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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.
Now that the 12 days of Christmas are in full swing, I want to propose what I think will be a controversial reading of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ virginal conception and birth. Consider it a theological thought experiment if you like, but it is an attempt to take seriously Matthew 1:20. The first Gospel says no more about the topic but what he does say is clearly suggestive:
“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 1:20)
Now immediately, we must set aside any modern notions of conception, for though Matthew and his audience would have been aware generally of how babies were made, they were not versed fully in the biology of it. The Greek word translated “conceived” in most modern translations does not mean what moderns mean when they think scientifically regarding conception. So we must not insist that it carry the full freight of our biological knowledge. The word simply means “to bring forth.” The same word was used earlier in the chapter dozens of times to refer to how fathers bring forth children: e.g., “Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob” (Matthew 1:2a,b). The King James read: “Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob” (Mat 1:2 KJV).
If we assume for a moment that Matthew was aware of at least some of the biological processes involved, would he have thought that Mary provided the ovum or was Mary for him more like a surrogate mother, a vessel in whom the Christ-child, Emmanuel, was destined to grow? If Mary provided the ovum, who or what supplied the seed? I suggest Matthew’s account should be interpreted as making Mary Jesus’ surrogate mother not his biological mother.
Now to be fair neither Matthew nor his audience could have been familiar with the notion of an “egg” as we know it. Not until the invention of the microscope were humans able to see the mico-world. Instead they viewed the woman’s womb as the ground upon which the seed could be planted. They were after all an agricultural people so many of their life images were drawn from agriculture. If the seed found favorable “ground,” then a child would result. If a woman’s womb were “barren,” then the couple remained childless.
Let”s be clear. Matthew does not see her pregnancy as a sexual act. In fact, the way he tells the story it is obvious he is trying to distance his account from any notion of sexual intercourse. Perhaps that is because during his days charges were being made by Jesus’ opponents about his legitimacy; or more likely in my view, Matthew had a theological and apologetic purpose.
According to the first evangelist, Mary is a virgin and stays a virgin up to the time of Jesus’ birth (Catholics and many other faithful believers say forever). Furthermore, the child which will come forth from her is “from the Holy Spirit” (likely a genitive of source governed by the Greek preposition ek). Matthew must have been aware of Greek myths and pagan stories of gods coming down and having sexual relations with women and giving birth to semi-divine beings (e.g., Hercules). His account of Jesus’ miraculous birth is meant to distance Jesus’ origins as far as possible from these pagan notions. That which is in Mary is from the Holy Spirit. Full stop. It is the work of God in her from start to finish.
Reading Matthew’s account in this way makes it possible to view Jesus as a new Adam in line with other NT writers (e.g., Paul in Romans 5, 1 Corinthians 15 and the Gospel of Luke in particular). The genealogy of the third Gospel (Luke 3) begins with Jesus and traces his lineage all the way back to Adam (cf. Matthew’s geneaology which begins with Abraham and ends with Jesus: Matthew 1). Jesus is therefore the Son of Adam, who is none other than the Son of God.. The God who said, “Let there be light” and light “became” can surely say, “Let there be a child in the womb of my loyal servant, Mary,” and make it so. Adam was the product of adamah (Hebrew for “earth”) and the breath (Spirit) of God (Genesis 1-3). Jesus, son of Mary, was the product of the Holy Spirit, according to Matthew. Mary did not provide the biological raw materials. What she did provide–by common agreement with God–was a nurturing place or “ground” for the Christ child to grow and develop. Natalogists can explain to us all that the woman’s body provides a child that grows within her. Once implanted there is a great deal of exchange that takes place from the mother’s body to the baby’s. Needless to say, “we are wonderfully made.”
Now some may wonder whether reading Matthew’s account in the way I propose detracts from Jesus’ full humanity. How could Jesus be fully human if he did not have a biological mother the way we moderns understand it, that is, in sharing Mary’s DNA? Well was Adam “fully human”? He had no mother. His wife was to become the mother of all the living. God sculpted Adam from the earth and breathed into him the breath of life and he became a living soul, fully human. The analogy I suggest we consider here is new creation and new Adam. What was in Mary was “from the Holy Spirit” start to finish.
Now if we take Mary’s role as surrogate rather than biological mother, we do not detract one bit from her ultimate significance in the story of salvation. She remains the virgin mother in whom a miracle has taken place to bring forth a son who is properly called “Emmanuel” (God with us). All of the honor due Mary as theotokos (“the Mother of God”) is not set aside by this reading of Matthew.