“Every Knee Shall Bow:” 3 Contexts With 1 Meaning

By Dr. Bob Martin III
Published 2 years ago

“Every knee shall bow” is a phrase found three times in the Bible.

  • Firstly, in Isaiah 45:23
  • Secondly, in Romans 14:11
  • Thirdly, in Philippians 2:10

 

But what does it mean? Well, “every knee shall bow” is an idiom for reverentially kneeling before Jesus as the one true God.

When does this happen?

 

Does “every knee” mean every human being? Yes, everyone will kneel.

  • Some will kneel joyfully (Christians)
  • At the same time, others will kneel under compulsion and shame (non-Christians)

 

The meaning of the phrase is identical in all three passages. But the contexts are different each time. And it is worth examining the differences.

 

I.   Context 1. Isaiah’s Prophecy That “Every Knee Shall Bow”

Isaiah was an Old Testament prophet. He warned the exiled Jews living in Babylon to stop worshiping idols (Isa. 45:20).

Idols are not only useless but eternally dangerous. True worship should be directed only to the LORD (Yahweh).

Isaiah made his point urgent and emphatic. His prophecy included that all beings would one day kneel and confess that YHWH is the one true God (Isa. 45:23). And that the LORD is the only means of salvation (Isa. 5:21-22).

 

II.   “Every Knee Shall Bow” in the New Testament

In the New Testament, Paul quotes Isaiah 45:23 in Romans 14:11 and Philippians 2:10. Yet, the context in which Paul uses the phrase is different in each passage.

 

III.   Context 2. Paul’s Reference to “Every Knee Shall Bow” in the Book of Romans

While you might not have heard the name, Rupertus Meldenius. But you may be familiar with his famous expression. “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity.”

What are non-essentials? These are also known as Christian liberties. Non-essentials are beliefs or practices where Scripture is silent. And participating in them does not mean the person is not a Christian or sinning.

Romans 14:2-13 is the portion of Paul’s letter to the Romans that focuses on Christian liberty. He is concerned that we do not judge others on non-essentials of our faith. He uses examples of dietary habits and religious day observances.

In our world, Christians disagree on non-essentials. Examples include women wearing pants or hair length. Others non-essentials include playing non-gambling card games, dancing, and preferred Bible translation! More contentious examples include the frequency of baptism and communion. Or styles of music or worship

In sum, when it comes to non-essentials, we shouldn’t judge others. Instead, we should focus on “living for Jesus” (Rom. 14:8).

Do Not Misunderstand!

The Bible commands us to judge sinful behavior and train in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16). But we should not be divisive or argue about non-essentials.

Paul says Christians are not to judge others on non-essentials. Because when we do, we have usurped Jesus’ role as Judge (Rom. 14:2-13).

In other words, we need to acknowledge that we are not the ultimate judges of humanity.

  • There is only one Judge, Jesus, who decides right and wrong
  • Only one Judge, Jesus, decides good and evil (1 Cor. 4:4)

 

And it is to Jesus that every Christian will kneel in reverence, confessing he is God (Rom. 14:11)

Paul refers to one of two of Christ’s end-time judgments in this section. The “Judgement Seat of Christ” judges Christians only (Rom. 14:10-12; 2 Cor. 5:10).

Jesus will test the works of his followers in this life by “fire” (1 Cor. 3:11–15; Rev. 22:12).

  • What survives the flames leads to eternal rewards (Matt. 24:46–47; Luke 12:37) or crowns of righteousness (2 Tim. 4:8; 1 Pet. 5:4)
  • What doesn’t survive the flames is lost eternally

 

IV.   Context 3. Paul’s Reference to “Every Knee Shall Bow” in the Book of Philippians

Paul’s second reference to “every knee shall bow” from Isaiah 45:23 is Philippians 2:10. Paul takes issue with human pride and selfish ambition among Christians (Phil. 2:3).

Specifically, he tells the Philippian church (and us!) that we should always think of others before ourselves (Phil. 2:4). The perfect paradigm for godly living is Jesus.

Christ modeled humility, selflessness, and obedience to God. His incarnation and death are the two most significant examples (Phil. 2:5-8).

 

V.   When God Became Human

The incarnation refers to Jesus’ conception in the Virgin Mary’s womb. Jesus is God. He is the second Person of the Trinity. Before, during, and after the incarnation, he is one hundred percent God with a divine nature (John 1:1–4, 14; Col. 1:15, 2:9; Heb. 1:1–3).

In the incarnation, Jesus retained his divine nature, but he took on a second nature. This second nature was a “perfect” human nature.

 

Triangle with 3 Persons of Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and Circle of Human Nature attached to the Son Jesus

 

In essence, he is one Person with two separate and distinct natures.

In simple terms, Jesus is fully God and fully man simultaneously.

But despite being fully God, Jesus didn’t hold onto (grasp) his divine prerogatives (Phil. 2:6).

Compared to the infinite glory he had as God (John 17:5), Jesus made himself “nothing.” How? Well, we see that:

  • During his earthly ministry, Jesus “emptied himself” of all his privileges of being God (Phil. 2:7)!
  • By becoming human, Jesus willingly assumed certain self-limitations (Rom. 8:3)

 

Jesus forever became “God manifest in human flesh” (John 1:14).  And during his entire earthly ministry, he was a servant (Matt. 20:28; John 13:3-17). What’s more, he was totally without sin himself (Heb. 4:15).

 

VI.   Jesus’ Ultimate Humiliation: His Crucifixion

Christ’s death on the cross had profound implications. It was an act of love, humility, selflessness, and obedience to God the Father (Phil. 2:8).

Because Jesus lived a sinless life (Heb. 4:15), he could die in our place and be punished for our sins, becoming sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21) and taking God’s punishment for every sin ever committed (1 John 2:2).

However, Christ’s sacrifice is even more meaningful when we realize the nature of his death. Jesus died by crucifixion, which was the most painful form of Roman execution.

 

VII.   God the Father’s Exaltation of Jesus

Jesus’ humility, service, love for others, and obedience climaxed at the cross.

Jesus obeyed God the Father to the point of dying on a cross (Phil. 2:8). And God the Father rewarded Jesus’ obedience in two ways:

  1. Jesus was exalted to the highest honor at God the Father’s right hand (Phil. 2:8, 9, 11; Acts 2:33; Heb. 1:3).
  2. God the Father gave Jesus the name above all names, “LORD” (YHWH; John 17:5; Eph. 1:21; Phil. 2:9; Heb. 1:4).

 

VIII.   One Ultimate Meaning: Every Knee Shall Bow at Jesus’ Second Coming

In describing Jesus’ Second Coming, Paul alludes to Isaiah’s prophecy. He writes, “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” (Phil. 2:10–11, emphasis added).

But notice that Paul substitutes “at the name of Jesus for the “to me” in Isaiah 45:23.

Why does he do that? Because Jesus is the LORD (YWHW) referred to in Isaiah 45.

Jesus will return in glory one day. At this second coming, he will be universally worshiped. And there will be an acknowledgment that Jesus is God (Matt. 28:18). All “to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:11).

 

IX.   What’s Your Next Step?

We’ve looked at the phrase, “every knee shall bow”—a phrase that is in three different books of the Bible. In each reference, “every knee shall bow” gives a warning and promise applicable to us:

  • Isaiah 45 warns us against chasing after useless idols
  • Romans 14:2-13 commands us to stop judging fellow believers over non-essential issues
  • Philippians 2:1-13 encourages every Christian to live like Jesus

 

1.   But How Do These Apply To Your Life Practically?

If you are a Christian, you should be living your life with eternity in view every moment.

 

If you are a Christian, you should be living your life with eternity in view every moment.

In other words, “Are you ready for Jesus’ Second Coming?”

You will inevitably kneel before and be judged by Jesus. But what judgment can you expect?

Every Christian will face the “Judgement seat of Christ” to give an account of our works as his followers (Rom. 14:12).

Furthermore, both Christians and non-Christians will stand before Jesus.

Christians will be judged by Jesus at the rapture and rule with him during his millennial kingdom.

Unbelievers will be judged at the Final or “Great White Throne Judgement”

Ultimately:

  • Christians go to heaven
  • Those who have rejected Jesus will be quarantined forever from heaven and God’s presence (Rev. 2:11, 20:6, 14, 21:8)

 

2.   What About You?

If you are a Christian, I encourage you to consider your lifestyle as it relates to bowing before our King. Are you living a godly lifestyle patterned after Jesus?

On the other hand, if you have not yet become a Christian, the initial bowing to Jesus is the place to start.

Please place your faith in him now—not out of fear, but in recognition of Christ’s love and sacrifice for you.

He is worthy of all praise. And when we read Scripture, we are reminded of that time and time again.

Every knee will bow. Let’s be the ones who bow low before Jesus so that all creation can see.

References

  1. Barrett, C. K. The Epistle to the Romans. Continuum, 1991, p. 240.
  2. Fee, G. D. Philippians 11. IVP Academic, 1999, pp. 83–102.
  3. Lightner, R. P. “Philippians.” The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, edited by F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 2. Victor Books, 1985, pp. 652-654
  4. Martin, J. A. “Isaiah.” The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, edited by F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 1. Victor Books, 1985, p. 1100
  5. Ortlund, Jr, R. C. Isaiah: God saves sinners. Crossword, 2005, p. 303
  6. Ridderbos, N. H. (1996). “Book of Isaiah.” New Bible dictionary, 3rd ed., edited by D. R. W. Wood et al., InterVarsity Press, 1996, p. 518
  7. VanGemeren, W. A. “Isaiah.” Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, 3, Baker Book House, 1995, p. 503
  8. Wiersbe, W. W. The Bible exposition commentary, vol. 2, Victor Books, 1996, pp. 73-77.

Further Resources

Binmin Podcast Ep. 14: Jesus’s Two Natures | Putting the Fun In…

Binmin Podcast Ep. 15: Virgin Birth | Putting the Fun In…

Binmin Podcast Ep. 19: Second Coming | Putting the Fun In…

 

 

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