It is easy to visualise the traditional interpretation of Philippians 2:6-11 as a downward parabola or u-bend: Christ existed in heaven from eternity “in the form of God”; he descended into the world, becoming man and dying on the cross; then he is raised from the dead and restored to his position in heaven. Here again is that “cosmograph” for the who missed it the first time round.
My argument in In the Form of a God: The Pre-existence of the Exalted Christ in Paul is that what the encomium plots is not a cosmic journey or metaphysical transformations but changes in the estimation in which Jesus was held, how he was perceived, particularly with reference to how the story might have been understood when told to pagan Greeks in the context of the Pauline mission in Asia Minor and around the Aegean.
Helge Seekamp suggested that it might be worth having a second graphic to illustrate this reading, so I thought I’d give it a try. We still have a u-bend, of course, but what comes down and goes up is not the person of Jesus but his reputation, his approval rating: he is applauded at first, then booed and hissed at, but will eventually be given a standing ovation. Click for a larger view.
The Byzantine mosaics make two points: first, that this was a story being told to the Greek world about the Greek world; secondly, that appearances mattered (cf. Is. 52:13-53:3).
What follows is a paraphrase which aims to bring out something of the rhetorical force of what I suspect is a highly condensed summary of a more elaborate reflection on the significance of the Jewish Jesus for the Greek world.
From riches to rags
The first part of the encomium tracks what is essentially a Greek reappraisal of the career of Jesus.
He appeared initially as a wonder-worker, a thaumaturge, a divine man, in the form of a god, set apart and empowered with a heavenly presence at his baptism.
He rejected the opportunity presented to him to attain god-equal, Caesar-like rule over the nations of the Greek-Roman world—in language, incidentally, that implicitly invoked the Shema, the agreement to serve one God in the land which God gave to Israel: “You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve” (Lk. 4:8; cf. Deut. 6:4, 13).
Instead, he emptied himself of “vain ambition” (cf. Phil. 2:3) through the severe asceticism of the wilderness experience, and took on the quite contrary outward appearance of a slave. To the Greek mind, he squandered the reputation and potential that he formerly had as a godlike figure—or in Satan’s more orthodox terms, a “son of God.”
It was now apparent to any onlooker that there was nothing remotely divine about this person. Quite the opposite. His fanatical obedience to a desperate vocation led only to a degrading death on a Roman cross. There is no atonement here, only wretchedness.
From outcast to future Lord
In the second half of the encomium we shift from the language of Greek appraisal to the language of the Psalms and Isaiah.
In the eyes of the Greeks, the career of Jesus was a disturbing riches to rags story (cf. 2 Cor. 8:9, another supposed pre-existence passage which I discuss in the book). It started well but ended badly—a Hellenistic romantic storyline thrown violently off course by a perverse, self-destructive loyalty.
But in the estimation of the God of Israel, Jesus had remained faithful to his calling, and for that reason God massively raised his profile in the ancient world.
Paul undoubtedly believed that Jesus was now actually seated in heaven at the right hand of the Father (cf. 1 Cor. 15:25-27), but that is not what he is saying in this encomium in praise of Jesus Christ.
He means rather that God has given the man who lost everything in life a new exalted status, above all other beings in the cosmos. He has graciously bestowed upon him a name which is above every name—a renown above all renown, a reputation that will reach from east to west—so that it will be at the name of Jesus, in recognition of his transformed status, that people will bow the knee and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the God the Father.
In other words, the encomium is a prophetic celebration of the agency by which the peoples of the Greek-Roman world would eventually be converted to worship of the God of Israel.