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Exegetical Commentary of Philippians 2:1-11

Exegetical Commentary of Philippians 2:1-11

by Mike Prah on December 23, 2019


Twenty centuries ago, an itinerant tent-maker was incarcerated for creating a public disturbance. There, he spent considerable time dictating a letter to a small persecuted group of believers. Today, few people would remember the name of the Roman emperor, Nero, under whose authority Paul was imprisoned. Paul’s name, on the other hand, is instantly recognized by millions, and his letter to the persecuted Philippian community is interpreted in many languages, read in small churches and massive cathedrals, and understood by people different that him and the recipient Philippian believers. I suppose he did not know the full impact of his immortal words: “I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel” (Phil 1:12). Indeed, the time has come, as F. F. Bruce notes, when “people call their dogs Nero and their sons Paul.”[1]

This article  presents an exegetical study of Philippians 2:1-11. The historical-cultural and theological perspectives will be surveyed. Most importantly, an exposition of the passage will be explored along with some points of application.



            Historical-Cultural Context

            Theological Themes

Exegesis of Philippians 2:1-11

            Overview of 2:1-11

            Christian Unity 2:1-4

            Christ and His Humility as an Exemplar (2:5-11)




Historical-Cultural Context

The questions worth exploring are, why this letter, to these people, at this time? In the mid-first century, Philippi was a strategically located city with a rich heritage and distinctive culture. Founded initially as Krenides by some Greek colonists from the island of Thasos (ca. 360 BC), it was taken over by Philip of Macedon (father of Alexander the Great) in 365 and renamed after himself. Its reason for existence and Philip’s take-over is related to its strategic location. It sat as a sentinel to the sizeable agricultural plain of Datos; it was well-protected by its acropolis, and most importantly to Philip, it was rich in mineral deposits, including gold.[2] Philippi (and all Macedonia) came under the control of the Romans in 168, who abolished the ancient Macedonia dynasty and eventually established a Roman province and divided it into four parts. Luke notes that Philippi was “the leading city of the district of Macedonia” (Acts 16:12).[3] [4]

By the time Paul came to the city in 49 AD (Acts 16:11-15), Philippi was the urban political center of the eastern end of the plain. Large numbers of soldiers were settled in the city, refounding it as a Roman military colony and endowing its populace with Roman citizenship, including the worship of the emperor as an essential element of its religious life.[5] Its population was both Roman and Greek, and although Latin was the official language, Greek was the predominant language of commerce and everyday life.[6] 

The history of the founding of this church recorded in Acts 6:11-40 has not been disputed, although the chronology has been called into question. From the scanty information available about the makeup of the Church, Luke records a few people in the Book of Acts, which gives us an idea of the socio-economic makeup of the congregation. Lydia, a merchant from Thyatira, had a large household enough to house Paul and his companions, which suggests she owned a villa (Acts 16:13, 14, 15, 40). The jailer also had a household, probably belonging to the artisan class. The young girl from whom Paul cast the divining spirit (Acts 16:16-18) belonged to the slave class that often made up a large part of the early Christian congregation. What this suggests is that the socio-economic demographic is similar to what one might find in urban churches.[7] The fact that three of the people Luke records as the founding nucleus of the church are women (Lydia, Euodia, Syntyche), provides good evidence that in “Greek Macedonia women had a much more significant role in public life than in most other areas in Greco-Roman antiquity.”[8]

Paul and his companion’s time in Philippi forged a close friendship with the Philippian believers, which undoubtedly was strengthened by Luke’s staying on after Paul, Silas, and Timothy departed for Thessalonica. This bond of friendship is evidenced in Paul’s statement in Phil 4:15 that “no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving but you alone.” Social reciprocity was the primary ingredient of Greco-Roman friendship.[9] Continuing his relationship with this community, Paul paid at least two visits to Philippi based on 1st and 2nd Corinthians. His deep affection for this congregation is evidenced by his riveting testimony about them in 2 Corinthians 8:1-5.

Paul wrote the letter of Philippians in detainment, which he mentions about four times as “being in chains (NIV) or imprisonment (NASB)” (Phil 1:7, 13, 14, 17). Tradition holds that he was imprisoned in Rome between 60 and 62 AD, although others favor Ephesus or Caesarea as his prison location. Gordon Fee endorses the traditional view based on his Praetorian Guard comment (Phil 1:13).[10] Moreover, he sends greetings to the Philippians from believers among Caesar’s household (Phil 4:22), and “what better place to find Caesar’s staff than in Rome?”[11]

Philippians was occasioned after the church brought him some gifts by Epaphroditus due to his imprisonment (Phil 4:10-18). Also, Epaphroditus told him about the opposition and suffering the believers were going through back home from pagan neighbors, internal conflicts arising from two prominent leaders (Euodia and Syntyche), and the deterioration of the general health of the church. Paul wrote the letter to thank the Philippians for their financial help (Phil 4:10-19), to reconcile the rivalry between these two prominent women, to warn the church of false teachers (Phil Ch.3), and to encourage the church to remain faithful to the Lord in a hostile environment (Phil 4:1-3).[12] Beyond Paul’s anticipation, his divine-inspired message, full of comfort and joy, rebuke and encouragement, doctrine and exhortation, continues to speak to countless believers.[13]

Theological Themes

The theological themes that form the foundation of Philippians include: First, Philippians is about Christian unity. Paul mentions that the unity of the church is the antidote to the forces hostile to the gospel (Phil 1:27, 28; 2:16), for presenting a sound witness to the unbelieving world, and for sanctification and glorification on the day of Christ (Phil 2:12-13,16). Second, Paul emphasizes the boundaries of Christian unity. He uses direct language in Phil 3:18-19 for those who claim to be believers and yet take offense at the cross, and who, refusing to await God’s timing, believe that they have achieved spiritual perfection. Further, Paul not only emphasizes the importance and boundaries of Christian unity, but also teaches the path toward achieving it. He does that through specific commands (Phil 2:3, 14) as well as portraying Christ’s willingness to humble Himself as a model for us to follow (Phil 2:5-11).[14]

Exegesis of 2:1-11

Overview of Philippians 2:1-11

Philippians 2:1-11 comprises of two main sections. The first section (Phil 2:1-4) is an appeal to unity. Paul describes attitudes and behaviors that foster tension and strife and exhorts his readers to behave according to a different standard, which he will introduce in verses 6-11 as exemplified by Christ.[15] The second section (Phil 2:5-11) is an appeal to the humility of Christ as an exemplar. It posits “Christ’s privilege of divine status (Phil 2:6); His voluntary relinquishment of that privilege and acceptance of humiliation (Phil 2:7-8); and His subsequent exaltation by God (Phil 2:9-11)”[16] as a fresh appeal for the Philippians to adopt Christ’s frame of mind introduced in Phil 2:6-8 and habits outlined in Phil 2: 2-4.

Christian Unity 2:1-4

2:1-4    The close connection between this passage and the preceding verses is not only apparent from the Greek participle oun (therefore, 2:1), also, what had been briefly expressed with the phrases “in one spirit, with one mind” (Phil 1:27, NKJV), becomes here “a whole paragraph brimming with emotional force.”[17] Silva suggests the following literal translation block diagram of repeated parallelism, and strophic quality of sections A, B, C, D to expose the meaning of the paragraph.

A         if there is any encouragement in Christ (1a)

                        if there is any consolation of love (1b)     

            if there is any fellowship of the Spirit (1c)

                        If any affection and compassion (1d)

B  make my joy complete (2a)

C         by being of the same mind (2b)

                        maintaining the same love (2c)

                        united in spirit (2d)

            intent on one purpose (2e).

D         Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit (3a)

                        but with humility of mind regard one another as more important

                                    than yourselves (3b)

            do not merely look out for own personal interests (4a)

                        but also for the interests of others (4b) [18]


Phil 2:2a.    Section B. The note of joy. Grammatically, verses 1-4 constitute one sentence with one main clause, the imperative of verse 2a, Greek: plērōsate mou tēn charan (“make my joy complete”). The situation here is the Philippian's afflictions have brought discouragement to the community. Paul addresses the issue of the Philippian's unity as the one problem that concerns him, which is preventing him from experiencing full joy, notwithstanding his own challenges. Silva suggests that perhaps Paul recognizes that “the key to joy consists of shifting our attention away from ourselves and onto the needs of others.”[19]

Phil 2:2b and 2e; 2c and d.    Section C: Spiritual oneness. The central thought of this passage is conveyed by four short clauses that constitute section C in the block diagram above. The first and last of these, "being of the same mind," (2b) and "intent on one purpose" (2e) (2b; Greek: hina to auto phronēte and 2e, Greek: to hen phronountes) are virtually identical. The two intervening units, "("maintaining the same love:" Greek: tēn autēn agapēn echontes (2c) and "united in spirit:" Greek: sympsychoi, 2d) only reinforces the primary concern. In other words, "to have the same love" (2c) and to be “united in spirit” (2d) is effectuated by having the same mind. Unity of mind is precisely Paul’s persuasive directive in this exhortation.[20] Lightfoot notes that Paul’s fourfold repetition of this concern is a “deliberate tautology of eagerness intended to move the hearts of his readers and awaken them to the importance of the injunction.”[21]

Phil 2:3-4.   Section D: Humility is the key to unity. Verses 3-4 expands the central exhortation of section C in the block diagram above. It consists of two units, each of which contains a negative clause, followed by a positive clause introduced with a “but” (Greek: alla). The overarching teaching of this section is Greek: tapeinophrosynē (humility). Paul’s appeal, Greek: allēlous hēgoumenoi hyperechontas heautōn (“regard one another as more important than yourselves” 2:3), is not an appeal to adopt low self-esteem but to allow the needs of others to become utmost. Humility is to be distinguished from inferiority complex. “The humble person does not seek external honor or public esteem but is willing to accept a lower position and lesser regard.”[22] Paul expects this attitude to be reciprocated, in using the word, Greek: allēlous (one another), but “even if it doesn’t, the Christian is not to become spiteful and insist on his or her own rights in return.[23] Paul adds to this discourse by saying, “Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor” (1 Cor 10:24). And love “does not seek its own” (1 Cor 13:5). When God's people refrain from self-centeredness and do not crave special honor, it contributes to community unity.

Christ and His Humility as an Exemplar (2:5-11)

Phil 2:5.      The traditional rendering of verse five, Greek: touto phroneite en hymin ho kai en Christō Iēsou (Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus), is sometimes referred to as the “ethical interpretation” because it understands Paul to say that “Christ is our pattern of behavior.”[24]Larry W. Hurtado characterizes this passage as a “lordly example,” which is, Jesus Christ reveals the nature of God but also exemplifies the attitudes Paul wants the Philippians to adopt. [25] The account of  Christ in 2:6-11 functions as a “normative exemplar” that is applicable for developing norms of community behavior. If Christ did not please Himself but gave Himself for others, His followers should follow His example by confirming to the mind of their Lord because of what God has done for them in Christ.[26]

Phil 2:6       The apparent meaning of the striking passage in verses 6-8 is that the divine preexistent Christ did not regard the advantage of deity grounds to avoid the incarnation; on the contrary, He was willing to regard Himself as nothing by taking on human form. Then He further lowered Himself in servanthood by obeying God to the point of ignominious death.[27]

 Many modern scholarships reject this meaning and have offered several differing interpretations because of the complexity of the phrase Greek: ouch harpagmon (not …something to be grasped). The word harpagmon means “robbery” or plunder” and can be applied to the spoils of war.[28] Garland suggests that the correct translation should place the Greek negative ou before “robbery,” not before the verb to read: “He considered equality with God not [a means for] plundering.” This puts the passage in the following context: Christ disproves the common supposition that being equal to God involves doing whatever one likes. Instead, He sacrificed His life for others, renouncing everything but love. Harpagmon represents the essence of selfishness, which contrasts with Christ’s selfishness.[29]

Phil 2:7       In verse seven, Paul deals with the character of God as revealed in the activity of the Son of God. The focal point here is with divine selfishness: “God is not an acquisitive being, grasping and seizing, but self-giving for the sake of others.”[30] Paul exposes this concept by making the participial phrase: morphēn doulou abōn, which explains the nature of Christ’s emptying himself by “taking on the form of a bond-servant.” Fee notes well that, in Christ Jesus, God shows us His true nature. This is what it means for Christ to be “equal with God,” to pour Himself out for the sake of others and to do so by taking the role of a slave. Hereby he not only reveals the character of God but also reveals what it means for us to be created in God’s image, to bear His likeness and have His “mindset.”[31]

 Phil 2:8       In verse eight, Paul covers two sequential acts of Christ in His humiliation. Here we see His first final step downward. He “humbled himself” (Greek: etapeinōsen heauton ) to the point of "death" (Greek: thanatou), even the “death of a cross.” Etapeinōsen implies “voluntary humiliation.”[32] The “humbled in verse eight describes how the “emptied” in verse seven is manifested. The heauton ekenōsen (“emptied Himself”) of the incarnation becomes a concrete historical event in the etapeinōsen heauton (humbled Himself).[33]

Phil 2:9       In verse nine, Paul describes the last step in Christ’s exaltation by the Father. “God highly exalted Jesus” hyperypsōsen to the highest possible place by way of death on the cross. Thielman notes that the term “exalted” is better understood as a reference to God’s exaltation of Jesus to a position of recognizable superiority over all creation. Although Christ was acting in full support of his divine nature, when He humbled Himself, His resurrection and ascension to the Father’s right hand bestowed His sovereignty more fully over the creation he rules.[34]

Phil 2:10-11           Paul next describes the result of this exaltation in verses ten and eleven. “At the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (NLT). Who are these creatures “in heaven and on earth and under the earth”? Does this passage imply that all will confess Christ willingly or some willingly and others unwillingly? The key to this mystery lies in realizing that this passage refers to Isaiah 45:23-24, “Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear. They will say of me, ‘In the Lord alone are deliverance and strength.” All who have raged against him will come to him and be put to shame.” According to this passage, some of those who bend the knee and confess the greatness of the Lord are opponents who will now be put to shame. Thielman notes that the focus here is not on Jesus’ victory over His opponents, but in Jesus’ sovereignty over all creation. Paul infers that one day, the entire universe will acknowledge what the small, persecuted community at Philippi confesses in its worship – Jesus Christ is Lord![35]


Amidst the internal conflict, external persecution, imprisonment of their favorite leader, Paul, and the deteriorating spiritual climate troubling the Philippian Church community, Paul offers them this seminal advice: “Each of you should look not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others” (Phil 2:4, BSB). This command stands in the tradition of Jesus’ own teaching that the road to greatness is service to others (Mk 10:43-44; 9:35; Matt 20:27, 23:11; Lk 22:26-27). The real obstacle to service and unity is not the presence of a legitimate difference of opinion, but self-centeredness. Bonhoeffer offers the following principles for eradicating selfish ambition from Christian communities. He says as Christians we should:

  • Cultivate the humility that comes from understanding that we, like Paul, are the greatest sinners and can only live in God’s sight by His grace.
  • Listen long and patiently so that we will understand our fellow Christian’s need, and bear their burdens in the Lord.
  • Refuse to consider our time and calling so valuable that we cannot be interrupted to help with unexpected needs, no matter how small or menial.
  • Understand that Christian authority is characterized by service and does not call attention to the person who performs the service.[36]

To do these things to humanity, our gaze should be fixed on Jesus, while imitating the kind of humility Paul pointed in Phil 2:5-11. In our relationships with others, our emphasis should rest on selfless service and obedience, in imitation of Christ.

Paul concludes his discourse by reminding us of the final day on which all of us will stand before God, and he implicitly urges us to follow Jesus’ example of humility so as to be found faithful considering the coming day. These two convictions - selfless service and obedience to Christ - should remain firmly fixed in our eschatological thinking. Then we too will stand with the Philippian community and all believers on that faithful day, as we declare joyfully and lovingly that “Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father!” (Phil 2:11).


Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian in Community. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1954.

Bruce, F. F. Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977.

Fee, Gordon. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1985.

Garland, David. Philippians. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Revised Edition. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.

Hurtado, Larry W. “Jesus a Lordly Example in Philippians 2:5-11,” In From Jesus to Paul, ed. P. R. Richardson and J. Hud. Waterloo: Wilfried Laurier Univ Press, 1984.

Kittel, Gerhard, and Gerhard Friedrich. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol 8 Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977.

Lightfoot, Joseph B. St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians: A Revised Text with Introduction, Notes, and Dissertations. London: McMillian, 1868.

 Robertson, A. T. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol. IV, Nashville: Broadman Press, 1931.

Silva, Moisés. Philippians, Second Edition. Baker Exegetical Commentary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

Tarn, W. W. Hellenistic Civilization. Cleveland, World Publishing, 1961.

Thielman, Frank. Philippians. NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1995.

Williams, Demetrius K. Enemies of the Cross of Christ: The Terminology of the Cross and the Conflict in Philippians. Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement 223. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002.

[1] F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 7.

[2] Gordon Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1985), 25.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Unless otherwise noted all scriptural references in this paper are taken from the NASB, New American Standard Bible (NASB), Copyright 1995 by The Lockman Foundation.

[5] Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, 220; Frank Thielman, Philippians, NIVAC (Grand Rapids, Zondervan), 16.

[6] Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, 26.

[7] Ibid., 26-27.

[8] W. W. Tarn, Hellenistic Civilisation (Cleveland, World Publishing, 1961), Citation n. 31 on 4:2.

 [9] Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, 27.

 [10] Ibid. 34.

 [11] Frank Thielman, Philippians, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, Zondervan), 19.

[12] David Garland, Philippians. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 182; See also Fee, Philippians, 37-38.

 [13] Moisés Silva, Philippians, Second Edition BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 4-5.

 [14] Thielman, Philippians, 24-25.

[15] Demetrius K. Williams. Enemies of the Cross of Christ: The Terminology of the Cross and the Conflict in Philippians. Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement 223 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), 120-121.

 [16] Garland, Philippians, 218.

 [17] Silva, Philippians, 85.

[18] Ibid., 85-86.

 [19] Ibid., 86.

 [20] Ibid.

 [21] Joseph B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians: A Revised Text with Introduction, Notes, and Dissertations (London: McMillian, 1868), 67.

[22] Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol 8 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 22.

 [23] Garland, Philippians, 215.

 [24] Deismann, Käsemann, Silva reject this view indicating that it is to be taken in the usual sense of Pauline formula en Christō. Silva concludes that the clause ho kai en Christō Iēsou (“which also is in Christ Jesus,”) is a reference to the Philippians’ relationship to Christ and not his attitude, and the verse is best understood as: “Be so disposed toward one another as is proper for those who are united in Christ Jesus;” Silva, Philippians, 95-97.

 [25] Larry W. Hurtado, “Jesus a Lordly Example in Philippians 2:5-11,” In From Jesus to Paul, ed. P. R. Richardson and J. Hud (Waterloo: Wilfried Laurier Univ Press, 1984), 112-120.

 [26] Ibid., 123.

 [27] Silva, Philippians, 99.

 [28] Appian, The Civil Wars (New York:  Penguin Books, 1996), 12.

[29] Garland, Philippians, 220.

[30] Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, 211.

 [31] Ibid., 214.

 [32] A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol. IV, (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1931), 445.

 [33] Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol 7 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), 18.

 [34] Thielman, Philippians, 120.

 [35] Ibid., 127-128.

[36] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian in Community (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1954), 90-109.

Tags: commentary, philippians 2:1-11; exegesis

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