Is Jesus Called YHWH in Philippians 2:11?
The famous Philippians 2 hymn known as the Carmen Christi is one of the earliest creedal statements in Christianity. Believers throughout the history of the church have echoed Paul’s climactic Philippians 2:11 confession that “Jesus Christ is Lord.” But what exactly does this confession entail?
In his book Putting Jesus In His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ, Robert Bowman argues that the word “Lord” in this verse stands for the divine name “YHWH.”1 Thus, claims Bowman, Philippians 2:11 actually announces that “Jesus Christ is YHWH.” He offers two reasons to think this is the case:
First, Paul states categorically that Jesus has ‘the name that is above every name’ (v. 9). In a Jewish context, that name, of course, would be YHWH, and the immediately following affirmation that Jesus is “Lord” (kurios) confirms that to be the name. Second, Paul’s statement alludes to a passage in Isaiah about YHWH.2
At first blush these reasons seem plausible. But upon closer examination, serious problems emerge. We will consider each of Bowman’s claims in turn.
1. “The name that is above every name” must be YHWH.
Bowman assumes that the only possible name Paul could be thinking of here is the divine name, YWHW. The rather significant problem with this assumption is that the next verse tells us otherwise:
(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.
Nevertheless, Bowman claims that we not told “the name that is above every name” until we reach verse 11 and encounter the word Lord (kurios), which allegedly stands for the proper name YHWH. This claim is based upon the fact that the New Testament replaces the name YHWH with the word Lord (kurios) when quoting Old Testament passages that use the divine name. One such example is found in Romans 9:29, which quotes Isaiah 1:9. The OT verse has the name YHWH, but when Romans 9:29 quotes it, YHWH is replaced with Lord.
However, in the case of Philippians 2:11, which quotes Isaiah 45:23, the word Lord is not a direct substitution for YHWH. We know this because the name YHWH does not appear at all in the original Hebrew of Isaiah 45:23. Rather, Paul has inserted a completely new phrase – “Jesus Christ is Lord” – into his citation of Is. 45:23, and Bowman has made a subjective judgment about what that insertion means.
By implication, Bowman’s interpretation has Paul saying something that would have been more than a little confusing to his first century audience – every tongue will confess “Jesus Christ is YHWH to the glory of YHWH the Father.” This neglects the fact that Paul applies the word Lord to Jesus as a title rather than a proper name throughout the rest of Philippians (e.g. “the Lord Jesus Christ” in 1:2, 3:20, and 4:23, and “Jesus my Lord” in 3:8). This fact, taken together with Paul’s explicit statement in Phil. 2:10, confirms that the name in view is not YHWH but Jesus.
Let us now expand our investigation to see how Bowman’s claim fares in light of other related Biblical data.
The Ephesians 1 Connection
Ephesians 1 provides additional insight into the Philippians 2 elevation of Jesus’ name.3 According to Eph. 1:20-22, Jesus has been seated at the right hand of the Father, which is a position “above every name that is named.” But we are also told in Eph. 1:17 that the Father is the God of our Lord Jesus Christ. Here the word Lord (kurios) is clearly both distinct from and beneath YHWH, who is the God of that Lord.
The point in both Phil. 2:10-11 and Eph. 1:21, then, is that the name of Jesus underwent a change in status from humiliation at the crucifixion to exaltation at the ascension. God elevated it above every other name in the created order, which is another way of saying that he gave Jesus total authority over the created order. But the name in question is still Jesus, and according to Paul, Jesus is still subject to his God YHWH.
The fact that Jesus is seated at the “right hand” of God in Eph. 1:20 confirms this distinction between Jesus and YHWH; it’s a direct allusion to Psalm 110:1, the quintessential passage used to stake out the Lordship of Jesus over 20 times the New Testament.4 Psalm 110:1 depicts a human Lord seated at the right hand of YHWH, thereby explicitly distinguishing him from YHWH.
New Testament scholar Darrell Bock puts it bluntly: “[T]here is no question that the Hebrew text of Ps. 110 clearly distinguishes between God and this figure; the terms are distinct in Hebrew.”5
Thus the immediate context in Philippians and the wider context of the New Testament both confirm that the phrase “Jesus is Lord” in Philippians 2:11 does not identify Jesus as YHWH. It identifies him as the Ps. 110:1 Lord seated beside YHWH.
This permanent right-hand enthronement has established the name Jesus as “the name that is above every name” in the created order. In Pauline thought, however, the plain exception to “every name” is the name of Jesus’ own God (cf. Eph. 1:17), much like the plain exception to “all things” placed under Jesus’ feet is God himself (cf. 1 Cor. 15:27).6
2. The speaker in Isaiah 45:23 is YHWH, but Paul applies it to Jesus.
For Bowman, the allusion to Isaiah 45:23 in Philippians 2:10-11 seals the deal. He illustrates Paul’s Old Testament allusion with the following comparison table:7
|Isaiah 45:23 LXX||Philippians 2:10-11|
|“to me every knee shall bend, and every tongue shall swear.” kampsei pan gonu kai exomologesetai pasa glossa||“that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend [pan gonu kampse], in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess [kai pasa glossa exomologesetai] that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”|
Before we consider this in more detail, it should first be noted that Paul expressly distinguishes Jesus from God just prior to the passage Bowman cites: in vss. 5-9, Jesus is the obedient servant who submits to death on a cross, while God is the one who responds by exalting Jesus to a position of authority.8
Yet most interpreters simply assume that Paul is applying Isaiah 45 to Jesus alone. Based on this presupposition, they infer that Paul must be identifying Jesus as YHWH. But in the LXX, Isaiah 45:23 is only the beginning of a sentence that continues on into the next verse. And in that verse we find another crucial parallel to Paul’s commentary:9
|Isaiah 45:23-24 LXX (NETS)||Philippians 2:10-11 (ESV)|
|(23) By myself I swear, “Verily righteousness shall go forth from my mouth; my words shall not be turned back, because to me every knee shall bow and every tongue shall acknowledge God, (24) saying, Righteousness and glory [doxa] shall come to him, and all who separated themselves shall be ashamed.”||(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 [doxa] of God the Father.|
The glory given to YHWH in Isaiah 45:24 parallels the glory received by God the Father in Philippians 2:11. Thus Paul has identified YHWH, the speaker in Isaiah 45, as God the Father. The honor given to Jesus is ultimately directed to YHWH God – a figure whom Paul portrays as both distinct from and above Jesus. We find confirmation of this in yet another allusion to Isaiah 45:24 that appears in Philippians 1:10
|Isaiah 45:23-24 LXX (NETS)||Philippians 1:10-11 (ESV)|
|(23) By myself I swear, “Verily righteousness shall go forth from my mouth; my words shall not be turned back, because to me every knee shall bow and every tongue shall acknowledge God, (24) saying, Righteousness [dikaiosune] and glory [doxa] shall come to him, and all who separated themselves shall be ashamed.”||(10) so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, (11) filled with the fruit of righteousness [dikaiosune] that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory [doxa] and praise of God.|
Here Paul reveals that the righteousness destined to come to YHWH (Is. 45:24) does so through Jesus (Phil. 1:11).11 In other words, YHWH is the recipient of the righteousness, while Jesus is the agent who delivers that righteousness to him.
These two allusions make it clear that Paul is applying Isaiah 45:23-24 to both Jesus and the Father. But he identifies the Father as God, while he identifies Jesus as the subordinate Lord. In the previous section of this article we showed that the word Lord here refers to the human Lord seated at the right hand of YHWH (Ps. 110:1).
How Paul Applies Isaiah 45 to Jesus
If Paul is not identifying Jesus as YHWH, why does he apply Is. 45:23 to Jesus? The answer is found within the book of Isaiah itself. Indeed, scholars widely consider the Servant of the Lord passages in Isaiah to be a strong candidate for the OT background of the Carmen Christi.12
One such example occurs in a passage that expands upon Isaiah 45 in significant ways. Isaiah 49:4-5 describes the Messianic Servant calling upon his God YHWH for vindication in the face of rejection. YHWH then replies in vss. 6-7 with the following declaration that aligns with the salvation described in Isaiah 45:22-24:13
|Isaiah 45:22-24 LXX (NETS)||Isaiah 49:6b-7 LXX (NETS)|
|(22) Turn to me, and you shall be saved, you who are from the end of the earth! I am God, and there is no other. (23) By myself I swear, “Verily righteousness shall go forth from my mouth; my words shall not be turned back, because to me every knee shall bow and every tongue shall acknowledge God, (24) saying, Righteousness and glory shall come to him (YHWH), and all who separated themselves shall be ashamed.”||(6) …See, I have made you (the Messiah) a light of nations, that you may be for salvation to the end of the earth.” (7) Thus says the Lord who delivered you, the God of Israel: “Sanctify him who despises his own soul, who is abhorred by the nations, the slaves of rulers; kings shall see him (the Messiah), and rulers shall stand up and do obeisance to him for the Lord’s (YHWH’s) sake, because the Holy One of Israel is faithful, and I have chosen you.”|
Isaiah 49 unpacks the soteriologial plan further by explaining how the salvation will be accomplished: YHWH will first grant salvation to his own righteous servant (Is. 49:8), and then make his vindicated servant the mediator through whom that same salvation will be extended to the rest of the world (Is. 49:6).
It should be carefully noticed that the nations do not worship this exalted servant as YHWH himself. Indeed, we are told in Is. 49:4-5 that YHWH is the God of this servant. The nations instead worship the servant “for YHWH’s sake” (Is. 49:7). That is, they honor and obey him because they know he is YHWH’s chosen human king who now rules on his behalf. In so doing, they acknowledge YHWH as the supreme God – precisely as Is. 45:23 states.14
Paul deftly inserts this Suffering Servant soteriology into his modified Isaiah 45:23-24 allusion through the succinct statement “Jesus Christ is Lord” (which also calls to mind the key Messianic Lordship text of Ps. 110:1). In this way, the story of YHWH’s salvation is condensed into a memorable creed that highlights the humble sacrifice and subsequent exaltation of the Lord Jesus, yet ultimately magnifies his God YHWH, the one God of Israel, above all.
These two claims used to argue that Jesus is identified as YHWH in Philippians 2:9-11 regrettably fail the test of careful Biblical scrutiny. Upon closer examination, we find that neither the phrase “the name that is above every name” nor the application of Isaiah 45 to Jesus suggests that Paul is calling Jesus YHWH in Phil. 2:11. To the contrary, throughout his letter to the Philippians the apostle consistently distinguishes YHWH God from Jesus Christ, whose faithful obedience was rewarded with an exalted seat at YHWH’s right hand.
- Robert Bowman, Putting Jesus In His Place, p. 165-166. ↵
- Bowman, pp. 166-167. ↵
- He acknowledges the connection between these two passages on p. 131. ↵
- http://www.hebrew-streams.org/works/texts/ps110-list.html ↵
- Darrell L. Bock, The Gospel of Luke 9:51-25:53, p. 1639. In the Hebrew Masoretic Text, all 194 OT occurrences of the word adoni (used of the second lord in Ps. 110:1) refer strictly to humans or occasionally angels, and never once to YHWH. Some apologists claim that the LXX translation of the second Lord in Ps. 110:1 as kurios mou allows for the possibility that the original Hebrew in the first century was adonai (typically a divine reference) rather than adoni. For a thorough refutation of this assertion, see Jaco van Zyl’s paper “Psalm 110:1 and the Status of the Second Lord –Trinitarian Arguments Challenged”. ↵
- This aligns Paul with the exalted Lord Jesus, who is careful to distinguish “the name of my God” from “my own new name” in Rev. 3:12. In Rev. 19 we are told that Jesus is given the name Word of God (19:13) and King of Kings and Lord of Lords (19:16). Both of these “names” are actually titles, much like the title Lord is associated with the name Jesus in Philippians 2:11. Neither of these two titles in Revelation identifies Jesus as YHWH, for even in this book he is still identified by the proper name Jesus, and is depicted at the right hand (Rev. 5:7) of YHWH, who remains his God (Rev. 3:2,12). ↵
- Bowman, p. 167. ↵
- An exposition of the passage that contrasts Jesus “in the form of God” vs. the “form of a servant” (Phil 2:6-8) can be found in this excellent article. ↵
- The NETS version of LXX Isaiah can be downloaded here: http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/nets/edition/33-esaias-nets.pdf ↵
- Paul also uses the Is. 45:24 keyword “ashamed“ (aischunomai) in the same eschatological sense in Phil. 1:20: “it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed (aischunomai), but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body.” Furthermore, Paul cites Is. 45:23 almost verbatim in Rom. 14:11, and within the same pericope (comprised of Rom. 14:1-15:7) we find the Is. 45:24 keyword “righteousness“ (dikaiosune) in vs. 14:17, and the keyword “glory” (doxa) in vs. 15:7. ↵
- In Phil. 1:11, the righteousness first comes through Jesus to believers via the Holy Spirit, so that believers may be presented to God as righteous in the eschaton (cp. 1 Cor. 15:24, 49). ↵
- Gordon Fee writes: “Paul and the early church were quick to see that Christ’s “servanthood” was ultimately fulfilled in the “pouring out of his life unto death” (Is. 53:12) for the sake of others. It is hard to imagine that early Christians, therefore, would not rather automatically have heard this passage (Phil. 2:5-11) with that background in view, especially since that passage begins (Is. 52:13) the way this one ends, with the Servant’s exaltation by God.” Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, p. 262. ↵
- Scholars have noted the likelihood that Paul alludes to Is. 49:4 (“I have labored in vain”) in Philippians 2:16 (“so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain“). See, e.g., Ralph P. Martin, TNTC Philippians; Peter T. O’Brien, NIGTC Philippians. ↵
- This recalls the prophecy in Is. 45:14 where the nations bow before corporate Israel, recognizing that YHWH God himself is fighting for them. We find a similar example in 1 Chron. 29:20, where Israel worships both God and King David at the same time. They are not identifying David as God but rather recognizing him as God’s chosen ruler. ↵