On this day, Christians throughout the world begin the great and holy week which culminates in the central celebration of our Christian faith: The Lord Jesus’ atonement-by-crucifixion and glorious passage from death to new life. Today’s reading of the Messiah’s passion sets forth the central act of God’s self-revealing love for humankind. Furthermore, in the reception of the Lord’s true body and blood, the Church continues to receive this life-giving love. In prayer, hymns, and readings we hear the great paradox of our faith: Christ is proclaimed the mighty King who reigns, not by way of the so-called “triumphal entry,” but from the cruciform tree of life, the Cross of Calvary.
The liturgy of Palm Sunday, otherwise known as the Sunday of the Passion, employs the dramatic use of palms. The palm is an ancient symbol of regality and victory. It is a most appropriate sign as Jesus the messianic King approaches Jerusalem, the seat of David. But so far from ascending the throne of David as the new Solomon, Jesus is coronated on the cross. It would be from Golgotha where Jesus will rule and reign over the kingdoms of the earth. Our procession of palms bears resemblance to the character of a protest march, a veritable political witness that Christian allegiance is to “the kingdom of our once-crucified Lord,” and not to “the kingdoms of this world.” Indeed, it is fidelity to Christ and not Caesar.
This is one of the great texts of the Bible, a most fitting opening passage to the events of Holy Week. These verses, and those coupled with it this Sunday of the Passion, proclaim the very how and why God the Son was, “Born of a woman, born under the Law.” Philippians 2:5-11 celebrates in song the incarnation and the nature of Christ’s ministry. Just as the Triumphal Entry is beset with ironies (like the people celebrating while Jesus is weeping), so too the epistle is full of astonishing contrasts, the chief of which is that this man, the crucified Jew, is the world’s rightful and ruling King, not Caesar.
The passage appears in poetic or lyrical form as a hymn of the earliest Christians, perhaps from Paul himself. Poetry allows for an expansive range of meaning and understanding that other genres are unable to convey. Aside from depicting the nature and character of King Jesus’ condescension, this hymn also serves as the foundation of how the church in Philippi, and everywhere else for that matter, ought to live with self-sacrificial dispositions for the unity of the Church.
Verse 7 has tripped up many interpreters of this text. When Paul says Christ “emptied Himself,” he does not intend to say the Lord Jesus ceased to be divine during the incarnation, only to resume it later, say upon His ascension. In fact, this is quite contrary to Paul’s central point. In verse 6, Paul stresses how Jesus, “Who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” Jesus is equal with God and, in fact, is God. This is the starting point. As such, Jesus very well could have demanded all and commanded all, but He does not. The term “grasped” fails to capture the onus. The phrase intends to state how, although Jesus was equal to God ruling in Heaven, nevertheless He did not assert His lordship in such a way as to be grasping, taking from others. The God-man came to give, not take, to serve, and not be served.
The God-man came to give, not take, to serve, and not be served.
The way of the Messiah is the way of obedience to God and submission to the impulses of the Holy Spirit, yielding to the Word of God. He is our King and that is how He conducted Himself. How much more so those of us “created in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:10) and fashioned “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27)? Yes, we may be the heirs of the Earth (Matthew 5:5), but this gives us no position of privilege to be grasping or taking from one another, much less any others. The way of the cross, it turns out, is really what it means to be divine, indeed, to be Christians.
Yes, but how far? Paul says, Jesus was, “Obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (2:8). That is the way of obedience and it is placarded before the world as precisely how, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
The ironies burst out everywhere. The King is a servant. His death yields life. Our acts of treason facilitate pardon. Without excuse we become justified, and on and on. Stunningly, it is this aspect of the incarnation, the ignominious crucifixion of the Lord of Glory, that manifests the full revelation of God with us.
Then, as an additional jolt, comes verses 9-11: “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.” Therefore, Paul says, “Yes,” because of this condescension unto death on a cross, God has highly exalted Jesus since Jesus accomplished only what the Lord God could do. This is the revelation of God, in keeping with Isaiah 45:23. Look to the crucifix. There you see God as God is in Himself. You see God in action for you.
Paul has now unfolded his theses to make this crowning point: The God who will not share His glory with anyone else has shared it in-full with Jesus, the crucified Son. He is the fullness of the Godhead. If this is the case, then we too who have come to share in the glory of Christ (1 Peter 1:8), ought to serve and not expect to be served, to be givers as opposed to takers. We live to be obedient unto death in the confidence of Christ Jesus and not according to the patterns and values of the present evil age.
Tying this passage to the Gospel’s “Triumphal Entry” is to be encouraged. Juxtapose what we would expect of a king’s arrival within his royal city and what happens in Holy Week. Preachers can also transition to the triumph and condescension which takes place weekly in Holy Communion. The same Jesus comes to us, not with a regality that takes (grasps, snatches) from us, but rather to give Himself in the midst of the supreme revelation of God; enfleshed, once-crucified, now-resurrected, and gloried.