Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 24, 2024

Philippians 2:5-11 Commentary

In his excellent commentary on the book of Hebrews (Hebrews, Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), the biblical scholar Tom Long refers to what he calls “the parabola of salvation.” It’s basically the trajectory that Hebrews and, I would suggest, this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson trace “from creation downward to the cross up the heavenly place of majesty, where the Son is exalted.”

Long calls it a parabola because while the track of Christ’s existence resembles a smile, it’s a bit of a lopsided smile. Christ, after all, ends up in a position that’s in a way slightly higher than that in which he began. The Spirit can provide good help to preachers who are looking to draw a Lenten roadmap through the study and contemplation of Philippians 2’s parabola of salvation.

Paul, of course, begins his contemplation of that parabola with verse 6’s description of the Son of God’s pre-incarnate state. Christ Jesus was, he insists there, “in very nature [morphe]* God.” He was from all eternity, quite simply, a member of the Trinity whom the Father had begotten but not created. This entitled God the Son to all of the heavenly realm’s glories and honor.

Christ Jesus could have ferociously clung to his status as the exalted Son of God. He could have, in other words, hung on for dear life to his glorious status. Yet Christ, as Paul writes, “did not consider equality with God [einai isa Theou] something to be grasped [harpagamon]” (6b).

In fact, notes the biblical scholar Earl Palmer (The Lectionary Commentary, The Second Readings: Acts and the Epistles, Eerdmans, 2001) Christ was willing “to surrender his equality with God.” He, writes Paul in verse 7, “made himself [heauton] nothing [ekenosen].”

Of course, even the incarnate Son of God was “something” rather than “nothing.” But the earthly Jesus’s “something” was less obviously divine than his heavenly self. He made himself relatively “nothing” in order to rescue his adopted brothers and sisters.

The Son’s degradation took the form of “taking the very nature [morphe] of a servant [doulou], being made [genomenos] in human likeness [homoiomati].” He was, Paul adds in verse 8a, “found in appearance [schemati] as a man.” This passage’s familiarity threatens our recognition of its claims’ extraordinary nature. Paul asserts that while Christ was the eternal Son of God, he so passionately loved God’s world and people that he gave up all of divinity’s trappings to take on a human form.

What’s more, Christ didn’t take on the form of a privileged human being. He, instead, took on the form of a slave who had almost no recognized human rights. Quite simply, while Jesus was fully God, he sounded and looked a whole lot like us, especially the most marginalized and disempowered among us.

Preachers who wish to lay the “grid” of Philippians 2 on the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life might note that we see this likeness not just in Jesus’ conception and birth in Bethlehem. We also see it in the way he lived his life and ministered to people. Jesus’s “nothingness” also reflected his status as an itinerant, homeless preacher who lived much of his life on Israel’s society’s margins.

Yet although he became fully human, Christ Jesus didn’t take on human disobedience. He “humbled [etapeinosen] himself and became obedient [hypekoos] to death [thanatou] – even death on a cross [staurou]” (8b). Paul asserts here that Christ did that for which all of us whom God creates in God’s image creates: wholehearted and complete obedience to God’s will.

What’s more, Christ didn’t just obediently share in humanity’s physical death. He also voluntarily endured what The Message paraphrases as “the worst kind of death.” The crucifixion Jesus willingly endured was a death penalty that the Romans used to inflict a maximum amount of humiliation on its victims and intimidation of its witnesses.

At the end of verse 8 Philippians 2’s readers have plunged with Christ Jesus to the bottom of the parabola of salvation. The Romans have tried, humiliated, tortured and executed him. While Philippians doesn’t say so, we know that some of Jesus’ friends also buried him.

But, of course, God didn’t leave Christ Jesus in either the grave or the bottom of salvation’s parabola. God the Father also exalted the Son. Paul even seems to link Christ’s humiliation to his exaltation by introducing verse 9 with “Therefore [Dio].” He implies that because Christ was willing to be obedient all the way to a torturous death on a cross, God didn’t simply abandon him to death.

God, instead, “exalted him to the highest place [auton hyperypsosen]” (9). Preachers who are toggling back and forth between the gospels and this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson can see allusions in this to Christ’s ascension to the heavenly realm.

There, the apostle continues in verse 9b, God “gave him the name that is above every name [to onoma to hyper pan onoma].” Preachers might want to point to Paul’s repeated use of Greek adjective hyper as a sign of the supremacy to which God the Father raised the Son. God didn’t just raise Christ to a lofty place. God raised him to “highest place.” God didn’t just give Christ Jesus a name. God also gave him “the name that is above every name.”

Paul continues by noting that as a result of Christ’s exaltation, “at the name of Jesus [onomati Iesou] every knee [pan gony] should bow [kampse] in heaven [epouranion] and on earth [epigeion] and under the earth [katachthonion] (10)” and “every tongue [pasa glossa] confess [exomologesetai] that Jesus Christ is Lord [KYRIOS] to the glory [eis doxan] of God the Father.”

Earlier we noted the parabola of salvation that the ark of Christ’s incarnation took. We saw how he in some ways ascended to an even higher position than where he began. That doesn’t mean that he somehow became even more divine. It, instead, recognizes that ever since his ascension Christ has received the praise and honor not just of the heavenly beings, but of all of humanity. The whole creation will, in fact, someday soon recognize who he is.

Yet as Christians enter what we sometimes call “Holy Week,” preachers might note the contrast Paul draws between Christ Jesus’ exalted state and his humiliation. Consider, among other things, the mocking names that people called Jesus. The soldiers who come to arrest him disparaged him by twice calling him “Jesus of Nazareth” (John 18:5, 7). When Pilate interrogated him, he asked if he’s “the king of the Jews” (John 18:33). When the crowds referred to him as the “Son of God,” (John 19:7), they saw it as his blasphemy. When Pilate affixed a sign over the crucified Jesus that read, “THE KING OF THE JEWS,” (John 19:21), the religious leaders were outraged.

Yet once God exalts Christ Jesus to the highest place, there’s no more mockery or misuse of his name. God gives him, instead, “the name that is above every name.” But Paul insists that “Jesus” isn’t just the name that’s superior to all others. It’s also the name on the lips of every creature in the whole creation.

Yet it’s not just Jesus’ earthly name that his contemporaries abused. In John 19:1-3’s report of the soldiers’ crowning him with thorns and dressing him in a purple robe we hear hints of faux-obeisance. We imagine that as they “went up to him again and again, saying, ‘Hail, king of the Jews’!” they also mock-bowed before him.

That, insists Paul, is no longer the case. The Message paraphrases the apostle as promising that someday “all created beings in heaven and on earth – even those long ago dead and buried – will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all.”

*I have here and elsewhere added in brackets the Greek words for the English words the NIV translation uses.


In his critically acclaimed book, Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty, Charles Leerhson writes about baseball’s perhaps greatest player yet most controversial player. But, he notes, Cobb’s arrival in the major leagues went virtually unnoticed. When Cobb arrived from a lower league, the Detroit Tigers’ Bennett Park didn’t yet have dugouts. So he simply watched his first-ever major league baseball game from the bench on the third base side of the field where the rest of the Tigers sat.

Leerhson notes, “No one much noticed the arrival of perhaps the greatest baseball player of all time. ‘The glances of the players as I went to the bench were not unfriendly,’ Cobb [later] reflected. ‘But they were decidedly impersonal. No particular interest was taken in my presence [italics added]’.”


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