For Paul, the story of Jesus provided the greatest example of what this humility looked like when it was embodied in a life. He found that story told powerfully and succinctly in an early Christian hymn. No other passage in the NT has been studied more thoroughly. Given the poetic, parallel structures and its unusual wording, the hymn was likely a preformed tradition that Paul incorporated into his letter. Exactly who wrote it, for whom and when are questions worthy of speculation but unlikely to bring certainty. The fact that Paul included this preformed tradition in his letter to the Philippians indicates his complete agreement with its theology. Even if Paul didn’t write it, he did agree with it.
Paul earnestly desired for the “mind” of Christ to shape the lives and community in Philippi. He sets up Jesus as the lordly example of humility and selfless service. The hymn is constructed around two movements: (1) the descent (katabasis) from equality with God to the humiliation of the cross and (2) the ascent (anabasis) from death to exaltation/ resurrection by God and universal acclamation by all creatures. The descent can be graphically portrayed (2:6-8):
Though he was in the form of God
He did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped
He emptied himself
Taking the form of a servant
Becoming in the likeness of men
Being found in form as a man
He humbled himself
Becoming obedient to death
Even death on a cross
Likewise the ascent (2:9-11)
To the glory of God, the Father
“Jesus Christ is Lord”
Every tongue confess that
(of heavenly, earthly and subterranean beings)
Every knee shall bow
So at the name that belongs to Jesus
And bestowed on him the name above every name
Therefore God highly exalted him
There are a number of interpretive schemes for unraveling the meaning of this hymn. James Dunn notices the number and the sequence of Scriptural allusions to Adam and concludes that the Christ hymn in Philippians 2 is “the fullest expression of Adam Christology in the NT” (cf. Heb 2:5-9). In particular he notes that Adam is made in image of God (cf. Gen 1:27) and is tempted to grasp at equality with God (cf. Gen 3:5). The first man fails, of course, and becomes an obedient slave to corruption and death. Ultimately, in Jewish tradition Adam is glorified. For Dunn and other interpreters, Jesus provides the converse of Adam, particularly in that the second Adam did not try to grasp for equality with God (something He did not have). Rather He emptied himself and humbled himself by being willing to die a criminal’s death on the cross. Given other Adam-Christ typologies in Paul, there may well be a subtle allusion to Jesus as a new Adam who reverses the curse of Adam’s sin. But this does not cover the interpretive canvas.
Michael Gorman suggests that the humiliation-exaltation pattern in the hymn is based upon a similar pattern found in the fourth servant song (Isa 52:13—53:12). Although he does not discount other options, he believes the Christ hymn would have been patterned after and read according to the final servant poem augmented by Isa 45:23. Isaiah’s servant song depicts the Servant of YHWH
- exalted and lifted up (Isa 52:13)
- despised and reject (53:3)
- pierced for our transgressions (53:4)
- led like a lamb to the slaughter (53:7)
- cut off from the living (53:8)
- he will see light (53:10)
- God allots him a portion with the great (53:12)
The humiliation and exaltation pattern in the fourth Servant poem does appear to provide further background for understanding the model for the Christ hymn.
One of the important interpretive questions we find in the text has to do with the meaning of the phrases “existing in the form of God” and “did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped.” Most scholars take these as a reference to the preexistence of Christ. Prior to his entrance into the world, he existed in the form of God. Nevertheless, he decided not to hold onto his equality with God. Instead he emptied himself and became a human being. According to this construal, the hymn is a statement of the preexistence and incarnation of Christ, a divine person. But not all agree that the doctrine of the preexistence of Christ occurs so early. As we have seen, Dunn interprets this as an allusion to Adam made in God’s image (Gen 1:27) and seeking to become “like God” by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 3:5). Accordingly, these phrases should not be read as referring to the preexistence or incarnation of Christ.
Again, while a subtle allusion to Adam is possible, some form of preexistence is clearly in view from one who was in the form of God and who became man. If he had to become “man,” he was not “man” before. There is no reason to conclude the Christ hymn does not assume the preexistence of a divine being who subsequently became the man we know by the name “Jesus.” Yet the hymn is silent on the salient points we are interested in. Some have tried to flesh out the extent of the self-emptying by naming which attributes he gave up on his journey toward the cross. But this is more reading into (eisegesis) than reading from (exegesis) the text. At the end of the day the decision to lay aside equality, empty himself and humble himself had only one thing in view: the cross.
As a result of his faith obedience, God super-exalted the crucified Jesus and gave him the name above every name (2:9). Some, inspired more by our hymnody and praise choruses than Scripture, have wrongly concluded that “the name above every name” is the name “Jesus.” But Jesus was a common name then and now. It can hardly be a candidate for the name above every name. The genitive case “Jesus” in 2:10 is best taken as a possessive genitive, i.e., at the name that belongs to Jesus. Three things are certain about the “name”: (a) it is a name bestowed upon him in the exaltation-resurrection; (b) it is a name above every name; and (c) it is a name that belongs to Jesus. So what is the name? Given all we know from the hymn and given the reverence accorded the name of God in Hebrew Scriptures, the name must be LORD (kyrios), God’s holy, unspeakable name (Hebrew, YHWH). In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, kyrios (translated “Lord” in most versions) consistently renders the divine name, a name so holy it was protected by one of the ten commandments (Exod 20:7). This conclusion is assured by the universal acclamation of all heavenly, earthly, and subterranean creatures. When the name that belongs to Jesus is expressed: “every knee will bow, every tongue will confess, Jesus Christ is Lord” (2:10-11, alluding to Isa 45:23). These phrases belong to one of the most significant monotheistic passages in the Old Testament and refer originally to the worship of YHWH. Paul has deliberately taken scriptural language regarding the veneration of Israel’s one God and applied it to the risen Jesus. This is a remarkable appropriation of God’s name and worship addressed to Jesus. As Larry Kreitzer noted: “it is difficult to imagine any first-century Jew or Christian even remotely familiar with Isa. 45 hearing this final stanza of Phil 2.9-11 without recognizing that words of theistic import have now been applied to Jesus.” Despite this, for Paul, the unique identity of God, including his name, and his exclusive right to worship are not threatened by the universal acclamation of Jesus as “Lord.” Since the Father has bestowed upon the crucified Jesus His name, the apostle understood that the worship of Jesus by all creatures brought glory to God and fulfilled His will.
Paul aimed to drive home the point of the sufficiency of Christ by quoting what appears to be a preformed tradition—either a hymn or a poem—that commemorates the person and finished work of Christ. It is likely that either Paul or one of his associates was the author of this piece, although we cannot rule out composition outside the Pauline circle. The hymn is based broadly on the Jewish wisdom tradition where divine wisdom (a) reflects the divine glory, (b) serves as the agent of creation and (c) the agent of redemption (Wisd 7:22-28; cf. Proverbs 8). As early theologians like Paul mulled over the significance of Christ, they found wisdom an ever-ready concept through which to filter the activity of Jesus. Wisdom language and texts provided them a wealth of symbols and images to construe their newly found faith in a variety of ways and contexts. There is much to commend Michael Gorman’s judgment: Colossians is an “extended commentary on Paul’s claim that Christ is the wisdom and power of God (1 Cor 1:18-25).”
The hymn can be divided into two parts: (1) the Son as Creator of all things (1:15-17) and (2) the Son as Head of the Church and Reconciler of all things (1:18-20). We have used the christological title “Son” in our description of the hymn because of its presence in 1:13. There are in fact no christological titles in the surviving text of the hymn. Unlike the Philippian hymn that ends with the triumphant acclamation, “Jesus Christ is Lord,” there is no overriding christological claim in the Colossian hymn. What you do have is a well-constructed series of christological reflections patterned loosely on Jesus’ work as God’s wisdom.
The first stanza of the hymn declares the Son to be the “image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (1:15). The phrase “image of God” resonates with the tonality of the Genesis narrative where a similar phrase refers to the creation of “the Adam” in God’s image and likeness (Gen 1:27; cf. 1 Cor 11:7). But Adam’s twin he is not because he is also the agent of creation, the one through whom, in whom and for whom all things are made (1:16). The emphasis on God’s invisibility stands in contrast to the Son’s incarnation and especially the reconciling blood of the cross (1:19-20). Some have taken the phrase “firstborn of all creation” to mean that the Son is a created being. This can hardly be the case, however, when in the next line He is heralded as the creative agent behind “all things in the heavens and upon the earth” (1:16). The “first” is therefore not in reference to time but to status as v. 17 makes clear (“He is before all things”). By “all things” the hymn explicitly cites heavenly and earthly entities, visible and invisible realities, along with an entire assortment of angels, principalities and powers. These are the spiritual powers feared and placated in the folk religion around Colossae. Whether or not they recognize it, these powers along with the rest of creation exist subservient to the Son who holds all things together (1:17).
The second stanza celebrates the headship of the Son over the church and the (eventual) reconciliation of all things—perhaps even the competing powers—by the cross. Paul wrote: “And He is the head of the body (of) the church” (1:18). The hymn is apparently combining two important Pauline emphases: (a) the church as the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12-29 and Rom 12:3-8) and (b) the headship of Christ (1 Cor 11:2; cf. Col ???). Paul and his co-workers were innovative theologians, evocative in their use of symbols and metaphors. The image of the church as Christ’s body provided them with a variety of ways to configure the relationship. Here the focus is on Christology not Ecclesiology so its construal emphasizes the headship and first-place-ness of Christ over against His people. As the “firstborn from the dead” (1:18), the Son (cf. 1 Cor 15:20) leads the way from death to life. He is the beginning of the new creation: in Him the resurrection from the dead has begun. But there is more to affirm: the hymn continues “for in Him all the fullness [of God] was pleased to dwell” (1:19). We have in this line a clear statement of what theologians refer to as “the incarnation,” namely, the man Jesus was the fleshy place of God’s indwelling. This “indwelling” of God was not measured and cautious but total and daring. In God’s good pleasure the totality of the divine nature and attributes filled the Son. This made Him uniquely qualified to serve as the agent of reconciliation (1:20). The working assumption of Paul is that humanity and the rest of creation had fallen out of God’s favor despite our glorious beginnings. Furthermore, nothing below was able to establish peace, but God’s Son has come into the world and established peace through His blood on the cross. For Paul, Christ on the cross was the locus of reconciliation. And this reconciliation is not partial; it is universal with beneficiaries in heaven and on earth (1:20)
At one time the Colossians had been alienated from God because of evil. “But now” God had reconciled them “through the body of His flesh” (1:21) so they could one day stand before Him holy and blameless. The focus on the accomplished work of reconciliation was important for Paul because of how the Colossians were looking to other ascetic and spiritual strategies to “complete” their salvation. The apostle wanted them to recognize that Christ was the agent of creation, the author of their reconciliation and the only true power in the universe. What they needed to do now was to continue in that faith firmly established and not shift their focus to other, lesser powers.
 Gorman, 471.
This week I’d like to share a podcast with you from Dr. Chris Vlachos.
Chris Vlachos (PhD), Visiting Assistant Professor of New Testament, discusses how Greek word order effects meaning. With examples from James 1 and Revelation 2, he shows that “reading the New Testament in Greek is like watching High Definition TV.”
You can cut and paste the URL:
or click here.
The apostle Paul succeeds in his Gentile mission due in large part to a network of Christian brothers and sisters he began to establish shortly after his call to be an apostle (Galatians 1-2). Depending upon how broadly the term is defined, eighty to ninety people are described as Paul’s co-workers in Acts and the NT letters attributed to him. Some appear to relate to Paul as equals (e.g., Barnabas, Apollos, Aquila); others as subordinates (e.g., Timothy, Titus, Tychichus). Some work closely with Paul (e.g., Timothy, Luke, Silas); others independently (e.g., Apollos, Prisca, Barnabas). Some carry out their work primarily in a local setting (e.g., Philemon, Euodia); others travel with Paul or serve as his delegates when he cannot travel (Luke, Timothy, Titus). Still, all of his co-workers act cooperatively with him in a wide variety of mission activities.
In his letters Paul refers to these associates by a variety of terms including “co-worker” (sunergos), “apostle” (apostolos), “brother” (adelphos), “minister” (diakonos), “fellow servant” (sundoulos), “fellow-soldier” (sustratiōtēs), and “fellow-prisoner” (sunaichmalōtos). These terms are not synonymous, although various designations can complement others. The types of services these associates provide Paul and his congregations depend primarily on the gifts given to each (e.g., Rom 12:6-8; 1 Cor 12:4-11). Co-workers assist Paul in his travels, in his preaching and teaching ministry, in hosting church gatherings, in repairing problems in the churches, in meeting his needs while he is in prison, and in writing letters. When Paul establishes a church, he identifies and trains local leaders to work in cooperation with him. He instructs leaders and congregations in person when present and by letter when absent.
We should likely distinguish between “apostles of Jesus Christ” and “apostles of the churches.” The phrase “apostles of Jesus Christ” refers to individuals who have seen the risen Jesus (1 Cor 9:1) and have been commissioned directly by him. While the term “apostle” may be used narrowly to refer to “the Twelve” (e.g., Acts 4:35-37), Paul uses it more broadly to refer to others including himself, Apollos and Barnabas. The phrase “apostles of the churches” extends the usage further by referring to individuals chosen and commissioned by local congregations (e.g., Epaphroditus [Phil 2:25] and Andronicus and Junia [Rom 16:7]).
Remarkably Paul designates a number of women as “co-workers,” “ministers,” and “apostles.” Phoebe, Euodia, Syntyche, Apphia, Priscilla (= Prisca), and Junia exercise leadership locally and serve as traveling missionaries. These women assist Paul in a variety of ways. The more affluent serve as benefactors, providing lodging, hospitality, and opening their homes to gatherings of the local churches. Women gifted otherwise are involved in ministries of preaching and teaching.
Some of Paul’s co-workers contribute to the letters that he writes. Eight of the thirteen letters attributed to Paul name co-senders. As “apostle of Jesus Christ” Paul’s name and titles appear first followed by the names of others including Sosthenes, Silvanus ( = Silas), Timothy, and Titus. The extent of their contribution is unclear, but it is likely that they have some role in composing the letter. Likewise most of Paul’s letters bear the distinct marks of secretarial influence. The secretary’s role may vary from letter to letter or section to section within a single letter. At times a secretary may take dictation from the author; at others he may take on more of an authorial role. The only named secretary in Paul’s letters is Tertius (Rom 16:22). His greeting “in the Lord” demonstrates that he is not a hired pen but a co-worker in the mission. In the final analysis Paul’s letters are not products of a single mind. Properly understood, his letters are a collaborative enterprise, an interchange of ideas and traditions between Paul, his secretaries and his co-senders.
Capernaum is not mentioned in the Old Testament. Although we cannot say for certain, it is probable any local population would have been killed or otherwise displaced in the Assyrian invasions in the 8th century BC. In fact there is little material evidence of human settlement before the 2nd century BC. Later Jewish writers refer to Capernaum as “Kefar Nahum” (the village of Nahum—not likely the biblical prophet). Apparently, Capernaum was the site of some of Jesus’ earliest miracles, a fact that didn’t escape the hometown crowd in Nazareth (Luke 4.23). Matthew tells us that Jesus healed the centurion’s son from a distance in Capernaum and went on to heal Peter’s mother-in-law (Matt 8.5, 14). He healed a paralytic after four of his friends peeled back the roof of a modest Capernaum house and lowered him in front of the Savior on his mat (Mark 2.1; Matt 9.1-8). It was in Capernaum that Jairus, a ruler of the synagogue, implored Jesus to raise his daughter after the mourners had already gathered to grieve (Matt 9.18-26). Despite all the miracles Jesus performed there, he still prophesied destruction against the village and people there because of unbelief (Matt 11.23).
Capernaum is described in the Gospels as “his own city” (Matt 9.1), but the text is silent on why Jesus chose Capernaum as the center of his public life. Perhaps it was the ease of travel on the flat plain along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Perhaps it was the speed of passage across the lake to the Gentile cities of the Decapolis. Perhaps it was because Capernaum sat at some distance from Antipas’ seat of power. It was Antipas after all who had John beheaded, and Jesus’ fate was supposed to end in Jerusalem not Galilee. Still for reasons known only to him, Jesus chose Capernaum, and now for centuries Christian pilgrims have made their way to the place where Jesus first proclaimed with power the rule of God.
Modern visitors to Capernaum can explore the remains of a beautiful synagogue built in the Byzantine era. It is one of the best preserved ancient synagogues in the Holy Land. The large, white limestone blocks and columns stand in sharp contrast to the native stone which is a black basalt (volcanic) stone. The Byzantine synagogue was apparently built over the site of an earlier synagogue whose floor archaeologists uncovered a few years ago. It measures 60 feet wide by 79 feet long. Since building materials were hard to come by, builders often incorporated stable parts of earlier foundations and walls into later structures. This both concealed and preserved the earlier buildings. Although we cannot say for certain, this may well be the floor of the synagogue where Jesus preached and exorcized evil spirits in Capernaum (Luke 7.1ff; Mark 1.21-28).
In the fifth century AD Christians built an octagonal church building south of the synagogue. Byzantine Christians loved the octagonal form and often used it to commemorate places they considered holy. The building with its lovely mosaic floors had been constructed over the remains of a 4th century structure (likely a church) that had in turn been built over a first century house. A particularly strong tradition holds that this is the Capernaum residence of Peter, one of the twelve. The house of Peter, as it is called, was a modest, one-story house. Its roof would have been made of branches, thatch and mud, not unlike the roof that was dug out to allow the paralyzed man access to Jesus (Mark 2.1-12). The plastered walls of the large, central room contain over 150 inscriptions scribed like graffiti in the walls in the various languages of the early church: Greek, Aramaic, Hebrew, Syriac and Latin.
To preserve the house where tradition has it that Peter lived, believers have constructed a new church over the site. Like its ancient counterpart the modern structure has eight sides, but it sits several meters above the site atop eight pillars that describe eight sides. It hovers above the Byzantine remains preserving and protecting the precious material culture of the past from Capernaum’s warm summers and winter rains. Today Christian pilgrims, like their spiritual ancestors 1500 years ago, make their way to Capernaum to see the place where Peter lived and where Jesus began to turn the world upside down.