Text & Questions
1If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
12 Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Here are 3 things to note about today’s text before tackling the questions for this week.
1. Start by paying close attention to the opening and closing paragraphs (vs. 1-5 and 12-13). In these lines Paul lays out for the early Christians his ideas on how they are to live together—how they are to Be the Church, in other words. This is what it meant to live in community as followers of Jesus in their social and political context. And the way Paul structures this passage, with his “Be the Church” instructions on both sides of vs 6-11, we are meant to read those middle verses as an illustration or an example of how one should live in the world as a member of the church. That is to say, this passage is not primarily a piece of abstract theology (though it has been used and abused as such for centuries). This is, rather, a very practical statement on how we are to live together. Read it that way.
2. In most Bibles the middle section of this passage (vs 6-11) is printed in a poem format. This is because most Bible translators and New Testament scholars believe these verses are a version of an early Christian hymn. Paul visited Philippi first around the year 50 AD. He wrote this letter about 10 years later. So this song was being sung by Christians only 20 or 30 years after the first Easter. It’s that old! It is very important to understanding the passage that we remember it is a poem—a song. Poems rely on metaphor. When we sing, “This is my Father’s world, the birds their carols raise, the morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker's praise”, we aren’t suggesting that birds have developed a sense of hymnody or that lilies and mornings have language. Bring the same sense of poetry to your reading of these verses.
3. There is a tendency, when this hymn is read, to gloss over the first stanza (vs 6-8)—about the emptying of Christ to take on the form of a slave for humble service, and jump as quickly as possible to the triumphant vs 9-11 where Christ is exalted “above every name…in heaven and on earth and under the earth”. Don’t do that this time. My suggestion is that we spend very little time on the triumph of Christ over Creation until we have thoroughly absorbed, and perhaps even been transformed by, the emptying of God into Creation.
Here are your mental exercises for this week:
1. It was likely the case that Paul encourages the Philippians to live lives of compassion, sympathy and humility (vs 1-5) because they were not living this way. In the life of the church (any church) this is not unusual. What is the worst “church fight” you have ever witnessed or participated in? How was it resolved?
2. “3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Give specific examples of times you have seen or participated in church life that could be described using these words. How did it play out and what was the effect?
3. v.5 is a pivot point in this passage. The mind of Christ (that is, the mind of God), Paul says, was marked by compassion, sympathy and a self-effacing generosity (vs 1-4). The effect of this “mind” was the emptying of God into the world—“emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness”. How do you imagine this is possible? Does God stop being God to become a servant? Was God always a servant and never the all-powerful, commanding deity we imagine? Does God split in two, keeping power in heaven and sending humility to earth?
4. From Amy Oden’s article on Tuesday: How is it possible for humility, servitude, submission, even death, to signal power and authority?
5. v. 5 Keeping in mind that “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name but his title, what, if any, significance do you see to Paul using the formula “Christ Jesus” in this passage rather than the more familiar “Jesus Christ”?
6. Consider this quote (I don’t remember where it came from): “The mystery is not that Jesus is like God, but that God is like Jesus”. Do you agree or disagree? Why? If you agree, was God always like Jesus? If you disagree, is God never like Jesus?
7. This is the question I think Paul is chasing: In practical terms, how can we who follow Christ consider our position in relation to God as something not to be exploited (grasped, held on to). How do we empty ourselves of our Christian privilege (our “religious liberty” for example) to serve even the people who would do us harm? (This is a theological question. It is also a political, cultural, social and racial question. It is worth a great deal of thought. We cannot be a church like the one Paul hoped Philippi would become without working this through).