Exploring the Christ Hymn: Humility in Philippians

Paul's Letters CollectionEvery community of believers struggles to maintain unity, and the church in Philippi was no exception. Selfish ambition and grumbling were tearing the community apart (Phil. 2:3, 14). In Philippians 2:3, Paul reveals the antidote to such disunity: act in humility, considering others more significant than yourself (Phil. 2:3). He then points the Philippians to the ultimate example of humility: the incarnation of Christ. For Paul, Christ modeled true humility when He took on human flesh. Jesus calls His followers to imitate His life of sacrifice.

The Christ hymn of Phil. 2:5–11 celebrates Christ’s life of selflessness, from His preexistence to His undeserved death to His exaltation. It can be difficult to unpack the theologically rich and complex ideas loaded in these short verses. Lexham Bible Guide: Philippians, the latest volume in the Paul’s Letters Collection, helps you dig deeper into this famous Christ hymn by identifying its key exegetical and theological issues and surveying the major commentaries, articles, and monographs in the Logos Bible Software library.

Let’s look at an excerpt from this volume, which covers one of the hymn’s most difficult topics:

Form of God

Paul opens the hymn by asserting that Christ Jesus was “in the form of God” (en morphē theou hyparchōn). As O’Brien (1991, 206) observes, the exegesis of this significant phrase influences the interpretation of the entire hymn. The phrase “form of God” not only stands at the beginning of the hymn, but it marks the first of several seemingly sequential statements regarding Jesus’ status. The interpretation of the phrase involves addressing a number of difficult exegetical questions, each of which has multiple possible answers. These questions include: What is the meaning of the preposition en (“in”) in the phrase “in the form of God” (see Hansen 2009, 134–35)? What is the conceptual background to the phrase? What is the lexical range of the noun morphē? Related to this question, how should the meaning of “form of God” be interpreted in relation to the parallel phrase “form of a slave” in Phil 2:7? How does the phrase “form of God” relate to the expression “equal with God” in the latter part of the verse?

  • Bockmuehl suggests that “form of God” is parallel to the notion of “equality with God.” Defining morphē as “the visual characteristics of a person or object,” he interprets “form of God” as a reference to Christ’s preexistence and visible divine characteristics.
  • Craddock takes “form of God” as a reference to Christ’s preexistent state. He also speaks of Christ giving up this state despite His equality with God. In his view, this phrase describes the first of three movements in the hymn: preexistence, existence, and post-existence.
  • Fee argues that “form of God” means that it is “the preexistent Christ” who emptied Himself in Phil 2:7. He claims that Paul used the term morphē because it was the perfect term to characterize the reality of Christ’s divinity (“his being God”) and the metaphor of His humanity (taking on the role of a slave).
  • Hansen’s commentary offers a thorough and up-to-date overview of scholarly interpretations of the phrase “form of God.” In his view, the phrase “in the form of God” describes the “sphere or location” of Christ’s “preincarnate existence.”
  • Hellerman’s article on this phrase proposes a unique thesis. He argues that Paul employs the morphē theou, not to describe Christ’s ontological reality, but as a marker of power and social status. Accordingly, he argues that Paul includes the hymn in Philippians for ecclesiological, not Christological, purposes.
  • According to Runge, Phil 2:6 declares that Jesus is “fully God” and possesses “all the rights and privileges” of divinity. He adds that Paul’s primary interest is to present Christ as a model because He did not use His power or rights for His own advantage.
  • Schreiner argues that “form of God” is another way of saying that Jesus was divine. He also thinks Jesus’ divinity is confirmed by the phrase “equality with God.”

This brief glimpse shows that most interpreters understand the phrase “form of God” to denote the divine status Christ had before His earthly existence. With this knowledge, we can see why Christ’s “mind” offers the perfect corrective to the disunity of the Philippian church—Christ set aside His divine privileges to take on the status of a slave and live and die for others. Christ’s life illustrates the attitude of humility needed to preserve unity among the Philippians believers.

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