Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)
This is a wonderful scene in Paul’s letter to the Jesus believers at Philippi. It portrays the exaltation of Christ, “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:6-8). Is there any greater demonstration of love than this? Or any greater proof that God is love? It should be no wonder, then, that every knee in heaven and on earth and under the earth will bow to him, and every tongue will confess him as Lord.
There are some Christians, perhaps many, who view this scene as a mixture of those who freely bow the knee in reverence and gladly confess the Lord Jesus, and of those who are forced to their knees in abject horror and utter defeat, with the confession of Christ wrenched from their unwilling mouths — I used to think such myself, but have in recent years come to repent of it. These latter are thought of as pressed down with their faces in the dirt under the feet of Jesus. One Christian I was recently in discussion with even thought of them as like those who are forced to their knees with their necks laid bare, longing for the sword to remove their heads and put them out of their misery.
Friends, that is not a worthy portrait of Christ. Nor is it in keeping with the context, with the way Paul described Christ just a few verses earlier, or with the reason Christ has been exalted by God and given the name above all names.
No, this scene is not a mixture of some folks freely honoring Christ while others must be forced. It is a scene of every knee bowing in reverence and every tongue confessing in adoration. The language of bowing the knee is not about what is done against one’s will — and it is certainly not to be confused with an enemy having his neck under the foot of his vanquisher. Bowing the knee is honor willingly offered.
Likewise, confession is not what must be pulled through one’s teeth. It is freely given, and from the heart. Paul speaks two other times about the confession that Jesus is Lord. In 1 Corinthians 12:3, he tells us that no one can say “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. In Romans 10:9, he says that those who confess “Jesus is Lord,” will be saved. How, then, could we ever imagine that any of those in Philippians 2:11 who confess Jesus as Lord — which is everyone — are lost? We cannot.
Let us place this further in context. In the verses that follow, Paul returns to his original purpose for appealing to the self-giving nature of Christ and his consequent exaltation:
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed — not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence — continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life. (Philippians 2:12-16)Paul wants the Philippian believers to have the same mindset as Christ: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3-4). It is not a question about whether or not they are saved. Nor is about somehow working for their salvation. But it is about living out the salvation that is already theirs in Christ.
Is there “fear and trembling?” Yes. Is it the abject horror and utter defeat of a vanquished foe? Certainly not. Is it the threat of damnation, of losing their salvation? Not a whiff of it. “Fear and trembling” is about being circumspect, careful, diligent and respectful. J. B. Phillips translates it as having “a proper sense of awe and responsibility” (The New Testament in Modern Speech).
Paul does not want them to stand in the overwhelming presence of the One who is perfect love and be ashamed to realize that they have not shown love to each other. It is not, after all, a matter of trying to somehow come up with such love ourselves but of yielding to the One who is Love. For it is Love himself who is at work in us, not only giving us the ability to do what pleases divine love but also creating in us the desire to do so. In this way we become light for others, shining like stars so that they may come and honor Christ, confessing him as Lord.