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What Does Paul's "Christ Hymn" Mean? Not What You May Think — An Excerpt from Cohick's "Philippians" Commentary

Categories New Testament Book Excerpts

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:6-11)

9780310327240Many of us are familiar with the so-called "Christ hymn" of Philippians 2, that grand, deep, majestic poem that Lynn H. Cohick insists "should take our breath away and cause us to wonder, ponder, imagine, and sing with the angels, 'Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and strength and honor and glory and praise!' (Rev 5:12)." But what does it mean, particularly for our humanity?

In her new Philippians commentary the second inaugural volume in the new commentary series The Story of God Bible Commentary, Cohick explains that rather than merely setting Jesus as an example or establishing a doctrine of Christ's deity, the passage actually develops a vision for what it means to be fully human before God.

Read the excerpt below from Cohick's helpful new work, and then take her advice by wondering, pondering, imagining, and singing with the angels!

LISTEN to the Story

Listening to the text in the Story: Genesis 1:1 – 3:24; Leviticus 26:11 – 13; Psalm 8; 97:9; Proverbs 8:22 – 31; Isaiah 40 – 55 (esp. 45:23).

Paul packs lofty theology into these two Greek sentences and sets up this passage with an enigmatic opening line (2:5). I suggested above that this verse enjoins the Philippian church to have a singular goal and passion, namely, serving each other in the name of Christ. This verse should be read as a restatement of 2:1 – 2, wherein Paul calls to mind the Trinity as foundational for appreciating the importance of unity in the body. Paul says, in essence, “You believers can say that you are in Christ, which means that you are forgiven, changed, made new, and made whole. Translate that newness to your relationships within the body of Christ; let the church be a place of grace, newness, and wholeness.”

EXPLAIN the Story 

Philippians 2:6–11 speaks with great economy of words about mysteries no human mind can fully comprehend — the character of the Godhead, the incarnation of Jesus, the glorification of Christ. But if we cannot know all, we can at least claim some things as true for our lives now and in eternity. This “Christ hymn” describes the person of Jesus Christ and, in so doing, develops a vision for what it means to be fully human before God.

The question is often posed as to whether this passage describes doctrine or sets Jesus as an example for believers to imitate. Such a query, however, begins at the wrong spot and offers an incomplete set of choices. The key is to recognize the believers’ participation in Christ. Then Jesus is not set up as an ideal, whose perfection we strive to reach but of course never can. Nor is Jesus understood merely through a doctrinal lens divorced from our personal experience. But understanding that each believer is even now seated with Christ (Eph 2:6; Col 3:1), having been crucified with him and thus no longer living on one’s own (Gal 2:19 – 20), allows for this hymn to celebrate the nature of Christ and also connect personally and practically to our own experience…

The social implications of this theological tour de force are serious and compelling. For the Philippians, the Christ hymn announces that their worship of Jesus Christ as God has the concomitant position that Caesar is not Lord (cf. Acts 25:26). The imperial family, including Augustus, his wife Livia, and her grandson Claudius were all worshiped in the imperial cult in Philippi when Paul wrote this letter. Each member of the imperial family mentioned was granted an apotheosis; that is, they were understood at their death to be changed into a god. Suetonius draws on the hope of apotheosis as he illustrates Vespasian’s sense of humor when he quotes the emperor in an illness late in his life, “methinks I am becoming a god.” But the hymn of Christ speaks of kenosis (emptying), not apotheosis; the hymn declares humiliation/death rather than earthly glorification/divination.

LIVE the Story

This is the attitude enjoined by Christ in Mark 9:33 – 37, that “anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” The example Christ gave to illustrate his meaning was to choose a child from the crowd and state that in welcoming such a one — one who cannot repay kindness, who might not even realize kindness being offered, and whose care is seen as menial by most — the disciple demonstrates the posture of service that characterizes the child of God. Because this teaching is so hard and so uncharacteristic of the human existence, the disciples resisted. Jesus stated the same teaching again in Mark 10:35 – 45, concluding that “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Philippians 2:6 – 8 puts such claims in poetic verse, to be sung in each believer’s heart. (105-131)

Pre-order this important contribution today and also download and enjoy a free eBook based on its content, called Eager Expectations. What does Paul mean when he writes "To live is Christ and to die is gain?" And how can we share in that same unshakeable confidence? Find out when you get Cohick's FREE new eBook on Philippians.



Philippians, SGBC

by Lynn H. Cohick

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