The Carmen Christi” (Philippians 2:1-11)

The Carmen Christi is packed with theological significance, and is beautiful in its form. It was likely sung in the early churches and we ought do the same. It is cited by Paul to remind us of Jesus’ attitude toward others. Jesus counted all his advantages as nothing and made himself a servant. While we cannot imitate the incarnation itself, we can adopt the same attitude toward others as Jesus.

It Isn’t About Me

One of the most famous and well-known passages in all the Bible is the famous hymn to Christ (the Carmen Christi) of verses 6-11 of Philippians 2. Martin Luther writes in his famous essay The Freedom of the Christian, that this passage is a prescribed rule of life which is set forth by the Apostle Paul, who exhorts us to devote our good works to the welfare of our neighbor out of the abundant riches of faith. John Calvin tells us that anyone who reads this passage but fails to see the deity of Jesus and the majesty of God as seen in his saving works, is blind to the things of God.[1] The passage contains a very rich Christology, but is included in this letter not to settle any debate over the person and work of Jesus, but to instruct Christians how to imitate Jesus in a profound and significant way. The Carmen Christi speaks directly to our modern world by reminding us that the self-centered narcissism of contemporary culture is not a virtue, but runs completely contrary to the example set for us to follow by Jesus in his incarnation.

As many of you know, our system of chapters and verses are not in the original biblical text and were first introduced in the 16th century. While they are very helpful in allowing us to find “chapter and verse,” there are times when the chapter breaks disrupt the flow of thought of the original author. We find this in the transition from the opening chapter of Philippians as we move into chapter two. As we go through our passage, we will see that Paul’s exhortation which opens the second chapter is really an expansion of his desire for the Philippians to stand firm (vv. 12-30) and is the basis for his introduction of the Christ hymn (which we will cover momentarily).

Standing Firm in the Face of Persecution

In expressing his candid thoughts to the Philippians, the apostle is reflecting upon the persecution which he himself had faced, particularly in the light of the news which just reached him from Philippi that the Philippians were still facing significant persecution. When Paul was first in the city of Philippi, he was arrested and thrown into jail (Acts 16:12 ff.). Paul was miraculously delivered, the jailer and his household came to faith in Jesus, and as recounted in Acts 17, shortly thereafter, Paul left the city to continue his missionary journey to the Greek cities of Thessalonica and Berea, before finally making his way to Athens.

When Paul writes this letter to the Philippians about ten years later, he is in jail again–this time under house arrest in Rome. Paul knew something about persecution. He knows that the Philippian Christians are facing persecution as well. The Philippians may not be in chains, but they are finding that their fellow Greco-Romans are not accepting nor tolerant of their faith in Jesus. And then there are the Judaizers who have arrived on the scene and are now disrupting church life in Philippi.

After reflecting upon these things, in the concluding verses of chapter 1, (vv 27–30) Paul exhorts the Philippians,

let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

Paul’s Exhortation to the Philippians

The Philippians are to do several things. The first is to live their lives in a manner worthy of the gospel which Paul had preached to them. Their conduct in the face of persecution should grow out of their understanding of the person and work of Jesus. The second thing they are to do is to stand firm in one spirit and in one mind in the face of those persecuting them. The third is not to be frightened by anything their opponents–the Judaizers and Greco-Roman pagans–may throw at them. Jesus is more powerful than all and he will protect his church.

Paul reminds them in verse 29, that the only reason any of them are believers in Jesus is because God has granted them faith (he has given them faith as a gift–cf. Ephesians 2:8) and because he has, the Philippians inevitably will suffer persecution. They will suffer for the sake of Christ just as Paul has suffered because of the world’s hatred of Jesus. Just as he is imprisoned in Rome because of his faith in Christ, it was the case when he had been with them in Philippi previously. If God grants the one (faith) he also grants the other (persecution).

So, here is where the modern chapters and verses break up-Paul’s thought. Verse one of chapter two is the continuation of and expansion upon his discussion in verses 27-30. In fact, as Paul speaks of the inevitability of persecution and the need to stand firm in the face of it, he now points the Philippians to the means by which they might fulfill (do) those things Paul has just exhorted them to do, and to do that the Philippians need to have the same mind about these things that Jesus did (v. 5).

If There Is Any Encouragement in Christ . . .

But before Paul includes the Carmen Christi–reminding them of who it is and what he has done that they are to imitate–Paul makes a very impassioned plea which includes four conditional sentences (which begin with “if’), which if true, and they are, will bring to pass the hoped for result in verse 2, that Paul’s joy may be complete.[2] The opening verse reads, “so” (which connects this to the previous verses in the previous chapter), “if there is any encouragement in Christ, [if there is] any comfort from love, [if there is] any participation in the Spirit, [if there is] any affection and sympathy,” all pointing to things Paul assumes the Philippians currently possess. Yet, the force of the conditional sentence is an indication that these are things which the Philippians might be in danger of losing if they do not stand firm.

We can put it like this: if there is any encouragement still present, if there is any comfort from love still present, if there is any participation in the Holy Spirit (his indwelling and his fruits), and if there is any affection and love among the brothers and sisters, then Paul’s joy will be complete.[3] More importantly, the Philippians will successfully endure the persecution which they were then facing.

How do the Philippians accomplish those things necessary to make Paul’s joy complete? Because encouragement, comfort, participation in the Spirit, and affection and sympathy are present among the Philippians (the implication of the conditions being fulfilled), then the Philippians can indeed accomplish what Paul has just exhorted them to do. “Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” If the false teachers haven’t completely taken over (and the implication is that they haven’t–far from it), the Philippians are to resist them by being of one mind, demonstrating love for one another, and being in full accord. This is for their good, but it will also bring the apostle joy, knowing that the Philippian congregation–for which no doubt he feels a bit of responsibility–will survive the efforts of the Judaizers from within to distort the gospel of Jesus, and from the persecutors without, who encourage these saints to deny their faith in Jesus. But the Philippians must stand firm and be of one mind, but in order to do so, they must adopt a particular mind-set which is, as Paul is about to explain, the same mind-set as Jesus.

Bad News for the Self-Centered: Count Others as More Significant

But being of one mind, having the same love, and being in full accord, requires that certain sinful conduct cease. Rather than focus on specific behaviors, in verse 3, Paul focuses upon the mindset that the Philippians ought to have. He tells them “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves”, unlike those plaguing Paul in Rome, who out of envy and jealousy seek to take advantage of the circumstances while Paul is confined. In contrast to those troubling the Philippians, Christians are not to do things from the motive of selfish ambition. In English, selfish ambition means something like seeking to gain advantage over another (“owning them” to use a contemporary expression), or further one’s own cause or circumstances, even if others are negatively impacted. But the root of the word in Greek refers to a hireling or mercenary, and in context here, it means something like “vain glory” or “vanity.” Another nuanced meaning of the term is “pretentiousness.”[4]

Paul’s discussion is like cold water in our faces. In the modern world, Paul’s exhortation to put away “selfish ambition” could be understood as “don’t be so narcissistic.” Strive to stop foolishly thinking that everything in life is about us–that our needs and desires always come first, and are far more important than the needs of others. This is the collective sin of so much of modern America. How many commercials can we recount where we are told that “you deserve” something which we probably do not need or cannot really afford, but which someone wants to sell us. The appeal is made to our base narcissism, “you deserve it.” In our culture, ambition and conceit are virtues, but Paul calls them sins. In American life, everything centers around the self, while Paul’s exhortation is to do the opposite–make sure that everything we do flows out of a due consideration of the needs of others. Paul even says, in humility–that is lowliness, i.e., the mind-set of a slave or servant–consider others more worthy (or more important) than yourselves. These are not easy words for Americans to hear, much less practice.

Look to our Own Interests and that of Others

Paul goes on in verse 4, to flesh out a bit further what he means. “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Of course, it is important to care for our own needs and take care of those for whom we are responsible.

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