Philippians 2:5-11

Jesus on cross, Roman soldier on one side, Mary and John on the other.
 "Jesus on cross, Roman soldier on one side, Mary and John on the other." 
Reprinted from Icon: Visual Images for Every Sunday, copywrite© 2000 Augsburg Fortress. Used by permission.


Our text should not be preached or studied without reading what precedes and what follows. Verse 1 gives the proper motivation to good works. The four "if" clauses must definitely be answered in the affirmative. That being so, verses 2-4, a series of divine injunctions, must be taken seriously. They are good examples of what we call the third use of the Law. The forgiven sinner is obligated to do the will of God. He is free from sin, death and the devil, but then is obligated to do God's will. The Gospel gives him all the strength to do this.

Unity, love and lowliness bind Christians together. Party spirit and vain glory destroy the bond. Note that the entire passage, verses 1-13, is a remarkable combination of the doctrinal and the ethical.

Hendriksen summarizes verses 1-4 thus: "oneness, lowliness, helpfulness." Christ is our example in lowliness. That's ethical. But we cannot imitate His states of humiliation and exaltation nor His saving work.

The Greek word used here for  "love" agape was almost nonexistent in common Greek. Also "humility," as used here, was rarely used. These words and their meanings are peculiar to revealed religion. Love and humility are God's great gifts to us in Christ. And Christ is the example, par excellence, of love and humility.

We make just one remark about verses 12-13 which follow our text: The fear and trembling mentioned in verse 12 is not fear and trembling toward God, but fear of sinning. Verse 13 gives the great motivation which should not be thought of apart from the preached, heard or read Word of God.

Since about 1900 scholars have been calling these verses an early Christian hymn. Commentaries written before that date know nothing of such a theory. Those who consider these verses an early Christian hymn espouse one of three theories;

  1.  Paul composed it as a hymn;

  2.  Paul quotes an existing Christian hymn;

  3.  A non-Pauline hymn was interpolated later.

In his Master of Divinity Thesis, entitled An Examination of the Modern Views of Philippians 2:5-11 (February 1981) the Rev. Dale A. Hauser begins by writing:

The aim of this paper is to prove beyond doubt that Philippians 2:5-11 is not poetry as the Form Critics have claimed. In so doing it provides an apology for the proper (traditional) Lutheran exegesis of the passage. This is followed by a review of various commentaries noting their strengths and their weaknesses in regard to this pericope. By gathering the various opinions of critics regarding possible formation of the passage as poetry and then examining them by means of a quantitative metrical analysis, the fact of their prosaic nature becomes evident. Also in response to the critics, there is an examination of the Pauline authorship which clearly establishes Paul as the author entirely. The conclusion of the paper shows that this portion of Holy Writ is not poetic, is Pauline, and is extremely valuable for the understanding of Christology.

Well said. Just one other matter: if verses 5-11 are truly poetry, whether of Pauline or foreign origin, how can it be that this escaped the notice of scholars for nearly 1900 years, especially of those in the early centuries who understood Greek poetry far, far better than anyone today possibly can?

Since the days of the early Fathers these verses have been the basis of much discussion, so far as the meaning is concerned. Let us hear what the Formula of Concord has to say:

According to the personal union Jesus always possessed this majesty. But in the state of his humiliation he dispensed with it and could therefore truly increase in age, wisdom, and favor with God and men, for he did not always disclose this majesty, but only when it pleased him. Finally, after his resurrection he laid aside completely the form of a slave, Philippians 2:7, (not his human nature) and was established in the full use, revelation, and manifestation of his divine majesty. Thus he entered into his glory in such a way that now not only as God, but also as man, he knows all things, can do all things, is present to all creatures, and has all things in heaven and on earth and under the earth beneath his feet and in his hands.(Tappert p. 489)
Jesus had this majesty immediately at his conception even in his mother's womb, but, as the apostle testifies, Philippians 2:7, he laid it aside, and as Dr. Luther explains it, he kept it hidden during the state of his humiliation and did not use it at all times, but only when he wanted to. (Tappert p. 596)

The Lutheran Church, in its Confessions, is distinctive in Christendom in its teaching and understanding of Christology, the two natures of Christ, and the states of humiliation and exaltation. For further information on this passage read Pieper, Christian Dogmatics , II, pp. 286-292.

Though the Philippian congregation was near and dear to the heart of the Apostle Paul, it is clear from 4:2-3 that there were divisions in this congregation or at least two apparent factions. It is a rare congregation indeed that does not have its factions. It is clear from 2:2-4 that there was lack of unity in thought, lack of love, strife, seeking after vain glory, lack of mutual humility and lack of concern for mutual welfare. It should be obvious that verses 5-11 were penned to cause the people to compare themselves with their Savior Who is the greatest example of humility and love in history.

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

Compare these translations:

  1.  Let this mind be in you,  which was also in Christ Jesus. (KJV, AAT, NASB, NIV)

  2.  Have this mind among yourselves,  which you have in Christ Jesus. (RSV, NEB)

In the opinion of the writer the former is preferable. AAT very simply renders it: "Think just as Christ Jesus thought."

Two modern translations of verses 6-8 are recommended:

AAT: Although He was God, He decided not to take advantage of His being equal with God as though it were stolen goods, but He emptied himself, made Himself a slave, became like other human beings, and was seen to have the ways of a man. He became obedient and humbled Himself till He died, yes, died on a cross.
NIV: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death -- even death on a cross.

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

Does "who" speak of the pre-incarnate or incarnate Christ? Lutherans emphatically insist that verses 6-11, in their entirety, speak of the incarnate Christ, in the states of humiliation and exaltation.

From what Jesus did and said it was apparent that He was both God and man. Be careful of those who see  "Adam typology" in this passage. They claim that Paul is here hinting at the fact that Adam fell because he grasped at self-glorification, which is true, of course, but the context is not talking about that. The devil likes nothing better than to divert your attention from the literal sense.

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

This does not mean that Jesus ceased to be God during the state of humiliation. How could God  "cease to be" God? Note how carefully the Formula of Concord explains this verse. Read again the two quotes above.

Look up "Kenosis" in the Lutheran Cyclopedia of 1975. False Kenoticism says that Christ emptied Himself of some of the attributes of God. Look out for that subtle way of treating this word. True Kenoticism says that Christ merely laid aside the full use of the attributes of God but always had and maintained full use of them.

Read 2 Corinthians 8:9; Isaiah 53:3,11; and Romans 8:3. The point of verse 7 is that Jesus truly became a man, a true servant, a man just like us, except that He had no sin.

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

In the person of Christ, God truly died. (The Father and the Holy Spirit, Who did not become incarnate, did not die). One of our favorite God Friday Lutheran chorales is entitled "O Darkest Woe." In the original German, the second stanza reads  "O greatest dread! Our God is dead!" The 1931 edition of the Evangelical Lutheran Hymn-Book , published by the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, translated these first two lines: "O sorrow dread! Our God is dead!" (#215). In The Lutheran Hymnal (#167) translated: "O sorrow dread! God's Son is dead!" which definitely waters down the original German. But Lutheran Worship hardly improved that translation by rendering it: "Deep, deep the pain! God's Son is slain!." Very likely Luther would not be pleased with this translation.

In Volume 37 of the  Luther's Works - American Edition page 210, he says:

Since the divinity and humanity are one person in Christ, the Scriptures ascribe to the divinity, because of this personal union, all that happens to humanity, and vice versa. And in reality it is so. Indeed, you must say that the person (pointing to Christ) suffers, and dies. But this person is truly God, and therefore it is correct to say: The Son of God suffers. Although, so to speak, the one part (namely, the divinity) does not suffer, nevertheless the person, who is God, suffers in the other part (namely, in the humanity).

In Volume 41, page 103, we read this:

Whatever is said of Christ as man must also be said of him as God, namely, Christ has died, and Christ is God; therefore God died -- not the separated God, but God united with humanity.

Limitation of space does not allow our quoting more from the context of these two quotations from Luther. They ought be read in their entirety. Strictly speaking, only the human nature of Christ could be humbled and exalted, but we must not forget, in keeping with what Luther states above, that the God-man humbled Himself and was then exalted. Look at Hebrews 5:8 and 12:2.

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

"Therefore" introduces the logical consequence. Jesus humbled Himself, but God exalted Him. The whole point is Jesus' deep humiliation. "Highly exalted him" is not found in Greek writers before the Christian era. Christ humbled Himself and then God highly exalted Him. The combination of this "humbling" and "exalting" is used six times in the Gospel with reference to mere men, twice in Matthew 23:12; twice in Luke 14:11; and, twice in Luke 18:14. The combination is found again in 2 Corinthians 11:7, but it does not pertain to the point which we are making. The conclusion to the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican in Luke 18:14 is typical of this combination in the Gospel. To humble oneself means to repent as did the publican. To exalt oneself means to be self-righteous as was the Pharisee.

It is a truly remarkable thing that the humble, repentant, believing sinner has no difficulty with Philippians 2:5-11. The fact that God became man and served him is the dearest truth he has ever learned. It is not only the basis of his salvation but Christ is also his model and that is precisely what Paul is speaking about in verses 1-5 and 12-13.

But of no Christian could one ever say what is said of Christ in verses 6-11. Compare Ephesians 1:21 and Hebrews 1:4.

His name is far above any that can be named in this age or the one to come. And why has God raised this Jesus to His right hand? In Acts 5:31 Peter says: "God exalted this Jesus as Leader and Savior in order to give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel." That is what Pentecost is all about. The Son of God humbled Himself and became obedient to redeem man from his sins. The Father highly exalted His Son to send the Holy Spirit to bring the message of forgiveness of sins to man. The verbs  "highly exalted" and "graciously gave" remind us of the total selflessness of Jesus Christ.

Look at verse 6 once more, and read the two modern translations which we quoted at that point. Fallen human nature is totally selfish, always grabbing everything for itself. The eternal Son of God, on the other hand, was not ashamed to take upon Himself our sinful, weak flesh, though He was without sin. It would seem that He would have had every right, after suffering, dying and rising in our stead, to exalt Himself to the right hand of God. But He did not. Now read verse 9 once more.

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

This verse begins with a purpose clause which goes back to the two main verbs in verse 9. These notes suggest the translation "Because of the revelation of Jesus."

Note three classifications of rational creatures:

  1. those in heaven,

  2. those on earth,

  3. and the devils and damned in hell.

Verses 10 and 11 pertain both to this life and the one to come, but especially to the age to come.

Kretzmann: Angels, men, and devils must give to Jesus Christ, the exalted Son of God, free and unequivocal obedience. No name is more highly honored than His. All must bow before Him, all must give Him divine honor. The angels of heaven pray to the name of him that was exalted over everything. And all the inhabitants of the earth feel the greatness of His power and give Him divine honor. The believers do this willingly and gladly, the unbelievers only with a great struggle. But they also, like the devils, whether they want to or not, will some time have to acknowledge and admit that Jesus is Lord.

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

"Every tongue" whether of angel, man or devil.

"Jesus Christ is Lord" is of course a summary of all the promises of God concerning His Son and the salvation of the world. It is a summary statement of His person and work. This will be  "to the glory of God the Father." Even in His exaltation does Jesus not seek glory for Himself.


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series A Epistle Texts, Festival Season Sundays, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1983, pp. 101-104. Used with permission.

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