October 29: Philippians 2:11 (conclusion)

Philippians 2:11 (conclusion)

ei)$ do/can qeou= patro/$
“…unto (the) honor of God (the) Father”

These closing words are perhaps the most neglected of the entire hymn. Given the tendency to focus on the Christological issues, involving the person of Christhis deity and humanity, and the relationship between the twoit is perhaps not surprising that this final phrase is treated by readers and commentators almost as an afterthought. However, the phrase represents the climax of the entire hymn, and declares the ultimate purpose of the exaltation of Jesusit is not to give honor to Jesus, but to God the Father. This is clear from the preposition (ei)$, “into, unto”) that governs the phrase. In its own way, this climactic phrase has at least as much Christological significance as the other, more-often discussed portions of the hymn. It raises the fundamental question of the relationship between Jesus and God the Father, which was perhaps the most important question addressed by the early Christology.

Let us consider again the overall scenario of verses 9-11 (the second half of the hymn). It describes the exaltation of Jesus following his deathhis resurrection and elevation to a position “at the right hand” of God in heaven. All of this is fully in accord with the earliest Gospel preaching (kerygma) and the earliest Christology (of the period c. 35-60 A.D.). Early Christian tradition also proclaimed the exalted Jesus’ divine status as “Lord” (ku/rio$), recognizing that he shared the same position of rule and authority in heaven as God Himself. From this exalted position, Jesus would soon come again to earth, as God’s heavenly representative, to usher in the end-time Judgment. This traditional Christology informs the overall scenario in vv. 9-11 of the hymn; what is especially unique is the way that the hymn portrays the Judgment-scene, depicting all created beings submitting to the authority and rule of the exalted Jesus. This submission involves both gesture (‘bending the knee’) and speech (confessing with the “tongue”), by which homage and worship is given to Jesus.

How is it, then, that this homage/worship given to the exalted Jesus is “unto the honor of God the Father”? There are a number of ways this may be understood; I highlight here four particular lines of interpretation:

    1. Christocentric—God is to be honored because he has honored Jesus; the honor given to Jesus reflects the character and nature of God.
    2. The “right hand” motif—The traditional idea of Jesus standing at the “right hand” of God implies that the exalted Jesus shares the ruling position with God on His throne in heaven. This means that any honor given to Jesus goes to God the Father as well, since the two share the same divine/heavenly position (and the title “Lord”, etc).
    3. Divine hierarchy—This may be summarized simply as: Jesus receives honor, and, in turn, gives it to God the Father.
    4. Eschatological/Messianic—According to eschatological tradition, Jesus the Anointed One (Messiah), serves as the heavenly/divine representative of God the Father in the end-time Judgment, which he oversees, functioning as Judge and Ruler. As God’s representative, the honor given to Jesus, in actuality, goes to God.

There is merit in each of these lines of interpretation; however, if we are to consider both the hymn itself, and the Pauline use of it (whether or not Paul composed it himself), options 2 and 3 would seem to be the most relevant. Paul gives us a clear and succinct example of the hierarchical view (#3) in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28: following his resurrection/exaltation, Jesus receives the Kingdom (its rule and authority), and then ultimately gives it over to God. This passages contains the same idea, found in the hymn, of “all things” submitting to Jesus’ authority, even wicked beings and those otherwise hostile to God. Given this parallelism of thought, it seems likely that Paul has a similar scenario in view here in vv. 9-11 of the hymn.

On the other hand, the joint-rule option (#2) is a better fit within the hymn overall. The emphasis is on the position that the exalted Jesus has alongside God, both in his existence prior to his earthly life (v. 6) and following the resurrection (vv. 10-11). Traditionally, this position of shared or joint rule was expressed through the motif of Jesus standing “at the right hand” of God in heaven. That motif is not present in the hymn, at least not directly. Instead, we find a more sophisticated (and poetic) description of the exalted Jesus sharing God’s place in the divine/heavenly realm. There are four expressions and idioms which serve this descriptiontwo of which relate to Jesus’ pre-existence (v. 6), and two which relate to his exaltation after his death and resurrection; there is a certain conceptual symmetry to these, which may be presented chiastically:

    • “the form [morfh/] of God” (6a)
      • “the being equal [ei@nai i&sa] with God” (6b)
      • “the name th(at is) over every name”, i.e., the name/title of God (“Lord, ku/rio$)
    • “the honor/splendor [do/ca] of God”

According to this line of interpretation, the expressions morfh\ qeou= (“form of God”) and do/ca qeou= (“honor/splendor of God”) are parallel. As I pointed out in the earlier note on verse 6a, the noun morfh/ denotes the visible form or appearance of something. Thus, here the expression “morfh/ of God” does not refer to the ‘nature’ of God as such, but to a visible distinction of the Divine, best understood in terms of the traditional splendor that surrounds God when He appears (in visions and theophanies) to human beings. The Greek noun do/ca properly designates how someone (or something) is regarded, particularly in terms of the honor and esteem in which that person (or thing) is held. In a religious and theological context, when applied to God, do/ca can connote that which makes the Divine worthy of honor and esteemi.e., the nature and character of God that is distinct and separate from other (created) beings. In this specialized sense, the noun is often translated as “splendor, glory”; the same applies to the corresponding Hebrew noun dobK*, which has a somewhat different fundamental meaning (“weight, worth, value”), closer to the word timh/ in Greek.

In any case, the phrase e)n morfh=| qeou= (“in [the] form of God”), as it is used in context, implies that Jesus shared the divine gloryi.e., he was in the same visible splendor which marks God as distinct and separate from all created beings (and thus worthy of their honor). The same applies to the situation after the resurrection. Jesus is exalted to a divine position where he shares the splendor and honor (do/ca) of God, even as he shares the same name (ku/rio$, “Lord”). As previously discussed, this “name” given to the exalted Jesus indicates an “equality” that Jesus shares the same position of rule and authority as God Himself, and is thus worthy of the same honor. The very thing that he was willing to give up (v. 6b) is given to Jesus following his death on the cross. This image of equality, of the joint rule of God the Father and Jesus, and the honor/worship that is given to them (equally), is a central feature of the visions in the book of Revelation, especially the throne-visions in chapters 4-5 (cf. also 6:16; 7:9-17; 12:5; 14:1-3; 22:1-5).

We should consider the possibility of a broader formal parallelism between the phrase “in (the) form of God” and “into (the) honor/splendor of God”, as between the two prepositions e)n (“en”) and ei)$ (“into, unto”). The first prepositional phrase refers to the situation at the beginning (vb u(pa/rxw), while the second has in view the end goal and purpose. It is surely no coincidence that the two prepositional phrases, following the initial relative pronoun, represent the first and last words of the hymn, respectively. They bracket the hymn precisely, and establish the theological boundary points. Does the final preposition ei)$ indicate simply a return to glory, to the situation that prevailed in the beginning, or does it imply something even greater? The careful, if ambiguous, way the phrase “being equal with God” is handled in v. 6b, compared with the climactic treatment of Jesus being given the “name that is over every name” (vv. 9-10), suggests that the final exaltation of Jesus transcends, in some way, his divine position the beginning; however, we can only speculate as to how this might best be explained (cp. 1 Cor 15:24-28).

The use of the expression “God (the) Father” here in verse 11 would seem to imply the status of the exalted Jesus as God’s Son, even though the specific title “Son of God” is not used in the hymn. Early Christians would have recognized a good deal of conceptual overlap between the idea of Jesus as “Lord” and as the “Son of God”. For Paul, the two titles appear to have been of equal importance, and there are more than a dozen passages in his letters where he refers to Jesus as God’s “Son”. For the most part, he follows the early Christology that understood this Sonship in terms of the resurrection/exaltation (cf. 1 Thess 1:10; Rom 1:3-4; 1 Cor 15:28); however, in several places (Gal 4:4; Rom 5:10; 8:3, 32), Paul seems to have a rudimentary pre-existence Christology in view, though he does not express the matter clearly. The references in Galatians and Romans were likely written only a few years (at most) before the Christ hymn of Philippians, and may reflect the same essential Christology.

The Sonship and eternal pre-existence of Jesus are much more prominent in the Gospel of John, both in the prologue and the Discourses, where Jesus frequently makes use of descent/ascent imagery to express the same kind of lowering/elevating juxtaposition we see here in the hymn. In the Last Discourse (13:31-16:33), he makes repeated mention of how he (the Son) is about to return to the Father; and, in the great Prayer-Discourse of chap. 17, he specifically states that he is returning to the same splendor/glory (do/ca) he held with the Father in his eternal pre-existence (v. 5). As in the Philippians hymn, the return to glory involves Jesus’ faithful completion of his mission on earth, his sacrificial death (vv. 1-4). In addition, we find the emphasis on Jesus’ special connection to the “name” of God (vv. 6ff, 12ff, 26). There is thus an important combination of themes in the Prayer-Discourse that are common to the Christ hymn.

In the next daily note, I will begin exploring Colossians 1:15-20, which is recognized as another ‘Christ hymn’, and one which may be said to represent an even more highly developed expression of Christology within the New Testament.

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