Look busy Jesus is coming. Unfortunately for many Christians this is their worldview whether they are conscious of it or not. It is an expectation to do something, if not anything to occupy their lives until the day when Jesus returns to Earth. However, the writings of the New Testament and especially the Epistle to the Philippians paints a very different picture of how the Christian is to live and behave while they are in this world. One of the chief places to witness how the teachings of Jesus are synthesized into applicable actions and clear-cut expectations are through the writings of the Apostle Paul which are his field manuals to various up and coming Christian congregations.
The Epistle to the Philippians is one of those letters which is purposed to establish the expectations and responsibilities of the faith. In this letter Paul seeks to address a congregation struggling to learn what it means to be a Christian. What then did Paul expect of the Philippians and subsequent generations of Christians in terms of how they were supposed to live out their beliefs in light of the hope of Christ’s “already but not yet” victory? It is my intention to present how Philippians 2:1-11 demonstrates how the true Christian life is one marked by the same unity, humility and servanthood Jesus demonstrated before he was exalted to the place of authority in Heaven where he awaits the day when all of creation will bow before him in submission.
The Background of the Epistle to the Philippians
The Town of Philippi
To better understand the words spoken of by Paul to the Philippians we first need to examine the social background of that particular church. The town of Philippi was established in 356 B.C. by King Philip II of Macedon the father of Alexander the Great and remained under Hellenistic control until the early days of the Roman Empire. Known as the site of one of Octavian’s (Augustus) victories against Cassius and Brutus in 42 B.C. it was later renamed Colonia Iulia Augusta Philippensis. The Roman influence went far beyond a memorial or a name change as the Emperor rewarded many of his soldiers with plots of land within the city’s territory. Due to the influx of retired Roman soldiers and government officers cultivating the city Philippi was “legally set up and run as if it were a miniature of Rome, following Roman laws and customs.”
Latin became the primary language in the region and the people enjoyed the status of citizens of Rome along with all of its benefits such as tax exemption and Pax Romana and its responsibilities such as adherence to the Imperial Cult. Philippi then was a religiously pluralistic place where Greek, Phrygian, and Egyptian temples existed but “the imperial cult was the most prominent in the city.” Given these Imperial influences it is no wonder then that “none of the Christians we know by name who are associated with Philippi have Jewish names—rather they are all Greek and Latin names.”
This presents Paul’s letter in a light which is steeped in a culture which would have been similar to his upbringing in Tarsus with its Roman overtones. It is no wonder why Paul’s emphasis to the Philippians on unity and service was such an important matter is it would have matched their pre-Christian outlook on life. Although rather than the unity of the empire it would have been the unity of the church. Furthermore, rather than an obligation to offer service to the earthly ruler Caesar they would be now be offering service to the Heavenly ruler Christ.
Paul’s Purpose for Writing Philippians
It is generally held that the Apostle Paul wrote this letter to the Philippians thanks in part to corroboration from early church fathers such as Polycarp in his own letter to the Philippian church. Although there are some such as Ferdinand Christian Baur who “argued that the letter used Gnostic ideas in 2:6–11”  and that the letter was developed out of Paul’s thoughts in the Corinthian letters. While there is a general consensus on the authorship there are doubts about the formation of the letter as some see a single work, others as two combined letters which separates 3:2-4:1 from the remainder of the letter. Finally, some see Philippines as three letters which further separates 4:10-20 from the remainder of the work.
The epistle to the Philippians stands apart from other letters as it is presented as a friendship letter which fulfills the historical elements of such a letter. In this appeal through friendship Paul was trying to remedy the growing amount of disunity found in the congregation. While Paul himself was imprisoned in Rome around A.D. 49 he appealed to this congregation to overcome the matters of selfish ambition, desire for personal prestige and concentration of self and to better reflect the life and truths of Christ in their midst.
Philippians 2 in Context
Philippians 2:1-11 stands out from the rest of the book as it appears that Paul may not have written a portion of it, as “the majority of scholars accept Phil 2:6–11 as a pre-Pauline hymn, based on the structure and language of the passage.” The evidence for this stems in part from “when the verses are read aloud, the stress falls in such a way as to give a rhythmical cadence to the lines.” Additionally the hymn appears to have a more Semitic structure to it compared to most of Paul’s more Hellenistic writings along with “the use of words which are not found again in Paul’s writings.” Philippians appears to possess 42 words which are not found in the remainder of the New Testament and 34 words which are not found elsewhere in Paul’s writings.
Despite these variations between the Christological hymn and the remainder of the book there does remain lexical ties which lead some to reinforce Pauline authorship of the hymn. We can see that Philippians 2 consists of 1:1-4 which is a four-part conditional clause written in a chiastic structure (ABBA)  and is followed by a creedal hymn. These sections combine in order to display the responsibilities and expectations which Paul had placed upon the community to ensure their unity amongst themselves and in reinforcing the necessity of their continual service to Christ the true King.
Understanding Philippians 2
Paul begins his friendly exhortation by calling on the Philippian Christians to come to the place of unity where they have “one mind” with another. Paul achieves this imagery by using the word φρονέω, a word commonly used by Paul which describes a “single-minded commitment to something and the conditions for such commitment.” For the Philippians they are being challenged to embody and exemplify the same type of φρονεῖν which Jesus demonstrated with the disciples and in his earthly relationship with the Father. This is then a call to “oneness of mind in commitment to the Kyrios, which does not, however, mean uniformity” rather it is unifying not personal characteristics but cooperation in the larger evangelistic mission.
For this unity to become a reality Paul introduces the need for love to be present and not just any love but “a love that rejoices in what is best for others… This kind of love will not result in selfish behavior that sinfully exploits others.” An exhortation which was needed given the apparent strife among some members of the church and Paul’s earlier appeal in 1:9-10 “that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight,so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.”
Paul understood that “unity is a by-product of the great truths on which the gospel rests, but he did not see it as coming about automatically or effortlessly.” In order for this congregation to grow and thrive it needed to address these issues lest they see their strifes morph into schisms and unnecessary ridicule of the church by outsiders. To bring about the necessary unity the people were going to have to live according to the ways of love which could only be confirmed through their actions of humility.
In 2:3 Paul speaks of doing “nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” This is a form of humility which is grounded in the example of Christ which Paul later explains. On a technical level Paul chose to employ the word ταπεινοφροσύνη in this instance, a word which has a history in Hellenistic writings as
“the basic meaning to be ‘low,’ ‘flat.’” While this image conveys a lessening of a person it fails to fully grasp the theological idea Paul is presenting. Beyond the idea of self-abasement this concept of humility is based on the understanding that:
According to Phil 2:3 ταπεινοφροσύνη is the fundamental attitude of Christians in view of the unity of the church. It stands over against any attitude of selfishness and conceit, which disrupts and destroys church life. Humility counts others better than oneself — regardless of social standing. Those who are humble seek not their own advantage but the opportunity to serve others (v. 4). By demonstrating this type of interpersonal humility, the unity and oneness of mind among the people would be brought to light.
Paul’s chief concern here was that the people’s conduct did not reflect the realities of the Gospel which was a life code that went far beyond the ways the people grew up in. As “true biblical humility was frowned upon in the ancient world as despicable because it was misunderstood as abject cringing before one’s fellow-men. The understanding is that the community itself will benefit the greatest when the people are not attempting to create their own sub-kingdoms. The concept of love returns as through the Holy Spirit believers have their hearts and motivations transformed so they better match those of Jesus.
For Paul the natural ability of the people to demonstrate humility was not the benchmark they were to follow. Rather it was the example of Christ who took on the form of humanity through the miracle of the kenosis which fulfilled the ultimate act of humility. For the Christians at Philippi “this act of kenosis is an act of obedience; obedience unto death, but a death that leads to new life.” Christ was able to step away from his heavenly abode and live among us not as a demi-god but as one who was man but still in the form and likeness of God. For Jesus he maintained the form of God or in Greek he maintained the μορφή the “the essence of a person or thing”  yet washed the feet of the disciples and submitted to the power of death for those very same Philippians.
This expectation of humility through servanthood should come as no surprise as throughout the Old Testament obedience is the reciprocal demand of being in covenant with God. No longer is it service to the temple through sacrifices but service to others through our actions of love, humility and servanthood with Christ the ultimate prototype of those actions. “The notion that Jesus became a slave or servant means that he became the Father’s servant to carry out his will, even if that will mean death by crucifixion for the servant.”
The concept of servanthood then is not an undesirable concept but now it becomes a way to imitate Christ, their new Heavenly ruler. The God Jesus took on “the very natureof a servant, being made in human likeness” and in doing so he fulfilled Isaiah 53:12. This presents a challenge and a firm example that the Philippians were also to walk in a similar degree of humility as they practiced and followed Christ’s example of servanthood.
At this point Paul diverges from what he expects from the Philippians and begins to demonstrate the blessings, benefits and glories Jesus received in response to his humility and servanthood. From the grave which Jesus’s humility and servanthood placed him into he later rose and was exalted at the right hand of God. No longer as the second YHWH who walked with Adam, Cain, Abraham, Samuel and Jeremiah, but now as supreme ruler of the cosmos. This term exalted used in Philippians 2 comes from the Greek word ὑπερυψόω which is translated as “super-eminentlyexalted”  or “to raise someone to the loftiest height.”  This verbal form of this stem is only found in this place in the New Testament, but it is found in Psalm 97:9 (LXX). While the adverb form of this word used in Ephesians 1:21, 4:10, and Hebrews 9:5 is used to speak of things which were “above.”
This exaltation Paul speaks of includes with it the eternal blessings for obedience which benefits both Christ and those who follow him. Through his actions we see that “the obedience of Christ did not force the hand of God… The action of God is but the other side of that obedience, and a vindication of all that the obedience involved.” Jesus was tempted in this world as we are therefore we are able to declare that he could be greatly blessed because of his faithfulness to the commands of God. Exaltation then not only returns Jesus to Heaven but also places him at the right hand of God, not awaiting coronation but now sitting in the courts of Heaven.
From the place of exaltation Jesus takes hold of the authority given to him by God, the Ancient of Days has inaugurated the Kingdom of the Son of God. It is an authority which is encapsulated in a single name, the name of Jesus. Yet the letters themselves do not create power but rather they reflect the actions and victory accomplished by Christ. Otherwise there would be nothing separating the heavenly Jesus from others bearing the same name, which would have been a problem in the first century.
On a technical level the name Jesus originates from the Hebrew name Yeshua (Ye’hoshua) which is properly translated into English as Joshua. This original name carried the meaning of “YWHW saves/delivers”  which speaks to the purpose of Christ’s coming. The authority in the name then is seen as the declaration that through the Christ God (YHWH) has provided spiritual deliverance to the people and access to a heavenly promised land. Along with this title of Savior/Deliverer Jesus is referred to as κύριος a word which to the Philippians “denotes rulership based upon competent and authoritative power, the ability to dispose of what one possesses.” Yet for Paul this word branches off from the Hebrew word adonai which was the substitute word used to speak of YHWH.
While the Philippians would have been comfortable referring to Caesar or even other gods as κύριος the declaration that Jesus was κύριος was dangerous to openly declare. To call Jesus κύριος “meant that he was the Master and the Owner of all life; he was the King of Kings; he was the Lord in a way in which the gods of the old religions and the idols could never be; he was nothing less than divine.” Jesus then is presented in Paul’s writings as the one who rules over all and seeks to expand the territory of his kingdom through those he places his name upon.
From this place of authority Jesus awaits the day when “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” This eschatological day spoken of in Isaiah 45:23 in which all intelligent created beings in all three planes of existence come before the inaugurated and recognized king so they can bow before him in submission. Some will bow out of love and obedience while others will bow out of fear and condemnation. “Paul is not speaking here of voluntary obedience,” but is rather painting a picture of the conquered submitting to their new king, some people will welcome the deliverance while the rebels will fear its coming.
Furthermore “it is necessary to understand that the writer is here asserting that homage is to be paid to Jesus as Lord, not through Jesus to God.” This is not an indirect submission by humans, angels and demons to YHWH but a direct recognition of Jesus as the ruling King. This exhortation given to the Philippians once again elevates Christ above Caesar and gives hope for a future day when all things will be made right. The unity, humility and servanthood of Christ has resulted in his exaltation, appointment of authority and requirement for all to submit to him. If Christ can achieve all of this through humble means then the Philippians would be forced to concede that they to must follow in these same footsteps if they wish to flourish as a unified congregation. These people are those who have already bowed before Christ and are to follow Christ’s example and Paul’s teaching so they all together can bring glory to God. “The Father’s glory is not diminished but enhanced by the work of Christ on the cross” and through the expansion of the Son’s territory within the hearts of people.
Applying the Text Today
The Christian’s Responsibility
In many ways the “values Paul articulates in Philippians is not only at variance with the values of ancient Roman Philippi; it is at variance with the tendencies and inclinations of the fleshly impulses of all humans anytime and everywhere.” This makes the possible applications of Philippians 2:1-11 a universal endeavor as the exhortations towards unity, humility and servanthood are constants of the Christian faith. In our age matters such as strife and selfishness endure and continue to damage the lives of Christian and the well-being of entire congregations. The responsibilities which Paul has assigned to the Philippians then are still in effect in our modern day.
For this purpose we will combine the ideas of unity and being of “one-mind” and demonstrate how a person and a congregation can fulfill these mandates. When it comes to the concept of unity we must see it as a unity of purpose and mission. Far too often the misguided ideas of unity in the church better resemble science fiction archetypes such as Star Trek’s Borg and their hive consciousness. Christians also unknowingly drawn upon the metaphysical concept of the “overmind” or the failures of the Shepherding movement. In all of the above cases the concept of unity is replaced with the mandate of absolute obedience and strict conformity whereby all people think, dress and act the same. In terms of what Paul is presenting in this text it is rather a unification of purpose and mission which is being addressed. The Philippians were not exhorted to live as Jews, or Antiochians but rather they were to demonstrate allegiance to Christ which was matched up with their actions.
For us today this can be a reality as believers join together as they follow the guidance of Christ and Paul and seek to work together for the common good of the Kingdom of God. This is why matters such as strife and self-promotion were rejected as in these cases the induvial seeks to elevate themselves above the kingdom community or they seek to live outside of it while maintaining its benefits. This then does not preclude disagreements or debates over secondary doctrines, rather it provides the means to engage in these matters without irreparable harm to the larger community. The unifying goal is to continue the work of Christ on this world and those who follow Christ are to replicate the same unity which Jesus demonstrated with not only the Father but the disciples as well.
From this place of unity comes the added responsibility of living in a humble manner with other believers and even with the world at large. Yet to benefit from this our worldview must change because,
Jesus viewed us—his church—as a collectivist community. He came to establish a people of God, over which he would reign as king. It is not really “me and Jesus.” He will reign in my heart because he will reign over all creation (Phil 2:10). In the West, it may help if the church started thinking more in terms of we than me.
This form of humility is not an attitude which says “I have no worth” but instead it is an attitude which says “this other person has just as much or more worth than I do.” The matter is not about self-abasement but of mutual exaltation whereby the community works together not to punish the able but to elevate the weak so all can faithfully serve Christ and not just a select few.
Paul used language which was “deliberately extreme to shock the audience into following Christ’s example of self-humbling and self-sacrificial service, as a cure for party spirit, rivalry, or tensions in the community.” Matter such as these remain in our day and age which brings about an even greater need for true humility which operates through servanthood to change the hearts of people to seek ways to benefit other people so that the Kingdom as a whole can blossom. Our responsibility then as Christians according to Philippians 2:1-11 is to be an active force which stands together in unity to achieve the communal goal of expanding the kingdom of God through a paradigm of humility which is exemplified by a form of servanthood demonstrated by Christ.
The Christian’s Expectation
We cannot bear the burden of responsibility fully unless we firmly grasp the benefits which come from obeying these commands. To the Philippians and the modern Christians, the eschatological expectation remains the same. While the means and charts vary the common thread remains that we believe in Christ who while seated at the right hand of God in full authority still remains at arm’s length of total rulership of the world. It is the embodiment of the parable of the minas which speak of the ruler who left for a time and appointed his servants to work until he returned.
The expectation of Christ’s conquest of the world and of the universal submission to him must bring about greater motivation to live out the responsibilities laid out by Paul. We live humbly yet we are higher than our previous disposition because of what Christ has done for us. We live as servants since we are the disciples and subjects of the greatest servant who is seeking to bring new servants into his household in order that as many people as possible can joyfully bow before him at the end of the age.
The Work of Responsibility Brings with it the Benefits of Expectation
To process the companionship between the responsibilities and expectations laid out by Paul we could apply a chiastic structure (ABCCBA) to this argument. When we follow the commands to live in Unity as a group of Christians we are working towards the ultimate Submission of the world. Our actions of Humility bring about a greater outpouring of the Authority of Christ which is demonstrated in this world as we follow in these footsteps and pray for his providential intervention. Finally, our Servanthood becomes the greatest witness for Jesus’s Exaltation. His servanthood brought about eternal and unchanging exaltation, but our daily actions of servanthood bring about the continual exaltation of the name of Jesus upon the earth. In short unity brings submission, humility brings authority and servanthood brings exaltation.
The crucifixion in a metaphorical sense established the ocean and our actions act as rivers to bring others to it. All those who through strife, pride and selfish ambitions instead carve out metaphorical rivers that lead the people to stagnant ponds with no life. Through our faithfulness we are given the ability to share in the benefits of Christ as we become co-champions with him.
Through Paul’s writings and the Christological hymn utilized in Philippians 2 we are witnesses to the fact that the Christian life is one marked by the same unity, humility and servanthood Jesus demonstrated. Paul speaking to a Roman audience laid out their responsibilities in terms they understood to show how they had fallen short in living out lives which lined up with the example of Christ. They were to live out their live in that prescribed manner because Christ was already exalted as the true ruler of not only heaven but the world as well. Jesus is now ruling his kingdom and awaiting the day in which all people, angels and demons will bow before him at the end of the age.
In light of this expectation we as believers are given a life code to live by to ensure that we and as many people as possible can stand before Christ that day and willfully and joyfully bow before him. While those who rebelled against him, persecuted the church and rejected adhering to lives of unity, humility and servanthood are diminished while those who made themselves low in Christ are exalted.
The church is to be a unified community who through true humility and a willingness to serve establish the kingdom on earth not out of fear but out of hope of their ultimate expectations. When the responsibilities of unity, humility and servanthood are combined with the expectations of exaltation, Christ’s authority, and universal submission to him then and only then can Christians flourish in this world. The message of Philippians 2:1-11 is not an exhortation to look busy because Jesus is coming, but instead to faithfully work together because of what Christ has already done for us.
 William Barclay, The Letters to Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, 3rd ed. fully rev. and updated., The New Daily Study Bible (Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 37.
 Harold W. Hoehner, Philip W. Comfort, and Peter H. Davids, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1&2 Thessalonians, Philemon., vol. 16 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2008), 171.
 Walter Grundmann, “Ταπεινός, Ταπεινόω, Ταπείνωσις, Ταπεινόφρων, Ταπεινοφροσύνη,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), vol. 8, 21.
 Markus Locker, “Seeing the Unseeable—Speaking the Unspeakable: From a Kenosis of Exegesis toward a Spiritual Biblical Theology,” ed. Paul Elbert, Journal of Biblical and Pneumatological Research 4 (2012): 12.
 Harold W. Hoehner, Philip W. Comfort, and Peter H. Davids, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1&2 Thessalonians, Philemon., vol. 16 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2008), 175.
 Harold W. Hoehner, Philip W. Comfort, and Peter H. Davids, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1&2 Thessalonians, Philemon., vol. 16 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2008), 170.
 William Barclay, The Letters to Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, 3rd ed. fully rev. and updated., The New Daily Study Bible (Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 46.
How to Understand and Apply Philippians 2:1-11 Cameron Conway is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.