The “honor-status reversal” motif in Scripture, part 1

Honor-status reversal is a major motif in the Bible
Honor-status reversal is a major motif in the Bible

According to the dictionary on my computer, a motif is “a distinctive feature or dominant idea in an artistic or literary composition.” I contend in this post that “honor-status reversal” is a major motif in Scripture.

One classic example in Scripture of honor-status reversal is found in the Apostle Paul’s description of our Lord Jesus Christ in Philippians 2:

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 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 2:5–11 ESV)

Jesus Christ was with the Father in the honor and glory of heaven in eternity past. His honor status was infinitely high. Christ was in His “pre-incarnate glory.”

But Jesus willingly allowed for his honor status to be reversed. He “emptied himself” … descending through the Incarnation … born fully human to the virgin Mary … “taking the form of a servant”.

He humbled himself further by dying, “even death on a cross”—the most shameful and ignominious destiny a man could endure. This was his humiliation.

But his destiny on earth was not the end of the story. The pre-incarnate glory and honor he once had in heaven, then willingly lost, was to be regained and then magnified as he rose from the dead and sat down at the right hand of the Father. Again, this is an example of honor-status reversal—also known as Christ’s exaltation.

It bears repeating:

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 ESV)

The significance of these verses cannot be overstated. As Christians, we believe that the incarnation of Jesus Christ is the crux of human history. That it constitutes the most dramatic account of honor-status reversal has wonderful implications for cross-cultural Christian ministry.

Here’s another example of honor-status reversal from the words of Jesus:

“Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great.” (Luke 9:48 ESV)

Karl Reich, author of Figuring Jesus: The Power of Rhetorical Figures of Speech in the Gospel of Luke, explains honor-status reversal this way:

The very words “least” and “greatest” would automatically call up the thought of the Greco-Roman honor-shame system which was ultimately concerned with greatness. Malina and Rohr argue that this verse cuts at the very heart of of the honor-shame system. They write, “A squabble over honor status would be typical within any ancient Mediterranean grouping … Jesus’ reversal of the expected order challenges the usual assumptions about what is honorable in a very fundamental way.”

Referring to this verse, “And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (Luke 13:30 ESV), the author continues:

… The pithy comment stays with the audience because of its compact and forceful nature and its enigmatic message. The transformation of polar opposites into their antithesis is unthinkable. The saying of the Lukan Jesus undermines the honor-shame system by proclaiming a reversal of roles.”

The dynamic of honor-status reversal occurs in Paul’s description of the incarnation in his letter to the Philippians. We have seen it briefly in the teachings of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel. But it must be noted that honor-status reversal is present throughout Scripture. Otherwise it cannot be considered a motif. Consider:

  • Adam and Even were “sent out from the Garden of Eden”—they left the glory and honor of perfect fellowship with God and were shamed by their rebellion to live apart from the honorable presence with God. The honor of their fellowship with God was reversed to a permanent condition of guilt, fear and shame.
  • The story of Abraham is a story of a wealthy man who is called by God to leave the very source of honor—his father, his kinship, his homeland: “…Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Gen 12:1). But consider the immense honor he is promised by God: And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2-3 ESV). It is an honor-status reversal which is foundational to the revelation of Scripture—and the global purpose of God. See more on this at my blog post here.
  • The story of Joseph takes up a large portion of Scripture—Genesis 37–50—fully 14 chapters. Joseph was the favorite, most honored son of Jacob, and was sold into slavery, from which he rose to become the prime minister of Egypt. It’s a classic story of honor-status reversal.
  • The story of Moses in Exodus is also an account of honor-status reversal. A baby born into the oppressed minority society of the Hebrews is found by Pharaoh’s daughter—and then raised to eventually lead the Hebrews out of Egypt to the Promised Land.
  • The stories of Saul and David remind us that, on the one hand, a man of human-derived honor, stature and might like King Saul can be judged by God and lose his honor status—while on the other hand, God takes a lowly shepherd boy who had faith in the living God and raises him to become a mighty king whose honor in the eyes of the people greatly exceeded that of the prior king.
  • The story of Esther is another classic. A beautiful woman (Esther) from the minority culture of the Jews ends up rising in honor as she is chosen to be the wife of the king of Persia. When a plot to kill the Jews is hatched by the evil Haman, Esther’s uncle Mordecai asks Esther to courageously intervene with the king on behalf of her people, the Jews . The ESV Study Bible says, “The reader is clearly meant to laugh at the way [Haman’s] vanity traps him into having to publicly honor the very man he intended to kill (6:6–11), and his death on the gallows he had prepared for Mordecai (7:8–10) is a classic case of a villain falling into his own pit.” We see here again—multiple examples of honor-status reversal!
  • The Beatitudes begin with “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3 ESV). It worth rereading these verses. In every verse in this most beautiful series, Jesus is teaching that in his kingdom, there is a new way of living. This new way of living is not a dismissal of the need for honor—or a total rejection of the dynamics of honor and shame which permeated Greco-Roman culture. It is, rather, a proclamation that a new honor, a higher and permanent honor is now available to all as they live in God’s kingdom in loving submission to the most honorable King of Kings.
  • The parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32) is considered by many as the most famous story ever told by the master story teller, Jesus. The younger of two sons has turned away from his family and his father. He ends up in the most degrading and shameful condition conceivable. He comes to his senses, decides to return home to his father. Rather than being rejected and scorned, the father greets him with kisses and weeping. He gives the lost son his prized robe. He provides sandals for his feet and gives him a ring for his finger, signifying the honor and authority of the family. Then the father calls for a huge village celebration to welcome home the lost son. (See more about this story at The Father’s Love Gospel Booklet.) Is there a more powerful example of honor-status reversal in Scripture?
  • In Revelation, the judgement of God constitues an honor-status reversal for the great and mighty city of Babylon. “And he called out with a mighty voice, ‘Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has become a dwelling place for demons, a haunt for every unclean spirit, a haunt for every unclean bird, a haunt for every unclean and detestable beast” (Revelation 18:2). Numerous other examples of honor-status reversal also appear in Revelation. The Lamb that was slain is revealed as the conquering Lion of Judah (5:5–6) … the saints who were martyred are honorably clothed in white (6:11) … the once glorious, evil serpent, the devil, in finally conquered (20:1–10) … even the once-inglorious unredeemed peoples of the earth—represented by their kings—bring their glory into the new city (21:22–26). Again and again, we see honor-status reversal.

Have I made the case that honor-status reversal is a motif in the Bible? Even though I have not mentioned the many examples of honor-status reversal in the Psalms, the Gospels and the various New Testament epistles,  I hope you agree that it is plain from the examples noted above.

What is perhaps less plain and more difficult for many Christians to embrace, is that honor-status reversal is for believers, too. As followers of Christ and members of his body, the church, Scripture teaches that we are called to identify with our Lord to such an extent that our relationship with him leads to a magnificent increase in our own honor status.

This has a few key application points which I’ll be exploring in future posts:

  1. The increase in honor status for believers is embedded exclusively and totally in relation to Jesus Christ.
  2. When believers understand and experience an increase to their honor status through Christ, it enables them to resist the shaming techniques of people who are trying to coerce them to leave the faith.
  3. The increase in honor status for believers exists both in community (the church)—and in one’s individual relationship with Christ.
  4. The increase in honor status for believers is a strong catalyst for setting people free from the struggles of sin and shame.
  5. Understanding the dynamics of honor and shame and honor-status reversal can be a key for more effective cross-cultural ministry.
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