Exegesis Philippians 2:5-11



Step I. Comparison of Translations

Verse 5 RSV: Have this mind among you, which you have in Christ Jesus

               Message: Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself

               NIV: Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus

      v. 6 RSV: who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped

             Message: He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all.

      v. 7 RSV: but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.

             Message: When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, and became HUMAN!

             NIV: but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

      v. 8 RSV: And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.

              Message: Having become human he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that: a crucifixion.

       v. 9 RSV: Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name

               Message: Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever

               NIV: …exalted him to the highest place

        v. 10 RSV: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth

                Message: so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ

      v. 11 RSV: and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

               Message: and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of the Father.

B. Textual criticism

C. Rough translation

     This you think in you which and in Christ Jesus, who in form of God existing under not thievery reckoned the to be equal with God, but himself emptied form of slave taking in likeness of men becoming. And structure being found as man he humbled himself, becoming obedient until death, death of a cross. Accordingly God also him hyper-lifted up and gifted to him the name the above-all name; so that in the name of Jesus all knee should bend of heavenly and earthly and under earth and every tongue should acknowledge that Lord Jesus Christ into the glory of God the Father.



Step II. Disposition

  A. Genre: How the text says what it says

        Verses 6-11, “as their format shows, are widely regarded as a pre-Pauline Christ hymn.” Harper Collins study Bible. [But] “whether or not it was composed as hymn is uncertain”. NIB, p. 501. Whatever the original significance of the composition, Paul uses it to guide the Philippian Christians in their relations with each other, prefaced by the key verse 5. (it may even be HIS “poem”!) The contorted phraseology of the verse seems to be not so much an “imitation of Christ” type of approach as it is a reminder of their new existential situation in mystical union with Jesus Christ.

B. Personal interaction—questions and observations

1.      What does Paul mean by, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”?

2.      Is this section a call to imitate Christ in his sacrificial life?

3.      What does the composition mean when it says, “who, though he was in the form of God”?

4.      What are the ramifications of “he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped”?

5.      Where else do we find this concept of self-emptying?

6.      What is the significance of the term “likeness”?

7.      How does this text affect people who have a pathological concept of self-abasement and humiliation?

8.      Is it saying the reward for Christ’s obedience unto death is his exaltation?

9.      What is the cultural significance of the “name above every name”?

10.  Who are those “under the earth” who will “bend the knee”?

11.  In our pluralistic age, does “every knee bow, every tongue confess” tend toward religious imperialism?

12.  When slavery and servitude have become repugnant, how do we reclaim these concepts?

C. Organization—where the elements of B are located

     Author’s intent: 1,2

     Doctrinal: 3,6,8

     Cultural/contextual: 5,9,10

     Homiletical: 2,7,11,12

Step III. Composition

  1. Immediate context—preceding/following pericope

This unusual text is precede by a call to preserve unity through humility and concern for the needs of others. It is followed by further such exhortation and the expectation that the Philippians will show the same kind of obedience that Christ showed. It concludes with a reference to Paul’s own (Christ-like) self-offering on their behalf, which he presents as cause for mutual rejoicing.

     B Organization of the compositional whole

           The Philippian letter is one of great affection and affirmation, characterized by numerous calls to rejoice, words of encouragement, and some concern about possible damage to the community by opponents. Paul discusses his own selfless motives and is eager to maintain the peace and energy of this favored congregation. He expresses great equanimity in the most trying circumstances. He thanks them for their unfailing support.

C.     Issues of authorship

Some commentators try to discern Pauline interpolations in the “pre-Pauline hymn”. In this hypothesis the major part of the “hymn” would be by an author other than Paul.

   Step IV. Context

A.     Primitive Christianity

The passage expresses early concepts of Christ’s pre-existence, also present in John 1; as well as self-chosen relinquishment of status. This has a parallel in 2 Cor. 8:9, “Who, though he was rich, became poor for our sakes”. The later Col. 1:15-20 elaborates the idea of Christ as pre-existent, first-born, and agent of creation.

B.     OT and Judaism

Many have seen a reflection of the “suffering Servant” from Isaiah 53. However, “the assumption that Isaiah 53 describes voluntary sacrifice is the result of Christian interpretation of that passage, and the question is whether that interpretation is reflected already in Phil. 2.” (NIB, 503) Perhaps more convincingly, parallels are seen with the Gen. 3 account of the fall of Adam. Christ’s voluntary letting go of divine privilege is the bright opposite of Adam’s “grasping” for divinity from his inferior position. Paul’s use of the composition intends to trace the redemptive trajectory of Christ, whose descent was not a “fall” but a willingly chosen abasement. It issued not in death and condemnation, like Adam’s, but in death and exaltation (re-instatement?) to his all-powerful divine position.

C.     Hellenistic world

Some commentators have suggested a Gnostic origin for this composition, with its descending and ascending god-figure. The universal proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord is a political statement offering an alternative to the demand for ultimate loyalty to the Roman emperor.

  Step V. Distillation

           A. Summary of Salient Features

          Key to this passage is verse 5, which alerts us to the ethical and existential implications of what follows, and thus tells us much about Paul’s purpose in employing this composition in his letter to the Philippians. The ensuing description of Christ’s self-emptying, through servanthood in “human form”, to the ultimate debasement--death by crucifixion-- is the very basis of his exaltation. This exaltation is the evidence of his triumph as Lord over all things. God’s “bestowing” of the Highest Name signifies his supremacy—but we remember that it is the supremacy of unfathomable humility and obedience. Through our full participation in Him, especially in his humble “form”, God the Father is “glorified”.

  1. Smooth Translation

So then carry yourselves in accord with what you already are in Leader Jesus. Think of it: he had it made where he was, at the very same level as God! But he didn’t abuse that all-powerful position. Quite the opposite. Instead of living it up in royal splendor, he let it all go, to become a mere human. And not only that—he went even lower, responding wholeheartedly to God’s direction, when he was nailed to the cross where he died, humiliated. He went from the infinite power of God, to the utter helplessness of a hanging corpse.

So it was that God then raised him up to the highest position in the universe, and gave him The Name—the Name so holy we dare not pronounce it. So now, when “Jesus” resounds throughout the Cosmos, all creatures everywhere will bow in worship and cry out from the heart, “Jesus Christ is Lord”, thus bringing profoundest honor to Father God.

  1. Hermeneutical Bridge

The “riches-to-rags” story of Jesus is reflected in the biographies of other teachers and saints. This text understands the “reversal” in Christ as having cosmic significance. In our violent and power-oriented world, the gospel points to the divine Son as the one who gave up all power for God’s mission. Recent business scandals provide stupifying examples of Adamic overreach.  The movie, “Requiem for a Heavyweight”, is the story of one man’s finally choosing his fate and thus ennobling it.  This Palm Sunday text offers possibilities for exploring the uses and abuses of power, the lure of wealth and adulation, and the way of the cross. Is such a way practical or even conceivable in our world?


Step VI Contemporary Address

A.     Description of Audience

The flock struggles with the meaning of divine sovereignty in the midst of our world’s deadly chaos, and our personal tragedies. What does it mean to say that humility and relinquishment now reign on the throne of God, in Jesus Christ?

B.     Intended Goals for the Address

In this sermon I hope to get us thinking about what it means to be “united” to Christ in such a way that we begin to see the world as he sees it.