Philippians 2:9-11 – Exalted to the Highest Place

Jesus humbled himself by taking on the nature of a human. While humility is often seen as a virtue in modern culture, people did not “humble themselves” in the Greco-Roman world. Someone who was humble was lowly and weak, even servile. That man should humble or belittle himself is rejected. To suffer misfortune and humble oneself “is quite unnecessary, vain and irrational”  (Plutatch De exilio, 1 (II, 599b). In the Hebrew Bible, to “be humbled” is associated with punishment. God humbles the proud (1 Sam 2:7).  The word appears in LXX Isa 53:8, describing the humiliation of the suffering servant.

Not only did Jesus become a slave, he was a slave who was executed by crucifixion, the most shocking horror in the Roman world. Jesus therefore goes from the highest place imaginable, equality with God, to the lowest, death on the cross.

Because he was obedient and suffered innocently, God vindicated Jesus exalting him to the highest place imaginable. The verb Paul uses for “exalted” (ὑπερυψόω) is not the usual one in the New Testament, it only appears here, but it also in Ps 96.9 (the verb is repeated many times in Odes 8:52-88). It is possible Paul has this verse in mind in Phil 2:9-11, the Most High  ὁ ὕψιστος of that verse is God himself, and he is exalted above the earth and far above all other gods. This exaltation refers to the resurrection (cf. 1 Cor 15), but also the ascension in Acts 1 and Rev 4-5.

Because he was obedient and suffered innocently, God gave to Jesus the highest name imaginable. In the Roman world the name of the emperor was venerated as divine on coins and inscriptions. Yet Jesus has been given a name that is above every name, including the Roman emperor! And because he was obedient and suffered innocently, God will put everything under the Lordship of Jesus. Heaven, earth, and under the earth all will acknowledge that Jesus is Lord.

CaesarAll this implies that Caesar is not the true lord of this world.  Paul was not anti-Rome, although his gospel did subvert the social order by advocating Jesus as the Lord.  As I read Paul, I think Hellerman (Embracing Shared Ministry, 168) is right that Paul is not consciously anti-Imperial, he in no way was advocating some sort of rebellion against the Empire. But the Gospel was so radical that it would erode the Empire if that Gospel practiced consistently. Perhaps the sad story of Church history is that by the time Christianity was the majority religion, it had become thoroughly Roman with respect to honor and status.

Jesus is therefore the true Lord of this world and all of creation ought to recognize that lordship. It is quite remarkable that Paul never suggested the Christians openly rebel against Rome. That would have been a futile effort since there were so few Christians. What he did tell the Philippian church is that they ought to have the same attitude as Jesus. This sort of humility was counter to the Greco-Roman world and slowly brought down the Empire.

More important, this sort of humility is counter to Western/American culture, even in the church. If Paul says “Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not,” should we also say, “Jesus is Lord, America is not”?

Philippians 2:7–8 – He Made Himself Nothing

It seems every word in Philippians 2:5-11 is theologically important . That Jesus “emptied himself” is one of the most discussed since it is not immediately clear what it means to become empty when one is “the form of God.”

The meaning of “emptied” is important here. The verb (κενόω) refers to setting the status described in verse 6 in order to be obedient.  While there is a great deal of theological weight placed on this word, it usually focuses on how Jesus (as God) could set aside certain attributes of God while he lived as a human.  I do not want to downplay those discussions, but they do distract from what Paul’s main point is in the cultural context of the Roman world of the first century.

Roman TogaThe phrase is better understood in terms Roman status, especially in the practice of wearing the toga by Roman elite. Jesus set aside his honor and prestige as “form of God” when he became the “form of a servant.” Perhaps the use of the toga in the Roman world illustrates what Paul may have had in mind.  The toga was a sign of elite status in the Roman world. Hellerman makes the point that this would be equivalent to a Roman senator setting aside his toga (his mark of status) and taking on the rags of a slave (also a mark of status). Because of that humble obedience, Jesus is exalted to the highest status imaginable, even above the emperor of Rome! That Jesus is called Lord is counter to a Roman world where Caesar is Lord and worshiped as a god (Embracing Shared Ministry, 167).

So when he “he emptied himself.” Jesus “divested himself of his prestige or privileges” (BDAG). It is as if he voluntarily set aside his toga, the sign he was the highest ranking Lord in the universe.  Rather than divesting himself of divine attributes, the idea Paul has in mind the humility Jesus had in the incarnation, so much so that the God of the universe could set aside that status in order to serve others.

Rather than having the form of God, Jesus took on the form of a servant. The ESV translates this as servant, but it is the same word as “slave,” the lowest possible social class in the Roman world.

Dobby in ragsJesus therefore set aside the toga, and picked up the rags of a slave. By way of analogy, think of the Roman emperor stripping himself of the finest clothing available to a Roman citizen and putting on the stained and flea-infested rags of the lowliest slave. (Think of the the rags of Dobby the House-Elf!) Just as the status of a Roman citizen was evident by what they wore, so too the clothing of a slave signal his status. Even a slave with some social standing would not dress in a toga!

The social status of a servant was always viewed negatively in the Roman world.  In modern western culture, a person at a store might say something like “I am at your service” in order to indicate their willingness to help someone. In the Roman world, this would be a shameful expression; the social status of a servant was not worth considering. Yet Jesus was by nature God and he voluntarily took on the nature of a human.

This idea of a “leader as a servant” or “God as a servant” would be counter-cultural in the first century. A leader would not be humble  nor would they ever consider serving others of a lower social class. The modern church is used to hearing about “servant leadership” and Christians are continually encouraged to serve in their churches and communities. Like the church at Philippi, members of local churches still struggle to serve others with “the mind of Christ.”

Philippians 2:5-6 – Equal with God

It is hard to over-estimate the theological importance of Philippians 2:5-11. This hymn is foundational for Christian understanding of the nature of Jesus and the incarnation.There are more than a few major theological problems in these few verses, such was what it means that Jesus is God, yet he emptied himself.

But Paul’s original intention was not to create a theological statement, he is focused on Jesus as the ideal example of humble service. Paul is drawing out a practical implication for “living a life worthy of the Gospel” (1:27-2:4) from this important theological statement: serve one another with the same attitude of Christ Jesus.

Corporate Ladder

The noun Paul uses to describe Jesus’ outward appearance (μορφή) is used twice in the passage: Jesus goes from “form of God” to “form of servant.”  While the word refers simply to “what something looks like,” it is used to describe the outward appearance of a god. Philo used the word to describe Caligula as “dressed up as a god” (Leg. 110). Most cultures have some sort of system of social stratification that can be discerned from what people wear. Joe Hellerman describes well the Roman emphasis clothing as an external sign of one’s social standing (Embracing Shared Ministry, 142).  For the most part, one could tell social status by the clothes a person wore. A slave, for example, could not parade around in a toga, nor would a wealthy Senator and leading Citizen of Rome dress in rags like a slave.

Jesus was “equal with God.” This parallel phrase uses “equal” (ἴσος). While the word often is used for two things that are equal (for example, Luke 6:34), it appears in several theological important passages.  In John 5:18 Jesus is accused of making himself “equal with God,” something the Jewish religious authorities though worthy of death! Some Greek and Roman rulers claimed to be equal with God. In 2 Macc 9:12, Antiochus claims to be “equal with God” (ἰσόθεος), Appian described the honors Augustus gave to Julius Caesar as “equal with God” (BCiv. 2.148, cited by Hellerman, 143).

But his equality was not “a thing to be grasped.” A “thing to be grasped” (ἁρπαγμός) refers to asserting a title or putting forth a claim for something, or something to be exploited. Think of someone who “makes a claim” for a legal settlement, they think they are entitled to compensation so the “make a claim.” The King James Version had “did not think it robbery,” reflecting the idea of grabbing at something.  Maybe another way to think of this is a benefit that gives you an advantage over other people, maybe handicapped or expectant mother parking at the mall. This is a “status” that allows someone to take an advantage over others.

Paul describes Jesus in this verse as occupying the very highest rank imaginable by anyone in the ancient world, he was in fact God. Yet that position and rank was not something he insisted upon, as the Romans would have done. He set aside that rank in order to humble himself.  The Roman world was based on extreme social stratification. There was a rigid social order in the Roman world, from the extreme minority elites who had virtually all the power to the majority slaves who had absolutely no power.

This humble attitude of mutual submission, even to people of a lower social class, flies in the face of the Roman world, and as Hellerman points out, it flies in the face of power relations within the church (p. 99). Paul’s main point here is to encourage the believer to serve other believers without respect to their rank or position in society. This includes everyone in a local church, including the pastor!

The larger a church grows, the more need there is for power structures reminiscent of American corporate business models. A church could have a “CEO Pastor” who is paid (respected) like CEO in a major business. Perhaps they think of themselves as too busy “casting vision” to drive a van for the youth group, or play games with the elementary kids, or teach a small Bible study, or weed the church lawn on a work day.

The pastor worthy of respect is the one who sets aside his title, respect and power, and serves others, doing tasks that might be “beneath” their position. This understanding of what it means to serve one another in love as the potential to transform local churches, but it is completely counter cultural to the way many American pastors understand their role in the church. Is it wrong for a pastor or church leader to see themselves as “vision casters” or function more like the CEO of a large business?

Philippians 2:1–4 – Unity in the Family

Paul’s appeal in Philippians 2:1 is based on what the church already has. The ESV translates these short phrases as conditions (“if there is any….”) This does not mean Paul is unsure of the state of the church in Philippi. The Greek syntax does not express uncertainty and might be translated as “since there is…”  For example, I might say “If it is morning, if coffee is made, then I am going to drink a cup of coffee.” In this case, the sentence is really, “Since it is morning….” Paul lays out the bass of this appeal in four phrases:

Encouragement in Christ can refer to both comfort and exhortation. The noun (παράκλησις) is something that emboldens you to act (BDAG). The context will make it clear if the word refers to encouraging the timid to act or exhorting someone who needs to be corrected. One side of the word is tenderly comforting a person who is hurting, the other is a swift kick in the pants to motivate a person the right direction!

Wille StargelComfort from love may refer to consoling for a person who is hurting in some way, it is a “friendly word” (TDNT 5:820) . The noun (παραμύθιον) appears in the LXX only in Wisdom 3:18, referring to people who will have no comforter on the day of Judgment. Encouragement and comfort naturally go together. In 1 Thessalonians 2 Paul uses the concepts of mothers and fathers to describe his ministry with that Church, gentle like a mother, encouraging like a father.

Participation or fellowship in the Spirit may refer to the close association all Christians have because the share in the same Holy Spirit. Since all believers have the same Spirit, they ought to have complete unity.

Affection and sympathy are both deep emotional responses one typically has for someone you genuinely love. Affection (σπλάγχνον) originally referred to the inner parts of a person, their bowels or entrails, where emotions are felt most strongly. Sympathy is also a stronger word than in English, οἰκτιρμός is the deep compassion God has for humans (1 Kings 8:50, Zech 7:9, רַחֲמִים). Taken together, the words refer to genuine, “heartfelt sympathy” for one another.

Does this mean there is no room for dissent? American culture almost requires people to have different ideas and opinions, Paul sounds like a cult leader who will squash any dissent!  One criticism Atheists sometimes use is the vast differences between the various denominations of Christianity. Which Christianity is the real one? Compare a traditional Catholic to a radical Protestant and there are very few things that seem the same.  There are good reasons for these differences, but the differences should not obscure the similarities. There are non-negotiable beliefs that make one a Christian (God, Scripture, Jesus, Atonement) and others that are simply differences created by culture and history.

Far from demanding conformity in everything, unity in the church functions like it does in a real family. There are similarities and differences, but what ultimately counts is the family!  The first believers may have been ostracized by their families when they became Christians. If that is true, the church becomes their adopted family. Paul’s description of the church as a family highlights the similarities yet allows for differences. Some have the view that the church is a kind of factory producing identical clones and squashing thought and dissent. This is not at all Paul’s point here!

Since the church is a family, the members of the family ought to be supportive of one another, characterized by the same sort of grace and forgiveness one experiences in an ideal family. This requires humble service from all members of the community, including the leaders. In fact, the best example of humble service is in fact Jesus himself.

How would a local church change if we really envisioned it as a family?

 

Philippians 1:27-28 – “Striving Side By Side”

If the church is living their lives worthy of the Gospel, they will be striving together for the gospel and not frightened by any opposition they face. The verb Paul uses here is cognate of ἀθλέω, “to compete in a contest,” implying strenuous action. The book of 4 Maccabees 17:14ff uses this word group to describe martyrs, and the cognate (ἄθλησις) appears in Hebrews 10:32 to describe the hard struggles of the church at Rome as they were persecuted by civil authorities. By the end of the first century, Clement describe the apostles who had given their lives for the gospel as “contending to the death” (1 Clem 5:2).  Paul uses a form of the word stressing the unified action of a team (συναθλέω) with a prefix which is something like the English prefix co-. They are “co-strivers,” hence the ESV’s “side by side.” The related noun (συναθλητής) refers to a fellow athlete (LSJ).

The church does not have reason to be frightened by their suffering.  The verb Paul chooses to use in this verse (πτύρω) is not the usual word for fear in the New Testament. While it can be translated “terrified,” it is better translated “shy.” In secular Greek it was used of horses that were shy, easily frightened, etc (D.S.2.19). Since it always appears in the passive, and in this case the agent of the passive verb is “opponents,” it is probably best to translate this “do not let yourself be intimidated by your opponents.”

Tiananmen SquareWhy would the Philippians be intimidated? They are a tiny minority with a view of the world that is radical in Greco-Roman. They have no temple, priesthood, or sacrifice. They do not worship the gods in Philippi, nor do they even recognize their existence! They worship in homes, sharing food and fellowship with people of various social classes. Remember the photograph of the man in Tienanmen Square. One man stood in front of the tanks, refusing to move. This one man stood alone against an ultimately powerful force.

The Philippian church is something like that man, a single example of a Christian community in the vast work of Roman Philippi. Paul’s encouragement to Christians at Philippi is to live a life consistent with the Gospel. In the context of Philippians, this means unity of heart and mind as well as willingness to suffer for the sake of the Gospel.

In fact, by living a worthy life, the church will suffer for their faith (v. 29-30). Contrary to public expectations of success, a life worthy of the Gospel will lead to conflict with culture, resulting in suffering. A Roman would compete for honor, but he expected to win! Paul says here that even if the church is doing everything right, they are going to suffer loss.  This is the same conflict Paul is fighting. He is in chains on account of the Gospel of Christ, yet he has already described this “loss” as a “gain.”

“The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life finds that Christians are suffering persecution in more places today than any other religious group; between 2006 and 2012, Pew says, they were targeted for harassment in 151 countries— three-quarters of the world’s states” (Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed, see also Paul Marshall’s original story at The Weekly Standard). While it is hard to look at suffering of innocent people as a gain, from the perspective of Philippians 1, people suffering on account of their faith in Jesus Christ is a victory.

Paul’s encouragement to life a life worthy of the Gospel anticipates his description of Jesus in chapter 2. Just as Jesus humbled himself and took on the form of a servant, so too the church at Philippi must humbly serve others even if that means suffering loss of honor in Roman Philippi.