Think this among yourselves which (is) also in Christ Jesus, who being in the form of God did not consider being equal to God a thing to be grasped at, but made himself of no account, taking the form of a servant, having become in the likeness of men; and having been found in outward appearance as a man, he humbled himself, having become obedient to the point of death, and death on a cross.
Therefore also God highly exalted him and favoured him with the name which is above every name, in order that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is kyrios to the glory of God the Father.
This is a much debated passage, a good part of the discussion having to do with the question of whether it reflects a “high christology”. Is Jesus presented here as a preexisting divine figure who becomes incarnate as man, who dies (for the sins of the world), and who then is re-identified with the divine kyrios? The part about preexistence and incarnation I have my doubts about, though I wouldn’t rule it out—it appears to rely far too heavily on the single phrase “being in the form of God”. The climactic identification of Jesus as kyrios is clear.
But the standard high christological or incarnational reading in most cases completely misses the Jewish-narrative-historical-eschatological-whatever import of the passage. In other words, Philippians 2:6-11 is not another iteration of the evangelical divine redeemer myth; rather it speaks of the significance of Jesus in the historical clash between YHWH and ancient paganism. To recover this perspective we simply need to suppose that Paul, or whoever wrote this extraordinary hymn to the anti-Caesar, was thinking both biblically and contextually.
1. There is a prominent type of pagan ruler in scripture who does think that equality with God is a thing to be grasped. For example, the king of Babylon said in his heart:
I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High. (Is. 14:13-14)
God says to the ruler of Tyre:
Because your heart was exalted and you said, “I am a god; I have inhabited a habitation of a god in the heart of the sea,” yet you are human and not a god, and you rendered your heart as a god’s heart. (Ezek. 28:2)
Antiochus Epiphanes “will be exalted over every god and will speak strange things against the God of gods” (Dan. 11:36). Paul describes a “man of lawlessness”, who will be revealed at the time of the Jewish rebellion against Rome, who “opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God” (2 Thess. 2:3-4). Philippians 2:6-11 directly contrasts Jesus with this blasphemous, self-aggrandizing type of pagan ruler who, in direct antipathy to YHWH and his people, makes himself equal to God.[fn]See further myRe: Mission: Biblical Mission for a Post-Biblical Church, 137-138.[/fn]
Remarkably, neither Gordon Fee nor Larry Hurtado considers the significance of these texts for the development of christology in their respective books on the subject.[fn]G.D. Fee, Pauline Christology: An Exegetical-Theological study (Hendrickson, 2007); L.W. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Eerdmans, 2003).[/fn]
2. There is perhaps a further implicit repudiation of pagan idolatry in the statement that Jesus became “in the likeness (homoiōmati) of men”. The true God cannot be represented by a “likeness” manufactured by an artisan:
To whom have you likened (homoiōsate) the Lord, or with what likeness (homoiōmati) have you likened (homoiōsate) him? Has an artisan made an image (eikona), or has a goldsmith, after casting gold, gilded it—prepared a likeness (homoiōma) of it? (Is. 40:18-19; cf. 44:13 NETS)
Having chosen a piece of wood, the artisan set it up with a measure and arranged it with glue; he made it like the form (morphēn) of a man, like human beauty, to set it up in a house. (Is. 44:13 NETS)
The God who is powerful to act both to save his people and to judge the nations is represented by this “likeness” of humanity, who has made himself of no account, who has humbled himself, who is obedient.
3. As the “servant” or “slave” (doulos) who humbles himself and suffers, in the end being executed on the Roman cross—a detail not to be overlooked in this anti-imperial paean—Jesus fulfils the role of the servant Jacob. The servant will not only be instrumental in restoring Israel, not least through his suffering (cf. Is. 53), but will be “a light of nations… for salvation to the end of the earth” (Is. 49:5-6 LXX), so that the pagan nations will also participate in the extraordinary restoration of the people of God (Is. 49:22-23).
4. The anti-pagan thrust of the passage is further indicated by the assertion that God “highly exalted” (hyperypsōsen) Jesus (2:9). On the one hand, the Psalmist sees an impious person “being highly lifted up and being raised up like the cedars of Lebanon”, but the next time he passes by he is no longer there (Ps. 36:35-36). On the other, the nations which worship idols will be judged, but the Lord is “most high over all the earth, …exalted (hyperypsōthēs) far above all the gods” (Ps. 96:7-9). This is not the language of an abstract christology; it is the language of eschatological conflict.
5. It is emphatically stated that it will be by virtue of the exaltatation of Jesus and at the name of Jesus that the pagan nations which threatened Israel will come to acknowledge that the God who saves his people is the only true God. This is what will constitute “salvation” for the idolatrous Greek-Roman world.
Turn to me, and you shall be saved, you who are from the end of the earth! I am God, and there is no other. By myself I swear, “Verily righteousness shall go forth from my mouth; my words shall not be turned back, because to me every knee shall bow and every tongue shall acknowledge God, saying, Righteousness and glory shall come to him, and all who separate themselves shall be ashamed.” By the Lord shall they be justified, and all the offspring of the sons of Israel shall be glorified in God. (Is. 45:22-25 NETS)
So here’s how I would read this hymn, setting aside for now the tricky but background question of preexistence. Jesus has pursued a course quite contrary to the hubristic aspirations of pagan rulers such as the king of Babylon, the prince of Tyre, Antiochus Epiphanes, or the Roman Caesars. By making himself of no account, he assumes the role of the Isaianic servant through whom, and through whose suffering, YHWH will both restore his people and ultimately overthrow the imperial paganism that dominated Europe, Asia Minor and the Near East. Because Jesus was faithful to the point of death at the hands of the pagan oppressor, God exalted him and gave him authority above all pagan powers, giving rise to the conviction that eventually the pagan world would confess Jesus as Lord, to the glory of Israel’s God.