Here is a draft of some reflections on Philippians 2:1-13
1 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in 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 of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be exploited;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
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 acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
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 in order to fulfill his good purpose.
Ours is an age of self-promotion and radical individualism. Emerging generations have been tuned to assume the rightness of personal expression and autonomy. Focus on self in all of its glory is the expected norm of our culture. Yet none of this is new. Deep within us is a desire to control, to exert our own will, and to exalt ourselves over others. Some of us may be overt in expressing this; others may be more subtle or even passive-aggressive. But it is present nonetheless. In his devotional My Utmost for His Highest Oswald Chambers sublimely defines the nature of sin as “my claim to my right to myself.”
The apostle Paul is writing to encourage the Christ followers in Philippi to live lives worthy of the Gospel as citizens of heaven (1:27; 3:20). In our Scripture lesson, Paul opens with a series of “if” statements to capture the imagination of his hearers and to remind them of the tangible benefits of following the way of Jesus. Paul assumes that the Philippians have indeed experienced encouragement, consolation, sharing in the Spirit, compassion, and sympathy. He lists these out as a means of exhorting the Philippians to aspire for a higher life, but profoundly the way to a higher life is intimately tied to turning away from our own desires for status in favor of the life modeled by the Lord Jesus. Paul calls on the Philippians to “make my joy complete” and then sketches out an ethic that is other-centered, promotes unity, and tangibly embodies the same self-less intentionality that Jesus brought to his earthly mission.
To illustrate this life Paul includes in his letter a poetic hymn about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The poetry of verses 6–11 serves to unpack what it means to embody the “same mind that was in Christ Jesus” (v. 5).
First, Jesus’ life calls us to move from a life of exploiting our own rights to one in which we are willing to relinquish our rights for the sake of God’s mission. Jesus’ incarnation is the model. Verse 6 is perhaps the most profound text in all of the New Testament. It reminds us of Jesus’ mindset in embracing his humanity: “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.” Jesus enjoyed all of the prerogatives and status that belong to the divine. But in the ultimate counter-cultural move, Jesus subverts all human notions of what divinity entails and fully embraces our humanity. This is the essence of Jesus’ self-emptying. He willingly sets aside the status and rights of being God and instead takes on our flesh and blood for the sake of God’s mission to offer healing, hope, wholeness and reconciliation to all Creation. As we ponder God’s mission in our day, this text invites us to think carefully about what rights and notions of status that we need to let go of in order to live fully as the people whom God created us to be.
Second, Jesus’ life calls us to move from a focus on self-preservation to a life shaped by the cross. There is a line that marks the demarcation point between bondage and freedom. It’s the difference between the life that God calls us to live and the status quo existence of the masses. The cross is the key. It wasn’t merely that Jesus was obedient to the point of death–it was that Jesus willingly embraced death on the cross. Crucifixion was reserved only for slaves and rebels against Rome. The Son of God died a death associated with persons of the lowest status. If we want to lives that demand explanation, we must die up front to self and our notions of status so that we can truly live.
Last, Jesus’ life points clearly to the paradox of sacrifice. In God’s economy, you gain life by losing it. You receive by giving. The highest calling is servanthood. Our temptation in life is to pursue endlessly our fifteen minutes of fame. Too many among us grieve over our perceived anonymity as though a life of profound meaning and worth is found only in receiving the acclaim of others. Abraham Lincoln said, “Don’t worry when you are not recognized, but strive to be worthy of recognition.”
The lesson here is simple: let God exalt you. God the Father responds to Jesus’ obedience by “super exalting him.” Jesus was already God, but this text asserts that God has given him the name that is above all names. How did Jesus reach this pinnacle? Not by self-promotion. Not by asking for it. But through the life of a servant who was fully obedient to God’s mission in the world.
Paul concludes with a powerful exhortation to a cross centered life lived out in community. In verses 12-13, Paul roots the power to live in a Christ worthy manner in God. It is God who works in us. But God’s transforming power is subtle in the sense that it requires receptivity. It is not a call for us to try harder, but rather for us to die more fully to our old modes of existence. Moreover Paul’s concluding words are addressed not to individuals alone but to a community of Christ followers. The way of Jesus is not a solitary existence but one embodied in community. This is the point of Paul’s letter. The world needs to experience the reality of the Gospel. For the believers in Philippi, this meant a unified witness for the sake of the city. I suspect that Paul would give the same exhortation to us in our day.