This article was originally published in the 2022 issue of the Beeson magazine.
Is Philippians 2:6-11 an early example of a Christian hymn? In this article, Dr. Sydney Park argues that even though it isn’t an early hymn, this text provides an important theological framework for contemporary worship.
Philippians 2:6-11, along with 1 Timothy 3:16b and Colossians 1:15-20, has been often earmarked as a New Testament “hymn” in scholarship, and the moniker persists even today among the laity. However, close inspection of the criteria for a “hymn” (e.g. self-standing unit, begins with ὅς/hos “who,” anomalous grammar and unusual vocabulary) proves that none of these standards is a persuasive measure of a hymn in either Old Testament, Septuagint or Greco-Roman literature. While these texts are poetic, there is no extant evidence that any of these texts served as hymns in the nascent church. The New Testament (NT) gives evidence for hymnody (singing of hymns) in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, but no evidence of hymnography (writing of hymns). Still, it is undeniable that these texts are uniquely stylized as inducive for worship. Whether or not they functioned liturgically in the early church, surely they function as a textual apex in their respective epistolary context, especially Philippians 2:6-11, precisely because they exalt God’s salvific work through Christ. Thus, it may be entirely permissible to explore the theological content of Philippians 2:6-11 for personal and/or communal worship. As such, it has constructive implications for effective contemporary worship as it weds Christology (doctrine) with ecclesiology (praxis). True worship is less about personal, individual well-being and emotions—it must necessarily be tethered to God’s salvation through Christ and intra-community relations.
Briefly, the main hermeneutical issue of Philippians 2:6-11 debates the rationale behind these verses. Does Paul write these verses to remind the Philippians of the salvation story, as both incarnation (vv. 6-7) and crucifixion (v. 8) are mentioned? Or, does he tell Christ’s story to fortify his ethical exhortation in 2:1-5? The mutually exclusive proposition in this debate is spurious as soteriology and/or Christology necessarily have ethical implications. How we are saved should shape how we live without entertaining false concerns about whether humans can actually mirror the Son of God in his acts and effects of his death. Christ himself defines discipleship as one that “takes up the cross” (Mk 8:34-38; Mt 10:38; Lk 9:23-27; 14:27); his disciples must conform to him, specifically in his self-denial as demonstrated on the cross. Likewise, Peter draws on Christ’s ethics on the cross, specifically, his endurance of unjust suffering as a model for suffering slaves (1 Pet 2:1-20)—despite the injustice of slavery, they are inexorably called to “follow in his [foot]steps” (1 Pet 2:21) and endure unjust suffering incurred because of their faith in Christ. The cross is not merely the means by which we are saved but also the pattern of mindset and ethics of the saved. Coherently, Paul presents Christ’s saving mindset and his act on the cross to exhort the Philippians to adopt the same ethos and praxis within the worshipping community.
Paul begins with one of the clearest acknowledgements of Christ’s pre-incarnate existence in the NT (cf. Col 1:15-17; Jn 1:1-3) in 2:6: Christ was in the form of God and had equality with God. The highest esteem, status and identity as God, as well as equality with God the Father, was Christ’s. And while there is a stark contrast that must be maintained between Christ’s divine “form” and the subsequent “form” of slave (2:7), the mindset that leads to adoption of such humiliation begins with how Christ interprets his divine identity and equality with God the Father. The humility of emptying himself, taking the form of a slave, becoming human and obedient even to the humiliation of the cross—all this is properly understood as the most appropriate interpretation of his divine identity and equality with the Father. The most premier status and identity as God can only operate within the Godhead as opportunity for self-emptying and not self- aggrandizement. Thus, the critical points of salvation history, incarnation and crucifixion are not antithetical to Christ’s divine nature and status but coherent effects of that nature.
God the Father’s response to Christ’s mindset and actions in 2:6-8 affirms both as righteous expressions of divine identity: “therefore (διὸ/dio) God has highly exalted him and graced (ἐχαρίσατο/echarisato) on him the name that is above every name” (2:9). The Father’s response mirrors the Son’s mindset and actions in that he bestows his own name, which he does not share with any other (cf. Is 42:8), and the worship that is exclusively his own (cf. Is 45:23) is directed to the Son. The Father’s high exaltation of the Son is the ultimate affirmation of Christ’s divine identity and equality with the Father. Such self-giving of both the Son and the Father does not detract nor diminish their divine identity and status, but rather redounds to full glory of both as all within the created realm genuflect and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (2:11). The testimony of Christ’s divine identity through incarnation and the cross is so perfect that whether or not there is genuine acceptance of God’s saving grace in these events, Christ’s identity as “Lord” cannot be denied even by his enemies. Worship as indicated by bowed knees and confession is entirely fettered on Christ’s divine identity as revealed in his salvific acts, which are unreservedly affirmed by the Father—this and only this is the content of true worship.
Where there is such pure worship of God the Father and the Son, the fellowship of believers reflects the same divine mindset and praxis operative in salvation. Paul begins his exhortation with a series of “ifs,” which may be summarized as: “if you are saved” (2:1). All, regardless of societal status, are to adopt the mindset of Christ as relayed in 2:6-8: “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others as those more significant than yourselves” (2:3). It is impossible to worship the Triune God who is wholly self-giving with respect to each other and the world and not reflect the same mindset within the church. To remain self-absorbed and demand dignity rather than assume the humble, indeed, humiliated form of a slave is to have thoroughly misunderstood God’s own very nature and identity and the operative mindset/actions in our salvation. To wit, such selfishness reveals idolatry, worship of self rather than God and un-redemption rather than redemption. The theological and ecclesiological framework of worship in Philippians 2:6-11 may effectively restore contemporary worship to the full glory of the Father and consequently function as testimony to all that indeed “Christ is Lord.”
M. Sydney Park is an associate professor at Beeson Divinity School, where she teaches New Testament and Greek. She is the author of Submissionwithin the Godhead and the Church in the Epistle to the Philippians: An Exegetical and Theological Examination of the Concept of Submission in Philippians 2 and 3.