Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 2, 2023
Philippians 2:5-11 Commentary
On this Sunday on which the RCL offers two options for its Epistolary Lesson, preachers might choose to focus on one of those options. Those who wish to pursue a Palm Sunday theme might choose to preach about Matthew 21’s account of it. Those who wish to focus on Jesus’ Passion theme might choose to preach on Philippians 2.
However, preachers who wish to draw the Matthean and Philippians passages together might choose to let elements of Matthew’s description of Jesus’ triumphal entry inform proclamation of the Philippians passage. For example, preachers might focus on the subjects of the two passages’ verbs. In particular, preachers might choose to let the Spirit guide their exploration of just who is in charge of Jesus’ passion.
At first glance, it may seem as if everyone but Jesus is in control of the first Palm Sunday. When Jesus rides into Jerusalem, Matthew 21:4-5 reports that it fulfills Zechariah’s prophecy. What’s more, it’s almost as if the crowds’ welcome and acclamation of him carries Jesus forward (vv. 8-9). So it might seem as if the prophet and the crowds combine to move Jesus into Jerusalem.
Once Jesus enters Jerusalem, control over his fate seems to fall into more hostile hands. While the religious leaders look for a way to arrest and kill him, they fear the crowds’ reaction to the seizure of a popular prophet. Judas seems to grab his share of control over Jesus’ fate by agreeing to hand him over to those religious leaders. Eventually, of course, the Romans succeed in crucifying Jesus.
What’s more, Matthew’s Jesus is arguably the most passive of the gospels’ suffering Jesus’s. He seems to accept the authorities’ control of his fate comparatively willingly and quietly. Jesus doesn’t, for example, scold Pilate. Matthew’s Jesus is, on top of that, the Jesus who shouts his feelings of abandonment by the Father.
Paul, by contrast, doesn’t just assert that Son of God takes an active role in own his suffering and death. The apostle, in fact, makes God the subject of all of verses 6-9’s verbs. The Triune God is the primary actor in the apostle’s account of Jesus’ incarnation, humiliation, suffering, resurrection and exaltation.
Christ Jesus, begins Paul in verse 6, is in “very nature God” (en morphe Theou). The second person of the Trinity literally has “the outward appearance of God.” But while our culture might interpret that to mean that Jesus only appeared to be God, the Church has always heard Paul to mean that Jesus is God. He has, as The Message paraphrases this text, “equal status with God.”
The apostle, in fact, seems to use the word morphe (“form”) in order to present a parallelism rather than a precise description of Jesus’ “form.” He, after all, asserts that while Jesus has the outward appearance of God, he took on the outward appearance (schemati) of a human being (8).
This assertion too, however, is subject to misinterpretation. After all, one might deduce from verses 6 and 8 that just as Christ Jesus only appeared to be God, he also only appeared to be human. But, of course, the Church vigorously asserts that Jesus didn’t merely seem to be human. He was fully human. In a way that we’ll likely never fully grasp, Christ Jesus was somehow both fully human and fully divine.
Yet, Paul continues, while Christ Jesus was in nature God, he didn’t hang on to the exulted status (6b). He didn’t consider “equality with God” (einai isa Theou) something to be “grasped” (harpagamon). Jesus didn’t think of his divinity as something to which he had to cling because he so eagerly desired it.
That’s why the Son of God could, according to verse 7, make “himself nothing” (heauton ekenosen). Christ Jesus literally “emptied himself.” He gave up all the status and privilege that was eternally his and which the heavenly beings recognized in the heavenly realm.
Verse 7b reports that Christ Jesus who was God, in fact, took on the “very nature of a servant” (morphen doulou). It’s another reference to the Son of God’s earthly appearance. Paul insists that Jesus appeared to people to be not God, but a humble servant. It’s part of the reason why so few people recognized Jesus as God.
In fact, English translators generally translate the word doulou as “slave.” This helps make Paul’s assertion of what Christ Jesus becomes even more scandalous. At his incarnation he doesn’t just become like a servant. The Son of God makes himself a slave who has no human standing or rights. He, in other words, becomes basically “no-account.”
As part of Christ Jesus’ slavery, the apostle continues in verse 8, he “humbled himself” (etapeinosen heauton). He humiliated himself by becoming “obedient to death (hypekoos mechri thanatou) – even death on a cross.” Christ Jesus who is the eternal Son of God in whom there is no death voluntarily became subject to the most ghastly form of death known to his world. He served his adopted brothers and sisters by willingly handing himself over to be tortured and ultimately executed.
It is this Jesus whom his adopted siblings follow toward Jerusalem and Calvary in this Lenten season. He is so committed to the wellness of God’s dearly beloved people that he didn’t just surrender all of the heavenly realm’s glory. Christ Jesus didn’t even just allow himself to become an ungrateful humanity’s servant. He also allowed the political and religious authorities to plunge him to the lowest imaginable station in life.
Verses 9-11’s verbs subtly shift. They at least suggest that while Jesus was in full control of his humiliation, he isn’t in full control of his exultation. “God,” insists Paul in verse 9, “exalted (hyperypsosen) him to the highest place.” The Father, in other words, raised the Son from the very lowest of the low places to the highest place of all. God literally highly exalted Christ Jesus.
This phrase suggests several possible meanings. God raised Christ Jesus from the realm of death to life. However, God the Father also raised God the Son from the earthly to the heavenly realm at his ascension. But Paul may be pointing to yet another exultation with verse 9b’s reference to “the name that is above every name (to onoma to hyper pan onoma).”
Jesus’ exulted name is, after all, the name that drives everyone else to their knees. The apostle says that God the Father gave God the Son the name that is more exulted than every other name so “that at the name of Jesus (en onomati Iesu) every knee should bow (pan gony kampse).”
In Christ Jesus’ humiliation Roman knees bowed in mockery (cf. Matt. 27:29). The religious rulers also mocked Jesus for claiming the exulted name that is Son of God (Matt. 27:43). Paul, however, asserts that someday soon not just rulers but also everyone and everything in the whole creation will bow before the exalted Son of God not in mockery, but in complete submission. What’s more, according to verse 11, all creatures and creation will also confess that Jesus is, in fact, “Lord” (Kyrios).
Preachers might choose to pay equal attention to this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s verses 6-8 that deal with Christ’s passion and its verses 9-11 that deal with his exultation. Since the Church focuses on Jesus’ passion during Lent, it may be tempting to give more preaching weight to this text’s first half. However, the Church doesn’t just proclaim a suffering Christ. It also proclaims a risen and exulted Christ. So while preachers may privilege Philippians 2:6-8, they should also pay at least some attention to verses 9-11.
Preachers also want to note, as the biblical scholar Melanie Howard notes, this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson contains only one command: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus (5).” That suggests that Paul isn’t calling Philippi’s Christians to, for example, be sacrificial the way Jesus was sacrificial. He is, instead, inviting Jesus’ friends to simply reflect on the nature of Christ Jesus’ work on our behalf. Lent is, after all, an appropriate season in which to take time to contemplate the depth of the love that God showed God’s adopted children by plunging God’s Son to the lowest of all human depths before finally exalting him to the highest place.
In her poignant book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption, Laura Hillenbrand tells the amazing story of Louis Zamperini. Japanese soldiers captured his crewmates and him and imprisoned them in a filthy POW camp that was made all the worse by their appalling treatment of them.
They did all they could to humiliate their captives. Beatings were merciless. There was almost no drinking water, and what there was, wasn’t clean. All the POW’s Red Cross food rations were siphoned off and sold at a profit to starving Japanese civilians. Rats were everywhere.
Prisoners were always being degraded – shoved, bombarded with lit cigarette butts, and their faces pushed into latrines. They were kicked, clubbed, and whipped in the face with belts. They had to bow to images of Hirohito, wash the floors of their filthy barracks, waddle in front of guards who prodded and swatted them, and perform calisthenics till they collapsed.
When the guards were shoving or kicking their prisoners they amused themselves with them, poking at them with sticks in their cells and chuckling at the prisoner’s contortions as they tried to evade. Or the guards would force prisoners at gunpoint to dance, watching with amusement as the prisoners staggered through the Charleston. They forced Louie to “whistle and sing” or “pelted him with fistfuls of gravel” or “taunted him as he crawled around his cell to pick up bits of rice.”
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!