Servants or Overlords?

In his Letter to the Philippians, Paul points to the obedience of Jesus as the model of proper conduct by his disciples and the self-denying mindset they must adopt. His willingness to die at the hands of the World Empire and the enemy of Israel becomes the paradigm for how believers must live if they wish to follow him, an act that stands in stark contrast to the rulers and political systems of this evil age.

Not only did Jesus refuse political power, but his acceptance of the role of the ‘Suffering Servant’ who died for the sake of others was completely contrary to the idea and practice of exercising political power over others.

Cross Sunset - Photo by Pete Godfrey on Unsplash
[Photo by Pete Godfrey on Unsplash]

No emperor, parliament, president, prime minister, congressman, king, or dictator would ever willingly submit to a brutal and humiliating execution for the sake of others, including their enemies (“
While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son”).

The New Testament summons disciples of the Nazarene to imitate his example by conducting themselves as he did while living in a hostile culture and deferring to one another’s needs in the Assembly. They must “stand fast in one spirit, with one soul, joining for the combat along with the faith of the gospel.”

Anyone who wishes to follow Jesus must do so by “thinking the same things” that he did, and this was epitomized by his self-sacrificial act.

  • Be thinking this among you, that even in Christ Jesus. Who, commencing in form of God, considered being like God something not to be seized, but he poured himself out, taking the form of a slave, having come to be in the likeness of men; and having been found in fashion as man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even death on the cross. Therefore also, God highly exalted him and granted him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, of beings heavenly and earthly and under the earth, and every tongue should confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father, even God” - (Philippians 2:5-11).

Self-sacrificial death was what it meant to be the Messiah of Israel who came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

To illustrate this, Paul employed Old Testament language from the stories of Adam and the “Suffering Servant” of the Book of Isaiah. Unlike the former, Jesus did not attempt to seize “likeness” with God. Adam was created in God’s image but grasped at divine “likeness” when he ate the forbidden fruit.

In contrast, Jesus obeyed God and suffered the consequences. As the “Suffering Servant,” he humbled himself and submitted to an unjust death, and for that very reason, God “highly exalted” him.

Like Adam, Jesus began “in the form of God.” Unlike Adam, he “did not consider the being like God something for plunder.” The Greek adjective isos translated as “like” means just that, “like.” The clause alludes to the incident when the “Serpent” tempted Eve in the Garden: “For God knows that in the day you eat thereof, your eyes will be opened and you will become like God, knowing good and evil.”

Adam chose to disobey and attempted to “seize” the likeness of God. Paul contrasts his failure with the refusal of Jesus to grasp that same “likeness.” When the rulers of this age demand the total allegiance and veneration of their subjects, they grasp equality with God and demand that which belongs to Him alone.


The clause, “being in the form of God,” corresponds to the creation account when “God created man in his own image.” Likewise, Jesus was in the “image” or “form” of God. In Greek literature, the two nouns are synonymous. The term translated as “being” represents the Greek present tense participle huparchō, meaning, “to commence, begin; to start.” Thus, he began in the image of God just as Adam did.

The Greek noun translated as “seize” means “plunder, booty,” something that is seized by force. Unlike Adam, Jesus did not attempt to seize likeness with God. Instead, he “poured himself out… he humbled himself becoming obedient unto death.” This last clause includes several verbal echoes of the “Servant of Yahweh” passages in Isaiah:

  • (Isaiah 53:12) - “Therefore will I give him a portion in the great and the strong shall he apportion as plunder, because he poured out to death his own soul, and with transgressors let himself be numbered, Yea, he the sin of many bare, and for transgressors interposed.”
  • (Isaiah 53:7) - “Hard-pressed, yet he humbled himself, nor opened his mouth, as a lamb to the slaughter is led.”

Rather than exalt himself or seek equality with God, Jesus humbled himself to the point of death, which is how “he poured himself out.” Paul completes the picture by utilizing allusions to two more passages in Isaiah:

  • (Isaiah 52:13) - “Behold, my Servant prospers, he rises and is lifted up and becomes very high.”
  • (Isaiah 45:23) - “By myself have I sworn, gone forth out of my mouth is righteousness as a decree and shall not turn back, that unto myself shall bow every knee shall swear every tongue.”

Cross on mountain - Photo by Xavier von Erlach on Unsplash
[Photo by Xavier von Erlach on Unsplash]

The disciples of Jesus are called to live by this same way of thinking, to seek nothing from self-interest or for “
empty glory.” They are to emulate him by not seeking to exalt themselves. Instead, they must “pour themselves out” as he did in service to others, even if doing so means personal loss.

Believers must conduct themselves in “humility” toward one another and those outside the Assembly rather than seek power over others. In God’s Kingdom, exaltation follows obedience and humility. It does not precede them.

This is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and to have the “mind that was in Christ.” It is an outlook and way of life that is totally incompatible with the political systems and philosophies of the world.

  • To Whom Homage? - (Satan offered Jesus unlimited political power to achieve his messianic mission if only he accepted him as his overlord)
  • Fleeting Power - (In the end, only God’s kingdom will prevail and endure. All other political powers are transitory, and already they are passing away)
  • Venerating Caesar - (The Empire’s propagandists use their talents to coerce men to pay homage to Caesar, the Beast from the sea)