Philippians 2:5-11 is an amazing passage that gives many insights into the God-Man, Jesus Christ. It is a critical passage for understanding the humility, passion, and servanthood of the Son of God. Karleen states, “it consists of taking on a human nature and being a servant; for God to live like a servant is truly an emptying, a degradation.”1 In The Teacher’s Commentary, Richards writes:
Philippians contains one of the most powerful New Testament affirmations of Christ’s deity and lordship. Jesus who was God from eternity emptied Himself to become a man and, after suffering death, was raised again to His original glory and given a name above every name: Lord.2
This paper will analyze this kenosis passage to better understand its context, meaning, and application. Commentaries from a variety of experts will be examined and discussed. Many theologians have examined this passage in depth and have excellent discussions available for review.
Paul established the church in Philippi during his second missionary journey. Paul was imprisoned at the time he wrote this letter. Most believe he was a prisoner in Rome. Commentators differ on the date but a reasonable range is between A.D. 50 to 62. Lightner comments:;
When the Philippian believers heard about Paul’s imprisonment at Rome, they sent Epaphroditus, who may have been their pastor, to minister to him. Epaphroditus personally comforted Paul, expressing to him the affection of the saints in Philippi. And he brought Paul a financial contribution from them so that his confinement would be more comfortable (4:18). 3
Hughes gives further insight on the setting of this letter:
The church at Philippi was around twelve years old when Paul wrote this letter. Epaphroditus had recently arrived to bring Paul some aid (2:25; 4:18). The immediate occasion of the letter was the return of Epaphroditus following his illness (2:25–30). This gave Paul an opportunity to commend his fellow worker and encourage the readers. 4
Lightner’s theme for the book of Philippians is “living the Christian life.”5 In addition, Loh comments that Philippians places great emphasis “on the corporate nature of the Christian community.”6 Overall we see Paul writing about the wonderful example Christ gave the Church on humility and the wonders of His incarnation and lordship. The passages leading up to Philippians 2:5-11 are important in getting a deeper understanding of the kenosis passage.
The beginning of chapter two emphasizes the theme of “living the Christian life.”7 Also, Melick notes that “Paul wrote to produce like-mindedness. His approach shifted from the blessings they shared in Christ to the Philippians’ responsibility to Paul, their spiritual father. Paul’s joy would be complete when they stood together in unity.”8 The first four verses of chapter two of Philippians leads into the kenosis passage and are important in understanding the context of Philippians 2:5-11.
Philippians 2:5-7 states, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” According to the New Bible Commentary, Philippians 2:5 refers to “Your attitude could mean personal attitude or that which is expressed in relationships. ‘Have this mind among yourselves’ is the translation, and the neb has ‘Let your bearing towards one another arise out of your life in Christ Jesus.’”9 This analysis makes sense, since it is synergistic with the theme of the first four verses of Philippians chapter two. Additionally, the Pulpit Commentary gives further insight into verse 5:
The words, “in Christ Jesus,” show that the corresponding words, “in you,” cannot mean “among you,” but in yourselves, in your heart. The apostle refers us to the supreme example of unselfishness and humility, the Lord Jesus Christ. He bids us mind (comp. Rom. 8:5) the things which the Lord Jesus minded, to love what he loved, to hate what he hated; the thoughts, desires, motives, of the Christian should be the thoughts, desires, motives, which filled the sacred heart of Jesus Christ our Lord. We must strive to imitate him, to reproduce his image, not only in the outward, but even in the inner life. Especially here we are bidden to follow his unselfishness and humility.10
The application of this verse is summarized by Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible
All godly action begins with the “renewing of the mind.” Right thinking produces right actions. Our actions are the fruit of our deepest thoughts. in you: Thinking and being like Christ are requirements not only for an individual but also for the corporate body of believers. Together we need to think and act like one being, like the person of Jesus Christ. 11
Philippians 2:6-7 states, “who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God.” Lightner has a key insight into this passage regarding the term form, which comes from the Greek word morphē. He writes:
stresses the inner essence or reality of that with which it is associated (morphē) of God, and in His incarnation He embraced perfect humanity. His complete and absolute deity is here carefully stressed by the apostle. The Savior’s claim to deity infuriated the Jewish leaders (John 5:18) and caused them to accuse Him of blasphemy12 (John 10:33).12
Certainly Philippians 2:6 is one of the great verses of the Bible that confirm the deity of Jesus Christ. This is found in the commentary by Wiersbe as follows:
But Philippians 2:6 states an amazing fact: He did not consider His equality with God as “something selfishly to be held on to.” Jesus did not think of Himself; He thought of others. His outlook (or attitude) was that of unselfish concern for others. This is “the mind of Christ,” an attitude that says, “I cannot keep my privileges for myself, I must use them for others; and to do this, I will gladly lay them aside and pay whatever price is necessary.” 13
Verse 6 does not refer to the limited capacity of humans to understand the incarnation of Christ. Instead, it refers to the selflessness of the Son of God as He took on humanity and its lesser privileges.
Philippians 2:7 states, “but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. The Nelson Study Bible commentators explain this verse as:
This phrase can be translated “He emptied Himself.” Christ did this by taking on the form of a servant, a mere man. In doing this, He did not empty Himself of any part of His essence as God. Instead He merely gave up His privileges as God and took upon Himself existence as a man. While remaining completely God, He became completely human. form: Jesus added to His divine essence (see v. 6) a servant’s essence, that is, the essential characteristics of a human being seeking to fulfill the will of another. Paul does not say that Christ exchanged the form of God for the form of a servant, involving a loss of deity or the attributes of deity. Rather, in the Incarnation, Christ continued in the very nature of God but added to Himself the nature of a servant.14
This commentary is good but has one definite weakness. Jesus did not “give up His privileges as God” but rather took on humanity. The commentators seem to contradict themselves since later in their commentary they write, “Christ continued in the very nature of God but added to Himself the nature of a servant.”15 In other words, He did not give up His privileges as God as earlier stated. We find several examples of this in Scripture such as Christ’s miracles or ability to hold off death until His appointed time.
In verse 8 we read, “And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to [the point of] death, even the death of the cross.” The Epistle to the Philippians: A Commentary on the Greek Text gives insight into this verse: “Having fully identified himself with humanity in his incarnation (death of the cross’ (Origen).”16 The Pulpit Commentary takes the depth of this verse further by applying it to the cross:
The participle implies that the supreme act of self-humiliation consisted in the Lord’s voluntary submission to death. The obedience of his perfect life extended even unto death. “He taketh away [literally, ‘beareth,’ αἴρει] the sin of the world;” “The wages of sin is death;” therefore he suffered death for the sin which, himself sinless, he vouchsafed to bear. Here we may remark in passing that this connection of death with sin must have made death all the more awful to our sinless Lord. Even the death of the cross. No ordinary death, but of all forms of death the most torturing, the most full of shame—a death reserved by the Romans for slaves, a death accursed in the eyes of the Jews (Deut. 21:23).17
Lastly, A Handbook on Paul’s Letter to the Philippians gives this insight: “The final phrase in verse 8, his death on the cross, may be introduced as an explanation of precisely what kind of dying was meant; for example, ‘He was obedient to God even to the point of dying, that is to say, dying on a cross’ or ‘…that is to say, being crucified.’” 18
Verse 9 states, “Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name.” Melick gives a good explanation of this passage:
God becomes the subject, rather than Christ, and the purpose of God’s actions becomes evident. God exalted Jesus. Two statements reveal the nature of God’s actions. First, he “exalted him to the highest place”; second, he “gave him the name that is above every name.” The two relate to each other so that together they express God’s action. 19
Also, the editors of A Handbook on Paul’s Letter to the Philippians provide the following insight:
Exaltation is the natural consequence of humiliation (Matt. 18:4; 23, 12; Luke 14:11, 18:14; cf. 2 Cor. 11:7; Phil. 4:12). In some languages for this reason may be rendered as “because of what he did.” God raised him to the highest place above is literally “God hyperexalted him.” This rare compound verb occurs only here in the New Testament. The force of “hyper” is not simply “more than before,” but rather “in superlative measure.” The idea is not that God exalted Christ to a higher rank that the one he held before. The contrast is between the lowest point of his earthly role (servant-obedience-criminal death) to the highest heavenly honor (cf. Isa 52.13). It is possible that the exaltation includes the resurrection and especially the ascension, as understood by a number of commentators (Acts 2:23-24, 33; Rom. 1:4; Heb. 1:3); but the context seems to suggest that the reference is primarily to status, namely, the highest honor, the lordship.20
John Courson gives the application of this passage Peter put it this way:
Humble yourself under the mighty hand of God, and He will exalt you in due time (1 Peter 5:6). If you exalt yourself and demand your way, you will be abased. But if you humble yourself, you’ll be exalted. And Jesus is the Perfect Example. God exalted Him because He humbled Himself by becoming a slave to the point of death for all humanity.21
This tenth verse of Philippians 2 clearly demonstrates the lordship of Jesus Christ. The verse states, “That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth.” A good exposition on this verse is found in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures:
In keeping with Christ’s exaltation and high name . . . every knee will one day bow and acknowledge Him for who He really is. Paul stressed the same truth in his letter to the Romans (Rom. 14:11). Both instances reflect Isaiah’s prophecy (Isa. 45:23) of the singular greatness of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The extent of Christ’s sovereign authority is delineated in the threefold phrase, in heaven and on earth and under the earth. No intelligent being—whether angels and saints in heaven; people living on the earth; or Satan, demons, and the unsaved in hell—in all of God’s universe will escape. All will bow either willingly or they will be made to do so. 22
The Pulpit Commentary gives an even deeper interpretation of this verse and gives the application for Christian worship:
That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow; translate, in the name, not at (comp. Isa. 14:23, quoted in Rom. 14:10, 11). The words may mean either that all prayer must be offered to God in the name of Jesus, through his mediation, or that all creation must offer prayer to him. Both alternatives are true, and perhaps both are covered by the words; but the second seems to be principally intended (comp. Ps. 63:4, “I will lift up my hands in thy Name.” Comp. also [in the Greek] 104:3; 1 Kings 8:44; also the common Septuagint phrase, Ἐπικαλεῖσθαι ἐν ὀνόματι Κυρίου). Observe, the words are not “the name Jesus,” but “the name of Jesus,” the name, that is, which God freely gave to him (v. 9). It is the name which is above every name, that is, the majesty, the glory of Jesus, which is to be the object of Christian worship. The end of the whole passage being the exaltation of Jesus, it seems more natural to understand this verse of worship paid to Jesus than of worship offered through him to God the Father. Observe also that the words (Isa. 65:23) on which this passage is formed are the words of Jehovah: “Unto me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.” They could not be used without impiety of any but God. Of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth. Perhaps the angels, the living, and the dead; or, more probably (comp. Rev. 5:13 and Eph. 1:21, 22), all creation, animate and inanimate, is represented as uniting in the universal adoration.23
The final verse in the great kenosis passage reads, “and [that] every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ [is] Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Matthew Henry comments:
Observe, it is to the glory of God the Father to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord; for it is his will that all men should honour the Son as they honour the Father, Jn. 5:23. Whatever respect is paid to Christ redounds to the honour of the Father. He who receiveth me receiveth him who sent me, Mt. 10:40.24
To confess Jesus Christ as God gives glory to the Godhead, and that of Father. Jones also has an interesting commentary:
Every tongue; all creatures endowed with the gift of speech. The word rendered “confess” is commonly associated with the idea of thanksgiving, as in Matt. 11:25, and generally in the Septuagint. Every tongue shall confess with thankful adoration that he who took upon him the form of a slave, is Lord of all. To the glory of God the Father (comp. 1 Cor. 15:28, “That God may be all in all”). The glory of God the Father, from whom, as the original Source, the whole scheme of salvation proceeds, is the supreme and ultimate object of the Saviour’s incarnation. 25
This writer differs with one statement in Jones’ comments. He states that the Father is the “original Source.” Actually, the Godhead is the original Source with the Father co-equally partaking as a member of the Godhead.
The meaning of the term “Lord” in verse 11 is defined by A Handbook on Paul’s Letter to the Philippians:
The content of the acclamation is Jesus Christ is Lord. Here we have one of the earliest Christological confessions of the church preserved in the New Testament (cf. Rom 10.9; 1 Cor 12.3). Lord is the most common title applied to Jesus by the early church. It is the word employed in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew “Yahweh.” It can be used in the general sense of “master” or “sir,” but when it is applied to Jesus, it has a unique Christological significance. When Jesus Christ is acclaimed as Lord, he is installed in the place which properly belongs to God alone. This means that Jesus Christ has sovereignty over the entire universe. Lord is emphatic by its position in the sentence. Since this is a creedal statement, the words may be placed within quotation marks (so , , ). In many languages the equivalent of Lord must occur with a so-called possessive pronoun, since it is impossible to anyone to be merely Lord; he must be Lord of certain persons, that is, “the one who controls” or “the one who gives orders to” those persons. Therefore Lord must be rendered in many instances as “their Lord. 26
The use of the term “Lord” in verse 11 is an obvious reference to the deity of Jesus Christ if not for any reason other than the fact that only God is to be bowed to and worshipped.
Finally, the explanation by The Bible Knowledge Commentary : An Exposition of the Scriptures states:
What all will confess is that Jesus Christ is Lord. This, the earliest Christian creed, meant that Jesus Christ is Yahweh-God. One day all will be made to acknowledge that Jesus Christ is all He claimed to be—very God of very God. Unfortunately, for many it will be too late for the salvation of their souls. The exalted place the Savior now occupies and the universal bowing in the future in acknowledgement of His lordship is all to the glory of God the Father. 27
Philippians 2:5-11, also known as the “kenosis” passage, is one of my favorite collections of verses in the Bible. It reminds Christians of the example Christ gave to be humble. It also speaks clearly to the deity of Christ, who being in the form of God was equal with God. This passage communicates the passion of Christ who voluntarily took on humanity and willfully died on the cross for the sins of the world. We also learn of his exaltation related to His resurrection and His claim to be God or Lord. Christ’s exaltation and work on the cross also gave glory to God the Father.
The kenosis passage is a key portion of Scripture that is foundational to understanding more deeply who Jesus Christ really is. In a simplified summary, Christ is God the Son who humbled Himself and took on humanity. To take the punishment of our sins He took on human form and through obedience to the Father’s will He willingly died on the cross. He rose from the dead, proving He is God and is to be exalted and worshipped as God. This act of sacrifice and obedience brings glory to God the Father, whom Christ reigns with as one of the three persons of the triune Godhead.
1 Paul S. Karleen, The Handbook to Bible Study: With a Guide to the Scofield Study System (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).
2 Larry Richards and Lawrence O. Richards, The Teacher’s Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1987), S. 934.
3 Robert P. Lightner, “Philippians,” The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. by John F. Walvoord, and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1983), 2:647.
4 Robert B. Hughes and J. Carl Laney, Tyndale Concise Bible Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 2001), 599.
5 Lightner, 2:647.
6I-Jin Loh and Eugene Albert Nida, A Handbook on Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (New York: United Bible Societies, 1995), viii.
7 Lightner, 2:653.
8 Richard R. Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, The New American Commentary 32 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1991), S. 93..
9 D.A. Carson, New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, 4th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity, 1994), 2:5.
10 H. D. M. Spence-Jones, The Pulpit Commentary: Philippians (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, 2004), S. 59.
11 Earl D. Radmacher, Ronald Barclay Allen, and H. Wayne House, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), S. Php 2:5.
12 Lightner, 2:654.
13 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1989), S. Php 2:5.
14 Earl D. Radmacher, Ronald Barclay Allen, and H. Wayne House, The Nelson Study Bible : New King James Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), S. Php 2:7
16 Peter Thomas O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), S. 227.
17 Spence-Jones, 60.
18 Loh and Nida, 61.
19 Melick, 105.
20 Loh and Nida, 62.
21 Jon Courson, Jon Courson’s Application Commentary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2003), S. 1279.
22 Lightner, 2:654.
23 Spence-Jones, 61.
24 Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1991), S. Php 2:1.
25 Spence-Jones, 61.
26 Loh and Nida, 64.
27 Lightner, 2:654.
Carson, D. A. New Bible Commentary : 21st Century Edition, 4th ed. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity, 1994.
Courson, Jon. Jon Courson’s Application Commentary. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2003.
Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible : Complete and Unabridged in One Volume. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1991.
Hughes, Robert B. and H. Carl Laney. Tyndale Concise Bible Commentary. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 2001.
Karleen, Paul S. The Handbook to Bible Study: With a Guide to the Scofield Study System. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Lightner, Robert. “Philippians.” The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures. Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1985.
Loh, I-Jin, and Eugene Albert Nida. A Handbook on Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. New York: United Bible Societies, 1977.
Melick, Richard R. Philippians, Colissians, Philemon. The New American Commentary 32. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1991.
O’Brien, Peter Thomas. The Epistle to the Philippians : A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.
Radmacher, Earl D., Ronald Barclay Allen, and H. Wayne House. Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary. Nashville: T. Nelson, 1999.
Radmacher, Earl D., Ronald Barclay Allen, and H. Wayne House. The Nelson Study Bible: New King James Version. Nashville: T. Nelson, 1997.
Richards, Larry, and Lawrence O. Richards. The Teacher’s Commentary. Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1987.
Spence-Jones, H. D. M. The Pulpit Commentary: Philippians. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, 2004.
Wiersbe, Warren W. The Bible Exposition Commentary. Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1989.