While Paul was imprisoned in Rome after his third missionary journey (Acts 28:30-31), he heard of the struggles of his friends in Philippi. On his second journey Paul had experienced both success and opposition there; he confronted the pagan culture and was accused of being a Jew who advocated illegal religious customs (Acts 16:19-21). In Philippi, Paul and Silas were released from prison by an angel and ultimately sent away from the city because their official Roman citizenship prevented them from being held without charge or trial (Acts 16:35-40). In writing to the Philippians, Paul was concerned that his audience work to unify their church, exhorting them to follow Christ’s example of humility displayed on the cross. God demonstrated His power by raising Christ from the dead—and Paul wanted the Philippians to know that God’s power was operational in them. In Paul’s portrayal of Christ in Phil 2:6-11, the apostle wove together scriptural imagery of the suffering and glorified Messiah.
(1) In Phil 2:6-8, Paul wrote that Christ took on human likeness, echoing Old Testament expectations that Israel’s Messiah would suffer as a human being. Paul noted that though Christ Jesus had a divine nature, He took up human flesh. Paul’s statements brought to a point of focus several Old Testament passages. In Psalm 8, the psalmist extolled the Lord’s majesty as Creator. The psalmist marveled that though the Lord created the universe by His great power, He entrusted the care of creation to humanity. The psalmist’s query, “What is man that You remember him, the son of man that You look after him?” (Ps 8:4), established the son of man as a special figure in the Old Testament narrative. Isaiah prophesied that a child would be born to Israel, a son given to God’s people (Isa 9:6). God’s servant would be meek and kind toward humans as they suffered (Isa 42:1-4) because he too would suffer even to the point of death (Isa 53:12). Paul wrote that Jesus came as a man and humbled Himself to the point of death—even crucifixion (Phil 2:7-8). Paul described Christ Jesus’ humble ministry as a model for how the Philippians could unify their church. Impeding their unity were pride and rivalry—the antitheses of Christ crucified. By adopting Christ’s disposition, the Philippians would be equipped to work out their salvation as a unified community, free from grumbling and arguing (Phil 2:12-14).
(2) In Phil 2:9-11, Paul wrote that God exalted Christ, echoing Old Testament expectations that Israel’s Messiah would rule from a position of authority. Christ’s humble state was not His final state. Paul wrote that because Christ Jesus humbled Himself to the point of death, God raised Him to the exalted position that was consistent with His deity. Paul’s logic in Phil 2:9-11 reflected the description of Israel’s king in Psalm 2. The psalmist described Israel’s king as God’s Son who ruled the nations and received honor from the kings of the earth. In Ps 110:1, the psalmist noted that God gave the king of Israel a place at His right hand and promised to make Israel’s enemies his footstool. Isaiah prophesied that the anointed of the Lord would rule and administer justice on earth (Isa 61:1-3). In Dan 7:13-14, Daniel saw an exalted figure enabled to approach God and rule for God over all nations. In Isa 45:14-25, Isaiah proclaimed the Lord’s greatness over the idols of the nations and prophesied that every knee will bow and every tongue swear devotion to the Lord. What Isaiah proclaimed concerning Israel’s God, Paul said was true of Jesus (Isa 45:23).