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The Art of Biblical Theology: Intertextuality

Biblical Theology is really an art. Like other skills of this sort, it is not a matter of following rules (though there are certainly guidelines and techniques). Rather, it’s matter of “practice makes perfect.” Peter Enns describes it well in a thought-provoking question: “What if biblical interpretation is not guided so much by method but by an intuitive, Spirit-led engagement of Scripture with the anchor being not what the author intended but by how Christ gives the OT its final coherence?” The coming of Christ led the apostles to practice new patterns of exegesis, centered on their conviction that the eschatological age had been inaugurated. It is foolish to think we can get our doctrine from the apostles without also employing their hermeneutic.

As we’ve seen Biblical Theology reads the Bible as a unified narrative. One aspect of Biblical Theology, then, is looking at how texts within the Scriptures interface with one another. The technical name for this is “intertextuality.” Understanding how intertextuality works gives the biblical theologian an important hermeneutical tool. Here, we are looking for more than conceptual and doctrinal coherence in the Scriptures; we are actually looking for fragments of earlier texts buried in later ones.

Intertextuality uses Scripture to interpret Scripture by listening for quotations, echoes, and allusions to other inter-canonical texts. It is a form of inner-biblical exegesis. Intertextuality includes explicit quotations (e.g., quotations of the OT in the NT), as well as more subtle uses of texts.

All of us are familiar with intertextuality in a general kind of way. For example, snippets from the Bible appear in Shakespeare, and snippets of Shakespeare appear in later texts. (Think of the guy who said he couldn’t enjoy Shakespeare because it was filled with too many clichés!) Intertextuality is an everyday phenomenon. But we often underestimate its interpretive value.

Intertextuality presupposes a “cultural canon” of sorts. It presupposes that the community is familiar with the relevant texts, and will detect the echoes and allusions. In other words, intertextuality requires a literary tradition.

In dealing with biblical intertextuality, there are several problems. Obviously one is translational. An echo or allusion may be obscured by inconsistent translations. For example, the NT writers often use the LXX (the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew OT predating the NT), which can be quite different from the Masoretic text on which our English OT is based. Another problem is that we simply don’t know the biblical texts very well.

Intertextual connections come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes, a single word or phrase is allusive. In other cases, an entire stretch of text is patterned after some previous text. The apostles, of course, are never using OT texts out of context, so their use of the OT is instructive for us. But their uses of the OT not only unfold the meaning of the original text; they transform that meaning in light of New Covenant realities. The old texts must now be read in a new context.

We must keep in mind that allusions to the OT in the NT are not merely isolated prooftexts. Rather, when an OT text is invoked, it drags with it its entire setting in its original usage. Thus, identifying intertextual fragments not only enriches our understanding of the later text; it also allows us to reread the old text in a new light. The old text has shaped the formation of the new, even as the new reshapes the interpretation of the old.

How do we know when we have a solid example of intertextuality? How much does authorial intent play into intertextuality? For answers to these sorts of questions, see Richard Hays’ now classic study of intertextuality in Paul’s epistles, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, especially 29ff. Hays gives seven tests:

  1. Availability
  2. Volume
  3. Recurrence
  4. Thematic coherence
  5. Historical plausibility
  6. History of interpretation
  7. Satisfaction

No test can remove the element of subjectivity, of course, nor should that be our aim. But Hays’ guidelines do help us ensure that the echoes we hear are actually in the text and not just in our imagination.

Intertextuality is simply a rigorous application of the familiar principle, “Scripture interprets Scripture.” Luther had a good understanding of how pervasively intertextual the Bible is: “There is no word in the NT which does not look back to the old wherein it was already declared.” Everything in the NT has an OT background to it. Once more, the NT is like a giant echo chamber, reverberating with the voices of the Old Covenant. Seeing these connections stabilizes and deepens our reading of the Bible.

Our two test cases will give us a feel for how intertextuality works in practice.

Taking it to the Text: Two Test Cases

With all that in view, we will take up two passages as test cases to see just what “biblical-theological” exegesis looks like when we actually go to deal with Scripture itself. These test cases will help us get a feel for just what we’re trying to do. Remember that Biblical Theology itself flows out a narratival, eschatological reading of Scripture. It is oriented towards “story” more then “system.”

I have chosen two Pauline texts, in large part because many Reformed pastors have viewed Paul as a systematic theologian. While I do not doubt that Paul had a systematic theology (more or less), I do not think it is found in abstract form in any of his epistles (even Romans). In fact, Paul is more of a story theologian, rooting his theological convictions and arguments in several foundational narratives, and a pastoral theologian, applying the biblical story to the particularities of church life and community. We dare not ignore the stories Paul invokes if we desire to understand him and emulate him.

Of course, we can only scratch the surface with these two texts, but by looking at their biblical theological frameworks, their intertextual connections, their overarching thematic concerns, their redemptive-historical backgrounds, their canonical contexts, and so forth, we can get a window into the world of biblical theology. Note that we are focused primarily on biblical-theological concerns and not other, equally important, aspects of the texts (e.g., literary structure, grammatical details, etc.). Biblical-theology is one aspect of the broad, multi-faceted task of hermeneutics. A full interpretation of a biblical text will incorporate biblical-theological concerns, as well as other features of the text.

Test Case #1: Romans 1:1-5

In these verses, Paul encapsulates his whole gospel and mission. Of course, it helps us to understand Paul’s calling if we understand something of his heritage. We must put the opening verses of Romans in their redemptive-historical context. Paul was called to an apostolic Gentile mission. But what was he called from? He was a Pharisee before he was an Apostle. As a Pharisee, he believed the Creator God had elected and covenanted with Israel. Through Israel, Adam’s fall would be undone and the world would be set right again. Of course, the Pharisees knew that Israel had not always been faithful to her call and so she had been exiled. In some sense, second temple Jews in the first century were still living in exile, expecting God’s promised restoration. Just how that restoration would take place was a matter of debate, even among the Pharisees themselves (not to mention the wider circle of Judaism), but all Jews were united in having a strong eschatological orientation and expectation. In a word, what they expected was a new exodus.

As we know from Acts, when Paul (“Saul” at the time, actually) finally discovered how God had brought about the new exodus, he was shocked. The risen Christ met him on the road to Damascus, revealing that Israel’s promised climatic moment had come in the death and resurrection of Jesus. To his horror, Paul found out that all his zeal had been misdirected. He had been complicit in the persecution and murder of the people of the promised Messiah!

Paul was given a unique mission: Since Jesus’ death and resurrection had inaugurated the kingdom, Paul was to become Jesus’ special emissary to the Gentiles. In becoming a Christian, Paul did not throw off his previous hope of Israel’s restoration. Rather, he came to understand that those hopes had been transformed in an entirely unexpected — and yet now strangely logical — way. Ironically, he was now “separated” (1:1) in a new way (“Pharisee” = “separatist”). Instead of being separated for exclusively Jewish purposes, as in Phariseeism, he became “separated” (“Phariseed”) to the gospel of God, which gospel includes all the families of the earth (Gal. 3:8). He was to be a “gospel Pharisee” in the new Israel.

Paul calls himself a “bondservant.” In other words, he had become a “household slave” of God (cf. Ex. 21:5-6). His ear had been circumcised in order to hear God’s word. He was a man “under orders.” As an “apostle,” he was an official spokesman for God. In terms of the OT background, apostleship was connected with a delegate who had the “right of attorney.” In the NT, the term takes on the nuance of having been sent on a mission. To be “apostled” is to be swept up into the Father’s sending of the Son and the Spirit (cf. Jn. 20:21). It is a missional office.

When Paul says that the “gospel of God” was “promised beforehand,” he’s giving us two loaded phrases. “Gospel of God” indicates that the gospel belongs to God, i.e., it is his activity that has put the gospel into effect. The gospel reveals the righteousness of God precisely because it reveals how God has acted to keep the promises made in the ancient oracles (Rom. 1:16-17, connected with 3:21-31).

With the words, “promised beforehand,” Paul introduces this gospel with both feet firmly rooted in the Law and the Prophets (“in the Holy Scriptures”), and indicates that they have now been fulfilled through God’s action in Jesus. The whole book of Romans – and in fact the entire Pauline corpus and the whole of the NT — show that Jesus is the “Yes and Amen” of the promises made in the Old Covenant Scriptures. As a Christian, Paul began to practice a “Christotelic hermeneutic,” viewing Christ as the eschatological goal towards which all of Scripture pointed. (Remember, “Christotelic” is a better category than “Christocentric” because Scripture is not so much a circle with a center as it is a story with a telos/goal.) All of God’s promises “concern[ed] Jesus Christ our Lord.” Paul’s point is that the entire package of OT prophetic material has now been activated, set in motion by the death and resurrection of the Son of God. Those prophecies find definitive fulfillment in him, and are grinding to inexorable fulfillment in the world at large.

This name for the Messiah is also heavily freighted with biblical-theological weight. Note that “Christ” is an official title, not a proper name. It means “anointed (christened) one,” and is used in the OT of both priests and especially kings. Jesus, in other words, is the royal representative of Israel, who embodies the people in himself. Whatever he does, he does for them and even as them. Paul’s doctrine of union with Christ (his “in Christ” language) is rooted in the OT notion of corporate personhood, in which one man acts on behalf of those he represents. The label “Christ” also invokes a David Christology, since David was the greatest known Christ-figure of the old age, and the one who was seen most clearly as a template for the promised king.

The priestly resonances and overtones of “Christ” may be overshadowed by the kingly associations, but they should not be overlooked altogether. As priest, Christ dies for us in order to free us from bondage, and as king he suffers for us in order to make us victorious. As priest, he fulfills and transforms the entire system of worship, sacrifice, and atonement that operated under the old covenant system.

The name “Jesus” is rooted in the OT name “Joshua” and means “Savior” (Mt. 1:21) or “Victor” or “Champion.” Other forms of the root indicate deliverance and triumph. Thus, “Jesus Christ” means, roughly, “Victorious King.”

“Lord” is a title of respect, but has a fluid range, so that it can also be used of deity. “Son” has the same kind of range. Most simply, Israel is God’s “Son.” But in Jesus, the concept of sonship is exploded so that we find he is not only the new Israel, but the eternally begotten one of the Father. “Sonship” has several levels of OT meaning, all of which are fulfilled in Jesus, and then some.

In verse 3, Paul picks up on a major strand of the OT’s broad tapestry of promises – namely, the promise concerning the seed of David, given in 2 Sam 7. We need to note the full background here. David offered to build God a house; through the prophet Nathan, God rejected the offer and in fact reversed it. God promised to build David a house, which in turn would become a house for God. (“House” is used here in a double sense for temple as well as family.) The house that God promised to build for David turns out to be the house that David’s Greater Son, Jesus, builds for God. David’s house and God’s house are now one and the same house: the church! (Paul will deal with the status of the old Israel vis-à-vis the church in Rom. 9-11. For Paul, Israel’s unfaithfulness is a problem precisely because it calls into question God’s own covenant faithfulness. But Paul’s theodicy in those central chapters shows that Israel’s unbelief does not cancel out the overriding covenant loyalty of God. God’s Word has not failed in Israel’s rejection of Jesus; in fact their rejection serves his ultimate purpose of bringing salvation to the world. Paul indicates that Israel’s rejection is only partial and temporary. In terms of biblical theology, Romans can be seen as New Covenant Habbakuk, in which the Lord’s mysterious but trustworthy ways are defended in the face of judgment on Israel. Paul’s use of Hab. 2:4 in the programmatic section of 1:16-17 makes this link all the more evident.)

In verse 4, Paul says that at his resurrection Jesus became the Son of God. The contrast developed between flesh and Spirit in verses 3 and 4 is not a piece of incarnational theology per se, however tempting that interpretation might look. There are incarnational implications here, but it seems much better to view Paul as using his familiar flesh/Spirit dualism. Of course, even that framework is often misunderstood. The contrast between flesh and Spirit is not metaphysical or ontological. The Spirit inhabits and uses physical structures all the time in Scripture (e.g., oil, water, wind, the human voice). Rather it is an eschatological contrast between the old “fleshly” age of types and shadows, and the new age of the Spirit in which all things have come to fulfillment. The “fleshly” man belongs to the old age, the “Spiritual” man belongs to the new. Jesus is the first and prototypical “Spiritual Man.” What the flesh could not accomplish, the Spirit has performed in the Messiah. Jesus entered into the old fallen fleshly order of the first Adam. He was born under the law and under the curse. But through his death and resurrection, he brought in the new creation, the age of the Spirit’s reign through life and righteousness. The resurrection is the hinge on which the door to a whole new world swings open. Jesus has been exalted as the promised Son of God (cf. Ps. 2 and Acts 13). He stepped out of the tomb into a whole new order of existence.

All of this, then, is the driving force behind Paul’s apostolic mission, which he returns to in verse 5. In fact, Romans is ultimately a missionary fund raising letter, so explaining the rationale behind his Gentile mission is of supreme importance. His desire to garner support for a trip to Spain is the real goal in writing (Rom. 15-16). (As the Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul is also sensitive to the pastoral problems created by the mixing of Jew and Gentile into one body. If Jew-Gentile tensions were acute in the church at Rome, as seems to have been the case, Paul is also writing a pastoral letter to smooth things out among the brethren there. But even this is subsumed under the rubric of “Apostle to the Gentiles.”)

In verse 5, Paul explains the scope of his mission: he is out to win the nations to the obedience of faith. Paul knew this was not a fool’s errand. God had promised all along that the blessings of salvation would ultimately spill over into the Gentile world on a grand scale (Gen. 12; numerous texts from the Psalms and prophets). Those promises were clouded by his Pharisaical glasses earlier, but now that he looks at them through the eyes of Christ, they have come into sharp focus.

So, the gospel according to Paul is a cosmic message, embracing the whole sweep of God’s purposes, from creation to recreation. The very word “gospel” (1:1), understood in its canonical and historical contexts, reveals this. In the LXX, “gospel” was used in Isaiah to describe the time of comfort and return from exile for the people of God. It is used for the radical “inbreaking” of God’s reign into human history. But it was also used in a Greco-Roman context to describe a king’s enthronement, victory, marriage, or the birth of an heir. Thus, “gospel” describes a message of fulfillment to Israel and of Christ’s imperial conquest to Rome. Jesus not only inaugurates a new Israel and a new exodus; he is also a new and true Caesar, establishing a kingdom which shows up the Roman Empire to be but a pale parody.

Paul’s entire mission was simply an outworking of the gospel. God had enthroned Jesus as king of the nations and the world must be called to submit to and trust in him. We have been swept up into this mission as well. We must work out the implications of Christ’s enthronement and fulfillment as well. We too are resurrected into new life by the Spirit of holiness (Rom. 6-8) and must live accordingly. We may not be “big A” Apostles, like Paul, but we have been sent as a royal priesthood in union with Christ to win the nations to faith’s obedience.

The phrase, “the obedience of faith” (or “faith’s obedience”) is virtually redundant in terms of OT theology, since the OT tends to equate, or at least blur the line between, faith and obedience. Here, Paul is speaking of obedience that consists in faith, as well as obedience that grows out of and embodies faith. Clearly, the close connection Paul’s phrase makes between faith and obedience has implications for his view of “works of the law” spoken of elsewhere in Romans. “Works of the law” are defective in large part because they are law-(Torah)-oriented and therefore exclusively Jewish and pre-eschatological. The obedience of faith is the form our response to God’s new age grace must take.

This also bears on the Paul-James relationship, so vital to NT studies. To be brief, both Paul and James simultaneously distinguish and connect faith and works. Both insist that works will arise out of justifying faith, that the same faith that lays hold of Christ for forgiveness also lays hold of him for renewal of life. There really is no tension at all between Paul and James, properly understood. James, like Paul believed in sola fide (both appeal to Gen. 15:6), and Paul, like James, believed that final judgment is according to works (cf. Rom. 2:16). We are not justified by our works, but neither will we be justified without them at the last day.

Thus, the “obedience of faith” is ultimately eschatological. Like Paul’s doctrine of justification (cf. Rom. 2:1-16), it ultimately has reference to the future, to the final day. But as with Paul’s doctrine of justification, Paul believes the future has been brought into the present. By faith, we receive the future verdict in the here and now; the question of our status and how we will fare in the great assize is already answered. But likewise, by faith we begin to live the life of the future — resurrection life, we might say — in the present (cf. Rom. 6:1ff; 8:1ff). Thus, the “obedience of faith” is nestled into the broader thicket of issues discussed in the densely packed opening lines of the epistle.

We know that these are the central themes in Romans because they are reiterated at the end of the book (Rom. 15-16) and because they make sense of the whole flow of the argument in the epistle (especially the function of Rom. 9-11). The biblical-theological frameworks and motifs identified here connect Romans with the unfolding contours of the overall biblical narrative and the expectations of biblical eschatology.

Test Case #2: Philippians 2:5-11

This passage is generally regarded as a “hymn to Christ” (Carmen Christi), possibly pre-Pauline. In context, it is used to provide a rationale for the ethical instructions given in 2:1-5 about life together in the covenant community. This is unusual for Paul, and seems to put the cart before the horse. But we can be sure Paul had good reasons for this order.

This song is one of the most studied and debated passages in the entire NT. The passage has always been at the center of the church’s Christology. But it also has important ethical ramifications. There are several very thorny interpretive issues raised by this text; many of them we will not be able to address.

In order to understand how this passage works, we need to remember how intertextuality works. Paul is always echoing and alluding to OT passages. In fact, his letters are like giant echo chambers in which the trained ear constantly hears resonances of the OT. Unless we pick up these OT traces, our reading of a passage like Phil. 2:5-11 will be severely impoverished.

In Phil. 2:5-11, the key OT background text, mainly by way of contrast, is Gen. 3. Consider these allusions to the Adam story:

Obviously the passage works with a new Adam Christology (though we’ll see there’s even more to it than this). We must keep in mind the implicit Two-Adam structure of the story told in this hymn.

The other key piece of background comes from Isaiah. This song in Phil 2 has strong verbal and thematic connections with Isaiah 52-53 (a “Servant Song”) and Isaiah 45. These will become apparent as we proceed.

Verse 6 presents us with a difficult theological question. Many translations are unhelpful here. It really should read, “who existed in the form/image of God, not considering equality with God a thing to be seized.” (“Robbery” is a poor translation.) Does this verse mean:

[1] He did not have equality with God and did not seize it, but instead waited obediently for God to exalt him?


[2] He had equality with God, but did not use his equality with God to his own advantage, seizing privileges and prerogatives that were rightfully his?

The second reading is better (though the first can work too if properly nuanced).

Paul presents Jesus as equal with God, but as forgoing his divine rights. (Giving up rights and privileges is a major theme in Philippians. Jesus does it in 2:5-11, refusing to use his divine prerogatives, and Paul does it in 3:4-12, forgoing prerogatives he could have claimed within Judaism. Paul will call on Philippians to forgo certain rights and privileges they could have claimed as citizens of a Roman colony as well.) Richard Bauckham translates verse 6, “he did not think equality with God something to be used for his own advantage,” noting that the issue is not whether or not Christ has equality with God (he clearly does), but what attitude he takes towards it (God Crucified, 57). The issue is not gaining or losing deity; it’s about how the divine one acts and lives in human form.

Two aspects of the broader context help us understand verse 6:

[1] The humiliation in view in the song is not the incarnation as such. There was nothing humbling in becoming man in and of itself. After all, in his exaltation, he did not shed his human body. He is exalted right now as a man. Rather, the humiliation in view in this passage is in what he did as man. In other words, while the song clearly presupposes the pre-existence of Jesus as the Second Person of the Trinity (the eternal Son), it really begins with the incarnation. The question is: How did God incarnate act? The answer is clear: He assumed the posture of a servant. Jesus was always ontologically equal to the Father/God. But functionally, he subordinated himself to the Father (“he is greater than I”). In a functional sense, he did not “seize equality with God,” meaning he did not exalt himself to the place of God as Adam did.

[2] “Form of God” is a layered term. Does it mean Second Person of the Trinity (Col. 1; Heb. 1)? Or does it mean New Adam (Gen. 1: form = image)? Both, of course. He is the New Adam (imago Dei) as well as the eternal Son. As the New Adam and eternal Son, he exists in the form/image of God. Yet unlike the first Adam, he does seize equality with God.

So verse 6 means:

[A] Jesus is fully God. This is a high Christology. It’s not as though Paul is suggesting Jesus became divine when he was exalted. That reading eviscerates the song of its theological and ethical force. The whole point is that Jesus could have claimed equality with God and yet did not. He did not take advantage of his ontological deity, he did not claim his divine rights, he did not insist on his divine privileges. Rather, he set aside those divine prerogatives and served. God-in-the-flesh came to serve, not be served. He came to obey rather than dominate. He came to pour himself out, not fill himself up. He could’ve demanded certain rights (e.g., Jn. 18:36), but did not. He did not use his deity for his own selfish ends. Instead he used his power and privilege as vehicles of service. For Paul – and this is the key, theologically – divinity and servanthood are entirely compatible, not contradictory. To be “God” and to be a “slave” are not conflicting roles (cf. “form of God” in verse 6 and “form of a bondservant” in verse 7).

[B] Jesus is fully man. He is the new Adam, the new image bearer. Unlike the first Adam, he will not seize exaltation and equality with God. Interestingly, Adam had less than Jesus but claimed more. Jesus did what Adam should have done — obey and patiently wait for God to bestow greater glory (God-likeness) on him. (Adam would have eventually been allowed to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and would have become like God in a fuller sense.) Adam seized a higher position and fell to a lower one. Jesus stooped from his high position, and in the end was exalted to the highest position of all.

This understanding of verse 6 sets us up for the meaning of the song as a whole. The question this song answers is simple: How did the one who was God-in-the-flesh live? Did he rule like a Gentile tyrant, or did he come to serve his people like a slave (cf. Mk. 10:42-35)? We find that Jesus expressed his equality with God through servanthood. The Lord is the Servant and the Servant is the Lord.

Or, to focus the issue more sharply, the question is: How can the one who is God-in-the-flesh die? Is Paul speaking of a crucified God? And if so, can we speak this way as well? Can the Immortal One undergo death at the hands of his creatures? Can the cross of Christ actually be drawn into the identity of God? Is the story of Jesus’ death and exaltation actually God’s own story? If that was God on the cross, was God acting out of character in giving himself up and pouring himself out in this way? Or is this simply who God is and what God is like from all eternity? These were the kinds of revolutionary questions Paul’s hymn press towards. He doesn’t give full answers — who could? — but he points the way.

In verse 7 we run into another batch of problems, involving translations and theology. “He made himself of no reputation” is very weak. The translators are trying to protect the deity of Christ, but there is a better solution. The text actually says, “He emptied himself.” The so-called Kenotic theologians argued this meant he divested himself of certain divine attributes, or even of his deity altogether. But that’s impossible. God is simple; he cannot strip away some of his attributes any more than we can strip away ours. The clue is found in noting the intertextual echo of Isa. 53:12: Isaiah describes the Servant of the Lord who empties himself unto death, who pours out his life in order to save his people. Jesus is not only the divine Son and New Adam in Paul’s hymn; now we can add Isaiah’s “Servant of the Lord” to the mix. Paul is a new Isaiah writing a new “Servant Song,” only now the identity of the Servant has been revealed. Jesus renounces himself for the sake of his people, dying a shameful death in their stead.

Think of it this way: If a husband empties himself for his bride, does he cease being a husband? Does he lose certain husbandly attributes? No, of course not. That’s just what husbands, as such, do. If a mother empties herself for her children, does she give up her motherness? No — in fact it is precisely in the act of emptying herself for her children that she shows herself to be a true mother. When Jesus empties himself, he isn’t losing anything, ontologically speaking. Rather, he’s ethically denying himself for the sake of his people. The emptying is moral, not ontological. Jesus lived sacrificially as God-in –the-flesh.

Verses 7 and 8 speak of Jesus “coming in the likeness of men, and being found in appearance as a man.” Just as verses 6-7 have been used to deny the full deity of Christ, so these verses have been used to deny his full humanity. But that’s the opposite of Paul’s point. Paul is simply saying that he assumed our fallen humanity (cf. Rom. 8:3). To say that his nature was fallen is not to say that he sinned, of course. Rather it’s to say he was like us in every way except for sin. His temptation in the wilderness and struggles in Gethsemane were not play acting; he was really susceptible to sin and failure, though he resisted.

This point should not be controversial, though it often has been. If he was made of Mary’s substance, as the creeds and confessions teach, he must have taken to himself a fallen nature – what else was there after Gen. 3? William Borden Evans explains this view, as taught by John Nevin and T. F.

The Logos has been united to a fallen human nature, has sanctified it, and thus raised humanity to a new level, a new level of existence Nevin terms the ‘New Creation.’ As the bearer of this new principle of existence, Christ is the “second Adam,” the root and source of a new humanity made up of those in mystical union with him . . .

[T]he humanity assumed by the Logos in the incarnation was a fallen humanity. Torrance writes:

That is to say, the Incarnation is to be understood as the coming of God to take upon himself our fallen nature, our actual human existence laden with sin and guilt, our humanity diseased in mind and soul in its estrangement or alienation from the Creator.

In its assumption by the Logos, this fallen humanity was then progressively sanctified, humanized, and brought into a proper relationship of responsiveness to God. This process of elevation and transformation reached its climax in the resurrection and ascension of Christ. (Imputation and Impartation, 285, 408-9)

Phil. 2:8 can be viewed through the lenses of Genesis 3 and Isaiah 52-3. Unlike Adam, Jesus fought the serpent to death for the sake of his bride. In dying as a common criminal on a Roman cross, he was “numbered with the transgressors” as Isaiah. foretold. Of course, his death on a tree (cross) recalls Genesis 3 as well. His tree of death becomes, as it were, a new tree of life to us. But it is also a tree of the knowledge of good and evil for us, since through his cross, we are exalted to kingly majesty. He died that we might live; he was shamed that we might be glorified.

Verse 9 is the turning point in the narrative. Adam sinned and died. Jesus obeyed and died. But because he obeyed, the Father reversed death’s grip on him and highly exalted (“super exalted”) him. Death was not allowed to have the last word.

Once again, themes and language from the Isaianic “Servant Song” are deployed. Isaiah had prophesied that the Servant of the Lord would suffer, but would then be raised up, exalted, and given a place among the great. Paul’s song shows that Jesus fulfills Isaiah’s song. The structure matches Isaiah 52:12 precisely — so much so that this section of Phil. 2 may be regarded as a kind of exegesis of the Isaiah text.

Interestingly, Paul says the Father “graciously gave” Jesus a name above every other name (cf. Rev. 19:12). It does not sound as though Paul views Jesus as having fulfilled a meritorious covenant of works. To be sure, Jesus had to walk the path of obedience to enter into his reward. But this is a description of a Father freely blessing his Son, not an employer paying off a debt to a worker. In other words, Jesus was justified (or vindicated) by faith, not works (cf. Rom 4:4-5). He received an inheritance, not a paycheck (cf. Ps. 2:8).

Verses 9-11 show us that the Son is not the only humble member of the divine family. The Father implicitly humbles himself in giving the Son such an exalted status. The Father shares his glory with the Son. Here Paul echoes Isaiah 45. This prophetic passage emphasizes the uniqueness and majesty of God, over and against the idols. God says he will not share his glory with another. And yet that is precisely what we find God doing here: he shares his glory with Jesus! This brings us full circle. The one who did not seize equality with God and who emptied himself is now shown to be equal with the Father and is filled with same glory and honor as God himself. Jesus is clearly one with God, worthy of the same divine worship and service. Paul has redefined Jewish monotheism to include Jesus. Paul even expands Isaiah 45:23 into cosmic proportions to show the scope of Christ’s reign.

Paul’s Christological redefinition of God should be carefully considered. Jesus is included in the unique, eschatological identity of God. OT monotheistic titles and images are applied to him. But just as importantly, Jesus shows us who God is and what he is like. We must be careful to not equate his humility with his humanity and his exaltation with his deity. Who God is is revealed just as much in the humiliation of Jesus as in his exaltation. God shows his Godness precisely in his self-giving service on behalf of his fallen creation. Certainly, the sovereignty of God (now mediated through Jesus) reveals God’s nature; but the cross of Christ reveals who God is just as clearly (cf. Isa. 57:15). Obviously, Paul is transforming and subverting Jewish monotheism. Paul points to Jesus as the one in whom prophecies about the Tetragrammaton (YHWH) have been fulfilled. Paul points to Jesus as the one in whom God has manifested his glory. Paul points to Jesus not as a rival deity to Israel’s God, but as one who is strangely and mysteriously included in that God’s identity (cross and all!).

The Jews really had no room for a God who suffered, for a God who humbled himself, for a God came in the form of a Servant, for a God who could die at the hands of the hated Romans. If anything, when the eschatological vision came to fulfillment, Jews expected God to show all his might and power and glory. God was supposed to strong arm the Romans into submission. God’s messiah was to show the same characteristics. Every Jew knew that a crucified “messiah” (and there had been plenty in the years preceding 30 A. D.) was a failed Messiah. Every Israelite knew the Messiah would be a Jewish Caesar.

But here Paul turns Jewish expectations upside down. He gives them a sign, but it wasn’t the sign they were looking for (cf. 1 Cor. 1). The cross, in Paul’s view, is not the world’s victory over Jesus, but Jesus’ victory over the world. The cross is the reason every knee will bow to God-in-Jesus and confess his name. It’s a stepping stone to his ultimate triumph.

The story told in Paul’s hymn was equally subversive in the Roman world. Pagans in Paul’s day were rapidly moving towards the divinization of the emperor. But Paul’s gospel hymn announced a new Emperor. The true God-man was not a Roman citizen, but a Jewish peasant. The world’s sovereign was not Caesar, but one Caesar crucified. Of course, for Paul to declare that Jesus is Lord meant that Caesar was not – and in the first century, someone who went around making that kind of astounding politico-theological claim was bound to get in trouble. It’s not surprising, then, that Paul wrote almost half his letters (including Philippians) from a Roman prison!

Paul’s hymn challenged the pagan religions because it declared that the story of Jesus was not merely the story of Israel (the fulfillment of Isaiah 52-3); it was not even a story for the church (Phil. 2:1-5). In fact, it was The Story (with a capital S) for and of the entire world. It’s a story that ends with every knee bowing before Jesus’ lordship and every tongue confessing his glory. This is not merely a private story, one is free to take or leave; it’s a public story the whole world (and underworld) is bound to acknowledge. Paul’s story was simply this: That Jesus Christ, God incarnate, did not exploit his deity, or use it for selfish gain. Rather than claiming his own privileges and seeking only his own advantage, he humbled himself to serve and even to die a cursed death on a cross. This crucified one was faithful to end. Therefore, his Father raised him, hyper-exalting him. His Father has now graced him with a Name above every name. All his enemies must bow the knee to him (cf. Ps. 110), voluntarily or involuntarily, now or later. The story that begins with Jesus coming as a slave ends with Jesus on top of the world for good, and his enemies kneeling before him at his feet. That’s the theology of Paul’s story-hymn to Christ.

Biblical Theology is sometimes shunned because it is viewed as impractical. But the best Biblical Theology always turns itself into practical theology (or pastoral theology). In a sense, in Philippians 2, Paul does this for us with his instructions preceding the Christ hymn in verses 1-5. We’ve already seen some of its practical ramifications confronted ancient Jews and Romans, but now we need focus more sharply on application to today’s church.

How does the biblical theology we’ve sketched out here translate into practice? What’s the cash value of Paul’s hymn? Let’s flesh out a few fruitful avenues of application.

[1] Adam wanted glory, power, and privilege for himself. In fact, this was perfectly natural and not the least bit sinful. God made man to want these things, to want to be as God himself (cf. Rom. 2). And in fact, God intends to give these things to humanity. After all, these are central to “existing in the form of God” (imago Dei). But how then are they to come to us? This is the key. These blessings do not come by putting ourselves forward to seize them. They come not by self-exaltation, but by self-humiliation. If we want to share in Christ’s rule over all things, we must share in his servanthood and self-denial. The way up is down. The path to glory is the hard road of humble service.

Paul’s autobiography in Philippians 3 shows this (in fact, chapters 2 and 3 develop a parallel between Jesus and Paul, both of whom renounce privilege for the sake of others; this in turn was to serve as a model for the Philippian Christians, who were to be willing to sit loose to their privileges as Roman citizens, putting the agenda of the gospel first). Paul had every Jewish privilege imaginable. But like the other Jews of his day, he used those privileges for his own advantage, rather than as a way of bringing life to the world. In Christ, Paul learned to renounce those prerogatives and consider them as dung in order that he might share in the suffering and glory of Christ. In laying aside his Jewish advantages, he receives something better.

We must learn to do the same. We have many privileges, but we must hold these things loosely, being willing to forgo them for the sake of others. All we are and have must be used on behalf of the gospel. As we deny ourselves this way, we too will find that humility and self-sacrifice are the keys to exaltation.

[2] In 1:27-2:5, Paul calls the Philippians to unity. (This is not the only ethical theme in these verses, but it’s a major one.) The way to pursue unity is through lowliness of mind, considering others better than yourself, looking out for their interests, etc. In a word, the key to unity is humility. Or, to put it another way, the key to unity is imitating Christ in the covenant community. If the God-man assumed the posture of a servant, how much more should we? If God himself came to serve, how much more should we? How dare we assume that we are too good or too valuable to serve others when God himself came among us as a servant! (Think of Augustine’s famous line: “How can it be? God has humbled himself, and yet still man is proud!”) If God is humble – if this is how the members of the Triune family live towards one another and towards creation — we must be humble as well since we are his image bearers. To be in the form/image of God is to be in the form/image of a servant. If God has emptied himself to the point of death for the life of the world, then clearly this is the mission of the church as well.

But note that Paul is doing more than making an appeal to imitatio Dei/Christi. In verse 5, the appeal is not so much to the example of Christ (though Christ as an ethical model is certainly included); Paul is pointing them to their union with Christ. Literally, the verse reads, “Let this mind be in your community which is fitting for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Sinclair Ferguson translates it, “Develop this mindset which is the only consistent mindset for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Paul’s “in Christ” language is the key. In other words, Paul is calling on them to live and act as those who are in Christ.

In Paul’s theology, you’re either in Adam or in Christ (Rom. 5:12ff). At baptism we are transferred from the old Adam to the new; we are taken out of the first Adam and plugged into the life of the Last Adam (Rom. 6:1ff). In Christ, we have a new identity, a new story, a new role to play, a new family, new privileges, and new responsibilities.

If you’re in the first Adam, you can’t help being who you are. You live and act like the first Adam. You’re self-centered, looking out for your own interests. Your life is shaped like Adam’s life in Gen. 3, sacrificing others for your own personal gain.

But if you’re in the second Adam, you can’t help but living and acting as he lives and acts. The life you live, you live in and through him (Gal. 2:20); in fact, you share a common life with him. You wait patiently for God to lift you up. You don’t have to live a self-centered, self-protective life, because you’ve entrusted yourself to God. You don’t have to make a name for yourself because God has already united you with the one who has a Name above every name.

Thus, when Paul tells us to be humble like Christ, he’s not telling us to act of character. If anything, he’s saying, “Be yourself! Be who you are! Live consistently with your new identity in Christ! You’re in Christ — so act like it!” It is precisely in living out our in-Christness that his story of self-sacrifice and self-denial becomes our own story. Humility grows out of union with Christ. Planted in Christ, this is the kind of fruit we bear. For one who is in Christ to live a selfish, greedy life would be like a married man still living the life of a single person. (C. S. Lewis captures the dynamics of this well in Mere Christianity, 161f).

Understanding how humility is rooted in our in-Christness protects us from pride, but also from a kind of false, hypocritical humility. Humility does not mean we denigrate the gifts God has given us. It does not mean we see ourselves as worthless slugs. People who view themselves that way never end up serving anybody, and their show of humility becomes a cover for a self-centered lifestyle. Christians are not live with inferiority complexes. Instead, we are to make sober evaluations of ourselves in Christ and in the covenant community. (Think about how you receive compliments and criticisms!! We ought to deflect glory to our heavenly Father as Christ does [Phil. 2:11] and we ought to accept correction when offered.)

Humility is never an invisible attitude; like honor, it shows itself in visible, tangible ways. It is enacted and incarnated. But the promise is that through our humility God will lift us up. This is our hope. We crave glory and God has promised it. But Satan always tempts us as he tempted the two Adams – he wants to us to take a shortcut to glory, a detour that avoids the slow road of suffering and patience. We must remember who we are in Christ and live accordingly.

For Further Study

What resources should the aspiring Biblical Theologian consult?

These “Notes on Biblical Theology” were the basis of an 8 lecture course on Biblical Theology, delivered by the author, to the Dabney Center in Fall, 2003 and Spring 2004. Tapes are available from Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church (http://www.auburnavenue.org). The tapes have considerably more detail than these notes.

On Biblical Theology in general, works by Sidney Greidanus, Geerhardus Vos, Peter Leithart, James Jordan, Christopher J. H. Wright, Richard Gaffin, and N. T. Wright should be consulted.

On “spiral theology,” see especially Jordan’s Crisis, Opportunity, and the Christian Future.

On narrative, see Why Narrative? edited by Stanley Hauerwas and Gregory Jones. Students may also want to consult George Stroup’s The Promise of Narrative Theology and Robert Jenson’s two articles in the Oct., 1993 and Mar., 2000 issues of First Things.

On intertextuality, general and special studies to consult include Richard Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Epistles of Paul; Rikki Watts, Isaiah’s New Exodus and Mark; Willard Swartley, Israel’s Scripture Traditions and the Synoptic Gospels: Story Shaping Story; Sylvia Keesmaat, Paul and His Story; Ben Witherington, Paul’s Narrative Thought World; J. Ross Wagner, Heralds of the Good News: Isaiah and Paul in Concert; Don Garlington, Exegetical Essays; Craig Evans and James Sanders, Paul and the Scriptures of Israel; Steve Moyise, The Old Testament in the New; Christopher J. H. Wright, Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament; David Pao, Acts and the Isaianic New Exodus; Sydney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament; N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant

On Romans 1, see Wright’s NIB: Romans commentary, which now towers over most other works. On Phillipians 2, see the standard evangelical commentaries, as well as the relevant sections of Richard Bauckham’s God Crucified.

Copyright © 2004

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