The Cross and Submission

Philippians is an epistle about the gospel. Paul had enjoyed a long-term partnership with the saints at Philippi in the advancement of the gospel; thus, he thanks God in prayer for their “fellowship in the gospel from the first day until now” (1:5).1 But Paul was worried. His concern was that their testimony would be adversely affected by internal tension, like that with Euodias and Syntyche (4:2), and external pressure from enemies that sought to intimidate them with physical suffering (1:28-30). So, Paul begins his letter with one great command that governs the entire epistle. He says, “Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27 ESV). In other words, and with a raised metaphorical finger of warning, they must all live in a way that commended the gospel. Their conduct was to have the same weight as the message they professed to believe. If they were preaching the love of God, they too must be characterised by love for others. If they were preaching the grace of God, they too must be gracious towards one another. Their petty squabbles had the potential to undermine the gospel, and that, in turn, would dishonour the glory of Christ.

Paul was eager for the Philippians to correct their misbehaviour and stand together in unity, “striving [contending] side by side for the faith of the gospel” (v27 ESV). How could this be accomplished? By learning Christ. If there was going to be unity amongst them, there must be humility, and Christ was the perfect example. “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (2:5) – let His attitude of mind be yours! He was not motivated by selfish ambition or the desire for empty praise (v3). In humility, He treated others as more important than Himself. He had a mind that was so set on the interests of others that He was willing to humble Himself to the point of death, even the death of the shameful cross. Christ would submit to His Father’s will whatever the cost. Thus, the cross displays the extent of the submission of Christ and presents an attitude of mind we would do well to emulate if we would commend the gospel by our lives and magnify Christ thereby.

Notice the way in which Paul develops the example of Christ as the perfect pattern of humility for His people.

His Substance (2:6)

First, he establishes the greatness of the person of Christ, that His stoop to the cross might appear all the more admirable. Christ ever continues, unchanging, in the form of God. The word “form” (morphe) describes character – the outward display of inward nature and essence. Christ is God. And yet, He did not regard His lofty position in heaven as something to be retained at all costs. He was willing to relinquish that status to be made, positionally, a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death.

His Service (2:7)

The Lord Jesus “made himself of no reputation.” Literally, He “emptied Himself,” not of any divine attribute, but “poured himself out and into” the form of a lowly servant. This was not subtraction but addition – He added humanity to deity. Neither did He exchange the form of God for the form of a servant; rather, He expressed the form of God in the form of a servant. He did not pretend to be a servant but took the essential form and character of a true servant. He entered into the new condition of manhood, becoming in the “likeness of men.” Though a real and true Man, He was not a mere Man. The word “likeness” describes the next thing to identical, though different. He was holy manhood – God manifest in the flesh. There had never been a man like this before!

His Suffering (2:8)

He was “found [seen] in fashion as a man.” As far as His outward appearance was concerned, He was all that man should be. All the external characteristics of what it is to be a human being living on planet earth were true of Him, whether eating, sleeping or walking. This lowly yet divine Man “humbled himself” still further by becoming “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” The extent and degree of His obedience is in view – He did not obey death but was obedient even unto death. And this was no ordinary death – it was the death of the cross. It was a death of ignominy and shame, a death reserved for slaves and malefactors of the lowest type, the very dregs of society. Crucifixion was so loathed that the word “cross” was unmentionable in polite Roman society.

These are the depths to which the Lord Jesus went in obedience to His Father, and to save our souls. This is the perfect attitude of love and humility we should display towards our fellow saints. But we are being warned – it may bear a heavy cost.

His Supremacy (2:9-11)

If Christ has taken every step downwards to the dust of death, now God will move to highly exalt His Son. Christ could go no lower, but God cannot possibly make Him any higher – He has “highly exalted” Him. This He has done by freely conferring the “above every name” status upon Him. The name in view is likely that of “Lord,” given the parallel with Isaiah 45:22-23 and the parallel in the chiasmus of verses 9-11, which links with the confession that “Jesus Christ is Lord.” The name “Lord” that once belonged to Jehovah in the Old Testament is now attached to Jesus in the New Testament! Living in a Roman colony, the Philippian believers would be compelled to say, “Caesar is Lord,” but that status rightly belongs to the glorified Man, their Saviour and ours, Jesus Christ. Thus, ultimately, whether in willing worship or forced submission, every knee in the whole universe will bow to Christ and every tongue will confess His Lordship to the glory of God the Father.

The cross, then, exemplifies the unparalleled example of the humility of Christ. Let us therefore seek to emulate His attitude of mind and live in harmony with one another. Then the gospel will be honoured, Christ will be magnified, and God will be glorified.

1 Bible quotations in this article are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.