Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
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.
(Philippians 2:9-11)

In history there were people who, when the name “Jesus” was uttered, would literally bow: a pre-emptive obeisance perhaps. I suppose that most people, reading this passage, would think that “the name above every other name” is “Jesus” because we’re used to hearing the abstract noun “name” connected with a proper name, like “Philip” or “Chloe”.

In Biblical and later times, a name wasn’t just a label; it referred to who you were and what you did. If your name was David and you shod horses for a living, you’d be called David the Farrier; for simplicity, David Farrier. If Margaret was a cook, she would be known as Margaret (the) Cook.

When God renamed Abraham and Jacob – and when Jesus gave Simeon the name Peter – He was giving them a new identity. Abram became the “father of many peoples”, Jacob became Israel, “he (who) wrestles with God”, and Simeon the reed became Peter the rock.

Jesus’ name isn’t quite like this: its Hebrew equivalent is Yeshoshua (“God saves”). In whatever transliteration you read it though, is “Jesus” the name above all others? By now you should be guessing that my answer is “No”. Here’s why.

There were, and are, people who have been named Jesus. In first century Palestine “Jesus” was a common name, like John or Peter or David or Michael. Are we to suppose then that everyone called “Jesus” should be bowed to? Are people called “Jess” or “Jean” to be honoured more highly than we whose names, shaken out in the lottery of parental whim, don’t include any of those letters? The “o”, “e” and “s” in my moniker should get me a little respect, even though the latter two letters are in the wrong order. Why should Yosemite Sam be considered a bad guy when Bugs Bunny himself can only boast an “s” and a “y” in comparison? However, Elmer Fudd seems properly cast.

So no, the combination of consonants and vowels that form “Jesus” is not “the name” above every other name. So what is Jesus’ worshipful name then? Look at the text again with a little emphasis (mine of course):

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
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.

What is the appropriate response to a king? To bow, yes? That is what the name of Jesus means – it refers to who He is and what He does: He is Lord. This is the reason we (will) bow.

If you’re better with numbers or things than with words, you might be looking at the third line and exclaiming “But it says right there that ‘at the name of Jesus’ ..!” To which I reply: Yes, it does say that; but what does it not say? If the proper name “Jesus” were the word at which we will bow, the text would rather say “at the name ‘Jesus’ every knee should bow” – there would be no “of”; no possessive pronoun.

The text is not
“at the name ‘Jesus’ ”
but
“at the name of Jesus”

The text as we have it means “at the name that Jesus possesses”; that God gave Him. When we read that

God … gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow

the first line describes God’s action and the second line describes why He acted as He did (the “purpose clause”). This means that God gave Jesus the highest name so that Jesus would be honoured. This means we still have to find out – as if it was in doubt! – what this name is. And we do, in verse 11: Lord. As the end of the paean or creed, it’s a fit for the beginning: “who, being in very nature God”. And in the middle, we find the counterpoint: that God became man and, even more humiliating, died as a condemned criminal. The whole section is I think an instance of inverse parallelism (if I remember the terms correctly). This is where the first and fourth lines, stanzas or concepts match each other thematically, as do the second and third. If we attribute letters to the lines, then we’d have ABBA:

A – highest place as God;
B – low(est) place as human and servant;
B – lowest place as condemned criminal;
A – highest place as Lord of all.

(The whole block of text may have been akin to a poem or, crudely, a jingle, which early believers memorised.)

What makes more sense: that we worship Jesus because He is called “Jesus”, or because He is Lord of and over everything? Which one would glorify the Father more?

copyright Troy Grisgonelle 2008.

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