Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 1, 2023
Philippians 2:1-13 Commentary
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson offers preachers a virtual embarrassment of theological riches. Its verses 5-11’s celebration of Jesus’ humiliation and exaltation are among Christians’ favorite passages. They, in fact, make up the Epistolary Lesson’s reading on each Palm Sunday.
However, as the New Testament scholar Troy Troftgruben notes, this 17th Sunday after Pentecost also offers preachers an opportunity to explore that beloved hymn in its original context. That helps make Philippians 2 attractive to people who enjoy learning the stories behind the great hymns of the Christian faith.
Some of those contexts are deeply tragic. Horatio and Anna Spafford had a wonderful family that included four daughters. However, Anna and those daughters were travelling on an ocean liner when another ship struck theirs. While Anna survived the shipwreck, the Spaffords’ beloved daughters drowned. In response, Horatio penned the words of the hymn, “When Peace Like a River.”
The context of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson is only nominally less tragic. When the Spirit inspires Paul to pen Philippians 2, he’s languishing under Roman house arrest. His life may be in danger. The apostle realizes that he may never return to Philippi. So he offers its Christians a pattern for living in response to God’s amazing grace. The apostle summons Philippi’s Christians to live their lives “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” (1:27).
In Philippians 2:1-5, Paul focuses on what Troftgruber, who lent me some of this commentary’s structure, calls “communal unity and individual humility.” The apostle invites Philippi’s Christians to cultivate what he refers to in verse 2 “like-mindedness,” [auto phronete] having the same love [auten agapen], being one [sympsychoi] in spirit and purpose [hen phronountes].”*
The apostle’s emphasis on Christians’ unity, not just here but also throughout his epistles, is poignant. Perhaps especially so in a 21st century context in which some Christians somehow find that emphasis to be a cause for further debate – and, all too often, division.
For example, we sometimes loudly wonder if worshiping in the same church is part of like-mindedness. Must Jesus’ friends who have the same love do all they can to stay in the same denomination with those with whom we disagree? Can we be one in spirit and purpose while questioning other Christians’ faith?
God’s adopted sons and daughters answer those questions about unity in a variety of ways. But it requires some theological gymnastics to avoid concluding that Paul considers Christian unity the default position of Jesus’ friends and followers.
Might, in fact, Christians’ limitations on concrete expressions of Christian unity arise from our failure to imitate Christ’s humility? Paul, after all, begs the Christians in Philippi to be not just united, but also humble. In verse 3 he insists that Jesus’ friends must be marked not by “selfish ambition [erithean] or vain conceit [kenodoxian]” but by “humility” [tapeinophrysyne].”
However, Christian humility is, of course, notoriously hard to define. In verse 3 Paul refers to it as considering “others better than” ourselves. In the Greek he calls his readers to “hegoumenoi hyperechontas heauton,” literally “esteem one another in a way that surpasses themselves.”
The biblical scholar Earl F. Palmer (The Lectionary Commentary, The Second Readings: Acts and the Epistles, Eerdmans, 2001) suggests that the apostle is employing a first-century expression. He says it’s “best translated as ‘put others in line in front of yourselves’.” Paul, Palmer continues, is not denigrating Christians’ comparative value. He is, instead, summoning Jesus’ friends to treat each other with the dignity that God affords them.
So it might be theologically accurate to think of the humility for which Paul advocates in Philippians 2 as a view of both others and ourselves that’s consistent with God’s view of us. That is to say, those who are humble deliberately think of each other as those whom God creates in God’s image, as well as loves and deeply cares for.
That humility manifests itself in not just our view of our fellow Christians, but also our view of their perspectives on debatable matters (cf. Romans 14). Preachers and our hearers might ask ourselves how viewing others the way God views them opens us to truly listening to and carefully considering other Christians’ perspectives on non-salvific matters.
Such a humble perspective is, after all, grounded in Christ’s “humbling” (etapeinosen) of himself (8). The One in and for whom all things were made, in fact, humbled himself all the way to the point of allowing the Roman Empire to crucify him as a common criminal.
The humility for which Paul advocates in Philippians 2, however, doesn’t just imitate Christ’s. It also, as Troftgruber notes, stands in stark contrast to Roman aristocrats’ relentless pursuit of praise. In urging his Philippians readers to humbly “consider others better than themselves,” the apostle summons them to the way of Christ rather than the way of the Empire.
Of course, verses 1-4 make up one long sentence. This, continues Troftgruber, makes the apostle’s appeals to unity and humility inseparable. The “run-on” nature of verses 1-4 at least suggests that there can be no genuine community without genuine humility. Where there is a right understanding of both ourselves and others, there is, by the work of the Spirit, opportunity for cultivating community.
Yet most preachers and our hearers live in largely individualist societies. While some experts suggest people still long for community, few of us seem to have either the energy or wisdom to cultivate it. Might that, however, arise in part from our struggle to be genuinely humble?
Why would I, for example, do the hard work of entering into and remaining in community with someone whom I struggle to view as an image-bearer of God? Why should Jesus’ friends cultivate unconditional love for people whom we’re not at all sure God unconditionally loves?
It’s instructive that when Paul grounds all humility in Christ, his description of the second person of the Trinity also alludes to community. Christ Jesus, he professes in verse 6, is in “very nature God” [morphe Theou hyparchon].” Yet he “did not consider equality with God [einai isa Theo] something to be grasped.”
Implicit in the apostle’s reference to “equality with God” is the perfect community that is the Trinity. God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit from eternity have enjoyed a self-giving and sacrificing community. Yet God the Son graciously gave up some of that community in order to do the hard work of, by the Holy Spirit, equipping his adopted brothers and sisters with humility.
Such humility is an essential component of Paul’s call in verse 12 to continue “to work out [katergazesthe]” our “salvation with fear and trembling [hobou kai tromou].” Yet it’s another call that’s mysterious and, as a result, subject to misinterpretation.
Some Christians have deduced that Paul is calling us to view God’s salvation of us with fear and trembling. The apostle is, however, instead, summoning God’s adopted sons and daughters to respond to our salvation earnestly and deliberately with humility and a commitment to Christian unity.
This, of course, is only possible through the work of the Holy Spirit. “It is God,” concludes the apostle in verse 13, “who works [energon] in you to will and act [thelein kai to energein] according to his good purpose [eudokias].” God alone makes obedience to Paul’s summons possible. Yet as Palmer notes as well, God’s equipping for them makes humility and unity extremely important.
*I have here and elsewhere added in brackets the Greek words for the English words the NIV translation uses.
In his February 24, 2014 article on Quartz.com entitled “Why Google Doesn’t Care About Hiring Top College Graduates,” Max Nissen writes of how “Google has spent years analyzing who succeeds at the company, which has moved away from a focus on GPAs, brand name schools, and interview brain teasers.” In a conversation with The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, Laszlo Bock, Google’s head of people operations, detailed what the company looks for. And increasingly, it’s less and less about credentials.
“Megan McArdle argued recently that writers procrastinate ‘because they got too many A’s in English class.’ Successful young graduates have been taught to rely on talent, which makes them unable to fail gracefully. Google looks for the ability to step back and embrace other people’s ideas when they’re better. ‘It’s “intellectual humility.” Without humility, you are unable to learn,’ Bock says. ‘Successful bright people rarely experience failure, and so they don’t learn how to learn from that failure’.”
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