Reflection on Philippians 2: 5-11
by John G. Gibbs, PhD
At first sight it may not be
apparent that this text could be relevant to Palm Sunday, or
to how Christ is related to the creation, or how Christian faith
relates to the creation. But further examination of the text
in its context will lead us in all 3 directions.
1 - The text in its
context. This famous Christological Hymn is a paradigm of
Lordship, and its context applies that paradigm to discipleship.
Whether written by the apostle Paul at some earlier time and
incorporated in this letter, or (as is more likely) written
by someone else and quoted to fit his own purpose, the hymn
speaks the mind of Paul about who Jesus was and who we are to
The humility of Christ is the
example for all Christians, both individually and collectively.
Paul introduces the hymn in such a way as to make that clear:
"Let the same mind be in you [each one, and you all] that
was in Christ Jesus
" The hymn follows in the next
who, though he was in the form of God
" After the hymn "therefore" is
the first word: "Therefore
work out your own salvation
for it is God who is at work in you
the context of this hymn (before and after) emphasizes the pastoral
use to which Paul applies the hymn. His meaning is clear: as
Christ was, so are you [and now we] to be.
So who was Christ? Christ was
strong and faithful enough to "empty" himself. He
was the exemplary "servant" (doulos, "slave")
of God's will. That service brought him to the ultimate sacrifice,
"to the point of death," namely capital punishment
by crucifixion. Because he made that deepest descent, "Therefore
God also highly exalted him
" That is the briefest
outline of the life of Jesus the Christ. The outline looks like
the Greek letter "X" (Chi), so the hymn is in "chiastic
form" as the descending line (Jesus) and the ascending
line (Christ) cross one another.
Christ is the sovereign who rules
by serving. The term "Lord," which is no longer part
of everyday vocabulary, bespeaks order, administration, management
in such a way that "all things hold together" (Colossians
1:17). Christ is sovereign in his self-giving not only to the
Church and all her members, but also to all things. His lordship
is what keeps us all, together with the whole creation, from
Who, then, are Christ’s disciples?
They also take the life of strong self-giving descent, leaving
to God the outcome. These are people whose ultimate citizenship
is "in heaven" (Philippians. 3:20), and who subordinate
all other allegiances to that one loyalty. Whatever other sovereigns
expect, this Lord’s disciples give the interests of others higher
priority than self-interest (Philippians 2:4).
This Lord's disciples are empowered
people, folks who are active in working out the meaning and
reality of healthy wholeness ("salvation," 2:12).
They can do that because God is at work in them "enabling"
them to want and to work for God's "good pleasure"
Discipleship is less a matter
of imitating Christ than a matter of being responsible for our
own thoughts and actions, running our own races (3:12ff), doing
all things "through him who strengthens [us]" (4:13),
and if need be "sharing his [Christ's] sufferings"
(3:10). This Lord's disciples, by thus investing themselves
in Gods good pleasure for humanity and for the creation,
"shine like stars in the world" (2:15).
2 - Palm Sunday.
That chiastic development is precisely what took place on Palm
Sunday, but with a twist. If the crowds, with their branches
and Hosannas, took a premature line of ascent toward a Davidic
King (Psalm 118:26 in Mark 11:9f), on the other hand Jesus took
the faithful line of descent by choosing a donkey rather than
a chariot for his dramatic entrance into his capital city. He
thereby enacted prophetic expectation (Zech. 9:9) of a "humble"
king mounted on a donkey (Matthew 21:5; John 12:15). That he
did so was not yet clear even to his disciples (John 12:16).
Only after the Resurrection "when Jesus was glorified"
did they discover the deeper meaning of what Jesus had done.
Only when Jesus loved us to the
uttermost, "to the end" (John 13:1), in the darkest
hour did the glory of God within him become unmistakable. At
Easter that exaltation became resplendent, so much so that in
retrospect all gospel writers see that glory reflected backward
into Jesus' life all along the way.
Even the crowds who extolled
Jesus did more than they knew, say the gospels, by making the
first subdued trumpet calls of a theme more majestic than any
of them could imagine. In the perspective of all four gospels,
the Hosannas raised by crowds of humanity on Palm Sunday, enthusiastic
as they were, would pale in comparison to the exuberant chorus
yet to come when, as was later said, "at the name of Jesus
every knew shall bend, in heaven and on earth, and every tongue
should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God
the Father" (Philippians 2:10f).
3 - Christ and Creation.
The movement toward Christ is never a movement away from the
creation. The incarnation, if nothing else, forbids any dichotomy
between Christ and the cosmic totality. The hymn’s line of descent
begins with the incarnation: "being born in human likeness"
and "taking the form of a slave." Escape from the
world is no part of Christ’s life and work, and no part of Christian
Not only the incarnation, but
also the exaltation takes place in and for the whole creation.
"Every name," "every knee," and "every
tongue" are no more literal than the heavens "telling"
and the firmament "proclaiming" God's handiwork (Psalm
19). "There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice
is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world" (19:3-4). Accordingly,
the hymn envisions a universal acclamation as the whole creation
responds to Gods work in Christ.
Since this hymn likely predates
Paul, it is clear that the work of Christ in creation was part
of earliest Christian perception. Similarly Paul quotes an ancient
Christian confession of faith in his letter to the Church in
Corinth (I Cor. 8:6): "for us there is one God, the Father,
from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord,
Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we
exist." That is a tightly constructed statement, the meaning
of which hinges on the prepositions "from," "for,"
and "through." God is the origin ["from"]
of all things, and Christ is the Mediator ["through"]
of all things. God is our destiny ["for whom we exist"],
and Christ is the Mediator of our existence.
From very earliest Christian
times Christ was understood to be the Mediator of both Creation
and Redemption. That understanding underlies this Christological
Hymn. It also underlies Paul's use of the hymn to encourage
a lifestyle of responsibility within and for the whole creation.
The power of "the Savior" (Philippians 3:20) which
"makes all things subject to himself" (3:21), also
transforms our life of descent ("humiliation") so
that we run our races, and live our lives in the direction of
the Savior's "glory" (3:21).
4 - Church and Creation.
If the Church has within it "the same mind that was in
Christ Jesus," she will of necessity care for the creation.
Environmental stewardship will be as much part of the Church's
life as works of social justice and personal healing. If the
Church’s true homeland is "in heaven," and if her
loyalties serve citizenship "there," then her life
in the world can not be exploitative, nor heedless of God's
gifts of wilderness and garden alike — gifts that are intended
for all generations, not merely our own.
If the management style ("lordship")
that "holds all things together" is not one of Davidic
might that lords it over the environment, but rather one of
self-giving for the sake of others, then the Church today will
do what she can to preserve both wilderness and garden (agricultural
resources of land and water and air) in a way that tends to
their long-term needs and not only to our short-term wants.
Just because the Church is concerned
about "salvation," which is wholeness of health and
restoration of all malaise and brokenness, the Church will be
mindful of the groaning and travail within the creation (Romans
8:22), and she will live as if the fate of Christian and the
fate of creature were intimately tied together.
We who pray "give us this
day our daily bread" are called by the One to whom we pray
to be preservers and conservers of those gifts from God that
all humanity needs and depends upon. Bread alone is enough to
make us safeguard all that ministers to bread: water, sun shining
through our air, earth, a world in balance rather than a globe
Let us then take care for what we wave our palm branches, toward
what governance and order we choose to move both our selves
and our institutions. Let Palm Sunday point toward Easter, with
its new beginnings in human undertakings, and its new promise
for the cosmic totality.
[Note: Those interested
in researching further could consult John Gibbs' monograph Creation
and Redemption: A study in Pauline Theology (Supplements
to Novum Testamentum, vol. 26; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1971),
especially pp. 73-92.]
Revised Standard Version Bible.]