True Humility and the Christ Hymn of Philippians
In the center of Paul’s writing to the Philippians is a beautiful poem that ties the entire letter together. This poem powerfully communicates the gospel in its simplest form: God became man, was murdered on behalf of sinners, was raised to life, and was seated (once again) as king over all. It’s debated whether Paul wrote this poem or adapted it from an existing hymn, but regardless, it is a beautiful and profound work of art and a clear demonstration of Christ’s great love for humanity.
Jesus = God
The poem, found in Philippians 2:6-11, begins by informing us of Jesus’s pre-incarnate state. It says that Jesus was “in the form of God.” Jesus did not become God after completing his mission on Earth. He did not earn his status. Jesus has always been and forever will be God.
Some argue that Jesus never claimed to be God but that the idea of his divinity was something adopted in the early church by his followers. And it is true that Jesus never utters the words “I am God” in the New Testament. However, he does affirm his divinity in a much more powerful way.
In the Old Testament, God revealed his personal name to Moses as Yahweh, or I AM. Numerous times throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus uses the I AM title for himself. Jesus declares “I AM” the light of the world, the good shepherd, the way, the truth, and the life, etc. In fact, as Jesus is being arrested for blasphemy, the guards find him in the garden of Gethsemane and Jesus asks them who they’re seeking. They reply, “Jesus of Nazareth,” and Jesus replies, “I AM.” Upon hearing this, the guards “drew back and fell to the ground” (John 18:1-11). Jesus knew exactly what he was saying and what it meant.
Striving for Equality
Since Jesus existed in the form of God, he was equal to God. This equality with God was “not a thing to be grasped.” The word that is translated here as “a thing to be grasped” was also used outside of the Bible to describe the spoils of war. This especially makes sense given that Paul is writing this letter to a colony of war veterans. Christ’s status was not earned or plundered from someone else, it was his from the beginning and will always belong to him.
This section of the poem echoes back to the garden with Adam and Eve. Since they were not created in the form of God, but rather as his representatives (or images), they viewed equality with God as something that could be “plundered.” By eating fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they could claim it for themselves and become “like God.” Where Adam and Eve tried to exalt themselves to equality with God, Jesus willingly humbled himself to become equal to us.
Dying in Humility
When Jesus became human, he did not stop being God. Paul isn’t even arguing that Jesus didn’t have access to his divine attributes. He is simply showing us that he also took on human form—100 percent God, 100 percent human. This is of extreme theological importance because if Jesus was 100 percent God but not a true human, he couldn’t take the punishment that humanity deserves for our rebellion against God. He cannot be the mediator between God and man if he is not both God and man.
Verses 7-8 tells us that Jesus, even though he was the supreme being in all of existence, “emptied himself” of that position and status. Jesus took on the form of a servant by becoming a human and ultimately dying the most despicable death on the cross. The Romans’ purpose for the cross was not simply to kill but to torture and humiliate. It was the ultimate deterrent to rebellion against Rome.
The Humiliated Victor
In this poem, we see extreme juxtapositions: supremacy and humility, divinity and humanity, defeat and, ultimately, victory. In verses 6-8, we recall the darkest moments of humanity when humans brutally murder Jesus, our savior. However, we must remember that it was not the Jewish authorities or the Romans who humbled Christ, but it was Christ that humbled himself.
Paul shows us the ultimate example of humility in Christ. Not only did he descend to earth from the heavenly realm to be with us physically, but he also set aside his crown to become a servant. Jesus himself said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).
In this poem, we see the good news. We see a pre-incarnate Jesus, equal with God, knowing that you and I needed to be delivered from our sin and its consequences. He became one of us. He left the glory and majesty of Heaven and entered into the womb of an Israelite teenager. He was despised and rejected by his own people. He allowed himself to be slandered, tortured, and killed by those he created with his own hands.
This was the plan from the beginning. Jesus knew that if he laid down his life, he could also take it back up again. And that’s what he did! Jesus rose from the dead, confirming to all who he truly was: Yahweh himself.
The poem concludes with Jesus’s restoration to his rightful place. He is “super-exalted” far above every other name. Every knee will bow in allegiance at the name of Jesus. Every tongue will declare allegiance to the name of Jesus. Whether living or dead, material or spiritual, all creation will submit to the rule and reign of Christ our King!
Lucas Smith has served in full-time ministry since 2011 and holds MDiv and MA in Biblical Languages degrees from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. He currently serves as Associate Pastor of Youth and Families at Eastern Heights Baptist Church in Bartlesville, Oklahoma.