The Christ Hymn: Empowering Christian Humility (Pt. 1)

The Carmen Christi (Christ Hymn) in Philippians 2:5-11.

5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

First, one must note the beautiful structure of this passage. Most apparent, 2:5 begins with an exhortation, moving to Christ’s humiliation in 2:6-8 and his exaltation in 2:9-11; but most scholars have identified the poetic flow of the passage. Singing hymns was a common practice in the early church, and they sang most of their hymns to Christ. Philippians 2:6-11 carries a similar syntactical structure characteristic of hymnology, thus leading to its common designation as the Carmen Christi, ‘Christ Hymn.’

This passage is one of the most beautiful passages in all of scripture, not merely because of its lyrical magnificence, but because of the glory of its content. It contains one of the most central truth claims of Christianity – the humiliating incarnation of Jesus Christ, his death on a cross, and his vindicating universal lordship. One may be startled to notice, however, that there is an important negation – no mention of the atonement.

Nowhere in this passage does Paul indicate that Jesus’ death served to atone for the sins of his people.

Paul makes sure to reference the atoning implication elsewhere (e.g., 2 Cor. 5:21), but he does not here. Such an exclusion better serves the purpose of this specific passage – humility – where we can see that the focus is not on us, but on Christ. Often times, we become guilty of viewing Christ’s work only in regards to our prosperous opportunity resulting from it. We rarely sit and ponder the true weight of the humiliation that Christ suffered. ‘Jesus died for my sins’ has become flippantly tossed about for a variety reasons – one of which is that we do not understand the true wickedness of our offense against God – but here, it is because we allow our own benefit to overshadow the depths of humiliation that Christ suffered. Such an overemphasis is yet another example of the subliminal influence of self-centered Christianity or Christian humanism.

One may follow this rabbit trail with a question: ‘Did Jesus die because he loved us or for his glory?’ Ephesians 2:4-10 is just one example passage that leads the student in the right direction.

[4] But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, [5] even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—[6] and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, [7] so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. [8] For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, [9] not a result of works, so that no one may boast. [10] For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

The apostle proclaims that we were made alive together with Christ (5a) because of God’s great love for us (4a). Notice that the emphasis of God’s purport in salvation is his love for us, not necessarily the execution of his magnification through us. Nonetheless, we see the glory of God running underneath this whole passage, primarily in 2:7: “so that…[God] might show the immeasurable riches of his grace” and remove boasting from anyone else (cf. 2:8-10).

God uses those whom he saves to magnify the splendor of who he is and what he does.

So, the answer to the question is a glorious ‘both, and.’ But which of the two is more emphasized today in our culture? I believe the Carmen Christi is an example passage, showing believers that we must view God and the work of Christ as ‘bigger than ourselves.’ Yes, the work of Christ is even bigger than salvation. Could one even dare to say that the Christian life is more than ‘salvation,’ more than one’s eternal destination? Of course, these things are wrapped up in it all; but I believe we need a good dose of seeing the work of Christ beyond its mere salvific implications for ourselves, where we see the overarching redemptive work of the world, where God restores all things for the sake of his glory and exaltation. Along with the overarching purpose to point to Christ’s humility, within that progression, this passage implicitly functions to empower Christian humility by providing a large God-centered perspective of God’s redemptive work, where Christ’s work is mentioned without its specific atoning implications.

Look at the audacious claim of the apostle Paul in Romans 9:3, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” Contextually, Paul makes this assertion to lead into his explication of God’s faithfulness despite Israel’s current disobedience. However, there is one overwhelming implication: Paul values God’s glory and others’ salvation more than his own prosperity acquired through the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is an earth-shattering assertion, demonstrating the true desire of Paul’s heart. His salvation through Jesus Christ directed him to value God above all things, even above his own salvation, loving and seeking God’s glory through the salvation of others. Do we dare ask God to do the same? Can we desire God’s glorification with all humility and sincerity, even if it would include our own damnation? I confess that I cannot; and pray for God to continue to mold my heart to be better formed to Jesus Christ, “who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8). Such humility is only attained through the indwelling person of Jesus Christ, who has expressed the greatest act of humiliation in history. It is because Paul was united with Jesus that he could assert the audacious claim of Romans 9:3; and it is by the same means that all Christians should desire and fulfill the act of humility.


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