For Maundy Thursday
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There are some things that can, perhaps, only be said in poetry, and perhaps this [Phil 2:5-11] is one of them.
• Tom Wright
Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.
Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father.
This is one of the most discussed theological texts in the New Testament — Philippians 2:5-11, the “Christ-hymn” that describes the “kenosis” of Jesus.
Gerald F. Hawthorne’s interpretation of Phil. 2:5-11 is one of my favorite commentary passages that I have read in biblical studies.
He first describes the near universal agreement that “vv 6-11 constitute a beautiful example of a very early hymn of the Christian church.” Scholars, however, have a number of different ideas about how the hymn might have been structured. Whatever the versification of the hymn might have been, it is clear that it has two basic parts. There are four main verbs: the first two have Jesus as the subject, the second two have God. The hymn then naturally falls into the story of (1) Jesus’ acts of humbling himself, and (2) God’s act of exalting Jesus.
Hawthorne notes that Paul himself may be the author of the hymn or it may come from another source. The striking insight that I learned many years ago from him when considering this passage is that it appears to be a meditation on an event recorded in the Gospel of John.
“…may be the result of deep meditation…on one particular event from the life of Christ as recorded in the gospel tradition — Jesus washing his disciples’ feet (John 13:3-17). Although verbal parallels between John 13:3-17 and Phil 2:6-11 are few, but nonetheless significant, the parallels in thought and in the progression of action are startling. So precise in fact are these parallels that it is difficult to consider them the result of mere coincidence.
Hawthorne uses the following diagram to portray these parallels:
This hymn, whether Paul wrote it or not, emphasizes Jesus’ act of humility using an “descent-ascent motif that is prominent in the Johannine story.”
Gerald Hawthorne also notes another important parallel between the way both John and this epistle reflect on the foot-washing story:
It is also interesting and instructive to note that the purpose of each pericope is similar. The Johannine account is an acted parable to summarize the essence of Jesus’ teaching: “Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to hold the first place among you must be everybody’s slave” (Mark 10:43-44), while the Philippian text is a hymn to illustrate powerfully Paul’s teaching, which at this point is identical with that of Jesus: humble, self-sacrificing service to one another done in love is a must for a Christian disciple who would live as a Christian disciple should (Phil 2:3-4).