Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday)

Being equal to God is precisely not making use of oppressive power

Painting of Jesus carrying cross by Hieronymus Bosch
"Carrying the cross," by Hieronymus Bosch; from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tennessee; licensed under CC0.

April 2, 2023

Second Reading
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Commentary on Philippians 2:5-11

For the Palm/Passion Sunday preacher, Philippians 2:5-11 might not emerge as the most immediate candidate for the basis of a sermon. Nonetheless, when held together with the Gospel account, the Christ Hymn of Philippians 2 can present a powerful theological reflection on the significance of Jesus’ work and eschewing of oppressive power.

Origins of the Christ Hymn

There has been much debate about the origin of the Christ Hymn. Some have amassed good reasons for suspecting that it was a pre-existent composition that Paul adapted for his own use. Others, by pointing to connections between the hymn and other parts of Philippians, have suggested that the hymn is original to Paul.

While such debates are intriguing, the origin of the hymn is, in some ways, inconsequential. Whether Paul adapted it from another source or wrote it himself, the text still offers an important articulation of the theological significance of Christ’s work. Read alongside of the Gospel reading for today, this text can expand the particularity of the story of Jesus in Jerusalem such that it connects with a cosmic worldview in which heavenly, earthly, and subterranean knees all bow in recognition of the cosmic Christ’s lordship (Philippians 2:10-11)

Equality with God

One of the most important claims of the Christ Hymn is that Jesus “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited” (Phillippians 2:6). Many commentators have labored over an explanation of the Greek term harpagmos, translated in the NRSV as “something to be exploited.” This term, otherwise sometimes translated as “booty,” “plunder,” or “a seizing,” connotes something that is received as a prize for the exertion of exploitative power.

While an exploration of the term harpagmos is certainly important, it is just as important to explore what this suggests about Jesus’ own view of equality with God. That is, as the text explains, Jesus is, in fact, “in the form of God” and has status as God. In other words, Jesus’ definition of what it means to be a god is coming not from a human but from one who is, in fact, already a god. Unlike the Roman emperors who claimed godhood for themselves or had such status applied to them, Jesus qua God defines godhood not as an ascent to power but as a refusal to use exploitative power for personal gain. This does not mean he denies his godhood; rather, he provides a definition of what that status means.

As the Christ Hymn articulates it, then, Jesus’ own view of what it means to be equal to God is contrary to the prevailing views of both Jesus’ and our times. That is, while more prevalent perspectives could take a “might makes right” viewpoint that celebrates the use of exploitative power, Jesus’ perspective (as it is articulated here) is that being equal to God is precisely not making use of oppressive power, even when that might be a tool at one’s disposal. Thus, true equality with God is the denial of the use of exploitation.

The statement in Philippians 2:6 that points to Jesus’ equality with God is not the only place where this idea appears in the Christ Hymn. Rather, Jesus’ equality with God might be underscored by the subtle connection to Isaiah 45:22-23. In that text, God declares, “I am God, and there is no other … To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.” What God claims for Godself (in other words, lordship, the receipt of obeisance) in Isaiah, God bestows on Christ here in Philippians (2:10-11). Through an allusion to Isaiah 45, this text in Philippians 2 emphasizes Jesus’ equality with God.

Christ’s singular sacrifice

As has been noted, the Christ Hymn both explicitly in Philippians 2:6 and implicitly through an allusion to Isaiah in 2:10-11 highlights Jesus’ godhood. As such, the nature of Christ’s work that is described is the work not of one who holds human status (though the text does not deny his humanity) but as one who maintains status as a god. The text celebrates Jesus’ work and highlights the glory that he receives as a result. That is, the hymn is about the work of Christ, not the work of humans.

It is important to note that this passage contains only one command to its audience: “Think about this” (Philippians 2:5). That is, while Paul celebrates Christ’s self-emptying and subsequent glorification, he does not command his audience to pursue similarly self-sacrificial actions. While some preachers may be tempted to use this text as the basis for a sermon on the importance of self-sacrifice, it is important to note that this is not the direction that Paul goes. Rather, Paul simply invites his audience to reflect on Christ’s work.

Paul’s approach here may be far more helpful, both theologically and pastorally. Theologically, limiting the focus on the singularity of Christ’s work is in keeping with the glorification of Christ over all others (verses 9-11). That is, Christ’s work, as described in Philippians 2:6-8, is something that he, and he alone, is able to accomplish. Using this description as an excuse to encourage a particular behavior among those who are not Christ, could have the theological effect of cheapening the unique aspects of Christ’s sacrifice by seemingly suggesting that this is work that anyone could do.

Beyond the theological importance of viewing this passage as a description of Christ’s work and not a set of imperatives for Christians to follow, keeping the focus on Christ also has powerful implications pastorally. For historically marginalized and oppressed audiences, a message that encourages self-sacrifice and the willingness to face death (as Christ did) can be problematic, harmful, and antithetical to the gospel. As has been noted already, the text is at pains to highlight the ways in which Christ is equal to God. In other words, Christ alone can enact the kenotic self-emptying that is described here. The good news of the text, then, might be that Christ condemns the use of exploitative power, both for himself and by humans who would wield such power to oppress others.