Study Notes from Philippians by Dr. David Nelson

Philippians 2:5-11: Humility Before Honor

By Dr. David Nelson

In the letter to the Philippians, Paul shared how his sufferings resulted in the advance of the gospel. He wrote to exhort the church to solve their internal problems so that they could bond together as one man for the advance of the gospel. Churches today need to work together for the advance of the gospel even in the midst of suffering and hardships.

5Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. [1]

The culture of the early Roman Empire, like much of the Middle East and Far Eastern cultures, was a shame-honor culture. Instead of being an individualistic, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps culture, shame-honor cultures are group oriented cultures where individuals strive to achieve the norms and aspirations of the group. To do less than this is bring shame upon the group and oneself. One’s purpose in life is to seek honor for oneself, one’s family, and nation.

In this passage, Paul exhorted the church to follow the path that Christ took for honor. In the previous passages, Paul exhorted the church to stand together for the advance of the gospel and not to seek one’s own interests and desires but in selfless humility serve one another. Christ accomplished God’s purposes when He clothed Himself in selfless humility in obedience to God.

Believers should embrace the mind of Christ by clothing themselves with selfless humility as servants in obedience to God. Because Christ humbled Himself in selfless obedience to God, God honored Him with the highest honor. God’s purposes were accomplished because of Christ’s obedience.

This passage is the central doctrinal focus of the letter. Scholars since the 1800s consider chapter 2:6-11 a hymn circulated among the churches that Paul quotes. However, early church writings are silent on this. Nonetheless, these verses form a beautiful hymn of humility and exaltation of Christ.

In 2:5, Paul exhorted the church to embrace the mind of Christ. The words “have this mind” (from Gr. phroneō) is literally “think this way among yourselves.” The idea is that transformation begins in our minds. The way we think impacts the way we live and relate to others. If we think we are better than others, we will treat others as inferior. If we think that we are less than others, we will look down upon ourselves as being inferior. Believers are to think the way that Christ thought. How did He think? What mindset did He embrace? We will see three characteristics of Christ’s mindset.

First, selfless humility does not demand one’s rights and privileges – 2:6-7a. Even though Christ exists (present tense) in the same nature (Gr. morphē) as of God the Father, He did not consider (same word as in 2:3) equality with God’s nature a thing to be held onto. In His preexistence, Christ resided in heaven with the angels in obedience to His every command. He existed in a glorious state, as is stated in John 17:5. In the same way, believers today can emulate the example of Christ. No matter what our status or position, we can either hold on to these things or we can demand our rights and privileges.

Second, believers must choose to serve God and others. Christ did not demand these privileges, but He emptied (Gr. ekenōsen) Himself of His glory and heavenly privileges by taking the form (Gr. morphē) of a slave (Gr. doulos). From absolute glorious King, Jesus released this by becoming a servant. A servant in the Roman world was a person with no freedom or rights. Jesus released these in obedience to God. He took upon Himself the likeness of men by being born into this world through the virgin Mary. This is a reference to His incarnation. Through the Holy Spirit, Mary became pregnant with Jesus and Jesus was born in a manger as a little boy. Jesus was found to be in human form (Gr. schēmati, meaning form or appearance). Jesus appeared as a human being. He had flesh like a human being. He ate like a human being. He lived like a human being. Believers also today can live in the same way as a servant to others.

Third, believers must follow Christ in the path of obedience, even when it goes against our desires and plans (2:8). Vs. 8 states that Christ humbled himself by becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross, the most hideous form of torture. Christ’s obedience stemmed from His humility. He came not to do His own will but the will of His Heavenly Father. We must follow the path of humility as well in relationship to one another.

Paul is following a way of writing like descending a staircase, much like the author in Psalm 73 did. He started at the very top in heaven and has descended to the depths of death on a cross. Now, he ascends back to the top.

Through Christ’s incarnation, humility, and obedience to God the Father, God’s purposes were accomplished. Our sin debt was paid off. God’s holy demands against our sin were fulfilled. Christ fulfilled all the requirements of the OT Law of a sacrifice in behalf of sinners. As we follow Christ’s example of humility and obedience, we too, can accomplish God’s purposes.

God in response to Christ’s obedience, exalted Him to the highest place. God gave Him the highest honor by giving Him the name that is above every name. At the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, every tongue and every knee of every person and every angel, elect or fallen, will confess that Christ Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father (2:9-11).

The church at Philippi is exhorted to follow the same path and God would be glorified as people in Philippi also would honor Christ through their selfless humility and obedience. Believers, too today, in embracing the mind of Christ in selfless humility and obedience will bring glory to God and people will confess Jesus Christ as Lord.

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Php 2:4–11.