Is Jesus Called Yahweh in Philippians 2?
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, Phil. 2:11 actually announces that “Jesus Christ is Yahweh.” 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.
The rather significant problem with this assumption is that the very next verse specifies the name in question as Jesus: “(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. . .”
Nevertheless, Bowman claims that only in verse 11 are we actually told the “name that is above every name” – and it’s not the name Jesus. Instead, it’s kurios (Lord), which allegedly stands for the proper name Yahweh. Yet he fails to mention that the rest of the letter uniformly applies the word kurios to Jesus as a title rather than a proper name (e.g. 1:2, 3:8, 3:20, 4:23). Indeed, the internal evidence doesn’t favor Bowman’s view. But how does his claim fare in light of other Biblical data?
The Ephesians 1 Connection
Ephesians 1 provides additional insight into the elevation of Jesus’ name.3 In vss. 20-22, Paul declares that 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 that the Father is the God of our Lord Jesus Christ (vs. 17). The word kurios (Lord) in this verse is both distinct from and beneath the name Yahweh, who is the God of that Lord.
The point in both Phil. 2:10 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 authority over the created order. But the name in question is still Jesus, and according to Paul, Jesus is still subject to his God, whose name is Yahweh.
Paul’s reference to Jesus being seated at the “right hand” of God confirms this distinction between Jesus and Yahweh; it is 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 Yahweh, thereby explicitly distinguishing him from Yahweh.
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 phrase “Jesus is Lord” in Phil. 2:11 does not identify Jesus as Yahweh. It identifies him as the Ps. 110:1 Lord seated beside Yahweh. Jesus has been given “the name that is above every name” with respect to the created order. In Pauline thought, the plain exception to “every name” is the name of Jesus’ own God, much like the plain exception to “all things” being placed under Jesus’ feet is God himself (1 Cor. 15:27).6
2. The speaker in Isaiah 45:23 is Yahweh, but Paul applies it to Jesus.
Paul’s allusion to Isaiah 45 in the Carmen Christi has led many to believe that he must be identifying Jesus as Yahweh. Bowman sets up the comparison between Isaiah 45 and Philippians 2 this way: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 comparison in more detail, it should first be noted that Paul distinguishes Jesus from God both explicitly and implicitly in the verses leading up to the passage in question. Jesus is the anointed (christos), while God is the anointer (vs. 5); Jesus died, while God raised him from death (vs. 8); Jesus was exalted, while God did the exalting (vs. 9).8
Nevertheless, most interpreters presume that Paul applies Isaiah 45 to Jesus and therefore must be identifying Jesus as Yahweh. But it turns out that Paul does not apply Isaiah 45 to Jesus alone. In the LXX, Isaiah 45:23 is only the beginning of a sentence that continues on into the next verse, where 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 Yahweh in Isaiah 45:24 parallels the glory received by God the Father in Phil. 2:11. Paul has thus identified the speaker in Isaiah 45 as none other than God the Father. This is confirmed by another interesting allusion to Isaiah 45:24 in Philippians 1:
|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 Yahweh (Is. 45:24) does so through Jesus (Phil. 1:11).10 In other words, Yahweh is the recipient of the righteousness, while Jesus is the agent who delivers that righteousness to him.
These two allusions show that Paul is applying Isaiah 45:23-24 LXX not only to Jesus but also to the Father. It is thus significant that Paul identifies the Father as God, while he identifies Jesus as Lord. In the previous section of this article we showed that the word Lord as used in Philippians 2 refers to the human Lord seated at the right hand of Yahweh (Ps. 110:1).
How Paul Applies Isaiah 45 to Jesus
If Paul is not identifying Jesus as Yahweh, how exactly is he applying Is. 45:23-24 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.11
One such example occurs in Isaiah 49, a passage that expands upon Isaiah 45 in significant ways.12 Here we find the Messianic Servant calling upon Yahweh his God for vindication in the face of rejection (Is. 49:4-5). In turn, Yahweh declares that he will first save his servant, and then make him the source of salvation for the very nations that rejected him:
|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 (Yahweh), 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 (Yahweh’s) sake, because the Holy One of Israel is faithful, and I have chosen you.”|
While Isaiah 45 is certainly accurate in saying that Yahweh is the origin of man’s salvation and the ultimate recipient of man’s worship, it is not the complete picture. Isaiah 49 unpacks the soteriologial plan further by explaining how Yahweh will accomplish the salvation described in Isaiah 45: he will deliver his righteous servant and then establish this servant as his royal vice-regent.
According to Isaiah 49, the nations do not worship this exalted servant as Yahweh; rather, they worship him “for Yahweh’s sake.” That is, they worship him as Yahweh’s vindicated human king who now rules on his behalf, and in so doing, they also acknowledge Yahweh as the supreme God.13
It is this Suffering Servant soteriology that stands behind the magnificent hymn known as the Carmen Christi. The story of Yahweh’s salvation is condensed into a compact creed that highlights the humble sacrifice and subsequent exaltation of Jesus, yet ultimately magnifies his God Yahweh, the one God of Israel, above all.
These two common claims used to argue that Jesus is identified as Yahweh in Phil. 2:9-11 are rooted in doctrinal pre-commitments that regrettably fail the test of careful Biblical scrutiny. Upon closer examination, we find that neither “the name that is above every name” nor the application of Isaiah 45 to Jesus suggests that Paul thought Jesus was Yahweh. To the contrary, the apostle remains consistent in making a sharp distinction between Yahweh God and Jesus Christ, whose faithful obedience was rewarded with a seat at Yahweh’s right hand.
- Robert Bowman, Putting Jesus In His Place, p. 165-166. ↵
- Bowman, pp. 166-167. His second reason relies upon the fact that extant NT manuscripts replace the divine name with the generic title Lord (kurios) when citing OT passages. Although the phrase “Jesus Christ is Lord” is not itself an OT citation, he supposes that it follows from the OT allusion Paul applied to Jesus in the previous verse. ↵
- Bowman recognizes 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 Yahweh. 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 Phil. 2:11. Neither title identifies Jesus as Yahweh, for even in Revelation he is still identified by the proper name Jesus, and is depicted at the right hand (Rev. 5:7) of Yahweh, who remains his God (Rev. 3:2,12). ↵
- Bowman, p. 167. ↵
- A discussion on Phil. 2:6-7, which describes Jesus being in the form (morphe) of God and the taking form (morphe) of a servant, is beyond the scope of this article. It will suffice to note that being in the form of something is not to be that thing, but rather to represent that thing, in the same way that Adam being made in the image of God does not mean that Adam is God but rather that he in represents God by bearing his image. Thus even some Trinitiarian scholars think these verses refer to not Jesus’ pre-existence but rather to his human existence as the Last Adam, in deliberate contrast to the first Adam (see e.g. James Dunn, Christology in the Making, p. 114ff). For a detailed scholarly analysis of the Greek word morphe and the role it plays in the Carmen Christi, see https://www.academia.edu/39533090/Philippians_2_5-11_-Revisited. ↵
- 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. ↵
- 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 Phil. 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 Yahweh 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. ↵