What are we to make of the contrast between the one who “was in very nature God” and the one who “became obedient to death – even death on a cross”? Why would “he who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” make himself nothing and take the form of a servant?
Unless we ask this question, we ourselves haven’t grasped what Paul is asserting in Philippians 2:5-11.
“Made in human likeness, he humbled himself” (2:7). Again, why?
Charles Wesley taught us to sing the answer, “Emptied himself of all but love, and bled for Adam’s helpless race. … Amazing love! How can it be?” And in one of Graham Kendrick’s finest lines, “Hands that flung stars into space, to cruel nails surrendered. This is our God.”
So that’s why. The self-giving love of the Triune God.
The diamond pivot of this passage is the word kenosis, which has caused no end of discussion among biblical scholars and theologians. It means to empty, to become nothing. It refers to the self-emptying of the one who, in obedient love to the Father, refused to cling to divine prerogatives.
This is Paul at his most daring as he explores the divine heart of the Triune God. But not because he is interested in theological speculations about the pre-existence of Christ. He has a far more practical purpose.
Paul is writing to a church he loves and a community that loves him. But it’s a congregation in trouble. There are factions and differences of opinion, relationships are strained, and for all the talk of unity, two prominent leaders, Euodia and Syntyche are at loggerheads. Paul wants them “to agree in the Lord” (4:2)
So, this prose poem about the eternal glory of the Son of God, is the story of the coming of Jesus in the incarnation, his full humanity, ministry and crucifixion for the sins of the world – a story Paul now tells straight into the life of a congregation as a critique of self-assertion, a rebuke for broken relationships, and an encouragement to “be likeminded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.”
Pastorally, how can people who have fallen out with each other be helped to realize this isn’t the way of Jesus? What argument could persuade those split into opposing factions, and riled by party spirit, to think differently about each other? Is it possible to tame the ego, or in Paul’s words, how do you tell people, “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others”?
Before Paul begins that astonishing story in verses 6-11, of how it came to be that the Son of God became the Son of Man, he raises the bar of Christian behavior to its highest level: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (2:5).
So, that’s the goal to strive for, the true prize of the high calling of God, the gold standard of Christian obedience; to have the mind-set, and motivations of the one “who because he was in very nature God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.”
The lectionary links this passage to a psalm in which the psalm-poet anticipates the realities condensed into those few words of Paul: “He became obedient to death, even death on the cross” (see Psalm 31:9-16).
The psalm is a cry for mercy, and a prayer of obedient surrender: “My times are in your hands” (verse 15). Whatever happens as a result of being obedient and faithful to God, the psalmist, who has humbled himself and become obedient to God, has the confidence to pray: “Let your face shine on your servant, save me in your unfailing love” (verse 16).
The inner thoughts of the psalmist echo the other lectionary passage from Isaiah 50:4-9a. The words of verse 6 describe with uncanny detail, the experiences distilled into those five words, “even death on a cross.”
Anticipating the words of the Servant Song in Isaiah 53, Isaiah’s words expose the brutality and cruelty that characterise human sin at its most imaginative and vile.
“I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard, I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.” But. “Because the Sovereign Lord helps me, I will not be disgraced” (Isaiah 50:6).
And so, back to Philippians and those five words, this time plus one, “even death on a cross. Therefore…” The hinge point of the story of Christ is embedded in that word of eternal consequence – “Therefore.”
The humble one is exalted; the servant is enthroned; the one made in human likeness is given the name that is above every name; the crucified is exalted. The unfailing love of God, revealed in the humility of the eternal Son, triumphs over all and every other name and power.
The final Lectionary reading from Matthew 27:11-54, is the long story of the passion; the one “who made himself nothing, took the very form of a servant “and ”became obedient to death, even death on a cross.”
Holy Week contains the long unfolding in history of Paul’s prose poem in Philippians 2:6-11. From triumphal entry to the Last supper, from Gethsemane to Calvary, and from the Saturday tomb till the Sunday resurrection morning, we follow in the footsteps of the one who made himself nothing.
Why? For love of all that God has made.
Wesley, as already noted, shows deep theological instinct: “Emptied himself of all but love, and bled for Adam’s helpless race.”
Editor’s note: This article is part of a “Lenten Lectionary” series for Lent 2023. Each week, an article will be published reflecting on one or more of the lectionary texts for the forthcoming Sunday. The previous articles in the series are:
Lenten Lectionary | We Are Collaborators by Aurelia Dávila Pratt
Lenten Lectionary | I Shall Not Want? by Danielle L Bridgeforth
Lenten Lectionary | Expectations and Reality by Margot Hodson
Lenten Lectionary | Through the Wastelands by Christopher B. Harbin
Part-time minister of Montrose Baptist Church in Angus, Scotland, and the former principal of the Scottish Baptist College. He is on the advisory board of the Centre for Ministry Studies, University of Aberdeen, and is honorary lecturer in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy.