Bending the Knee in Honor and Service

If Paul’s major theme in Philippians is “Standing Firm,” how does the message of Jesus’ self-emptying in Philippians 2:5-11 fit into that theme?

Stand firm, Paul says, by bending down. Bend down before Jesus, and bend down like Jesus.

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5 You should have the same understanding among yourselves which Christ Jesus also had. 6 Having the characteristics of God from the beginning, he did not consider that being equal with God was at all illegitimate, as if he were assuming prerogatives that did not belong to him. 7 Nevertheless he emptied himself, taking on the characteristics of a slave, sharing the essence of our lives as a human being. To the those who saw him, he just looked like any man. 8 He abased himself, becoming completely submissive to God even though it led to his own death – and not just any death, but death on a cross. 9 Indeed, for this reason God lifted him up to the highest place of honor and bestowed on him a name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee might bow – those in heaven and those on earth and those under the earth – 11 and that every tongue might join in the proclamation that Jesus is God’s anointed one and the master of all creation, to the glory of God the father. (Philippians 2:5-11, author’s translation)

Scholars tell us that this passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is likely a fragment from an ancient hymn. It seems to beg for audience participation. When the reader says, “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,” perhaps our knees should also bow. When the reader says “that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,” perhaps our tongues should also join in this ancient confession of faith: iesous Christos kurios – Jesus Christ is Lord.

The “Kenotic Hymn” (“kenosis” is the Greek word for “empty” in Philippians 2:7) is one of the most beautiful and fascinating passages in all of scripture. As we listen to this passage, we should look not only at the text itself but its setting in Paul’s letter. (This is always how we should approach any passage of scripture).

If Paul’s major theme in Philippians is “Standing Firm,” (Philippians 1:27-30, Philippians 4:1), how does the message of Jesus’ self-emptying fit into that theme? The answer is counter-intuitive. Stand firm, Paul says, by kneeling down. Kneel at the feet of Jesus in honor of his name, and kneel in service to others as Jesus himself did.

As the embodiment of God, Jesus carried God’s own authority. He deserved the worship and praise of all.

Commenting on the phrase “ouk harpagmon hegesato” in Philippians 2:6, John Wesley (Notes on the New Testament) wrote:

Counted it no act of robbery. That is the precise meaning of the words, – no invasion of another’s prerogative, but his own strict and unquestionable right.

This verse is normally translated with the confusing phrase: “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped”. I think Wesley has the right idea (and the right translation): “Existing in the morphe of God, he counted it no act of robbery to be equal with God.” [See update at bottom of page].

To Jesus was due all the honor and privilege due to God himself. To claim the privileges of God for himself would not have been an act of robbery or rebellion, as it was for Adam (and it is for me and you).

Nevertheless, as the embodiment of God’s character, Jesus didn’t think the purpose of his equality with God was his own enjoyment of those rights, honor and power. He emptied himself. He lowered himself so that he became a servant, a washer of feet, and a subject of abuse. He let go of power and didn’t force anyone to kneel at his feet; instead he knelt at their feet and washed them. Instead of calling armies of angels to fight, he submitted himself to death on a cross.

Washing feet was slaves’ work. Eating with the notoriously sinful was disreputable. Dying on a cross was shameful. Jesus was willing to do it all for the sake of obedience to the Father.

There is a very noticeable pattern in the “Kenotic Hymn” that is also visible elsewhere in the New Testament: up – down – up. Jesus had by rights equality with God. He emptied and lowered himself. God exalted him to the place of highest honor. The Gospel of John also uses this same up-down-up pattern to describe Jesus’ self-abasement.

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. (John 13:3-5 ESV)

Jesus, knew that the Father had given all things into his hands and that he had come from God (up) and was going back to God (up). Between these brackets, Jesus wraps a towel around himself and does the work of a slave (down).

In looking at the Kenotic Hymn, the “up” is as important as the “down.” It was the king of glory who knelt at the feet of those he came to serve. He gave himself, not in weakness, but in the strength of condescension and service. At the end, God exalted the servant. He raised from the dead the one who gave his life and set him at his right hand.

There is a purpose for this drama: Jesus’ self-emptying, taking the form of a servant, becoming obedient to the point of death, being raised from the dead and exalted to the place of highest honor. Jesus’ abasement and exaltation took place so that every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the father.

There is a significant translation issue in Philippians 2:10-11. Some versions translate the primary verbs in the dependent clause as a future indicative: that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess. The verbs are actually in the subjunctive mood: that every knee might (or should) bow and every tongue might (or should) confess. The subjunctive here states the purpose for God’s exaltation of Jesus and bestowing on him a name that is above every name. The subjunctive is about purpose, not prediction. Philippians 2:10-11 is not a universalist prediction (as in “every tongue will confess” means “everyone will be saved”). It is true that even God’s enemies will recognize Christ’s Lordship at some point in the future in the same way that convicted criminals come to recognize the authority of the law, but even this is not Paul’s meaning here.

A verb in the subjunctive mood has no time element. God’s purpose is God’s purpose, both now and in the future. In other words, God raised Jesus to his right hand not just so that people would recognize him at some indefinite point in the future, but that they might recognize him as messiah and lord even now. Jesus self-emptied himself and the Father exalted him so that you and I might bow before him today, and so that today we might confess together that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the father. When we gather to worship as the body of Christ and bend our knees before the Lord, we are fulfilling God’s intention in Christ.

Paul told the Philippians that they should have the same attitude as Christ Jesus. He used similar “self-emptying” language about himself in Philippians 2:17:

Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.

John also wrote that Christians should follow the example of the one who knew where he came from, knew where he was going and took upon himself the work of a slave.

When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. (John 13:12-16)

Think, then, about your life in Christ with the same up – down – up pattern that we see in Jesus.

By grace through faith, you are brothers and sisters of Christ. You are sons and daughters of the kingdom. You are royal ambassadors. You are have access to the most holy place – to the very throne of God – through the blood of Christ. You are the temple of the Holy Spirit. The God that was in Christ dwells in you. You share in Christ’s own honor, authority and power, and that will be made manifest to all at the resurrection of the just.

In that strength and identity, you can empty yourself on behalf of others as well. Perhaps only those who really know this can empty themselves. Only those who know where they come from and know where they are going have the ability to really forget about themselves in the mire and the muck of life. Otherwise, other people are a threat to be feared or a stepping stool to be used.

Jesus said turn the other cheek – go the extra mile – forgive 70×7 – give without expectation of return – serve the lowly – offer without price – be willing even to die for the sake of the gospel. This is what the one who emptied himself for us did on our behalf, and this is what he calls us to do for others for his sake.

There is no service that you can give that won’t be rewarded, no price that you can pay that won’t be repaid at the resurrection of the just, no wrong that you can experience that won’t be righted, no situation that you can face in which you won’t be vindicated

Stand firm my brothers and sisters, bending the knee before the only true lord and savior Jesus Christ.

And stand firm in the face of opposition, by laying aside your rights, bending the knee to serve even your opponents and living in confidence and joy no matter what comes.

UPDATE: More recent scholarsip sees the particular grammatical construction that Paul uses as an idiom in which there is no connotation of theft or violence. This conclusision is based on grammatical parallels in ancient Greek literature outside the New Testament, and serves as the foundation of the NIV 2011 translation: “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage.”