Palm Sunday A

April 07, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 26:14 - 27:66

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Isaiah 50:4-9a

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 118: 1-2, 14-24

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle

    Philippians 2:5-11

    Author: Stan Mast

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

    This epistolary reading for Palm Sunday reveals the immense metaphysical drama in which the Palm Sunday story is a tiny historical vignette.  Jesus’ descent from the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey is an historical illustration of the incredible descent of the pre-incarnate Son of God to the depths of humiliation as a very human “criminal” on a Roman cross.  If the Gospel stories of Christ’s triumphal entry are about a day in the life of Jesus, this reading from Philippians is about the entire career of Jesus beginning in eternity and stretching to the very end of human history.  And even as the crowds on Palm Sunday had a difficult time understanding exactly what was happening before their very eyes, so we will struggle to understand this difficult text in Philippians.

    As we wrestle with the controversial words that describe the dramatic descent and ascent of Jesus, one thing is crystal clear: this is a classic example of what theologians call task theology.  As complicated as the ideas are, the purpose of the theology is to move God’s people to live a certain way.  This is not theology for theology’s sake; it is theology for the sake of practical living.  This great “Christ hymn” is designed to move us to a deep unity rooted in humility and to a continued obedience even when it is difficult.

    In verses 3 and 4 Paul has been urging the Philippians, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.  Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.”  That is hard to do, so he motivates them with the example of their Lord.  Though verse 5 is hard to get exactly right, the sense of it is clear.  “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.”  Then Paul lays out the profound theology of verses 6-11.  After the theology comes another call to action.  “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed… continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling….”   “Therefore” points back to the example of Christ.  Be obedient because and in the same radical way Christ was obedient.  Whatever else we conclude from our study of this difficult text, it is clear that Paul uses it to call us to the task of living for Jesus in unity and obedience.

    So where is the ambiguity in the text?  In the words used to describe the humiliation of Christ, who “being in very nature God…”  That translation seems clear, except that “nature” is the Greek morphe, which means outward form, appearance, shape.  So does that mean that Christ merely looked like God, assumed the shape of God, but wasn’t really God?  The verbal form “being” is an imperfect participle indicating continuance, as opposed to all the subsequent aorist verb forms that indicate once for all past action.  Christ always was and continues to be “in the form of God.”

    He “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped….”  What could be clearer?  Well, “equality” is not a noun in the Greek but an adverb; he existed in a manner equal to God.  And volumes have been written about “grasped.”  Is it active or passive?  Is Paul talking reaching out to take something that isn’t really yours, committing robbery, so to speak?  Or is he talking about holding on to something that is yours already?  Scholars disagree violently, usually pointing out that the natural sense is the former, the active.  It means, then, that Jesus didn’t reach out to seize equality with God, something that he didn’t already have.  But other scholars say that the more passive sense is a legitimate reading that actually better fits the context and the rest of Paul’s teachings about the divinity of Christ (e.g., Col. 1).

    Further, what does “made himself nothing” mean?  The Greek is ekenosen, “emptied himself.”  Of what?  Or to what purpose?  Wildly different kenotic theologies claim that Christ emptied himself of some divine attributes, or of his entire divinity becoming merely a human, or that he simply covered over his divinity during his earthly life.  And why does Paul use morphe again in describing the result of Christ’s emptying; he took “the very nature (morphe) of a servant…?  Again, does that mean he really wasn’t a servant, just looked like one?  Did he appear to be a servant without being one?

    That certainly seems to be the meaning, because in verse 8 Paul says that Christ was “found in appearance as a man….”  “Appearance” is the Greek schemati which means fashion, outward appearance, which is apparently almost the same thing as morphe.  To add to the difficulty, he was “made in human likeness,” which translates homoiomati, “like a man.”  So wasn’t he a real man?  Were the Marcionites right?

    All of those ambiguous words raise ontological questions about the Incarnation.  Who was Jesus of Nazareth really?  Does Paul give us a straight answer here?  Yes, he does.  Whatever we do with those questions, Paul’s point is summarized in two verbs that are crystal clear: humbled (etapeinosen) and exalted (uperupsosen).  That’s what this text is about—the humiliation and exaltation of Christ.  To motivate the Philippians to humility and obedience, Paul shows them the descent and resultant ascent of their Lord.  In other words, it is not first of all an attempt to teach them about the incarnation; it was an attempt to move them to be more faithful to their Incarnate Lord.  To do that, Paul used an early Christian hymn that they probably knew well.

    Does that mean that the deep theology of the hymn doesn’t really matter?  Not at all.  In fact, I’m convinced that it is precisely the depth of the theology that motivates.  I mean that examples of the humble obedience of mere human beings or of godly saints or of “the gods” are inspiring, but such stories are nothing like the profound words here.  Thus, it matters deeply how we interpret these ambiguous words.  So let me try to give a coherent reading of them that fits the use Paul makes of the hymn.

    First, though morphe means outward form or appearance it doesn’t mean that Christ wasn’t fully divine.  It refers to the outer appearance as a true manifestation of the inner being.  John Calvin said that Christ had the majesty of God, his outward glory, his attributes.  He gives this helpful analogy.  “The form of a king is the equipage and magnificence which shows him to be a king—his scepter, his crown, his robe, his attendants, his judgment throne and other emblems of royalty.  These show outwardly what he is in himself.  Jesus had all the trappings of divinity, because he was divine.  He was always in the form of God, because he always had God’s glory (John 17:5).”  Who could possibly have the form of God, his outward glory and majesty, except God?  Calvin recalls that in Isaiah 48:11, God said, “I will not give my glory to another.”

    William Hendriksen says that although it is difficult to crisply define the words morphe and schemati because they occur so seldom in the New Testament, there are compound words based on those words that help us see their true meaning.  “From their use in compound words elsewhere, it seems that morphe refers to the inner, essential, and abiding nature of a person or thing, while schemati points to its external, accidental, and fleeting bearing or appearance.”  So the pre-incarnate Christ was eternally and essentially God, who then became incarnate, taking upon himself a human nature.  Then he was found “in appearance (schemati) as a man.”  He had all the outward qualities of a man; he “became like us in every way (Heb. 2:17),” even though he wasn’t always that way.  He was essentially divine, but he assumed a human nature.  In other words, these Greek words fit the classic explanation of the Incarnation.

    If that is true, then the rest of the words become clear.  Being God, he, of course, “existed in a manner equal to God.”  And since he was equal to God, he didn’t need to reach out and take hold of divinity.  Rather he chose to open his hand and empty himself by becoming one of us.  As the verb “being” in verse 6 indicates, he never stopped being God.

    That helps explain his “emptying.”  Though I am attracted to the idea that he let go of certain divine attributes (omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence) when he joined himself to human flesh, I realize all the metaphysical difficulties to which such speculation leads.  Besides, all the kenosis theories are just that– theories, our very human attempts to probe the ontology of the Incarnation.  Maybe it’s best to simply stick with the text, which says clearly that his emptying amounted to precisely this: he took “the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”  In other words, the best explanation of kenosis is the story of Jesus birth, suffering, and death on a cross.  The Lord of all became obedient and died under the curse of God.  What an example of humble obedience!  That’s exactly what Paul is getting at in this text.

    The rest of this text lends additional credence to the classical orthodox interpretation of Christ’s humiliation.  Because of that humiliation (‘therefore,” verse 9), God exalted Jesus Christ, or as the Greek has it, “hyperexalted to the highest place.”  What place might that be?  Paul puts it in mysterious words, some of which are borrowed from Isaiah 52:3, where they clearly refer to God.

    Jesus is given the name which is above all names.  What name is above all names?  The name of God, of course, the real name of God, namely, Yahweh, which is always pronounced LORD by devout Jews like Paul.  Sure enough, that’s the name before which all will bow and which all shall confess– Lord Jesus Christ.  That’s the order in the Greek.  Jesus Christ is Lord, Yahweh, and will be acknowledged as such at the end of time by the entire creation.

    Now, that would be blasphemy, unless our reading of the first verses of this Christ hymn is correct.  To call anyone “Yahweh” is the ultimate sin, unless that person actually is Yahweh himself.   But God himself gives Jesus Christ that name, because that’s exactly who Jesus was from all eternity.  So in the end, the Son of God ends up where he was in the beginning, on the throne of God, where every knee shall bow and every tongue will confess that he is, indeed, Lord, Yahweh.

    What a motivation to humble obedience!  To be successful, to rise in the world you don’t need selfish ambition and vain conceit (verse 3).  You don’t have to live a self-interested life (verse 4).  You don’t have to cling to your possessions or grasp for others.  If you do what Jesus did and live a life of humble obedience in which you consider others better than yourself and look to their interests in the same way as you look to your own, God will exalt you.  He did it for Jesus; he will do it for you.  Therefore, continue to work out the salvation Jesus gave you through his obedient suffering and humiliating death.

    I have one last question about this profoundly difficult text: Do the universals of verses 10 and 11 point to universal salvation?  If “every knee shall bow” at the name of Jesus and “every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,” does that mean that all will finally be converted?  We can’t tell from this text, but other Pauline texts (II Thess. 1:8-10, for example) seem to teach very clearly that not all will be saved.  If that’s right, then this Christ hymn means that even those who rejected Jesus all their lives will finally fall before him and admit the truth they always denied—not in “wonder, love and praise,” but in abject submission through gritted teeth.  Even those under the earth, even those who have followed the Evil One to Hades, indeed, even the Devil himself, will have to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord, even if they hate that truth.

    If I’m right about that, the last part of this great hymn can become a powerful call to bend the knee and call on the name of the Lord now, before it is too late.  I know, we don’t do much of that kind of evangelistic, altar-call preaching these days.  But perhaps the profundity of this great text calls for such passionate preaching.

    Illustration Idea

    One of the most popular programs on TV these days is “Game of Thrones,” which is based on a fantasy novel by George R.R. Martin.  Set on the fictional continents of Westeros and Essos, it depicts a civil war between several noble houses, all of them battling to gain the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms.  I use the word “noble” advisedly, because the story is anything but noble.  I’ve only seen snippets of the show as I’ve been channel surfing, but I’ve seen enough to understand why “Game of Thrones” is criticized for its graphic violence and explicit sexuality.  Life is hard and mean and dirty, precisely because everyone is focused on gaining the Iron Throne.  That’s what happens when people are filled with selfish ambition and vain conceit and spend their energies focused on their own self-interest.  Instead of being exalted, they are humbled and they humiliate each other.  They all need to sing the Christ hymn of Philippians 2 and adopt the attitude of Christ Jesus.