by Christa McKirland
6 [Jesus Christ], Who being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
In recent reflection on Phil 2:6-11 the sheer absurdity of God’s goodness has struck me afresh. In this text (most likely a devotional hymn), we see early Christians singing about their paragon and Lord. In this hymn, we see that Jesus has equality with God, yet does not consider that equality something to be leveraged to his own advantage. Instead, he forfeits the rights and privileges of that divine equality by becoming human. Not only does he become human, but he also becomes a poor, Jewish baby, who grows up under the rule of Roman oppressors and eventually dies a horrific slave’s death (vv 6-8). While God vindicates and raises him (vv 9-11), this does not undermine the reality of his sacrifice to become human. In fact, as far as we can tell from Scripture, the Son remains human (albeit, glorified) even now and intercedes on our behalf as a Jewish man seated at the right hand of the Father.
The backdrop to this text further underscores this absurdity. The origin story of the Philippian community is Acts 16:11-40, and there we see another story of right and privilege forfeiture in the arrest and imprisonment of Paul and Silas. After being accused of throwing the city into an uproar and not abiding by Roman practices (v 21), they are stripped, severely flogged, and thrown in prison. However, when the town’s magistrates come to release them the following morning, Paul announces that they have been treated unjustly because they are, in actuality, Roman citizens (v 37). This disclosure of their status as citizens sends a panic through the magistrates as they would never have treated them in this way had they known they were Roman citizens with attendant rights and privileges.
Such a situation begs an interesting question: Why did Paul not reveal his citizenship earlier? We know that elsewhere, he does disclose this information to avoid punishment (Acts 22:25). It appears this is not something that Paul is, in principle, against. So why does he not speak up in Philippi? If he could have avoided being beaten, publicly humiliated, and having to spend a night in jail just by saying, “I am a Roman,” why on earth didn’t he? While we can’t know for certain, some scholars have speculated that they endure severe punishment, ‘in order to guarantee a level playing field for representatives from any social class in Philippi who might respond to the gospel.’ Given that only about a third of Philippians would have been Roman citizens, Paul knew that the majority of Philippians would not have a ‘get out of jail free’ card. Thus, he chooses not to leverage his advantage of being a Roman citizen in a way that would set an unfair precedent for the fledgling Christian community. Instead, he willingly faces public humiliation, intense pain, and overnight imprisonment so that a citizen/non-citizen hierarchy does not become a part of the Philippian community’s DNA.
Now, ten years on from Philippi’s establishment and his own imprisonment there, the question of citizenship seems to have re-surfaced in this notoriously status-conscious city (based upon archaeological evidence from inscriptions regarding honour in this region). It seems the Philippians need reminding where their true value lies—not in their earthly citizenship, with its attendant rights and privileges, but in their heavenly citizenship, which they have only received by God’s grace (3:20). This citizenship demands costly conduct of self-sacrifice and consideration of the other before themselves (1:27; 2:5). Further, their own origin story is recalled in the subtext of Phil 2:6-11. There, we see Jesus and Paul (and Silas) compared.
|Paul and Silas|
|Messiah Jesus |
|Refused to leverage their Roman citizenship||Did not regard equality with God as something to be leveraged to his own advantage (v6)|
|Willingly suffered the humiliation of flogging and imprisonment at the hands of Romans magistrates (vv 19-23)||Willingly suffered the humiliation of slave status and of crucifixion at the hands of a Roman magistrate (vv 7-8)|
|Vindicated by a sudden status reversal. Citizenship (true identity) publicly recognised and oppressors put to shame (vv 35-39)||Vindicated by a sudden status reversal. Divine lordship (true identity) recognised and publicly acknowledged by all (vv 9-11)|
However, a fruitful contrast also emerges. While Paul and Silas leverage their status on behalf of others, the fact that they have it to begin with is arbitrary. Paul was born into his citizenship, and it afforded him advantages because of Rome’s imperial power. Rome accrued this power through conquest, often bloody and brutal. Paul and Silas then leverage this arbitrarily valuable citizenship on behalf of those who, for no fault of their own, do not have this same citizenship.
Returning to my reflection on the sheer absurdity of God’s goodness, we can start to see the full effect of the contrast, in that the Son had every right to his status. He is God. The advantages of his divinity were rightfully his since divinity entails advantages (all powerful, all knowing, all present, etc.). And yet, Jesus does not consider his equality with God something to be leveraged to his own advantage, but instead, takes on the form of a slave. He does not wield his rightful advantages to protect or exalt himself and, even more, he allows sinful human beings to kill him through crucifixion. A Roman citizen could not be crucified since this was a slave’s death. The absurdity is this: Jesus leverages his own status for our sakes, but it is because of our own sinfulness that we need redemption in the first place!”
In light of that absurd goodness, we are now called to imitate that absurdity. Think about it, if Jesus leveraged his advantages (which he had every right to) on behalf of a humanity that actively rebelled against him, how much more so should we leverage our arbitrarily allocated advantages for the sake of others who are disadvantaged? In other words, Jesus did not leverage his advantages as God, but died for our sins even though we did not deserve it. How much more so should we leverage our advantages, whether we think have a right to them or not, for those who have been disadvantaged, whether they have earned it or not? Thus, the story of Easter is about the sheer absurdity of God’s goodness while also being an invitation for us to enter into this absurdity: “Have this mind which is yours in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5), as we are meant to consider others over ourselves (Phil 2:3-4). Is this the mark of our Easter life? Are we willing to leverage our advantages (rightful or arbitrary) for the sake of others?
This can remain in the realm of abstraction, but even in my short time in Aotearoa, I see opportunities for this kind of leveraging all around me, especially as a Pākehā person. One example would be learning Te Reo. I have the advantage of 1) speaking and writing in English and 2) English being the dominant language here, even though it was not the first language of the tangata whenua. In fact, through colonisation English became dominant, such that Te Reo was disparaged and its use discouraged and even physically punished. Yet, if I am to consider my Māori brothers and sisters as more significant than myself (Phil 2:3), wouldn’t it follow that I would learn the language that is the doorway into their culture? Wouldn’t I seek to honour and preserve what has been disadvantaged and actively dismantled to the point of near extinction?
Another example might be learning more about the history of colonization in Aotearoa, including the church’s entanglement in both its past and present. For some readers, that will include looking at our own family’s involvement in this process. That is no easy task, but the sheer absurdity of God’s goodness compels this sort of introspection, at the very least.
I don’t know what advantages you have, but it’s unlikely that you have none. Ask the Spirit to reveal to you what those are and how you might leverage them for the sake of others. What a sublime absurdity that the God of the universe did this on our behalf through the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and ongoing ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ. May we seek to imitate him in that absurd love for others.
 Hellerman, Joseph. “Vindicating God’s Servants in Philippi,” Bulletin for Biblical Research, 20 1(2010), 90.
*Adapted from Hellerman, Joseph. “Vindicating God’s Servants in Philippi,” Bulletin for Biblical Research, 20 1(2010), 85-102.
Thank you for this thoughtful text as I ask the precious Spirit to reveal how I might use my incredible advantage for the sake of the Kingdom. Your words continue to motivate me.