I take several chapters in my book In the Form of a God: The Pre-existence of the Exalted Christ in Paul to argue that in the first part of the Christ encomium in Philippians 2:6-11 the direction of travel is ontologically flat: not from heaven to earth but from celebrity to ignominy. I’m not saying that the church fathers were mistaken in their christological conclusions, only that this is not what the encomium is about.
When the apostles told the story of Jesus to the Greeks, he would have appeared to them in the first place as a man in the form of one of the gods, marvellous and godlike in word and deed. But he refused to seize the opportunity to gain god-equal rule over the nations of the empire, he emptied himself of selfish ambition, and was found in the end to be merely human, no better in fact than a slave, painfully mortal.
The book is about how Paul thought of the pre-existence of Jesus—and from the perspective of the apostolic mission in the Greek world, the pre-existent Jesus was the Son sent to Israel to redeem those under the Law. I pay little attention to the second part of the encomium, which shifts to a Jewish perspective on the means of the defeat of pagan belief in the language of Isaiah 45:22-23.
The second stanza is nothing like as difficult to understand as the first, but in light of a recent comment, I have been wondering about the “name” which was graciously bestowed on Jesus:
Therefore, 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”—of heavenly beings, of earthly beings, of beings under the earth—and “every tongue might confess” that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:9-11*)
There are two questions to address. First, what is the name which is above every name? Secondly, will people (and other beings) bow “at” the name of Jesus or “in” the name of Jesus?
God highly exalted him
The first point to make is that no reference is made to the resurrection of Jesus or his ascension into heaven, though undoubtedly the presence of Jesus seated at the right hand of God in heaven presupposed. The verb hyperypsōsen more likely to means “raise to a high point of honor” (BDAG) than “move to a high position” in anything like a literal sense.
- The sinner seeks to ambush the righteous person and put him to death, but the Lord will keep him safe. The psalmist has seen an “impious person being highly exalted (hyperypsoumenon) and being raised high like the cedars of Lebanon” (Ps. 36:35* LXX). But the next time the psalmist passes by, the person is gone—evidence that “transgressors of the law shall be destroyed together; the residue of the impious shall be destroyed” (36:38 LXX).
- The word is used in a similar sense in a variant reading of Daniel 11:12: the king of Egypt will carry off the multitude and “his heart will be highly exalted (hyperypsōthēsetai).”
- When the psalmist says to YHWH, “you were highly exalted (hyperypsōthēs) far above all the gods,” he has in mind the praise of the “daughters of Judea,” who rejoiced on account of YHWH’s excellent judgments (Ps. 96:8-9 LXX).
Jesus did not take the path of arrogant, self-serving impiety, set before him by Satan, and allow himself to be highly exalted by public acclamation in the way that Herod was (Acts 12:22-23):
And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last. (Acts 12:22-23)
But in response to the counter-action of self-renunciation and obedience outlined in the first part of the encomium, God figuratively elevated him to a position of great prominence in the world, he transformed the disgrace of execution into surpassing honour and renown.
As with the attribution of heavenly rule or lordship, such a highly exalted and probably kingly status would normally be reserved for God alone. But it is precisely the paradox and scandal of the apostolic witness that this status and authority has been transferred to one who suffered and died on a Roman cross. The difference between Jesus and David in this regard was not that Jesus was God and David wasn’t; it was that Jesus ruled eternally from heaven and David’s body saw corruption (cf. Acts 2:25-32).
So just as there was no descent from God in the first part of the encomium, there is no ascent to God in the second part. The direction of travel is ontologically flat all the way through.
The theme of the encomium is how the career of Jesus was being assessed by the Greek mind—the dramatic see-sawing of his reputation: he appeared first in the form of a god, he died in disgrace, but now he is being acclaimed across the pagan world as the one who will inaugurate a new monotheistic age.
Now the first question….
The name which is above every name
It is commonly assumed that this “name” is “Lord,” and some would argue that this is the kyrios which is substituted for YHWH, the name of God in the Septuagint. Therefore, at least implicitly, the encomium identifies Jesus with the God of Israel.
The immediate problem with this line of thought is that we seem to have a clear enough definition of the “name” in verse 10: it is the “name of Jesus.” Perhaps we could say that Jesus was given the titles “Lord and Christ” after the resurrection (cf. Acts 2:36), but he was given the name “Jesus” at his birth. And if we think that this is the name possessed by Jesus, then surely the name possessed by Jesus was still Jesus, not Lord.
So how are we to understand “favoured him with the name which is above every name”?
Until recently I would have said the the name was “Lord,” but I wonder now if the point here is not that he has newly received the name but that the name “Jesus” has newly come to be held in great regard, above the names of all gods and rulers in the ancient world. That is the measure of divine favour shown towards him.
Whereas the “name” or reputation of the wonder-working Jewish prophet-messiah was thoroughly trashed by the embarrassment of his failure to capitalise on his early success and of his inexplicable embrace of condemnation and death, the name of Jesus was by then increasingly being held in high esteem. His standing in the world had been massively elevated.
And what has changed things, practically speaking, is that not only Jews but a growing number of Greeks are performing important social and religious actions in the name of Jesus, which brings us to the second question.
In the name of Jesus
It was a clear indicator of the great favour that he now had with God that people were bowing or doing obeisance en tōi onomati Iēsou. But were they prostrating themselves “at or before the name of Jesus,” whether that name was “Jesus” or “Lord,” or before God “in the name of Jesus”?
I don’t know of any other instance of the preposition en with verbs of bowing, etc., to refer to the object of obeisance. The expression en tōi onomati in the New Testament always means “in the name of…”; and as I said, many different actions—from casting out demons to healing to preaching to assembling—are performed “in the name of Jesus” or “in the name of the Lord.”
In any case, what would it mean to bow at or before the name “Jesus” or the name “Lord”? Is there any example of people bowing before a name rather than a person or god?
So on the face of it, the translation “that in the name of Jesus every knee might bow” seems preferable, in which case the implicit object is carried over from Isaiah 45:23: every knee will shall bow to God, but they will do so “in the name of Jesus.”
Despite the apparent disaster of his career in Israel, Jesus was proving to be the powerful agent by which the idolatrous religious system of the Greek-Roman world would be brought to an end and a new monotheistic order established, to the glory of the God of Israel.