Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort provided by love, any fellowship in the Spirit, any affection or mercy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, by having the same love, being united in spirit, and having one purpose. Instead of being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity, each of you should, in humility, be moved to treat one another as more important than yourself. Each of you should be concerned not only about your own interests, but about the interest of others as well. – Philippians 2:1-4 (NET)
If one was to be at a meal table with the church in Philippi, and comes to that table well aware that Paul’s words are conjuring up a meal-table-based context for his use of what comes next in the Philippian letter, then Paul’s incorporation of what has long been considered to be an early Christian hymn gathers to itself an important dimension.
The Christian meal table provides an amazing and enlightening context for the hearing of “You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had, who though He existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied Himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature. He humbled Himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death---even death on a cross! As a result God exalted Him and gave Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will blow---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” (2:5-11).
Yes, a glorious and familiar passage no doubt, seemingly given new life when considered in relation to that which came to represent the vision of the messianic banquet (the Lord’s Supper/communion). Having just heard these words, the honorific tone should be noted, but at the same time, the subversive nature of the language cannot be dismissed. The Gospel (Jesus is Lord of all) is the thrust of the statement, and this world-power-challenging proclamation was at the heart of the messiah-based renewed kingdom of the Creator God movement that would come to be called Christianity.
As the growth of the Christian movement (kristianos) is borne in mind, as it took its place alongside the movement of the Caesar cult (kaisarianos) in the Roman world, it is possible to hear the second portion of this song of praise as an aping of the language of the Caesar cult (as Paul does in his usage of “from faith to faith” in Romans 1:17). At the same time, it is not only the second half of the song that apes the cultic language, so too does the first half. The elevation of Caesar above his defeated or soon-to-be-defeated opponents would be a natural outgrowth of his apotheosis (deification/becoming a god). Yes, not only is Caesar exalted above all as divine, but Caesar’s enemies, who may think of themselves as gods in their own right, are actually slaves. They are ordinary men. They will die at Caesar’s hands.