The Mind of Christ
In Philippians 2:3–4, Paul admonished Christians to live in spiritual unity with one another. Nothing was to be done within the church through selfish ambition or arrogant pride. Christians in Philippi were not to be self-centered, focused only on their own interests and plans, but genuinely concerned about others. They were to love and care for others as they would for themselves.
But Christians are molded by various environments and education, so they often differ greatly. How can believers ever be of one mind as Paul described?
Paul charged the Philippian believers and all Christians to pattern their lives after the One whose example of selfless humility stands above all others: Jesus Christ. In verses 5–11, Paul disclosed the unfathomable truth and glory of Jesus and His example for all believers to follow.
Paul wrote, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus” (v. 5). This is not a suggestion but a command. By using the word mind (Greek, phroneo), Paul wanted believers to share the same attitude or way of thinking.
Naturally, the Philippians may have wondered, “What kind of mind is this?” In Jesus’ case, this mind was focused on a life of obedience to God the Father in selfless humility and sacrifice during His earthly ministry. Naturally, followers of Christ cannot duplicate Jesus’ ministry precisely; but they can exhibit His attitude and actions of self-denial and self-sacrifice.
In verses 6–8, the apostle detailed the attitude and character traits Jesus manifested. This major doctrinal passage is commonly called the kenosis passage, a theological term used to emphasize Christ’s humility during His incarnation and ministry. Kenosis refers to Jesus’ deity, incarnation, substitutionary death, and exaltation to the right hand of God. Although the passage has great doctrinal significance, Paul presented these truths as an illustration of how Christians are to exhibit the mind or attitude of Christ throughout their lives.
Paul detailed Jesus’ attitude and character traits on Earth:
SUBSTANCE. He was “in the form of God” (v. 6). The word form speaks of His preexistence as deity before His incarnation as a man. It refers to His essence, person, and divine nature (Jn. 1:1; 10:30).
SOVEREIGNTY. He “did not consider it robbery to be equal with God” (Phil. 2:6). Though Jesus already possessed equality with the Father, He did not cling to His privilege. Instead, He laid it aside at His incarnation.
SURRENDER. He surrendered His position and “made Himself of no reputation” (v. 7). This phrase literally means “to empty” or “to make empty” and refers to Jesus emptying Himself of what He possessed in His preexistent state with God the Father.
This concept has been misunderstood and misinterpreted for centuries. Some believe Christ emptied Himself of His deity, which cannot be true because He is eternally God and cannot stop being God. Others believe He emptied Himself of His divine attributes or nature. But without the attributes of God, He would not be God. Still others believe He emptied Himself of the use and power of His divine attributes. This view, too, is incorrect. While on Earth, Jesus used His divine attributes to perform miracles.
The incarnation did not strip Jesus of His essence, nature, or power as God. It simply added humanity to Him as the divine Son of God who became subordinate to God the Father.
SUBORDINATION. While on Earth, Christ accepted a subordinate role in the Godhead. He took “the form of a bondservant, [while] coming in the likeness of men” (v. 7; cf. Mt. 20:28; Lk. 22:27; Jn. 5:19; 12:49–50). Here the incarnate Christ is as a bondservant in human form. The word form is also used in Philippians 2:6 to describe the divine, preincarnate Christ.
The phrase coming in the likeness of men (v. 7) means Christ entered a new state of being when He became flesh. He was not an apparition, phantom, spirit, copy, or illusion. He was a genuine man, being both divine and human and possessing both a divine and human nature (Jn. 1:14) but without man’s sin nature. In the incarnation, Christ stepped down from His sovereign position in heaven to become a submissive slave on Earth.
SUBMISSION. “And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself” (2:8). The word appearance refers to how men saw Him, without perceiving His inner nature and essence. Christ “humbled Himself,” meaning He made Himself low by leaving the glories of heaven to become a man. Lehman Strauss put it well when he wrote:
He took upon Him a body like ours and faced a limited human existence on earth. The world has never witnessed a truer expression of self-renunciation. When we ponder the fact that God became Man, labored with His hands, faced life in every respect as Man, served, sorrowed, and suffered, we stand in holy awe and wonder at so great condescension. The Sovereign of all became the Servant of all.1
SACRIFICE. Christ “became obedient to the point of death” (v. 8). His death was not accidental, nor were its circumstances out of His control. Rather, His crucifixion was thoroughly in God’s providential plan. The Lord Jesus was obedient to the Father in all things “to the point of death,” voluntarily and sacrificially giving up His life (Jn. 10:17–18; Heb. 5:7–8; 10:9). All men are born to live; but Jesus came to die, so people might experience salvation and eternal life.
SUBSTITUTE. Christ’s death, “even the death of the cross,” was a substitutionary sacrifice (Phil. 2:8). The definite article the is not in the original Greek text, which reads, “death on a cross.” Jesus died as a common criminal via the form of capital punishment meted out by Roman law. He died as one who is cursed (Gal. 3:13).
Dying on the cross, Christ became a substitute, experiencing God’s wrath for mankind’s sin. He took the punishment all people deserve and reconciled mankind to God so that people can receive eternal redemption through faith. His death was foreknown, preordained, vicarious, substitutionary, and redemptive.
Because Jesus willingly left His glorious position in heaven to suffer shame, humiliation, and the ignominy of crucifixion, God the Father “has highly exalted Him” (Phil. 2:9). The phrase highly exalted indicates He was elevated to the highest position of veneration and worship possible in heaven. Christ was resurrected from the dead (Heb. 4:14), is enthroned “at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (1:3), and serves as believers’ advocate in heaven (7:25; 9:24).
He is also highly esteemed. The Father has “given Him the name which is above every name” (Phil. 2:9). Notice, the text does not say Christ was given a name but, rather, the name. The word given means to grant, bestow, or give generously. Christ’s name is the “name . . . above every name.”
Many people have opinions about this name. Some believe it is “Son” or “God.” Others say it is “Jesus.” Others believe it is “Lord” or “KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS” (Rev. 19:16). Some teach it will be a name “written that no one knew except Himself” (v. 12). Others believe the definite article that appears with the word name means Paul was speaking about Jesus’ office, rank, and dignity. Whatever the name is, it must sum up Jesus’ majesty, sovereignty, and supreme authority over everything.
All of creation will honor and worship Jesus: “Every knee should bow,” whether in “heaven,” “earth,” or the abode of Satan and his demonic followers “under the earth” (Phil. 2:10). Every creature will acknowledge Christ, and “every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (v. 11). Believers, unbelievers, and the entire demonic realm will declare, “Jesus Christ is Lord!”
Jesus’ self-humiliation, submission, sacrifice, substitutionary death, resurrection, ascension, and exaltation all fulfill God’s plan and purpose. Because of Christ’s work of redemption, God bestows grace, mercy, and salvation on sinful people who trust Him as Savior, bringing “glory [to] God the Father” (v. 11).
No wonder Paul calls believers to humble themselves and surrender completely to serving God. We should marvel at Jesus’ majesty and fall on our faces in worship at God’s magnificent plan and purpose.
- Lehman Strauss, Devotional Studies in Philippians (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1959), 114.