An Exegetical Commentary on the Paul’s Plea for Unity of Mind with and in Christ Jesus 

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By Daniel Henriquez, University of Dallas

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul exhorts the community there saying: τοῦτο φρονεῖτε ἐν ὑμῖν ὃ καὶ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ (2:5). Many different exegetes of this confusing Greek verse have offered many different interpretations and translations of it in light of their interpretation of the Christ Hymn which immediately follows (2:6-11). Each exegete’s unique interpretation certainly offers its own insights and critiques of other interpretations. For my part, I propose that, since Paul addresses apparent internal struggles threatening division among the Philippian community (1:17; 2:3; 4:2)  by exhorting them to be “one minded” (2:2, 5; 3:15; 4:2), a proper translation of the text concerned with the historical situation ought to reflect the letter’s ethical purpose. Paul’s command in 2:5 then should to be translated in such a way as to convey that the Philippians ought to think with the same mind as is in the person of Christ Jesus among themselves; for the Church in Philippi will be unified in the Body of Christ only if they imitate, by their thoughts and actions, the Son’s humble obedience to the Father.

It is common opinion in accord with Luke’s Acts that Paul founded the Church at Philippi around 49 A.D. during his second missionary journey and visited them again during his third journey. Moreover, Paul’s authorship of the letter to the Philippians is also largely undisputed. Determining the place where and the date when the letter was written, however, remains undecided among current scholarship. One exegete names four serious possibilities: “if the letter is from Rome, it is to be dated in the early 60’s; if from Ephesus, in the early to mid-50’s; if from Caesarea, the late 50’s, and if from Corinth very early, about 50.”[1] The provenance and date of the letter do not hold much significance as to the meaning of Philippians 2:5; on the other hand, the historical situation of the Church in Philippi and the formal structure and purpose of the letter bear much more significance and must be understood in order to interpret the ambiguous verse.

With respect to the historical circumstances of the Church as can be gleaned from the emotional tone of the epistle, “it is a church to which Paul had strong personal attachment and to which he wrote in almost wholly commendatory terms.”[2] He rejoices in the community there many times throughout the letter and he even praises it in his second letter to the Corinthians (2 Cor 8:1-5), wherein he claims that the community is both financially and spiritually generous.[3] The Philippians even sent their own missionary, Epaphroditus, to aid Paul in the work of Christ (2:25). However, the community at Philippi was also facing its own struggles and threats. Since Paul repeatedly reminds the Philippians to remain single minded throughout the letter (2:2, 5; 3:15; 4:3) and warns them against selfish and vainglorious ambitions (1:17; 2:3), current scholarship believes these exhortations and warnings indicate that certain struggles existed within the community.[4] Other instances throughout the letter suggest “that they have faced, are facing, or soon will face persecution from outside the believing community” (see 1:27-30; 2:17) and that they were also facing false teachers proclaiming the gospel differently from Paul (see 3:2-3 and 3:17-4:1).[5] As evidenced by the letter itself, Paul penned and structured it with the historical situation of the Philippians in mind.

When writing the letter, Paul composed it according to the standard form of Greco-Roman letters which he typically used: opening formula; thanksgiving; body; closing formula. It is important to note here that rhetoric is essential to Greco-Roman letter writing probably because long distance communications were originally transmitted orally before being transmitted on papyrus documents.[6] Since letters are essentially rhetorical, many have analyzed Paul’s letters according to the letter styles found in ancient rhetorical handbooks. The Letter to the Philippians follows the simple Greco-Roman pattern, “opening, 1:1-2; thanksgiving, 1:3-11; body, 1:12-4:20; closing, 4:21-23,”[7] but has also been analyzed according to various ancient rhetorical schema.[8] Perhaps the best schema which can be attributed to Philippians is the “hortatory letter of friendship” which uses the rhetorical device of contrasting models.[9] Paul does use positive and negative examples of how friends and enemies behave throughout the letter. Both the letter’s formal structure and its content suggest that Paul wrote a hortatory letter of friendship to exhort the Philippians in their specific situation to adopt and maintain the practical dispositions that ought to be present among the saints living in Christ Jesus.

The pericope within which verse 2:5 is situated spans from 2:1-2:11 within the first section of the body concerning instructions for the community. Within this pericope, verses 2:1-5 are generally distinguished from verses 2:6-11, due to the change from an exhortatory to a hymnic or poetic literary form. Verses 1 through 4 may be divided into three sub-components: “a series of suppositions about life in Christ (2:1), a request to be of one mind or disposition (2:2a), and a series of phrases describing the nature of that one mind in terms of unity and humble, others-oriented love, rather than conceited self-interest (2:2b-4).”[10] Verses 6 through 11, commonly called the “Christ Hymn,” poetically narrates the story of Christ’s humiliation and exaltation. Most scholars today agree that verses 2:6-11 are designated by a narrative-poetic genre distinct from everything proceeding and following it; for this reason, these same scholars remained divided as to its authorship.[11] That is, although the letter is itself undisputedly Pauline, since the poem interrupts the hortatory letter form, it is possible that Paul did not in fact write it but inserted a pre-existing poem into the letter to serve his purposes. The many various approaches at interpreting  verse 2:5, which has truly proven to be a crux interpretum, directly reflect the various approaches at interpreting the origin and meaning of the Christ Hymn.[12]

For the sake of brevity, I will limit my discussion to the Kerygmatic/Soteriological interpretation and the Ethical interpretation as discussed by Ralph P. Martin and Peter T. O’Brien, respectively. Martin argues, given that the poem ruptures the literary structure of the letter, “the essence of verses 6-11 is a drama of salvation, and verse 5 introduces a soteriological setting by calling upon Christians to live in their community relations as those who belong to Christ’s rule.”[13] In this interpretation, the hymn serves to show the Philippians “how they came to be in Christ,” rather than how Christ may serve as an example of how they should act.[14] Furthermore, the ethical example of the hymn would seem to stop in verse 8, since verses 9-11 demonstrate the exaltation of Christ above all creation and men do not share this status.[15] Finally, the hymn appears to have its origins in the “mythical framework” of a “Gnostic Redeemer myth which has been christianized,” with the insertion of verse 8b.[16] Since the origin of the hymn is essentially gnostic, no ethical example, no relations in the Godhead, and no teaching of Christ’s pre-existence can be derived from the hymn; the hymn merely proclaims the soteriological event of Christ to the Philippians, demonstrating only how they came to be “in Christ” with Jesus Christ as their Lord.[17]

Of course, a good Catholic exegete would deny that the hymn is essentially and primarily gnostic and would demonstrate that it originates in (or at least is largely influenced by) the Old Testament rather than in gnosticism, even if Martin is correct to highlight the soteriological significance evident in the hymn. O’Brien, for his part, defends the ethical interpretation of verse 5 and the following hymn. He states that, “even if it is true that the hymn traces the steps in the soteriological drama there is no reason why it could not have been given a new [ethical] setting in the context of the letter.”[18] Whatever the hymn’s origins are, “the hymn certainly belongs in its present context” due both to its vocabulary which “echoes that of the verses immediately preceding” and due to the “logical progression in [Paul’s] thought” indicated by ὣστε.[19] O’Brien furthermore explains the significance of verses 9-11 in the ethical interpretation. Within the immediate context of 2:1-11, Paul clearly exhorts the Philippians to imitate Christ’s humility and obedience and does not suggest that “the Philippians should imitate Christ in being exalted.”[20] However, later in the Philippians, Paul states that Christ Jesus “will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him to bring all things into subjection to himself” (3:21). This passage indicates a “promise of exaltation” to those who imitate Christ’s humility, thus rendering the humiliation-exaltation motif relevant to the ethical interpretation of both the Christ Hymn and of verse 5.      

Here, we finally come to consider the verse itself and the troubles this transitional verse has caused for countless interpreters. In the Greek New Testament, verse 2:5 reads τοῦτο φρονεῖτε ἐν ὑμῖν ὃ καὶ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ. Translated very literally, this verse would read something like “Think this among you that also in Christ Jesus.” This very clunky translation of the imperative sentence is imperfect for a number of reasons: first, the object of the demonstrative τοῦτο, which is the object of the relative , is unclear, causing different interpreters to substitute different objects to elucidate the verse’s meaning; second, some dispute about the verb which ought to be supplied after the relative pronoun; and third, the meaning of ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ may be understood either as the typical Pauline “in [the Body of] Christ Jesus” or as referring to the person of Christ in the hymn. Contemporary scholars remain divided in their attempts to resolve these dilemmas.

Following the ethical interpretation of the verse, which focuses on the new ethical character given to the soteriological hymn by its context, O’Brien claims that the object of the demonstrative pronoun points back to the preceding exhortation in 2:1-4 because “the key verb φρονέω…, which in the present imperitival form dominates [verse 5], has already appeared twice in the preceding exhortation” in verse 2.[21] However, simply because the verse points back to the preceding exhortatory sentence does not mean that verse 5 does not introduce the Christ Hymn. As O’Brien states, “the real point is that ὃ καὶ…parallels the τοῦτο and shows that the two halves of the sentence are linked. The phrase ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ…, whether it is understood corporately…or as an individual reference to the example of Christ Jesus, is closely bound through the introductory ὃς, a natural correlative, to the following hymn.”[22] In this way, even though the object of the demonstrative pronoun refers back to the preceding section, the correlative ὃς makes Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ the subject of the hymn and proves that verse 5 transfers the ethical meaning of the exhortation to the soteriology of the hymn itself.

What remains now is to examine O’Brien’s suggestion as to the object of τοῦτο to aid us in translating the passage. He suggests that “the verse should be expanded to τοῦτο [τὸ φρόνημα] φρονεῖτε ἐν ὑμῖν ὃ καὶ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ” since Paul has just described the φρόνημα (“way of thinking,” “the mind,” “attitude,” disposition”) that ought to be among the Philippians in verses 1 through 4.[23] I find it very interesting that Paul uses different variations of the verb φρονέω appears 7 times throughout his letter to the Philippians (1:7, 2:2, 5; 3:15, 19; 4:2) and that he closely associates this sort of thought with particular types of actions. It reminds me in particular of the Hellenistic (Aristotelian) notion of φρόνησις (“practical wisdom”). Although Paul does not himself use the noun φρόνησις in this epistle, the kinds of dispositions he exhorts the Philippians to adopt are practical dispositions. And so, if the root of φρονέω, φρόνημα, and φρόνησις carries the notion of practical thinking, it makes even more sense to supply τὸ φρόνημα to verse 5 given the hortatory purpose of the letter. With τὸ φρόνημα as the object of τοῦτο direct object and the direct object of φρονεῖτε in 5a, the verb that is most easily supplied to 5bis some form of the verb to be, whether past or present. With these simple additions to verse 5, one may now translate the verse as “Think this same way of thinking among you that is also in Christ Jesus.”[24]                                                                          

This translation of verse 2:5, and those semantically equivalent, allows for an interpretation of the verse and the Christ Hymn that respects the soteriology and Christology evident in the hymn itself and at the same time gives it an ethical interpretation in light of the hortatory context of the letter. Verse 5 indicates that “Christ’s own example” as narrated in the hymn “is held up for the Church to imitate; not that his incarnation, death, and exaltation are merely exemplary, but they are at least that.”[25] It is true that, while neither the Philippians whom Paul addresses nor we are the Divine Person of Christ, Paul nevertheless exhorts both the Philippians and us to think as Christ thought and to act as Christ acted in order to be unified in Him. That is, the equality and union with God that we now share in Christ’s body, is not something to be grasped or taken advantage of (cf. 2:5-6); rather, we ought to empty ourselves, like Christ, taking the form of slaves, humbling ourselves, and becoming obedient to God unto death, even death on our own crosses (cf. 2:7-8). Having worked out our salvation in this fashion, as true Christians united in Christ’s Body, the Church, Christ will glorify our bodies so that our knees may forever bend and our tongues may forever confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (cf. 2:13; 3:21; 2:10-11). Only by imitating Christ, by thinking and acting in the same way he did, will we enter into Christ’s saving event which bridges history and eternity; even now we should rejoice as “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard [our] hearts and minds in Christ Jesus,” being members of his body and imitators of his example (4:7; cf. 4:4).


Anselm Academic Study Bible Catholic Edition. New American Bible, Revised Edition. Edited by Carolyn Osiek and Leslie J. Hoppe. Winona: Anselm Academic Christian Brothers, 2015.

Gorman, Michael J. Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A theological introduction to Paul and his letters, Second Edition. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2017.

Martin, Ralph P. Carmen Christi: Philippians 2:5-11 in recent interpretation and in the setting of early Christian worship. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1983.

Martin, Ralph P. Philippians. New Century Bible Commentary. Edited by Matthew Black. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1976.

Novum Testamentum Graece 28. Edited by Nestle-Aland. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2020.

O’Brien, Peter T. The Epistle to the Philippians: A Commentary of the Greek Text. he New International Greek Testament Commentary, edited by I. Howard Marshall and W. Ward Gasque. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1991. 

Thurston, Bonnie B. and Judith M. Ryan. Philippians and Philemon. Sacra Pagina, edited by Daniel J. Harrington, vol. 10. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2005.

 Wright, N. T. The Climax of Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991.

[1] Bonnie B. Thurston, “Philippians” in Philippians and Philemon, Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington, vol. 10, (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2005), 30.

[2] Thurston, 16.

[3] Thurston, 16.

[4] Thurston, 17.

[5] Thurston, 17.

[6] Thurston, 24.

[7] Thurston, 26.

[8] Cf. Thurston, 34-37.

[9] Thurston, 37.

[10] Michael J. Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A theological introduction to Paul and his letters, Second Edition, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2017), 501.

[11] Thurston, 85; Gorman, 505.

[12] Peter T. O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians: A Commentary of the Greek Text, the New International Greek Testament Commentary, ed. I. Howard Marshall and W. Ward Gasque, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1991), 203-205, 253-262.

[13] Ralph P. Martin, Philippians, New Century Bible Commentary, ed. Matthew Black, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1983), 92. 

[14] Ralph P. Martin, Carmen Christi: Philippians 2:5-11 in recent interpretation and in the setting of early Christian worship, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1976), 86.

[15] Martin, Carmen Christi, 89.

[16] Martin, Carmen Christi, 90.

[17] Martin, Carmen Christi, 90-91.

[18] O’Brien, 259.

[19] O’Brien, 259.

[20] O’Brien, 260.

[21] O’Brien, 204.

[22] O’Brien, 204.

[23] O’Brien, 205.

[24] “This same way of thinking” is my rendering of τοῦτο [τὸ φρόνημα], which refers immediately back to verses 2:1-4 and, by the relative , refers forward to Christ’s way of thinking.

[25] N. T. Wright, The Climax of Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology, (Edinborough: T&T Clark, 1991), 87.

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