Philippians Day Eight
September 30, 2020, 5:00 AM

And Can it Be; How Could it Not?
Philippians 2:6-7, 10-11

…Though he was in the form of God,
did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
but emptied himself…

…At the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord…

In Charles Wesley’s timeless hymn, “And Can it Be,” there is a stanza that drives some pastors into a state of pother. One of my pastors, early on in my Christian walk, flat out refused to include the verse in congregational singing. Here it is:

He left His Father’s throne above—
So free, so infinite His grace—
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race:
’Tis mercy all, immense and free,
For, O my God, it found out me!

That line, “Emptied Himself…” —Jesus, the Son of God, was God in the flesh. God cannot not be God. He cannot “empty” His God-ness, for goodness sake! –So the reasoning went. I’ll confess, for many years, I followed this line of thinking. This is what I caught from those from whom I was taught. Besides, Wesley was one of the original Methodists, along with his brother. What did He know about the Bible?

Well, turns out he knew quite a bit, and knew it well. He knew this passage in Philippians – He emptied himself (2:7) – which is known as the Great Kenosis. Kenosis in Greek means “emptying.” This means that Jesus willingly relinquished his Divine prerogatives. The Kenosis of Christ began at the Incarnation. One writer, reflecting on this kenotic aspect of Jesus notes, “The Nativity is astonishing. Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, was born of a woman. The King of the Universe entered the world as a fragile infant, a bundle of needs who was utterly dependent on his mother. What a terrifying fact. The vulnerability of Our Savior’s gestation and early life is enough to take your breath away.” (Church Life Journal, The Advent Corrective to Locke's Lonely Liberalism by Sofia Carozza, December 3, 2018). That’s kenosis.

Nevertheless, Jesus was never not God. As you read through the Gospels, not just the Gospel of John, Jesus still does things only God can do. He is referred to as only God is referred to. Jesus understands Himself to be exactly who He is. He never doubts it – Take a hike, Jesus Christ, Superstar and Godspell! – He is not a reluctant messiah. He knows His call from day one at the Jordan River, where John the Baptist anoints Him in baptism. And yet, Jesus is born a human infant. He subjects Himself to His earthly mother and father. He is a man of modest means – Never knowing the halls of rich palaces. Hungering, tiring, angering, grieving, laughing, crying — all the range of human emotions, save sin (2 Cor. 5:21, Heb. 4:15, 1 Peter 2:22, 1 John 3:5), Jesus was enfleshed in our stuff.

This “emptying” is the means by which the writer to the Hebrews can declare Jesus the perfect High Priest and once-and-for-ever-sufficient-sacrifice for salvation. Undoing the curse of Adam, commencing the death of death, unlocking the gate to Eden, and making citizenship in the New Jerusalem possible. To quote another great line from Mr. Wesley, “Mild he lays his glory by, born that man no more may die.” Praise God!

There is one other controversial passage that I want to speak to before closing this blog entry. In the great reversal at the Cross, where shame was exchanged for glory; and death exchanged for life, it is declared, “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, 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.” (Phil. 2:9-11).

The controversy here is, if every knee would bow, and if every tongue would confess that Jesus is Lord; doesn’t that mean everyone would eventually be saved? Pastorally, the question has come up many times throughout the years. Too, I’ve read many a theologian who stand to the left of me, latching onto this passage as a hint of hope that God may be exceptionally gracious in the end. This is a ray of light, albeit a microscopic sliver, that says, “Hmmm, maybeee. Maybe God will save everyone.” (Excepting, of course, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, etc. etc. etc.)

My conviction is that we must read Scripture whole–istically to read it aright. As the Westminster Confession teaches, “The infallible standard for the interpretation of the Bible is the Bible itself. And so, any question about the true and complete sense of a passage in the Bible (which is a unified whole) can be answered by referring to other passages which speak more plainly.” (WCF 1.9). In other words, Scripture interprets Scripture. We must see one verse in the context of all Scripture. In this case, we know from other places in Scripture that Jesus speaks of eternal judgment, hell and the second death. The words of Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46 are beyond sobering. And, throughout the Gospels, Jesus speaks of a hell of eternal judgment more often than we might dare to think. (Or want to think!) Universal salvation doesn’t read consistently within the Story.

Reading Philippians 2:9-11 in context with the whole of Scripture, it seems to me to lead in the direction of every knee
bowing— believing and unbelieving— and every tongue— believing and unbelieving— confessing Jesus is indeed Lord. Bowing and confessing here not meaning salvation; but acknowledging God for who God is. Recognizing His rightful Lordship. Truth will shine at this moment through the haze of lifelong apostasy, irreligion, skepticism, and cynicism, alas, too late. There will be a Day of such revelation. Unbelief leads to hardened hearts— apathy to some, hostility in others, to the things of God. Those paths terminate in eternal separation from God. Hell is real. The scene is vivid in Revelation. That’s what I believe, along with the witness of over two thousand years of Christian orthodoxy.

But I do confess… I will live my life seeing every human being as a potential child of God. I will live my life knowing that only God can judge righteously, treasuring that God is “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin” (Exod. 34:6-7) – knowing, cautiously, the balance of that passage, “Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” (Exod. 34:7). But where there’s life and breath, there’s an opportunity to turn and be saved! St. Yogi (Berra) said it well, “It ain’t over till it’s over.” With my Progressive colleagues in ministry, I too, will hold out hope that perhaps God will do something special; something surprising at that Day. At every funeral officiated, I can’t preach anybody into heaven; and certainly, can’t consign anyone to hell. I preach the Good News of God, in Jesus Christ. The witness of His resurrection, the power of His Spirit— always keeping 2 Peter 2:9 on the tip of the tongue— God “is patient…, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” I cherish that thought!

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