By Christopher VanDusen

The Christian is called to others-centeredness and self-sacrifice. This is, of course, at odds with the natural tendency of people to be self-centered and self-seeking. Therefore, the Christian must wage war on his tendencies toward this sin. There are many motivations and reasons that Scripture provides for counting others as more important than oneself, but one of the greatest is that this is precisely what the Lord Jesus did when He became a man and lived His perfect life that was completed by His death. In Philippians 2:5-11, the apostle Paul describes what God the Son gave up, what He took upon Himself, and what He gained by doing so.

Up to the point of Philippians 2:5, Paul has expressed his joyful thankfulness for the Philippian church’s partnership with him in his missionary work that has led him to be imprisoned in Rome, awaiting a hearing with the Emperor; he has explained how this imprisonment has led to the spread of the gospel; he has assured the Philippians that he knows, based on God’s will, that he’ll be released and see them again; he has reminded them to live in light of the gospel in the face of persecution; and he has called them to unity and self-sacrifice for one another’s good. At the end of this call to unity and self-sacrifice, Paul presents the most compelling example of the attitude that the Philippians ought to have toward selflessly helping one another:

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

In this passage, Paul describes six things that Jesus did, or will do, as a result of thinking selflessly for others’ good:

  1. He Exemplified Self-Sacrifice (v. 5)
  2. He Impoverished Himself of the God-Shape (vss. 6-7a)
  3. He Incarnated Himself as a Slave (v. 7b)
  4. He Offered Himself as a Sacrifice (v. 8)
  5. He Earned Exaltation to Supremacy (v. 9)
  6. He’ll Impel All to Submit to Him (vss. 10-11)

Jesus Exemplified Self-Sacrifice

Paul begins his description of Christ’s self-sacrifice by commanding the Philippians to imitate Christ’s thinking:

“Have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus . . .”

The word “mind” is just another way of saying “way of thinking” or “attitude”. Paul is calling the Philippians to think in the same way that Jesus did when He did what Paul describes.

But why does he say that this mind “is [theirs] in Christ Jesus”? Because this is the type of thinking that they’re now able to have as believers in Christ. And what Paul calls Jesus is significant here. He calls Him “Christ Jesus”. The word Christ is from the Greek word, christos, which means Anointed One. This refers to the Old Testament practice of pouring oil on an Israelite whom God had chosen to be a prophet, priest, or king. As Christ, Jesus is God’s final Prophet, High Priest, and King. However, in this passage, Paul emphasizes Christ’s priestly work, and kingship. As God’s High Priest, He sacrificed Himself to God to satisfy God’s wrath and justice against sin by becoming a man, and then suffering on the cross. As King, He has all authority, and will eventually make everyone bow before Him and acknowledge that He’s the Lord of the universe.

So, the attitude that Paul wants the Philippians to have is the attitude of Christ as a self-sacrificing slave of God, which was the role He had to take as the High Priest of His people.

God the Son Impoverished Himself of the God-Shape

In verse 6 to the beginning of 7, Paul describes Jesus’s exemplary attitude, and what He did because of it:

“. . . who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself . . .”

Here, Paul first describes God the Son’s “form” before He became a man — “he was in the form of God”. The Greek word translated “form” refers to an outward manifestation of an inward reality. Before God the Son became a man, He existed in the “form” of God. That is, the only nature He manifested was divinity. In relation to the Father, He was involved in everything that the Father did, but only as God, and not as a man. However, that changed because of His attitude.

What was this attitude? It was His “not count[ing] equality with God a thing to be grasped”. Here, the word “God” refers to God the Father. God the Son didn’t consider equality with God the Father — which means equality in nature and essence — “a thing to be grasped”. The Greek word for “grasped” (or “laid hold of”) was used to speak of taking advantage of something for one’s own benefit. God the Son didn’t consider it right to use His equality with the Father merely for His own benefit.

Because God the Son didn’t consider this equality as something to be only used for Himself, He “emptied himself”. The Greek word translated “emptied” is ekenosen, which does literally mean “emptied”. However, Paul isn’t saying that God the Son emptied Himself of “equality with God”. This is impossible, since one of God’s attributes is that He’s unchanging. If God the Son ceased to be equal to God, then He would no longer be God. Rather, He temporarily emptied Himself of His now former outward manifestation of divinity, by permanently adding humanity to Himself.

God the Son Incarnated Himself as a Slave

In the rest of verse 7, Paul describes how God the Son impoverished Himself of His God-shape, or full divine glory:

“. . . by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”

Whereas Jesus had always “existed in the form of God”, He “emptied” Himself by now taking “the form of a servant”. Again, the Greek word for “form” refers to an outward manifestation of an inward reality. But what form did God the Son take? The form of a “servant”. The Greek word translated “servant” is doulos, which should always be translated “slave”, since it referred to people who were owned by another. So, God the Son emptied Himself by taking the form of a slave, who was owned by God, and served others as if He was their slave.

But what did He have to do to become a slave? He had to be “born in the likeness of men”. The Greek here actually says that He was made “in the likeness of men”. In other words, He actually became a man in every way — by adding to Himself a human soul and body.

By becoming a slave and a human being, God the Son emptied Himself of His former divine glory, and added to Himself the lowliness and humility of slavery and humanity.

Jesus Offered Himself as a Sacrifice

After describing Christ’s emptying of Himself by becoming a slave, Paul explains the height of Christ’s self-sacrifice in verse 8:

“And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

First, Paul emphasizes that people knew that Jesus was a man by saying that He was “found in human form”. Jesus did every common physical thing that we do, except He didn’t sin.

Second, Paul sets forth the depth of Christ’s humility by saying that He humbled Himself by “becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross”. What does it mean to humble yourself? It means to lower yourself in rank or esteem. In Christ’s case, He lowered Himself in His rank by “becoming obedient”. To whom? To God the Father. And how far did He go in His obedience? “To the point of death, even death on a cross”. The Father commanded Him to die on a cross, and He obeyed because He humbled Himself.

But why does Paul specifically point out that Christ died “on a cross”? Because death on a cross, or crucifixion, was the most humiliating, shameful, and agonizing death in that day. Christ was first beaten so much that His muscles were exposed and torn, then He was stripped naked, had His wrists nailed to the cross, and was hung there to bleed out and suffocate to death for three hours, in full view of crowds of people. It also showed people, in most cases, that the person hanging on the cross was the worst of criminals. The Romans only crucified such people as murderers and robbers, since it was so horrible a punishment. Despite the horror, shame, and torment of suffering on the cross, Jesus obeyed His Father in voluntarily being crucified because He humbled Himself as an obedient slave.

Jesus Earned Exaltation to Supremacy

What was the result of God the Son’s selflessness, emptying, incarnation, humility, and obedience to the Father? Paul tells us in verse 9:

“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name . . .”

Why did God “highly exalt” Christ? Again, because He emptied Himself, became a slave, and humbly obeyed God in order to suffer and die on the cross. God rewarded Him for doing this by “highly exalting” Him. The word “exalt” literally means “to lift up”, but Paul isn’t merely referring to Christ’s travel into heaven. Rather, he’s talking about God giving Christ the “highest” rank in the universe — the King and Lord of it.

This rank is the “name” that God “bestowed” on Christ. What does Paul mean by “name”? He means a label that God gave to Christ by “highly exalting” Him to the highest position, which describes this best. And what is that name? It’s “the name that is above every name”. This can only be a name that God Himself possesses, since there’s no name above His. However, since Paul is speaking of a name that God gave to the man Christ Jesus, it must be something different than merely the fact that Jesus is God. Instead, it’s the name that describes Christ’s kingship over the universe.

Paul gives us this name in verse 11, where he says that “every tongue [will] confess that Jesus Christ is Lord”. The name that God bestowed on Jesus is “Lord”, which was used in the Old Testament to refer to God, and was used by the pagan Romans to refer to the highest authority they recognized — the Emperor. However, Jesus was made the Lord of the universe because He selflessly sacrificed Himself in humble obedience to the Father.

Jesus Will Impel All to Submit to Him

In verses 10 to 11, Paul finishes this passage by describing the ultimate results of Christ’s exaltation to the position of Lord of the universe, and God’s reward to Him of the highest name:

“. . . so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

First, Paul says that all this will happen “at the name of Jesus”. What does Paul mean by this? He means that when Jesus’s name that God has given Him is fully shown to people, then they’ll respond accordingly. This will happen when Christ comes back to earth as the Judge of everyone.

And how will people respond? First, every single one of them will “bow”. The Greek word behind “should” in “should bow” actually means “will”. In other words, this is certainly going to happen. Every single person will submit to Jesus as God and Lord, whether out of love for Him, or out of dread of Him. And notice that Paul doesn’t leave anyone out. He says that every person “in heaven and on earth and under the earth” will bow. Whether they’re currently dead or alive, all will bow to Jesus someday.

Second, Paul says that people will respond to Jesus’s new name by acknowledging that this Jesus the Christ “is Lord” with their “tongues”. Every single person will eventually acknowledge that Jesus Christ is both God, and the rightful Lord of the universe, and of everyone in it.

Finally, Paul says that all people will submit to, and acknowledge Jesus as Lord “to the glory of God the Father”. In other words, because God the Father was the One who highly exalted Jesus, and gave Him the highest name and position of Lord of the universe, He will be recognized and praised for doing this. Christ’s exaltation results in the Father’s glorification.

The Model of Selflessness, Humility, and Self-Sacrifice

The reason that Paul described Christ’s incarnation, life, death, and exaltation was to show the Philippians the greatest example of selflessness, humility, and self-sacrifice. In other words, this description is the model that all Christians need to imitate. So, if you claim to be a Christian, then how does this passage apply to you?

First, do you think like God the Son did by not viewing your great privileges and blessings as things to be only used for yourself, but to benefit others?

Are you willing to empty yourself of positions, privileges, blessings, and rights, in order to serve others for their good, like God the Son did?

Are you living as a slave of Christ, and a slave of your brothers and sisters in Christ as though you belong to them, as Christ did?

Have you humbled yourself by becoming obedient to God to whatever point He commands you to go, even if it’s the worst kind of death, like Christ did? If you haven’t done this, then the New Testament is clear that you aren’t a child of God, but a rebellious enemy of God. Those who have become children of God are those who have humbled themselves like children, and trusted in Christ as their King and Savior from God’s wrath and sin. The good news is, if you haven’t yet humbled yourself to obey Christ, you can do so right now. Why? Because God sent His divine Son to earth to become a man, to suffer and die to take God’s punishment that we deserve for our rebellion, to raise Him from the dead, and to make Him the King of the universe in heaven. He now commands everyone to change their minds and trust in Christ alone as King and Savior to receive God’s complete forgiveness and peace with Him, since He’s going to judge everyone perfectly through Jesus, and punish all His enemies forever in a lake of fire. Please make sure you’ve humbled yourself by changing your mind about Christ and trusting in Him alone to be your King and Savior.

But what about Christ’s exaltation? How does that apply to us? Well, since Paul was presenting a model to the Philippians of how to live, he was reminding them that, one day, they too would be exalted with Christ as joint-rulers of the universe. Jesus Himself said that those who humble themselves will be exalted, and those who overcome the world through faith in Him will be given authority to rule with Him over the new earth (see Revelation 1-3). Not only that, but Jesus says in Revelation that His followers’ enemies will bow at their feet, and acknowledge that He has loved them. If we remember that what awaits us in the next life is partnership with Christ in His rule over the earth, and in His judgment of His enemies, then we can joyfully serve people like their slaves in this life, knowing that we’ll be rewarded with kingly authority in the next one.

Therefore, imitate the Lord’s selflessness, self-sacrifice, and humility in serving your brothers and sisters in Christ.

All Scripture quotations taken from the:

English Standard Version (ESV)

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Text Edition: 2016. Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.