Exploring the Scripture
Scholars and church leaders have expounded and debated the Christological statement in Philippians 2:1-13 for centuries. But Paul did not write a theological essay. He wrote to strengthen, comfort, and encourage those who were being persecuted for their faith.
Paul has just told the Philippians that, given a choice between life or martyrdom, they should choose life and continue the gospel’s work. Community living is conditional. If they build unity of heart, then Christ, himself, will encourage them. God’s love is with them. The Spirit will unite them in compassion for one another. Paul’s joy will be complete if they face persecution with unity of faith, love, purpose, and thought.
Paul hinted at status-seeking among them when he encouraged them to turn away from selfish motives and pride. Paraphrasing verses 3-5, Paul wrote, “Put the welfare of others first, rather than your own. Think and act as Christ thought and acted. Your attitude (mind) must be Christ-like.” In verse 6, he transitioned from living for Christ to dying for Christ, quoting an early Christian hymn whose author and origin are unknown.
The hymn summarizes Christ’s descent from heaven to Earth and his ascent in exaltation. Some scholars point out that Adam, who was created in God’s image, lusted for equality with God, and his disobedience led to death. Christ, who was given equality with God, rejected it to become humble and refused to advance his status or avoid suffering. Instead, he chose to become human by “emptying himself” (kenosis, in Greek: to become nothing). His humbleness included a willingness to die on the cross in humiliation. At this point in the hymn, the downward movement from heaven to Earth is reversed, and God rewards Christ’s obedience by exalting him.
The word “exalt” was used in the early days to mean the result of the combined acts of crucifixion and resurrection. Christ’s exalted station and divine nature justify any suffering in following Jesus. Verse 10 promises that a time will come when all the universe (above, on, and below the Earth) will recognize Jesus. The promise of the following verse goes beyond recognition to confession. All will revere Christ’s name. A person’s name was their character, identity, personality, and intent. Therefore the “name of Christ” embodied all that Christ represented, both divine and human.
The last line of the hymn refers directly to persecution. In first-century Roman provinces, people were required to offer sacrifices to the Roman Emperor and declare, “Caesar is Lord!” Refusal to offer sacrifice or declare loyalty was considered seditious, punishable by imprisonment and death. Christians countered the Roman practice by declaring publicly, “Jesus is Lord” at baptism. Their first loyalty was to Christ, often paid for by persecution and martyrdom. The hymn ends with the triumphal statement; eventually, all people would confess, “Jesus is Lord!”
Today’s passage ends with Paul’s directive to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” He was not suggesting the Philippians could save themselves, but rather assuring them they had the strength and experience to live Christ-like lives without relying on Paul. Whether Paul lived or died, visited them, or was martyred, they could carry on. God was with them, working God’s salvation within their hearts.
Project Zion Podcast
Co-hosts Karin Peter and Blake Smith consider how this week's scripture connects to our lives today.
- Paul upholds both the importance of living in Christ and the courage to face persecution because of our commitment to Christ.
- Like the ancient hymn, Community of Christ affirms that Jesus Christ was both fully divine and fully human.
- We are called to put the welfare of others before our own.
- The first baptismal statement was “Jesus is Lord”—a declaration of loyalty, as well as a statement of belief.
- The early church was comforted by the vision of a day when all people would recognize Jesus Christ as Lord.
Questions to Consider
- When have you tried to increase your importance, status, or authority? What was the result in the lives of others? In your life?
- Is taking on the mind of Christ something we achieve on our own, or something God does within us? What prompts you to answer as you do?
- Who or what has captured your primary loyalty? How do your lifestyle, economics, recreation, and service bear this out? What conflicting priorities do you confront?
- What would the world be like if everyone recognized Jesus as Lord? What would we gain? What might be lost?