Carmen Christi: Hymn[1] to Christ as to God (Part I)

Introduction: I originally wrote an article for Viewpoint in May/June of 1998 on the WWJD craze (that has not gone away). I argued in that article that the whole concept of WWJD is woefully misguided. Yes, we are called to follow the example of Christ, but as I stated, there is a massive difference between the call to Christlikeness and the decidedly unbiblical notion lurking behind WWJD. We are examining the Scriptural support for the Deity of Christ and Phil. 2:5-11 is one of the texts that demands careful attention. As it turns out this passage also addresses the question of “What Would Jesus Do?”

I.        The Immediate Context

One of my former professors, in a class that focused on the exegesis of Philippians made this important observation. “The meaning of this well-known passage will only be ascertained if we can determine how the passage functions in the context of the whole letter. In what way do these verses contribute to achieving the apostle’s purposes? The question is hotly debated, as the subsequent exposition will show. Yet careful attention to the earnest concerns of the previous section (1:27-2:4) suggests a simple answer. If the opposition being experienced by the Philippians calls for steadfastness, if steadfastness is impossible without spiritual unity, and if unity can come about only from an attitude of humility, then surely Paul must reinforce the critical importance of humility in the hearts of believers. And what better way to reinforce this thought than by reminding the Philippians of the attitude and conduct of Him to whom they are united in faith?

When admonishing the Corinthians to contribute generously for the sake of the poor in Jerusalem, Paul sets before them the example of Christ: “though He was rich, He became poor on account of you, so that through His poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Similarly here he appeals to the spirit of servanthood that brought Jesus to His death—a death which, incidentally, has overflowed in life for the Philippians.”[2] In other words, the Apostle in this passage points to the person of Christ as the example of what it means to act with humility of mind. Here is the great illustration of what it means to have certain rights and yet to purposely and voluntarily lay them aside in service to others. Paul’s design is not directly doctrinal, but ethical. “His object,” as Hawthorne remarks, “is not to give instruction in doctrine, but to reinforce instruction in Christian living. And he does this by appealing to the conduct of Christ. The hymn, therefore, presents Christ as the ultimate model for moral action.”[3] The passage divides into two sections with each section concluding with a climactic addendum. Thus in section one (vv. 6-8) we have three stanzas that speak of Christ’s humiliation with the climatic addendum “even death on the cross.” The second section (vv. 9-11) also has three stanzas that speak of Christ’s exaltation with the climatic addendum “to the glory of God the Father.”

II.      Paul’s Exhortation (2:5)

“your attitude should be” (NIV) “Have this attitude” (NASB) “Have this mind” (KJV) are various ways this has been translated. PHRONEITE lit. means “to think.” The complete phrase of v. 5    indicates that Paul’s exhortation speaks of a particular disposition; i.e., “Be so disposed in your attitude toward one another.” (cf. Phil. 4:2 for a similar exhortation).

III.     The Great Description of Christ (2:6)

What is the meaning of “nature of God” (NIV) “form of God” (NASB, KJV)? The word MORPHĒ is used only here in the Greek NT. It refers to a most profound and genuine identity.[4] David Wells cogently argues that it would appear inescapable that by “form” we are to understand that Paul meant the essence or essential characteristics of a thing. He who was in essence a servant and showed the essential characteristics of serving was in essence divine and had those characteristics essential to being divine.[5] The word, for example is used four times in the Greek translation OT (the Septuagint). In each instance, MORPHĒ refers to the visible form or appearance (the form of the son of a king, Judges 8:18; “there was no form before my eyes,” Job 4:16; an idol in the form of a man, Isaiah 44:13; the form of Nebuchadnezzar’s countenance was changed, Dan. 3:19).[6]

Notice also the word “being” (NIV) “existed” (NASB). “The present participle HYPARCHŌN stands in sharp contrast with all the aorists which follow it, and therefore points in the direction of continuance of being: Christ Jesus was and is eternally existing “in the form of God.”[7] Paul does not say that Christ “came to exist” or “entered into existence,” but he uses the present tense to indicate ongoing existence. And since the time frame of the passage is clearly eternity past, the beginning assertion is that the One we know as Jesus Christ existed eternally in the very form of God. The “form of God” is not merely a category of existence (like “spirits” or “creatures”). The “form of God” presents a direct correspondence to reality itself—that which exists in the “form of God” is true Deity. B.B. Warfield was correct when he said, “Paul does not say simply, “He was God.” He says, “He was in the form of God,” employing a turn of speech which throws emphasis upon Our Lord’s possession of the specific quality of God. “Form” is a term which expresses the sum of those characterizing qualities which make a thing the precise thing that it is…When Our Lord is said to be in “the form of God,” therefore, He is declared, in the most express manner possible to be all that God is, to possess the whole fullness of attributes which make God God.”[8] Putting the interpretation of all the elements together yields the following. Although Christ was truly God, MORPHĒ THEOU, two thing resulted: (1) he did not attempt to “outrank” the Father, as it were (cf. John 14:28 for a similar thought: “The Father is greater than I am”); (2) instead, he submitted himself to the Father’s will, even to the point of death on a cross. It was thus not Christ’s Deity that compelled his incarnation and passion, but his obedience.[9]

Conclusion: This passage ascribes Deity to Christ. “It does so in three ways: first, by its description of Jesus as “in the form of God (continually) being”; second, by its tacit ascription to him of “equality with God” when its affirms that he did not “seize” this station in the sense that at the time of his temptation he did not assert himself in a self-willed show of power commensurate with his divine station; and third, by the very nature of his delegated lordship, the entail of his exaltation.”[10]


[1] Phil. 2:5-11 is considered to be a hymn or poem, not in a contemporary sense, but structurally. Scholars are divided over whether or not the hymn was composed by Paul or if he used this early Christian hymn as an apt illustration. Cf. Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (IVP, 1970), pp. 539-541 for discussion.

[2] Moisés Silva, Philippians: The Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary (Moody, 1988), p. 104.

[3] G.F. Hawthorne, Philippians: Word Biblical Commentary (Nelson, 1983), p. 79.

[4] Alec Motyer, The Message of Philippians (IVP, 1984), p. 104.

[5] D.F. Wells, The Person of Christ: A Biblical and Historical Analysis of the Incarnation (Crossway, 1984), p. 64.

[6] Cf. R. Strimple, “Philippians 2:5-11 in Recent Studies: Some Exegetical Conclusions” The Westminster Theological Journal 41 (1978-79), p. 260.

[7] W. Hendriksen, Philippians: New Testament Commentary (Baker, 1962), p. 103.

[8] As cited by James White, “Beyond the Veil of Eternity: The Importance of Philippians 2:5-11 in Theology and Apologetics” Christian Research Journal (Vol. 22/no. 3), p. 35.

[9] Cf. D.B. Wallace, Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Zondervan, 1996), p. 635.

[10] Cf. R.L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nelson, 1998), p. 264.

Additional Resources

Suffering and the Sovereignty of God

John Piper and Justin Taylor, General Editors

In the last few years, 9/11, a tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and many other tragedies have shown us that the vision of God in todays churches in relation to evil and suffering is often frivolous. Against the overwhelming weight and seriousness of the Bible, many Christians are choosing to become more shallow, more entertainment-oriented, and therefore irrelevant in the face of massive suffering.

In Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, contributors John Piper, Joni Eareckson Tada, Steve Saint, Carl Ellis, David Powlison, Dustin Shramek, and Mark Talbot explore the many categories of Gods sovereignty as evidenced in his Word. They urge readers to look to Christ, even in suffering, to find the greatest confidence, deepest comfort, and sweetest fellowship they have ever known.

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