Philippians 2:5-11, Part 2
THE EXALTATION OF CHRIST
By: Scott Grant
I remember my first encounter with Philippians 2:5-11 because of my strong reaction to it. I was a teen-ager, I had just come to Christ and I started to read the Bible. I was calm and steady in verses 5 through 8, which speak of the incarnation of Christ. Reading the passage for the first time, I was unprepared for what came next. I came to verses 9, 10 and 11, and something happened inside me. I felt something like tingles up and down my spine, and I lost my breath for a moment. Thus was my first exposure to the exaltation of Christ. I did not understand the theology, but I did understand that if Christ was exalted to the highest place, that if every knee would bow to him and that every tongue would confess that he is Lord, I was reading about someone whose greatness exceeded anything I thought possible. Let us approach this text today as if we were all teen-agers reading it for the first time, and let us marvel at the greatness of Christ.
Philippians 2:6-11 depicts the journey of God. Verses 6 through 8 describe his journey from heaven to earth in the person of Christ Jesus. Verses 9 through 11, the section that concerns us in this study, describe his journey from earth to heaven. When he returns to heaven, he returns as both God and man, and he assumes his throne.
God intended humanity, first Adam and then Israel, to reign over creation. Adam failed. Israel also failed and was mostly humiliated before the nations and finally went into exile in Babylon. But its scriptures, particularly Isaiah 40-55, held out hope that it would one day be vindicated as the people of God and be exalted over the nations. Israel was exiled, but it hoped it would return from exile. In leaving heaven, Christ lives the Israel story. He goes into exile for Israel and he returns to heaven. In being exalted by God, Christ fulfills the role designed by God for Adam and Israel — and for humanity: to reign wisely over creation.
The story of the descent of Christ invites us to let him into our hearts. The story of his ascent compels us to worship him. Just as we did in tracking with the first leg of Christ’s journey, we will hear echoes from Isaiah’s Servant Songs, particularly Isaiah 50:4-11, and from John 13:1-20, where Jesus assumes the role of a slave.
Here, once again, is the poetic structure of the text:
A 6 11 A’
B 7 10 B’
C 8 9 C’
 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:  Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,  but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross!  Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,  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.
God exalts Christ, shares his name
Verse 9 begins with the word “therefore,” indicating that the reason for God’s exaltation of Christ is contained in verses 6 through 8. Because of the journey Christ took, God exalted him. Because Christ humbled himself as an obedient servant, God exalted him. God exalted him by raising from the dead and enthroning him in heaven.
God exalted him in a particular way: He exalted him to the highest place. It is true that God exalts those who humble themselves before him, but he only exalts Christ to the highest place. Why is this? In verse 6 we saw that Christ was God. Verses 10 and 11, again, depict Christ as equal with God, although he is now also human. The highest place is reserved for God himself. The verb translated “exalted to the highest place” is used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament of God himself (Psalm 97:9). Verses 7 and 8 explain what equality with God meant for Christ. It meant obedience unto death — even death on a cross. Only God can do this in this way and have it mean what it meant. It can be said, therefore, that because Christ did what only God can do, God exalted him to the highest place. Christ humbled himself to the lowest possible degree, and God exalted him to the highest possible degree. God shares his throne with Christ.
God’s intention for us humans was to reign as kings of creation. Adam and Eve were to reign over creation, as was Israel (Genesis 1:26-28, Exodus 19:6). Particularly, the Jewish (and human) Messiah was expected to reign on the throne of David, his predecessor. Christ is the truly human one, the true Israelite, the true king. Israel, as the people of God, expected to be vindicated by God and exalted over her enemies (Isaiah 45:14-17). Christ, the obedient Israelite, is vindicated and exalted, and now reigns in heaven from the throne of David (Acts 2:22-36). He reigns as God, and he reigns as man. The Lord speaks of Christ in Isaiah’s final Servant Song: “See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted” (Isaiah 52:13).
Thus Christ returns to the place he came from: heaven. But he returns as something more than when he left. He returns as a human. He is still God, but now he is also human.
In addition to exalting Christ, God “gave him the name that is above every name.” What name is that? The name Jesus had already been given to him. The name most likely in view here is “Lord” (verse 11). The word translated “Lord” (kurios) was used of Yahweh, the God of Israel, in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. God gave Jesus the very name of God: Yahweh (in Hebrew) and Lord (in Greek). It makes sense. Verses 6 through 10 demonstrate that Christ did what only God can do. He demonstrated what it means to be God. God then responds by sharing his name with Christ so that all the world will know who God is and what he is like. This human, Christ Jesus, is given the very name of God.
Jesus’ actions, as recorded in John 13:1-20, serve as an illustration of his incarnation and exaltation. During his last meal with his disciples, he got up from the table and removed his outer clothing. In the incarnation, Christ got up from his heavenly throne and removed his outer garments of glory, so to speak. After getting up from the table, he wrapped a towel around his waist, as a slave, and washed his disciples’ feet. This was an outlandish, even humiliating, demonstration of his love and acceptance of his disciples. He took on the “very nature of a servant,” as Paul says in Philippians 2:6. John adds, “When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place.” After he had finished his task as the Servant of the Lord by being obedient to death, he put on his outer garments of glory, so to speak, and returned to his former place, heaven.
Every knee bows, every tongue confesses
In verses 10 and 11, Paul picks up strands from Isaiah 45:23, where the Lord says, “By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be revoked: Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear.” The words spoken of the Lord in Isaiah are spoken of Christ in Philippians. Isaiah 45:14-25 is a fiercely monotheistic text: “Surely God is with you, and there is no other; there is no other God” (verse 14). “I am the Lord, and there is no other” (verse 18). “And there is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none but me” (verse 21). “For I am God, and there is no other” (verse 22). There is no other, but there is Christ Jesus. Paul, a Jew whose monotheism runs as deep as Isaiah 45, concludes that Christ Jesus is Yahweh in the flesh.
To bow one’s knee meant to recognize and acknowledge one in authority. Jesus will be acknowledged as the ultimate authority: God. The acknowledgment will be comprehensive: Every knee will bow. To illustrate total submission, Paul says that the knees of beings “in heaven and on earth and under the earth” will bow. This was a conventional expression to convey universality (Revelation 5:3, 13-14). The heavenly beings are probably angels, both good and wicked, whose domain is the heavenly, unseen world (Ephesians 6:12). Earthly beings would be living humans, and those under the earth are probably dead humans (Romans 14:9).
Actions will not only indicate the sovereignty of Christ but words will as well. Every tongue belonging to the beings spoken of in verse 10 will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, that he is Yahweh, that he is the one true God. Caesar, the Roman king, claimed that he was lord (Acts 25:26). For Romans, the title didn’t always imply deity. It meant authority, power and sovereignty.
The Roman kings crushed all who opposed their authority. Say too much or gather too much of a following, and Rome would give you a demonstration of its authority by putting you on one of its crosses. To Rome, Jesus was a little nuisance, another would-be Jewish messiah to be crushed like an ant under its boot. Now Paul is circulating the proposition that this Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord, and he is doing so in Philippi, a Roman colony. It’s a preposterous suggestion, really. Caesar will one day bow to Jesus, and should be bowing even now? That’s what Paul is saying. He can say this, and have some people believe it, because Rome couldn’t keep Jesus in the tomb. And along comes Paul to tell everyone what the resurrection means: It means that God has exalted Jesus to the highest place, and it means that every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. This preposterous and subversive claim worked its way into the fabric of Rome until one of its own kings, Constantine, in 313, some 250 years later, confessed that Jesus is Lord and bowed to him.
When every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Jesus is Lord, God the Father will be glorified. God will be glorified because when everyone acknowledges that Jesus is Lord, everyone will see what God is like. Everyone will know how much God, as Father, loves his children.
Every knee “should” bow and every tongue “should” confess. God exalted Christ with the intention that every knee bow and every tongue confess. Some of us are bowing and confessing willingly and joyfully. It cannot be said, however, that every knee is now bowing and every tongue is now confessing. When Christ returns, everyone will acknowledge his lordship, willingly or unwillingly. Verses 10 and 11, then, imply that there will be yet another leg to Christ Jesus’ journey, yet another trip from heaven to earth — this time as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
The lords of the earth exalt themselves, make a name for themselves, and force people to bow to them and confess the greatness of their name. The same tendency is within us. Early in the history of humanity, people settled in Shinar. They said to each other, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4). Humans have been exalting themselves and trying to make a name for themselves ever since. Why? Because we don’t trust God and we’re therefore dreadfully insecure. Satan offered Christ exaltation with ease: “Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. ‘All this I will give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me’” (Matthew 4:8-9). Christ refused. Instead, he obeyed God and committed himself to a path that led to the humiliation of a cross rather than exaltation of a throne and to being called names such as “deceiver” rather than Lord (Matthew 27:63). Although the call to be Lord of the earth was deep in the bones of Christ, he became a servant, humbled himself and became obedient to God, allowing God to take care of his position and his name.
John is given a vision of Christ Jesus on his heavenly throne in Revelation 5:11-13:
“Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang: ‘Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!’ Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing, ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!’”
Vindication and exaltation of Israel
The voice of Jesus, the Servant of the Lord, can be heard in Isaiah 50:4-9. Listen to the voice of humility, servanthood and obedience, and listen for the expectation of vindication and exaltation:
“The Sovereign Lord has given me an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being taught. The Sovereign Lord has opened my ears, and I have not been rebellious; I have not drawn back. I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting. Because the Sovereign Lord helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame. He who vindicates me is near. Who then will bring charges against me? Let us face each other! Who is my accuser? Let him confront me! It is the Sovereign Lord who helps me. Who is he that will condemn me? They will all wear out like a garment; the moths will eat them up.”
Jesus no doubt had passages such as this one and Daniel 7:9-14 in mind when the Sanhedrin put him on trial. Daniel had a dream in which he saw “one like a son of man,” probably the representative of Israel, “coming with the clouds of heaven” into the courtroom of the Ancient of Days, who proceeds to vindicate him, exalt him and grant him a universal and everlasting kingdom. Jesus told his accusers, “In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 26:64). He was unconcerned about the verdict in the earthly courtroom because he knew he would be vindicated in the heavenly courtroom.
Israel’s scriptures led it to believe that God would vindicate and exalt it and that the nations would be subservient to it. When that happened, the nations would be judged. But Israel tended to miss the part that when that happened the nations would at the same time be blessed. Jesus, as Israel’s representative, takes on its role. Now that he has been exalted by God, those who submit to his reign are blessed. Those who don’t are judged.
Worship and proclamation
What does God’s exaltation of Christ mean for us? It means two things: worship and proclamation. We worship Jesus as Lord and we proclaim him Lord.
Everyone is going to bow one day anyway. We may as well get on with it, and we may as well bow willingly and joyfully now instead of begrudgingly and bitterly later. God exalted Christ. We should as well. We place him on the throne of our lives and on the throne of our church. We behold his majesty. We get a Revelation 5 vision of Christ. With our imaginations, we hear the voices of thousands upon thousands of angels singing: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise.” We hear every creature singing, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power for ever and ever!” Then we join the angels and the creatures, and we sing their songs and others like them.
Worship inspires us and equips us to then go forth and proclaim to the world that Jesus is Lord. God’s proclamation that Jesus is Lord represents a challenge to all would-be Caesars, not to mention all the other pagan gods and goddesses. That proclamation has been entrusted to those of us who follow Jesus.
We “go into all the world and proclaim, like messengers announcing the enthronement of a new emperor, that Jesus of Nazareth is now exalted” as Lord of the whole creation and that those who submit to his reign will be set free from enslavement to the gods and goddesses of our world, the idols and the powers and the ideas that people seemingly can’t live without.1 We tell the story of Jesus to anyone who will listen. We tell them that God has won a great victory over the forces of evil. We tell them that the reign of Christ means the tyrants’ time is up. We tell them that the long exile of humanity is over and that God is waiting for them with open arms. We tell them that there’s a new and better way of being human. We tell them that if they follow Jesus, they too will be resurrected, and will reign with him in the new heavens and the new earth.
The world needs this proclamation and is worth this proclamation. And when you go out into the world, don’t be intimidated by the powers of the world. Not one of them is Lord. No, not one.
“Glorify the Lord with me; let us exalt his name together” (Psalm 34:3).
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1N.T. Wright, “Bringing the church to the world,” © 1992 by N.T. Wright. Bethany House Publishers, Minneapolis, Minn. P.106.
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