What does the Christ Hymn in Philippians 2 reveal about early Christian views on Jesus’ nature?

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The Christ Hymn in Philippians 2, specifically verses 6-11, is one of the most profound and theologically rich passages in the New Testament. It offers deep insights into the early Christian understanding of the nature of Jesus Christ. This passage not only serves as a centerpiece in the Epistle to the Philippians but also has been pivotal in the development of Christian doctrine regarding the person and work of Jesus Christ.

The Text of the Christ Hymn

The hymn reads as follows (Philippians 2:6-11, NIV):

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.

The Nature of Christ as Both Divine and Human

The hymn begins by affirming Jesus' divinity: "Who, being in very nature God." This assertion is crucial as it establishes that Jesus' identity was not merely akin to God but was of the very same essence (Greek: ὑπάρχων, "being"). This speaks to the early Christian belief in the pre-existence of Christ—that Jesus existed as God before his incarnation.

However, the hymn does not stop at his divinity. It moves to describe a profound transition: "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." Here, the hymn illustrates the concept of kenosis (Greek: κενόω, "to empty"). This term has been the subject of much theological debate, but at its core, it suggests that Jesus willingly relinquished his divine privileges and powers to become fully human. This voluntary act of humility and self-limitation underlines the early Christian conviction of Jesus' full humanity.

The Implications of Jesus' Humility and Exaltation

The hymn continues by emphasizing Jesus’ humility: "he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!" The mention of the cross is particularly significant because crucifixion was not only a brutal method of execution but also one associated with shame and dishonor. It highlights the extent of Jesus' humility and obedience, which was not just to any death, but to the most humiliating and painful death imaginable at the time.

Following this narrative of descent, the hymn shifts to proclaim Jesus' exaltation: "Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name." This exaltation is a divine vindication of Jesus' humble submission to death on the cross. It affirms that Jesus' self-humiliation led to his glorification and authority over all creation.

Theological and Christological Significance

The Christ Hymn is pivotal for understanding early Christian views on Jesus' nature as it encapsulates the mystery of the Incarnation—God becoming man—and the ultimate purpose of this act. It provides a theological foundation for the belief in Jesus as both fully divine and fully human, a central tenet of Christian faith that is crucial for understanding the nature of salvation. The hymn suggests that through Jesus' humility and exaltation, he has bridged the gap between God and humanity, making reconciliation possible.

Moreover, the hymn serves as a model for Christian behavior. Paul introduces this hymn within a larger exhortation to the Philippian church to imitate Christ's humility and selflessness (Philippians 2:3-5). This indicates that the early Christian community not only saw theological significance in Jesus' actions but also ethical and moral implications for their own lives.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Christ Hymn in Philippians 2 is a richly layered text that reveals much about early Christian beliefs regarding the nature of Jesus. It affirms his pre-existence as divine, his incarnation and true humanity, his example of ultimate humility, and his subsequent exaltation as Lord over all. This passage not only shaped the theological contours of Christology but also provided a pattern of life for believers to emulate. Its enduring influence continues to shape Christian thought and practice today.

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