Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, 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 to the point of 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.
Paul encourages his Philippian readers to allow the story of Jesus’ humiliation to serve as a pattern for the way they should treat one another. The poetic shape of the passage suggests that it was a popular Christian hymn that Paul had incorporated into his message just as preachers sometimes do today. The historical significance of this particular hymn cannot be overestimated.
In it, one of the earliest pieces of Christian writing in our possession, there is evidence that the first generation of Christians believed Jesus of Nazareth to have had some sort of pre-history. They understood him to have possessed ‘the form of God,’ but this was not something he held on to or exploited. Rather, he freely chose to empty himself, to take on human form, and to walk the way of servanthood, suffering and death.
How on earth had Christians come to hold such a remarkable view of this young rabbi from Nazareth? Perhaps it was because they had been caught up in the latter part of the hymn, the exaltation of Jesus. They heard of course the stories of his suffering and crucifixion, but they now also knew of his resurrection. Through their dramatic experience of the outpouring of his Spirit they had come to believe that Jesus’ had been exalted to the right hand of God. Salvation and forgiveness were part of their personal experience. Week by week as they bowed their knees together in worship they joyfully acknowledged that ‘Jesus is Lord.’
No wonder those early Christians felt that the world had been turned upside down. The rules of life had been transformed. The last would be first. The meek would inherit the earth. Death had been defeated. In humility Christians were now to regard others as better than ourselves. All had become new. Jesus had changed everything, even the way they were to think about God. These committed monotheists found themselves offering divine praise to a recently crucified Galilean. How they were to make theological sense of all this was a question that they and Christians after them were left to reflect on.
Having drunk from the wells of salvation we worship our risen saviour. Set free from the chains of death we acknowledge our liberator to be the Lord of life, His name is for us above all other names. Transform us we pray into his likeness so that we too might walk the way that he chose of humility and service. Amen
The Rev’d Dr Alan Spence is a retired minister and Convenor of the Faith and Order Committee.