Paul begins this section of his letter with an appeal to unity among the Philippian Christians. Part of the key to unity is to stop doing things out of selfish motives. Instead, he says to consider the needs of others as a priority, to be humble. Humility is a particularly Christian virtue. [Hawthorne, Philippians, p. 70] Romans considered humility a weakness. They thought of humility as a kind of grovelling not an appropriate understanding of ones status with respect to God.
The Christian understanding of humility has its roots in Hebrew thought. In Israel, the concept of humility was to present your situation or your case to God and to leave it with him, not to trust in your own strength and plans. [Gordon Fee, Philippians, p. 188] So humility has to do with trusting God and recognizing that he is far more capable of directing your path than you are yourself. This is the kind of humility that Paul is asking the Philippians to develop. This is the kind of humility Jesus demonstrated and which Paul appeals to as inspiration for the Philippian Christians.
The next section is a tremendous passage about Jesus rich in theology. There is a lot going on in these verses but we are going to zero in on verses 9-11, speaking about Christ’s exaltation. As we examine these verses, we need to remember that the context for this rich theology is very practical- that their attitude is to be the same as that of Christ Jesus. At the end of the passage, Paul returns to application in terms of obedience, living out their salvation.
If you look at verse 6 Paul speaks of Jesus’ equality with God, this is a statement about Jesus’ divinity. Jesus did not consider this status, though, something to be clutched, held on to at all costs for personal gain. Instead, Jesus emptied himself. This is very important. Jesus was not sent to earth against his will. Rather, he chose to be reduced to a mere baby, leaving Heaven and his heavenly status behind for our sake. This is a perfect example of considering the interests of others above ones own!
Jesus not only lowered himself in terms of status and power, coming to earth as a baby, but Jesus went even further. He humbled himself and became obedient to the Father, even to the point of death on a cross! We must remember that there were no golden crosses in churches in those days. Christians didn’t wear crosses around their necks as a sign of their beliefs. No, the cross was scandalous! [Fee, p. 217] The idea that the one they call Lord of all, even Lord over Caesar, was executed by Caesar’s underling was baffling.
But, as a result of Jesus’ self-humiliation, his humbling of himself, God exalted him, raised him up not only from the dead but to the highest office in all of creation! God gave him the name, the character, nature and inner being that is above all others. [Hawthorne, p. 91] Notice verse 9 begins with “therefore.” It’s not coincidence that Jesus humbled himself and God exalted him. It is cause and effect. It is because Jesus was humble and obedient that the Father exalted him.
Paul goes on to say that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Remember, in the Roman Empire, every tongue confessed that Caesar was Lord! Here Paul is saying that Jesus is higher than Caesar and that every tongue will stop confessing Caesar is Lord and will instead give that praise to Christ.
Now look at verse 12. Like verse 9, it also begins with “therefore.” So here we have another cause and effect. But what is the effect this time? The cause is that Jesus has been exalted to the highest place, given the power and nature above all other powers and natures. The effect is that the Philippians are to continue to work out their salvation with fear and trembling as God works in them to change their wills and their behaviour.
What does it mean to “work out your salvation”? It means to live it out your salvation. Paul is not talking about working so that they are saved, rather he is telling them how to live in light of the fact that they have been saved. [Fee, p. 235] Saved people live out their salvation in obedience. Saved people obey in fear and trembling because that is the appropriate response to their exalted Lord. Such power and majesty should strike fear into Christ’s loyal subjects, not because he is harsh, but because he is so holy and we are so lowly.