Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Sunday School Lesson #40

Posted by Jim F. on October 10, 2007

Lesson 40: Philippians; Colossians, Philemon

My notes will concentrate on Philippians 2:5-15.

Verse 5: In English we cannot tell the difference between “you” in the plural and in the singular except by context. However, in Greek they are grammatically differentiated. Here the word “you” is plural rather than singular. Does this mean “each of you should have the mind that Christ had” or does it mean “as a church you should have the mind that he had”? What does it mean to have the same mind or attitude that Christ had?

Verses 6-11: This is another case where many scholars believe that Paul is probably quoting from an early Christian hymn. Here are the verses arranged as part of a hymn. Of course the rhythm of the original doesn’t come through in translation:

6 Who, being in the form of God,
thought it not robbery
to be equal with God:
7 But made himself of no reputation,
and took upon him the form of a servant,
and was made in the likeness of men:
8 And being found in fashion as a man,
he humbled himself,
and became obedient unto death,
[even the death of the cross.]

9 Wherefore God also hath highly exalted
him, and given him a name
which is above every name:
10 That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;
11 And that every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

To understand the hymn better, try writing it in your own words using modern English or look at a modern translation of these verses.

Verses 6-8: The Greek word used for “form” (verse 6) is only used to refer to outward appearance, not to refer to things such as a mind. In what sense was Christ in the form of God before his incarnation? “Thought it not robbery” is an odd translation. Literally the verse says that, having the form of the Father, Jesus “thought it not something to be clutched at [or ‘clung to’].” In other words, he was equal to God, but he didn’t cling to that equality. He didn’t insist on it. What does Paul have in mind here? What would it have meant for Christ to have clung to his equality with God? What does the fact that the Savior did not cling to his equality with God teach us? The beginning of verse 7 is also translated oddly: “emptied himself” is the literal meaning. Of what did Christ empty himself by becoming a human being? The phrases, “took upon him the form of a servant [literally ‘a slave’]” and “was made in the likeness of men” are parallel. Hebrew poetry uses parallelism to show that two things are the same. (Though the hymn was probably written in Greek, the heavy Jewish influence in the early Church resulted in many Hebraisms, such as this, in early hymns.) What do these two phrases tell us about human beings and why is that important for us to know? For Christ, why did taking death on himself mean humbling himself (verse 8)? Assuming that Paul inserted the last line of verse 8 into the hymn as he used it for his letter, why do you think he added it? Why does the line begin with “even”?

Verse 5 told us that we should have the same mind or attitude as did Christ. Then verses 6-8 describe that mind. How do these verses about Christ tell us how we should live our lives? Do we have the form of God? Are there any ways in which we cling to that form? What would it mean for us to empty ourselves in imitation of the Savior? Do we understand that to be a human being is to be servant of God? If so, how do we show that understanding? What does Jesus’ death on the cross teach us about our own lives? Does it teach us anything about what genuine humility requires?

Verses 9-11: The word “wherefore” (verse 9) is the same as the modern word “therefore.” It tells us that what came before explains what follows. What is the hymn saying about how verses 6-8 explain verses 9-11? Verse 8 spoke of the Savior’s humiliation. How is that related to his exaltation? What does it mean to say that Jesus’ name is above every other name? What is the significance of bowing the knee (verse 10)? What does the phrase “of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth” refer to? The word translated “profess” in verse 11 can also be translated “acknowledge” or “consent.” How might each of these translations help us understand what this hymn says? What does the word “lord” mean? What does it mean to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord? How do we acknowledge that? “To the glory of the Father” tells us why every knee will bow to Christ and every tongue will confess him. So, what does it mean that they will do those things to the Father’s glory?

Verses 12-13: We could paraphrase what Paul says in verse 12 this way: “So, since you have always obeyed, whether I was there or not, work out your salvation in fear and trembling.” Paul is going to use the contents of the hymn to preach obedience. What in the hymn gives him the material he needs to do that? (A simple way to ask the same question is to ask, “Why does Paul begin with the word “wherefore”?) “Fear and trembling” is an Old Testament phrase. (For example, see Exodus 15:16, Isaiah 19:16, and Psalms 2:11.) Does it mean that we should dread God’s presence? That we should be afraid that he will treat us unjustly, change his plan, or go back on his promises? As we work out our salvation, what should we fear? The Greek word translated “work out” could also be translated “accomplish” or “move in the direction of.” Do those alternate translations give you any ideas about what Paul might mean? What does it mean to say that God is at work in us (verse 13)? Do you think that, in the phrase “it is God which worketh in you,” the word “you” means “you individuals” or “you, the Church”? Note that the Greek word translated “good pleasure” means “a state of being kindly disposed” or “contentment.” Does that shed any light on the meaning of verse 13?

Verses 14-15: What does verse 14 mean about how we should act? Verse 15 tells us why we should act that way. How does doing what we do without grumbling make us blameless and harmless (“sincere” may be a better translation)? Paul makes “sons of God” parallel to “blameless and harmless.” Why? Does the beginning of verse 15 have anything to do with having the same attitude or mind in us that Christ had? “Without blemish” is a better translation than “without rebuke.” Paul seems to be explicitly comparing us to Christ. What permits that comparison? What does it mean for us to be lights or lamps in the world?

7 Responses to “Sunday School Lesson #40”

  1. Floyd the Wonderdog said

    Could you please supply the reference for the hymn you quoted?

  2. Rick said

    Jim, I am trying to use the feastupontheword.org website more for my scripture study. There is not really much that is useful at that site. Why don’t you post your excellent notes there?

  3. Robert C. said

    Rick, I responded to your question here at the wiki. In short, we’d love help transferring Jim’s notes to the wiki!

  4. Jim F. said

    Floyd, I’m sorry, but I don’t understand your question. Are you asking for the reference for the hymn itself? If so, that is verses 6-11 of chapter 2. Or, perhaps more likely, you want to know where you can find a scholar who thinks that perhaps these verses were a hymn originally. There is considerable agreement on this possibility, so it isn’t difficult to find scholars who say so. For example, Hathorne and Martin do in their commentary on Philippians in the Word Biblical Commentary series, as does the Jerome Commentary.

    Rick, good question. I probably ought to put my study materials on the wiki. In the long run that is where they would do the most good: they are more easily searchable and can be expandedor corrected as needed. However, the fact is that I’m an old dog not good at learning some new tricks. I don’t find it easy to create the materials in that format, so I have to create them in this format first. Then I intend to transfer them to the wiki, and I’ve done a few, but I don’t find the time. (And Robert, thanks for coming to my aid.)

  5. RuthS said

    Jim: Would you comment on Colossians 2:8-9? Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. For in him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily. How do these two verses relate to each other and what is to be understood by verse 9 specifically?

  6. Robert C. said

    Jim, I second Ruth’s request, though I’m frankly more interested in hearing your thoughts on verse 8 (“philosophy and vain deceit”) than verse 9. (Note, here is an interesting link to the NEXT page on verse 8 which lists various translations for the verse and notes that “philosophy” is part of a hendiadys). Also, I’m partly hoping we can get you on record saying something about potential pitfalls of mixing philosophy and scripture, or some hint as to your general thinking on this topic….

  7. Jim F. said

    In the ancient world, philosophy was very different than academic philosophy today. It was a direct competitor to religion because it taught how to live the good life. Indeed, the distinction between religion and philosophy was far from clear. The kind of philosophy he has in mind is that which is “empty deception,” and he also explicitly states its source, human tradition. So Paul is warning the Saints not to be taken in by one of the alternatives to Christianity.

    The word translated “spoil” is a rare word, so it is not easy to establish what it means with certainty, however it appears to mean something like “to carry off as the spoils of war.” The Saints are part of a battle for their minds and souls; Paul is warning them, fairly strongly, not to be taken captive in that war.

    I understand verse 8 to be a warning against being deceived and verses 9-10 to explain what is wrong with the philosophy he condemns: it does not have Christ as its head.

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