14 September 2012

Philippians 2:5-11

"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." (vv. 9-11)


This passage from Philippians for today (Holy Cross Day) explores the nature of Christ in the incarnation (God being born in human form). The writer, Paul, adapts an earlier hymn which he incorporates into the letter. The hymn is based on images of the 'suffering servant' in Isaiah (Isaiah 50:4-11; 52:13 - 53:12), where, among other meanings, the servant is an image of the Israelite king. As servant, the king is both the royal son of God and servant of the divine king, living and dying in obedience to God. This scriptural echo reflects early Christian attempts to understand the humanity and divinity of Christ in Jesus.

Paul introduces the hymn with the exhortation to the Philippians to have the "mind" of Christ (v. 5), which is characterised by love and selflessness. It is this same "mind" that characterises God's love and it is out of God's love for humanity that Christ "emptied himself" (v. 7) and was incarnated in human form.

The hymn uses a complex series of terms in Greek to explore the "form" of Christ, who, before taking on human form, was in the "form of God" (v. 6). The Greek word implies both outward resemblance and inner nature. Equality with God was not something that needed to be grasped, held tightly (in Greek 'harpagmon', v. 6), because it was already Christ's nature, and so could not be lost in the incarnation. With these difficult verses, Paul affirms both the humanity and divinity of Christ.

In obedience to his own nature as God, and in love for humankind, Christ offers himself as a sacrifice on the cross (verse 8). The end of the passage indicates God's acceptance of that sacrifice and the exaltation of Jesus Christ. By God's grace, he receives a new name (verse 9), 'Kurios' (Lord), a term that in Hebrew is used for the unsayable name of God, YHWH. The hymn closes (verse 10) by quoting Isaiah 45:23: YHWH proclaims that he alone is God and that every knee shall bow to him. Jesus, in his exalted state as Christ, has been given the supreme name of God ("Jesus Christ is Lord" (v. 11)), so that like God he is worshipped by all creation.

To Ponder

  • How does this passage contribute to your understanding of nature of Jesus Christ as both human and divine?
  • How do the elements of the Christian life (for example, prayer, study, or action) enable the church community to grow in the 'mind of Christ'? How far is the balance among these the same for your individual growth in holiness?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Susan Graham

As the training officer and development enabler in the Bristol District, Susan's work has focused recently on developing new ways to train local preachers, which enables her to combine her love of teaching and her passion for excellence in theological education. She is a New Testament scholar who specialises in historical Jesus study, and she has just published her first (and probably only!) book on the subject.