March 27: Easter Sunday

March 25, 2016

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,

Who, though he was in the form of God, did not
Count equality with God
A thing to be grasped,

But made himself nothing,
Taking the form of a servant,
Being born in the likeness of men. 

And being found in human form,
He humbled himself by becoming
Obedient to the point of death,
Even death on a cross.

Therefore God has highly exalted him
And bestowed on him
The name that is above every name,

So that at the name of Jesus
Every knee should bow, in heaven
And on earth and under the earth, 

And every tongue confess
That Jesus Christ is Lord,
To the glory of God the Father.

 – Philippians 2:5-11

Have you ever wondered what early Christians sang (which was chanting on a handful of pitches) besides the Psalms? Well, Philippians 2:6-11 answers that question. This is one of their hymns. There’s academic debate about whether the Apostle Paul wrote it or was quoting it, but either way, we know that this was such a staple in their repertoire that Paul could quote it to support his exhortations in vv. 1-4. It remained with the church for centuries, and, of course, is with us today in the scriptures, although we should resume singing or chanting it without altering its text.

One of the easiest mistakes to make regarding any of Paul’s texts, but especially one like this one, is to think we can jump right in and figure out what he means without knowing a thing about Jewish, Greek, and Roman history of his day. Not only are we talking about what was going on currently for the original audience, but also for the previous few hundred years. Our understanding of faith and the Bible is very rooted in our own recent and current history, but it’s not the same as theirs, so we must be careful when reading texts written for them through our eyes.

When they thought of heroic kings, rulers, and leaders, they had to look no further than Alexander the Great (356-323 BC). He succeeded his father Philip, at just age 20, to the throne of Macedonia. He became ruler of all Greece in almost no time, and set out the conquer the whole world. He was not without confidence! He died young, at 33, but in his 13 years of rule, he had conquered so much of the world that he was thought of as divine (and certainly thought of himself this way!).

More contemporary for Paul and his audience was Emperor Augustus (formerly called Octavian). He was revered since he put an end to the Roman civil war that had run for a century. He was the first Roman Emperor and would transform the oligarchic/democratic Republic into the autocratic Roman Empire. The peace he brought was to the known world; thus he, too, became regarded as divine. Other leaders tried to copy him, and that is what heroic leadership looked like in their world.

With that in mind, Paul’s gospel message is counter-cultural and even subversive. He is preaching, teaching, and writing that Jesus of Nazareth was resurrected from the dead, and that was a public declaration that He is Israel’s true Messiah and the world’s true Lord! He was what true divinity is, not Alexander and Augustus Caesar.

Think of that as Paul says and the Christians chant:

And being found in human form,
He humbled Himself by becoming
Obedient to the point of death,
Even death on a cross.

Jesus in no way fit the culture’s understanding of a deity or divinity. Do we have faith enough and the boldness to proclaim Him this way? The one true God is known at last in the person of a crucified Jew? Really? Nonetheless, just because people may find this difficult is no reason for us to hide it or try to put some seemingly relevant spin on the matter.

And it is true that it doesn’t end there because there is resurrection:

Therefore God has highly exalted him
And bestowed on Him
The name that is above every name,

His exaltation is not yet complete. The name that is above every name, therefore, is Lord—the Lord victorious over all His enemies, the Lord who has purchased a people from every tribe and tongue and nation, and made a house for His name. At the end of the age, when the mission of the Church reaches its glorious conclusion, the name of Jesus will be sounded around the world, and at that name every knee will bow, whether of angels in heaven, or of the living on the earth, or of the dead under the earth—every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Believers and unbelievers will acknowledge in that day that Jesus has triumphed over every enemy—believers, to their everlasting joy, and unbelievers, to their everlasting shame. Have this mind among yourselves. That’s the gospel!

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