14 September 2013Philippians 2:5-11
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (v. 5)
In a very significant way, today's passage may answer some of the challenges we have considered this week. It presents an image of Jesus that stands in stark contrast to that of his namesake, Joshua, and which may not have been quite what John the Baptist was expecting either. But it certainly stands alongside the costly 'terms and conditions' of following Jesus, with the abandonment of all self-interest. Paul clearly understands Jesus and the implications of being his disciple.
This much-loved passage, the inspiration for many popular Christian hymns and songs, is often used as proof that Paul believed in the divinity of Jesus. At first sight this might seem quite obvious. However, we need to ask where this 'Christ-hymn' came from. It is probably the best example we have of very early Christian poetry, and Paul may well have been quoting something he had previously learned. But its origins may lie elsewhere - in the developing cult of Roman emperor worship.
The idea that Roman emperors were divine began during the first century, and a new religion was developing. At first emperors encouraged the belief that they joined the gods when they died, then later that they became divine when crowned as emperor, and finally that they were born divine. Interestingly we can trace exactly the same developing belief with regards to the divinity of Jesus. What is also interesting is that the title 'Lord' was adopted as the exclusive title of the emperor. And there is also evidence that emperors would sometimes dress as slaves, or as gladiators, as part of some elaborate role play.
All this suggests the possibility that the 'Christ-hymn' began life as part of the imperial cult, and was subversively adapted by Christians as a direct challenge to the emperor - Jesus Christ is Lord, not emperor Nero. And this title is only given to him following his death and resurrection (exaltation in verse 9). So the hymn does not explicitly identify Jesus with 'God', or suggest that he becomes 'God' - 'God' and 'Lord' are not equivalent here. Such ideas come later in the development of Christian teaching, and tend to obscure Paul's stark challenge: "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus".
- A faith based on a 'self-emptying' following of the example of Jesus may not seem very appealing. Do you think this is how Christianity is usually understood today?
- For most Christians, the belief that 'Jesus is God' is the central doctrine. Would it matter if this belief was not shared by Paul? Why? Or why not?
- This 'Christ-hymn' was a direct and subversive challenge to the imperial 'Lordship' of Paul's time. Which claims to 'Lordship' should Christians subvert and challenge today?
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