Work Your Way Down the Ladder (Philippians 2:5-11)
In Lewis Carroll’s famous book, Through the Looking Glass, Alice steps through the mirror in the living room to find a world on the opposite side where everything is backwards: Alice wants to go forward, but every time she moves, she ends up back where she started; she tries to go left and ends up right; up is down and fast is slow. Similarly, Christianity is a kind of looking glass world where everything works on principles opposite to those of the world around us. To be blessed, be a blessing to others. To receive love, give love. To be honored, first be humble. To truly live, die to yourself. To gain the unseen, let go of the seen. To receive, first give. To save your life, lose it. To lead, be a servant. To be first, be last.
In Philippians 2:5–11, Paul will explain that the way up is down. That’s right: Down is up, up is down. The way to be great is to go lower. The way up is down. The logical flow of Philippians has been building up to this great truth. After addressing the church as a unified whole (1:1–2), Paul offers a prayer for them to achieve this unity (1:3–11). He then gives his own life as a model (1:12–26; cf. 4:9) and urges the church to live lives of humility and unity without (1:27–30) and within the church (2:1–4). Finally, Paul arrives at a crescendo and turns his attention to the powerful example of Christ Himself in 2:5–11. This is one of the most important passages in the entire Bible. Many scholars believe that this is the best passage in the Bible to defend and explain that Jesus Christ is God. However, this will not be a systematic theology lesson because it is found in a context that stresses the need for unity in the local church. In these verses, Paul issues two commitments to living an upside-down life.
1. Imitate Christ’s model of humility (2:5-8). The way that you can imitate Christ’s example is by giving up your “rights.” Paul begins this section with a command to “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus.” Verse 5 builds a bridge between 2:1–4 and 2:6–11. It serves as a transition from Paul’s exhortation to his illustration. The word “this” (touto) refers back to 2:1–4, particularly 2:3 where Paul encourages believers to have “humility of mind.” To “have this attitude” means “to develop an attitude based upon careful thought.” Paul is inviting you to rethink your attitude based upon Christ’s attitudes (2:6) and actions (2:7–8). Mark Twain once said, “Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.” I think we’ve all felt this way from time to time. Obviously, living up to the attitude of Christ is not easy. It’s a pursuit that humbles every believer to dust; nevertheless, we are commanded to pursue this lofty goal. How is your attitude today? Does it line up with Jesus Christ or with your natural tendencies and inclinations?
Scientists have succeeded in causing chickens to sound like quail. Researchers took tissue from parts of the quail brain thought to control the bird’s call and implanted it in the brains of five chicken embryos. The experiment worked! The hatched chicks sounded like quail rather than chickens. When you believed in Christ, God implanted His mind into yours and you become a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). However, unlike the chickens who sound like quail forever, you will not sound and act like Christ for the rest of your life without continually fostering and putting on His mind (Rom 12:2). This can be done through daily Bible reading, listening to praise and worship music or an audio Bible, fellowshipping with other Christians who encourage you in your walk with the Lord, and spending time getting to know Christ Himself through prayer. Though there are a variety of things you can do to renew your Christlike mind, the key is to do something every day. I think it’s easy to make the mistake of trying to accomplish too much too soon. Of course, when we fail to achieve our goals, it’s tempting to want to quit because we feel like a failure. However, God’s heart is that you and I would take baby steps and make forward progress each day. In other words, don’t try to cram; instead, just do at least one thing to cultivate the mind of Christ. Today, you can grow in grace and truth by asking God to give you an attitude adjustment. Perhaps you need to acknowledge a bitter and vindictive attitude? Maybe you are a chronic complainer who needs to see God’s perspective for your suffering and trials? Regardless, every Christian can benefit from an attitude tune-up. Ask God to search your heart today and reveal the attitudes that grieve Him.
Paul now fleshes out his fundamental command in 2:6–8 by using Jesus as his illustration/model. In 2:6, he writes, “…although He [Jesus] existed in the form of God, [He] did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped…” Before Christ invaded this planet, He existed in the form of God. Notice Paul does not say that Jesus “came to exist” or “entered into existence.” Instead, he uses a present tense participle translated “existed” to indicate ongoing existence. Since the time frame of the passage is clearly eternity past, Paul asserts that Jesus Christ existed eternally “in the form of God.” The English word “form” can be misleading here because it suggests shape or outward appearance. Yet, the Greek word translated “form” (morphe) refers to the essential nature of something or someone. In this context, Paul is saying that Jesus’ nature and character corresponds with God. In Paul’s day, the word morphe was used of a Roman stamp. Official government documents were sealed with wax. While the wax was still hot, they would press a ring or stamp into it bearing the emperor’s insignia. The impression made in the wax was an exact representation of the insignia on the ring. We do something similar today when we wet a rubber stamp with ink and then stamp it on a piece of paper. The impression on the paper is the exact image of what is on the rubber stamp. Paul says, “That’s the relationship Jesus Christ bears to God the Father. Jesus is the exact representation of who and what God is. Jesus has never been a junior partner to God, but rather a full-fledged member of the Godhead, equal with the Almighty Father in every way, shape, and form, from eternity past. So when you and I talk about Jesus Christ, we are not talking about someone less than God. We are talking about someone who is the “express image” of God.
Though Jesus was fully God, He “did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped.” Jesus was not grasping to get something; He already possessed deity. However, He did not regard being equal with God something to be used for His own advantage. Though equal with God or equally God, Jesus did not seize this as an opportunity to further His own interests at the expense of the Father. Jesus willingly released all of His personal rights. Some have suggested that the expression is identical to the phrase “in the form of God.” More likely, however, the expressions differ.“The form of God” speaks of Jesus’ essence or nature as God, whereas “equality with God” speaks of the glories or prerogatives of God. Together the two expressions are “among the strongest expressions of Christ’s deity in the New Testament.” Therefore, it is imperative that I emphasize to you that Jesus Christ is God. Perhaps you’re saying, “Isn’t that a given?” It may have been in years past, but this can no longer be assumed…even in evangelical churches. Research from April of this year (2009) reveals that 22% of Christians strongly agreed that Jesus Christ sinned when He lived on earth, with an additional 17% agreeing somewhat. This is tragic! Jesus Christ claimed to be God and He demonstrated that He was and is God! If Jesus is not God, then life has no purpose and salvation is a farce. We might as well go party! Fortunately, the Bible is clear that we can stake our present life and the life to come on the deity of Jesus and the salvation that He offers.
Instead of holding on to His personal rights, 2:7 explains that Jesus “emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant being made in the likeness of men.” Jesus came down from heaven to earth in the greatest stoop of all time. Instead of climbing the ladder, Jesus stepped down, one rung at a time. But this leads to a question: What does the phrase “emptied Himself” mean? We can be sure of one thing: This phrase doesn’t mean that Jesus emptied Himself of any of His divine attributes (emptying by subtraction). If Jesus did such a thing for even one moment, He would cease to be God. Fortunately, the next clause in 2:7 explains the meaning of “emptied Himself”—“taking the form of a bond-servant being made in the likeness of men.” Jesus’ act of “emptying” Himself was in His act of “taking” on a human nature. It was emptying by addition. In other words, Jesus, being God, “emptied Himself” byadding humanity. Thus, the phrase “emptied Himself” is only a metaphor, just like when Paul says, “I am being poured out like a drink offering” (2 Tim 4:6). Similarly, Paul is not suggesting that Jesus’ internal organs or His human attributes were poured out like liquid from a bottle. The point that he is trying to make is that Jesus Christ practiced self-denial and self-sacrifice for our sake and became “God-in-a-bod!” What an astounding, unfathomable thought. Jesus left the glory and splendor of heaven and came to dwell on earth to serve others. He understood the way up is down.
Paul fleshes out this concept further by stating that Jesus took “the form of a bond-servant being made in the likeness of men” (2:7b). Paul could have said that Jesus took on the form of a human being. That would be humiliation enough for God. There is a general Greek word for humanity that Paul could have used here, or he could have used a word that means a male as opposed to a female. But Paul uses neither of these. Instead, he chooses the more specific term doulos, which means “slave” or “bond-servant.” In other words, Jesus became a particular kind of man, a slave, the lowest position a person could become in the Roman world. He wasn’t born in a mansion or a king’s palace, but in a dirty stable among the animals. The Almighty God appeared on earth as a helpless human baby, needing to be fed and changed and taught to talk like any other child. The King of the Universe, the Lord of glory, voluntarily became a pauper for our sake. He had to borrow a place to be born, a boat to preach from, a place to sleep, a donkey to ride upon, an upper room to use for the last supper, and a tomb in which to be buried. He created the world but the world did not know Him. He was insulted, humiliated, and rejected by the people He made.
The more you think about it, the more staggering it gets. Nothing in fiction is so fantastic as this truth of the Incarnation. Jesus went as low as He could possibly go. This means no matter what you go through, no matter how low you may get, you can never sink so far that Jesus cannot get under you and lift you up. He can identify with you in any situation, no matter how hard: poverty, loneliness, homelessness, rejection, you name it.
Jesus descended the ladder and arrives at the bottom rung in 2:8. Paul writes, “He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” This verse reminds us that Jesus “humbled himself.” No one humbled Jesus; He willingly and graciously offered Himself to death. The implication is that you and I should do the same. As you read this verse, it is easy to sense Paul’s astonishment. He can’t believe that Jesus—God Himself—died! But to think that He experienced “even death on a cross” is mindboggling! The Romans reserved the agonizing death of crucifixion for slaves and foreigners, and the Jews viewed death on a cross as a curse from God. Crucifixion was a horrible way to die. The weight of the victim’s body hanging from his wrists caused his joints to dislocate as he tried to push up on his feet to breathe and keep from suffocating. Eventually, the victim was no longer able to push himself up and finally suffocated. Jesus endured that horrible trauma, not to mention the spikes through His wrists or the pain of the cross’ rough wood scraping against His back, shredded from the beating He had received with a cat-of-nine-tails. Jesus suffered as no one else, but it wasn’t the physical pain that caused Him the most suffering. Neither was it the taunting and humiliation He endured from His enemies as they watched Him die. The agony Jesus endured on the cross was the abandonment He suffered as God the Father turned His back on His son (Matt 27:46). The price that Jesus paid for humankind is staggering. Paul urges you to ponder the wonder of Jesus. As you reflect upon Him today, may you be overwhelmed by all this great God has accomplished for you. The way up is down.
Athanasius (296–373), Bishop of Alexandria, noted that crucifixion was the only death a man can die with arms outstretched. He said that Jesus died like that to invite people of all nations and all generations to come to Him. Today, will you believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior? Will you transfer your trust in yourself to Jesus perfect person and His perfect work? The moment you do, you will cross over from death to life and spend eternity with God (John 5:24; 1 John 5:9–13).
Interestingly, the primary thrust of this passage is not evangelistic. Instead, it is written with the express purpose of motivating believers to be humble and unified. Today, do you need to die so that a relationship can live? What does your wife want or need from you? What does your husband desire from you? What do your children need from you? Leaders are not to abuse their power and position to further their own interests, but to pursue the best interests of others. Instead of grabbing for their “rights,” they begin to give to relationships. Instead of using others as means to their own ends, they serve others as ends in themselves. In your work life, instead of striving for upward mobility, why not pursue downward mobility?
Remember, the way up is down.
After reflecting on Jesus’ downward mobility culminating with His death on the cross, you may declare, “Lord, I would die for You or for someone I love.” As Fred Craddock has said, “To give my life for Christ appears glorious. To pour myself out for others…to pay the ultimate price of martyrdom—I’ll do it. I’m ready, Lord, to go out in a blaze of glory. We think giving our all to the Lord is like taking a $1,000 bill and laying it on the table—here’s my life, Lord. I’m giving it all. But the reality for most of us is that He sends us to the bank and has us cash in the $1,000 for quarters. We go through life putting out 25 cents here and 50 cents there. Listen to the neighbor kid’s troubles instead of saying, ‘Get lost.’ Go to a committee meeting. Give up a cup of water to a shaky old man in a nursing home. Usually giving our life to Christ isn’t glorious. It’s done in all those little acts of love, 25 cents at a time. It would be easy to go out in a flash of glory; it’s harder to live the Christian life little by little over the long haul.”
Yet, there are no shortcuts in the Christian life. If you want to follow the model of humility, you must take the high road, which requires getting low for others! It requires continually serving regardless of personal cost. This is how you imitate the model of humility. The way up is down.
[Jesus’ humiliation is not the end of the story. God raised Jesus up from the grave of His humanity and exalted Him in heaven as the God-man. Thus, the second commitment that Paul gives is…]
2. Appropriate Christ’s lordship of creation (2:9–11). True biblical humility occurs when one recognizes the greatness of Jesus Christ. Paul explains: “For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (2:9–11). The phrase “for this reason” shows a cause-effect relationship between Christ’s self-humbling (2:8) and His exaltation (2:9). First, there was the cradle, then the cross, and then the crown. In these verses, Paul imparts two significant blessings to the humble Christ.
First, God exalted Jesus to the loftiest height (2:9a; cf. Ps 2). The word translated “highly exalted” (huperupsoo) is used only here in the New Testament and can be literally rendered “super exalted.” In other words, Christ received the highest exaltation—in a class by itself.
Second, God gave Jesus the name, which supersedes all other names (2:9b; Heb 1:4). In contemporary Christian circles the common misinterpretation of this passage is that the reference to the “name” (onoma) means specifically the name Jesus. But, it is the name given to Jesus that is the issue here. Here, God bestows on Jesus the name “Lord” (kurios). At this great name, “every knee will bow” and “every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” This statement is taken from Isaiah 45:23. The context of the quotation from Isaiah is taken up with the uniqueness of “Lord” (Yahweh) in contrast to lifeless idols. In the Isaiah passage, Yahweh, and Yahwehalone, is unique and the only One who creates, redeems, and sustains (45:17–18). Thus, the passage is a powerful statement about Yahweh’s supremacy. It is precisely this supremacy, which is conferred on Jesus in 2:10–11. Note again the process, though. While on earth His name was often despised and He had no great titles. He was called “a friend of sinners,” and a “blasphemer.” Because He did not conform to the world of His day, He did not have an important title beside His name, distinguishing Him. Yet because He did not live to make His name great on this earth, God has made His name supremely exalted in the world to come.
The three regions described in 2:10 seem to be heaven, earth, and hell. The beings in heaven that Paul refers to are angels and believers who have died and whose spirits have gone into the Lord’s presence. Those on earth are people still alive on the earth. Those under the earth are unbelievers awaiting resurrection and Satan and his angelic beings. All will acknowledge Jesus’ lordship one day (1 Cor 15:27; Eph 1:20–21). The whole purpose of the working out of salvation is the glory of God the Father. The end is attained when men yield to His will and acknowledge Christ as Lord.
These great verses are a reminder that worship is a choice for us now, but one day, every human being and spirit being will worship God for all time. There are no atheists or agnostics in hell. The world may not bow or confess to Jesus today, but it’s going to bow sooner or later. On that day, it won’t matter what anyone thinks, because every person is going to recognize that God sent Jesus to die for Him. There are two ways of honoring Jesus’ name: voluntarily or involuntarily. Those who do it now, show faith at work; those who do it on the last day, will do it by sight.
Surprisingly, the primary application of this passage is for the believer. The implication of Paul’s argument is that many believers need to bow the knee and confess with the tongue that Jesus is God in every area of their lives. In the course of my Christian life, there have been areas that I have included or excluded Jesus from. What I was saying is: “Jesus, you can be God in this area, but you can’t be God over this area. I want to keep this area for myself and I will be my own God.” Paul’s point is: One day you and I will bow the knee and confess with the tongue at the judgment seat of Christ that Jesus is God/Lord over every area of our lives. This is Paul’s point in Rom 14:11 when he quotes Isa 45:23. My desire is to bow now and confess now that Jesus is God over area of my life. What area of your life have you excluded Jesus from (e.g., your marriage, family, work, church, personal life)? Today, will you invite Him to take over this area of your life because He is Lord and God?
The good news of this passage is that God will exalt believers who humble themselves. In the future, God will reward a life lived now in self-denial. That is the obvious implication of Paul’s illustration. Perhaps you think it is selfish to serve the Lord for a reward? Was it selfish for Jesus to endure what He did because He knew He would receive a reward? Motivation is the key. If you submit to God and to others for the glory of God rather than for selfish glory, as Jesus did, your motivation is correct and He will reward you. The way up is down.