We are studying Philippians 2:1-11 for Sunday, January 27. This is one of the most widely analyzed texts in Christian Scripture, probably because of its significance for foundational Christian theology – the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology – as well as for the life of the Christian community. Here are my notes on the text – not claiming to do more than scratch the surface, in preparation for our further discussion on Sunday:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We are continuing our reading in the epistle of Philippians, with all that entails.

Paul has turned from his initial remarks to the Philippian audience to a specific exhortation: to overcome some conflict in the community – to be in agreement, thinking along the same lines, and working more for the benefit of the other members of the community than for individual rank or position. (See vv1-4.) This appeal, and its theme of fundamental agreement, may inform the organization of the entire letter.

Verses 5-11 constitute a famous Christological hymn, which may have been in familiar use, or which may have been composed for this letter.

The hymn illustrates, or seems to illustrate, “the mind that was in Christ Jesus” that Paul is urging the Philippians also to have.

It’s easy to have an automatic response to the hymn – both to assume it means this or that about Jesus’ relationship to God the Father, and to assume it means this or that about how people are supposed to respond to suffering, or to servitude, or to injustice, or so on. Pausing to reflect on those automatic responses is probably a good idea; it’s possible that not all of the lessons that have seemed obvious across the centuries since this letter was written are as obvious as we have thought.

The letter will continue with specific personal details about Paul and his colleagues in ministry, references to misguided practices to avoid, re-valuation of Paul’s credentials as a member of the people of Israel, and will conclude with the popular instruction to rejoice in the Lord always, and to think on everything that is good. Those concluding instructions provide some of the specific content for the shared way of thinking the letter encourages.

Last week I suggested that one way to read the letter is as a way to think about how the goal of the glorification of God in Christ reframes all human experience. Another way to read the letter, suggested by other commentators, is as a re-working of the ancient world’s system of honor and status – that is, as presentation of a transformed understanding of what counts as honorable and what counts as dishonorable. On either of these readings, the letter to the Philippians remains, it seems, about as countercultural today as it would have been for its first audience.

CLOSER READING: In v1, the “if” construction is apparently a rhetorical convention in Greek. It doesn’t suggest that there isn’t or might not be encouragement, consolation, sharing in the Spirit, etc., but rather that there definitely is.

One commentator suggests that we read this statement something like “if I’ve ever done anything for you, if you’re a member of this family, … ” – that is, as what follows being made the proof or test of what goes before.

The word translated encouragement is the Greek word paraklēsis, which sounds a lot like the paraclete people might remember from John 16:7, who seems to do the action implied in paraklēsis. It literally means something like coming up and walking alongside someone.

The “sharing” in the Spirit is literally something like “fellowship” or “community” – another pregnant word people sometimes know from Bible study, koinonia.

The verb to think alike, to have the same opinions shows up twice in verse 2, generally translated into English as something like “same mind” or “one mind.” It will repeat in verse 5, where the Philippians are urged to think along the same lines as Jesus thought.

A different word for thinking, translated as regard, also echoes from the early verses to the hymn, from verse 3 to verse 6; this regard is not, strictly speaking, a verb of sight, but a verb of thought or considering – the “regard” is about looking at something in the sense of seeing it in a particular way in one’s mind.

So a strong set of verbal parallels has been established between the opening verses of the section and the Christic hymn. With that structure, Paul is saying something like “think about it like this – which you’ll see is how Christ thinks.”

It might be worth pointing out, in fact, that the whole section focuses on the readers’ getting their thinking straight, adopting the right mental attitude towards or understanding of the [social] situation. Because even with the problem of “selfish ambition or conceit” and the matter of “interests,” these are a matter of how we perceive ourselves, how we think of ourselves relative to others, and of how we think about what is worth pursuing, and why. Paul is talking about motives that spring from people’s reading of their situation – their social situation, the one in which there are better and worse people, higher and lower positions, a zero-sum game of competing individual interests in which there have to be winners and losers, etc. And urging them to have different motives, that spring from a different way of thinking about their relationships to one another.

Part of our problem with reading this text, then, may be the same problem we have with all texts that have as their horizon a radically changed situation – all “utopian” texts in that sense. [I don’t think of “utopian” as a term of abuse, but I know that a lot of people do, so I use the scare quotes out of deference.] That is: Paul is trying to lay out a path to a radically changed and re-configured social reality using … the language of the old one, since it’s the only language available, and that makes the text vulnerable to misunderstanding.

In verse 4, the word interests is inferred by translators; the text is literally more like “don’t just look out for yourselves, but everyone for others.” Interests is a sensible inference, of course – but we might almost as easily have come up with something like “well-being” or “welfare” or even “what’s best for.”

[Here’s one of the places the text opens itself up to being taken as a slippery slope. Tertullian, for instance, brings it up in urging women to dress modestly and neglect their appearance, out of regard for the interests of men, who they shouldn’t be tempting to lust in their hearts. Not making this up. I’m not entirely unsympathetic, either, there’s such a thing as a “happy medium.” But we know where this line of reasoning can end: burqas. The problem may come in not being able to imagine that “everyone” here is meant to be thinking about the welfare of “everyone else.” When we can’t do that, we might automatically understand it in a way that leaves some people needing to be thinking about the welfare of the others who really matter. That’s one way to keep the text a prisoner of the very situation it’s trying to change. Or, at least, perhaps trying to change.]

Verse 6 uses a word that literally means something like robbery or booty to describe what Christ Jesus didn’t regard equality with God as. (The equality, by the way, is the same kind we have in “isobars” and is literally Christ Jesus’ isomorphism with God. So, if Jesus and God were triangles, they would be identical, except for being in two different places on the geometry homework. This can lead to some knotty theological discussions that I hope everyone else will not mind skipping for now.)

The word translated as “emptied himself” in v7 is a form of the Greek verb keno, related to the Greek word kenos, meaning empty or of no effect. This is what leads everyone to talk about what is going on here as kenosis, “self-emptying.” We might have in mind the image of pouring oneself out like water, if that were possible – Paul uses that language a bit later on, in Philippians 2:17, so perhaps that makes it easy to think of this image. It’s the image I, myself, always have, but perhaps someone taught me to think of it this way; I don’t remember.

At least one commentator points out that Paul uses the word elsewhere, and always in the sense of nullifying, making not to count; that’s a strong indication that he means it this way here, too.

[Origen explains it using the example of two statues: suppose there was a statue so large and grand that no one could actually see it. You need a smaller version, exactly like it but small enough to be visible. Christ makes himself, in his perfection, small enough to be perceived by limited humans.]

Scholars have thought about this hymn a lot, in a lot of specific ways – is the emptying referring to Christ’s divinity, to Christ’s humanity, what exactly is being emptied here, and what does that emptying specifically imply for Trinitarian theology, for two-natures or one-nature Christology, for … you get the picture.

These days, the concept of kenosis has come under fire from a different direction for the way it lends itself to being urged [or even imposed] on people whose social position makes it pretty impossible for them to do anything other than be empty, while lending itself to being ignored by people who have a choice in the matter – so, kind of ignoring verse 6 and the whole initial isomorphism part of the story.

There is a wonderful summary discussion of some of the issues involved, as well as a response to the more recent feminist/liberationist critique from a contemporary standpoint, online in Jodi L. Belcher, 2008, “Subversion Through Subjection: A Feminist Reconsideration of Kenosis in Christology and Christian Discipleship.” I thought Belcher’s discussion was outstanding, despite the way her prose, like everyone’s, breaks when she talks about Judith Butler. Her conclusion, based on having worked through an argument about the way power relations constitute people as subjects in the first place, in all kinds of ways, is that:

The call to follow Jesus requires letting go of one’s self-definition, or the ways in which competing powers may define oneself, and instead embracing the way in which God identifies one. Kenosis does not result in a complete loss of self without a simultaneous reception of one’s true identity in God. … As a result, self-denial according to the kenosis of Jesus empowers one to become oneself: a self transformed, redeemed, repeated anew. (59)

I’m pretty sure that at least one person in our class will point out that this hymn still seems to make glory and high position the ultimate motivation for Christ’s initial self-emptying, considering verses 9-11. That brings us back to the problem of trying to write about a new paradigm from inside the old one, perhaps.

The question there might be, knowing what we know about Jesus, whose interests do we think he was thinking about?


“At the Name of Jesus” is a popular hymn based on the Philippians text, probably most familiar in Ralph Vaughn Williams’ KING’S WESTON setting. Here’s one choir’s out-pouring of that song:


mosaic painting of Saint Paul writing