Palm Sunday • Philippians 2:5–11 • March 24, 2013
By Paul R. Raabe
The epistle lesson for the Sixth Sunday in Lent/Palm Sunday (series C) is the famous Carmen Christi of Philippians 2:5–11.
Because verses 6–11 display poetic hymn-like qualities, Greek editions rightly present them as a poem. It consists of two halves of equal size: verses 6–8 (10 lines—90 syllables) and verses 9–11 (9 lines—91 syllables). The first half narrates how Christ Jesus humbled himself to the lowest degree possible, and the second half narrates how God the Father exalted Jesus Christ to the highest level possible.
While the meaning of the poem is much debated among scholars, the traditional Lutheran interpretation remains exegetically the most convincing. (All translations are by the author.) The entire poem deals with Jesus the God-Man, the human Messiah (“Christ”) of the line of David. The one person Jesus in his human nature existed and continues to exist “in God’s form.” By virtue of the personal union his “being equal with God” in all respects such as majesty, power, and authority pertained to his human nature (genus maiestaticum). If Paul had simply referred to Christ’s divine nature, he would have simply said “being God” and not “being equal with God” (cf. Col 2:9; 1:19).
Jesus did not consider this equality something to exploit to his advantage. On the contrary, Jesus “made himself nothing by taking to himself the form of a servant/slave, becoming in the likeness of ordinary men and being found by others in fashion as only a man.” During his public ministry he did not appear in his Transfiguration majesty (cf. 2 Cor 8:9). Rather, people generally thought he was only a man, a prophet but not God in the flesh (e.g. Mt 16:14). He humbled himself by becoming obedient to God even to the humiliation of a Roman crucifixion. While being equal with God, he obeyed God as God’s servant to the max (cf. Heb 5:7–8).
Because of this, God “highly exalted him and gave him the name which is above every name.” Jesus humbled himself, but he did not exalt himself. God his Father exalted him—the Greek uses an intensive form, God “hyper-exalted him.” One day everyone will confess, either gladly and willingly or unwillingly, that this Jesus of Nazareth is the exalted “Lord over all,” not only as God—which is true by definition—but also as Man (cf. Eph 1:21–22). This will be “to the glory of God the Father.”
Sermon Idea: “The Lowest and Most Exalted Man”
During Holy Week and the Easter season you will see the Philippians hymn take place with utter clarity. See how Jesus of Nazareth, who could control the weather and raise the dead, did not use his divine power to his own advantage but allowed himself to be arrested, tried, whipped, mocked, and even crucified as a common criminal on a Roman cross. Then see how God the Father highly exalted this same Jesus of Nazareth so that now he exercises all of his divine power in, with, and through his human nature. See how this man is Lord and now rules over all things to the glory of God the Father. See the humiliation and exaltation of Jesus of Nazareth and rejoice; it was all for you.