The Christ Hymn (Box 18.4)

The most celebrated passage in Paul’s letter to the Philippians is 2:6–11, often called the “Christ Hymn.” Its poetic quality marks it as material that probably was used in early Christian worship as a creed or responsive reading or, indeed, as an actual hymn that was put to music and sung or chanted. Paul might have composed the piece himself, or he might be quoting material familiar to the Philippians from their liturgy.

Here is one of several ways in which the text might be arranged in verses that resemble a modern hymn:

Though he was in the form of God

He did not regard equality with God

As something to be exploited

But emptied himself

Taking the form of a slave

Being born in human likeness

And being found in human form

He humbled himself

And became obedient unto death—

even death on a cross!

Therefore God also highly exalted him

And gave him the name

That is above every name

So that at the name of Jesus

Every knee should bend

In heaven and on earth and under the earth

And every tongue should confess

That Jesus Christ is Lord

To the glory of God the Father.

The focus of the hymn is on Christ Jesus (2:6), but it celebrates his career with allusions to the Old Testament. The voluntary humiliation of Christ in the first part draws on Isaiah 52:13–53:12, and the universal submission to him at the end quotes from Isaiah 45:23 (cf. Rom. 14:11). Also, Christ’s willingness to give up his “equality with God” may be seen as a contrast to Adam’s desire to attain equality with God in Genesis 3:1–7 (cf. Rom. 5:12–19).

Around 110, Pliny the Younger, a Roman governor, wrote a letter to the emperor Trajan to inform him of Christians. He said that when Christians gather at their meetings, they “chant verses alternately amongst themselves in honor of Christ as if to a God” (Epistulae 10.96). The “Christ Hymn” of Philippians 2:6–11 seems like a perfect example of the sort of liturgical material that this Roman governor heard the Christians using.