Philippians 2 – Commentary (Christ’s Example)

People can rob us of our joy. Paul was facing his problems with people at Rome (Phil. 1:15-18) as well as with people in Philippi, and it was the latter who concerned him the most. When Epaphroditus brought a generous gift from the church in Philippi, and good news of the church’s concern for Paul, he also brought the bad news of a possible division in the church family. Apparently there was a double threat to the unity of the church; false teachers coming in from without (Phil. 3:1-3) and disagreeing members within (Phil. 4:1-3). What Euodia (“fragrance”) and Syntyche (“fortunate”) were debating about, Paul does not state.

Paul knew what some church workers today do not know, that there is a difference between unity and uniformity. True spiritual unity comes from within; it is a matter of the heart. Uniformity is the result of pressure from without. This is why Paul opens this section appealing to the highest possible spiritual motives (Phil. 2:1-4). Since the believers at Philippi are “in Christ,” this ought to encourage them to work toward unity and love, not division and rivalry. In a gracious way, Paul is saying to the church, “Your disagreements reveal that there is a spiritual problem in your fellowship. It isn’t going to be solved by rules or threats; it’s going to be solved when your hearts are right with Christ and with each other.” Paul wanted them to see that the basic cause was selfishness, and the cause of selfishness is pride. There can be no joy in the life of the Christian who puts himself above others.

The secret of joy in spite of circumstances is the single mind. The secret of joy in spite of people is the submissive mind. The key verse is: “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better [more important] than themselves” (Phil. 2:3). In Philippians 1, it is “Christ first” and in Philippians 2 it is “others next” Paul the soul winner in Philippians 1 becomes Paul the servant in Philippians 2.

It is important that we understand what the Bible means by “humility.” The humble person is not one who thinks meanly of himself; he simply does not think of himself at all! (I think Andrew Murray said that.) Humility is that grace that, when you know you have it, you have lost it. The truly humble person knows himself and accepts himself (Rom. 12:3). He yields himself to Christ to be a servant, to use what he is and has for the glory of God and the good of others. “Others” is the key idea in this chapter (Phil. 2:3-4); the believer’s eyes are turned away from himself and focused on the needs of others.

The “submissive mind” does not mean that the believer is at the beck and call of everybody else or that he is a “religious doormat” for everybody to use! Some people try to purchase friends and maintain church unity by “giving in” to everybody else’s whims and wishes. This is not what Paul is suggesting at all. The Scripture puts it perfectly: “ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5). If we have the single mind of Philippians 1, then we will have no problem with the submissive mind of Philippians 2.

Paul gives us four examples of the submissive mind: Jesus Christ (Phil. 2:1-11), Paul himself (Phil. 2:12-18), Timothy (Phil. 2:19-24), and Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25-30). Of course, the great Example is Jesus, and Paul begins with Him.

Jesus Christ illustrates the four characteristics of the person with the submissive mind.

He Thinks of Others, Not Himself (Phil. 2:5-6)

The “mind” of Christ means the “attitude” Christ exhibited. “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5, NIV). After all, outlook determines outcome. If the outlook is selfish, the actions will be divisive and destructive. James says the same thing (see James 4:1-10).

These verses in Philippians take us to eternity past. “Form of God” has nothing to do with shape or size. God is Spirit (John 4:24), and as such is not to be thought of in human terms. When the Bible refers to “the eyes of the Lord” or “the hand of the Lord,” it is not claiming that God has a human shape. Rather, it is using human terms to describe divine attributes (the characteristics of God) and activities. The word “form” means “the outward expression of the inward nature.” This means that in eternity past, Jesus Christ was God. In fact, Paul states that He was “equal with God.” Other verses such as John 1:1-4; Colossians 1:15; and Hebrews 1:1-3 also state that Jesus Christ is God.

Certainly as God, Jesus Christ did not need anything! He had all the glory and praise of heaven. With the Father and the Spirit, He reigned over the universe. But Philippians 2:6 states an amazing fact: He did not consider His equality with God as “something selfishly to be held on to.” Jesus did not think of Himself; He thought of others. His outlook (or attitude) was that of unselfish concern for others. This is “the mind of Christ,” an attitude that says, “I cannot keep my privileges for myself, I must use them for others; and to do this, I will gladly lay them aside and pay whatever price is necessary.”

A reporter was interviewing a successful job counselor who had placed hundreds of workers in their vocations quite happily. When asked the secret of his success, the man replied: “If you want to find out what a worker is really like, don’t give him responsibilities—give him privileges. Most people can handle responsibilities if you pay them enough, but it takes a real leader to handle privileges. A leader will use his privileges to help others and build the organization; a lesser man will use privileges to promote himself.” Jesus used His heavenly privileges for the sake of others—for our sake.

It would be worthwhile to contrast Christ’s attitude with that of Lucifer (Isa. 14:12-15) and Adam (Gen. 3:1-7). Many Bible students believe that the fall of Lucifer is a description of the fall of Satan. He once was the highest of the angelic beings, close to the throne of God (Ezek. 28:11-19), but he desired to be on the throne of God! Lucifer said, “I will!” but Jesus said, “Thy will.” Lucifer was not satisfied to be a creature; he wanted to be the Creator! Jesus was the Creator, yet He willingly became man. Christ’s humility is a rebuke to Satan’s pride.

Lucifer was not satisfied to be a rebel himself; he invaded Eden and tempted man to be a rebel. Adam had all that he needed; he was actually the “king” of God’s creation (“let them have dominion,” Gen. 1:26). But Satan said, “Ye shall be as God!” Man deliberately grasped after something that was beyond his reach, and as a result plunged the whole human race into sin and death. Adam and Eve thought only of themselves; Jesus Christ thought of others.

We expect unsaved people to be selfish and grasping, but we do not expect this of Christians, who have experienced the love of Christ and the fellowship of the Spirit (Phil. 2:1-2). More than twenty times in the New Testament, God instructs us how to live with “one another.” We are to prefer one another (Rom. 12:10), edify one another (1 Thes. 5:11), and bear each other’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). We should not judge one another (Rom. 14:13) but rather admonish one another (Rom. 15:14). Others is the key word in the vocabulary of the Christian who exercises the submissive mind.

He Serves (Phil. 2:7)

Thinking of “others” in an abstract sense only is insufficient; we must get down to the nitty-gritty of true service. A famous philosopher wrote glowing words about educating children but abandoned his own. It was easy for him to love children in the abstract, but when it came down to practice, that was something else. Jesus thought of others and became a servant! Paul traces the steps in the humiliation of Christ: (1) He emptied Himself, laying aside the independent use of His own attributes as God; (2) He permanently became a human, in a sinless physical body; (3) He used that body to be a servant; (4) He took that body to the cross and willingly died.

What grace! From heaven to earth, from glory to shame, from Master to servant, from life to death, “even the death of the cross!” In the Old Testament Age, Christ had visited earth on occasion for some special ministry (Gen. 18 is a case in point), but these visits were temporary. When Christ was born at Bethlehem, He entered into a permanent union with humanity from which there could be no escape. He willingly humbled Himself that He might lift us up! Note that Paul uses the word “form” again in Philippians 2:7, “the outward expression of the inward nature.” Jesus did not pretend to be a servant; He was not an actor playing a role. He actually was a servant! This was the true expression of His innermost nature. He was the God-Man, Deity and humanity united in one, and He came as a servant.

Have you noticed as you read the four Gospels that it is Jesus who serves others, not others who serve Jesus? He is at the beck and call of all kinds of people—fishermen, harlots, tax collectors, the sick, the sorrowing. “Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). In the Upper Room, when His disciples apparently refused to minister, Jesus arose, laid aside His outer garments, put on the long linen towel, and washed their feet! (John 13) He took the place of a menial slave! This was the submissive mind in action—and no wonder Jesus experienced such joy!

During the American Civil War, Gen. George B. McClellan was put in charge of the great Army of the Potomac, mainly because public opinion was on his side. He fancied himself to be a great military leader and enjoyed hearing the people call him “a young Napoleon.” However, his performance was less than sensational. President Lincoln commissioned him General-in-Chief, hoping this would get some action; but still he procrastinated. One evening, Lincoln and two of his staff members went to visit McClellan, only to learn that he was at a wedding. The three men sat down to wait, and an hour later the general arrived home. Without paying any attention to the President, McClellan went upstairs and did not return. Half an hour later, Lincoln sent the servant to tell McClellan that the men were waiting. The servant came back to report McClellan had gone to bed!

His associates angry, Lincoln merely got up and led the way home. “This is no time to be making points of etiquette and personal dignity,” the President explained. “I would hold McClellan’s horse if he will only bring us success.” This attitude of humility was what helped to make Lincoln a great man and a great President. He was not thinking of himself; he was thinking of serving others. Service is the second mark of the submissive mind.

He Sacrifices (Phil. 2:8)

Many people are willing to serve others if it does not cost them anything. But if there is a price to pay, they suddenly lose interest. Jesus “became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:8). His was not the death of a martyr but the death of a Saviour. He willingly laid down His life for the sins of the world.

Dr. J.H. Jowett has said, “Ministry that costs nothing accomplishes nothing.” If there is to be any blessing, there must be some “bleeding.” At a religious festival in Brazil, a missionary was going from booth to booth, examining the wares. He saw a sign above one booth: “Cheap Crosses.” He thought to himself, “That’s what many Christians are looking for these days—cheap crosses. My Lord’s cross was not cheap. Why should mine be?”

The person with the submissive mind does not avoid sacrifice. He lives for the glory of God and the good of others; and if paying a price will honor Christ and help others, he is willing to do it. This was Paul’s attitude (Phil. 2:17), Timothy’s (Phil. 2:20), and also Epaphroditus’ (Phil. 2:30). Sacrifice and service go together if service is to be true Christian ministry.

In his book Dedication and Leadership, Douglas Hyde explains how the Communists succeed in their program. A member of the Communist Party himself for twenty years, Hyde understands their philosophy. He points out that the Communists never ask a man to do a “mean, little job.” They always ask him boldly to undertake something that will cost him. They make big demands, and they get a ready response. Mr. Hyde calls “the willingness to sacrifice” one of the most important factors in the success of the Communist program. Even the youths in the movement are expected to study, serve, give, and obey, and this is what attracts and holds them.

A church council was planning the annual “Youth Sunday” program, and one of the members suggested that the teenagers serve as ushers, lead in prayer, bring special music. One of the teens stood up and said, “Quite frankly, we’re tired of being asked to do little things. We’d like to do something difficult this year, and maybe keep it going all year long. The kids have talked and prayed about this, and we’d like to work with our trustees in remodeling that basement room so it can be used for a classroom. And we’d like to start visiting our elderly members each week and taking them cassettes of the services. And, if it’s OK, we’d like to have a weekly witness on Sunday afternoons in the park. We hope this is OK with you.”

He sat down, and the new youth pastor smiled to himself. He had privately challenged the teens to do something that would cost them—and they enthusiastically responded to the challenge. He knew that sacrifice is necessary if there is going to be true growth and ministry.

The test of the submissive mind is not just how much we are willing to take in terms of suffering, but how much we are willing to give in terms of sacrifice. One pastor complained that his men were changing the words of the hymn from “Take my life and let it be” to “Take my wife and let me be!” They were willing for others to make the sacrifices, but they were unwilling to sacrifice for others.

It is one of the paradoxes of the Christian life that the more we give, the more we receive; the more we sacrifice, the more God blesses. This is why the submissive mind leads to joy; it makes us more like Christ. This means sharing His joy as we also share in His sufferings. Of course, when love is the motive (Phil. 2:1), sacrifice is never measured or mentioned. The person who constantly talks about his sacrifices does not have the submissive mind.

Is it costing you anything to be a Christian?

He Glorifies God (Phil. 2:9-11)

This, of course, is the great goal of all that we do—to glorify God. Paul warns us against “vainglory” in Philippians 2:3. The kind of rivalry that pits Christian against Christian and ministry against ministry is not spiritual, nor is it satisfying. It is vain, empty. Jesus humbled Himself for others, and God highly exalted Him; and the result of this exaltation is glory to God.

Our Lord’s exaltation began with His resurrection. When men buried the body of Jesus, that was the last thing any human hands did to Him. From that point on, it was God who worked. Men had done their worst to the Saviour, but God exalted Him and honored Him. Men gave Him names of ridicule and slander, but the Father gave Him a glorious name! Just as in His humiliation He was given the name “Jesus” (Matt. 1:21), so in His exaltation He was given the name “Lord” (Phil. 2:11; see Acts 2:32-36). He arose from the dead and then returned in victory to heaven, ascending to the Father’s throne.

His exaltation included sovereign authority over all creatures in heaven, on earth, and under the earth. All will bow to Him (see Isa. 45:23). It is likely that “under the earth” refers to the lost, since God’s family is either in heaven or on earth (Eph. 3:14-15). One day all will bow before Him and confess that He is Lord. Of course, it is possible for people to bow and confess today, and receive His gift of salvation (Rom. 10:9-10). To bow before Him now means salvation; to bow before Him at the judgment means condemnation.

The whole purpose of Christ’s humiliation and exaltation is the glory of God (Phil. 2:11). As Jesus faced the cross, the glory of the Father was uppermost in His mind, “Father, the hour is come; glorify Thy Son, that Thy Son also may glorify Thee” (John 17:1). In fact, He has given this glory to us (John 17:22), and one day we shall share it with Him in heaven (John 17:24; see Rom. 8:28-30). The work of salvation is much greater and grander than simply the salvation of a lost soul, as wonderful as that is. Our salvation has as its ultimate purpose the glory of God (Eph. 1:6, 12, 14).

The person with the submissive mind, as he lives for others, must expect sacrifice and service; but in the end, it is going to lead to glory. “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time” (1 Peter 5:6). Joseph suffered and served for thirteen years; but then God exalted him and made him the second ruler of Egypt. David was anointed king when he was but a youth. He experienced years of hardship and suffering, but at the right time, God exalted him as king of Israel.

The joy of the submissive mind comes not only from helping others, and sharing in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings (Phil. 3:10), but primarily from the knowledge that we are glorifying God. We are letting our light shine through our good works, and this glorifies the Father in heaven (Matt. 5:16). We may not see the glory today, but we shall see it when Jesus comes and rewards His faithful servants.


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Source: Adapted from the Bible Exposition Commentary (BE Series) – New Testament, Volume 2.

About dkoop

Lead Pastor of Upwards Church: Leander & Jarrell, TX
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