Upside-Down Living, part 1 (Philippians 2:5-6a)

This morning we’re going to be looking at a passage of Scripture that many consider to be one of the most beautiful in all of the New Testament and was thought to be an early Christian hymn.

Although this passage has deep theological content, let’s remember that Paul is using it primarily as an illustration for the practical instructions he had given the Philippians in vv. 3-4:

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.

So Paul points to several people that the Philippians were familiar with that illustrated these very attitudes and habits—first Jesus in vv. 5-11, then Paul in vv. 17-18, then Timothy in vv. 19-24 and finally Epaphroditus in vv. 25-30.

Several commentators and pastors also find a close relationship between this passage and the passage in John 13 where Jesus washed His disciples’ feet.

  John 13:13-17     Philippians 2:6-11
1. Jesus rises from the table and lays aside (tithesi) his outer garments (ta himatia) (v. 4)   1. He emptied himself (ekenosen heauton). Moffatt translates it, “He laid it (his divine nature) aside.” (v. 7)
2. Jesus takes a towel and wraps it about himself (dieksosen heauton), puts water in a basin and begins to wash his disciples’ feet (a menial task often assigned to slaves; 1 Sam. 25:41; cf. Mark 1:7; Acts 13:25l St-B 2.557) (v. 5)   2. “…taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of human beings.  And being found in human form he humbled himself (etapeinosen heauton, v. 7)
3. When Jesus finished, he once again takes his outer garments and puts them on (elaben ta himata), and again sits down at the table (apepesen) from which he got up (v. 12).   3. Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name (v. 9).
4. Finally Jesus says: “You address me as teacher and Lord (kurios) and rightly so, for that is what I am” (v. 13).   4. …that every tongue might openly confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (kurios, v. 11).

(Gerald Hawthorne, “Philippians” in Word Biblical Commentary, p. 78)

Remember that a big part of why Paul was writing this letter to the Philippian believers was to help them deal with an interpersonal conflict that had arisen and was in danger of spreading (4:2-3) among them and dividing them.

One of the problems Paul had identified in vv. 3-4 that disrupts and ultimately can destroy community within a church, an office or a family, is the problem of “vain glory” (kenodoxia), or “thinking more highly of oneself” without good reason.

But whereas Paul counsels against us having “vain glory” he shows us in this passage today how Jesus emptied himself of his very real and deserved glory, humbling himself to serve us and even sacrifice himself for our good.

That is the example they were to follow.

There is an interesting verse in Psalm 18:35b where David says of Yahweh, “You stooped down to make me great.”  That is quite an amazing verse for the Old Testament, or even for the whole Bible for that matter.

The highly exalted God stoops down to make such a worm as I great!  That is quite astounding.  But that is exactly what Paul pictures here as he presents the example of Jesus Christ and encourages us to follow.

5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 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.

Again, many think that this was an early Christian hymn, that it was sung in their worship services.  In Latin it is called the Carmen Christi.  Whether or not it was actually sung, Paul crafts it as a concise theological statement about the humiliation and exaltation of Jesus Christ.

In this passage we see Jesus Christ taking several steps down from his exalted glory in heaven, being incarnated as a human, becoming a servant and eventually dying in disgrace and shame, and agony, on the cross, as separated from that previous glory as one can be.

But then, in a couple of weeks, we will get to His reward, when He is exalted and proclaimed for the exalted King He is.

Moises Silva’s outline in his commentary on Philippians discerns the structure of the hymn and helps us see the main points of the passage.

who in the FORM of God existing in likeness of men BECOMING
not an advantage considered his being equal with God and in appearance being found as man
but nothing he made himself he humbled himself
the FORM of a servant adopting BECOMING obedient to death

Here is his line-by-line explanation:

In this arrangement, the first stanza begins and ends with the noun form (morphe), whereas the second stanza begins and ends with the participle ‘having become’ (genomenos).  This feature can easily be interpreted as [an] inclusio . . . and may suggest that indeed these lines begin and end discrete units.

Moreover, each line of the first stanza finds some parallelism in the corresponding line of the second stanza.  In both stanzas the first line contains a participle, and the participle rules a prepositional phrase.

The contrast between God and man in that [first] line is repeated in the second line. The third line of each stanza describes Christ’s voluntary act (‘he emptied himself/humbled himself’).

Finally, both stanzas puts us in touch with the original structure of the hymn, it is certainly suggestive and may have a bearing on exegesis. (Moises Silva, Philippians [BECNT; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005], 99)

The usefulness of this structure is evident in how it helps us see the contrast between God and man, the two main action verbs, and the act of becoming human and dying on the cross in the place of men.

Theologically, this structure coheres with the two main movements of Christ’s life—his incarnation and crucifixion.  Likewise, it stresses the two natures of Christ—he is both God and man, and in his humanity his human form has hidden his divine form without replacing it, reducing it, or rejecting it.

Last, Jesus’ primary actions of making himself nothing (i.e., emptying himself) and humbling himself relate in time to his incarnation and crucifixion.  Yet, neither action is separated from the other.  Christ’s humiliation on the cross came about because of his kenosis, and his incarnation also involved a significant step of humility.

All in all, Silva’s structure helps clarify our exegesis and theology in this key passage for biblical Christology.

So here in Philippians 2:5 we see Paul tying this passage back to his previous exhortations to unity.

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,

This word phroneo refers to the disposition of the mind or heart towards something.  It speaks of perspective, a way of thinking and says that our way of thinking should be like Jesus’ way of thinking.

Paul is saying that what we think about, our attitude, is very important.  Instead of having a mind that imitates the world, we should aim for a mind that imitates Christ.

What was Jesus’ perspective on life?  We see it here in this upside-down mentality, this “downward mobility” that is so foreign to our own thinking about life.

First, of all, we see that Jesus Christ began “in very nature God.”  His eternal, pre-incarnate nature was full divinity.

who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,

In asking what Jesus Christ was like prior to the incarnation, Paul expresses it with the noun morphe (translated “form,” or “very nature” in the NIV) and the participle huparcho, which expresses the continuing existence of something, in this case the “form of God” in Jesus.

Jesus thus “existed,” or “continued to exist” during all the ages before the Incarnation “in the form of God.”

Now, the word morphe is defined of the “essential character of something.”  That which it is in its very nature.

Another word which Paul will use later, in v. 8 is schema (“found in appearance as a man”).  The difference between morphe and schema is that morphe speaks of the essential form that never changes; while schema speaks of the outward form which changes over time.

Thus, my morphe is that I am a man; but my schema has changed throughout the years from baby, to child, to pre-teen, to teenager, to adult (although some would debate I’ve gotten that far!).

Thus, what Paul is saying in verse 6 is that he has always existed in the unchangeable essence of being God.  He has always existed as God.

This is expressed in a variety of verses:

John 1:1-3 and verse 14 says…

1 In the beginning was the Word [we know from v. 14 that the Word is Jesus], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.

So Jesus “was in the beginning,” and the tense of the verb means he “already was in the beginning.”  He was “with God” and most importantly this verse says that Jesus “was God.”  Again, the tense of the verb means that He didn’t become God, He always was God.

Now Jehovah witnesses will say, “But there is no article in front of the word God at the end of verse 1, so that means Jesus was ‘a god,’ a lesser god, a created god.”

While it is true that there is no article in front of the final word “God” in verse 1, this doesn’t mean that John was indicating that Jesus was any lesser deity.  After all, “everything that was made” was made by Him, according to verse 3.

A Greek grammarian by the name of Colwell said that an “anarthrous predicate noun is only indefinite if the context dictates.”  That’s just a fancy way to shut the mouths of those who argue that Jesus was less than God.

The reality is, if John had put an article in front of “God” it would have created a worse misunderstanding, for then it would mean that God was only “the Word.”  In reality, what John is doing here is not pointing so much to Jesus as God, but Jesus as divine, having the same nature as God.  It amounts to the same thing.

God, in this verse, is the Father, except in the final part of the verse when “God” stands for the nature or essence of who the Word has always been—totally, irrevocably divine.  Fully God.

Colossians 1:15-17, is another potential Christ hymn.

15 He is the image [the outward visible manifestation] of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation [in position, not time.  Remember, He created all things that were created.]. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

I really like Colossians 2:9

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,

That was Jesus’ exalted position.  He was, and still is, God very God.  Fully God.  He is not part God, or partially God.  The “whole fullness of deity” dwells in Him.  Richard Trench, commenting on this word “deity,” says…

Paul is declaring that in the Son there dwells all the fullness of absolute Godhead; they were no mere rays of divine glory which gilded Him, lighting up his person for a season and with a splendour not his own; but He was, and is, absolute and perfect God; and the Apostle “uses theotes to express this essential and personal Godhead of the Son;…4

Kenneth Wuest adds

One could translate, “For in Him corporeally there is permanently at home all the fulness of the Godhead.” That is, in our Lord Jesus in His incarnation and in the permanent possession of His human body now glorified, there resides by nature and permanently the fullness of the Godhead. The word “Godhead” is from our second word theotes. The word expresses Godhead in the absolute sense. It is not merely divine attributes that are in mind now, but the possession of the essence of deity in an absolute sense.

The simplest way to put it…is that Jesus is God in the flesh.

That is Christ in His glory.  In His essence He is fully God, deserving of worship and service.

But now the humiliation of Christ, in particular the incarnation and crucifixion, are depicted theologically in these steps downward.

And we will pick back up with the second part of verse 6 next week.

Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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