“Therefore 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.” Philippians 2:9–11
For Jesus Christ, the way to exaltation was crucifixion.
This passage is part of a hymn sung in the early church that celebrates the deity, humility, death, exaltation, and worship of Jesus Christ. The hymn’s theme is tied to the mystery of the incarnation—Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human.
As Paul recounts, though Christ was “in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (2:6). Instead, Jesus “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant. . . being found in human form” (2:7–8). The Creator of all things humbled himself and was “conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.”
Christ willingly took the form of a servant in order to give up his life for us, as he told his disciples: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Paul writes, “He humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (2:8).
The phrase “even death on a cross” emphasizes that the form of Jesus’ death revealed the extent of his humility, for crucifixion was not only brutally painful, but horribly degrading as well. In fact, Roman citizens could not legally be crucified. Crucifixion was reserved for foreigners, slaves, and criminals. From his birth in a barn to his death between two thieves, Jesus identified with all of humanity, including the outcasts.
In the New Testament, Jesus’ death on the cross is not emphasized for its painfulness and degradation, but for what it accomplished: full payment for the sins of the world. He is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
In his death on the cross, Jesus went to the lowest depths. But three days later he was raised to life and exalted to the highest heights: “Therefore God has highly exalted him” (2:9). After enduring the cross, Jesus now “is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1–2).
God intends for Jesus Christ to be worshiped by all creation. God exalted him “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” (2:10–11). A fluke of the Greek grammar leads the ESV to translate the phrase as “every knee should bow,” but this should not be understood as conveying what ought to happen—it’s what will happen. This becomes clearer when we realize that the line is an allusion to Isaiah 45:22–23:
Turn to me and be saved,
all the ends of the earth!
For I am God, and there is no other.
By myself I have sworn;
from my mouth has gone out in righteousness
a word that shall not return:
‘To me every knee shall bow,
every tongue shall swear allegiance.’
By applying this declaration to Jesus, the hymn powerfully affirms that he is God. In addition, the hymn declares that every knee will bow “in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” This again is a massive claim of Jesus’ deity, because it says that all beings, including angels and demons, will bow and confess to this Jesus. Such a claim could never be made about a mere human—only God could receive such worship.
We worship the exalted Jesus Christ because of who he is (Lord of all creation), and because of what he did for us in his death and resurrection: Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:24).