Palm Sunday A
April 07, 2014
Matthew 26:14 - 27:66
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
Some years back I heard what was reported to have been among the final gasping words of the famous singer Frank Sinatra. Sinatra’s signature song was “My Way” in which he crooned that when looking back on his life, although he had a few regrets, in the end “I did it my way.”
But at the real end, our own strength is never enough. And so just before he breathed his last, Sinatra said to a family member, “I’m losing.” But to say you are losing implies that you have the sense that you should be able to win. To have a sense of defeat implies that, all things being equal, there should have been a chance for victory. We should be able to keep our life.
I suspect that Old Blue Eyes was in touch with something fundamental in the human soul: the aching sense that we were made for life. Hence, whatever death is, it gets in the way like a roadblock. “Is this all there is?” so many ask as death approaches. As Peter Kreeft once noted, if a child gets a slug of presents at Christmas but still says at the end of the unwrapping, “Is this all there is?”, then there are two ways of viewing this. Either the child is dreadfully ungrateful or someone made him a promise that has not yet been kept. Perhaps he had been promised a new puppy but so far has received just stuffed animals. But if he had been told a new puppy was coming, then the “Is this all there is?” question looks not like ingratitude so much as a proper expectation. So for us all: if we sense we’ve been promised life, then asking “Is this all there is” in the face of death makes sense.
But we all still look for ways to minimize death or skirt its pervasive reach. Have you ever heard about the death of someone’s mother only to ask right off the bat, “How old was she?” Why do we ask that? If someone tells you that her mother took the grandkids to the zoo for the day, do you tumble to say, “That’s nice. Say, how old is your mother?” Probably not. No, we ask how old someone was after they died because if we find out she was 93, we’ll console ourselves that we need not feel too bad after all. Yet another subtle implication is that even the son or daughter should not grieve too much given that this dead person had, after all, arrived at the proverbial “ripe old age.”
It’s not true though, is it? How many times haven’t I heard people say that death still hits you hard, even when long-expected. Death still doesn’t feel right even if it is tinged with some measure of relief. Even then you may hear family members say, “For his sake we’re glad, but . . .” And you know what’s next. “But . . . the rest of us now just plain miss him, that’s all.” It’s the same dynamic that can lead people in their 60s to say they feel like orphans after the last parent dies. Orphans!? At 60 years of age!? Yes, that’s how it feels.
In one of the confessional standards of my tradition (The Heidelberg Catechism), at one point a very important question gets asked: Why did Jesus have to go all the way to death?
That is a big question, so what is the answer? Did Jesus have to go all the way to death to pay for sin? Yes. But listen: why did Jesus have to go all the way to death? Because he had been made truly human. Why did Jesus have to go all the way to death? Because you and I must do so, and had Jesus found a way to beam off this planet in a way that would have neatly side-stepped any kind of death, then he could not be considered just like you and me after all. Jesus had to leave this world via death for the same reason he couldn’t get into this world without exiting a woman’s uterus: because that’s how all people get here. Jesus had to die for the same reason he had to drink water every day to stay healthy, for the same reason he got hungry, for the same reason he had to close his eyes and sleep after a long day of parable-telling and teaching: because in Jesus the Son of God had entered the entirety of human existence and experience.
Sometimes people ask how Jesus could have died considering that he was not just human but also divine. By definition God cannot die, so isn’t there maybe a bit of play-acting going on here? Since Jesus was unlike the rest of us who are only human, did Jesus die just “sort of,” “kind of,” only partially?
That’s a truly vexing question but let me suggest something that may constitute a portion of the larger answer. I’d like to suggest that what was human about Jesus died the same way we will all die. His body gave out, his heart went silent, his brain waves went flat and so Jesus experienced a wrenching separation from the only body he had ever known as a human. But just before that happened, the divine part of him experienced death when the Father and the Spirit withdrew from him. For the first time in all eternity, he was alone.
Sometimes in listening to people, you may hear someone describe what abandonment feels like. Listen to the person who talks about being ditched by both of his parents when he was a child. Listen to the choking agony of a woman who talks about how she felt in the aftermath of her husband’s just suddenly walking out on her, never to return. What you hear in such woeful tales of abandonment is a dereliction that defies ordinary speech. It is not at all surprising to hear people describe divorce as “like a death.” Although a vastly milder scenario, sometimes even those who were unexpectedly fired from a longtime job may report, “I feel like something inside me died.”
Several theological traditions have claimed that it was that experience of abandonment by the other two Persons of the Trinity that constituted Jesus’ “descent into hell.” If so, then it is theologically accurate to say that Jesus did indeed experience death across the fullness of everything he was and is as both divine and human. We don’t need to declare that Jesus died but do so with our fingers crossed behind our backs as though to waffle or hedge a little. Jesus went all the way to death because we all must do so.
How could our God ever be more compassionate than to so identify with us in our humanity that he did this for us and for our salvation?
What’s the line from the old hymn: Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.
Questions to Ponder/Issues to Address
It’s ironic the bystanders misheard Jesus and concluded he was calling for Elijah. Elijah, of course, had been the prophet who was whisked to heaven in a chariot of fire. Of course, that didn’t mean Elijah had avoided death, but in the popular imagination there was a belief that Elijah was still alive and so maybe could swoop down once again in his fiery chariot. And so having heard what they thought was a prayer to Elijah, those around the cross concluded that this Jesus fellow was hoping that maybe a fiery chariot would swing low to snatch him off that cross and preserve his life after all.
So they quickly sopped a sponge with some wine vinegar to act as a kind of crude anesthetic, hoping they could keep Jesus alive long enough to see either if Elijah really would show up or, much more likely (and much more fun for them to witness, too) to see the disappointment that would come to this Jesus once the realization sank in that there’d be no last-minute chariot ride for him!
It’s not what Jesus had said at all, of course. He wasn’t crying out to an Elijah he thought would help him avoid death. He cried to the God whose withdrawal had just assured Jesus that he would die momentarily, derelict and hellishly alone. He knew there would be no escape for him. The gospels indicate that Jesus had known for some while that he’d come to an end pretty much like this. Yet he was human enough that even he could not resist the urge to shriek out his question as to the why of it all. There was no answer just then, and Jesus soon died in the midst of that deafening divine silence.
And then it all happened. The very moment Jesus entered hell, here on earth all heaven broke loose! The temple curtain split wide open, an obvious symbol that now the way to even God’s most Holy of Holies was open for all. Then, in the weirdest incident recorded in any of the four gospels, Matthew tells us tombs of saints split open and, right then and there on that dark Friday afternoon, bodies came back to life, later strolling into Jerusalem. If ever there were a gospel verse about which even some conservative biblical commentators may raise an eyebrow, it’s this one. The mere idea of these people returning from the dead raises a slew of questions that Matthew shows zero interest in addressing.
But Matthew includes this dramatic event and he does it for a solid reason: it’s God’s answer to the “Why?” question with which Jesus died. Why did Jesus have to go all the way to death? Because we all must do so. But because Jesus was more than just a human being like you and like me, his going all the way to death reversed death.
Some say that death is a doorway, a portal to whatever comes next. But until Jesus died, it was a door that swung just one way. By entering death, Jesus kicked that door open from the other side and so made a return to life possible after all. And not just for those yet to come in the future. Sometimes people ask if Jesus can help those who died long before Jesus ever arrived on this earth. Matthew 27 says that Jesus’ work was so powerful, it goes both ways on history’s timeline. In fact, the first people who received new life because of Jesus’ sacrifice were those who had died even before Jesus had! And if Jesus could help those who had been dead for a long time already, you know that he now stands as the gateway to life for all those yet to come, yet to live, yet to die.
“Surely this was the Son of God” the centurion at the cross exclaimed. Recently I heard someone suggest that we tend to read those words the wrong way. What if this centurion was merely being sarcastic? Suppose, seeing this dead-as-a-doornail man hanging limply on that cross, suppose this centurion sneered as he said, “Surely, this was the Son of God!” Maybe he said it that way, or maybe he said it with the astonished conviction we usually read into these words. Either way or both ways, it was an ironic statement. Never before had Jesus looked less divine than when he was so totally and completely dead. Yet somehow it was also at that same moment that he revealed the deepest measure of his very nature. To be God is to be a life-giver, even if doing so requires you to die.
Again to quote Peter Kreeft, birth and death frame every human life. But it’s very difficult to refute the idea that for life to have any meaning, there needs to be something meaningful in the death that frames the far side of earthly existence. If I was born to be in the end no more than fertilizer for a rhododendron–and if, therefore, even my efforts to serve people amounts to little more than the temporary propping up of my fellow pieces of plant food–then it becomes rather difficult to imbue my life with any lasting significance in the long run. It may even start to look rather pointless in the short run.
But suppose instead that there is a God who made me and who made you. Suppose we bear that God’s very image and so are ennobled to do Godly things. But even more poignantly yet, suppose that this God loved us so much that he decided it was not enough he had already made us in his image: he needed to remake himself in our image.
And so when this marauder called death threatened to make a mockery out of the idea that anyone’s life could possibly matter, God through his eternal Son took on a human body and a human life exactly so that he could bring death itself to the one place in all reality where it could be definitively dealt with: namely, right inside the experience of God himself. Once God had let death into his own divine heart, suddenly death died. Death could no longer have the last word once it had come to the One who had been the Word of God from the very beginning. The Word of God would have the last word now, and the last word of God would be the same as had been the first word: Let there be light! Let there be Life!
We came into being in just such light and with just such God-given life. That’s why we find it difficult, if not impossible, to resist asking our own “Why?” questions when death comes for a loved one or when it comes for any of us. We were promised something more and so we ask in the end “Why? Is this all there is?” Despite the grimness of such questions, we Christians find it possible to go on with hope because the Jesus who leads the way into God’s kingdom once asked the same thing. Thankfully, he eventually got an answer. So shall we all. “Is this all there is?” No, it is not. Because of Jesus, this is not all. Not by a long shot. Believe the promise and be exceeding glad!
As commentator Dale Bruner poignantly notes, isn’t it striking in Matthew’s account to see that Jesus dies in the interrogative mood? Jesus died not with some triumphant exclamation or declaration but he died with a question trembling on his lips. Jesus died the way a lot of people die, maybe the way all people die: he died asking “Why?” Bruner goes so far as to say that this final question from Jesus “is the Gospel at its deepest,” revealing better than any other sentence in the New Testament “who Jesus is and what he does.”
That’s a powerful assertion but the way Bruner fleshes it out in his marvelous commentary convinced me that he may well be right. Jesus does not quietly slip away, nor does he treat death the way Socrates is reported to have done: namely, welcoming death as a much longed-for release from the prison house of the body. Jesus dies kicking and screaming. Jesus dies wondering why it had to happen.
She didn’t know what else to say. As a mother, she had always steered well clear of religious clap-trap, even priding herself on not force-feeding her children to believe in anything when it came to spiritual matters. But then a beloved neighbor died. He had been a kindly old man whom this woman’s children had adopted as a kind of local grandpa. But now he was dead, and the woman’s young son was very upset. The little boy wanted to know why this had to happen. So his mother reached for some naturalistic rhetoric. “It’s just the way of the world, honey. It’s part of the natural cycle of all things, and so our friend has now returned to the earth. And next spring, when you see the daffodils and tulips coming up, you can know that your friend is helping to fertilize them.” The little boy did not hesitate. He shrieked, “But I don’t want him to be fertilizer!”
In relating that story, author Peter Kreeft notes that indeed, even the non-religious in this world have a deep-down sense that humanity is meant to be more than fertilizer. Death is a natural part of the world, yet internally we rebel.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments and Observations
I can still remember the day in Systematic Theology class when my professor Neal Plantinga asked a question I had never heard in all the years during which I grew up in the church: Why is it in the Bible that God’s action of Creation was so much easier than God’s act of Redemption? Why was Creation a snap for God but Redemption required so much more? In Creation God spoke, and it was. Poof! In Redemption . . . the story is so much longer and it does not end until the Son of God speaks a question borne of dereliction: “My God, my God, WHY!?”
Why is that? Why couldn’t Jesus, as God’s all-powerful Son, simply wave his hand and say, “All is forgiven! All is renewed”? Why wouldn’t that have been enough? Why wasn’t something like the Sermon on the Mount sufficient to set us all on a better, more God-glorifying course of life? Why does Isaiah predict that this world’s ugliness had to be laid on the Servant/Christ as the only way to make things right again? In short, how does Jesus’ suffering connect to you and me?
In asking these questions, we enter a realm fraught with mystery. There is much here that is arresting. The Bible confesses that somehow, way down at the deep core of the universe, way down in murky regions that go well beyond our meager abilities to grasp, the Son of God’s taking to himself the brokenness of life reversed the course of everything that ever contributed to this fractured reality in the first place.
Make no mistake: we enter here either a realm so profound as to constitute the most basic truth about everything or we here traffic in ideas that constitute the most ridiculous notion anyone ever came up with. As C.S. Lewis would point out, there is no middle ground. This business about the atonement is either absolutely correct, or it is absolutely false. Please don’t look at Jesus, and above all at his cross, and say that it’s maybe partly right, or that if it “works” for you, if it turns your spiritual crank, then that’s fine and dandy for you but there are other equally legitimate ways of redeeming reality. No, we have to believe this was the only way. We have to believe that this way alone works, and it works precisely because ours is a world of undeniable suffering that needs to be met head on.
We suffer because this world derailed long ago. And there’s something about the nature of our suffering that requires God not to stand back at a distance but he must enter it. So a car bomb explodes and, as the smoke clears, a father sees one piece of his child here, another over there. God must know this agony and he must suffer it so that he can heal it from the inside. When one you love shrinks down daily from disease, when the one who once played catch with the grandkids in the back yard can now no longer raise a spoon to his own lips, God must know how much that hurts you, how much that humiliates the sick person, so that he can enter it and reverse it from a position of knowing compassion.
God hates it all: the pain that tears at minds God fashioned in his own image, the cancers that eat away at the flesh God himself so lovingly created, the death that is the exact opposite of the flourishing of life God intended when he decided to share his life with a whole universe of creatures–God despises it all. Speaking for myself, when I see something I hate, when I catch wind of something that cuts against the grain of who I am, I usually look away, run away, change the channel. Sometimes we may learn about some awful disease that we’d never before heard about. When we do, we may say something like, “Well, I’ll be sure to add that to my growing list of things I’d just as soon avoid!”
We look at what we dislike, what we despise, what we fear, and we recoil, we go the other way, we pray that nothing like this will ever befall us. We may even call that a “natural” reaction. And perhaps it is. But maybe that is also why it took a supernatural reaction to save us. God did the unnatural, yet supernatural, thing of surveying the sum total of all that was fractured in this cosmos but then said, “All that must happen to me, too, and I am going to rush headlong into it in order, in the deep mysteries of my being, to triumph over it.” God knew that were he to remain aloof from our sorrows, then his raw power would not be enough to deal with the brutal facts of our lives. We are not saved by power but weakness. That, my friends, is the heartbeat of the gospel.
The scene is the last day of school before the Christmas holiday. The boys and girls of an elementary school had just finished their Christmas program for the parents and now it was time to go home for the two-week vacation. One set of parents was waiting for Bobby, their Kindergartner who, along with all the other five- and six-year-olds, was carrying home a special project–the Christmas gift for Mom and Dad that the kids had been working on for weeks.
With great exuberance Bobby raced toward his folks trying to put on his coat and keep his backpack on his shoulder all the while. But Bobby tripped, and the special gift flew out of his hands, landing with a sickening ceramic crash. For a moment there was silence, and then Bobby wailed. His father quickly strode over and strongly said, “It’s OK, Bob, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter.” But his mother was wiser about such things and so she threw herself to the ground, embraced the tyke tightly and said, “Oh but it does matter, it matters a great deal indeed!” And she wept with her Bobby, she wept.
Who has understood our pain? Who knows to the depths our sorrows and the sufferings that sin has brought to every last person on this sad planet? God only knows that when it comes right down to it, you cannot erase this world’s pain by waving it off and claiming it doesn’t matter. It does matter. It matters a great deal indeed. And because our God in Christ knows that, he has mysteriously and profoundly made it possible one day to wipe away every tear from our eyes.
Psalm 118: 1-2, 14-24
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments and Observations
Since this is the Lectionary-appointed psalm for Palm Sunday, it’s fairly easy to view it through the lens of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. After all, rabbinic tradition suggests that Israelites sang Psalm 118 at their Passover meal. So Jesus may well have sung it with his disciples at the end of their meal as they prepared to go to the Mount of Olives.
It may also be tempting to view Psalm 118 through the lens of Jesus’ Palm Sunday procession because it’s, candidly, not a particularly easy psalm to preach all by itself. It contains imagery, such as apparent temple liturgy language in verses 19-21, that’s both unfamiliar and challenging to apply to a modern walk of faith. What’s more, Psalm 118 contains a lot of apparently disjointed points that lend themselves more easily to focus on a single verse rather than on a psalm-wide theme. On top of that, it’s not easy to know whether this is the song of thanksgiving of an Israelite king celebrating a victory, Israel celebrating God’s deliverance from Egyptian slavery, post-exile Jews celebrating their return from exile or something else.
Yet with the Holy Spirit’s guidance and some careful thought and work, Psalm 118 can be a fertile text for preaching and teaching all by itself. It’s certainly the kind of psalm to which those who have known both duress and God’s gracious deliverance from it are attracted. Martin Luther who was persecuted for his understanding of the Christian faith, for example, referred to it as “his own beloved psalm” and interpreted it as speaking directly to his situation.
Of course, Luther’s claiming of Psalm 118 as his own makes interpreters nervous. After all, the psalmist leaves both her identity and the crisis from which God rescues her unidentified. As James L. Mays notes, the poet didn’t write this psalm to answer “specific historic questions.” Instead she concentrates on God’s mighty work to rescue her. The psalmist sees her identity centrally as one who “comes in the name of the Lord.” (26) This makes this psalm one to which all of God’s sons and daughters can relate.
The psalmist both begins and ends 118 with his call to “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.” In fact, he makes giving thanks to God a very central theme of Psalm 118. In verse 19 he announces, “I will enter and give thanks to the Lord.” And in verse 21 the psalmist insists, “I will give you thanks, for you answered me.” That thanksgiving also has a communal aspect. In verses 2-4 the poet calls Israel three times to join him in saying, “God’s love endures forever.” After all, in contrast to human love that is naturally feeble and conditional, God’s love endures.
The psalmist also adds a communal element to the call to thanks in verse 23 when she shifts the narrative voice of the psalm from the first person singular to the first person plural, calling, in verse 25, for example, “O Lord, save us; O Lord, grant us success.” So while the psalmist is speaking of and thanking God for God’s liberation of her from some sort of danger, she also calls the worshiping community to join her in such worship and thanksgiving.
Certainly God has given both the psalmist and the community many reasons to give thanks to God. After all, God is “good.” God’s “love endures forever.” God is the psalmist’s “strength and song.” What’s more, echoing Exodus 15’s song of victory on the Red Sea’s far shore, the psalmist asserts God has become his “salvation.” God has “answered” the psalmist. The psalmist also speaks of God’s “right hand” three times, describing it as having done “mighty things” and being “lifted high.” Reference to God’s “right hand” seems to be another way of saying that God has graciously and personally intervened in the life of the psalmist.
God has brought the psalmist to a place where she can express deep confidence in God’s goodness. Prophets such as Amos, Ezekiel and Hosea had announced that Israel’s sin would result in her death as part of God’s judgment. Yet the psalmist says God did not abandon her (and, by implication, Israel) to death. While death is part of life on this side of the new creation’s curtain, death does not have the last word for the psalmist, Israel or those whom God has made “righteous.”
This, of course, takes on new meaning in the light of Jesus’ resurrection. Through it God has transformed the death of God’s sons and daughters into a transition into God’s eternal presence where we await our own resurrection at Christ’s return. Even though we die, we will, by God’s amazing grace, live.
Among perhaps the most difficult imagery of Psalm 118 is that of verses 19-21. It appears to be temple imagery, signaling, perhaps, that it’s part of some kind of thanksgiving liturgy for use in the temple. The psalmist asks that the temple’s “gates” be opened so that he may give thanks to the Lord. After all, he wants to be able to give thanks, perhaps in some kind of worship service, for answering him and becoming his salvation. Even the language of “the stone that the builders rejected” becoming “the capstone,” that Jesus, Paul and Peter take to refer to Jesus, may be temple imagery.
To close the section on which the Lectionary specifically focuses, the psalmist calls the worshiping community to join him in rejoicing and being glad in the day that the Lord has made. Since the psalmist doesn’t specify to what day he refers, it’s a wonderful summary of God’s children’s approach to each and every day God graciously gives us. We can rejoice, because God has made this day.
Psalm 118 offers preachers and teachers a wonderful opportunity to reflect and invite hearers to consider what God has done. However, it also presents a challenge to those whom God has helped to talk about their experiences of God’s work. After all, the psalmist isn’t just thankful to God for being his strength and song. He also finds ways to talk about that goodness in Psalm 118. While some Christians are naturally reticent about talking about what God has done for them, this psalmist reminds us that we shouldn’t encounter and experience God’s mercy and then refuse to talk about it.
In verse 17 the psalmist gives voice to her hope when she says, “I will not die but live.”
Joy Hollyday tells the story a visiting schoolteacher who worked in a hospital. The classroom teacher of a little boy who was in the hospital asked her to visit him in the hospital and help him with his homework. The classroom teacher told the visiting teacher, “We’re studying nouns and adverbs in this young man’s class, and I hope you will help him.”
When the visiting teacher arrived at the hospital, she was saddened to learn that the child was in the hospital’s burn unit in very serious condition and in horrible pain. She was embarrassed when she walked in the room and saw how miserable he was. Yet she decided to press on and stumbled through the lesson, ashamed of herself for putting him through such a senseless exercise.
The next morning, the nurse on the burn unit asked the visiting teacher, “What did you do to that boy yesterday?” Before the teacher could get out her apology, the nurse said, “We had given up on him, but ever since you visited him, he seems to be fighting back, responding to treatment.”
The boy himself later explained that he had given up hope, but it all changed when he had come to the simple realization that they wouldn’t send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy.
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.
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.