From GCS Instructor Ted Johnston: Exegesis of Phil 2:1-13
When Epaphroditus brought Paul a generous gift from the church at Philippi, he also brought disturbing news of a double threat to that congregation’s unity: false teachers from without (Phil 3:1–3) and disagreeing members from within (4:1–3). Paul is greatly concerned, and so in his letter to the Philippians he pleads with them to recover a true and lasting unity. In today's reading, Paul is exhorting them to share in Jesus' mind and Jesus' life.
Share in Jesus' mind
The Christians in Philippi will recover true and lasting unity as they, through the Spirit, actively share in the mind of Jesus. Note Phil. 2:1-2: "1 If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose." Paul’s plea is positive, though quite strong. He wants them to be encouraged to know that they truly are “united with Christ” (or “in Christ”, NASB). In that union, they are recipients of “his [Christ’s] love” who are knit together with the Spirit (or by the Spirit) in “fellowship [koinonia, communion].” Through this communion they share God’s “tenderness and compassion.” This is who they are and what they possess in Christ. And Paul makes this strong appeal to them: be “like minded” in “love”, “spirit and purpose.” In short, Paul urges them to be who they truly are together in Christ. This will mean a renewing of their minds (see Romans 12:2) that will lead to a change in their behavior. We often try to solve spiritual problems out of the flesh. We even encourage people to imitate Christ. But that is not Paul’s point—it’s not about merely imitating Jesus. It’s about living “in” him—actively, through the Spirit, sharing Christ’s own love and life—thinking with his mind! The disunity experienced within the Philippian congregation will be solved only as their behavior aligns with the identity that they have in Christ—an identity that speaks directly to their fellowship and thus their unity with one another. Paul wants them to see that the basic cause of their division is prideful selfishness. There is no joy when members put themselves above others. Conversely, there is great joy, peace and harmony when members actively share in and express the selfless mind of Jesus. And Paul defines this mind by addressing four related concepts: others, service, sacrifice and exaltation. Let’s see how each of these concepts applies to our lives personally and in our fellowship together.
1. Others (Phil. 2:3–6) "3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. 4 Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,"
To share in the humility of Jesus is to experience and express the opposite of self importance. This does not mean demeaning oneself, rather it means thinking, with Jesus, of others before self. The humble man knows and accepts himself because he knows that God has, in Christ, accepted him. And based on this assurance, he is able and willing to yield up all he has and is to God’s service for Christ’s glory and for the good of others. This word "others" is a key idea in this chapter; the healthy believer’s eyes are turned away from self to focus on the needs of others. Actions flow from attitude. If our attitude is self-centered, our actions will be divisive and destructive. But our attitude is to be the “same as that of Christ Jesus.” This thought leads us to ask: Who is this Christ Jesus?
First Paul asserts that Jesus is fully God: he is “in very nature God”—he is, indeed, equal with God. Other verses such as John 1:1–4; Colossians 1:15; and Hebrews 1:1–3 also state that Jesus Christ is fully God. And, as God, Jesus did not need anything! He had all the glory and praise of heaven. With the Father and the Spirit, he reigned over the universe. But Philippians 2:6 states an amazing fact: he did not consider this equality with God as “something to be grasped.” Jesus, who is God, did not think of himself; he thought of others. His attitude was that of unselfish concern for others. This is “the mind of Christ,” an attitude that says, “I cannot keep my privileges for myself, I must use them for others; and to do this, I will gladly lay them aside and pay whatever price is necessary.”
Jesus is the source of selflessness and the Spirit enables us to share in his love and life—his mind. More than twenty times in the New Testament, God instructs us as believers to treat “one another” in particular, selfless ways. We are to prefer one another (Rom 12:10), edify one another (1Thes 5:11), and bear each other’s burdens (Gal 6:2). We are not to judge one another (Rom 14:13) but rather admonish one another (Rom 15:14). This is the mind of Christ. "Others" is the first key concept that defines the selfless mind of Christ in which we share.
2. Service (Phil. 2:7) "7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness."
Next Paul asserts the truth that Jesus, who is fully God, became also fully human. In becoming human, Jesus showed his love in action—his incarnation was the supreme act of service. Paul traces the steps in Jesus’ journey of becoming one of us as our servant:
(1) He emptied himself, laying aside the independent use of his own attributes as God (though he did not cease being fully God)
(2) He permanently became a human in a physical body (and his incarnation continues even now in a glorified human body)
(3) He used that physical body to be a servant
(4) He took that body to the cross and willingly died for us
What grace! From heaven to earth, from glory to shame, from master to servant, from life to death, “even the death of the cross!”
Note that Jesus was not merely masquerading temporarily as our servant, he took on “the very nature of a servant” by becoming fully and permanently human. He was not an actor playing a temporary role. He actually was [and still is] our servant! This was the true expression of his innermost nature. He was and remains the God-Man, deity and humanity united in one; our servant; God with us and for us.
Have you noticed as you read the four Gospels that we see Jesus serving others, not others serving him? He is at the beck and call of all kinds of people—fishermen, harlots, tax collectors, the sick, the sorrowing. “Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mat 20:28). In the Upper Room, when his disciples failed to minister, Jesus arose, laid aside his outer garments, put on the long linen towel, and washed their feet! (John 13). In doing so, he took the place of a menial slave! This was the selfless mind of Jesus in action and the basis for his great joy! Service is the second key concept that defines the selfless mind of Christ in which we share.
3. Sacrifice (Phil. 2:8) "8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross!"
Many are willing to serve others if it does not cost them. If there is a big price to pay, they lose interest. Jesus “became obedient to death—even death on a cross.” His was not the death of a mere martyr but the death of the one Savior. Jesus, the God-man, willingly laid down his life for the world. The person who shares actively in this selfless mind of Christ does not avoid sacrifice. They live to serve God and others; and if paying a big price is needed, they are willing. This was Paul’s attitude (2:17), Timothy’s (2:20), and also Epaphroditus’ (2:30). Sacrifice and service go together if service is to be a true sharing in the love and life of Jesus. The selfless Christ-follower thinks not only of how much they are willing to take in terms of enduring suffering, but how much they are willing to give in terms of self sacrifice. It is one of the paradoxes of the life lived actively in union with Jesus: the more we give, the more we receive; the more we sacrifice, the more God blesses. This is why the selfless mind leads to joy—in giving we are sharing in the joy Jesus has in sacrificing for the good of others. When Jesus’ love is our motivation (Phil 2:1), the sacrifice is never measured or mentioned. The person who constantly talks about their sacrifices does not have the selfless mind. Sacrifice is the third key concept that defines the selfless mind of Christ in which we share.
4. Exaltation (Phil. 9–11) "9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 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."
The selfless mind of Jesus seeks his heavenly Father’s glory, not his own. Paul warns us against “selfish ambition” and “vain conceit” in Philippians 2:3. The kind of rivalry that pits Christian against Christian and ministry against ministry is not spiritual, nor is it satisfying. It is vain, empty, self-oriented. Jesus humbled himself for others and for the Father’s glory. And the Father highly exalted him; and the result of this exaltation is the greater glory of God in which we share as his children. The exaltation of Jesus began with his resurrection. When men buried the body of Jesus, that was the last thing any human hands did to him. From that point on, it was God who worked. Men had done their worst to the Savior, but God exalted him and honored him. Men gave him names of ridicule and slander, but the Father gave him a glorious name! Just as in his humiliation he was given the name “Jesus” (Mat 1:21), so in his exaltation He was given the name “Lord” (Phil 2:11). He arose from the dead and then returned in victory to heaven, ascending to the Father’s throne. His exaltation included sovereign authority over all creatures in heaven, on earth, and under the earth. It is likely that “under the earth” refers to those who are dead. One day all will bow before him and see and confess that he is, indeed, Lord. To bow before him is to acknowledge who he truly is and that brings glory to God the Father. As Jesus faced the cross, the glory of the Father was uppermost in his mind, "Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you” (John 17:1). In fact, Jesus shares his glory with us (John 17:22), and one day we will share the fullness of that glory with him in a new heaven and new earth (John 17:24; see Rom. 8:28–30). Indeed, our salvation in the ultimate sense is our face-to-face sharing in God’s own glory (Eph 1:6, 12, 14). The person who shares in Christ’s selfless mind, as they live for others, must expect sacrifice and service; but in the end, it is going to lead to their sharing in the fullness of Jesus’ exaltation. “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God's mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time” (1Pet 5:6). Indeed, the joy of the selfless mind comes not only from helping others, and sharing in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings, but primarily from the knowledge that we are glorifying God. We are letting our light shine through our good works, and this glorifies the Father in heaven (Mat 5:16). We may not see the glory today, but we shall see it when Jesus comes and rewards his faithful servants.
Share in Jesus' life (Phil 2:12-13)
The Christians in Philippi will recover true and lasting unity as they, through the Spirit, actively share in the life of Jesus. Note Phil. 2:12-13: "12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose."
“Work out your salvation” does not mean, “work for your salvation.” Paul is writing to “saints” (1:1)—those who have a realized and, therefore, active and personal relationship with God. “Work out” is from a Greek verb that means “work to full completion.” In Paul’s day it was also used for “working a mine,” that is, getting out of the mine all the valuable ore possible; or “working a field” to get the greatest harvest possible. God works in us to conform us to the full “likeness [image] of his Son”(Rom 8:29). There are problems in this life that rail against the unfolding of the image of Jesus in us, but God helps us to “work them out.” He has a specific and wonderful plan for our lives (Eph 2:10) and is actively working to help us bring it to fruition. His “working out” in us is never coerced—it involves our willing and active participation in “fear” (reverence) and in "trembling" (carefulness). This “working out” through the unfolding of God’s plan in our lives, occurs in the midst of a “crooked and depraved” world (see Deut 32:5), which is characterized by “complaining” and “arguing.” We must resist these sinful attitudes and experience instead Jesus’ own joy in the midst of life’s troubles. As we do so, we share in Jesus’ blamelessness and purity (wholesomeness). As we grow in these ways as God’s children, we “shine like stars in the universe”—we reflect the light of Christ (John 1:8-9; 8:12) into a dark, sin-filled world. By our Christ-like attitude and behavior we “hold out the word of life”—we make Jesus known. And Jesus is the Living “Word of Life.” To share in Jesus’ life and thus to make Jesus known is our life’s purpose, and as we allow God to achieve it in and through us, we become better witnesses of Jesus to a world that desperately needs the One who is the Truth.
Note that Paul does not call upon us to become more like Jesus by retreating from the world. Indeed, it is only as we join with Jesus in reaching out to the world in its darkness that we become more like him. The Pharisees were so isolated and insulated from the world that they developed an artificial self-righteousness that was totally unlike Jesus who is God’s true righteousness. It is not by leaving the world—but by ministering with Jesus to it and in it—that God’s purpose for us is “worked out” in and through our lives.
Note: this exegesis draws on commentary from Warren Wiersbe (Bible Expository Commentary) and Francis Foulkes (New Bible Commentary).