Is Jesus Yahweh? Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess…

Generative AI summary:

In the debate over whether Jesus is Yahweh, White references Philippians 2:6-11, suggesting it applies YHWH’s attributes to Jesus. However, this interpretation doesn’t align with Paul’s intent. The passage describes Jesus’ journey from divine-like stature to human form and eventual exaltation. Paul’s emphasis is on Jesus’ obedience, not equating him with Yahweh. The significance lies in Jesus’ exaltation, not his inherent deity. Psalm 110:1 further supports Jesus’ exaltation as a lord distinct from Yahweh, appointed to rule. Paul’s personal longing to know Jesus intimately contrasts with a mere acknowledgment of deity. The political-religious realignment envisioned by Isaiah is entrusted to the exalted Jesus, not as Yahweh, but as the instrument of divine authority.

Read time: 7 minutes

The third passage that White considers in his opening presentation in the “Is Jesus Yahweh?” debate with Dale Tuggy is what he calls the “hymn to Christ as to God” in Philippians 2:6-11. It’s not a hymn and it’s not addressed “to Christ.” It’s effectively an encomium or paean, perhaps a condensed piece composed independently in praise of Christ. That aside, White says that

the song begins with the assertion that the Son eternally existed in equality with the Father, but did not regard that equality as something to be grasped, but instead humbled Himself by taking on human nature and going to the cross.

But Jesus has been highly exalted and has received the name which is above every name; every knee will bow at his name, and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. According to White, Paul thus directly applies to Jesus what is said of YHWH in Isaiah 45:22-25:

Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.’ Only in the LORD, it shall be said of me, are righteousness and strength; to him shall come and be ashamed all who were incensed against him. In the LORD all the offspring of Israel shall be justified and shall glory.

White concludes: “The early church sang a song that took the words about YHWH… and applied it to Jesus in recognition of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

The downs and ups of reputation

I argue in In the Form of a God: The Pre-existence of the Exalted Christ in Paul that the encomium opens with a pagan or post-pagan perspective on Jesus. He was in the “form of a god,” he would have appeared to the Greeks—as was the case with Paul and Barnabas in Lystra (Acts 14:8-18)—as one of the gods or as a divine man. In the wilderness he was offered by Satan a god-like rule over the nations, comparable to the rule of the divine Caesar, but he did not “seize at” this opportunity and instead emptied himself of vain ambition, and in the end was found to be merely human and painfully mortal. It’s a very realistic account of Jesus’ career, as it would have sounded to Greek ears.

In the second stanza we move from shame to honour, from scandal to triumph—and from a Greek to a Jewish perspective. The “name” with which Jesus is favoured really ought to be “Jesus.” After all, it is “in the name of Jesus” that every knee will bow, etc., and I suggested recently that “the name which is above every name” reflects the high esteem in which the exalted Jesus was increasingly held among the Greeks, in contrast to the disgrace that attached to his wretched death. The person of Jesus was favoured by God inasmuch as he has now gained considerable renown—an exalted “name”—across the pagan world.

In the name of Jesus

The ESV translates en tōi onomati Iēsou as “at the name of Jesus,” as though the people would prostrate themselves in worship when the name was declared. Everywhere else in the New Testament, en tōi onomati is translated “in the name,” as an appeal to the authority of the person who sent or commanded. It seems to me, therefore, that we could read the second stanza as follows:

Therefore, indeed, God highly exalted him and favoured him with the name which is above every name, that in the name of Jesus “every knee might bow”…, and “every tongue might confess,” because Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

People will bow and confess (to God) in the name of Jesus. Why? Because (hoti) Jesus Christ has become Lord. The God of Israel will be glorified in the ancient world because Jesus was obedient unto death on a Roman cross but is now being acclaimed by Greeks across the oikoumenē as the exalted Lord at the right hand of the Father.

Under this reading—I’m in two minds about it—Jesus is still kyrios but he is no longer the direct object of the bowing and confessing and therefore is not to be equated with YHWH. Rather he is “Lord” in a delegated sense.

The Lord said to my lord…

The key Old Testament text undergirding the apostolic conviction that Jesus has been made or appointed Lord is Psalm 110:1: ‘The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ The Lord who is YHWH instructs the Lord who is ʾadon to sit at his right hand and rule in the midst of his enemies. It is a collaborative rule. YHWH will underwrite the rule of Israel’s king, but there is no confusion of persons.

The critical point to make is that it is not a creational but a political authority that is delegated to the king. God reserves the management of the cosmos for himself, but the relation between his people and the nations is a political matter, and it is fully in keeping with Old Testament kingdom theology that God transfers the authority to judge and govern—first Israel, then the nations—to the king seated at his right hand. I have made the point on a number of occasions that creation and kingdom are two distinct spheres and should not be confused.

What makes Jesus exceptional in this regard is, on the one hand, that he first suffered and died and, on the other, that he now rules in the midst of his enemies from heaven, not from Jerusalem, which will soon be in ruins. His kingdom, therefore, unlike David’s (Acts 2:29-35), will never end. But, otherwise, he does not break the mould of Davidic kingship.

The Jesus whom Paul desired to know

In this same letter, the “Lord” Jesus is a person who suffered, who was raised from the dead, who was exalted by the Father, and who would come from heaven to transform the bodies of the suffering faithful “to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:20-21). That’s not YHWH.

Paul expresses a deep desire to know this Lord, to share in his sufferings, to become like him specifically in his shameful death and, if possible, his resurrection (Phil. 3:8-10). It seems inconceivable that he would assert the lordship of Jesus in such contexts, in such an intensely personal fashion, if in his mind Jesus was the YHWH-kyrios of the Old Testament.

Political-religious realignment in the name of Jesus (finally!)

Proponents of the “Jesus is Yahweh” interpretation of Philippians 2:10-11 may draw attention to the prominence of creation themes in Isaiah 45: “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things” (Is. 45:7; cf. 45:12, 18). But in the quoted section, what is at issue is not creation but the allegiance of the nations: all who were incensed against YHWH would eventually send their idols into captivity (Is. 46:1) and would swear (allegiance) to the God of Israel. This is a political realignment, having to do not least with the standing of Israel in relation to their powerful pagan enemies: “In the LORD all the offspring of Israel shall be justified and shall glory” (Is. 45:25).

So this paragraph addresses just that aspect of the end-of-era crisis envisaged by Isaiah that could properly be put in the hands of the resurrected Lord Jesus. To Paul’s mind the great political-religious reversal—the conversion of the pagan nations—would finally come about because Jesus had rejected the way of divine kingship, had suffered, and had been crucified, and now, as a result, Gentiles in growing numbers were serving the living God, who made the heavens and the earth, in the now highly esteemed name of Jesus.