Who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, 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.
These verses, commonly referred to as the “Hymn of Christ”, were written by Paul in his letter to the Philippians as part of an exhortation to act in humility towards one another by appealing to the humility of the one they serve. Given the poetic nature and structure of the verses, some believe Paul was utilizing an earlier hymn already in use within the church. But whether the words originated with him or not their meaning remains the same – to encourage humbleness and love within the church while also teaching a very high Christology, as they trace the narrative arc from Jesus’ preexistent glory (v.5,6) through his incarnational humiliation (v.7,8) to his ascended exaltation (v. 9-11). As this portion of Scripture is studied and meditated upon, it will reveal the story of the gospel and should drive the reader to a greater love and humility towards others in light of Jesus’ example, as well as a deeper awe and worship of Christ as Lord.
The Glory of Christ
(v.5) Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus… The mind Paul wants the believers to have here is articulated in the preceding verses, where he exhorts the Philippians to complete his joy by “being of the same mind, having the same love” (v.2), doing “nothing from rivalry or conceit”, counting “others more significant” than themselves (v.3), and looking out for the “interests of others.” (v.4) He makes his appeal to them by pointing to the fact that this mindset existed in the one who is their final authority and the very object of their faith, Christ Jesus. The term “Christ” is the Greek translation for the Hebrew word “Messiah”, which means, “anointed one.” In Jewish thought the Messiah, whom the Hebrew Scriptures prophesied, was to be God’s agent of redemption for the people of Israel; one who would rule as the perfect Davidic king. During his earthly ministry, Jesus affirmed that he was indeed the Christ as well as the fulfillment of the entirety of Scripture (Matthew 5:17; 16:15-17; 26:63-64, Luke 24:27, 44, John 4:25-26; 5:39). However, he did not match the expectations of many who were looking for a conquering militaristic and political hero (much like David). What they received in Jesus was not simply a man to sit on their throne but something far greater.
(v.6) Who, though he was in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped… This is one of the clearest attestations in the NT to the divinity of Christ, who, before coming to earth, existed in the form of God. The word “form” is translated from the Greek, morphē, and should be understood in this context as stating that Christ possesses the same essence, characteristics, and qualities of God. Paul writes elsewhere that in Christ “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col. 1:19), and that in him “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” (Col 2:9) The writer of Hebrews calls Jesus “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.” (Heb. 1:3) The apostle John unambiguously states that the Word made flesh “was God”, (John 1:1) and records the words of the apostle Thomas who, before the risen Christ, worshiped him as, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). Jesus is God – the eternal Word through whom the universe was created, (John 1:3, Col 1:16) and is therefore worthy of all honor and praise. However, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped… That is, Christ did not consider his position within the Godhead as something to be used to his own advantage, instead he used it for the benefit of his people in an unfathomable act of selfless love.
The Humiliation of Christ
(v.7) But made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men… It is a mystery beyond our finite comprehension – that the God of the universe became a man – or as John wrote, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” In this most astounding act of humility the one who was above everything made himself nothing; and he who existed in the form of God took the form of a servant. He was born in the likeness of men, that is, he was born as a real flesh and blood man who was as fully human as he was divine. The gospels of Matthew and Luke tell of how the virgin Mary conceived by the work of the Holy Spirit and gave birth to the child whom Isaiah prophesied was to come. (Isaiah 9:6)
And so God entered into the human condition, lived as one of us, and shared in our pain and trails, our temptations and our sorrows because humanity, in it’s fallen state, was lost and separated from it’s creator and utterly incapable of reconciling itself to him apart from this incredible intervention. And thus, as John Calvin wrote, “The Son of God behooved to become our Immanuel, i.e., God with us; and in such a way, that by mutual union his divinity and our nature might be combined; otherwise neither was the proximity near enough, nor the affinity strong enough, to give us hope that God would dwell with us; so great was the repugnance between our pollution and the spotless purity of God.” Christ came as our mediator, our advocate – fully God and fully man – to bridge the chasm between Creator and creation. However, to merely dwell among men was not enough to justify them before a holy God. In order to fully reconcile and restore us to the Father, Jesus not only had to live as one of us; he had to die as one of us.
(v.8) And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross… As if it were not astonishing enough that the Son of God would become a man, Christ was humble enough to become obedient to the point of death. Jesus lived a life of perfect obedience to the Law of God; though he was tempted like us in every way he was “without sin” (Heb. 4:15) Christ’s sinless life was necessary for us because, as Wayne Grudem puts it, “Unless he had done this for us, we would have no record of obedience by which we would merit God’s favor and merit eternal life with him.” Just as the Law required a perfect lamb without blemish to be slaughtered on the Day of Atonement to clear the guilt of the people, Christ, likewise, was the perfect and sinless Lamb of God whose death “takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29)
And this was not accomplished by means of an easy and quick death, but by death on a cross. In the ancient world, there was no form of execution more devastatingly painful, humiliating and ignoble than crucifixion, and thus, the cross of Christ is the ultimate antithesis to his preexistent majesty; the most profound act of humble obedience to his Father; and the greatest display of his love towards a rebellious humanity. It was at the cross where God’s loving mercy and holy wrath collided. For upon the cross, the pure and perfect Son of God, beloved by the Father, suffered not only physical pain, but also the agony of bearing our sins and taking the punishment deserved by sinners upon himself, by absorbing the fullness of his Father’s wrath. In this way, Jesus became the “propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 2:2) And not only did Christ appease justice on the cross, he also imputed his righteousness to all who would believe and put their trust in him. This is what Martin Luther referred to as “the great exchange”, as it is written, “For our sake he [God the Father] made him [Christ Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5:21)
The Exaltation of Christ
(v.9) Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name… Thankfully, the story does not end with Good Friday. The horror of the crucifixion gave way to the glory of the resurrection, and Christ’s defeat on the cross was ultimately his victory over Satan, sin, and death. The implications of Jesus’ rising from the grave are monumental; it is a vindication of his claims as well as a foretaste of the eternal state of believers after death. Paul hinges the entirely of Christian faith upon the bodily resurrection, writing that, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (1 Cor17)
But Christ did indeed rise in a glorified body, after which, he ascended back to heaven, to sit at the right hand of his Father. He was perfectly obedient to his Father’s will and therefore God…highly exalted him. Peter preached this in his very first sermon at Pentecost, saying, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:36) Not only did the Father exalt his Son, he also bestowed on him the name that is above every name. Andreas J. Köstenberger writes that, “The Jews referred to God using substitutions for the divine name. Approved substitutions were called kinnuyim…In Phil. 2:9 Paul uses the kinnuyim “the name”…Every Jew in Philippi who heard this phrase would automatically recognize these words as an allusion to the divine name.” Paul was clearly equating Jesus with Yahweh, and his audience would have realized this.
(v. 10) So that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, (v.11) and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Before he ascended, Jesus told his disciples that he had received “All authority in heaven and on earth.” (Matt. 28:18) Throughout the NT we see that Christ is the object of praise; he is given worship by people and by angels, and even demons fall before him in acknowledgement of his status. The book of Revelation calls him the “King of kings” and “Lord of lords.” (Rev. 17:14; 19:16) And thus, the hymn states that at his name every knee should bow…and every tongue confess the Jesus Christ is Lord… for he is the supreme ruler of God’s eternal kingdom and he will reign forever in majesty. It should also be noted that, once again, Jesus is equated to Yahweh, as these words are borrowed from the book of Isaiah, where God himself says: “To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.” (Isa. 45:23) The hymn ends by stating that Jesus is exalted and praised by all creation to the glory of God the Father. Though he shares equal status of divinity, the Son’s humble subjection to the Father, which has existed since eternity past, is seen here to also continue forever into the future kingdom, as it is written, “When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.” (1 Cor. 15:28) This is not to say that Christ will cease to rule, for it is also written that, “…of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:33) Rather, “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God…” is found “…in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor. 4:6) The hymn states that the Father is glorified by the worship of his Son, and that is because, as John Pipers says, “The glory of Christ is the glory of God” (emphasis added)
Some say that pride is the mother of all sin, and hence, gave birth to all other sins. If this is the case then it is fitting that such an exquisite hymn about Christ would center on his humility – the antithesis to pride. What glorious paradoxes we find in Christ Jesus: the Ruler and the servant, the Judge and the condemned, the Victor and the victim, God and man. Richard Bauckham captured it well when he wrote that, “The radical contrast of humiliation and exaltation is precisely the revelation of who God is in his radically self-giving love. He rules only as the one who also serves. He is exalted above all only as the one who is also with the lowest of the low.”
May the humility of our Savior cause us to exalt him more greatly for all of our days.