Philippians, Lesson 3: Jesus’ Humiliation and Exaltation

Cross with a heart in it (610x350)Paul and Timothy ended chapter 1 with words about, not only believing in Christ, but also suffering because of Him.  That was what living as a citizen of the Gospel involved.  For most people, a call to suffering is not encouraging.  So, Paul moves on to speak of the encouragement we have in Christ.

A call for unity and consideration

Read Philippians 2:1-4

In the first lesson, we commented on how meticulously Paul and Timothy composed their letter to the Philippians.  The entire letter was written in an overarching chiastic structure, highlighting the joy we have in Christ.  However, within that macro structure, we find many micro structures, including what we find in these verses.  These verses are arranged into three sections: The first is a series of “if” clauses, the second a chiasm, and the third an antithetic parallelism, where the second line says the opposite of the first.

The exhortation of unity and consideration are all the more effective because of its rhythm, lyrical style, and its structure.

 Structure of Philippians 2.1-4 (Lesson 3)


–          What do the “if” clauses and the first part of verse 2 say about Paul’s joy?


1 Corinthians 12:16: If one part of the body suffers, all the other parts share its suffering; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

–          Why would Paul’s joy need completing?


–          In a chiasm, the main point being made is in the center.  Why would Paul want to highlight unity of action?


–          What is this unity of action based on? (In other words, Paul is stressing what aspects of the faith?)


This chiasm says, through its form, at least concerning unity of belief and the living out of that belief, what James says in his epistle.  James 2:18-20:

Someone might claim, “You have faith, and I have works.”  Show me your faith without works, and I will show you faith by my works….  You fool!  Do you have to be shown that faith without works is useless?

Before bringing out how Jesus considered others more important than Himself, Paul encouraged each Philippian Christian to consider the other person as more import than himself.


Christ’s humility and obedience

Read Philippians 2:5-11

Most scholars consider this section in Philippians to be an introduction (verse 5) followed by a “hymn” (verses 6-11).  It is not a hymn in the modern sense that it has a specific, repeating meter and rhyme.  It does, however, have a rhythmic lilt when the passages are read aloud, and almost all scholars agree that is has a “poetic feel.”  However, these verses are more akin to Hebrew poetry with its parallelism than the typical Greek poetry of the 1st century.

Verses 6-11 have of 2 main parts.  The first part focuses on Christ’s downward movement: His humility, incarnation, and death.  The second part focuses on Christ’s upward movement and the implications of His exaltation.  The structure of this hymn is, thus, antithetical: Part 1 is on Christ’s humiliation; part 2 is on His exaltation.


Structure of Philippians 2.5-11 (Lesson 3)


Excursus on Harpagmos

Jesus did not consider His equality with God as something to harpagmosHarpagmos is a rare Greek term, which the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, never used.  In the New Testament, we find it only used here in Philippians.  Its meaning has been a matter of considerable debate.  These are the four understandings of harpagmos throughout history:

  1.  Some, like the Latin Fathers, understood it to mean, “something seized.”  Jesus did not consider equality with God as something that he need to seize for Himself, since it belonged to Him because He is the Son of God.
  2. Several Greek Church Fathers understood it to mean, “something held fast.”  Jesus did not regard His divinity as a prized possession that He needed keep at all costs.
  3. Some prefer the meaning, “something to be seized that is not already possessed.”  Jesus, based on His human nature, did not see His divinity as something for which He should reach or seek to acquire.
  4. Some understand this term, including your pastor, as a Greek idiom that means “something to be exploited for personal gain.”  Jesus, unlike many ambitious rulers, did not view His divinity as something to use for selfish gain.  Instead, the eternal Son of God humbled Himself into human history to serve us (see also Luke 22:27 and Romans 15:3, 8).


–          What is the climax of Jesus’ humiliation?


–          If Christ didn’t become obedient by dying on the cross, what would be the implications of that for our salvation?


Paul also says that if Christ wasn’t exalted, part of which was His resurrection, then we would also have no salvation.

1 Corinthians 15:14: If Christ has not been raised, then our [the Apostle Paul and Pastor Sosthenes] preaching is useless, and so is your faith.

–          Discuss how both the humiliation and exaltation of Christ are needed for our salvation.


–          Discuss: How are we to have the mind of Christ Jesus (Consider being brought into the life of Christ, remaining is Christ, learning of Christ, and Christian disciplines to strive against our fallen nature)?


Every knee bending and every tongue confessing was an expression that came from the book of Isaiah in the Septuagint.

“Return to me and be saved, all who live at the ends of the earth, for I am God, and there is no other.  I have bound myself with an oath: Righteousness will proceed from my mouth.  My words will not be turned away, that to me every knee will bend and every tongue confess to God.  They will say, ‘Righteousness and glory will come to him, and all who separate themselves from him will be put to shame.’  All the descendants of Israel will be made righteous by the Lord, and glorified in God.” [Isaiah 45:22-25, LXX]

When Paul (and Timothy) used that expression, he wanted to bring to mind in the hearer what else was associated with every knee bending and tongue confessing on the Last Day.  For believers, that would also entail being fully righteous by the Lord and glorified in God.

Isaiah proclaimed the uniqueness of God and hailed His universal triumph.  The Lord, who had already declared that He would not share His name or glory with another, stated that “every knee will bend and every tongue confess to God.”  Paul repeats that language, but used it to describe Jesus.

–          When Paul clearly uses such language from Isaiah specifically for Jesus, what is Paul saying about Jesus?


Living like Christ

Read Philippians 2:12-13

The danger of this passage is to ignore one part or the other.  For us Lutherans, we could be tempted to minimize Paul’s exhortation to “work out your salvation,” thinking that sounds like “works righteousness.”  Yet, it is part of Scripture and should not be ignored.  Others could be tempted to minimize “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work.”

–          Paul already stated the source of salvation in Philippians 1:28.  Who is the source of our salvation?


–          Thus, what is Paul not saying (otherwise, he would be contradicting himself)?


Excursus: Katergazo

Katergazo: This is the Greek word for “work out,” as in “work out your salvation.”  It is in the “perfect” form, which means that this working out is an ongoing, continuing action.  For Christians, it is to go on until the Last Day.  (Thus, the saints in heaven are still “working out” their salvation because they, too, have not yet received the fullness of their salvation.  Yet, clearly they are not doing anything to earn what awaits them on the Last Day.)

We find Paul using katergazo in Ephesians 6:13 in a military context, meaning there “to accomplish heroic feats.”  And, like that, this working out of their salvation was accomplishing something–but it still was not earning their salvation.  After all, Paul had just stated that God was the source of their salvation (1:28).

When then was Paul saying?  He was telling them to live out the fullness of what their salvation means.  That involves doing.  Yet, this doing, this “working out,” was not something in which they were to take pride (I’m working out my salvation better than you are!).  For it was to be done in “fear and trembling.”

Further, by being brought into the life of Christ and remaining there, “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”

As a point of comparison, we look at Paul’s use of katergazo in Romans 5:18 and 2 Corinthians 12:12.

Romans 5:18: For I will not dare to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished [katergazo] through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God.

2 Corinthians 12:12: The signs of an apostle were performed [katergazo] among you with continuous endurance through signs, wonders, and miracles.

–          In Romans 5:18, did Paul do anything?


–          But according to Paul, who accomplished it?


–          In 2 Corinthians 12:12, did Paul perform the signs of an apostle?


–          Yet, Paul used the passive form of katergazo, indicating that someone else was actually accomplishing it.  Who was that?


–          Discuss: Understanding Paul’s use of katergazo, what “work” is involved in your salvation?  As Christians, do we actually have to do anything?


–          Yet, who is accomplishing that work?


–          Isn’t that what Paul says at the end of verse 13?


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