Jesus versus Caesar

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul points to the obedience of Jesus as the model for proper conduct by his disciples. His willing submission to death on the Roman cross sets the pattern for his followers. And his subsequent elevation to reign over all things is the result of that “obedience to death,” for exaltation did not precede death, but followed it.

Not only did Jesus refuse political power when Satan offered it, his acceptance of the messianic role of the ‘Suffering Servant’ who dies for the sake of others, including the “enemies of God,” was contrary to the very idea of exercising political power over others. Submitting to an underserved and brutal death on a cross is something no Caesar, emperor, president, king, or dictator would ever do.

And the Apostle Paul summons believers to imitate the example of Christ by conducting themselves properly while living in a hostile culture and serving one another, and this begins by “standing fast in one spirit, with one soul, joining for the combat along with the faith of the gospel.”


Disciples must seek concord and humility, especially in the face of opposition, and Paul, therefore, calls them to emulate the example of Jesus.

And anyone who wishes to follow the example of Jesus must do so by “thinking the same thing” that he did, especially by deferring to the needs of others. This mindset was epitomized in his self-sacrificial act when submitted to death on behalf of others even when doing so meant an undeserved and shameful death.

  • Be thinking this among you, that even in Christ JesusWho, 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 is, in fact, what it means to be the Messiah of Israel who came “not be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”


To illustrate Christ’s example, Paul employs Old Testament language from the stories of Adam and the “suffering servant” from 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 to Adam, Jesus obeyed God and suffered the consequences. Like the “suffering servant” in Isaiah, he humbled himself and submitted to an unjust and horrific death. And for that very reason, God has “highly exalted” him.

Like Adam, Jesus began “in the form of God,” but unlike Adam, he “did not consider the being like God something for plunder.” The Greek adjective isos rendered “like” is in the dative case and means just that, “like.” The clause alludes to the story when the “serpent” tempted Adam - “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 disobedience and thereby attempted to “seize” the likeness of God. To the Philippians, Paul contrasts his failure with the refusal of Jesus to grasp that same “likeness.”


Being in the form of God.” This corresponds to the creation account when “God created man in his own image.” So, also, Jesus was in the “image” or “form” of God. In Greek literature, the two nouns are synonymous. The term rendered “being” represents the Greek present tense participle huparchō, which means “to commence, begin; to start.” Thus, Christ began in the image of God just as Adam did.

The Greek noun rendered “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, 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 a cross.”

In this last sentence, there are several verbal echoes from the “suffering servant” 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.”

Like the “suffering servant,” Jesus humbled himself even to the point of suffering a shameful death, and that is how “he poured himself out.” Paul completes his picture by utilizing allusions to two more passages from 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.”


According to Paul, Jesus died the death of a “slave.” This uses an image from the Greco-Roman culture in which crucifixion was considered the most shameful form of death imaginable, and its most horrific aspect was the public humiliation attached to it. And it was often used to execute rebellious slaves.

Disciples of Jesus are called to have that same mind - to seek nothing from self-interest or for “empty glory.” They are to emulate the Messiah who did not seek to exalt himself, and instead, “poured himself out” in humble obedience to his Father.

Thus, believers must conduct themselves in “humility” toward one another just as he did rather than seek power over others, whether within or outside the church. In God’s kingdom, exaltation follows obedience, humility, and self-sacrifice; it does not precede them. This is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and to have his “mind.”



The Living Word

The Suffering Servant