By Sam E. Stone
Paul’s epistle to the Philippians reads more like a personal letter than a theological treatise. Today’s text (chapter 2), however, ranks as one of the most significant passages in all the New Testament regarding the coming of God’s Son to earth. It is filled with practical lessons for us as well.
When the apostle says, “If you have . . . these qualities,” he is not questioning whether or not the Philippian Christians possess comfort, sharing in the Spirit, and compassion. A better translation would be, “Since you have these characteristics,” then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Earlier Paul indicated that the Philippians were a source of joy to him (1:3-18). Now he urges them to make that joy complete as they imitate Christ.
William Barclay points out that Philippians 2:3, 4 list three great causes of discord and disunity—selfish ambition, desire for personal prestige, and concentration on self. In contrast to this behavior the apostle says, “Demonstrate humility. Think first of others, not yourself” (see also 1 Peter 5:5; Mark 10:43-45). When believers share these traits, unity will reign. Then all will follow the church’s one head, Christ.
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus. In humility, as in everything else, Jesus provides the perfect example for his followers. His self-sacrificing spirit of love for others is a model (John 13:12-17). Whenever church members have a rift, whether in Philippi (Philippians 4:2) or your hometown, maintaining the attitude of Christ will solve it.
In verse 6 a moving description of Jesus’ example begins. Many Bible students consider the next verses to be part of an early Christian hymn written by (or adapted by) Paul. Whether or not these beautiful lines constitute a poem, they provide a dramatic picture of our Savior’s incarnation and exaltation. Even before the foundation of the world, Christ was God. He made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant. Jesus emptied himself of the glory he had with the Father before the world was created (John 17:5). Jesus was both truly God and truly man (2 Corinthians 8:9).
Being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Each phrase adds to the description of Christ’s descent (Hebrews 5:7-10). He came down from Heaven to earth, lived as man, then died as a man by the worst possible kind of death (Galatians 3:13; Hebrews 12:2). Both Jews and Greeks were troubled by this (1 Corinthians 1:23).
Christ’s descent to the depths of the world is then countered with his being raised to the heights of Heaven. God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name. While the previous verses point out what Jesus did, these verses show God’s response. The Father took the initiative. Jesus “was divine in Heaven, no less divine on earth, and no more divine following the ascension,” explains Pat Edwin Harrell. Now, however, he is uniquely honored and recognized by the name “Lord” (Philippians 2:11).
This will be the scene when at the name of Jesus every knee should bow . . . and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord. Even those who have opposed him will one day confess him (Isaiah 45:23, 24; Romans 10:9, 10). Note how Philippians 2:5-11 are directly tied to what precedes them and to what follows them—Paul’s admonition to humility and unity (vv. 1-4) and his subsequent appeal for obedience and faithfulness (vv. 12-16). We learn from Christ’s example how we should live.
Philippians 2:12, 13
Paul returns next to his earlier themes (1:27-30), as he encourages his readers to live out the implications of their commitment to Christ, whether or not he is with them personally. They are told, Work out your salvation with fear and trembling. Of course this does not mean that a person is able to go to Heaven on the basis of his good works (compare Ephesians 2:1-10). Rather it indicates that Christians are expected to obey the commands of God! Such obedience is closely connected with the goal of unity that Paul is encouraging.
Sam E. Stone is the former editor of Christian Standard. He continues his writing and speaking ministry from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.