Only the Greatest Humility Accepts the Lowest Place

Philippians 2:5–11

5Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,3 being born in the likeness of men. 8And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Christ Made Himself Low

Jesus did not count equality with God as something to be used for his own advantage (Phil. 2:6).1 And if Jesus did not exploit his status as equal with God, then what did he do? (1) He emptied himself by taking the form of a slave (Phil. 2:7) and (2) He humbled himself by becoming obedient even to the point of death on a cross (Phil. 2:8).

“Emptied” (kenoō) here does not mean the Son of God emptied himself of his deity in some kind of theological subtraction. “Emptied” means “divestiture of position or prestige.”2 How did the Son of God divest himself of position and prestige? Through the incarnation. Paul uses two clauses3 to explain more precisely the emptying. He “emptied himself”: (1) by taking the form (morphē) of a servant and (2) by being born in the likeness of men. These two phrases are mutually interpreting. The only way for the Son of God to take on the form of a slave was to enter this world and be born as a man. Therefore, the preincarnate Son of God divested himself of position and prestige not by subtracting deity but by adding humanity and becoming the God-man, both fully God and fully man.4

Verse 8 repeats the last thought of verse 7 in order to build upon it. Most languages use this style of speaking to build suspense and continue the story. If I were telling a story, I may let it build to a climax as follows:

“I heard a noise outside, and so I stepped out to see what it was. And after going outside, I saw a . . .”

Paul tells the shocking story of the descent of the Son of God in the same way, as the story descends to its lowest point: “[The Son of God] emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, [and by] being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

ESV Expository Commentary

With contributions from a team of pastors and scholars, this commentary through 9 of Paul’s letters helps students of the Bible to understand how each epistle fits in with the storyline of Scripture and applies today.

The verb “humbled” (tapeinoō) is striking because it was frequently used in reference to slaves and their loss of “prestige or status.”5 Jesus is the model of the low-minded humility that Paul had called for in Philippians 2:3. A proud person would protest that some low position was “beneath” him or her. Jesus displayed his humility by not regarding anything as beneath him.

To the Point of Death

The next phrase shows the radical measure of Christ’s humility. He did not even regard himself above death, even the cruelest, most shameful and painful death ever devised: crucifixion. The cross was deemed an especially appropriate death for rebels and slaves because it was designed not just to kill but also to shame.6 The victim was stripped down to no (or few) clothes and typically nailed to the cross through the ankles and wrists (or, sometimes, fastened with ropes). Death would come by suffocation, when the victim could no longer lift himself to draw breath. This excruciating pain and shame was common to all who were crucified, but Jesus’ suffering on the cross is unparalleled and unequalled because he bore the terrible curse of sin (Gal. 3:13) and suffered the awful wrath of God as an atoning substitute and sacrifice (Rom. 3:21–26).

The cross is the measure of Jesus’ humility, the lengths to which he was willing to go in obedience to his Father. Even the lowest position possible was not too low for the humble mind of Christ. Only the greatest humility (the lowest mind-set) could willingly accept the lowest place possible. He was not too proud to wear our skin or bear our sin.7

“Therefore” (dio kai) signals that these verses serve as God’s response to the mind of Christ (God is the subject of the two verbs in this verse). Because the Son made himself so low in obeying the Father, it was perfectly fitting for the Father to exalt him so high. The first response was that God “highly exalted” (hyperypsoō) Jesus. The second response was that God “bestowed” (charizō) on him the name above every name. The “above-every-name Name” is the very name of Yahweh, or “Lord.”

Verses 10 and 11 reveal two purposes God had in giving Jesus the divine name: (1) every knee will bow, and (2) every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Both of these purposes are drawn directly from Isaiah 45:23:

By myself I have sworn;
      from my mouth has gone out in righteousness
      a word that shall not return:
“To me every knee shall bow,
      every tongue shall swear allegiance.”

Paul takes something from the Old Testament that can be true only of Yahweh and breathtakingly applies it directly to Jesus. The context of Isaiah 45:23 makes this transfer all the more stunning because it emphatically declares that there is no other god besides the one true God. The Philippians passage answers a crucial question raised by Isaiah 45:22–23: all the ends of the earth are called to turn to God and be saved, but the rest of the passage does not specify how that salvation would happen. That information does not come until Isaiah 52:13–53:12. God’s suffering servant will suffer for the sins of the people (Isa. 53:3–11) and will be exalted (52:13; 53:12). This prophecy finds its fulfillment in the suffering and exaltation of Jesus as every knee bows and every tongue confesses that he is Lord.

Paul expansively names all of the spheres that will acknowledge the universal reign of Jesus: heaven, earth, and under the earth. All will bow. No sphere is exempt. The realm of God and the angels (heaven), the realm of humanity (earth), and the realm of the underworld with the demons and the Devil (under the earth)—all will bow. Some willingly bow now by joyful choice; some will be forced to bow in defeat, openly acknowledging the rightful rule of the exalted Christ on the day when he returns.

Verse 11 continues to draw upon Isaiah 45 as Paul shows how this universal confession of Jesus as Lord fits with God’s ultimate goal of glorifying his name. The Greek text of Isaiah 45:24 says that righteousness and glory shall come to Yahweh. God the Father is the one who highly exalted Jesus and bestowed on him the divine name of Lord, and so now the universal confession of Jesus as Lord draws attention to “the glory of God the Father.”

The Lowest Place Reveals the Greatest Love

The Roman orator Cicero once said, “Let the very name of the cross be far away not only from the body of a Roman citizen, but even from his thoughts, his eyes, his ears.”8 This shows the upside-down nature of God’s kingdom. The cross was far from the thoughts of Rome’s citizens but near to the thoughts of heaven’s citizens. Meditate much on the cross. Behold how the lowest point of Christ’s descent displayed the highest peak of his love. Jesus went from the highest place of heavenly blessing to the lowest place of earthly curse—death on a cross. Why did he have to go so low? He had to come to where we were in order to rescue us. If someone falls into a pit, it does no good to meet him half way. Our rescue from sin and death required Jesus to go all the way down to where we were, enslaved in complete condemnation. The Son of God left the courts of heaven and laid aside his crown to bear the dreadful curse on the cross. The hymn “What Wondrous Love Is This” captures the depth of our despair and testifies that Christ’s love went deeper still:

When I was sinking down, sinking down, sinking down,
When I was sinking down, sinking down;
When I was sinking down beneath God’s righteous frown,
Christ laid aside his crown for my soul, for my soul,
Christ laid aside his crown for my soul.

Stand in awe of the self-giving love of God seen in the cross of Christ. Rejoice in the Jesus “who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

Why did he have to go so low? He had to come to where we were in order to rescue us.

The Mind of Christ Perfectly Reflects the Character of God

God is a giver, not a grasper. Generosity is a defining aspect of the God-ness of God. The contrast between the blessed God and fallen humans is great on this score. Fallen human rulers are selfish graspers and hoarders. By contrast, God gloriously needs nothing, because he is perfect and has no deficits. God is not “served by human hands, as though he needed anything” (Acts 17:25a). The God who has no needs delights to meet the needs of the needy: “He himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25b). He does not need workers who wait upon him hand and foot; he works for those who wait for him (Isa. 64:4).

The incarnation put the nature of God as giver on display in a preeminent way. Precisely because Jesus was God (a preeminent giver), he took a form that fit with the nature of God as giver: a “slave” (doulos). Giving and serving defines the very vocation of a slave. A slave serves perpetually, not occasionally.

If God Has Been Humble, How Can We Be Proud?

One cannot be a follower of Christ without sharing the mind of Christ. This command to have his mind calls for real relationships, because we must know the interests of others before we can seek them. Once we know those interests, we can use whatever power and privilege we have to serve others. Hoarding is not the path of joy. We will find it more blessed to give than to receive. We must cultivate gospel humility. Pride is high-minded and believes that some things are beneath us. We must behold the one who was high above all and yet did not regard anything as beneath him in saving us. If Christ took off the royal robes and put on the servant’s towel to die for us, how can we say that any call to serve others for his sake is beneath us?


  1. I agree with most commentators in taking the Greek word harpagmos as “something to be selfishly exploited.” The Son of God could have regarded his status of equality with God “as something to use for his own advantage,” but he did not. See O’Brien, Philippians, 214–216; Harmon, Philippians, 209.
  2. BDAG, s.v. κενόω.
  3. The two participles are adverbial participles, clarifying the means by which the preincarnate Son of God emptied himself.
  4. Christ “emptied Himself not by losing what He was, but by taking to Him what He was not” (St. Augustine,In Joannis Ev Tractatus 17— Chapter 4,1–18, quoted by Harmon,Philippians, 213).
  5. BDAG, s.v. ταπεινόω.
  6. Martin Hengel, Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross (Philadelphia: Fortress,1977), 46–63.
  7. I am borrowing this language from the song “Humble,” by Audrey Assad.
  8. Cicero, Pro Rabiro Perduellionis Reo 5.10.16, cited in Hawthorne and Martin, Philippians, 123.

This article is written by Jason C. Meyer and is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Volume 11).

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