Two Important Christological Hymns: Part 2 of 2

Theater-at-Philippi-1Philippi was an ancient city in northern Greece that bore the name of Alexander the Great’s father, Philip II of Macedon. The region of Philippi had, much like other biblical cities, many religious systems that were accepted among its residence but there was truly a predominant religious movement or a state religion in the worship of the emperor and his family members such as Julius, Augustus and Claudius. There would have obviously been much “competition” by the surrounding systems and some had even infiltrated the church as we will see.

It is thought that Paul visited the city around 49 A.D. where he was accused of proclaiming customs which it is not lawful for us to accept or to observe being Roman (Acts 16:21). This is where Paul saw Lydia converted by the power of God (Acts 16:14-15)as well as where we are told that the crowd rose up together against them, and the chief magistrates tore their robes off them and proceeded to order them to bebeaten with rods. 23When they had struck them with many blows, they threw them into prison, commandingthe jailer to guard them securely; 24and he, having received such a command, threw them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks. (Acts 16:22-24) It is presupposed that Lydia, the Philippian jailer and those addressed in the letter (Euodia, Syntyche) must have had much influence in that particular assembly to have been named in the epistle. Certainly their conversions where early on and they may have been the very first Christians in fellowship in this particular district.

The epistle was written from prison (1:12-25) but we are uncertain which imprisonment was spoken of even though most scholars agree it was from Rome. This would identify the letter as being written between 60-61 A.D. Paul felt that his imprisonment was a means to show the lengths he was willing to suffer and promote the gospel. He was willing to suffer and die for it which offers some weight to his credibility. Paul’s entire focus was to the proclamation of the person of Christ and the good news found in Him. I feel this should be an example in of itself to the faithfulness of the apostle and its exhortation to us to be faithful even to the point of imprisonment for its proclamation.


There is a major theme behind the epistle that I feel denotes its purpose alongside the promotion of the gospel.  Paul’s tone is serious and stern through his constant appeal for “unity in Spirit and one mind. (1:27; 2:1-5; 3:17 ect.) Paul emphasizes exactly how this unity was to be achieved in stating that the church of Philippi was to find unity by doing “nothing from selfishness or empty conceit but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves”. (2:3) The spirit of servant hood was lacking and Paul’s aim was to exhort them to work out their own salvation in this regard since it was obviously tearing apart the assembly. The Spirit of subjection to one another is the true sign of a pure and godly humility which was first demonstrated in the perfect obedience of the Lord Jesus. Paul did not hold back to write to them that they were to be Christ-like in their attitudes by mimicking His perfect submission and service to others. Paul, in inserting this hymn, demonstrates how our attitudes should always be as Christ in our self-abasement towards others. The Son of God descended from so great a height, how unreasonable that we, who are nothing, should be lifted up with pride.[i]

The Hymn

The apostle, in order to explain the true spirit of servanthood, brings into the epistle a citation but not just any ordinary quotation but a hymn. I am not certain if the believers in Philippi would have known this poetic reverence prior to Paul’s epistle but if it was quoted for substantiation then I’m comfortable in stating that it was a known hymn. The passages can be easily identified as a hymn because of a certain rhythmical when read aloud.  Scholar F.F. Bruce writes:

Like many other early Christian hymns it is cast in rhythmical prose, not in poetical meter (whether Greek or Semitic). It consists of a recital of the saving work of God in Christ, in self-humiliation followed by exaltation.[ii]

The literary form used (3rd person indicative) and the repeated terminology such as “form, God, death, and name” as well as the rhythmic flow of the lines seems to express a hymn. The author of the hymn is a debated issue and some feel Paul might have been the author. The style of the writing doesn’t really match the style of Paul’s other writings hence it could very well be by another author and probably written earlier than the epistle.

The division of the stanza’s in this hymn are not easy to recognize and there is wide speculation how this text should be divided. I will take the position that the text should be broken down into 6 stanza’s mainly each verse being a particular stanza however I feel within these six stanza’s that we can divide these into two parts mainly vs. 6-8 and 9-11. There is certainly a shift in the tone in v.9 as we can see clearly from the terminology.  The hymn takes on the very low note of the shame of Christ in v.8 but there is a victorious tone that supersede from vs. 9-11 which makes me conclude that there are two sections.


who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped,

The opening stanza of the hymn begins by acknowledging for us the pre-existence of the Lord Jesus Christ, not as an angel or as a human, but how He existed “in the form of God”. (also see 2 Corinthians 8:9)  The text is a beautiful expression of how Christ existed prior to the incarnation.[iii] The hymn’s opening words demonstrate from the beginning its intent which was to demonstrate what is true humility is found. Christ’s “being” in the form of God shows His possession of the ultimate position which shall be shown to be put aside for a position that is far less attractive.

The way the Lord Jesus “existed” was in the form of God. The term “form” (morphe) seems to denote something that can be seen or something visible to the human eye. This was its primary usage in the Old Testament Septuagint.[iv] The form of God was that which was made manifest to the Old Testament saints (Isaiah 6). In other words this expression is probably speaking of the glory of God as being manifested to humans. (2 Corinthians 4:6) This glory that is made manifest is interlinked with His nature and cannot be separated from it. The meaning the author of the hymn is giving of the line existing the form of God is clarified by the line to be equal with God. This is significant in that the hymn is stating that existing in the form of God cannot be thought of as being inferior to God but as equal. The idea here is the equality in nature and equality with God from a positional standpoint yet, as we will see, only the position changes in His incarnation.

Probably the most debatable part of what this beautiful hymn is attempting to communicate to us is found in the expression did not regards equality with God a thing to be grasped. There are many different interpretations of this particular text and especially ways of understanding the expression “did not regard’ (harpagmos). The terminology can mean to take by force or to attempt to acquire but I am not persuaded at this definition due to the context. My study leads me to conclude that the hymn writer was affirming that Christ possessed the very form of God but He did not choose to utilize or had to hold onto at all cost this position but abased Himself taking on the form of humanity with all its weaknesses and struggles for a purpose. He has equality with God and there is no question of losing it; the issue is His attitude to it.[v] The hymn tells us not only what the Lord Jesus didn’t do (grasped) but also tells us what He did in that He “emptied Himself”. The salvation of Yahweh came by not needing to use His equality with God but by taking on the form of a man, a suffering servant who achieved redemption for man and thus God is glorified.


but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.

The one who existed in the form of God did something that would have been staggering to the recipients of this letter especially one of Jewish descent in the fact that our Lord Jesus “emptied Himself”.[vi] This was done by taking on the form of a bondservant!  The means by which the emptying occurs was taken on by taken on human nature. How could one who is equal with God descend to the depths of humanity, not as a king, but as a slave! I am persuaded that the idea here is that He took on the very nature of a man and the position of a slave. This is not to say that the Lord relinquished His divine attribute but veiled them. The term “emptied” is found in two texts and I feel these passages bring some clarity to Paul’s expression:

For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void. (1 Corinthians 1:17)

For (if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified;(Romans 4:14)

In both these examples, the NASB translated the term as “void” or something of uselessness. I believe since the term “form” is used for both His nature as God and as man that this should be attributed to His outward appearance.  In other words, He set aside the outward expression of His deity when expressing Himself as a bondslave. [vii]

My understanding of the term “emptied” in regards to the rest of this stanza should be paralleled with texts found in the book of Isaiah. The writer of the hymn may have found some inspiration in the words of Isaiah. Although there are some distinctions, the similarities are worth mentioning.



but emptied Himself, taking   the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of   men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by   becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (2:7-8)  Because He poured out Himself to   death,(53:12)For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, And like a   root out of parched ground; He has no stately form or majesty. That we should   look upon Him,
Nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him. (53:2)

So His appearance was marred more than any man And His   form more than the sons of men. (52:14)


For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and   bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, (2:9)  Behold, My servant will prosper, He will be high and lifted up   and greatly exalted. (52:13)
so that at the name of Jesus EVERY   KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the   earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to   the glory of God the Father.(2:10-11)  Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth; For I   am God, and there is no other. I have sworn by Myself, The word has gone   forth from My mouth in righteousness And will not turn back,
That   to Me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance.(45:22-23)

Christ’s taking on the form of a bondservant reflects what exactly happened at the incarnation. The whole purpose of the hymn writer was to demonstrate how the Lord Jesus took on a position of inferiority as a slave. The one who was in the form of God and equal with God took on the form of a man and the equality to a slave. He came to be the suffering servant that the prophet Isaiah promised so long ago!


Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Here we mention once again the rhythmic style of the hymn is in view since the repetition of the expression of Christ’s incarnation is brought back to light and accented. The importance of this portion of the humbling of Christ should not merely be taken as the simple taking on of flesh. The real purpose of the hymn is to demonstrate the standard of humility in Christ. The taking on of flesh was the means in which He could manifest to His creation what is the true characterization of humility. The expression of His humble work would have been an impossibility without the incarnation.  The one who was in the form of God and equal with God was shamed to such a degree that His life was given in a place of absolute shame called Golgotha. The place where the most heinous and rebellious criminals were put to death! G. Hansen writes:

The one who could have rightfully claimed the highest position in human history and justly received supreme honors deliberately sought the lowest position and submitted himself to extreme humiliation. [viii]

Not only was this humbleness based upon a demonstration of perfect humility but more importantly Christ humbled Himself on our behalf. His quest was to serve others in the most perfect and holy way possible. The cross was not simply a simplistic or humane execution device but it was an extreme torture tool that led to a painful and inevitable death. It is very difficult for us to really grasp the horrors and humiliation associated with suffering a crucifixion. The shame the victim would suffer was so horrendous that the writers of the New Testament shied from describing it in any detail. Even though it was used in this way, it became something so much more when He hung on it.  This utterly vile form of punishment was that which Jesus endured, and by enduring it he turned that shameful instrument of torture into his follower’s proudest boast (Gal. 6:14).[ix] The polar opposites cannot be pondered enough when we truly compare the pre-existence and the post-incarnation. The hymn celebrates Christ’s choice to be obedient to death—even the death on a cross.[x]


For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name,

The next stanza and the opening of our second section begins with the polar opposite of where the hymn writer left off. He leaves us in a sort of decrescendo spiral to that shameful place called Calvary where the Son of God is put to death in shame.

This transition begins the theme that the shame of the cross was not the final place for the Son! The hymn writer makes the transition emphatic by placing two conjuctions “and therefore” to show a change of effect.[xi] Now we finally see God the Father intervening and becoming the subject whereas the Lord Jesus is the object of the Father. The Father responds to this self-humbling by demonstrating His complete satisfaction to the wilful obedience of His glorious Son.  God raised the Lord Jesus from the dead and gave Him the highest position of all, the throne of God!

The hymn presents us with a portrait of a beautiful path upwards in victory by stating that the Father “highly exalted Him”.[xii] The exaltation was as much of a part of God’s purpose as the abasement of the Lord. The exaltation of Christ was a result of His obedience and humility unto death. This doesn’t mean that Christ was motivated to die because He wanted to be exalted since I feel His total motivation was to be the suffering servant. The Lord Jesus spoke on many instances of the one who humbles Himself will be exalted[xiii] to which He is the primary example. God’s exaltation is merely the exoneration by God of the one who gave all for His people.  How did God the Father exalt the Lord Jesus? The hymn continues this beautiful elevation by stating that Christ Jesus was given “the name above every name”. The name (to onoma) is used with the definite article hence it is not just any name that is given but “the name”. The question is: what is this name? Some have argued that the name has to be “Jesus” since the very next sentence “at the name of Jesus” seems to point to this rendering. It would however seem a bit strange to give a name that was already in the Lord’s possession. The name “Jesus” was given at His birth but this seems to be a name that was given. The other interpretation and very popular among scholars is the idea that the name given is “Lord”. The term Lord was used by the ancients when reading the divine Name in the Old Testament which we translate Yahweh or Jehovah. This would have been the ultimate exaltation to be certain. There can be no greater name than YHWH! What is fascinating is that the hymn writer uses parallels in Isaiah especially as we will see in Isaiah 45. The whole point of the texts of Isaiah from chapters 41 to 45 is to argue the distinctiveness of Jehovah against all other gods. This is related to us through several unique attributes or titles such as only Saviour (Isaiah 43:11), the first and the last (44:6), creator (Isaiah 45:18) and also the unique name (42:8). [xiv] Yet another interpretation that I feel is worth mentioning is that the name that is given doesn’t necessitate a label but merely states a fact about His exaltation. The “name” sometimes stands for one’s authority and hence in this instance the hymn writer may be arguing from the expression “the name that is above every name” that He is given the highest possible authority and dominion.  My understanding would be a blend of point 2 and 3 in that the name “Lord” that is referring to YHWH as supreme Lord of all things which is, in the final eschatological outcome, given to the Lord Jesus.


so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

The hymn continues with two actions attributed to God the Father main that He exalted Christ and gave the name. There are therefore two results that came to pass through God’s action mainly that all created things bow and exalt! The worship of Christ is associated with His position as King! Would any monotheistic Jew in the days when this was written have bowed to any sovereignty especially in the same manner as worship of Jehovah? The parallel verse in Isaiah 45 says much of the quality of the worship in that it demonstrates that the worship was to be attributed to Jehovah. How could we offer the exact worship expressed in Isaiah 45 to Christ?[xv] The whole point in Isaiah was to show that God would finally be acknowledged rightfully as God by all the nations as the only true God and King. The name that is above every name is also a reference to deity since there can be no name greater than YHWH. The name Jesus was the human name that the Word was given and it is interlinked with the previous stanza in that the name Jesus is defined as the one who took on the form of a man. Jesus was the one who died as a sacrifice for sinners but now God has taken that name and made it above all in the expression “Lord”! What is absolutely staggering about the parallel in Isaiah 45:23 is that Jehovah states that “before me” every knee shall bow yet in the text in Philippians the bowing of the knee is ascribed to the Lord Jesus! The name “Jesus” and then “Lord” with all their meaning must be speaking of divine Sovereignty.

The bowing of the knee was an expression of divine worship and subjection attributed focally to God. (Psalm 95:6-7) Some have attempted to attribute the bowing of every knee and confession of their lips to the idea of a final universal salvation of all men. In other words, in the final state of affairs, all men are bowing and acknowledging Christ because they have come to faith in Christ. I am not persuaded that the hymn writer was attempting to communicate this simply because the idea of this final worship is not said to be some voluntary affection but in a setting of judgment (Romans 14:11). This is the case also in the parallel of Isaiah 45 where all those who rage against God will be put to shame. (Isaiah 45:24)

The idea of every knee bowing is qualified by “in heaven, on the earth and under the earth” which I feel can be summarized as the total sphere of creation. The Hymn’s author is making sure we realize that no one is left out of the equation when he qualifies “every knee”. It should be taken as an eschatological event in the future even though the Lord Jesus possesses the name “Lord” right now. This universal acknowledgment is still something we look forward to in the future.

The crescendo of the hymn is found in the fact that Christ Jesus will rightfully be acknowledged as “Lord”. The threefold expression; in heaven, on the earth and under the earth, as Hansen rightfully states, emphasizes that the Sovereignty of Jesus is a divine sovereignty that surpasses all human and angelic sovereignty. [xvi] The idea of every tongue confessing is that of an open confession. There is certainly a possibility to render the idea of confession here as “to praise” or giving some sort of gratitude but I feel in this instance it is not the most likely usage since the term is used quite frequently also as admitting or “to confess” as in the confession of sins.[xvii] Those who preach Universal Salvation argue that Romans 10:9 should be taken as the parallel text to which the promise of God is fulfilled in the confession of Christ as “Lord” to grant them salvation. The question I must ask myself is whether or not this is what Isaiah 45:23 is trying to communicate? There is certainly strong language used in Isaiah 45:24 stating that all who were angry at Him will be put to shame. This shame is not merely stating that they are embarrassed because they did not believe. The language is far too strong for such a rendering and I believe they will be put to shame by having to do something against their wills in judgment which is mainly an open affirmation of Christ’s Divine Lordship. I have never been able to understand attributing Romans 10:9 to the afterlife when it is clearly a reference to this age.

Finally we come to the hymn writer’s final stanza to which we are warmed and joyously proclaimed the expression “to the glory of God the Father”. There are many theories as to what has glorified God but it is my thought that God was glorified in everything preceding this stanza especially the final Lordship of Christ. In other words, God the Father is glorified in that the Lord Jesus, being equal with God, took on the form of man, abased Himself, was put to shame and God exalted Him!

[i] Calvin’s Commentaries, Philippians, Vol. XXI, John Calvin, Baker, Page 55

[ii] New International Biblical Commentary, F.F. Bruce, Hendrickson, Page 68

[iii] Notice that it states how Christ existed not that Christ came into existence

[iv]  See Judges 8:18; Job 4:16; 6:16 and Isaiah 44:13

[v] Jesus and the God of Israel, Richard Bauckham, Eerdman, P. 41

[vi] This phrase is also very much debated with three plausible interpretations. The Kenotic theory is the theory which states that Christ emptied Himself of the form of God and equality with God. The second is the incarnation view which is the idea that Christ took on the form of man with all its weaknesses without emptying but veiling His divinity and thirdly the Isaiah parallel view which sees this hymn as a fulfilment or parallel with texts in Isaiah.

[vii] Word Studies in the Green New Testament, Kenneth Wuest, Eerdmans, Page 67

[viii] The Letter to the Philippians, Pillar New Testament Commentaries, G.. Walter Hansen, Page 154

[ix] New International Biblical Commentary, F.F. Bruce, Hendrickson, Page 71

[x] IBID

[xi] “dio kai” is used and followed by vs. 9-11 which is, in essence, one long sentence with three stanzas within.

[xii] “The simple verb uyow was often used in the NT to describe exaltation of Jesus. In a literal sense the verb was employed of the action of Moses lifting up the bronze serpent on a pole for all to see (Jn 3:14; CF. Nu. 21:9), while figuratively it pointed to Jesus being placed in a position of highest honour and supreme power (Acts 2:33; 5:31; cf. The blending of the literal and figurative use in Jn. 3:14; 8:28; 12:32,34)- The Epistle to the Philippians, NIGNT, Peter T. O’Brien, Eerdmans, Page 235

[xiii] Matthew 23:12; Luke 14:11

[xiv] It should be noted that Saviour, first and the last as well as creator are all titles that are attributed to the Lord Jesus as well. (see Luke 2:11, John 4:42, Revelation 1:17; 2:8, 22:13; Colossians 1:16; John 1:3)

[xv] Some have attempted to sway the worship from the Son to the Father by arguing that the preposition “en” should be taken as instrumental. In other words they argue that Christ is the means by which worship is offered. I do not feel this is what the hymn writer is attempting to present to us. O’Brien’s remarks are worth mentioning: the adoration is in honour of the exalted Christ…and the parallel words of v. 11b describe explicitly the act of reverence as paid directly to the Son and “to the glory of God the Father”. It is clear that Jesus is the one being worshipped. (The Epistle to the Philippians, NIGNT, Peter T. O’Brien, Eerdmans, Page 240)

[xvi] The Letter to the Philippians, Pillar New Testament Commentaries, G.. Walter Hansen, Page 166

[xvii] Matthew 3:6; Mark 1:5; Acts 19:8; James 5:16


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