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 consent.
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 worshipped, 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 exaltation. 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 enduring 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 irresistible 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.