The divinity trap

Not omniscient, but certain of their own superiority. Not omnipotent, but securing and defending their rights with all their might. It is in this way that human beings set a trap for themselves. Paul shows how to get out of it—a letter that warrants reading together.

Sometimes we hear a familiar hymn verse from the altar—not sung, but cited aloud. It was quite similar for the Philippians when Apostle Paul wrote his letter to them. The words we today reference as Philippians 2: 6–11 were already quite familiar to them: they comprised a hymn about Christ—likely one of the oldest texts of the New Testament, taken from one of the earliest divine services.

Paul is writing from prison, presumably in Ephesus, where his missionary work has run afoul of the souvenir industry of the cult of Artemis. He is writing to a congregation that he is especially fond of, which he had taken great pains to establish, and which is home to the superwoman Lydia and a former chief prison guard.

Light and shadows in Philippi

The Apostle praises the Philippians to the heavens, and speaks of love and often of joy, but does not spare them admonition either. He wants the fellowship of their congregation to continue beaming far and wide like a beacon. He wants to protect them from external dangers and—most acutely—from internal threats.

He writes about discord in the church, about egoism and the desire for recognition. Paul even mentions names, such as Evodia and Syntyche, leading personalities, women of influence who were held in high esteem, possibly rectors of house churches. Yet his appeals are also addressed to the church as a whole.

More or less divinity?

In the familiar hymn, he draws attention to the example of Christ—and not only the fact that the Son of God became Man. He never held fast to His divinity or tried to derive advantages from it for Himself. He fully divested Himself of His divinity and made Himself a slave for the good cause of God, the Father. That is also how the original Greek text can be quite literally summarised.

But what does this have to do with us human beings? They are not confronted with any such “divinity trap”, are they? And how! Adam already fell into this trap. It was not quite enough for the archetype of all humanity to have been created in the image of God. Rather, he reached for a greater measure of divinity—and in the end even lost his nearness to God as a result.

Human beings in the trap

This still applies to human beings today: we may not be omniscient, but we know one thing for sure, namely how right we are. And everyone had better acknowledge that. We may not be omnipotent, but one thing we try to do with all our might is fight for our rights when injustice is done to us. And we make sure everyone knows about it. And that is how we cling to our (supposed) superiority.

It is precisely in our life of faith that we run into such divinity traps. It begins in the congregation (“non-Christian music”, “no wedding garment”, “was not welcomed”). And it extends to the whole global Church (ordination of women? “Must happen!” “Must never happen!”). And it doesn’t even stop with eternal glory: how many sealed believers think that they will have special status in the new creation! And yet the Chief Apostle has long made it clear that once God is “all in all”, it will be impossible for anyone to be closer, better, or more divine!

The courage to serve

So it is that Paul presents the only true solution, not only to the Philippians but to all people today, in the hymn to Christ: we must put aside our own advantage and status, and commit ourselves to the service of the good cause.

No human being is capable of doing this to the same degree that Jesus did. But everyone can try to do his best. “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful,” says Paul in another letter (to the Corinthians), and in so doing, sets the standard by which each one can measure his actions. And so it is that even after millennia, the appeal of the prophet Amos still applies: “Seek good.”

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Andreas Rother
Bible, Divine service