Disunity was a problem in the Philippian church, affecting even veteran servants in the fellow-ship, Phil. 4. 2-3. The epistle’s second chapter uses the lives of four men as examples of the proper attitude for God’s people – Christ, Paul, Timothy, and Epaphroditus. As ‘God manifest in the flesh’, 1 Tim. 3. 16, the first is different from the others; He is the supreme example of the selfless mind which puts others first, at its own unparalleled expense. By an incomparable act of humility, the incarnate Son of God blessed more people and glorified God the Father in a way that will never be surpassed.
‘Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus’, Phil. 2. 5, begins the exhortation. Some translations idiomatically render the word ‘mind’ as ‘attitude’. This takes the discussion into the realm of Christian thinking and the actions that stem from it. When Paul urged them to ‘be likeminded’, v. 2, and ‘in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves’, what exactly did that look like? Is the selfless mind practical and attainable in the real world? Christ’s example assures one that it is possible to have such a mind; furthermore, He demonstrates unselfish behaviour which impoverishes Himself so that He may spiritually enrich others.
In the Beginning was the Word
An appreciation of the Lord’s humble actions can be gained only by considering His condescension in leaving heaven’s glory for earth’s progressive abasements. Verse 6 describes the preincarnate Son as ‘being in the form of God’. W. E. Vine points out the unique nature of the verb in this phrase, saying, ‘The verb huparchō conveys much more than the simple verb “to be”. Used, as here, in the present participle (huparchōn), it points to the existence of a person previous to what is stated of him’.1 Another scholar adds: ‘The participle hyparchon ("being” NIV, in the sense of “existing") is in the present tense and states Christ’s continuing condition. To say that he was existing in the essential metaphysical form of God is tantamount to saying that he possessed the nature of God’.2 A third authority affirms, ‘When Paul says that Christ Jesus was in the form of God, that is, in full possession of the divine nature, he underlines the fact by using, not the simple verb ‘to be’, but a stronger verb which in its characteristic usage has the force ‘to be really and truly’, ‘to be characteristically’, even ‘to be by nature’. In a passage like the present one, where it is plain that every word has been weighed and measured, the full meaning of the verb can be assumed: he was really and truly, in his own personal and essential nature, God’.3 Thus, Jesus’ deity is maintained from the opening phrase of this section.
And the Word was with God
The next two phrases consider what the Lord Jesus did and did not give up in His incarnation, ‘thought it not robbery to be equal with God, but made himself of no reputation’, v. 6. The first part is difficult to translate, but many Greek experts believe that it conveys the idea of holding on to one’s personal advantages. MacLeod renders it in keeping with this thought, ‘He did not regard His divine prerogatives as something to use for His own advantage’.4 As applied to Christ it seems to refer to His positional rights and privileges in heaven. He shared in the same glory as the other persons of the Trinity, and He enjoyed uninterrupted fellowship with the Father, John 1. 1. Along with the praises of all the angelic hosts, the Seraphim’s cry, ‘Holy, holy, holy’ resounded in His ears, Isa. 6. 3. He refused to remain in this exalted position; instead, He exchanged heaven for earth, glory for humiliation, and life for death. In heaven, He was invulnerable to pain, weakness, or attack. On earth, He was exposed to the venom of men’s unremitting hatred against God and all that is holy.
The second phrase literally means ‘to empty’. Of what did He empty Himself some ask? The rest of the context of the passage – as well as many other parts of the New Testament – show that this is the wrong question. Some liberal theologians use this term to avow that the Son emptied Himself of His deity – or at least of certain attributes like omniscience and omnipotence. Philosophically, this view is absurd and doctrinally it is heretical. What is more, it does not agree with the clear teaching of the passage or the rest of scripture.
A Magnificent Display of Humility
It is impossible for one to empty oneself of essential being without ceasing to exist. As R. C. H. Lenski notes, ‘To withdraw even one attribute from God is to destroy God’.5 The ‘emptying’ describes a voluntary humiliation which leads the Lord to divest Himself of position, rather than any doing of the impossible by giving up attributes. As the nineteenth-century Greek scholar J. B. Lightfoot described it, ‘[He] stripped Himself of the insignia of majesty’.6 Another points out, ‘Whatever He was before entrance into human existence, by His “self-emptying” He becomes the perfect bond-servant of Jehovah, who does nothing and speaks nothing from Himself, but speaks only what the Father “commands," and does “always the things that are pleasing to him"’ 7
Verses 7-8 detail the ways in which God the Son takes the lower position (‘made himself of no reputation’ in the KJV’s rendering). First, He ‘took upon him the form of a servant’, v. 7. The word ‘form’ is the same as was used in verse 6 to describe the Lord’s deity. Its usage tells one that He did not merely pretend to be a servant, He actually became one. His own words put it best, ‘For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many’, Mark 10. 45. He also said, ‘I am among you as he that serveth’, Luke 22. 27.
God Manifested in the Flesh
The next group of phrases assert Christ’s perfect humanity, saying that He ‘was made in the likeness of men’ and ‘being found in fashion as a man’, vv. 7-8. The language is reminiscent of Romans chapter 8 verse 3. ‘Likeness’ indicates that His manhood is different from other humans. To borrow an expression from Hebrews chapter 4 verse 15 JND, it is ‘sin apart’. Yet, His humanity is genuine – contrary to the Gnostic-Docetic error that asserts He only seemed to be a man. ‘Fashion’ disproves this theory, for as W. E. Vine says, ‘[It] … signifies what He was in the eyes of men, “the entire outwardly perceptible mode and shape of His existence, just as the preceding words morphe, “form," and homoioma, “likeness," describe what He was in Himself as Man” (Gifford on The Incarnation, p. 44). “Men saw in Christ a human form, bearing, language, action, mode of life … in general the state and relations of a human being, so that in the entire mode of His appearance He made Himself known and was recognized as a man” (Meyer)’.8
Thus, with economy of expression, Paul says that Christ was a real, perfect man. His humility leads the Son of God to permanently take on human form, ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’, John 1. 14 NKJV.
A Demonstration of Perfect Obedience
By its position in the Greek sentence the word ‘himself’ in verse 8 is emphasized. The Lord Jesus’ descent from glory to the sufferings of the cross is entirely voluntary. His allegiance to the Father’s will leads Him to obey ‘unto the point of death’, v. 8 NKJV. Because His Father desires it, He goes to the horror of the cross. The scornful treatment of sinful men and the opposition of the demonic world do not hinder Him from becoming the propitiation for the sins of the world, 1 John 2. 2.
A proper understanding of Christ’s gracious work requires a survey of ancient opinions on His manner of death. To the Romans, crucifixion was an odious, humiliating process, kept in store for society’s vilest dregs. The Jewish view of the cross was just as bad as the Graeco-Roman estimation of this shameful gibbet. Deuteronomy chapter 21 verse 23 affirms, ‘He who is hanged is accursed of God’ NKJV. As Martin points out, ‘[it] meant that the victim was outside the pale of Israel, and that he was under a ban of excommunication from God’s covenant. It was this thought which proved the stumbling-block of the cross to the Jew (1 Cor. 1. 23)’.9 Nevertheless, Christ readily endured this for others, providing the ideal example of the proper mind for His saints.
In verses 9-11 Paul reveals that the Lord’s unparalleled abasement results in the greatest exaltation that the universe will ever see. Because He went so low the Father places Him in the highest place, where the entire angelic and human creation will one day confess His Lordship to the Father’s own glory, vv. 9-11. To abase one’s self for others leads to divine blessing and exaltation. Considering what Christ suffered for His people, how can they not emulate His unselfish behaviour? His death demands selflessness on the part of the redeemed. By the resources He provides, vv. 1-4, they can have the Lord’s lowly mind.