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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.
Recently, I gave the Hayward Lectures at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. My topic was “Paul’s KYRIOS Christology.” Kyrios is a Greek word most often translated “Lord” in English Bible translations. Paul uses the word about 200 times in his letters to refer to his Lord, Jesus Christ. On a few occasions he used the word in reference to God, the Father. The word can be used of people as well who possess some sort of recognized, superior status, a king, a master of slave, for example.
One night after the lecture during the Q&A time, someone asked a good question. It had to do with the English word “lord” or “Lord” as a translation of Kyrios. The fellow knew about The Voice translation and he appreciated that we had tried to find new words and associations which communicate well to a modern audience. We translated words like Christos as “the Anointed” rather than “Christ.” We translated apostolos as “emissary” rather than “apostle.” So he asked, is there a better word than “Lord” to translate kyrios?
The word “Lord” was used first to translate kyrios and other biblical words for English-speaking audiences in the middle ages when the upper classes were referred to as “my lord” or “my lady” by those who occupied lower status. Given the sensibilities of the modern world, the fellow wondered whether there was a better word. Though those titles are still used in some societies, they are rare in many countries including the United States. They have lost currency in many places. The use of “Lord” is restricted to religious language most often referring to God, Christ or, in some cases, the Holy Spirit. For some “Lord” functions as a name or title for God.
Well, I had no answer. No one had ever asked me that question before so I had never thought about it. I’m embarrassed to admit I had no response given the fact that we rethought so many of the other key religiously-laden words. I’m still puzzling over it. I’d be interested in your thoughts. Is there a better word than “Lord” to translate kyrios in modern English? It would have to have the right meaning and sets of associations. It would need to convey the idea that the person holding the title had supreme authority and power. Since it is most often used in the New Testament as a title for Jesus linking him with the One, True God, it must be an appropriate honorific (fancy word for “title”) for the Liberating King. I’m hard pressed to come up with anything. If we put our heads together, I bet we can think of something. Then again, maybe not?!