I love the Christmas season and can remember hearing and singing Christmas carols my entire life. The Christian church calendar season known as Advent (“coming”) celebrates the great Christian doctrinal truth of the incarnation (God coming in the flesh). And one of my favorite passages concerning God the Son taking on a human nature and becoming man is found in the apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
Here is that remarkable passage that has been called the Carmen Christi (“Hymn to Christ”):
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: 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. (Philippians 2:5–11)
An Ancient Jewish-Christian Hymn
New Testament scholar and historian of ancient Christianity Larry Hurtado explains the prevailing view of modern scholarship concerning this passage:
“Although the idea does not seem to have occurred to anyone prior to the early twentieth century, it is now the dominant view of New Testament scholars that Philippians 2:6–11 preserves (or derives from) an early Christian ‘hymn’ or ‘Christological ode’ whose original provenance was in the setting of corporate worship.”1
New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg describes the basis in which scholars have identified these primitive hymns and creeds that appear to have been embedded into parts of Scripture:
“Numerous texts of highly poetic Greek, filled with tightly packed formulations of fundamental Christian doctrine, in styles that often differ from those of the epistle writers themselves, and which seem to be set apart as self-contained entities within the letters in which they appear, prove likely candidates for early Christian creeds or confessions of faith.”2
This awareness of hymns and creeds in the New Testament is considered a new perspective as it relates to the identity of Jesus. The clearest and most commonly cited examples of primitive hymns and creeds are reflected in the epistles written by the apostles Paul and Peter in such passages as Philippians 2:6–11, Colossians 1:15–20, and 1 Peter 3:18–22. Other creedal passages are thought to include John 1:1–18 with fragments of hymns seen in Ephesians 2:14–16; 5:14; 1 Timothy 3:15; and Hebrews 1:3.3
Let’s briefly unpackage this Philippian pericope (section of text) from a doctrinal perspective and then we’ll consider its profound apologetics implications.
A High Christology
This apparent hymn (Philippians 2:6–11) taken from the corporate and liturgical worship of the primitive Jewish-Christian church in its earliest devotion to Jesus reveals what is known as a high Christology (a “high” Christology is one in which Jesus is portrayed as fully divine). For example, verse 6 speaks of Jesus preexisting in the form (Greek: morphē) of God which “denotes the outward manifestation that corresponds to the essence.”4 In other words, Christ in his preincarnate state possessed “the sum of those qualities that make God specifically God.”5
It’s also important to note that the other two common primitive creeds or hymns also convey a high Christology: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:19); “Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him” (1 Peter 3:21–22).
Continuing with verse 6 this song states that Christ “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage” (Greek: harpagmon: “something to be grasped”6). In contrast with Adam, who was made in God’s image but through disobedience sought to be God, Christ the new Adam was in the form of God but did not exploit his exalted state.
An Incarnate Servant
Philippians 2:7 says Christ “made himself nothing (Greek: ekenōsen: “emptying”7) by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” This is not a divestment (kenosis) of deity (God minus) but a laying aside of his prerogatives—glory and high position—and gaining a new nature (God plus), which involved “submitting to the humiliation of becoming man.”8 The incarnate Lord (God in human flesh) reflected the ultimate humility (the mindset Christians are to follow as revealed in verse 5) in becoming a bondservant or slave for the purpose of redeeming sinners.
Humiliation Then Exaltation
Verse 8 of the ancient Jewish-Christian hymn states: “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” For God the Son who is equal with the Father to lay aside his heavenly prerogatives and humble himself by taking a human nature is an unprecedented act of servant humiliation. But to undergo crucifixion—that is, to suffer excruciating pain and to be cursed with public disgrace, only heightened this selfless act of humiliation.
The ninth verse of this Philippian worship ode to Christ states: “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name.” Though Christ suffered the ultimate ignominious public death at the hands of Roman soldiers, through his glorious resurrection God the Father has granted Christ the ultimate exaltation.
Verses 10 and 11 reveal the divinely exalted status “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.” Here the worship song of primitive Christianity quotes Isaiah 45:22–23, which states that Yahweh alone is God and to Yahweh alone all people will bow the knee and every tongue confess his Lordship. Yet that Lordship is, extraordinarily, given to Jesus Christ.
Hurtado explains the unprecedented biblical meaning of this exaltation:
“The climactic lines in verse 11 predict a universal acclamation, ‘Jesus Christ is Lord,’ which almost certainly confirms that ‘the name above every name’ given to Jesus (v. 9) is the divine name itself. ‘Lord’ (Greek: Kyrios) most likely functions here as the Greek equivalent of Adonay, the familiar reverent substitution for the sacred Tetragrammaton in Hebrew [YHWH]. In short, Jesus is here linked with God in ways that, rightly understood, are startling and unequaled.”9
Theologian Peter Toon concurs, stating:
“So for Paul to call Jesus ho Kyrios [the Lord] was to identify him in the closest possible way with YHWH, the LORD, and in so doing also identify Jesus in the closest possible way with God the Father, who is YHWH.”10
Early Jewish-Christian devotion to Jesus represented a progression of traditional Jewish monotheism in which Jesus Christ became an equal extension of Yahweh (a recognition of diversity of persons within the single Godhead). This change represents a theological movement away from a strictly unitarian view of God.
The uniqueness of historic Christianity is that out of Christ’s utter defeat by the powers of this fallen world on the Roman cross comes victory over all powers in the Lord’s glorious resurrection.
New Perspective on Jesus’s Divine Identity
This Philippian passage is not only a great section to read for appreciating the truth of the incarnation during the Christmas season, but it has significant apologetic implications as well.
For example, many skeptical New Testament scholars believe that neither Jesus nor his apostles believed he was God. Instead, they claim that the belief that Jesus was God came about through a centuries-long evolutionary process where gentile Christians deified Christ.
Yet, in light of the new perspective that these hymns and creeds come from the earliest period of Jewish-Christian worship, which is significantly earlier than the New Testament books they appear in (likely within the first couple of decades following Jesus’s death), New Testament scholars now reject this evolutionary view.
Blomberg says, “Such beliefs [in Christ’s deity] thus emerged early in the history of the church, not at some advanced stage of the ‘evolution’ of Christian doctrine.”11 He adds: “Oldest of all are passages used by Paul and Peter in their letters that scholars have identified as most likely predating the epistles in which they appear.”12 And Hurtado states: “I simply want to emphasize that the origins of the worship of Jesus are so early that practically any evolutionary approach is rendered invalid as historical explanation.”13
Contrary to the lengthy evolutionary explanation, Hurtado adds: “The evidence [for the speed and early nature in which the primitive church worshiped Jesus as God] is a more explosively quick phenomenon, a religious development that was more like a volcanic eruption.”14
Consider these three significant apologetics applications:15
1. While the books of the New Testament take us back to the apostolic age, the primitive creeds, confessions, and hymns contained in certain New Testament books press back to the earliest period of Jewish Christianity.
2. These primitive creeds, confessions, and hymns illustrate that the earliest Christians viewed Jesus as divine (a high Christology) and serve to falsify the claim that belief in Jesus’s deity went through an extended period of evolution.
3. The earliest Christians, though staunch Jewish monotheists, nevertheless almost immediately worshiped Jesus Christ as an extension of Yahweh and thus exhibited a mutation of traditional monotheism.
These insights on this early Jewish-Christian hymn give me greater appreciation for the first line of one of my favorite Christmas carols: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!”
Reflections: Your Turn
What are your thoughts about the Carmen Christi?
- Larry W. Hurtado, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus
- Craig L. Blomberg, Making Sense of the New Testament: Three Crucial Questions, see chapter 1.
- Peter Toon, Our Triune God: A Biblical Portrayal of the Trinity, see chapter 6.
- Kenneth Richard Samples, God among Sages: Why Jesus Is Not Just Another Religious Leader, see chapter 4.
1. Larry W. Hurtado, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 84.
2. Craig L. Blomberg, Making Sense of the New Testament: Three Crucial Questions
(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004), 63–64.
3. Peter Toon, Our Triune God: A Biblical Portrayal of the Trinity (Vancouver, BC: Regent College Publishing, 1996), 118.
4. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 5, Psalms—Song of Songs, gen ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991), 123.
5. The NIV Study Bible, gen ed. Kenneth Barker (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 1805.
6. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 123.
7. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 123.
8. The NIV Study Bible, 1805.
9. Hurtado, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?, 50.
10. Toon, Our Triune God, 169.
11. Blomberg, Making Sense of the New Testament, 64.
12. Blomberg, 63–64.
13. Hurtado, 25.
14. Hurtado, 25.
15. Kenneth Richard Samples, God among Sages: Why Jesus Is Not Just Another Religious Leader (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2017), 75.