Philippians 2:9–11, “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so 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.”
People are innately, instinctively, incurably purpose-driven. We do what we do for a reason. We are drawn toward certain options and away from others because we expect that our choices and our actions will produce outcomes that we want. For some, the target that spurs them to action may be modest. Those just getting by at subsistence level struggle day by day just to find some food and a little shelter from the elements. Others strive after dreams that fly higher: education, marriage, and family, interesting employment that supplies more than life’s bare necessities, a vocation that serves others and betters society. Our reasons may sometimes be unfounded, our purposes thwarted, and our hopes disappointed. Nonetheless, though our objectives sometimes elude us, most of us remain undeterred from setting goals, large and small, and undaunted from pursuing those goals. Ironically, even intellectuals who embrace a naturalistic worldview that repudiates the very idea that purposeful intentionality orders the cosmos cannot help but live their lives as purposeful persons—setting goals, laying strategies to achieve their aims, and investing effort to implement their plans. What is the source of this purposefulness that seems built into our personhood?
From its opening pages the Bible shows us a personal God who brings a universe into existence out of nothing by the power of his Word, who sets its contents all in order, and who pronounces the product of his creativity “good” and “very good”—meeting his criteria for approval, fitting his purpose and design. And this Creator designed one particular creature to bear his image and likeness—a creaturely replica of his personality and purposefulness and a creaturely representative of his authority over his handiwork. We are purpose-driven people because we are made in the image of our purposing Creator. Of course, God’s Word soon shows us how quickly our own purposing—the aims and objectives that motivate our choices—became deflected and disoriented from the Creator’s purposes for us, purposes that would have made our own plans and efforts flourish under his good pleasure. Still, our goal-setting and striving—even when reach exceeds our grasp—bear a quiet testimony that is hard to deny: we bear the image of a personal Creator who has and pursues and accomplishes his purposes.
What is the Creator’s purpose for his cosmos? Worship! God’s chief end is his own worship—the display of his unique magnificence to evoke the adoration of all his creatures, especially human beings, whom he designed to bear his image and enjoy his friendship. The last book of the Bible, the Revelation granted to John, shows us scene after scene, containing song after song, in which joyful worship is offered to God seated on the throne and to the Lamb, who has rescued people from all nations and transformed them into an entourage of priests who eagerly serve in the presence of their Creator.
Yet we live and we worship at cross-purposes with the Creator’s cosmic purpose. In his epistle to the Romans, Paul traced the source of human wickedness to our exchange of God’s truth for “a lie,” as we worship the creation instead of its Creator (Rom. 1:25). We look in all the wrong places for the contentment we crave, the unbreakable love for which we long. We direct our affection and devotion to objects that do not deserve our wholehearted allegiance and adoration. We rest the full weight of our hopes and our hearts on fragile relationships and fleeting resources that will, sooner or later, collapse under such pressure, bringing us down in the process.
Perhaps the most tragic scene in the Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire shows the great sprinter Harold Abrahams in the aftermath of his victory at the 1924 Olympics. He places his gold medal on his Jewish prayer shawl, latches his suitcase, and glumly slips away from his British teammates’ locker-room celebration. When one calls him to join their joy, a more experienced competitor hushes him:
“Let him be. He’s whacked.”
“But he won!”
“Exactly. One of these days, you’re going to win yourself. Then you will know it’s pretty difficult to swallow.”
The scene shifts to a close-up of Abrahams’ grim face as he and his coach, Sam Mussabini, “celebrate” their triumph late that night by getting drunk in a Parisian bar. His race won and his goal achieved, Abrahams had proved himself and chastened the anti-Semitic prejudice of England’s academic and athletic elites. Yet the viewer sees in the victor no jubilation but only a bleak numbness, perhaps from blending post competition depression with too much wine. Having grasped the object of his worship, he found his achievement small and unsatisfying. What purpose could give his life meaning tomorrow? Whatever god or goal we choose to define ourselves, our hopes and our happiness, the heartbreaking disappointment of misdirected worship always ensues.
Christ’s redemptive mission as the Lamb was to reconquer, reclaim, and re-create us to be worshipers of the living God, who alone deserves worship. That gripping true story has been the theme of the song of the King who stooped to conquer (Phil. 2:6–11). In the first two “stanzas” of the hymn, we heard of the divine and glorious height from which this King descended (2:6) and the depth of his humility in his incarnation, suffering as a servant, and death on the cursed cross (2:7–8). Now in the third stanza, our hearts and minds are directed upward to the purpose and result of Christ’s self-humbling and sacrificial suffering, in his exaltation by God his Father above all creation, to receive adoring worship from every creature everywhere. We glimpse God’s purpose in creation and in redemption, reaching its divinely designed destination: his own worship by his creatures.
The King’s Ascent to Wield Universal Authority
Philippians 2:9 marks the dramatic turning point in the hymn, where Christ’s downward plunge is reversed by the Father’s upward pull. Paul seizes on a striking verb that appears nowhere else in the New Testament. The ESV’s “highly exalted” captures his meaning acceptably; but the components of this compound verb—the preposition “above” (hyper) prefixed to the root “exalt” (hypsoō)—may foreshadow the contrast between Christ’s exalted status and all the creatures who are subordinate to him “in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” Such a contrast is explicit when this verb appears in the Greek (Septuagint) translation of Psalm 97:9, “you are exalted [hyperypsoō] far above [hyper] all gods.” Likewise, here Paul explains the verb “exalted above” [hyperypsoō] by mentioning “the name that is above [hyper] every name,” which God conferred on Jesus. Christ’s ascent from the depths of despicable death has carried his whole person—including the humanity in which he served and suffered—to a point higher than the highest of all his creatures. As the victorious Redeemer of God’s guilty but beloved people, he emerged from the grave the third day, entered heaven forty days later, and soon thereafter celebrated his enthronement by pouring out his Holy Spirit in power on his people. He has carried our humanity, now bursting with new creation life, up from the grave, into the heavens, to take his seat at the Father’s right hand.
To the glory that has always been Christ’s as the eternal God and Creator of the universe, a new and unprecedented splendor has been added: through his descent, he has rescued his enemies and turned us into beloved children of his Father! Christ’s request of his Father en route to the cross has been magnificently answered: “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:4–5). And his ascent is not merely a return to the preincarnation status quo. Now, because of his obedient suffering, an enlarged audience adores the glory of God’s grace: “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (17:24).
When God highly exalted his obedient Son in reward for his suffering, he “bestowed on him the name that is above every name.” Initially, we might think that this is the personal name, Jesus since Paul goes on to say that every knee will bow “at the name of Jesus.” It is better, however, to understand the “name that is above every name” not as a personal name but as an official title—the title Lord that was conferred on Jesus at the time of his resurrection, signifying his supremacy over all as the glorified God-man. After all, the personal name Jesus was given to the Son at his birth, in anticipation of his mission to save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). It was through his resurrection and ascension that God made Jesus “both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36; see Rom. 10:9). After his resurrection, Jesus declared his universal authority as Lord: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18; see Dan. 7:14). Paul’s affirmation that the Son’s “name” ranks above all others shows that he is referring to Christ’s supremacy over all the powers in the universe. In Ephesians 1:20–21 Paul makes explicit this titular supremacy of the “name” bestowed on Jesus: God “raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.” The superior name granted to Christ in his exaltation is the title, Lord, as the hymn’s climax shows: “every tongue [will] confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
As Lord, Jesus Christ is the Supreme Emperor of the entire universe, infinitely above the puny Caesars who had the presumption to claim the title lord, though they ruled an empire that, in global and historical perspective, proved small and short-lived. As Lord, the exalted Son outranks the superhuman spiritual forces, gods and demons benign and malevolent, that vied for worshipers’ fear and allegiance in cosmopolitan colonies such as Philippi, where local Macedonian and Greek polytheism absorbed the influences of Asian East and Roman West.
Rome’s imperial dominance long ago succumbed to brutal invaders who showed no deference for the Caesars’ glory and the empire’s administrative, military, and cultural achievements. On the other hand, the living Lord whom Paul served is still extending his reign to the ends of the earth through the gospel of his grace and the power of his Spirit. Macedonia’s homegrown deities, as well as those imported from Achaia (Greece) to the south, from Asia to the east, and from Rome to the west, remain subjects for scholarly research but no longer compete for worshipers’ allegiance. Jesus, however, continues to lay claim to the hearts and minds of the peoples that cover the globe, and he does so through a strategy that seems surprisingly fragile. This Lord conquers nations not through force of arms but through the message of his cross, the instrument of his execution and symbol of shameful weakness, carried outward to the nations through his heralds’ words and inward into human hearts through his Holy Spirit.
When the Father exalted Jesus his Son, raising him from the dead and installing him as Lord of all at his right hand in heaven, the whole course of history turned a corner, from decay and death toward healing and everlasting life. So how should you respond to Christ’s coronation and enthronement? You may have been feverishly slaving to win the “blessing” of other “lords”—financial security, others’ approval, romantic love, academic achievement, pleasures of various kinds. If that is true of you, the fact that the Servant who once suffered now wields all authority “in heaven and on earth and under the earth” is your wake-up call. No other lord can deliver on its promises; no other lord deserves your unquestioning allegiance. Only Jesus does. His resurrection from the dead turned human history and cosmic history in a new direction, which is leading to the day when every knee will humbly bow and every tongue expresses devotion to this living Lord. He already bears the name above every name, the title that transcends all titles. This reality demands that you submit to his dominion today.
The King’s Ascent to Receive Universal Worship
The result of the Son’s exaltation is “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow … and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil. 2:10–11). This is precisely what Saul was compelled to do when he was confronted by the overpowering glory of Jesus on the Damascus road: he fell on his face and called Jesus “Lord” (Acts 9:4–5).
Saul was dashed to the ground by a blinding light from heaven and could find no other word but Lord to address the august Speaker who confronted him. His awestruck behavior was understandable, in view of the intensity of his experience that day. But Paul’s epistles show that such expressions of awe and adoration typically characterized the worship services of the early church. The gathered church confessed Jesus as Lord (Rom. 10:9; 1 Cor. 12:3). The conscience-piercing truth of God’s Word and the heart-searching presence of God’s Spirit in the assembled congregations proved undeniable and irresistible even to unbelieving visitors: “the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you” (1 Cor. 14:25). A psalmist summoned ancient Israel to worship: “Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!” (Ps. 95:6). Peter and Paul knelt in prayer, and Paul’s prayer was in the midst of the church at worship (Acts 9:40; 20:36). Bent knees and confessing tongues expressed a profound sense of the presence of the living God in the homes and halls where Jesus’ followers gathered for worship.
Is the worship of our churches today—the worship of your church—focused on Christ’s mercy and his majesty so that hearts are bowed in humble adoration and lifted in hope, so that knees bend in humble wonder and tongues joyfully confess that “Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:11)? Of course, physical postures—sitting, standing, kneeling, lying prostrate—may be merely “scripted,” either by liturgical tradition or by unspoken expectations about how spontaneous spiritual experience is to be expressed. What we do with our bodies is not an infallible indicator of the state of our hearts. Jesus observed, quoting Isaiah’s prophecy: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me” (Matt. 15:8). On the other hand, our knees and our tongues are not disconnected from our hearts. Jesus also said, “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (12:34; see 15:18–19). The posture and pronouncement of the earliest Christians challenge you to ask yourself, “As I come to worship, am I alert to the awesome holiness of God among his people? Does his powerful presence, which bent their knees in prayer and set their tongues to praise, grip my heart, too? If so, how can I, how must I, express my wonder with my whole being?”
In our passage, Paul looks forward to a global—rather, universewide—celebration, of which the church’s weekly worship is a foretaste. The scene that Paul portrays—the consummation that is sure to come—far outstrips the splendor of the grand finale of any blockbuster cinematic epic. Only the most jaded viewers can keep their pulses from racing and their eyes from moistening at the end of Star Wars Episode IV, as Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and Chewbacca enter the great hall of the Rebel Alliance, to be rewarded by Princess Leia and applauded by crowds for destroying the empire’s Death Star. Simpler in ceremony but no less majestic and moving is the climax of Peter Jackson’s film trilogy based on J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings epic, when, at the end of The Return of the King, the peaceable peoples of Middle-earth gather under open skies to extol King Aragorn and his hobbit friends for destroying the evil Ring of Power. If you can picture such scenes, then realize that the best that filmmakers can muster with special effects and thousands of “extras” cannot begin to do justice to the splendor of the scene that Paul is portraying. What a jubilant festal assembly that will be, when every creature “in heaven and on earth and under the earth” will bow the knee and acknowledge the utter supremacy of Jesus as Lord of all!
We concluded earlier that the “name” now conferred on the Son is not his personal name Jesus but the title Lord, signifying his investiture with absolute dominion over the entire universe as he has taken his seat at God’s right hand. And yet Paul also wants us to understand that the name Lord is not only a title of office. It is also an indication of identity. Paul was well aware that the biblical scholars who had translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek (the Septuagint) had used the Greek term Lord (kyrios) to represent the distinctive name, Yahweh, by which Israel’s covenant God identified himself to his people. Jews and Gentile converts who frequented the Greek-speaking synagogues of the Dispersion were bound to associate the Greek term kyrios with the personal name of God, the Creator of the universe and Redeemer of his people Israel.
English speakers today do the same when we read “the Lord” in our Bibles (the small caps are our translators’ signal that the Hebrew original reads Yahweh). Even Gentile believers in cities that had no synagogue, such as Philippi, were quickly introduced to the Old Testament Scriptures in Greek translation. (This is why, even when the apostles wrote to congregations with thoroughly pagan pasts, they peppered their epistles with references to the Old Testament.) Even the Gentile Christians at Philippi could be expected to recognize that sometimes kyrios, “Lord,” was nothing less than a name of God himself. That is how they should understand the name here, as Paul’s allusion to an Old Testament passage makes clear.
Paul drew the language about every knee bowing and every tongue confessing from Isaiah 45, where we hear the Lord, the God of Israel, declaring: “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me, every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance’” (Isa. 45:22–23). In this section of Isaiah, the Lord challenges the pagan idols to do something or say something to back up their claims to be gods. He confidently announces that he alone stands at the beginning and the end of history (41:4; see 48:12–13). He alone can announce the future and bring it about (41:21–24). He is Yahweh, the Lord, the only living God. There is no other (43:10–11)! Therefore, he alone is worthy to receive universal worship (every knee bowed) and a universal confession of absolute allegiance.
Several years earlier, Paul had quoted this very text from Isaiah in his epistle to the Romans, substantiating the sobering truth that everyone will stand before God’s judgment seat and give an account to our Creator: “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God” (Rom. 14:10–12). Now Paul takes up the words in which the Lord God asserted his supremacy and uniqueness, words that the apostle himself had applied to God’s authority as Judge of all. And Paul applies those words directly to Jesus! It is hard to think of a section of Scripture that argues more forcefully and explicitly than Isaiah 40 through 48 that Yahweh, the Lord, is the one and only eternal and living God; that he alone is the source of salvation for his people; and that he alone is worthy of every creature’s complete loyalty and adoration. The fact that the apostle applies such an unmistakably monotheistic text from Isaiah’s prophecy to Jesus, who became human and died on the cross, shows who he considers Jesus to be: Creator of the universe and covenant Lord of Israel, equal with the Father.
So when visitors from the Watchtower Society (Jehovah’s Witnesses) come to your door and insist that it is blasphemy for you to worship Jesus as though he were Jehovah God, you can calmly—but compassionately!—take them to Isaiah 45, and then to Philippians 2:10–11: The Lord who in Isaiah insists that he alone is God, the God to whom every knee will bow and every tongue confess, is Jesus, who stooped to die the cursed death of the cross. This Jesus is the only One to whom the ends of the earth must turn, in order to receive salvation! Peter confessed the same truth to Israel’s leaders: “This Jesus … has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:11–12). Gently invite your Watchtower visitor to turn with you to Jesus the Lord in humble trust and deep submission, and be saved.
As you invite your visitor (and others as well) to appreciate the divine majesty of Jesus, you yourself need to remember that both submission and trust are included in confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord. You may have noticed that our English version of Isaiah 45:23 reads, “To me … every tongue shall swear allegiance.” That is an accurate reflection of Isaiah’s Hebrew. The Hebrew verb shaba‘, which stands behind the ESV’s “swear allegiance,” typically refers to the taking of an oath and the resultant demand of loyalty (for example, see Gen. 21:23–24, 31; 1 Sam. 24:21; 2 Chron. 36:13). In the Greek Septuagint, this term was rendered exomologeō, a term apparently flexible enough to encompass both swearing an oath of loyalty (as in Rom. 14:11) and declaring a solemn conviction (as in Phil. 2:11). In our text, the content of the conviction confessed—that “Jesus Christ is Lord”—implies an exclusive and ready commitment to this Lord. Both the bent knees and the confessing tongues of all creatures will one day express their universal allegiance to Jesus the King.
You realize I trust, what this means for you today: If you confess “Jesus Christ is Lord” as his follower and a member of his church, that announcement must be far more than a theological thesis that you affirm and defend. To say that simple but profound sentence is to renounce your independence and submit to the will and word of this Lord, “who is God over all, blessed forever” (Rom. 9:5). It is to bend the knee of your heart, to embrace his agenda for your life and his priorities over your preferences. It is to say and really mean, “To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).
Delight in His Glory
The glorious finale of the Song of the Condescending King brings us to the brink of eternity. We look ahead to a future day in which the reality that already defines world history—that God has exalted Jesus the eternal Son and Suffering Servant to the highest place—which remains partially hidden for the present, will be displayed for all to see. Christ’s vindication through his resurrection, ascension, and enthronement as Lord at the Father’s right hand has reversed the humiliation and suffering that he voluntarily embraced in his incarnation and redemptive mission, his obedience to the Father’s purpose, even though it led to the death of the cross. Because Jesus the Son gave all, the Father was pleased to give him the name above every name. Not only has Christ been the Father’s eternal equal from the standpoint of his divine nature, but now as the incarnate Son, still sharing our humanity and now abundantly alive from the dead forevermore, he bears the divine name Lord. His descent into suffering and ascent to glory have blazed the path for those who trust him, whose spiritual well-being he served in preference to his own interests. To know that he now reigns over all and one day will certainly be acclaimed as Lord by all gives you a reason for hope in your current troubles, but it also provides even more than the prospect of relief from pain and shame.
As you hear of God’s pleasure in exalting his Son and of the Son’s delight in fulfilling the Father’s plan and advancing the Father’s glory, you can glimpse your own destiny from a distance. You who trust Jesus can anticipate the day when your love for each other has displaced your inborn self-interest, and the heartfelt unity of affection seen in Christ’s church shows the world a reflection of the infinite love among the persons of the triune God. Surely such hope gives you the strongest of reasons to replace competition and conceit with compassionate service to others this very day.