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The "mind of Christ" as example for the Philippian community has now been narrated (vv. 6-8). But neither the narrative nor Paul's present concern about the Philippians' "affairs" is finished. So he concludes with this final sentence, whose function is twofold: to assert that God's yes to Jesus' life and death has been punctuated with the ultimate exclamation point, and thereby to reassure the Philippians that their now exalted Lord is sovereign over the entire universe—including the "lord" of the Empire, Caesar himself.
For a suffering community that has been repeatedly reminded of Christ's preeminent role in everything—both present and future—here is the necessary concluding word. Believers in Christ are both "already" and "not yet." Already they know and own him as Lord of all; not yet have they seen all things made subject to him. Here, then, they are reminded of who, and whose, they are: glad followers of him who is King of kings and Lord of lords, before whom at God's final wrap-up every knee shall bow to pay him the homage due his name.
What the sentence affirms is not reward but the divine vindication of the self-emptying, humble obedience that led Christ to the cross. As a yes to this expression of equality with God, God the Father exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name. Although expressed as a twofold action, most likely the two verbs point to a single reality: that God highly exalted Christ by gracing him with "the Name." Both parts of the sentence, however, raise issues that call for closer examination.
First, in asserting that God has "highly exalted" Christ, Paul uses a compound of the ordinary verb for "exalt" with the preposition hyper, whose basic meaning is "above." That might seem to suggest exaltation to a higher position than Christ held previously. But Paul virtually holds copyright to hyper compounds in the New Testament, and in the vast majority of cases they magnify or express excess, not position. Therefore for God to "highly exalt" Christ almost certainly means that God "exalted him to the highest possible degree."
But what does Paul intend by the name that is above every name? There is something to be said for the name as referring to Christ's earthly name, Jesus. That, after all, is what is picked up in the next phrase, at the name of Jesus. If so, then Paul does not mean that he has now been given that name but that in highly exalting him, God has bestowed on the name of Jesus a significance excelling that of all other names.
More likely, however, especially in light of how the rest of the sentence unfolds, Paul is making a kind of twofold wordplay. First, the name as "that which is above every name" unmistakably echoes the Old Testament use of "the Name" to refer to God and his character. To honor God is to honor his name above all. At his exaltation the name above . . . every name has been bestowed on Jesus. But not in its Hebrew form YHWH does Jesus receive the name, but by way of the Septuagint (LXX), in its Greek form kyrios ("Lord").
The fact that the LXX consistently translated the divine name as kyrios is substantial evidence that the habit of substituting adonai (Hebrew "lord") for Yahweh, which continues to this day in the Jewish community, goes back before the third century B.C.E. But this also makes for the happy situation that the earliest believers could use God's title, Lord, which also became God's "name" in the LXX, as their primary designation for Jesus. In so doing they expressed his equality with God but also avoided calling him Yahweh, which is reserved for God the Father.
The result of the exaltation of Jesus is expressed in two coordinate clauses taken directly from the LXX of Isaiah 45:23, both of which stress that the whole creation shall offer him homage and worship, presumably at his coming. Thus the narrative covers the whole gamut: It begins in eternity past with Christ's "being in the `form' of God," then focuses on his incarnation, and finally expresses his exaltation as something already achieved (v. 9), thus presupposing resurrection and ascension; now it concludes by pointing to the final future event when all created beings shall own his lordship.
First, at the name of Jesus, the Lord, every knee should bow. "Bowing the knee" is a common idiom for doing homage, sometimes in prayer, but always in recognition of the authority of the god or person before whom one is kneeling. What Paul does is full of import: for the "to me" of Isaiah 45:23, which refers to Yahweh, he substitutes at the name of Jesus. In this stirring oracle (Is 45:18-24) Yahweh, Israel's Savior, is declared to be God alone, over all that he has created and thus over all other gods and nations. In verses 22-24 Yahweh, while offering salvation to all but receiving obeisance in any case, declares that "before me every knee will bow." Paul now asserts that at Christ's exaltation God has transferred this right to obeisance to the Son; he is the Lord to whom every knee shall eventually bow.
Also in keeping with Isaiah (cf. 45:18), but now interrupting the language of the quotation itself, Paul purposely throws the net of Christ's sovereignty over the whole of created beings: [those] in heaven refers to all heavenly beings, angels and demons; [those] on earth refers to all those who are living on earth when Christ comes, including those who are currently causing suffering in Philippi; and [those] under the earth probably refers to "the dead," who also shall be raised to acknowledge his lordship over all.
Second, every tongue (of every person on bended knee) shall express homage in the language of the confessing—but currently suffering—church: "The Lord is Jesus Christ." This confession, which comes by the Spirit (1 Cor 12:3), is the line of demarcation between believer and nonbeliever (Rom 10:9). And here lies the ultimate triumph and irony in the passage. Those responsible for the suffering in Philippi proclaim that "the lord is Caesar." But at the end, when all creation beholds the risen Jesus, both they and their "lord Caesar" will join with all others to declare that Kyrios is none other than the Jesus whom the Romans crucified and whom Christians worship. But the confession will not then constitute conversion, but final acknowledgment that "God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:36).
One can scarcely miss the christological implications. In the Jewish synagogue the appellation Lord had long before been substituted for God's "name" (YHWH). The early believers had now transferred that "name" (Lord) to the risen Jesus. Thus, Paul says, in raising Jesus from the dead, God has exalted him to the highest place and bestowed on him God's own name—in the Hebrew sense of "the Name," referring to his investiture with God's power and authority. At the same time, Paul's monotheism is kept intact by the final phrase, to the glory of God the Father. Thus this final sentence begins with God's exalting Christ by bestowing on him the name and concludes on the same theological note, that all of this is to God the Father's own glory.
The grandeur of this passage can easily cause one to forget why it is here. Paul's reason is singular: to focus on Christ himself, and thus to point to him as the ultimate model of the self-sacrificing love to which he is calling the Philippians—and us. Here we have spelled out before us in living color both the "what" and the "why" of Paul's affirmation "For to me, to live is Christ." In Jesus Christ the true nature of the living God has been revealed ultimately and finally. God is not a grasping, self-centered being. He is most truly known through the One whose equality with God found expression in his pouring himself out in sacrificial love by taking the lowest place, the role of a slave, and whose love for his human creatures found consummate expression in his death on the cross. That this is God's own nature and doing has been attested for all time by Christ Jesus's divine vindication; he has been exalted by God to the highest place by having been given the Name: the Lord is none other than Jesus Christ. This is why for Paul "to live is Christ." Any faith that falls short of this is simply not the Christian faith.
But Paul's concern in all this is, in the words of the poet, "'Tis the way the Master went, should not the servant tread it still?" That Christ serves for us as a paradigm for Christian life reinforces a significant aspect of Paul's gospel, namely that there is no genuine life in Christ that is not at the same time, by the power of the Holy Spirit, being regularly transformed into the likeness of Christ. A gospel of grace that omits obedience is not Pauline in any sense; obedience, after all, is precisely the point made in the application that follows (v. 12).
The specific behavioral concern of this passage is of greatest urgency for Paul. Unity in Christ was the absolutely necessary evidence of the gospel at work in his communities. Redemption that does not redeem, that does not cause a Philemon to accept the runaway slave Onesimus back as a brother in Christ, is merely soft mush. Redemption that does not issue in forgiveness, that does not crush "complaining" against and "arguing" with one another in the Christian community (v. 14), mocks this narrative.
In the final analysis, this passage stands at the heart of Paul's understanding of God. Christ serves as pattern, to be sure; but he does so as the One who most truly expresses God's nature. That this is what God is like is the underlying Pauline point; and since God is in the process of re-creating us in his image, this becomes the heart of the present appeal. Thus we are not called upon simply to "imitate God" by what we do but to have his very mind, the mind of Christ, developed in us, so that we too bear God's image in our attitudes and relationships within the Christian community—and beyond.