October 23: Philippians 2:8

Philippians 2:8

e)tapei/nwsen e(auto\n geno/meno$ u(ph/koo$ me/xri qana/tou
qana/tou de\ staurou=

“he lowered himself, coming to be (one who) hears under to the point of death, even (of) death at (the) stake.”

Following the interpretive difficulties of vv. 6-7, verse 8 is relatively straightforward by comparison. We must not read it in isolation, however, for it is closely bound, both conceptually and syntactically, with verse 7. This can be illustrated through the following chiastic outline (repeated here from a previous note):

    • e(auto\n e)ke/nwsen (“he emptied himself”)
      • morfh\n dou/lou labw\n (“taking [the] form of a slave”)
        • e)n o(moiw/mati a)nqrw/pwn geno/meno$
          (“coming to be in [the] likeness of men”)
      • sxh/mati eu(reqei/$ w($ a&nqrwpo$ (“being found in shape as a man”)
    • e)tapei/nwsen e(auto\n… (“he lowered himself…”)

e)tapei/nwsen e(auto/n—The phrase e)tapei/nwsen e(auto/n (“he lowered himself”) is clearly parallel with e(auto\n e)ke/nwsen (“he emptied himself”), and are similar in meaning, as well as having structural significance, being the first two (of the four) primary aorist verbs which govern the hymn. The verb tapeino/w means “make/bring low, lower”, sometimes in an ethical sense connoting humbleness and humility. That is how the verb tends to be used in Jesus’ teaching, in the context of a dualistic contrast with the verb u(yo/w (“make high”). Believers are to make themselves low, in meekness and humility, and through a willingness to sacrifice oneself in service to others (cf. the core saying par. in Matt 23:12; Lk 14:11; 18:14; also Matt 18:4, and note James 4:10). Paul’s uses the verb in a similar manner (2 Cor 11:7; 12:21; Phil 4:12).

While the same sort of context prevails in chapter 2 of Philippians (cf. the earlier note on 2:1-4), the specific use of tapeino/w here in the hymn has a deeper Christological meaning as well. It refers, not just to the example of Jesus’ humility and self-sacrifice, in a practical sense, but to its supreme manifestation in his becoming a human being (i.e., the incarnation). Jesus not only “emptied himself”,willing to give up his exalted position alongside God in heaven, and become a human being, he also “lowered himself” still further, going even beyond the lowly position of a human slave.

geno/meno$ (“coming to be”)—this same aorist participle (of the verb gi/nomai, “come to be, become”) was used in v. 7c, and, indeed, functions the same way in relation to the phrase “he lowered himself” as the participial phrases in v. 7 (in relation to “he emptied himself”). The remainder of v. 8 describes what it means for Jesus to “lower himself”, just as the phrases in v. 7 explain what his “emptying” entailed.

u(ph/koo$ (“hearing under”)—this predicate adjective, used here in a substantive manner (i.e. characterizing a person who is u(ph/koo$), should be considered in light of the parallelism with v. 7c:

    • “coming to be in (the) likeness of men” (e)n o(moiw/mati a)nqrw/pwn geno/meno$)
    • “coming to be (one who) hears under…” (geno/meno$ u(ph/koo$)

The phrase in v. 7c is also subordinate to that of v. 7b, and so “coming to be in the likeness of men” must be understood in relation to the idea of “taking the form of a slave“. This helps to explain the important aspect of Jesus’ humanity expressed in v. 8. A slave is one who “hears under” (i.e., following the commands, etc, of) the authority of a superior; God, of course, is the superior of all, but Jesus willingly submitted (like a slave) to human authorities as well, sinful and wicked though they may be. The adjective u(ph/koo$ is derived from the verb u(pakou/w (“hear under”), and generally refers to one who listens obediently, in submission, to a figure in authority. The sort of submission described here is elsewhere expressed vividly in the Gospel tradition—most notably, in the three Synoptic predictions by Jesus of his Passion (Mark 8:31; 9:30-32; 10:32-34), and in the Passion Narrative itself. The Jewish and Roman authorities equally play a central role in the suffering and death of Jesus. He submits to them, in meekness and humility, scarcely saying a word in his defense (in the Synoptic narrative, at least), effectively fulfilling the prophecy of Isa 53:7-8 (cf. Acts 8:28-35).

me/xri qana/tou (“to the point of death”)—The adverb me/xri (used as a preposition) indicates the point of termination for a time (or place), i.e. “up to the point of, until”. The common noun qana/to$ (“death”) is in the genitive case here, governed by the preposition me/xri. Jesus submitted to the wicked human authorities, no less than to God Himself, as part of his self-sacrificial, redemptive mission on earth. Such submission meant his death, which signifies a position even lower than that of a slave. A slave may possess only limited rights or freedom, but he/she can still live in some measure of comfort and security, under the authority of others. While for an oppressed slave, death can, at times, be seen as a kind of freedom, most slaves still value life, and would seek to avoid the threat of death.

qana/tou de\ staurou= (“even of death of [the] stake”)—This qualifying phrase shares the same governing preposition me/xri, i.e. “even to the point of death at the stake”. The conjunctive particle de/ (“but, and”) is used in a continuative (and emphatic) sense—i.e., even to death at the stake. Any death might be feared, but death by crucifixion in ancient times (and as practiced by the Romans) was especially horrific. It tended to be reserved for the worst criminals, and for members of the lower classes (slaves, etc) as a punishment for treason and other high crimes. Jesus’ death by crucifixion is well-established in the Gospel tradition, though depicted with relatively little detail in the narrative (even the gruesome scourging prior to hanging is barely mentioned). It was an especially painful and humiliating manner of death, and one which created tremendous obstacles for early Christians in their attempts to convince fellow Jews, especially, that Jesus was the promised Messiah. Paul fully understood the weight of this apparent contradiction (Gal 3:10-14, etc), and yet embraced the fact of Jesus’ crucifixion (“the cross”) as a central part of the Gospel message (1 Cor 1:17-18; Gal 5:11; 6:14; Col 1:20; 2:14).

The noun stauro/$ literally means “stake, post, pole”, set upright in the ground, and which could be used then for various forms of punishment, etc. It is usually translated “cross” in the New Testament and other early Christian writings; but, while “cross” captures the idea of crucifixion (with the cross-piece for supporting the arms of the victim), it is inaccurate as a translation of stauro/$.

In the next daily note, we will summarize the results of our study on vv. 6-8, before moving on to examine verse 9 and the second half of the hymn.

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