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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.
This may strike you as a strange question until you recall this was a question posed during Jesus’ lifetime. Here is the dialogue from the translation The Voice:
Jesus (to the crowds): 21 I am leaving this place, and you will look for Me and die in your sin. For where I am going, you are unable to come.
Jews: 22 Is He suicidal? He keeps saying, “Where I am going, you are unable to come.”
Given the strange things Jesus keeps saying, it is no doubt some of them wondered whether he intended to kill himself. Scholars think this kind of question persisted long after Jesus’ death. By the time of the Johannine community this may have been an ongoing charge against Jesus. If Jesus did kill himself, then he violated one of the ten commandments. Self-murder is still murder and is a grievous sin. How could Jesus then have been the Messiah?
If suicide means to take actions which will likely lead to one’s own death, then the charge may stick. In all four Gospels Jesus’ actions put him on a collision course with powerful people who had a vested interested in putting him to death. Jesus pushed them too far. Scholars think it was the temple incident—often mischaracterized as his cleansing of the temple—which put the nail in his proverbial coffin. Even at his defense or lack of defense, he handed his Jewish interrogators the charge that finally stuck: blasphemy. False witnesses were so inept they could not agree so Jesus came along and condemned himself with his own words.
Consider the modern example of suicide by cop. It happens dozens of times every year in this country. A person takes a handgun into a crowded mall and starts brandishing it about. He has no intention of hurting anyone other than himself. He wants to die and for whatever reason can’t bring himself to do it alone. Some terrorized person calls 911 and soon the police arrive. The man takes refuge in the back of a store. Perhaps he has taken a few faux hostages. It’s all part of the ruse. The man lowers the gun in the direction of the officers and a peace officer, fearing for his life, squeezes off three rounds in rapid succession. When they examine the dead man’s gun, they realize it was not loaded. Some poor policeman will have to live with it for the rest of his life. But he could not have known.
The man acted in a way which would likely lead to his death at the hand of another. Jesus did the same . . . or did he? One one level, the answer could be yes, until that is you factor in his motivation.
The suicide charge only works depending on one’s motive. In the case above of suicide by cop, the man wanted to die. He was hurting physically, mentally, emotionally and he wanted the hurting to stop. So he killed himself.
But there are those who sacrifice themselves for others. They act in such a way which will likely lead to their deaths, but they do so for noble reasons. Consider the soldier who falls on a grenade losing his life but saving the lives of his friends and others. Or consider the secret service agent who steps in front of a bullet meant for a presidential candidate. He loses his life to save another. Or consider the firemen who rush into a burning building to save a homeless man trapped in the building. The building collapses on them, and they all die. Factor in motive, then it changes everything. It is no longer suicide; it is now the greatest sacrifice of all.
I’ve always found it interesting when we talk about ultimate things we are driven to religious language. When firefighters give their lives in the line of duty we don’t turn to theater and say “they exited, stage left.” When soldiers give their lives in Afghanistan or any war for that matter, we don’t turn to sport and say, “they took one for the team.” No, we turn to religion because only religious language can carry the weight of ultimate things. This is why we say, the firefighters and soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice. Now, no one would say God was looking for human sacrifice because he wasn’t. He ruled that out a long time ago. Sacrifice is the only way we have to speaking of the sheer gravity of their selfless actions.
So Jesus did not kill himself, but he did act in such a way so as to bring about his death. In some extraordinary way he seemed to control those final hours and what ultimately happened to him. He could have avoided the cross altogether, gotten married and moved to the south of France. But Jesus had a different plan and a nobler motive grounded in love. Though he did not want to die, he did wish to lay down his life for others. When trying to make sense of the death of Jesus, early Christians turned where we do in order to talk about what happened. In some ways it was more natural for them because they lived in the shadow of the temple where real sacrifices went on daily. But again, no one was saying that God was looking for and demanding a human sacrifice. Still the language of sacrifice is the most satisfying way of thinking and pondering what happened to Jesus on the first Good Friday.