Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. 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 2:3-11 (AV).
Once upon a time I set out to publish a series of biblical meditations on public theology. I hadn’t gotten past that first post. Until today.
Since I’m posting this on the day of a major national election in my home country, I should say two things right at the top of this post. One is a reassurance, and one is an exhortation. First, the reassurance: I have not chosen a national election day to publish a bit of special pleading about why you should vote for a particular candidate, or the candidates of a particular party. If you fear that, read on without fear. Second, the exhortation: If you are registered to vote, and you haven’t yet voted, go vote. Christians are charged always to pray for civil authorities so that, as St Paul says, “we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (1 Tim 2:2). Today, in addition to praying thus for those in civil authority, we get to love our neighbors by voting for those candidates who, in our best judgment, would best allow everyone to lead quiet and peaceable lives, in godliness and honesty.
With that as prologue, I move on to the political implications of the passage above. St Paul wrote the words to the church at Philippi some nineteen and a half centuries ago, but they’re every bit as timely today as they were then.
Paul exhorts his readers to humility, to esteem others as more important than themselves, and to mind the needs of their neighbors before their own needs. Paul does this, not by twisting their arms or appealing to their sense of guilt, but by pointing to the Lord Jesus. In so doing, he makes two startling political declarations. Taking these in reverse order:
- Paul proclaims, in the strongest possible terms, the absolute Lordship of Jesus over every created being (vv. 10-11); and
- Paul sets forth the means by which the man Jesus of Nazareth attained that Lordship — by emptying Himself of His divine prerogatives at His incarnation, and then by humbling Himself to submit to death on a cross (vv. 6-8).
I. King Jesus, rightful heir of a royal, global theocracy
If you read the Old Testament, you’ll see that Moses, the Psalms, and the prophets repeatedly emphasize a few basic characteristics to mark the God who had covenanted with them as utterly unique and absolutely supreme. Most importantly, He created all things; and, nearly as important, He is sovereign over all things. He may have covenanted with a tribe, but He was never a tribal deity.
So of the lordship of Israel’s God over all the world, the prophet Isaiah records:
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.
The passage is one of the most triumphal declarations of the kingship of God over the world and all its creatures, and one of the clearest declarations of high monotheism in a very high monotheistic book. So it is remarkable that St Paul chooses this passage to describe the kingship of Jesus. Jesus, says Paul, bears the authority of God; He is the word that goes out of the mouth of God in righteousness; His name is the divine name that every tongue shall confess, and at which every knee will bend. Jesus is not only a King, He is a divine King; and His divinity is of the same order as that of the God who created the world and covenanted with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And, since there is only one God, Jesus is the human embodiment, the incarnation, of the one God, and holds all the power and authority that that identity implies. The government will be on His shoulder, and of the increase of His theocracy and of peace there shall be no end.
II. The character of the theos in the theocracy
You may have noticed that I just used a word, theocracy, that makes a lot of people nervous. Concentrated authority — especially in a divine being — conjures images of abuses. I use theocracy anyway, to raise an important question: are those worrisome images of abuses justified? The answer to that question depends crucially on the nature and character of the theos in the theocracy.
In the Christian theocracy, the Lord Jesus comes into His kingdom by way of the mystery of His holy Incarnation, His agony and bloody sweat, His Cross and Passion, His precious Death and burial (1). In short, though prior to His Incarnation He existed “in the form of God,” He did not, as He could have done, simply lord it over His people. Rather, He emptied Himself for them, became their servant, and died for them. And St Paul says (v. 9) that it was precisely for that reason that He was made King. The Gentile kings lord it over their subjects, either because they have no god above them, or because their idols do the same. In Jesus, we see that God is not too proud to accept a thorny crown, or the indignity of being exalted by way of a Roman cross.
III. So what?
Having followed St Paul’s hymn to Christ from end to beginning, I now conclude where St Paul started: on the question of application. If it is true (and it is) that in the present age God rules the world by means of delegated authorities — ecclesiastical and civil — how ought those authorities exercise the authority they’re given?
Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.
After following Paul’s train of thought to its end and then back to its beginning, we see that this is not mainly an exhortation to servants and subjects to obey masters. It is an exhortation to those in authority — who ought already to have received their authority in this way — now to exercise authority in this way, and not in the usual way.
By now our nation is well on the way to deciding who is going to bear the sundry measures of authority that God delegates, respectively, to our various civil authorities. However those who questions are decided (and this is no denial that those questions have importance), we are to keep calm and carry on in humility, esteeming our neighbors more important than ourselves, looking out for them in love. For a crown of thorns sits at the top of the “keep calm and carry on” banner of King Jesus.
(1) Adapted from the Litany. See the Book of Common Prayer 55 (1928). The Litany here follows Philippians 2:6-8 quite closely.
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