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The Christology and Ecclesiological Vision of Paul in Philippians and Colossians with a Practical Application for the Modern Church


Both the epistles to the Philippians and Colossians pivot on hymns seeped in Paul’s Christology. The hymn in Phil 2:6-11 focuses on the unexpected nature of the Messiah who fulfills the prophesies of the prophets while the hymn in Col 1:15-23 focuses on the divinity of Christ and his preeminent status before all things in heaven and earth. Surrounding the two hymns, Paul’s exhortations for new patterns of life and he and his fellow servants’ Christ-template narratives call the “faithful brothers and sisters in Christ”1 in both Philippi and Colossae to a new way life.

Throughout the two epistles, Paul exposes a scandalous Messiah who, though equal with God, emptied himself of the outward trappings of divinity, took on the form of a human, humbly made himself lowly as a servant to God’s creation, and allowed Caesar to exercise his earthly authority over him through the humility of the cross. All this was done so that the descendants of Adam could have an otherwise unobtainable dikaiosynē (restored justice before God)2 through participation in the very present life of the triune God. The Messiah of whom Paul speaks, the crucified Jesus of Nazareth, shows the true characteristics of the eternal God of Israel; characteristics that are to be lived into by those – both Jew and Gentile – who want to be reconciled to God. Through this voluntary new life in the Messiah, created beings come to be in unity with God and his creation, thus restored to God’s original shalom.

To fully explore Paul’s Christology in Philippians and Colossians it must be broken into smaller themes: that of Christ’s divinity, his fully human nature, Christ’s kenotic ethic,3 and finally the summation of the three previous parts in the crucifixion. Out of his Christology, Paul’s ecclesiological vision for the churches in Philippi and Colossae becomes clear as well the implications for the modern church. In all, a vision to the true definition divinity is revealed along with guidance on how the holy-ones in Christ can come to participate in the unexpected life of God.

I. Paul’s Christology

Fully God

Both hymns written or selected by Paul in the epistles in question start with statements around the divinity of Christ. This is not by accident; Paul’s Christology begins and ends with the idea that Jesus of Nazareth was not only a great rabbi or prophet, but also the Messiah and eternal Son of the Father. To the contemporary followers of the Hebrew God in Paul’s day, if Jesus were only a radical rabbi then his teachings and ministry could be studied and debated and his more radical teachings ignored. Gentiles, on the other hand, would have no need to study or follow a Jewish rabbi to begin with, much less one who was a disrupter of the Pax Romana. However, if Jesus of Nazareth were the living God made flesh, then there would be far greater implications to his ministry, example, and teachings.

The hymn in Colossians begins by describing Jesus as the eikōn (image) “of the invisible God.”4 Further, Christ is the “first born of all creation,”5 not in the sense of temporal priority, but that he is “prior to and supreme over all of creation.”6 This language of eikōn would, for a first century Jew, harken back to Gen 1:27 where humankind is created in the eikōn of God.7 But, Paul is not saying that Jesus is in the image of God in the same way Adam was in the image of God;8 however, that Christ is the full and perfect manifestation of God. Indeed, he is the one in whom everything in heaven and earth was created (v16) and the fullness of God dwelled within him (v19). As the people of God “shall have no other gods before”9 the God of Israel, who throughout the Old Testament is differentiated from other gods by his being the sole creator of the kosmos,10 the conclusion of saying Christ created heaven and earth in the first century Jewish context is obvious; he is that same god.

The hymn in Philippians furthers Paul’s claim that Jesus was divine, by saying that he was “equal with God.”11 The word in Phil 2:6 translated as equal or equality depending on the translation, isos, is used in its form here six times in the New Testament.12 In each place where it is used, isos doesn’t refer to a resemblance, but a complete and total equality.13

In v9 further evidence to the divinity of Christ is given when it is noted that he has been given “the name that is above every name,”14 namely the divine name itself, Yahweh. To a first century Jew this would be the greatest evidence of all of the divinity of Christ. The God of Israel was mysterious and nebulous unlike the idol gods of the surrounding peoples who had physical form. The God of Israel was seen to bridge this gap with humankind by revealing his divine name. This special name showed God’s power, authority, and holiness. By taking this divine name for himself, Jesus is revealed as very God and the new link between humanity and the divine.15

The importance of Christ’s divinity for Paul and the churches he shepherds becomes clear in Colossians. If, as Thompson surmises, there are people amongst the early Christians preaching ascetic rituals and enthusiastic spiritual practices with a goal towards deeper understandings into the mystery of God,16 then Christ’s divinity becomes key. If Christ is God, then he is the mystery17 that has been fully revealed. “The whole universe was created through him and has in him its final goal”18 and there is no other way to understand God than he who is in very nature God. In Christ, the entirety of God’s kenotic self-giving servant hood, the unexpected divine identity of God, has been shown to all of creation, there is no further mystery.

Fully Man

In Paul’s ecclesiology the perfect humanity of Christ plays an important role in how Paul applies his Christology to the church. Though important, Christ’s humanity is only directly referenced in one place between the two epistles, in Phil 2:7. There, Jesus is said to have “emptied himself,” been “born in human likeness,” and “found in human form.”19 Though short, this passage provides two points of inquiry: what did Christ empty himself of, and what does being in the form of a human mean.

Charles Wesley’s take on Christ’s emptying in v7 is that he “emptied himself of all but love,”20 but I do not think Paul shares this view. To Paul, Christ did not abandon his divinity rather he added humanity.21 The emptying phraseology is but a figure of speech22 referencing Christ’s kenotic ethic and life explained later in the hymn.23 In this way kenoō (emptying) becomes shorthand for the incarnation and divine character of God.24

Now being ekenōsen (emptied) or being incarnate in human form, Christ “manifest[s] God’s righteous design for human creatures.”25 In this way, he is the new Adam; Jesus shows “the way that the first human beings were called, but failed, to do.”26 In some mysterious way it is Christ’s humanity combined with his divinity that allows his sacrifice on the cross to transfer believers “into the kingdom” where believers have “redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”27 It is Christ’s humanity that shows his creation how they were intended to live, humbly in perfect unity with God and each other.

The Kenotic Ethic of God

The third point of Paul’s Christology is where the divine character of God becomes corporeal and lives out the perfect ethic of holiness in the corrupted world of the flesh through the person of Messiah Jesus. In Philippians and Colossians Paul paints a picture of God that is very different from the expectations of divinity in the Greco-Roman world. Instead of a self-serving God of arbitrary power (imperial divinity), Paul shows his churches a self-emptying, humble, servant king; a “God of power in weakness.”28

With this new definition of power the actions of God in Christ are reinterpreted from being “counterintuitive, abnormal, and absurd”29 to the theophanic revelation of Christ “exercising his divinity.”30 This “abnormal divinity”31 is only abnormal as compared to the divine attributes given to the Emperor and not the actual kenotic ethic displayed by the authentic divinity of God shown in Christ. In actuality “it is in his [Christ’s] self-emptying and his humiliation that he reveals what God is like.”32

Kenosis is not just shorthand for the incarnation or a way of saying Jesus humbled himself for the sake of his creation, but summarizes the entire holy character and actions of God. When exhorting the saints to have the same mind as Christ33 Paul is asking them to take on God’s kenotic ethic. This ethic includes forsaking that which one rightfully has to serve others,34 throwing off the trappings of the honor-shame system by doing nothing out of self-ambition or conceit,35 seeking out the benefit of others instead of self,36 wrapping oneself in the agápē (love) shown in Christ,37 living without respect to racial or nationalistic divisions,38 and, above all, taking on the humble stance of a servant to others.

Humbleness was not a positive characteristic in the Greco-Roman world of Paul.39 In a system of honor and shame, self-glorification and doing things like charity or public worship solely to increase the amount of honor ascribed to oneself in the community was not only commonplace, but encouraged.40 The fact that a god, especially the God, would follow such an ethic and become “the agent of his own humiliation” was a radical proposition.41 Who among the people at the time of Isaiah could imagine that God would become flesh and fulfill the role of Israel’s redeeming servant?42

The Cross: Winning by Losing

For Paul, the pinnacle of his theology and understanding of Christ is the cross. It is at the cross where Paul sees the heart of the one true God43 and experiences the spirituality of God.44 For Paul the cross is God, God in his truest cruciform manifestation, completely sufficient for the life and freedom of all who believe.

To Paul, for the kenotic ethic of God to have any meaning it must be taken to its fullest extent. For Jesus to be perfectly and fully human he must undertake the “quintessential human act”45 of total and complete obedience to God. This did not have to lead to death on a cross, but in the context and situation Jesus found himself in, the cross was the only path for the love of God and his creation to be joined and reconciled in one covenantal act.46

On the cross Jesus took service, humility, and love to the furthest extent possible. There is no additional amount of love God could show, no fate more humiliating, no more sufficient way to serve creation and bring unity to the nations, than to nail the legal demands of humanity’s sin to the cross.47

That death on the cross is “the greatest instance both of humiliation and obedience”48 fits completely within the kenotic character of God. It is expressly because he fully displays all the characteristics of the holy God, that Christ obeys “to the point of death – even death on a cross.”49 To the people of Paul’s day there was hardly a more shameful way to die than on a cross. The scandal of Jesus was not just that the Messiah and God incarnate had been killed by Rome, but that he was killed on a cross of shame. For Paul, that this cross of defeat and shame was the method God chose to defeat the powers of darkness was the center of who God in Christ was.

II. Paul’s Ecclesiology

In Christ

With a detailed picture of Paul’s understanding of Christ, its implications for the people in Philippi and Colossae becomes obvious; if Christ was humanity at its full potential then those who follow him are to strive toward that fullness in the present.

Unlike the gods of Rome, God in Christ requires his followers to modify their lifestyles. In Paul’s mind there should be a very visible link between the God Christians worshiped and the way they lived their lives.50 Throughout the Old Testament, God’s chosen people are called out to live differently from the nations. Through their God-mimicking lifestyle Israel was to be a light to the nations calling all the follow and worship the one true God.51 So, too, are the followers of God in Christ to conform their lives to the life of Jesus. The people of Paul’s churches are to get rid of all the old gentile ways of their past that were contrary to the character of God52 and to walk in new ways that “embody the story of Christ”.53

Interestingly God’s requirement that his people mimic his character is not one of salvific merit. Rather, God wishes for his creation to participate in his “kenotic, cruciform character and life.”54 To be in Christ is to be conformed to Christ, which is also holiness.55 For Paul, holiness means corporate participation in the life of the triune God. In Christ could just as easily be written in God or in the Spirit.56

Without God, one is not truly human. Humanity was created to be in union with God and each other. Messiah Jesus, fully man, was the first to be in perfect union with God. Through his kenotic life and agápē-filled death on the cross, Jesus became the “firstborn from the dead,”57 the first of a new creation fully reconciled to God. Paul exhorts his churches to live in to the kenotic lifestyle set forth by the Messiah. It is within this framework that the church will find its purpose and the church will experience the transformative, communal salvation of the Servant Redeemer.

III. Practical Implications for McKendree United Methodist Church

McKendree UMC is the oldest Methodist congregation in Tennessee with 225 years of history behind her. In years past McKendree was the “mother church” of Methodism in Tennessee and her membership exceeded two-thousand members. Presently, weekly attendance is around 250 members split between two services. McKendree faces two critical issues: 1) division and mistrust between the “contemporary” service and the liturgical Methodist service and, 2) lack of focus on how best to utilize the congregation’s resources to serve and glorify God. Both critical issues can be resolved in the person of Christ as defined by Paul in Philippians and Colossians as both issues relate to disunity in the body of Christ.

For the first issues, instead of focusing on a “more perfect” way of worshiping God, the congregation should be focusing on ways to more perfectly embody the kenotic ethic taught and lived by Christ. Church leadership should encourage the two services to selflessly serve each other as Christ served. As the liturgical service lacks young children, the “contemporary” service should find ways for its children to serve as acolytes in that service. In reciprocation, people attending the liturgical service should be more willing to volunteer in the nursery and children’s church so that those of the other service can attend worship.

The second issue, too, stems from disunity in the body. As the two services act as two churches that share a building and a pastor there is a duplication and overlap of activities at the church. Often times several groups will be slowly working on the same idea without the knowledge that there are others working towards the same goal. Again, the solution is living in to the self-giving humility demonstrated by Christ. Both services need to be willing to drop their pet projects and serve under the leadership of another; even someone from the other service.

If the people of McKendree UMC can live in to the kenotic life of the Messiah, disunity will be a thing of the past, and the light of Christ will once again shine strongly in downtown Nashville. McKendree can be a light to the nations so far as she is in Christ.

  1. Col 1:2 NRSV ↩︎

  2. Johnson, Andy. “The Christological Epistles.” Class lecture, NTL675 from Nazarene Theological Seminary, Kansas City, MS, February 11-15, 2013. ↩︎

  3. Kenosis.n.d. (accessed April 4, 2013). ↩︎

  4. Col 1:15 ESV ↩︎

  5. Col 1:15 NRSV ↩︎

  6. Johnson, “The Christological Epistles.” ↩︎

  7. Marianne Meye Thompson. Colossians and Philemon (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005) 28. ↩︎

  8. This would be to move Paul’s Christology in the direction of the Arian heresy. ↩︎

  9. Exod 20:3 ESV ↩︎

  10. Thompson, Colossians and Philemon, 114. ↩︎

  11. Phil 2:6 KJV ↩︎

  12. Matt 20:12, Luke 6:34, John 5:18, Acts 11:17, Rev 21:16 ↩︎

  13. John Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, Fourth American Edition (New York: J. Soule and T. Mason, 1818), 525. ↩︎

  14. Phil 1:9 NRSV ↩︎

  15. Brad Creed, “Names of God” In , in Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, ed. Chad Brand, Charles Draper, Archie England et al. (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 1171. ↩︎

  16. Thompson, Colossians and Philemon, 7. ↩︎

  17. Col 2:2 ↩︎

  18. Col 1:16 Neue Genfer Übersetzung, author’s English translation. “Das ganze Universum wurde durch ihn geschaffen und hat in ihm sein Ziel.” ↩︎

  19. Phil 2:7 NRSV ↩︎

  20. Charles Wesley, “And Can it Be”, Psalms and Hymns, 1738. ↩︎

  21. Dean Flemming, Philippians: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition (Kansas City, MS: Beacon Hill Press, 2009), 124. ↩︎

  22. Johnson, “The Christological Espistles.” ↩︎

  23. Flemming, Philippians, 116. ↩︎

  24. This will be explored further in the section on the kenotic ethic of God. ↩︎

  25. Richard B. Hays, Justification (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 1132. ↩︎

  26. Colin Gunton, Christ and Creation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 100. ↩︎

  27. Col 1:13-14 NRSV ↩︎

  28. Michael J. Gorman. Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 118. ↩︎

  29. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God, 27. ↩︎

  30. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God, 28. ↩︎

  31. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God, 122. ↩︎

  32. Morna D. Hooker The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol. 11 (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000), 508. ↩︎

  33. Phil 2:5 ↩︎

  34. Phil 2:6-7 ↩︎

  35. Phil 2:3 ↩︎

  36. Phil 2:4 ↩︎

  37. Col 3:14 ↩︎

  38. Col 3:11 ↩︎

  39. Johnson, “The Christological Epistles.” ↩︎

  40. Mark Allan Powell, “Honor and Shame” In , in The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (Revised and Updated), ed. Mark Allan Powell, Third Edition (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), 388-89. ↩︎

  41. Flemming, Philippians, 119. ↩︎

  42. Isaiah 43 & 49, especially. ↩︎

  43. N.T. Wright Paul: In Fresh Perspective (Edinburgh: Clark/Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 96. ↩︎

  44. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God, 1. ↩︎

  45. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God, 63. ↩︎

  46. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God, 62. ↩︎

  47. Col 2:14 ↩︎

  48. Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, 525. ↩︎

  49. Phil 2:8 ↩︎

  50. Thompson, Colossians and Philemon, 40. ↩︎

  51. Isa 60:1-3 RSV “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. / For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. / And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” ↩︎

  52. Col 3:7-8 ↩︎

  53. Flemming, Phlippians, 37. ↩︎

  54. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God, 125. ↩︎

  55. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God, 2. ↩︎

  56. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God, 4. ↩︎

  57. Col 1:18 NRSV ↩︎