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.”


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