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Mediation on a “Therefore”

Therefore God lifted him high, 
and granted freely to him
the name above every name,
so that in the name of Jesus
every knee would bend,
in heaven, on earth, under the earth,
and every tongue constent.

——

So began today’s morning reading in the prayer book that I sometimes use. The words are familiar, as they represent an alternative wording of the famous Christ hymn of Philippians 2. Many scholars believe that this hymn represents one of the earliest liturgies of the early church, possibly even going back to a few decades after Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. It thus gives a fascinating window into both how the early church worshiped, who they understood Jesus to be, and what it all meant.

Therefore, God lifted him high…

One of my professors in graduate school used to say, “Whenever you see the word ‘therefore’ in Scripture, you should always ask, ‘What is the therefore there for?’” It’s a good question. And in this case, rewinding a few verses before the ‘therefore’ yields a pretty powerful corrective to how this passage can and has been interpreted over the years.

When I was a kid, I would read sentences like “God lifted him high” and “the name above every name” and “every knee would bend” and “every tongue confess” as something like God’s revenge upon the godless unbelievers who refused to acknowledge his obvious greatness or rightness or bestness. Kind of like the moment at the end of the movie where you realize that the protagonist has had a trick up his sleeve the whole time and is gloriously vindicated while his enemies are humiliated. One day, everyone will see that Jesus was right and—even more fortuitously—I was right, whether they want to or not! Not the most inspiring or mature of interpretations, but there you go.

Mercifully, my approach to the Christ hymn has evolved a bit since my childhood days. While there certainly is an important aspect of vindication in this and other formulations about the victory achieved on the cross, and while there is an aspect of said victory representing a kind of humiliation of the powers that executed him, that ‘therefore’ is a game changer.

These are the verses that immediately precede the “therefore”:

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

All of that lofty language about exaltation and knees bowing and tongues confessing is the result of the profoundly un-lofty form that divinity took. Jesus did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, he “emptied himself,” he took the form of a slave, he “humbled himself,” he became obedient. And ultimately, of course, he died the shameful death of a traitor, being mocked, spat upon, abandoned, and rejected, even by those close to him. This is what leads to the exalation. This is what leads to Jesus’ name being above all names. This is why knees will bend and tongues confess. This is the expression of divinity to which God says, “yes.”

Of course, it’s possible to read all of this emptying and humility as instrumental in nature. Many people do this. Glory is the tasty carrot for enduing the pain—for all of Jesus’ suffering and misery he is granted a shiny crown at the end. Power and majesty are the compensation for momentary shame and humiliation. Lowliness and weakness are a kind of regrettably necessary speed bump on the super highway to rapturous exaltation and irresistable authority. This is how the passage is implicitly interpreted in many contexts.

But I wonder if rather than saying “this is how exaltation is acquired” this passage is saying “this is what true exaltation looks like.” In other words, the hymn changes the category of exaltation itself. It doesn’t accept that power and the application of force and exploitation and grasping after influence and bending others to your will is how the game is supposed to be played, no matter how many people inside and outside of the church continue to tramp down these wearisome trails, yielding predictably depressing results. It doesn’t accept that this is how God works or what God looks like. Jesus doesn’t just suffer and die as a means toward an end where the power game remains untouched. He changes everything. He shakes up our assumptions, turns things upside down, reconfigures categories we would contentedly leave unchallenged. Our knees will ultimately bend not out of coercion but penitent awe and indebted love.

At any rate, even if the Christ hymn doesn’t do what I’m claiming it does for God’s categories, it certainly does it for those of us who claim to follow this Jesus. Or it should, at any rate. If we go yet one verse further back—to the verse before the verses before the “therefore”—we encounter this jaw-dropping, devastating, inspiring, arresting, fearful sentence:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

All of that emptying and humility and not exploiting our inherited position(s) and taking on the form of a slave and obedience and (gulp) dying language? That apparently applies to us. If we claim to love this Jesus and have any interest in following him, this is the shape that our exaltation takes.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Reminds me of John 20:21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” What would happen to this world if we all had the mind of Christ and went the way of Christ?! A great post, thanks. 🙂

    June 1, 2017
    • Fascinating connection! We are sent in the same manner as Christ was sent. What would happen if Christians actually believed and lived this?

      Thank you. And thanks also for your very kind words of affirmation on some of my archived material. It’s great to know that some of those old posts aren’t just lying around collecting cyber-dust 🙂

      June 2, 2017
  2. Paul Johnston #

    These are the teachings that matter. Wisdom that is Holy Spirit filled rather than more worldly understandings that appeal to our emotions, desires, likes and dislikes.

    It is my prayer for you that when the time comes you hear the Holy Spirit’s prompting with such undeniable clarity you will seek a grace that will give you sufficient courage to accept the calling.

    The voice that has been given you and that you have worked righteously to cultivate and nurture, needs to be heard beyond the periphery.

    His peace be with you always, Ryan. 😄

    June 3, 2017
    • I thank you for your kind words of affirmation even as I continue to disagree with the dichotomy that you seem determined to defend. I cannot cease to be a creature with emotions and desires and likes and dislikes. Neither can you. Neither does either one of us have access to the Holy Spirit that isn’t mediated by our sinful, limited selves and all of their emotions and desires. Far better, it seems to me, would be an approach that acknowledges that human desire, while far from perfect, can be one of the ways in which Christ draws us to himself and beckons us home.

      June 5, 2017
  3. Paul Johnston #

    That we can disagree in a very fundamental way and yet still share in and bring one another closer to, faith….well you for me at any rate lol…speaks to the graciousness of the Holy Spirit and perhaps to both of our abilities to stretch beyond our own likes and dislikes and however awkwardly and faintly, meet at a place where human desire is transcended by God’s desire for us….irony intended :)….

    For sure you are wrong about me in this way. I am ceasing to be a creature who is being moved by his own sense of desire; likes and dislikes.

    I am Ebeneezer Scrooge, on Christmas morning as giddy as a schoolboy over the newness of my outlook…It’s as if I am seeing life for the first time in a very honest and true way. Not Paul’s way any more but God in Paul. It is a liberation from self that leaves my spirit feeling simultaneously as youthful as a teen and as wizened as an elder. A potent combination. A forgiven outlook. A redeemed man. God must love me so very much…..and if God will do this for the likes of who I have been, God will do it for anyone. For everyone.

    So you see me as “determined to defend”. That is a good thing. When you see me as exhaustively relentless, I will then be where I need to be. lol

    June 6, 2017
    • Again, I would say that you, under the prompting of the Holy Spirit, simply transferred your desire into a different and better domain than that of the self and its cravings. You have not ceased to be a desiring, admiring creature. The object of your desire has simply changed.

      I simply do not see how this conclusion is avoidable, unless you are willing to say that the Holy Spirit somehow lobotomizes disciples of Jesus and turns them into robotic automatons incapable of feeling or desiring any longer, or that the Holy Spirit magically turns us into infallible interpreters and desirers for the things of God. Neither seem plausible to me. And so we go back to the beginning. It is the object of admiration and desire that must be turned and disciplined Godward. The category itself cannot be eliminated.

      (See, I can be kinda, sorta relentless, too 🙂 )

      June 6, 2017
  4. Paul Johnston #

    I don’t think our difference is one of semantics. If it is, your logic is pretty compelling.

    For clarity’s sake, for God’s sake….and not to win debating points…..not suggesting you’re trying to win any either :)….I’ll give it one more go. 🙂

    True desire, and right approval as I understand it, is not a personal or individual prerogative. Both are beyond human comprehension. It would follow then that they would be beyond human decision. Those kinds of desires and approvals, are false. True desire is the “death” of individual prerogative being replaced by the prerogatives of the Holy Spirit. I collaborate certainly but the objects of my desire are not as you say my, simply choosing to desire something different. What I previously thought of as desire and what I approved of, weren’t the true meaning of desire and approval at all. They were lust and greed, disguising themselves as something more palatable to the neediness of ego.

    Further while I believe that my condition with regard to the misappropriation of desire and approval was acute, I think every human being who has every lived, suffers in the same way. We are only different by degree, not type.

    No one lives in any kind of true state, unless they have surrendered their desires to the desires of the Holy Spirit for them. It is the Holy Spirit who desires, who approves. The second I begin to think that even these most beautiful desires and approvals are mine, is the very second Satan begins to work on me so as to corrupt them. To corrupt me. To distance me from God and to replace what is true desire (Only found through submission to the Holy Spirit) and convince me that my inherent lust and greed is in fact true desire and approval.

    Wow, that is a mouthful and a half. Lol….

    These are my final thoughts…from the guy who offers up final thoughts like the rock band the “Who” offers up final tours :)….

    It is the world that lobotomizes and creates robotic automatons incapable of true feelings. We willfully collaborate operating under the delusional arrogance that somehow we are capable of articulating and living true desire. That we can give approval to what is right, to what is just. We cannot.

    “East of Eden” is still playing itself out in human history and until we as individuals and as communities, die to self, it always will.

    …Oh, 🙂 and the idea that the Holy Spirit would magically ( as seen from the human perspective) turn us into “infallible interpreters and desires for the things of God” seems pretty obvious to me. The least of the Spirit’s gifts, so to speak.

    We believe precisely because some 2000 years ago we accept the truth that in fact the Holy Spirit did this very thing to a rather ordinary and mostly bumbling group of outcasts, in Judea.

    Why wouldn’t that be happening today and always? 🙂

    June 6, 2017
    • Thanks for expanding, Paul. I still think your categories are two binary, too stark. Did you never have a desire that was even partially commendable before you surrendered to Christ? Was there nothing that you admired in your previous life that Christ might have said, “Yes, you’re on the right track here, let me show you what a fuller and truer expression of that might look like?” Perhaps you will say no. That’s fine. I suppose then we’ll just have to agree to disagree and move on.

      …Oh, 🙂 and the idea that the Holy Spirit would magically (as seen from the human perspective) turn us into “infallible interpreters and desirers for the things of God” seems pretty obvious to me. The least of the Spirit’s gifts, so to speak.

      We believe precisely because some 2000 years ago we accept the truth that in fact the Holy Spirit did this very thing to a rather ordinary and mostly bumbling group of outcasts, in Judea.

      And yet that ordinary bumbling group of outcasts were still urged to “test the spirits.” An odd command to give, if they were incapable of misinterpretation. Indeed, passages like 1 Corinthians 12 and 13, among many others, would be very strange chapters to write to a church full of infallible interpreters.

      June 6, 2017
  5. Paul Johnston #

    Thank you too, Ryan. There is a joy (mostly lol) and a purpose in communicating with you here, that is important to us both, I think. :)….one of us for sure :)… Perhaps others too. 🙂

    Surprisingly to you perhaps, I would agree that I have had desires (thought they were mine at any rate) that were even more than just a little commendable. Turns out they were God’s desires for me all along. To the point here, if I had only been humble enough to realize it as His desire and not mine, “His will being done” as it was intended to be expressed through me, could have happened a lot earlier.

    The graces for me and others could have flowed so abundantly. Instead they trickled and sin abounded. That was what happened when I insisted the choice, based on my preferences, was mine.

    What I have now, what I believe we can all have now, is better understood as God’s.

    Ours by grace and accountability. God’s by title. 🙂

    “Testing of Spirit” is consistent with my understanding of God’s word, here. Notice we are not called to make choices based on preference, the modem of the self but rather spirits that would quite naturally…ok supernaturally :)….be outside of us.

    It is as if desire exists in a realm apart from us. We do not create it. We choose from among the pre-existing, binary options of good and evil. Yes we will apply what would seem to be our own will, our own intellect, our own conscience but that understanding is best thought of as either God’s will for us or Satan’s. It is important to note that it is Satan who would have us claim authorship and ownership over desire. He flatters us falsely to deceive us.

    If the fullness of love, the fullness of goodness is to be the fruit of our likes, dislikes and choices then we must surrender that process to the eternal God. Even the best of our desires is finite and material and requires “testing”. Allowing God’s desire to inform our choice, to be our choice for us, gives it fullness, eternity and makes it beyond the power of Satan to corrupt.

    Btw, today is the first time for me to offer a teaching at a charismatic prayer group meeting. All I can say for sure is that after 60 years into this thing we call life, I am finally at a point where my head no longer resides up my own arse and my gaze is truly outward. I know with conviction that I am sincere in my belief that the words I have to share are not my own, that they come from God. As always the tempter will ride shotgun and try to convince me otherwise.

    Please pray for me. 🙂 And the group of 30-40 souls who have to put up with me for 30 minutes, ha ha.

    God is so, so good. 🙂

    June 7, 2017
    • I will pray for you, Paul. Sounds like a great opportunity.

      June 7, 2017

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