to glorify him with “the glory which I had with thee before the world was.” Thus, I understand Paul to be saying that Christ, although possessing the essential and permanent nature of God, did not regard his existing in a manner equal to God to be a prize to be held onto at all costs. Christ’s attitude was in contrast to that of Satan and Adam, each of whom had grasped, unsuccessfully, at equality with God (Isaiah 14; Genesis 3).

Paul goes on to assert that because Christ didn’t regard equality with God a thing to be grasped he “made himself nothing” or, literally, “himself emptied.” Although the text does not directly state that Christ emptied himself of something, such would be the natural understanding of the verb. Just what did he empty himself of? Some expositors claim that he emptied himself of his divine nature; however, in my opinion, that would be impossible for God cannot cease to be God. I think that the clue to what Christ’s self-emptying involved is to be found in the phrase that follows, “taking the form of a servant.” It indicates that Christ emptied himself by giving up his existence in a manner equal to God and taking the nature of a servant or slave, a person who is wholly dependent on the will of another. As a slave, Christ refrained from displaying his glory and from exercising his authority and his divine powers except under the direction of the Father. He himself told the Jews, “I always do the things that are pleasing to him” (John 8:29).

When Christ assumed the nature of a servant, he was “born in the likeness of men.” The word “likeness” stresses similarity but leaves room for difference. Christ became a genuine man with all the limitations of human nature except sin (Hebrews 2:17, ”he had to be made like his brothers in every respect,” and 4:15, “[he] has been tempted as we are, yet without sin”). But, although outwardly he appeared to be a mere man, he also retained his divine nature and even revealed it on occasion, as in his miracles (John 2:11 refers to his turning water into wine as manifesting his glory) and the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:2 describes his face’s shining like the sun and his clothes’ becoming white as light). He had to be man to carry out the divine method of redeeming mankind through his obedience and substitutionary death (Mark 10:45, “the Son of Man came … to give his life as a ransom for ‘many.’”). Yet he had to be God to take up his life again (John 10:18, “I have authority to lay [my life] down, and I have authority to take it up again”), a necessary part of God’s plan for man’s salvation from sin (1 Corinthians 15:17, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins”).

“Being found in human form,” Christ “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Even though Christ was by very nature God, in obedience to his Father’s plan he accepted our human lot, even to dying (Hebrews 5:8, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered). His death–a painful, accursed (Galatians 3:13 quotes Deuteronomy 21:23, “a hanged man is cursed by God,” in reference to his death) death on the cross–was an outward sign of his inward devotion to God’s purpose which had characterized his whole earthly life and went back to his choice not to cling to equality with God but to empty himself “that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). (Note that “form” here translates schema, which I noted above refers to that which is accidental and outward, suggesting that even while accepting our human lot Jesus remained God.)

Christ’s Exaltation by God

9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

“Therefore God has highly exalted him” refers to the resurrection, ascension, and glorification of Christ. All that he had laid aside was restored to him and more was given to him. Although his death on the cross was certainly the climax of his self-humbling, his exaltation by God was in response to his total self-humbling, not just to his death. At this time, God gave him “the name which is above every name,” identified in verse 11 as “Lord.” (Some say that the name referred to was “Jesus,” but that name was given to him at his birth–see Luke 2:20—not on his exaltation.) In view of its special connection with the name of God in the Old Testament, the giving of the name in this context declares that Christ is installed in the place which properly belongs to God Himself.

The purpose of Christ’s exaltation is that all intelligent beings—the angels and the saints in heaven, the people still on earth, and the demons and damned in hell—might bow in submission to the name that belongs to Jesus and acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord (compare Isaiah 45:23, “To me [the Lord] every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance”). Paul does not imply by this a universal salvation but means that every personal being will ultimately proclaim Christ’s lordship, either with joy or with dismay. This universal recognition of Christ’s lordship fulfils the purpose of the Father and so brings glory to God; hence, Paul’s doxology closing this Christological passage, “to the glory of God the Father.”

What is the message of Philippians 2:5-11 for us? Frank Thielman identifies three aspects of it:
(1) It reminds us of the character of God. He is not only…infinite, eternal, and unchangeable…,but he also identifies with the weak and powerless to the extent that he has suffered their fate. Unwilling to use his privileges as God for selfish ends, Jesus expressed his deity in lowly and humble service.
(2) The passage calls on us to take the daring step of conforming our own character to this aspect of the character of God. Just as Jesus expressed his character in his unselfish obedience to God, so we should express our Christian character by placing the interests of others ahead of our own in obedience to God’s Word.
(3) The passage reminds us of the final day when God will respond to the lives of his obedient servants with commendation, just as he responded to Christ’s obedient life.
(The NIV Application Commentary: Philippians, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995, page 128)

Let us follow Jesus’ example of humility!

Yesterday evening the Life group which my wife, Leonora, and I host discussed Philippians 2:5-11 guided by the questions given in “The NIV Serendipity Bible for Study Groups.”


Christian Unity (Philippians 2:1-4)

In my article on Philippians 1:27-30, I identified disunity within the church as a problem that the Philippians were facing and suggested that, although so far that disunity had manifested itself only in complaining and arguing (2:14) and a disagreement between two women in the church (4:2), Paul seemed to be worried over its possible effects on the Philippians. In this article, I’ll consider the next four verses, Philippians 2:1-4, in which Paul appeals for unity.

1 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.(ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV.)

The core of the passage, which is a single sentence in the Greek, is verse 2. In it Paul urges the Philippians to make his joy complete by being of the same mind, having the same love (the love described in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7), and being of one accord and mind. Elsewhere in the letter, Paul refers to his experiencing joy over the Philippians’ gifts to him (1:4-5; 4:10), the gospel’s being preached (1:18), and his suffering (2:17). Here, he indicates that his joy won’t be full as long as there is disunity among them. The phrases by which Paul describes the unity that he wants the Philippians to have mean much the same, his piling them up to emphasize the importance that he places on the Philippians’ need for unity.

Paul introduces his appeal by reminding the Philippians of the blessings that they enjoy as Christians and that should motivate them to unity (2:1) and follows it by identifying some ways in which they can promote unity (2:3-4). The blessings that Paul reminds the Philippians of are encouragement from being united in Christ, comfort from God’s love, fellowship in the Holy Spirit, and affection and compassion among Christians. Note the Trinitarian structure of the first three blessings as I’ve given them. However Bible scholars disagree on whether “love” in “if any comfort from love” refers to the love of God, Christ, Paul, or the Philippians and thus the verse should not be used as a Trinitarian proof text.

The ways identified by Paul for the Philippians to promote unity are doing nothing out of rivalry or conceit, humbly considering others more significant than themselves, and looking out not only for their own interests but also for the interests of others. Like Jesus did in identifying the second great commandment as loving one’s neighbour as oneself (Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31), Paul recognizes that people naturally look after themselves and encourages them to look after others in the same way. Lynn H. Cohick observes, “We should not be surprised at this teaching because Paul taught his churches that they were the body of Christ, members of Christ’s body, the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:16-17;12:12-27; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:21). I might be an eye, needing my brother ‘ear’ and my sister ‘hand’ to complete the body, being Christ to the world” (Philippians in The Story of God Commentary, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2013, page 95).

Paul’s appeal indicates that what was causing disunity among the Philippians was not legitimate differences of opinion but self-centredness and thus what was needed to bring about unity was not mediation but humility. Accordingly, he goes on to exhort the Philippians to have the same mind in them as was in Christ Jesus when he left his heavenly estate to die on a cross for us (2:5-8). I think that Paul would make the same diagnosis of and offer the same remedy for many of the disagreements among Christians today. For a simple and practical guide to this kind of unity, see Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper & Row, 1954; reprint, New York: HarperCollins, 1993), pages 103-130, which can be read free online.

My prayer is that I shall have the same mind in me so that I shall be a source of peace and unity in the various communities that I am a part of.

“Stand Firm” (Philippians 1:27-30)

Paul was a prisoner when he wrote his letter of joy to the Philippians. In it he showed that he was aware that they too were experiencing serious problems. A key passage in this regard is 1:27-30, which indicates two problems that the Philippians were facing, disunity within the church and suffering from opposition.

27 Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. 29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, 30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have. (ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV)

Paul opens the passage by encouraging the Philippians to behave in a manner appropriate to the goals and standards of the gospel. In Colossians 1:10-12, Paul described it as, “bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.”

Paul’s saying that he wanted to hear that the Philippians “are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel,” suggests that there was disunity within the church at Philippi. The problem was evidently caused by some form of rivalry or conceit that resulted in everyone’s looking out for only his or her own interests (2:3-4). So far disunity had manifested itself only in complaining and arguing (2:14) and a disagreement between two women in the church (4:2). However, Paul seems to have been worried that it might weaken the Philippians’ ability to stand fast in the face of the suffering that they were experiencing from opponents (1:27-28) and concerned about its effect on their growth as Christians and on their witness to those around them. The first concern is suggested by his exhorting them to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (2:12) and the second by his exhorting them to be “blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life” (2:15-16).

In place of rivalry or conceit, Paul calls for humility evidenced by his readers’ considering others better than themselves and looking out to the interests of others as well as to their own interests (2:3-4). He points to the example of Jesus Christ who lay aside his deity and became a man and then, as a man, died on a cross (2:6-8)—”as God he ‘emptied himself’ (over against doing anything on the basis of selfish ambition) and as man he ‘humbled himself’ (over against doing anything on the basis of vain glory)” (Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995, page 33). Paul also contrasts Timothy’s interest in the Philippians’ welfare with the preoccupation of others with their own interests (2:20-21). Finally, in his closing exhortations, he beseeches the two women, Euodia and Syntyche, to “agree in the Lord” and entreats a co-worker whom he addresses as “true companion” to help the women (4:2-3).

Scholars disagree as to who the Philippians’ opponents were, Philippians 1:27-30’s indicating only that they were unbelievers—they were destined for destruction—and that they were causing the Philippians to suffer for Christ’s sake. If those who think that the passage anticipates Paul’s warnings in chapter 3 are right, they were either Jews or Judaizers, the latter being Jewish Christians who told Gentile Christians that they couldn’t be saved unless they were circumcised and obeyed the law of Moses (Acts 15:1,24). However, I think that it’s more likely that the opponents of Philippians 1:27-30 were pagan neighbours, perhaps even authorities.

Whoever they were, Paul exhorts the Philippians to stand firm and not to be afraid in any way of their opponents (1:27-28). He encourages them to view their suffering as a blessing, telling them that their suffering “for the sake of Christ” had been “granted” to them (1:29), perhaps an allusion to what Jesus said in Matthew 5:11-12, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” He also compares their suffering with his own past and present sufferings for Christ—“engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have” (1:30), thus suggesting that their suffering was part of their “partnership in the gospel” with him and of their being “partakers with me of grace” (1:5,7). He returns to these ideas metaphorically in Philippians 2:17, where he pictures his current suffering as the “drink offering” poured out in conjunction with their “sacrificial offering” (see Exodus 29:38-41).

Just as he rejoiced in his situation, Paul encouraged the Philippians to rejoice in theirs—“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).

Yesterday evening the Life group which my wife, Leonora, and I host discussed Philippians 1:12-30 guided by the questions given in “The NIV Serendipity Bible for Study Groups.”

For Me To Live Is Christ and To Die Is Gain (Philippians 1:12-26)

When Paul wrote Philippians, he was a prisoner in Rome. He was allowed to live in his own rented house, guarded by a soldier to whom he was bound by a light chain, and he welcomed all who visited him, preaching the kingdom of God to them and teaching them about the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 28:16-31). In fact, although he didn’t know whether he’d be acquitted or executed (Philippians 1:20; 2:17), he felt that his imprisonment was serving to advance, rather than to hinder, the gospel.

12 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. 14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.
15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of rivalry, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. (ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV.)

As Paul explains in the above passage, this advance was happening in two ways, through his contacts with his guards and others and through the encouragement that his imprisonment gave other Christians to witness more vigorously. Since his guards rotated every four hours, he had access to several of them. Also, his being chained to them forced them to listen to what he said and to observe what he did. Thus by the time that he wrote Philippians, he could claim that “it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.”

In the passage Paul distinguishes between two kinds of Christians whose witnessing was stimulated by his imprisonment, claiming that “some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will.” Although describing both groups as “brothers,” he says that the first group preached with a wrong motive, rivalry, hoping to annoy him (perhaps they were leaders of the Roman church who were jealous of the attention that Paul got and wanted to outdo him) and that the second group preached “out of love,” likely meaning their love for him, knowing that he was in prison “for the defense of the gospel.” Whatever their motivation was, the important thing to Paul is that “in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed,” and for that he rejoices.

Yes, and I will rejoice. 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.

“This will turn out for my deliverance” echoes Job 13:16 of the Greek Old Testament (translated “This will be my salvation” in the ESV), suggesting that Paul has Job’s experience in mind and like Job is looking forward to appearing before and being justified by God (Job 13:13-18). If so, he may have expected to be delivered by being executed and going before God. However, in view of what he says in verses 24-26, it’s more likely that he expected to be delivered by being released. He goes on to observe that his deliverance would come about through the prayers of the Philippians and the help of the Holy Spirit and that it would be in accordance with Paul’s earnest expectation and hope that he would not be ashamed but that Christ would be honored in Paul’s body whether he were released or executed.

“For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” As Gordon D. Fee observes, Christ summed up for Paul “the whole range of his new relationship to God: personal devotion, commitment, service, the gospel, ministry, communion, inspiration, everything” (Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995, page 141). Later in the letter Paul would go so far as to describe all other things as rubbish compared with knowing Christ (3:8). On the other hand, he realized that if he were executed he would go to be with Christ. Thus after proclaiming “for me to live is Christ,” he asserts, “and to die is gain.”

Paul continues by expressing his personal thoughts about the prospects of life and death. Living would mean more fruitful labour as a missionary and dying would mean his going to be with Christ, and he doesn’t know which he would prefer. Personally he desires to depart and be with Christ, but he thinks that the Philippians’ need for him is more necessary. Thinking about the Philippians’ need for him results in Paul’s confidently asserting that he knows that he will be released and visit them again. The contrast between his certainty in verses 25-26 and his apparent uncertainty in verse 20 (”whether by life or by death”) has prompted various explanations, such as his receiving reassuring news or revelations between the passages. Whatever the reason for Paul’s change in spirit as he thought about his future, he became sure that he would be released and visit the Philippians resulting in their progress in the faith and causing their glorying in Christ.

“For me to live is _____, and to die is _____.” Only if we can fill in the blanks as Paul did–“For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain”–are we going to be able to rejoice in spite of our circumstances and to share in advancing the gospel as he did.