Philippians Bible Study, Week 9
Philippians chapter 2 opens with Paul reminding the Philippians of the spiritual fellowship, encouragement, and consolation they have received in Christ (Phil 2:1-5). With these wonderful blessings in mind, Paul urged the believers to be like Jesus Christ who willingly humbled himself for the sake of others.
Paul chose to include the creed (in verses 6-11) in his letter to the Philippians to show the extent of Christ’s humility and sacrifice. This creed profoundly expresses the willing sacrifice and surrender of Jesus Christ, who despite his glorious pre-existence, came to earth in human form (his incarnation) in order to carry out his mission of redemption. While on earth he obediently endured humiliation, even the ultimate humiliation and degradation of crucifixion. This obedience is rewarded with sublime exaltation that commands universal worship.
The Poetry of Philippians 2:6-11
The verses in this passage are arranged in couplets and they feature poetic devices. This evidence of prose has led scholars to postulate that this passage may, in fact, be the words of a very early Christian hymn, confession, or creed. While we cannot know with certainty which of these literary genres this passage belongs to, it contains aspects commonly found in creeds. It contains dogma, liturgy, confession, polemic, and doxology. (O’Brien 1991:188)
These verses also have the characteristics of early Christian hymns. The Christological scheme presented in Philippians 2:6-11 is of Christ’s pre-existence, humiliation, and exaltation which were common themes of many early church hymns.
The statements in this passage are arranged as a chiasm which represents the descent and degradation of Christ followed by his ascent and exaltation. The crux of the chiasm emphasises his death, “even death on a cross.”
6 Who, being in the form (morphe) of God, did not regard it robbery to be equal with God
7 But he emptied himself taking the form (morphe) of a slave,
being in the likeness of human beings
8 And being found in appearance (schema) as a human, he humbled himself,
Being obedient unto death, even death on a cross
9 Therefore also God highly exalted him in the highest place
And granted to him a Name that is above every Name
10 That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth
11 And every tongue confess that the Lord Jesus is the Christ to the glory and praise of God the Father.
The Authorship of Philippians 2:6-11
This passage in Philippians uses uncommon words, and words used differently from the way Paul generally used them in his letters. This seems to indicate that Paul was not the original author of this creed-hymn. The fact that there is no mention of salvation or the resurrection in this hymn further suggests that it is not Paul’s composition, as these themes were of vital importance to the apostle (2 Cor. 15:1ff). However, it is important to point out that the purpose of this creed-hymn was not to show what Christ’s work means for us in regards to salvation but to show what it meant for Christ himself in regards to his ultimate exaltation.
The Creed, Line by Line
Equal with God (v.6)
6a Who, being in the form (morphē) of God . . .
This passage begins with a very common Greek word ὅς (hos) meaning “who.” Other parts of the New Testament which are thought to be fragments of early confessions or hymns also begin with ὅς, perhaps used in a formulaic manner. These other fragments are found in Colossians 1:15, 1 Timothy 3:16 and Hebrews 1:3.
The word “form” (morphē) implies internal as well as external form, compared with schēma which refers only to outward appearance. “Morphē refers to that form which truly and fully expresses the being that underlies it.” (O’Brien 1991:210)
6b. . . did not regard it robbery to be equal with God . . .
Because Jesus was equal with God he did not need to steal, grasp or clutch at divinity. It was already rightfully his. There were others, however, who had become proud and tried to grasp at divinity illegitimately, with grave consequences. Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thinking it would make them like God (Genesis 3:5). Their action brought the curses of sin and death upon all mankind.
Isaiah 14:12-20 prophesied about the destruction and fall of “the morning star, son of the dawn,” (perhaps Satan), who aspired to elevate himself and make himself like “the Most High.” The ruler of Tyre (who may also represent Satan), was also not content with his already high position and thought himself equal to God. This too led to his disastrous downfall (Ezek. 28:1-19).
In a way, we share in God’s divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4). We are made in God’s image and likeness (Gen. 1:26-27), and God wants us to become like Jesus. These are good and godly aims; however, we need to be wary of the sins of pride and arrogance, and not think of ourselves more highly than we should (Rom. 12:3; 1 Pet. 5:5b).
7 But he emptied himself taking the form (morphē) of a slave (doulos), being in the likeness of human beings.
Not only did Jesus not try to clutch at divine majesty, he willingly relinquished his exalted position and laid aside his divine privileges to become a human being. The word ekenōsen, used in verse 7, literally means “he emptied himself.” This word has led to the kenosis theory which has been the subject of countless theological articles and books. Kenosis refers to Jesus’ temporary renunciation and surrender of divine power and privilege.
Even though Jesus was God, he never relied on his divinity during his earthly life. He chose not to use his own power. It seems that Jesus did not do miracles before his baptism in the Jordan River, at which point he was baptised with water and with the Holy Spirit (Matt. 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:31-34). It was only after his baptism with the Holy Spirit that Jesus began his earthly mission, ministering in teaching, healing, and deliverance. Jesus lived and ministered on earth as a human being, totally dependent on the Holy Spirit. As such he is an example that we can try to follow.
In the Form of a Slave (v.7)
Jesus did not come to reign or rule on earth; he came to serve. Jesus was recognised as a rabbi, but he spent much of his time with ordinary people and even outcasts, caring for them and ministering to them. Jesus did not just condescend to become a human being, he served as a slave.
. . . whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. Matthew 20:26-28
Across the Roman Empire, slaves made up more than a third of the population. While many slaves were mistreated, some were not, but they had very few legal rights compared with Roman citizens. Roman citizenship was prized, and a Roman citizen had a higher status than most free non-citizens, foreigners, and especially slaves who lived throughout the Empire.
Philippi was a Roman colony and a considerable number of its inhabitants were Roman citizens. We can assume that some members of the Philippian church were also Roman citizens. What would it have meant for these citizens within the church to view their Lord and Saviour as a slave?
Even Death on a Cross (v.8)
8 And being found in appearance (schēma) as a human, he humbled himself, being obedient unto death, even death on a cross!
Crucifixion was a shameful, disgraceful way to die. The Romans used it only on slaves and foreigners, not on their own citizens. The Jews regarded crucifixion as a curse, believing that victims of crucifixion were cut off from God (Deut. 21:23; Gal. 2:13). This creed is describing Christ’s humiliation, degradation, and alienation to the lowest possible extent.
For the Romans at Philippi, verse 8 would have made a profound, almost incomprehensible, statement. The Romans and Greeks considered honour and glory as virtues. Shame and humility were despised as weaknesses. The humility and obedience that the New Testament teaches, and that Jesus exemplified, would have been an alien counter-cultural concept for the Philippian Christians.
Jesus’ obedience was exemplary; he never stepped outside of God’s will. He did not ease his worsening degradation with his own divine abilities. Instead, Jesus remained humble and obedient to death—even death on a cross!
Jesus Christ’s Exaltation (v.9)
9 Therefore also God highly exalted him in the highest place and granted to him a Name that is above every Name . . .
Jesus Christ’s extraordinary display of obedience and humility was for our benefit. He plumbed the lowest depths of human existence when he paid the price for our sins with his sacrificial death on the cross. Having successfully completed his act of redemption with his resurrection from death, he was ready to return to heaven and resume his glorious position at the right hand of God the Father. Having reached the lowest depths, he was to be, literally, “super-exalted” by God.
God the Father has bestowed on Jesus a Name that is above every other Name. Some theologians think that “name” refers to character or position rather than an actual name. However, the very next verse indicates that it is the very name of “Jesus” that is being elevated and honoured, perhaps even higher than God’s name Yahweh. The “therefore” at the beginning of verse 9 indicates that Jesus is granted this honour because of his humility and obedience. 
Cosmic Praise and Worship (v.10)
10 That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow: in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 And every tongue confess the Lord Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God the Father.
At some point in time in the future, every person on the planet will acknowledge the lordship of Jesus Christ and recognise that he is the true Messiah. Some, perhaps, unwillingly. Jesus’ authority will be universal and cosmic, with angels, people, and devils all worshipping and paying homage to the Saviour Lord. (Martin 1983:104) Compare with Revelation 5:13!
The Bible insists that we may only worship the one true God and no one else. This show of worship towards Jesus demonstrates that Jesus is God, with the Father. Furthermore, the word “Lord,” used throughout the New Testament in reference to Jesus, was used in the Greek Old Testament as referring to YHWH (Yahweh). Jesus is YHWH with God the Father and the Holy Spirit. These three are together the one true God.
This confession in Philippians 2:6-11 is a prelude to the day when all of creation will resound with universal praise to Jesus Christ, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, or Jesus Christ is YHWH.
Finally, the creed closes with the doxology: “to the glory and praise of God the Father.” “Recognition of Christ’s lordship fulfils the purpose of the Father and so brings glory to God.” (Kent 1978:127) Here again Jesus is the example. Our attitude—our love and humility towards others (Phil. 2:1-15)—and our obedience to God, should bring praise and glory to God.
This article is an “additional resource” recommended by Yale Bible Studies produced by Yale Divinity School.
 There are also poetic features such as alliteration, parallelism, meter and chiasm present. While some scholars believe the creed was originally written in Greek, others think it may have been written in Aramaic. (Martin 1983)
 Jesus Christ’s glorious pre-existence is mentioned in John 17:5 and Hebrews 1:3, etc.
 A chiasm is a way of arranging thoughts in sentences to form a V-shaped pattern. The thoughts are stated sequentially in one direction until a main point or climax is reached; then the sentences repeat themselves in a reverse order. So, for example, you might get the pattern: A – B – C – X – C – B – A. In Philippians 2:5-11, the chiastic pattern of A – B – X – B – A is shown above. Chiastic structure was a literary device frequently used by biblical authors.
 Paul did not shy away from quoting from Christian literature to make a point. He even quoted pagan literature in Acts 17:28 and Titus 1:12.
 Luke 10:18.
 Some scholars have noticed a connection with the word morphē-form and the word doxa-glory in the New Testament and Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament). Perhaps morphē alludes to divine splendour when used in the Bible. (Martin 1983:96)
 Contrast this with the pride and disobedience of Adam and Eve and of Satan who were brought low and did not receive the exaltation they desired.
 Exodus 20:3-5a; Deuteronomy 5:7-9a; Matthew 4:10, etc.
© 1st of May 2010, Margaret Mowczko
1. This flower was named “passion flower” by Spanish missionaries in South America who saw the crucifixion of Jesus symbolised in its structure. © Simon Rudolf (Wikimedia)
2. Man bowing (cropped) © Andrew Penner (iStockphoto)