Commentary on Philippians 2:5-11
A preacher’s first instinct may be to pass over the second New Testament reading for Palm/Passion Sunday.
Compared to the drama of the Gospel text, themes typically drawn from Philippians 2, such as incarnation doctrine or humility, may spark scant excitement at either end of the homiletical contract, pulpit or pew. But in recent years, fresh exegetical insights into the grammar of this classic text are challenging traditional interpretations, opening up powerful homiletical territory for the preacher.
What we make of the hymn-like core of this text turns, in part, on how we understand the rare Greek noun harpagmos (Philippians 2:6c). Verse 6 is typically understood to be declaring that although Jesus was “in the form of God,” he did not regard “equality with God” as “something to be grasped” (NIV) or “something to be exploited” (NRSV), and therefore opted to assume the “form” (NRSV) or “nature” (NIV) “of a servant.”
In other words, instead of “grasping at” equality with God (which, according to tradition, was the sin of Lucifer), Jesus humbly “emptied himself” (NRSV) or “made himself nothing” (NIV). For his humble deferral, Jesus was subsequently exalted to Lordship — “given the name above every name” (verse 9). This has been the basis of many a sermon admonishing Christians to practice humble self-effacement.
But in the last couple of decades, interpreters have been pointing out that the unusual word harpagmos is actually more like a gerund, which (as you’ll remember from grade school grammar) is a noun that refers to an action. The best translation would be not “something to be grasped,” but “[the act of] grasping.” This shifts the senses of verses 6 and 7 rather strikingly, to something like this: “Jesus, ‘being in very nature God’ (NIV), did not consider likeness to God to consist in grasping, but [instead] taking the form of a servant, poured himself out.”1 In other words, Jesus, in fidelity to the true nature of divine power, practiced the outpouring of the self, not self-assertion and domination.
This would mean that Philippians 2, far from being a touching portrait of a self-effacing Jesus, speaks of Jesus’ radical embodiment of divine redemptive and restorative power as the power of self-outpoured service to the other. The alternate translation also has the advantage of helping us resolve the troublesome tension between the affirmation in verse 6 that Jesus is somehow “in the form of God” and yet somehow at the same time refusing to act “godlike.”
The truth is, Jesus as God-in-flesh is, and remains, fully part of the divine life. How could Jesus, with any consistency, decide not to be god-like? The fact is, he doesn’t. Jesus’ choice to live as a servant is not a deferral of his divine nature, but rather its truest expression.
This way of understanding Philippians 2 may strike some as theologically scandalous. Certainly, it reverses long-held assumptions about the meaning of the Christ-hymn. What of the declaration that God has “therefore … highly exalted him” (verse 9)? The splendor of Jesus’ lordship is his servanthood. Maybe this is nowhere better captured than in John’s apocalypse where Jesus is the enthroned “slain Lamb” (Revelation 5:6-14), and in this form, the object of the adoration of all earth and heaven.
It is precisely Jesus’ self-outpouring pursuit his redemptive human life amid the world’s oppression-wracked, sin-wrecked, violence that qualifies Jesus to bear “the name above every name,” the One before whom all on heaven and earth drop to their knees in awe and wonder.
Homiletically, today’s second reading calls for sermons that proclaim nothing short of a radical reimagination of the world-restoring power of God. It may be useful to begin a sermon by tracing more traditional interpretations before returning to the text for a second look and unpacking fresh understanding of its import. If Jesus’ self-giving servanthood was the truest embodiment of God’s redeeming, life- and society-restoring power, this has profound implications for the church’s witness in the world.
Recently, public television ran a news story about the “White Helmets,” a cadre of volunteers in the war-ravaged Syrian city of Aleppo. Amid the indiscriminate bombing of residential neighborhoods in the city, the “White Helmets” rush to the scene of collapsed buildings, digging with bare hands if necessary to free survivors from their tombs of crumbled concrete.2 The attackers know about them, and sometime deliberately return to blast the same sites in hopes of eliminating the White Helmets. Could it be that it is their dust covered faces and bleeding fingernails, not the screaming bombers overhead, that reveal the Might that can make a new world?
In troubled and troubling times, the church has always been tempted to enforce its views of what is right and good for humanity by making political threats, manipulating the news media, and resorting to deadly force. But such means, no matter how piously framed, will never move this world full of anxious, mutual aggression, one step closer to peace or goodness.
Followers of Jesus need to trust the lead of their Servant Lord, who, in the hours before his death, broke bread with his betrayer, washed the feet of those who abandoned him, healed a soldier armed to arrest him, and forgave both the repentant criminal dying beside him and his unrepentant tormentors.
1 Author’s translation. For similar phrasing reflecting the idea that harpagmos functions here as a gerund (a noun that refers to an action), see Morna D. Hooker, “Philippians 2:6-11,” Jesus und Paulus: Festschrift fur Werner George Kummel aum 70 Geburtstag (G?ttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1975), 151-164; and N.T. Wright, “Harpagmos and the Meaning of Philippians 2:5-11,” Journal of Theological Studies 37:2 (1986), 321-352.
2 PBS Newshour, 12.19.16.