Epistles: The Example of Jesus (Philippians 2:1-13)

Paul, in prison, is writing to thank and encourage Christians in Philippi. They face their own trials and have their own problems. They, like many churches today, had some petty disagreements and selfishness. Paul points them to a better approach to interpersonal relationships and gives them three examples they can imitate.


Paul begins by reminding them of blessings they have been given by Christ: “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion…” — he assumes that they have enjoyed all of these — “then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose” (Phil. 2:1-2).

He is not just asking them to think like one another. As he will soon explain, he wants them to be like-minded with Christ — to be encouraging, comforting, sharing, tender and compassionate, as Christ is. He wants them to have the same kind of love as Christ has, being like him in attitude and goals. That is the only sure way to be united with one another. When the Philippians put this into practice, Paul’s joy among them will be complete, for his gospel will have produced its fruit.

The bottom line, he says, is to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit” (v. 3). Do not be motivated by selfishness or pride, for they destroy unity and are the essence of sin. Instead, “in humility consider others better than yourselves.” Paul does not say that others are better — only that we should consider them better. Objectively, everyone cannot be better, yet Christian unity must be built on considering others ahead of self.

“Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (v. 4). We may consider our own interests, but we must also look out for others. This is the way of Christ. He, the best of all humans, did not put himself first, but considered the needs of others.


“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (vv. 5-7). Scholars call this passage “the Philippian hymn,” because its style and rhythm cause some to think that Paul is adopting words that Christians were already singing — words of praise for Christ Jesus.

Paul is using these words to remind his readers of the example they are to follow: someone who was divine, having the greatest of honor, yet who did not cling to his rights and privileges. The 2011 edition of the NIV puts it this way: Jesus “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage.” Though the Philippians had important rights as citizens of a Roman colony, they were to focus on others, not themselves.

Jesus willingly set his rights aside, in humility becoming a human, serving our needs. “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross!” (v. 8). His humility, his desire to serve, was complete. He endured the most painful and most shameful form of death, just to serve our needs.

The result? God resurrected him and “exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 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” (vv. 9-11).

What is the name above all other names? The name of God. In Isaiah 45:23, God says, “Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear.” Paul is saying that Jesus should be given the same honors as God. When we bow to Jesus, God gets the glory.

Jesus is in the highest place, worthy of worship, worthy of the name “Lord.” Because he was humble, he is now exalted. Humility is the praiseworthy way.


How should we respond to Jesus’ humility and service? Paul pleads for action: “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed — not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence — continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (v. 12). The Philippians have been a responsive church, eager to do what is good. Paul is asking them to take one more step, applying the humility of Christ to their interpersonal relationships.

They are to work not in order to get into salvation (salvation is a gift that they already have), but to work out its implications — to diligently apply it in their lives by imitating their Savior. They are to work, and yet realize that they are not working alone: “for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (v. 13). We cannot make ourselves more like God — only he can, and he does it by changing our desires and our actions. He does not force us, but enables us. We work, trust him to do his work, and give him all the credit (see 1:3 and 1 Cor. 15:10).

Things to think about

  • In my own experience, what role does self-interest play in squabbles?
  • When others consider me better, do I tend to agree with them?
  • Do I sometimes assume that other people want what I want? Do I “serve” them as a means of getting what I want?
  • What rights and privileges do I have? Am I willing to give them up to help others?

Author: Michael Morrison

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