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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
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HomeFaith & FamilyAt the name of Jesus, every knee should bow

At the name of Jesus, every knee should bow

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THE Prayer Book Epistle reading for today, the Sunday before Easter, is one of the most evocative descriptions of the saving work of Jesus Christ in the New Testament.

This ‘Hymn to Christ’, probably a creed or canticle already in use in the early Church, comes in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi. That city in Macedonia, colonised by the Romans after Octavian’s victory over Antony and Cleopatra in the battle of Actium in 31 BC, was the first one on the European mainland in which Paul preached the gospel during his second missionary journey in around AD 49, as described in Acts chapter 16.

His gem of a letter to the Philippian church, written some time later from prison in an unknown place, is more than worth reading in full and its four chapters would take less than half an hour. 

Paul exhorted the church to follow Christ’s example of self-sacrificial service by being united in the cause of the gospel:

‘Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (Philippians 2v5-11 – King James Version).

There is no clearer repudiation of the worship of the self than Christ’s example in his Incarnation. The bishop and scholar J B Lightfoot in his 1894 commentary on Philippians wrote: ‘Though existing before the worlds in the Eternal Godhead, yet He did not cling with avidity to the prerogatives of His divine Majesty, did not ambitiously display his equality with God; but divested Himself of the glories of heaven, and took upon Him the nature of a servant, assuming the likeness of men.’

The Hymn to Christ celebrates the culmination of Christ’s Incarnation, his death on the cross through which he saved sinful mankind in obedience of the loving will of God. 

Christ suffered a form of punishment that the authorities did not impose on Roman citizens. Ralph Martin, in his 1959 commentary (Tyndale Press), observed that Christ’s death by crucifixion ‘would have special meaning for the Christian readers who were resident in a Roman city where revulsion against this form of capital punishment would be very strong’.  Martin quoted Cicero: ‘Far be the very name of a cross, not only from the body, but even from the thought, the eyes, the ears of Roman citizens.’

Yet Christ willingly embraced the ‘death of the cross’ in order to bring the forgiveness of sins to all who put their trust in him and thus reconcile them to God. Christ certainly served us as sinful men and women, but he served us by saving us, a work that only he could do as the divine Son of the one true God.

That Paul believed in the divinity of Jesus Christ is clear from his allusion to a declaration by the Lord God Almighty in the Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah: ‘Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else. I have sworn by myself, the word is gone out of my mouth in righteousness, and shall not return, That unto me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear’ (Isaiah 45v22-23).

Now that God has exalted the crucified, risen and ascended Jesus Christ to the highest place in the universe, Paul affirmed that ‘at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth’. Every tongue in the universe also ‘should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’. It would be blasphemy to give such honour to Jesus Christ if he were not divine.

The Collect for today clearly resonates with Paul’s teaching about Christ’s divine humility: ‘Almighty and eternal God, who, of thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ, to take upon him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the cross, that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant, that we may both follow the example of his patience, and also be made partakers of his resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.’

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Julian Mann
Julian Mann
Julian Mann is a former Church of England vicar, now an evangelical journalist based in Heysham, Lancashire.

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