The Son of God: Counter-Cultural, Then and Now

By Joe Hellerman Sep. 1, 2012 10:51 a.m. Church Life, Ministry and Leadership, New Testament, Spiritual Formation

The selfless, other-centered behavior of Christ, as portrayed in Philippians 2, is striking, whatever your social location.

The following contrast shows just how radically counter-cultural Christ’s attitude toward his divine prerogatives was for those who ascended to the heights of secular power in the ancient world. Compare these two perspectives on power and authority:

Eteocles speaks here to his mother, about his status as King of Thebes, as a civil war is about to erupt between Eteocles and his brother Polyneices over who should rule the city (from Euripides, Phoenissae, trans. E. P. Coleridge, updated):

“Mother, I will tell you this without any concealment. I would ascend to the rising of the stars and the sun, or dive beneath the earth, if I were able so to do, to win a monarch’s power, the chief of things divine. Therefore, mother, I will never yield this blessing to another, but keep it for myself. For it would be a coward’s act to lose the greater and to win the less.”

Now compare Paul’s portrayal of Christ (Philippians 2:5-8, my interpretive trans.)

“Have this mindset among yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although he was clothed in a robe of divine glory, did not regard this equality with God as something to be used for his own advantage. Instead, Christ made himself nothing, taking on what amounted to slave status by becoming a human being. Then, as a human, he further humiliated himself, by obediently submitting to the most shameful form of death imaginable—death on a Roman cross.”

Jesus gave us his divine prerogatives. So, according to Eteocles, Jesus' activities constitute nothing but "a coward's act."

But what about the outcome?

The path Eteocles chose resulted in disaster (Euripides is a tragedian, after all!). Eteocles and his brother Polyneices died simultaneously from wounds received dueling with each another.

What about the outcome of the path Christ chose? The wonderful result will someday be acknowledged by all (Philippians 2:9-11):

“Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and graced him with renown above all renown, so that at Jesus’ name every sentient being will humbly bow, in heaven on earth and under the earth, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

So, who really “lost the greater and won the less,” as Eteocles puts it, above? The one who sought to preserve his status? Or the one who selflessly surrendered it—"made himself nothing" (cf. NIV, ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν, v. 7)—in the service of others?

Got a college or seminary degree? Got a lot of money? Are you a pastor? Someone's boss? A parent? A teacher? A college professor?

What will we choose to do with the status and authority that God has given to us?

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