The Empty Hero

After inviting his friends in Philippi to commit social suicide by humbling themselves and putting the needs and interests of others above their own, Paul explains his rationale for this counter-cultural behavior.

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5–11, NIV)

If anyone ever had the right to play the status card and say, “Do you know who I am?” to always get what he wanted, it was Jesus. Though he was divine, he did not exploit his equality with God to cut to the front of the line or to make others feel inferior or to force his subjects to bow down in his presence.

You know that ladder of status that everyone in the Roman empire was so desperate to climb? Jesus worked his way from the very top, all the way to the very bottom.

He emptied himself of status and became a nobody, a slave who followed the orders of his master, even if obedience meant a humiliating death on a cross.

In response to Jesus’ humility, God the Father exalts him to the highest place. Making him Lord of all creation. Paul’s use of the term “Lord” is strategic. He’s comparing Jesus to Caesar, the other “Lord” on the block.

Jesus and Caesar are two very different kinds of heroes. One is full of himself and the other emptied himself for the sake of others. One ran over anyone who got in his way, the other laid down his life for others.

You want status? Jesus has status. But it isn’t the result of selfish ambition or ruthlessly climbing the social ladder. His status is given to him by his Father as a way of validating and vindicating his humble way of life, especially his death. Christ’s exaltation is God’s thumbs up to Christ’s self-sacrificing love for others.

Jesus, the empty hero, is filled with the glory of God. While very few people in the Roman Empire admired an empty hero, Paul says that everyone in the world will someday worship one.

This is one of the most theologically rich and complex passages in the New Testament. It’s all there: Christ’s pre-existence, his incarnation, his obedience, his crucifixion, his resurrection and his exaltation. We can study it for years and never get to the bottom of it.

And Paul uses it to show his friends in Philippi how to get along with each other. “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.”

Simply amazing.

Our familiarity with this passage not only keeps us from seeing how revolutionary this teaching is, it also keeps us from taking it seriously. As in, this is one of the core teachings in the New Testament we’re actually supposed to obey.

There’s plenty of evidence of how seriously Paul took the example of Christ. Some of the Philippians had seen him put this teaching into practice when the church in Philippi was just getting started.

In Acts 16:16-24, Paul and Silas are arrested, flogged, and thrown in jail by officials in Philippi. After an earthquake and a bunch of baptisms, city officials decide to release Paul and Silas from jail and send them on their way.

“But Paul said to the officers: “They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly? No! Let them come themselves and escort us out.” The officers reported this to the magistrates, and when they heard that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, they were alarmed. They came to appease them and escorted them from the prison, requesting them to leave the city.” (Acts 16:37–39, NIV)

Here’s the perplexing question: Why didn’t Paul tell them he was a Roman Citizen before they beat him? This is something he does later on in Acts 22:22-29 to prevent a flogging in Jerusalem. Why didn’t he do the same when he was in Philippi?

In Who Is This Man?, John Ortberg cites the work of Joseph Hellerman who suggests that the reason Paul didn’t mention his citizenship in Philippi is because the fledgling church in Philippi included people who were not Roman citizens. If those without status ended up in trouble with the authorities because of their allegiance to Jesus, they didn’t have a “get out of jail free” card to play. How could the church stand together as one in the face of opposition if some members were able to use their social status to escape suffering, while others were not? That’s not way to build a church.

So Paul did something crazy. He humbled himself. He refused to exploit his Roman citizenship. Instead, he made himself a non-citizen, a nobody, for the sake of his status-less brothers and sisters in Christ.

Yes, I think we can say Paul practiced what he preached.

Can you imagine what a church could accomplish if everyone put the needs and interests of others above their own? What if the prayer hovering over every meeting, every class discussion, every strategic planning session, over every worship gathering in your church was “Let us have the mindset of Christ.”

What sets the church apart from so many other groups in our culture is that church is a status-free zone. Church is maybe the one place where we all leave our status at the door. At church, our titles, our accomplishments, our resumes, our level of education, and our annual incomes don’t matter.

When friends in Christ get together, the only thing that really matters is pursuing the mindset of Christ, who emptied himself of status for the sake of others.

“Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”” (Mark 10:42–45, NIV)


  1. Great post Wade! Wow! Never noticed the difference between the floggings in Philippi & Jerusalem.

  2. Good stuff as usual. The first thing at thought when you were talking about how status and education should be left at the door is, then we should do away with “young professionals” groups. Or “college” groups. I can’t be the only person that has felt left out due to the names and structure of those groups. I was neither a professional or went to college. How was I supposed to identify? I couldn’t. Everyone was always talking about school, degrees and jobs. I had nothing to contribute.

    • Micah–this is a challenging observation. It makes me want to rethink the way we do classes at Preston Road.

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