Philippians 2:1-11


Philippians 2:6-11 and 1 Peter 3:19-20 in the New Testament have likely received more multiple explanations than any other passages in Scripture. Because of Lutheranism's understanding of the personal union of the two natures in Christ, these two passages are no great mystery to Lutherans.

The pastor will likely not have time to read Chemnitz' The Two Natures in Christ in preparation for this sermon but he might have time to read Art. VIII of the Formula of Concord ,  "Person of Christ".

This passage is a sedes doctrinae on the humiliation and exaltation of Christ. Except for Lenski's strange exegesis in verse 1 (he considers them adjurations, elliptical sentences), his commentary on this passage is recommended. Lutherans are distinctive in their understanding of the communication of attributes of Christ's natures.

The 25th edition of Nestle's Greek text presents verses 6-11 as prose. The 26th edition presents this section as poetry.

Franzmann: These words of Paul concerning Christ are poetry, both in form and content; perhaps he is quoting an early hymn which both he and the Philippians knew and sang.

That may be true. But if it is poetry the exegete must take great care not to follow some of the wild exegesis which has resulted from this hypothesis. Note that Franzmann uses the word "perhaps" in his assessment of this matter.

Philippians 2:1 If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion,

An untranslated Greek word "therefore" either points back to verse 27 or it introduces a section on how the people are to deal with their brethren as opposed to how they are dealing with their opponents. On the latter cf. 1:28-30.

According to the Greek text verses 1-4 comprise one sentence. Verse 1 has four protasis (if clauses) and verses 2-4 are an imperitival apodosis. For the correct understanding of verse 1, add the words "as is the case" to each protasis. For example:  "If, as is the case, there is any consolation in Christ etc." 

Paul is affirming four truths in verse 1. By so doing, he makes the exhortations in verses 2-4 possible. We recommend the translation of NIV:  "If there is any encouragement from being united with Christ, etc." The versions are unanimous in capitalizing Spirit. NIV renders the two nouns in protasis #4 "tenderness and compassion."  LB and TEV render the protasis as questions. Verse 1 gives the proper motivation to good works. The word "love" was almost non existent in profane Greek.

Philippians 2:2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.

The intended sense of the initial words is: "Make me very happy."  And now follow four clauses and phrases which explain how this is to be done. Note that the four have identity or unity in common. Unity and love, if of the right kind, bind Christians together. Note how Paul stresses the positive in this verse.

Philippians 2:3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.

Now comes the negative. But it is again followed by the positive. The first part of this sentence is elliptical. The prepositional phrases denote manner: "Do nothing from party-spirit nor from vain conceit."  Party-spirit and vain glory destroy the bond of unity and love. Now comes the positive: "But in humility consider others better than yourselves."   "Humility" and "consider others better" with their particular meanings, are peculiar to revealed religion. These are God's great gifts to us in Christ. And Christ is the example, par excellence, of love and humility. Note the reciprocal and reflexive pronouns in this verse.

Philippians 2:4 Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.

The sentence which was begun in verse 1 ends at the end of this verse. As is the case in this verse, participles can be used in prohibitions. The KJV translated the two "interests" as "things."  All others, except AAT, translate them as "interests."  Oddly enough AAT combines the two:  "Each of you, don't be interested in your own things, rather in the things of others."  Actually, as RSV and NIV render it, what is meant is: "not only--but also."  We are to be concerned about our brother's affairs and interests in the same measure as we are interested in our own.

Philippians 2:5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:

Compare these translations of this verse: "Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus."  KJV; and similarly NKJV, AAT, TEV, LB  "Have this mind among yourselves, which you have in Christ Jesus."  RSV, NEB NIV has a slightly different idea:  "Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus."  Perhaps AAT is to be preferred:  "Think just as Christ Jesus thought." 

Philippians 2:6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,

What follows is truly a remarkable passage. Here Christ is presented as our model, our example in lowliness. But at the same time this passage is very important for the doctrine of the person and two states of Christ. Christ is our example in lowliness. That's ethical. But we cannot imitate His states or saving work.

This text reminds us of the necessity of preaching the person and two states of Christ. This text also reminds us of the necessity of preaching the person and work of Christ for justification and sanctification.

TEV, NIV and JB print this text as poetry. KJV, NKJV, AAT, NASB, LB, RSV and NEB do not. Verses 6-8 are a subordinate clause. Verses 9-11 comprise a separate sentence. Lutherans insist that verses 6-11 in their entirety speak of the incarnate Christ exclusively.

"Nature" in 6 and 7 cannot mean mere form as opposed to essence or Christ would have been neither God nor man.

Lenski: The form native to the essence.

"Nature" is found only here and in Mark 16:12 in New Testament. The verb "being" often denotes that which a person is essentially.  "To be grasped" means "a thing for self-glorification."  Our own translation of this verse is as follows:  "Who, although He was in divine essence, did not consider equality with God a thing for self-glorification."  NIV says it more smoothly:  "Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped." 

Philippians 2:7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

"Nature" here denotes essence and appearance. It does not mean that He was not truly a human being. It does indicate that He was not a sinner. We translate literally: "But He emptied Himself by taking the visible essence of a slave, by becoming in human likeness."  We quote AAT's translation:  "but He emptied Himself, made Himself a slave, became like other human beings."  False kenoticism says that Christ emptied Himself of some of the attributes of God. True kenoticism says that Christ merely laid aside their full use but always had all of them.

We continue here in verse 7 with the punctuation found in the Nestle Greek text. For the difference compare AAT and NIV. The latter follows the Greek text in this respect. The last line of verse 7 stresses the fact that everyone could plainly see that Jesus was truly a human being. The second last line denotes what He became but implies that He was not a sinner Himself. We delay our translation because the first line in verse 8, according to Nestle, cannot be separated from this line.

Philippians 2:8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross!

We translate:  "And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to death, even death on the cross."  In the person of Christ, God truly died. Only the human nature of Christ could be humbled and, likewise, only the human nature could be exalted. But note that Christ humbled Himself whereas God exalted Him. That is very important for the ethical principle which Paul is teaching.

Philippians 2:9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,

"Therefore" means "for this reason."  Because Christ humbled Himself so deeply. No name either in time or eternity is greater than that of Jesus Christ.

Philippians 2:10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

TEV paraphrases:  "in honor of the name of Jesus."  Moule suggests:  "when the name of Jesus is spoken" but that can hardly be. The intent of the phrase is:  "because of what Jesus' name stands for."  Where KJV translated  "of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth"  the NKJV improved by translating  "of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth."  JB gets at the thought:  "all beings in the heavens, on earth and in the underworld."  The word "under the earth" refers to the devils and the dammed in hell. The point is the universality of all rational creatures.

Philippians 2:11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

This will happen especially at the time of the "the glory."  This verse emphasizes what was said in verse 10. It is a comfort for us to know that every rational creature, be that in heaven, on earth or of the underworld, cannot but make this confession. Therefore we have nothing to fear. God the Father is praised and glorified by the fact that this Jesus, Who humbled Himself so deeply.

That says two things to us:

  1. God is glorified by the person and work of our Lord Jesus. Therefore Jesus ought have our utmost confidence.

  2. With Jesus as our example we ought humble ourselves as Paul here tells us to do.

And if we so do, although what we do is so foolish in the eyes of the world, the Lord will not forget us.  "He that humbles himself shall be exalted."  The glorification of heaven awaits us at the conclusion of the journey.


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series A Epistle Texts, Sundays After Pentecost, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1984, pp. 72-74. Used with permission.

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