A Closer Look at Phil. 2:1-11

A Closer Look at Phil. 2:1-11

We will be looking at Philippians 2:1-11. First, we’ll view the passage in its entirety through various translation comparisons:

6. Phil 2 1-11

The above screenshot from biblegateway.com represents Philippians 2:1-11 from a formal equivalent translation (the New American Standard Bible [NASB]), a functional equivalent translation (the New Living Translation [NLT]), and “the best known example today”[1] of a paraphrase translation (Eugene Peterson’s The Message [MSG]).

Differences Between Translations

At first glance, the most obvious difference is the length of each translation. The formal equivalent NASB is by far the shortest. Surprisingly, the longest translation isn’t the Message’s paraphrase; it is the functional equivalent NLT. I say this is a surprise considering how the Message’s paraphrase version —with its loose stream-of-consciousness style—typically seems to be longer than most versions.

Another obvious difference is the chapter titles. Even though they cover the same exact text, each translation has a different chapter title: “Be Like Christ” (NASB), “Have the Attitude of Christ” (NLT), and “He Took on the Status of a Slave” (MSG). Although the headings are different, the same basic idea still stands. The subtle discrepancies in the chapter titles perfectly sums up how each translation has its own specific nuance, which I will elaborate on later.

Lastly, the NLT translation indents verses 6-11 whereas the others do not. We will be diving into this section in greater detail later on (a little preview to wet your whistle: verses 6-11 are what most scholars consider to be an early Christian hymn—hence its indention). The NASB is the only translation of the three to have its reference to Isaiah 45:23[2] —“EVERY KNEE WILL BOW”—in all caps. The other two translations keep the reference in lower caps.

Although the same “gist” is detectable across the three translations, there are subtle differences that could potentially create significant problems. Take verse 5 for example. The NASB says to “Have this attitude in yourself which was also in Christ Jesus,” but the NLT makes the same words seem more like an order, “You must have the same attitude that Jesus Christ had.” The MSG defuses the sternness of the NLT by going to the opposite extreme and making it seem more like a suggestion than a flat-out command. It says, “Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself,” and then goes on to expound on that thought. So, how should one interpret verse 5? Is it a command, like the NLT declares? Is it a state-of-mind as the MSG insinuates, or is it a suggestion as the NASB hints? I suppose the answer could be a combination of all three: a suggested command of state-of-mindedness.

An advantage of the NASB for this portion is that it is the most succinct. It does not meander along, as the MSG is prone to do. Consequently, a disadvantage to the NASB—in this same manner—is that it doesn’t flow as naturally as the NLT or the MSG.

Naturally, an advantage to the MSG is that it reads extremely smoothly. It is like reading a normal conversation. It seems more relaxed and personal. However, this very attribute could be deemed a disadvantage seeing as it adds—what some may consider unnecessary—length and is, quite frankly, overly wordy.

An advantage to the NLT is that it is an excellent middle ground between the NASB and the MSG. It is neither long-winded nor rigidly brief. The MSG may appear a little too informal at times and the NASB may seem a little too stuffy at times. However, the NLT comes across as both respectable and modern. However, one disadvantage to the NLT is as Mounce says, it can “take greater liberties with grammatical structure”[3] and shouldn’t be recommended for serious studies. Another personal disadvantage to the NLT (and the MSG for that matter) is that it does not capitalize the pronoun, “He” when referring to Jesus as the NASB does. I cringe every time I come across this occurrence.

Lexical Analysis

Mounce says to look for a verse that “hangs” on a word.[4] Similarly, this whole section hangs on a verse (the sixth one). We can break the passage into the following sections: Section I is comprised of verses 1-4 and Section II is comprised of verses 5-11. Sandwiched almost perfectly in the middle, verse 6 is the hinge on which the entire passage swings. Also, I found verse 6 to be the most perplexing and thought provoking verse of the passage. As Blomberg states, “As a general rule of thumb, any word that seems somewhat confusing to the contemporary reader of Scripture is good fodder for a word study.”[5] My instincts were confirmed when I checked the other translations and noticed that the sixth verse had the most discrepancies.

  • KJV: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
  • NIV: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
  • NASB: who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped,
  • NLT: Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to.
  • YLT: who, being in the form of God, thought [it] not robbery to be equal to God,

It is the word “robbery” that I find interesting. The same concept is translated as robbery, something to be used to his own advantage, and a thing to be grasped. Which is most accurate to Paul’s intended meaning? According to Strong’s Concordance, robbery is from the Greek word, ἁρπαγμὸν [Strong’s #725] translated “something to be grasped.” It is the transliteration of “harpagmon.” The cognate is harpagmos, “the act of seizing or the thing seized.” Harpagmos is a masculine noun. Its semantic range is extraordinarily limited: This is its only occurrence in the whole Bible.[6] (BDAG and Kittel, Vol. I, 473). Interestingly, the most closely related word to harpagmos is harpazo; plunder. Given this evidence, the translation of harpagmos as robbery seems correct.

The context of this passage is unity and being like Christ. Paul says we do this by having the same mind as Christ. The concept Paul is trying to convey is that Christ is our supreme example. Paul instructs his readers to have the attitude of Christ. In verses 1-4, Paul preaches about unity and humility with others. In verse 6, Paul switches the focus to Christ. Jesus showed ultimate humility by taking on the form of man. Yet, He did not regard His equality with God to be “robbery.” This shows how much He loves us. He did not consider Himself robbed of His equality with God. He did not consider His coming down from Heaven as an act of seizing something away. He gave up His Heavenly home willingly. Although He is completely equal with God, He did not consider Himself a victim of robbery by humiliating Himself by putting on flesh and coming to earth. If Christ is our supreme example, then we should show the same kind of humility that Jesus demonstrated when he lowered Himself to man’s level. We should show the same kind of love for our fellow man that Jesus demonstrated by His actions. You cannot steal something that has been freely given away.

Exegetical Outline

Continuing with the framework roughly started in the above section, we get a sense of the flow of the text. As mentioned, our passage is easily divided into two parts: Section I (verses 1-4) and Section II (verses 5-11). Section I points the Philippians to “unity of minds and hearts”[7] through a series of ‘if’ clauses (‘if x means anything to you, then prove it now’[8]). Then it shifts gears to Section II, which points the Philippians to “Christ, the Focus and Model for Discipleship.”[9] Of special note on Section I, Craddock rightly suggests “2:1-11 is tied inseparably to [Philippians] 1:27-30. The conjunction ‘then’ or ‘so’ (2:1) looks back to what has been said and builds upon it.”[10] Let’s look at that quickly:

  • 27 Only let your conduct be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of your affairs, that you stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel, 28 and not in any way terrified by your adversaries, which is to them a proof of perdition, but to you of salvation, and that from God. 29 For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, 30 having the same conflict which you saw in me and now hear is in me. [NKJV]

Therefore, Paul is discussing Christian “experiences they have all shared”[11] Paul is also reminding his flock that they should act in a manner consistent with a Christian whether he is there or not. Therefore, the “entire passage before us is rich with images of the Christian life; soldiers, citizens, athletes, gladiators, and others, but as we shall see, it is the image of servant, of which Christ is the supreme model, which effectively focuses Paul’s discussion of living the gospel.”[12]

The “If” Statements

Since

When we use “if” today, we are saying it “to express uncertainty or a condition contrary to the fact.”[13] As in, “I will need an umbrella if it rains.” Surprisingly however, the Greek usage here is with a sense of certainty: “‘If I were the king (but I am not)’ or ‘If I am your friend (and I am)’”[14] It changes the circumstance from something unsure to something implied or assumed. In this regard, we can almost replace the ‘if’ with a contemporary ‘since.’[15] [‘If I am your friend’ becomes, ‘Since I am your friend.’] Therefore, instead of reading unpredictability into the opening ‘if” statements, we can imagine Paul expressing affirmations! The point is: Paul is not calling attention to their past mistakes, in fact, he is doing the opposite.

Koinonia

According to theologian Ronald J. Allen, the conclusion of Paul’s conditional statement (the “then” part), is “the language of koinonia[16] (which) is the background of Philippians.”[17] The term is translated as “sharing” or “fellowship,” but it “often implies something relationally stronger, as ‘partnership.’”[18] With partnership in mind, there is an overtone of commitment (as in, “to carry out a mission”[19]). When “fellowship” is used in 2:1, the word is loaded with the meaning of “community, joint application, and communication.”[20] That is what and how a Christian community should operate, in harmonious and united koinonia. Paul indicates that these things listed in Section I, “must be demonstrated in practice.”[21] That is, we are to walk the talk we talk. But how do you practice congenial koinonia when the situation is far from congenial?

Tough Love

Taking Section II with its emphasis on the servant heart of Christ to heart, one is encouraged to take stock of his or her attitudes with fellow sojourners (believers) and fellow humans (unbelievers). Renowned Jesuit Priest and professor at St. Louis University John F. Kavanaugh, had an interesting take on the practical application of Phil. 2:1-11. He called it “Love’s Labor.”[22] Kavanaugh in his refreshingly honest paper, states that sometimes “in 24 hours I begin to hate the best of men… I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me.”[23] He quotes Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov wherein a character mentions, “’I love humanity, but the more I love humanity in general, the less I love people in particular.’”[24]

We all have people in our lives that are tough to love. It may be a negative employee or a nagging in-law. It’s always easy to love those who are easy to love, but Paul tells us that Christ loved everyone, even those who plotted against Him. He even loved those who actually murdered Him! Therefore, loving God and loving our neighbors are intrinsically tied together (Mark 12:31). In other words, you cannot have one without the other; to love the Creator is to love His creations! To go around professing devotion to Yahweh and then criticizing, bickering, and insulting people is to be false.

How does one enter that kind of a life? The door to that attitude is “an emptying of the self, a desire to serve rather than to be served.”[25] Jesus loved us in a way to be the example of how we are to love each other: As verse 7 tells us, He emptied Himself of His majesty in order to walk this earth with us and show us true love.

The Hymn

Lyrics and Music by…

Verses 5-11 of Section II are often referred to as the “hymn of Christ.”[26] It is quite the infamous portion. Scholars call it the “carmen Christi.”[27] I say, infamous, because its origin is still regularly debated. As D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo tell us, some scholars view the hymn section as a “pre-Pauline composition, perhaps coming from the early Palestinian church.”[28] F.F. Bruce says the hymn “was current as early as the Hellenistic mission in Syrian Antioch.”[29] If this is a hymn in the traditional sense, then the structure 2:6-11 has also sparked debate. Thomas D. Lea and David Alan Black explain “though most agree that Paul used the hymn to urge humility upon his readers, interpreters disagree over the number of verses in the hymn, the original source of the words, and the theological meaning of its content.”[30]

Some of the vocabulary is different than typical Pauline writing. Also atypical to Pauline writing is the focus on Christ as servant. Carson believes if the poetry was Hebrew or Aramaic in origin and then translated into New Testament Greek, then “the language and the rhythm would perhaps fit.”[31] Considering that Paul’s first language was Aramaic, (Acts 22:2; 2 Cor. 11:22) it also fits that he could have composed the lines himself. Still yet, “the most common opinion is that Paul has taken someone else’s composition and adapted it to his purpose.”[32]

As you can see, there are numerous ways to look at the origin of this text and therefore, coming to a conclusion about it could only ever be speculation. More important than answering the question of origin, is understanding the purpose of this section.

The Name

Kyrios

Using concise phrases, the hymn section basically sketches “the entire mission of Jesus Christ.”[33] Paul tells us that Christ left His home in Heaven, humbled Himself to the form of a man and ultimately, gave His life on the cross and therefore—God highly exalted Him and gave Him a name above all names. That name is “’Lord’ (kyrios).”[34] ” He goes on to say that at that name, all shall bow and all shall recognize the great work of Jesus (a reference to Psa. 110:1). This will result in every person confessing that Jesus is Lord. All of this is to the glory of the Father. Now we have the end-result of all that has transpired. Jesus has gone from the very bottom and ended up on the very top. Jesus is exalted by the Father and the Father is glorified. Just as Jesus finished His Father’s business (Luke 2:49), His Father rewarded Him. Likewise, we can expect to be rewarded for also being about our Heavenly Father’s business.

In Matthew 10:32, Jesus says that whoever confesses His name before men, He will confess to His Father. It all starts, ends and is through Jesus (John 1:3, 3:35). Frederick G. McLeod in his commentary on Philippians says, “This was his [Paul’s] intent; to teach the Philippians that humility is good, with the potential to reward one who so acts.”[35]

Whatever—specifically—was happening at the church in Philippi we do not know, but we know that it was serious. Serious enough that Paul invokes Jesus as the cosmic Christ. Paul reminds them that Jesus currently is reigning over the entire universe. Therefore, as Craddock puts it, “in Paul’s judgment what the church needs is not a scolding but a reminder of the event that created and defined their life together.”[36] And further, “that which makes the church the church is the ‘in Christ Jesus’ mind.”[37] This whole section is a call to servitude and obedience. It all starts with Jesus.

Conclusion

Regardless of which translation of the Bible you personally study and disregarding which school of thought you privately subscribe to with respect to how the hymn section of Philippians 2 came about, one cannot deny the timeless and incredibly important message Paul is making in this precious portion of Scripture. As our society silently assimilates into an increasingly anti-social world (even though we call it “Social Media,” it is, in fact, quite the opposite), Paul’s words ring all the louder: Cultivate a spirit of koinonia. Plant fellowship, till community, and we will harvest unity! Sure, it is a laborious task, this harmony. But the benefits far outweigh the struggle.

Paul urgently reminds us to look to Jesus Christ as the supreme example in all our endeavors. The fruit of our hard work will be a life that reflects His. As Paul noted, Christ emptied himself and became a servant. We too, should empty ourselves and become servants. Just as Christ received His reward for His toil, so shall we for ours.

Raymond Pelly, in his article “From Below: Christ, the poet and the pilgrim” states, “Paul’s answer is that Jesus’ actions were through and through motivated by love of others.”[38] How much more so should ours? Dr. R. Wayne Stacy refers to Philippians as “a ‘love fest’ between a church and missionary.”[39] Ultimately, our life should be described as a “love fest.” Wouldn’t that be nice?


[1] Craig Blomberg and Jennifer Foutz Markley, A Handbook of New Testament Exegesis (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2010), 42.

[2] “Philippians 2,” Bible Study Tools, accessed on January 14, 2015, http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/jamieson-fausset-brown/philippians/philippians-2.html.

[3] William Mounce, Greek for the Rest of UsUsing Greek Tools without Mastering Biblical Greek (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 27.

[4] William Mounce, 201.

[5] Craig Blomberg and Jennifer Foutz Markley, 124.

[6] Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed., ed. Frederick William Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 133.

[7] John Muddiman and John Barton. “Pauline Epistles.” Oxford, GBR: Oxford University Press, 2010. Accessed March 3, 2015. ProQuest ebrary, 194

[8] Ibid., 195

[9] Ibid.

[10] Craddock, Fred B. 1985. Philippians. Atlanta, Ga: Westminster John Knox Press, 1985. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed March 3, 2015), 35.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 31.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 35.

[16] James Strong, The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, 21st ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 1.

[17] Ronald J. Allen, 2007. “Philippians 2:1-11. (Between text & sermon).” Interpretation Jan 2007Christian Periodical Index, EBSCOhost (accessed February 16, 2015), 72.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] W.E. Vine, Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words: with Topical Index(Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1996), 1.

[21] “Ambrosiaster Commentary on Philippians”. 2009. In Ancient Christian Texts: Commentaries on Galatians–Philemon. Westmont: IVP Academic. http://www.liberty.edu:2048/login?url=http://literati.credoreference.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/content/entry/ivpacaactgala/ambrosiaster_commentary_on_philippians/0

[22] Kavanaugh, John F. 1996. “Love’s labor.” America 175, no. 7: 39. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed February 16, 2015), 39.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Crossway Bibles, The ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 2,282.

[27] David Alan Black, “Paul and Christian unity : a formal analysis of Philippians 2:1-4.” Journal Of The Evangelical Theological Society 28, no. 3: 299-308. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed February 16, 2015), 299.

[28] D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament. 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 500.

[29] F. F. Bruce, Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free, (Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Paternoster Press, 2000), 131.

[30] Thomas D. Lea and David Alan Black, The New Testament Its Background and Message. 2nd ed. (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2003), 444.

[31] D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, 499.

[32] Ibid., 501.

[33] Crossway Bibles, The ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 2,283.

[34] F. F. Bruce, 131.

[35] McLeod, Frederick G. 2009. Theodore of Mopsuestia. London: Routledge, 2009. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed March 3, 2015), 111.

[36] Craddock, 42-43.

[37] Ibid., 43.

[38] Pelly, Raymond B. 2009. “From below: Christ, the poet and the pilgrim.” Stimulus 17, no. 1: 9-16. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed February 16, 2015), 10.

[39] Robert Wayne Stacy, TheDocinabox, “Lukan Authorship of Acts,” accessed January 14, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=35FfvIyIZcw.


Bibliography

Allen, Ronald J. (Ronald James). 2007. “Philippians 2:1-11. (Between text & sermon).” Interpretation Jan 2007Christian Periodical Index, EBSCOhost (accessed February 16, 2015).

“Ambrosiaster Commentary on Philippians”. 2009. In Ancient Christian Texts: Commentaries on Galatians–Philemon. Westmont: IVP Academic. http://www.liberty.edu:2048/login?url=http://literati.credoreference.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/content/entry/ivpacaactgala/ambrosiaster_commentary_on_philippians/0

Bauer, Walter. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. Edited by Frederick William Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Bibles, Crossway The ESV Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008.

Bible Study Tools. “Philippians 2.” Accessed January 14, 2015. http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/jamieson-faussetbrown/philippians/philippians-2.html.

BibleGateway. “Philippians 2.” Accessed February 9, 2015. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Philippians%202%3A111&version=NASB;NLT;MSG.

Black, David Alan. “Paul and Christian unity : a formal analysis of Philippians 2:1-4.” Journal Of The Evangelical Theological Society 28, no. 3 (September 1, 1985): 299-308. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed February 16, 2015).

Blomberg, Craig, and Jennifer Foutz Markley. A Handbook of New Testament Exegesis. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010.

Bruce, F. F. Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free. Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Paternoster Press, 2000.Kittel, Gerhard. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Translated and edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965.

Carson, D A., and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.

Craddock, Fred B. Philippians. Atlanta: Westminster John Knox Press, 1985. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed February 17, 2015).

Kavanaugh, John F. “Love’s labor.” America 175, no. 7 (September 21, 1996): 39. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed February 16, 2015).

Lea, Thomas D., and David Alan Black. The New Testament, Its Background and Message. 2nd ed. Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2003.

McLeod, Frederick G. Theodore of Mopsuestia. London: Routledge, 2009. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed March 3, 2015).

Mounce, William D. Greek for the Rest of UsUsing Greek Tools without Mastering Biblical Greek. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003.

Muddiman, John, and Barton, John, eds. Pauline Epistles. Oxford, GBR: Oxford University Press, 2010. Accessed March 3, 2015. ProQuest ebrary.

Pelly, Raymond B. “From below: Christ, the poet and the pilgrim.” Stimulus 17, no. 1 (February 1, 2009): 9-16. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed February 16, 2015).

Stacy, Robert Wayne. 2012. “Philippians,” TheDocinabox, February 3, 2013. Accessed February 14, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JezwbYfqKxk.

Strong, James. The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. 21st ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.

Vine, W.E. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words: with Topical Index. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1996.


Submitted to Liberty University Baptist Theological Seminary in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the completion of the course NGRK 505 Greek Language Tools

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About mrpatvincent

Follower of Jesus. Lover of my wife and daughter. Professional Goofball.
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