Long has it been the case that the words of this hymn (easily memorizable and formulaic presentation of the Gospel of Jesus) have been juxtaposed with what we encounter in the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of John. Indeed, it may very well be the case that the widespread circulation of this hymn, together with the widespread and foundational understanding of the systemic importance of the meal table for the church (and therefore the rooting of popular understanding of this hymn within the context of the church’s messianic banquet inspired meal table, along with the subversive nature of the language in its relation to the Caesar cult) is what prompted the author of John to include what we read there. If this is the case, and if the knowledge and importance of the early hymn was at least partially responsible for the inclusion of the content of the thirteenth chapter of John (providing justification for the use of an undoubtedly true story, especially when we consider the societal function of the meal table and the reversal which was insisted upon by Jesus according to the Jesus tradition that is reflected in the letters and would come to be recorded in the Gospels), then because this letter came before the composition of John, it is possible that this letter itself had an impact on John’s presentation of Jesus.
If that can be imagined, then the preface to the hymn that Paul provides, which is “instead of being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity, each of you should, in humility, be moved to treat one another as more than yourself” (2:3), is the context in which we approach Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet. Therefore, when we read that “You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had” (2:5), and do so while hearing these words at a meal, we are unsurprised to find that Jesus did this washing of feet when “The evening meal was in progress” (John 13:2a). When we read “Because Jesus knew that the Father had handed all things over to Him, and that He has come from God and was going back to God” (13:3), we easily hear the hymnal echo of “who though He existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped” (2:6).
Remember, though it is not obvious at first glance, with much labor we have been able to deduce that Paul is writing with the Christian meal table in mind, as is John (quite obviously). There is a great deal of implicit meal-related understanding at work when Paul employs the language about Jesus, whereas John has a more overt presentation when it is written that “He got up from the meal, removed His outer clothes, took a towel and tied it around Himself” (13:4). Here, Jesus, who had probably been occupying the protoklisian at the meal (most likely due to the group’s acclimation rather than of His own accord), presents Himself as a slave, essentially taking the eschaton position. Yes, He “emptied Himself by taking on the form of a slave.” In this slave position, made all the more meaningful because it takes place during the course of a meal, “He poured water into the washbasin and began to was the disciples’ feet and to dry them with the towel He had wrapped around Himself” (13:5). Not only does he perform the duty of a slave, which is the duty of those that do not possess honor, but He even goes so far as to use His very clothes for the purpose of drying the feet that He has washed, dishonoring Himself to an even greater extent. Given its context, Jesus was heaping shame upon shame. In a culture in which shame was equivalent to death, we can see that not only did He take the opportunity of “looking like other men” and “sharing in human nature,” but “He humbled Himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death.”
As was just mentioned, Jesus took the eschaton position at this gathering. As also mentioned numerous times in the course of this study, there was no lower position in all the world at that time than the Roman cross. It was the eschaton of eschatons. So just as Jesus took the lowest possible position that could be taken at the banquet, which was that of a foot-washer that used His own clothes to dry wet feet, so too “He was obedient to the point of death---even death on a cross!” After submitting Himself to the veritable death of His shameful actions at this meal, we read that “when Jesus had washed their feet and put His outer clothing back on, He took His place at the table again” (13:12a). Similarly, having been lowered to the most shameful position on earth (the cross), God exalted Him and gave Him the name that is above every name.” Yes, in the exaltation of the Resurrection, He took up His position at the right hand of God---the seat to the right hand of the protoklisian, which would signify that He was the most honored guest at the messianic banquet. Having humbled Himself, He would be exalted (a reminder of Luke 14), with the master of the banquet directing Him to move to a higher place, in which “every knee will bow… and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” It was with His exalting Resurrection, of course, that He is clothed with a new, glorified body. Figuratively, as “He took His place at the table again,” Jesus had “put His outer clothing back on.”
Obviously, the connection between the hymn in Philippians and the story in John are inescapable. Because the author of John made it a point to illustrate the well-known hymn through the story of Jesus at the Last Supper, this means that the meal-related implications of the hymn, of its meal-related presentation in the letter to the Philippians, and the singular importance of the meal for the early Christians is inescapable as well. We must know that all of this is quite telling for the way that the letter to the Laodiceans is to be understood.