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Hearts and Minds: Philippians 2 and Living the Faith

Philippians 2:5–11 changed my life.

When I became a Christian, I was born again into the charismatic evangelical tradition of my then church. It was a fabulous church with heartfelt worship, warm fellowship, great preaching and leadership, and a heart for mission. Yet, somehow it had become influenced by ideas from classical dispensationalism and mild forms of hyper-faith and prosperity thinking. Spiritual gifts were especially celebrated amongst us, but the real depth of what God is doing on planet earth was only dimly understood.

In this church setting, we all knew that Jesus’ death meant our salvation. The church had a great reformed preacher who taught us well that because Jesus has died as an unblemished sacrifice for sin, faith in him saves us through his complete work. By Christ’s death we are justified, sanctified, reconciled, adopted as children and heirs, born again, sealed, regenerated, and more. We knew we had died with Christ if we have faith in him. We knew who we were in Christ.

We were also inculcated with a real passion to follow Jesus and emulate him. There were many of us who wanted to be radical disciples and even die for Jesus. Books like Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger and David Watson’s Discipleship were our bread and butter.[1] Most importantly, we were passionate to preach the gospel to save the lost. We truly believed that the gospel is the power of God for salvation (Rom 1:16) and wanted everyone to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4). We valued verbalizing the gospel over everything else. We were also passionate that if we believed in Jesus, we could do greater things than these! (John 14:12). We could lay hands on the sick and heal them, drive out demons, and I even remember praying for the dead utterly convinced they would rise. The charismatic Jesus who summoned people through the gospel and did signs and wonders was our example.

Over time I moved on from that church, studied theology at the then BCNZ (now Laidlaw), and I learned many wonderful things. After college, my wife Emma and I trained to be Presbyterian ministers and served in several churches. I wrote a doctorate on evangelism in Philippians considering how Paul envisaged the church participating in God’s mission.[2] In the course of my study I read Phil 2:5–11 and entered into the bewildering mass of literature on the passage. Overwhelmed by its complexity, I found a neat way to sideline the passage into a short appendix barely touching on it. I knew if it became a part of my thesis, I may never finish.

Subsequent to being awarded my doctorate, I came to teach New Testament at BCNZ which quickly became Laidlaw College. I was given the privilege of writing a commentary on Philippians,[3] which was published in 2017. In the course of that process, I had to pause and really grapple with Phil 2:5–11. Doing so changed my life.

Eagerly determined to understand this passage, I dug into the many background complexities like: Is it a hymn? Who wrote it? What is its conceptual background? How is it structured? What does it mean? Should it be read as an appeal to imitate Christ’s life of cruciformity (the ethical interpretation), or, is it a declaration of who Christ is (the kerygmatic interpretation) Is it about Adam, the image of God, who did not grasp for power? It its target the Roman imperium? Is it about one who is God who does not exploit power?

I grappled with such things and came to my own conclusions that it is about the Son of God who is pre-existent God in form and invisible omni-essence. He was eternally with his Father and the Spirit, in the form of the one God who created the cosmos and sustains it by his power. When our triune God felt the time was right for him to reveal himself to the world (Rom 5:8; Gal 4:4), he did not use harpagmos.[4] That is, he did not use rapacious force to dominate the world as he had the right to do as creator and coming King and as he could have in his omnipotence. Rather, he showed the world a completely different way of being – he emptied himself out for the world.

This self-emptying does not mean he gave up his divinity, prerogatives, and power. No, the present tense is clear in 2:6a, “being in form God …” Hence, he remained God through his time as a human on earth to the present. Yet, amazingly and counterintuitively, rather, that using his divine power to force us into subjection to him, he gave his all to save us. He poured himself in relentless service to the needy, refusing to use his power to assume control. Although God, he took the form of a slave. He became one of us, taking on fallen sinful flesh.

As a human, he obeyed God to death never using his power for self, even in the face of the vilest mistreatment demonstrating the utter corruption of Jew and gentile alike. He died the worst of all deaths—a slave, criminal, and non-citizen’s death—on a cross! Naked, beaten, bloodied, humiliated, and utterly dead, this God-become man-was destroyed by the harpagmos of a world that so often only understands power through might! Then the most glorious thing happens. God exalted him to be not only the God he is, but God and Saviour! (cf. Phil 2:9–11; 3:20).

In the letter, Paul summons the Philippians to have this same mindset (Phil 2:5). While I recognize Phil 2 is one of the greatest declarations of who Jesus is, in context, its appeal is profoundly ethical. Indeed, it is through the glorious proclamation of Christ that the Spirit’s power is invoked in us to change us to be more and more like Jesus. The Philippians and us are called to lay aside our jealousies, rivalries, cruelties, selfish ambition, pretence, vanities, self-interest, arguments, complaints, and materialism, and together take on the mindset of Jesus.[5] That is, we are to live cruciformly; out of the pattern of the cross: humility, selflessness, service, sacrifice, suffering, obedience, and love, to the point of death however it comes. The hymn calls us! It beckons us! The cross is not just about how Christ died for my sins; it tells us how to live!

Like Paul in Phil 3:18, I remember weeping as I thought, prayed, and typed. I weep now as I type these words. I realised that Paul is rearticulating what Jesus says in Mark 8:34 and parallels; to paraphrase, if anyone wants to be my disciple, he or she must deny him or herself, take up his or her cross, and follow me! viz, walk in my shoes! Wow! The cross is not just our salvation, it is our life-pattern that should shape everything we do in worship, Christian relationships, and mission.

Somehow the summons of the cross-as-life-pattern got deeper in me as I pressed on further in Philippians. I read Phil 2:17 where Paul writes of his being “poured out as a drink offering on the sacrificial service” of the Philippians’ faith. This is brilliant! The drink offering was the secondary offering, wine, oil, or water, poured onto the main sacrificial animal. Paul was rearticulating Christ’s self-emptying, but, doing so with a humility that makes the Philippians the main event.

I realised that the stories of Timothy and Epaphroditus are not just there to tell the Philippians of Paul’s and their travel plans. They are there as exemplars of living out of the Christ pattern. Timothy – who for Paul is uniquely like-souled, who is concerned about the Philippians and the interests of Christ, and who serves with Paul in the humility of a son with his father (sounds a bit like Jesus and God!). Epaphroditus – who travelled over 1200km by foot delivering gifts to Paul nearly dying as he did so.

I read Phil 3:10 and felt deeply what Paul means when he says that all is skybala (rubbish, dung) compared to knowing Christ! And not merely knowing him but sharing in his sufferings and being conformed to his death. Yet, this is not a life lived alone by one’s own bloody mindedness. It is lived by that which he also wants to know: the power of Christ’s resurrection – the very Spirit that raised Jesus! This is the One by whom God enables us to work out our salvation (Phil 2:12–13) and do all things through him who strengthens us even in the depths of material privation (Phil 4:13). I at last realised that this is the life I am to live! We are to live! Everyone is to live! To put it in Easter-speak: to live on Friday by the power of Sunday propelling us into lives of humble service like that of Jesus.

Even more wonderfully, I saw what I call the morphe-parabola of Philippians.[6] Jesus is in form (morphē) God (Phil 2:6). He descended to take on the morphē of a slave, the schēma (form) of a human (Phil 2:7). He died! (Phil 2:8). Yet, he then ascended, exalted to the glorious resurrected God the Son, Lord, Saviour. He receives the glorious resurrection form of the Son of God (Phil 3:21). In the present we yearn to be conformed (symmorphizō) to his death as we share in his sufferings (3:10). Finally, after we have given our lives to our final breaths in cruciform service, will similarly be transformed (metaschēmatizō) so that our bodies are conformed (symmorphos) to like his glorious body! Jesus descended and ascended, we join him as we live the Christ pattern. Amazing.

Having realised all this, I feel I am finally beginning to know what it means to be a Christian and truly human. To be a Christian is to give thanks every day that Jesus died for my sins and that if I sincerely trust in him, I am eternally a beloved child of God. What an honour! Yet, while it will mean doing much of what Jesus did in ministering to the marginalised, sharing the gospel in attitude, word, and deed, and even seeing God move in signs and wonders when he feels fit, it will mean so much more. It means yielding every moment to God’s Spirit who is working in us to conform us to the Christ-pattern. It means living lives of humility, love, and service in all we do. It means realising Christ is not merely our saviour, he is our example par-excellence.

Yes, such a life will mean suffering, sacrifice, and pain. Yet, that is not the end. The Spirit is in us. We will rejoice! (remembering that joy language is used sixteen times in Philippians!). God will work in and through our pain bringing redemptions. And most wonderfully, he will transform us in an instant when we finally meet him face to face.

So, I encourage you to ponder deeply the life and death of Christ remembering that while his death is our salvation, it is so much more. It is our life pattern. So, let’s join Paul in pressing on as servants of God to win the prize that awaits us.

Mark Keown is the co-editor of Stimulus and New Testament Lecturer at Laidlaw College. His recent publications include The Philippians EEC Commentary, Jesus in the World of Colliding Empires and Discovering the New Testament. 

[1] Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity (Grand Rapids, MI: Thomas Nelson, 1997, 2015); David Watson, Discipleship (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1981).

[2] Published as Mark J. Keown, Congregational Evangelism in Philippians: The Centrality of an Appeal for Gospel Proclamation to the Fabric of Philippians, Paternoster Biblical Monographs (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2008).

[3] Mark J. Keown, Philippians, Evangelical Exegetical Commentary, 2 Vols (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2017).

[4] The Greek term from Phil 2:7 harpagmos is used only here in the NT and greatly debated. In my view, we get its meaning from the cognate verb hapazō which means to seize rapaciously. Put simply, Jesus did not use violent rapacious force to seize control of the world (as one would expect from a conquering emperor). Rather, he emptied himself out for the world. See further Keown, Philippians, 1.394–401.

[5] These sins are referenced in Phil 1:15, 17; 2:3, 15; 3:19; 4:2–3.

[6] This I call a parabola because Jesus begins at the highest place, descends, and ascends, i.e., a parabolic movement. Believers, in Christ, are conformed to Jesus in his descended state of humble human service and then are raised in him to receive glorious bodies like his.