Carmen Christi


Philippians 2:1-11

“Carmen Christi” or “hymn of Christ” is the traditional title for vv. 6-11 and that for two reasons. First, it has long been thought that these verses were not original to Paul, but are, in fact, the citation of an already existing Christian hymn or of a selection from that hymn. Of course, it is possible that, even if these verses stand alone as a hymn, Paul was the author. Luther was a preacher, theologian, and hymn-writer; perhaps Paul was as well. Second, as the editors of the NIV indicate by placing the text in poetic form, while it is not possible to prove beyond doubt that the text of vv. 6-11 constitutes a formal poem or hymn, it is difficult to deny the strongly poetic qualities of the passage. [Silva, 93]

We considered the opening verses of the chapter last Lord’s Day morning and the connection of those verses with what follows is immediate and obvious. If unity is essential to the Philippians’ spiritual welfare and if unity depends upon humility, then what better way to commend a humble heart to these believers than to set before them the example of Jesus himself? When Paul wanted the Corinthians to be generous to the Lord’s work he set before them the example of Christ: “though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” [2 Cor. 8:9] Well, in the same way here Paul commends to the Philippians the spirit of humble servanthood by pointing them to the incarnation and the death of the Savior. It is worth pointing out, as we begin, that there have been many efforts, especially in the modern period, to separate Christian theology from Christian ethics, as if it might be possible to keep the high and noble ethics of the Bible while jettisoning its supposedly time-worn and outdated theology. People talk about practical Christianity, as if somehow we could have that without having to believe in miracles, in Christ’s resurrection, and in the Second Coming. But in the Bible there is and there can never be such a separation between the two. The life comes from the belief, the love from the faith, the ethics from the theology. Practical Christianity draws its strength and meaning from Christian theology and has none without it. [Moule, 63] When Paul wants his Christian friends to think and live as they should, he reminds them of who Jesus Christ is and what Jesus Christ did.

Text Comment

v.5

Interestingly, what you have in the NIV and also the ESV, for those reading that translation, is very much a paraphrase rather than a translation and a debatable paraphrase at that. A more accurate translation might be: “Be so disposed toward one another as is proper for those who are united in Christ Jesus.” In other words, there is very likely nothing in the sentence about Jesus’ mind or how or what Jesus thought. That is, the only thinking referred to is ours. It doesn’t change the meaning of what follows or the point that Paul is making from the Carmen Christi, but it lays stress where Paul apparently laid it: on our relationship, our union with Jesus Christ as the fundamental fact of our existence. [Silva, 95-97]

v.6

The idea is that the Son, being equal with the Father, the Son being fully God and having in his possession all the attributes and the prerogatives of Almighty God did not hold on to those prerogatives and did not regard his equality with God as something to use to his own advantage. [Silva, 103-104; O’Brien, 215]

v.8

The addition of “even death on a cross” emphasizes the extent of the Lord’s emptying of himself for death by crucifixion was the most degrading and repellent form of execution known to the ancient world. J.B. Phillips captures some of the sense when he renders the phrase “and the death he died was the death of a common criminal.”

v.11

Two matters deserve brief comment. First, this last statement does not suggest that the confession of all creatures that Jesus is Lord is offered willingly and cheerfully. As Calvin rightly points out, the submission of the devils and of unsaved men will not be voluntary. But all will acknowledge the Lord’s supremacy whether they like it or not. It is helpful to note that Paul cites the same text from Isa. 45 – where comes the phrase every knee shall bow and every tongue confess – in Romans 14:11 in reference to the Day of Judgment. So both the doomed and the saved will make this confession. Second, as I noted, the phrase “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess…” is taken from Isa. 45:23, a statement found in the midst of one of the most powerful affirmations of the uniqueness of the one living and true God in the entire Bible. For Paul, monotheism – belief in only one God – is not compromised by the confession of Jesus Christ as God. Jesus is Yahweh! But that means to confess his Lordship to the glory of God the Father can only be done on the assumption of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity: the one living and true God who exists in three persons.

Probably no passage in the New Testament apart from the first eighteen verses of the Gospel of John is as important to Christology – the doctrine of the person and work of Jesus Christ – as these six verses in Philippians 2. And the reason is not difficult to find. We have the entire outline of the doctrine here, all its major parts. No details, to be sure, but the entire doctrine. Which is to say, we have our entire faith as Christians present here. This is what we believe most firmly if we are Christians, and, believing these things, all the implications for our lives inevitably follow. Paul uses this hymn to motivate his readers to love one another and to maintain their unity in humble selflessness. But he could just as well have used this account of Jesus Christ to prove any other part of the Christian life. Let me then summarize the Christology of these verses in five points.

  1. First, Jesus Christ existed as a person before he came into the world.

This is the doctrine of Christ’s pre-existence and it is fundamental to historic orthodox Christology. You have the name Christ Jesus in v. 5 used with reference to the time before he came into the world in v. 6. His name wasn’t “Jesus” until Joseph gave that name to him and he wasn’t anointed “the Christ,” the Messiah, the descendant of David and heir to his throne, until his calling as a young man. But of this person it is said that ‘being in very nature God…he made himself nothing, being made in human likeness.” He was, he existed before there was a baby named Jesus. That is the burden of the participle “being” in the first line of v. 6. “Being in very nature God…he became a man.”

Now this point is made many times and emphatically in the New Testament. Jesus said of himself that “before Abraham was, I am.” Both John and Paul say that Christ is the creator of heaven and earth. Jude says that it was Jesus who delivered his people Israel from bondage in Egypt. Again and again Jesus is represented as coming into the world. That is the first part of this Christology: the pre-existence of Jesus Christ. Unlike every other human being who only begins to be when he is conceived in his mother’s womb, Jesus already was before he was conceived in the womb of Mary his mother.

  1. Second, Jesus Christ is God.

We have here, first in v. 6 and then again in vv. 9-10, the explicit assertion that Jesus Christ is God. The NIV reads “Who, being in very nature God…” and that is a fair reading. Paul’s Greek literally reads “Who, being in the form of God…” Much ink has been spilt on the meaning of the Greek term μορφη, form, but its meaning here is not really in doubt. Though there has been much discussion about the precise burden of the word itself, it does seem clear that in a context like this μορφη refers to the essence or the essential characteristic of something. So “being in the form of God” means “being truly God.” And that definition is confirmed by the context. First, in the next line, “equality with God” obviously corresponds to “being in the form of God” in the first line. The two expressions are equivalent. Second, “in the form of God” is contrasted later with “in the form of a servant,” an expression further elaborated by the phrase “in appearance” or “in the likeness” of man. What is divine is being contrasted with what is human. His original deity is being contrasted with his eventual humanity.

And we have the same again at the end of the hymn in the application to Jesus of that statement from Isaiah 45:23 concerning the eventual universal vindication of the living and true God in the sight of all men. It is one of many instances in the New Testament when a text from the OT concerning Yahweh, Jehovah, is applied to Jesus.

This is by no means the only assertion of the deity of Jesus, the son of Mary – indeed there are many others in both the prophecies of the Old Testament and the Gospels and epistles of the New Testament – but this confession of the deity, the divinity, the Godhead of Jesus Christ takes its place as one of the most important among them all. Jesus Christ lived before he was born to the virgin Mary and he is the living God. The baby lying in Mary’s lap is the same person who is the Maker of heaven and earth.

  1. Third, the living God became a man.

This is what Christian theology calls the incarnation, a term that means literally “in-flesh-ment” with the word “flesh” used here as a synonym for human nature as it often is in the New Testament. The “becoming a human being-ment” of God is the idea of “incarnation”, however ponderous the phrase. As the living God, he did not and could not cease to be God, but he added to himself a true and authentic manhood. God became also man. And those two natures are united in the one person. You can trace the doctrine here very clearly. There is but one person that Paul is talking about throughout. The person who was in the very form of God, the person who made himself nothing, that is the same person who died on the cross. There are not two, but one. As John Bunyan has Mr. Greatheart say, in Part II of Pilgrim’s Progress:

“He of whom I am now to speak is One that has not his fellow. He has two natures in one Person, plain to be distinguished, impossible to be divided.”

Here the incarnation, God becoming also a man, is plainly put in terms of the emptying or the abasement of God. The creator stooped to become a creature. There may be senses, there are very definitely senses in which we may speak of the glory of man, of the magnificence of man, of the exalted status of man, the creature who alone among all the creatures, is made in the image of God. But there is no glory or honor or exaltation for God the creator to become a man. That was for him a great stoop, an impossibly large step downward. Who, being God, made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. Being God, being everything, he appeared in the world as a human being, as nothing. That is Paul’s point. As the great Bishop Lightfoot of the 19th century put it:

“‘He divested himself’ not of his Divine nature, for this was impossible, but of the glories, the prerogatives, of Deity. This He did by taking upon Him the form of a servant.” [Cited in Moule, 66]

The three parts of the doctrine so far given in the Carmen Christi is nowhere more beautifully summed up than in Milton’s immortal lines from his poem On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.

That glorious Form, that Light unsufferable,
And that far-beaming blaze of Majesty,
Wherewith he wont at Heav’n’s high Council-Table,
To sit the midst of Trinal Unity,
He laid aside; and here with us to be,
Forsook the Courts of everlasting day,
And chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay.

  1. Fourth, the incarnation of God the Son was for the purpose of his humiliation.

God becoming a man is not the end of the Son’s journey downward. He must go lower still. To become a man, a mortal creature was, we just said, itself humiliation and debasement for the Almighty. But there is more. God became a man not to prove that he could do it, nor to have some mythic adventure that would be the stuff of tales for ever after, nor to interfere in the affairs of men as the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses were supposed to do. The living and true God became a man to suffer and to die for men because nothing less than that would avail to reconcile sinful men to a holy God.

Theologians speak of the two states of Christ: his humiliation and his exaltation. These two states are the two periods of the history of the life of the incarnate Son of God succeeding one another in time. And the first of these states is that of his humiliation. We have here in vv. 7-8 his humiliation, his coming into the world with his divine glory hidden and unrecognized, his taking to himself a human nature weakened by the fall, subject to illness, pain, and sorrow – yet without sin – and his submitting himself to the exhausting demands of his ministry, the mistreatment and mockery of wicked men, and eventually to the cruelest and most unjust death at their hands.

Many men have been put to death. Many men in those days were crucified. Life was cheap in the Greco-Roman world of the first century as it is in our world today. When, in the previous century, the rebellion against Rome led by the slave Spartacus was finally put down, thousands of his followers were crucified as an example to others and those unfortunate men remained in agony on their crosses longer than Jesus remained on his. But you cannot measure the suffering of Christ or the enormity of the punishment he endured by the pain of the nails in his hands and feet or the terrible thirst that was one of the worst features of crucifixion. His suffering can be measured only by the distance that separated that ignominy, that shame, that mockery, that desolation, and that physical torture from the perfection, the glory, and the infinite love and joy that was the life of Son of God in the fellowship of the Trinity before he came into the world. To travel from the paradise of Trinitarian joy and glory to Calvary to be spit upon and murdered by profane and evil men, that is the humiliation of the Son of God. To travel from infinite and perfect love to complete forsakenness and abandonment—that is the humiliation of Jesus Christ.

True, Paul only states the fact of Christ’s humiliation here; he does not explain it. But he says enough to make perfectly clear what he means. Remember, he is writing to Christians whom he knew already understood why Christ’s death was necessary and, in any case, he will elaborate the rationale of Christ’s suffering in chapter 3. But Paul makes a point of at least saying here in v. 8 that Jesus, the living God, made himself nothing, he humbled himself, and he went to the cross in obedience. All of this was according to plan. It was his Father’s will that he should suffer and die for the sake of his people and in obedience Jesus did just that. He died as a criminal dies, he was executed as a sinner, because he was dying in the place of sinners and for their salvation. He had been sent into the world to give his life a ransom for many. He was dying so that they would be spared eternal death. He was dying in their place, the just for the unjust; the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all; he was pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, and the punishment that brought us peace was upon him. All of this he did because it was his assignment in the world: he did it in obedience to God his Father; he did it for the people his Father had given to him. The living God became a man to suffer for men in order to save them from their sins.

  1. Fifth, having completed his work, Jesus rose from the dead and returned to heaven.

This is the second of Christ’s states, his exaltation. This is his Father’s reward for his having perfectly fulfilled his assignment and accomplished his Father’s will. It is important for us to remember that from his resurrection to his ascension, from his ascension to his sitting down at the Right Hand of God, and from his sitting down to his coming again Jesus was and is being vindicated, rewarded, and exalted by his heavenly Father. His obedience – that cost him so much – had its reward. He is now in heaven – the God-Man – and his glory as God the Son is no longer hidden. The Father has made him the focus of all in heaven and soon he will be the focus of everyone on earth. And, as Paul goes on to say, the day will come when every human being who has ever lived will see that glory and bow before the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

If we wanted to sum up these five assertions – that together make up the doctrine of the incarnation of God the Son – we could do not better than the verses of one of the hymns of Ambrose, the 4th century church father and Bishop of Milan. For the hymn of Christ we have here in Phil. 2 is only the first of a great many hymns of Christ that would follow.

From God the Father He proceeds,
To God the Father back he speeds;
Proceeds as far as very hell,
Speeds back to light ineffable.

Ponder this greatest mystery. There was a time when God the Son was not a man. Then he became a man. He did not cease to be God, but he became also a man. And by this union of natures in his person, he remains a man forever. He has gone to heaven, Paul says here, as the God-Man. It is not only to his eternal son, but to Jesus of Nazareth to whom God has given the highest place and the name above every name. The incarnation never ends. God the Son never returns to his pre-incarnate life as the Second Person of the Godhead in his deity alone.

That fact suggests many things but, I think, chiefly this: there is something incomprehensibly wonderful and beautiful about the incarnation of the Son of God. There is something so fine, so good, so wise, so glorious in the incarnation that God’s perfect plan could find no place for the dissolution of it or the end of it. We might well have thought that God would become a man for our salvation and when that salvation was completely accomplished and all of God’s children were safely in heaven, the Son would lay down his human nature and return to that form of existence that he had from all eternity. But, no! God so loves his Son in his incarnate life that he wishes for him to remain God and Man forever and for his children to behold his Son in that incarnate state forever and worship him and love him forever as the God-Man. The two natures in Jesus Christ – divine and human – our Westminster Confession of Faith says are “inseparably joined” and the Thirty Nine Articles of the Church of England say “are never to be divided.”

It was this realization that prompted Edward Irving to write, “I would not give the truth expressed in these words of the Catechism – “Two distinct natures and one person forever” – for all the truths that by human language have ever been expressed. I would rather have been the humblest defender of this truth in the four Ecumenical Councils than have been the greatest reformer in the Church, the father of the [Scottish] covenant, or the procurer of the English constitution.” [Cited in Whyte, Shorter Catechism, 51]

In one way or another, so many religions and philosophies of the world proclaim the possibility of man becoming God and in our secular Western world man is widely thought to be the only god there is. What a crock! And what barren pointlessness. If man is god, then so much the worse for god and so much the worse for man. If man is God, obviously God will be no help to man; there is no help. Christianity and the Bible, however, proclaim not man becoming God but God becoming man. That is a far greater, a far more wonderful thing. There, in history, is the central fact of our existence, there is our hope; there is the meaning of our lives.

Many of you have thought a great deal about the election this past week. Perhaps you have mourned its outcome because of what you fear will be the implications for the further moral degeneration of our society. The Democratic Party is now in control of the Congress and the Democrats advocate abortion, have been adamantly opposed to any limitation of that evil and inhuman practice; they advocate the normalization of homosexuality, and so on. Or, perhaps you were satisfied with the outcome, feeling that the Republicans had shown themselves unworthy of office and got what they deserved. But, listen to me. People have been thrilled or demoralized by elections from the time mankind began to have elections, before the time of Christ. You are going to die and leave this world. You and everyone else are going to die sooner than you think and the world will go on without you for better or for worse. Many more elections will come and go without you to cheer or mourn the result. You will be forgotten by almost everyone soon enough. Your happiness or unhappiness over an election, or, for that matter, over anything else, will matter to no one. But this, this! this incarnation of God the Son, his suffering and death on the cross, his exaltation to the right hand, the prospect of his coming again and being hailed willingly or unwillingly by every human being that lives or ever has lived, this means that no matter what happens in our lifetime, no matter the condition of human life and society at any particular moment in history, no matter what becomes of the truth in our day or any day, human history is and remains the story of Jesus Christ, his humiliation and his exaltation. It is moving inexorably and will end with absolute certainty in one place and one place only: the public triumph and glory of the Son of God.

If you are not a Christian this morning, God willing the very thought of the living God taking human nature for our salvation will banish forever from your mind all illusions you might have indulged about saving yourself and cause you to bow before Jesus Christ and confess him Lord and Savior just as we have done. Just to think of these things, to realize what an astonishing thing has happened in human history will force you to reckon with what the Scripture says in many different ways: “How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?”

But if you are a follower of Jesus, then this recollection of what God the Son did and will do should shake you from your doldrums, set your feet upon the rock once again, and send you out to love and serve your Lord and Savior. And, says Paul, how better to love and serve him than to think of one another, and to be disposed to one another, and to treat one another as is proper for those who are united to Jesus Christ, the God-Man, who humbled himself for us and our salvation and who with such love, such selflessness, such mighty sacrifice placed our interests before his own.

Thinking of Jesus Christ as the God-Man and of his sacrifice for us, Samuel Rutherford once wrote:

“If there were then thousand thousand millions of worlds, and as many heavens full of men and angels, Christ would not be pinched to supply all our wants, and to fill us all. Christ is a well of life, but who knoweth how deep it is to the bottom?” [Letters, pb. Ed. 119-120]

Well, you will never touch bottom in sounding the depths of the love and the power and the wisdom of God in the incarnation of God the Son, but you will get closer to these things and admire them more to the extent that, for love’s sake, you try to live as he lived and to the extent that, in his name and for thanksgiving’s sake, you seek to put the interests of others before your own as he did so magnificently. No one can take this hymn to heart – really to heart – without becoming more and more like Christ, and there is nothing that is more like Christ than making sacrifices for others.