Seeing the Streams of Scripture: A Biblical-Theological Approach to Philippians 2

trail-wu-2a1TKBuc-unsplash.jpgBy 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.’
— Isaiah 45:23 —

And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
— Philippians 2:8–11 —

Whenever we read the letters of Paul we are sure to encounter quotations from and allusions to the Old Testament. Often in the same passage, there are multiple layers from the Law and the Prophets. Commentators are usually in agreement when there are explicit citations or linguistic repetitions. Interpreters of Scripture are much more at odds when there are not direct biblical parallels.

One example of this kind of interpretive difference is found in Philippians 2:5–11. In Paul’s famous “hymn,” there is an unmistakeable quotation from Isaiah 45:23 in verses 10–11. There are also many connections with the Servant in Isaiah 53. But one connection that is more tenuous is the relationship between Christ who obeyed God unto death and Adam who disobeyed God unto death.

In a remarkably balanced presentation on Adam and Christ in Philippians 2:5–11, Matthew Harmon rightly affirms the many conceptual connections between Adam and Christ. At the same time, he rightly denies any linguistic connections between Philippians 2 and Genesis 1–3. This helpfully sets up a discussion concerning what it takes for allusions to be recognized in the Scripture.

Yet, instead of siding with a narrow reading of Philippians 2 which denies all connections between Christ and Adam (a Pauline theme developed explicitly in Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15), Harmon shows how the explicit connections between Philippians 2 and Isaiah 53 stands a servant typology that goes back to Israel, and from Israel to Adam.

Indeed, his cogent reading of Scripture makes sense of how Philippians 2 does relate to Adam. Yet, instead of being satisfied with superficial and conceptual connections, he shows how the unity of the biblical story—one that moves from Adam to Abraham to Israel to David to Isaiah’s Servant to Jesus—gives a textual basis for connecting Philippians 2 to Adam. Harmon’s clear-sighted argument demonstrates how canonical interpretation depends on more than cross-references. There are also theological streams running through the text of Scripture that we must consider if we are going to  make sense of any given passage.

Harmon’s two pages on these biblical-theological streams are worth quoting at length. And his commentary on Philippians 2 provides many other helpful biblical-theological observations for interpreting this dense passage.

Biblical Streams Flowing into Philippians 2

Matthew Harmon, Philippians64–65:

In fact, it is possible that both Adam Christology and the Suffering Servant are present in the Christ-hymn because they are part of a larger biblical-theological stream that incorporates several other key Old Testament passages.

That stream begins in Genesis 1-3, where Adam is created as a priest-king to rule over creation under God’s authority. But Adam fails when he encounters the Serpent, and all of creation is placed under the curse. Despite Adam’s rebellion, God promises that a descendant of Eve would one day crush the Serpent’s head through his own suffering (Gen. 3:15). Through that descendant, humanity’s rightful rule over creation (under the authority of God) would be restored and creation renewed. God’s plan for fulfilling this promise is His covenant with Abram (Gen. 12:1-3). The line of promise passes from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to his twelve sons, from which come the nation of Israel. After redeeming Israel! from slavery in Egypt, He commissions Israel as a “kingdom of priests’ (Exod. 19:5-6) by making a covenant with them at Mt. Sinai. But, just like Adam, Israel failed in her commission.

Despite Israel’s failure, God remained committed to His promise that through Israel a king would arise to rule over creation (Gen. 49:8-10; Num. 24:17-19). This promise takes particular shape in 2 Samuel 7:12-16, where God promises David a descendant whose kingdom would endure forever. David shows that he understands the connection between God’s promise to him and humanity’s rule over creation in Psalm 8, where he marvels at God’s commission to Adam in Genesis 1:26-30. Later, in Psalm 110, David looks forward to the day when his promised descendant would not only rule over all his enemies but serve as an eternal priest in the order of Melchizedek. The prophetic books are filled with references to God’s promise of a Davidic king who would rule over an eternal kingdom (e.g., Isa. 11:1-10; Jer. 23:5-6; Ezek. 37:1-28; Amos 9:11-15; Micah 5:2-5). In Isaiah 40-55, the Servant of the Lord takes center stage. The nation of Israel is introduced in Isaiah 42:1-9 as the Servant who was commissioned to be a light to the nations, but who failed miserably (42:18-25). Consequently, God promises to raise up an individual Servant who will obey where Israel failed, redeeming Israel and becoming a light for the nations (49:1-7). The Servant will accomplish this as a priest king whom Yahweh exalts because of His self-sacrificial death for the sins of His people (52:13-53:12). As a result of the Servant’s death and exaltation, the new covenant will be established (54:1-17) and all nations will be invited to experience the fulfillment of Yahweh’s ‘steadfast, sure love for David’ (55:1-13).

The vision of the Son of Man in Daniel 7 further develops this biblical theological trajectory. An individual described as ‘one like a son of man’ appears before the Ancient of Days and is given an eternal kingdom that encompasses all creation (Dan. 7:13-14). Later in that same chapter, this same kingdom is given to ‘the people of the saints of the Most High’ (7:27). The implication is that the people of God receive this promised kingdom because they are identified with the Son of Man.

Thus the pattern that emerges from this survey is that of a priest king who through His sacrificial death and subsequent exaltation defeats His enemies and receives an eternal kingdom that He shares with all who are identified with Him. Admittedly, not every passage mentioned contains all the particulars. But there is enough overlap in general terms to suggest a biblical-theological stream that runs throughout the Old Testament and into the New Testament.

This is an exemplary model of biblical-theological that runs on the ground of the biblical text. May we learn from Harmon’s example and avoid the twin errors of superficial typology that flies over the text and premature dismissal of biblical connections because we don’t have a clear citation or linguistic connection.

Scripture is united by more than lexical repetitions; it is also united by a whole view of the world that is formed by the whole canon of Scripture.  May we learn from Scripture how to read God’s Word and to interpret accordingly.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

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