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Section 2: 2:5-11: A Hymn to Christ

5 ... and think the same way that Christ Jesus thought:
6 Christ was truly God.
But he did not try to remain equal with God.
7 He gave up everything and became a slave,
when he became like one of us.
8 Christ was humble.
He obeyed God and even died on a cross.
9 Then God gave Christ the highest place
and honored his name above all others.
10 So at the name of Jesus everyone will bow down,
those in heaven; on earth, and under the earth.
11 And to the glory of God the Father
everyone will openly agree, "Jesus Christ is Lord. [CEV]
5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became
obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and
gave him the name that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. [NRSV]

From the warm words at the beginning of this chapter, Paul turns to an example of those words in action.

A hymn or poem. People have noticed the rhythm of these lines, their structure and concluded that this is an ancient hymn that Christians would sing, or a poem that was chanted or read. No one knows if Paul himself wrote this, or if this was in widespread use, and he quoted it here because it so fit the point he was trying to make.

Parallels to the footwashing. In John 13.3-17 is the story of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. Some have pointed to parallels in the structure of that story and the order of this hymn. Jesus holds a high position (head of the meal, equal with God), but he gives it up and becomes a servant or slave (by performing the servant's duty of washing the feet, by becoming like humans), and in doing this act of service was exalted (as the footwashing became a sign of Jesus' high role).

Being God is not about having power. Our normal assumption about God is that it equals power and control. Even a "guitar god" is thought to be a musician with a powerful aura when he or she plays. But here we see a radical redefinition of what it means to be God or in the form of God. The verse does not say, "even though he was God, and could have controlled everything, he decided not to." Rather, the verse says that "because he was God, he humbled himself." Being God is not about filling the self, but pouring the self out in love. Being God is not about grasping, but about giving.

What does it mean to be human? It means to be in a world of sin, where our best efforts go awry. It means to die, and sometimes things even worse than death: to be abused or humbled in ways regarded as shameful. That's the point about "even" death on a cross.

"Even the cross." No one would think that dying on a cross was a nice way to go, but through familiarity with it as a Christian symbol we may not realize just how awful it was. It was a punishment taken over by Rome from Persia. Rome inflicted it only on slaves, no free citizen would ever be subject to it. Unlike Jesus, most crucified took as long as two or three days to die and their cries and anguish were there for their families and passersby to see. People were further humiliated by being crucified naked. Loss of control of the bowels often occurred, further shaming the dying. Jesus was not the only one held to the cross with nails: some years ago, a tomb was unearthed with the body of a victim of crucifixion. The nails were still fused into the bones.

Slavery in the Ancient Near East. Being a slave is never a good thing. But in the Ancient Near East, slavery was not exactly the same as in the American south in the 19th century. In the ancient world slaves were often of the same race or ethnic group as their owners. Slaves had a few rights, held some important jobs and slave families were seldom broken up. The same Greek word serves for "slave" and for "servant." To be a slave is a position of service and submission, but it isnít a term for a different race that is thought to be not fully human.


Last updated 12/16/00; © 2000 John P. Nordin