The Christ Hymn: Empowering Christian Humility (Pt. 2)

In Paul’s epistle to the Philippians, the apostle begins a progression in Phil. 1:27 that leads to the importance of humility. The build-up of that progression as we come to Phil. 2:5-11 can be summarized as follows:

“If the opposition being experienced by the Philippians calls for steadfastness, if steadfastness is impossible without spiritual unity, and if unity can come about only from an attitude of humility, then surely Paul must reinforce the critical importance of humility in the heart of believers.”[1]

The ‘Christ Hymn’ (Phil. 2:6-11) is Paul’s ‘reinforcement of humility,’ and it functions as the essential means of executing the exhortation in 2:5, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.”

Typically, this exhortation is interpreted as seeing Jesus as the ethical standard that Paul is calling the Philippians to pattern their behavior after. The NASB, NKJV, NIV, HCSB certainly lead readers to this interpretation by reading something like, ‘Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus’ (NASB). These translations cast Paul’s exhortation as a call to ethical imitation of Christ, where the proceeding hymn then functions by setting Jesus as humble par excellence. However, Christ does not merely function as an ideal example of humility; Paul’s mention of Christ’s humility is much more profound. As Ronald J. Allen commented,

“More than offering an example, the material that follows reminds the Philippians that by virtue of being in Christ, they already have the power to live together in the way suggested by 2:6-11.” [2]

The ESV redeems the original Greek, providing the subtle and necessary syntax for the latter part of the verse, translating it, ‘Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.’ Silva provides the specific details, noting why a translation similar to the ESV better represents the original language, where he personally translates the verse, ‘Adopt then this frame of mind in your community – which indeed is proper for those who are in Christ Jesus.’[3] The literal translation, emphasizing the use of phroneite (a keyword throughout Philippians), reads, ‘Think among you that which you also think in Christ Jesus.’ Therefore, the exhortation is not merely a call to imitate Christ’s ethic, but it is a call to unification, to act in Christ.[4] It is a slightly awkward reading, intimating something like ‘Have what you have’ or ‘do what you do,’ but it is consistent with Paul’s other imperatives throughout the epistle – i.e. Christians are called to act in response to who they are (cf. Phil 1:27), and Christians are called to ‘work out’ what God ‘works in’ (Phil. 2:12-13). It also utilizes a typical Pauline formula, ἐν Χριστῳ (en Christo, in Christ), which is similar to what is found in Rom. 6:1-11, where “Paul deduces Christian conduct from the act of salvation.”[5]

All in all, the language of the exhortation in Phil. 2:5 is yet another example of how Christian ethics flow from Christian salvation – that salvation being marked here by the new covenant life in the Spirit (cf. Rom. 8) and union with Christ. In other words, the Christian’s ethic rests and strives in their unification with Christ. Christian obedience is not some tireless fight to live up to the perfection that Jesus accomplished; rather, it is a recognition of the perfection that Christ achieved and is now willing to accomplish in and through the believer that is united to him by faith. This is where true comfort and empowerment comes in regards to ethical action: Christ accomplished the heights of all virtue, and this is whom you are united with; this is who lives in you through faith.

Nevertheless, this does not permit a pendulum swing. It is because we are united with Christ that we are then called to imitate him. The call to recognize our union with Christ ignites our desire to exemplify the character of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 11:1; Eph. 5:1; 1 Thess. 1:6; 1 Pet. 2:21; 1 John 2:6). Ethical imitation and union with Christ are two sides of the same coin, and one ought not generate a false dichotomy. Silva noted the necessary balance, “Those who are united with Christ live as he did…and so the notion of Jesus as an ethical example is implicit in Phil. 2:5 by the very nature of the subject matter.”[6]

As Christians, we should see and feel the overwhelming weight of godliness that God has called us to; however, in that same motion, we ought to see and feel the full sufficiency of Jesus Christ, who not only achieved that standard 2,000 years ago, but currently continues to work godliness in and through those who are united to him by faith. As children of God who are united to Jesus by faith, we are fully equipped and empowered for each and every good work (cf. Heb. 13:20-21). Specific to this passage, in Christ we have the mindset of humility that we are called to have. Therefore, let us further labor in the freedom that we are now hidden with Christ (Col. 3:3) and he lives in us (cf. Rom. 8:10; 2 Cor. 13:5; Gal. 2:20; 4:19; Eph. 3:17; Col. 1:27), empowering us to be further formed in his likeness (cf. Matt. 5:48; 2 Cor. 3:18).

[1] Moises Silva, Philippians, 2nd ed., BECNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 92.

[2] Ronald J. Allen, “Philippians 2:1-11,” Interpretation 61, no. 1 (January 1, 2007): 73. Emphasis added.

[3] Silva, Philippians, 94-95. Phil. 4:2 and Rom. 15:5 provide important parallels to support this translation.

[4] The concept fits well with the context, where it almost appears to anticipate Paul’s dynamic of sanctification noted in Phil. 2:12-13.

[5] Silva, Philippians, 95. Also see Ernst Kasemann, The Testament of Jesus (London: SCM, 1968), 84.

[6] Silva, Philippians, 97.

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