Has such lofty theology ever been put to greater pastoral use on the ground level of life? Whether or not these verses in Philippians 2 represent Paul’s citation of an early Christian song, the fact is that these verses represent a very high Christology. What’s more, an entire sub-branch of Christology, Kenosis Christology, got launched just by these verses as theologians from time immemorial have pondered what it meant for the Son of God to “empty himself.” Of precisely what divine attributes or perquisites did the Son divest himself? How do we square this self-emptying with the long-held theological tenet that the Son of God, even in the incarnation, remained fully divine? Can you qualify divinity and still be fully divine? Can Jesus of Nazareth, undeniably human, retain his divine credentials if for a time he divested himself of things like omnipresence or maybe even omniscience?
Questions like these have piled up over the centuries. And many if not all of them spin in part out of Philippians 2. There are depths, there are riches, there are theological puzzles aplenty in these few words.
Ironically, however, a lot of that was beside the point for Paul! Yes, there is some overt instruction going on here as to the nature of the incarnation and what Jesus did for us. But Paul’s main goal here was not a deeper understanding of the finer points of Christology. No, he was trying to help his Philippian sisters and brothers behave better. Period. Paul’s approach here is pastoral more than intellectual, practical more than academic.
Near as we can tell, the Philippian congregation was mostly a happy place. Compared to fiery letters like Galatians or painfully tortured epistles like 2 Corinthians, this letter to the saints at Philippi is mighty warm, personal, loving. These people were close to Paul’s apostolic heart and he basked in what he termed in the first chapter as their “partnership in the gospel.”
That didn’t mean there were no ripples on the surface of their life together as a congregation. There was that public spat between Euodia and Synteche that he will need to address before he finishes the letter. And all throughout the epistle there are hints and whispers that the perennially difficult sin of pride was rearing its head now and again among the members. It is a perpetual truth of church history that where two or three are gathered in the Lord’s name, there in the midst of them will be temptations to stratify the membership, to have some puff up their chests in front of others as being more vital, more central, more talented, more essential in the congregation than some of the flock’s lesser lights. Sometimes it was economics—read James—and sometimes it was spiritual gifts—read 1 Corinthians—and still other times it was the practices of the more mature that were tripping up the weaker folks—read Romans.
But at bottom it was as often as not pride that was the root of it all. For whatever the reasons deep within our human hearts and psyches, we love the limelight. We love shining a little brighter than the next guy. We prefer to win arguments, make a splash, get the accolades, be known. We love knowing secrets to which others are not privy.
The imagery associated with pride almost always involves some notion of height. Whether you are looking down your nose at others, riding your high horse, having a lofty opinion of yourself, getting uppity, or believing you are just above it all, the proud are the arrogant who love to reside in the high places of life. They crave not respect but envy. The proud don’t want mere admiration, they want others to WISH they could be as fine as the proud ones. Proud people feel better about themselves when their talent or fame make others feel worse about themselves. But from such allegedly lofty perches, very little that is positive gets beamed down to those at lower altitudes.
Paul probably had some of this in mind in dealing with pride among the Philippians. So while he was thinking about lofty perches anyway, he tumbled to the idea that you cannot get higher than being God. But that is precisely what Jesus was before becoming human: God. Co-equal. Fully God. Light from light, true God of true God, and all that. But it was not the loftiness of the divine that got us saved. No, quite the opposite. It was the getting low that saved us, it was the humility of the Son—and ultimately the humiliation of the Son—that got the salvific job done. The Son of God set everything he had going for him to the side. He stooped lower than low, became a servant, became a victim of this world’s violence.
However it all works out in the intricacies of Christological doctrine, it is the trajectory of Jesus’ divine-human work that is the key thing Paul wanted the Philippians to notice, appreciate, savor, and then imitate. Jesus did not save us from the top down but from the bottom up. Oh yes, he’s been exalted now to somehow an even higher place than where he started. How can you get higher than being the full Son of God? Well, not easily but when you are the full Son of God AND you have the added distinction of having sacrificed yourself to save the whole cosmos, well THEN you really are even higher and even more worthy of praise than before. (Just try really to wrap your mind around that one!)
“Notice the pattern here,” Paul urges his readers. You are at your most Christ-like when you serve not when you are served. You look more like the Savior when you defer to others, not when you push to always get your way. You look at the world through God’s own eyes not when you stratify everyone you meet into groupings of those you deem worthy of your precious time and those you can safely ignore but when you see each person as infinitely worthy of everything you’ve got. That’s how Jesus viewed us. That’s what he saw through his own divine-human eyeballs. “Live like that, look at other people like that, stoop low to serve others like that,” Paul says “and your congregation will be a better place.”
As a Palm Sunday reading, Philippians 2 brings us to that lowly king riding humbly on a donkey. “Hosanna” the people cried. And they were just sure that the cried-for salvation would come when Jesus went higher, got more powerful, booted out Pontius Pilate and Herod and finally the Caesar. THEN he would be in a lofty position to get something done for Israel. But Jesus heard it all and knew a deeper truth: he had a little bit LOWER to go yet in the coming week before things would begin to get better.
Surely no one would have believed it had he shared it with them that day. Lots of people don’t believe it now, and some of them come to church every week. But it’s true: the way up leads down. The way to God’s own glory goes through the cross and its horrors.
“Have this mind among yourselves” Paul writes. Easy to say. Hard to do. But there is always that Jesus on whom to fix our eyes and whose pattern we can follow. If we do, we will serve with tenderness and humility. And in the end, well, in the end we will thereby share also the cosmic glory of the one who once upon a time made himself nothing for us.
From Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus (Eerdmans, 2015, p. 80). Rutledge is here referring to the “godlessness” of the cross and its being the nadir of Jesus as the self-emptying servant:
“Perhaps we can gain further understanding by examining a horrific incident that occurred in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998 and soon became emblematic of the ongoing struggle against the persecution of homosexuals. A young gay man, Matthew Shepard, was beaten within an inch of his life by two other men and was then tied to a fence and abandoned. Eighteen hours later, in near-freezing weather, a passerby discovered the comatose figure and for a moment mistook it for a scarecrow. Matthew Shepard died in the hospital five days later without ever recovering consciousness. The particular cruelty of this death left people groping for words. He was tied up and left dangling ‘like an animal’ said one spokesperson, recalling the Old West practice of nailing a dead coyote to a ranch fence as a warning to intruders. The emphasis here is on the de-humanization of the victim; declaring another person less than human is the well-attested first step toward eliminating that person or group of people. The phrase ‘like an animal’ is therefore apt. The strongest of all statements, however was this [as written by someone in the New York Times]: ‘There is an incredible symbolism in being tied to a fence. People have likened it to a scarecrow. But it sounded more like a crucifixion.’”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 25, 2018
Philippians 2:5-11 Commentary