Philippians 2:5-11: The Surprising Pattern of the Cross
We might chuckle when someone lifts that phrase from pop culture to not-so-subtly draw attention to their importance. Truth be told, this could be the motto for humanity (don’t believe me? You can buy the T-shirt). Everyone has a bit of a celebrity complex; none of us would mind a little fanfare when we enter the room. Even worse, we can bring this celebrity complex into the life of the church, becoming fixated on securing our preferences or being recognized for our accomplishments (even if that means not-so-subtly pointing it out to others). After all, this is how power, authority, significance, and success work in the world. We have a right to be recognized for who we are in all our glory. And yet when we look at the one to whom God ascribes “the name that is above every name” in Philippians 2:5-11, we find a surprisingly stark contrast.
The portrait of Christ in Philippians 2:5-11 is not only one of the richest theological passages of the New Testament, it’s also one of the most intensely practical. It invites us to explore some of the deepest mysteries of Jesus Christ—his deity, his eternal existence, his incarnation, his crucifixion, and his vindication and exaltation by his Father in heaven. And yet the emphasis is not merely on getting our Christology straight (as crucial as that is); it highlights Christ’s pattern of humility. Unlike the pattern of upward mobility prized by our culture, Jesus chooses a course of downward mobility to serve others and show them what God is truly like. Being God’s eternal Son, he lays aside the glory he shares with his Father, choosing not to exploit his deity for selfish gain, but instead makes himself nothing by taking the form of a servant and becoming human, going so far in his obedience to the Father that he is willing to undergo the shameful death of a Roman cross (2:6-8).
Yet the story of Jesus doesn’t end in the grave. It is precisely because of his willful humility and suffering that God exalts him to the highest position possible, bestowing on him his very own name, such that every knee in creation will one day bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (2:9-11). This is the surprising pattern of the cross—life through death, exaltation through humiliation, glory through shame.
And yet this hymn (whether composed by Paul for this occasion or borrowed from some other early Christian—it’s hard to know, and doesn’t really matter) is set in the middle of a series of exhortations by Paul to the church (1:27-2:18). Verse 5 gives us the context: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus, who . . .” In other words, the attitude or mindset we see displayed by Jesus in these verses ought to shape our own mindset as we seek to live as a gospel-centered community on mission for Christ. When the world’s mindset shapes the church, the result is a culture of self-centeredness, self-righteousness, and suspicion. When Christ’s surprising pattern of life through death shapes the church, we should expect to find a culture of humility, compassion, and self-giving love—the kind of virtues that come only from being centered on and fully satisfied in Christ.
Theology doesn’t get more practical than this.
So please join us this Sunday, Nov. 20, at Westgate Church as we gather with thankful hearts to make much of our Triune God and marvel over his selfless love displayed in the cross, that we might follow his pattern by the grace he supplies through the Spirit.
Update: Sermon text and discussion questions are available here: Phil 2.5-11 Westgate 11.20.11