Philippians 2:5-11, The Divine Christ Hymn

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus,

who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God,  

but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men.

And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.

Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, 

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, 

and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  

//What I’ve just quoted was written by Paul, in a book which is universally considered authentic … that is, penned by Paul’s own hand. He appears to be quoting a hymn of some sort, and in so doing, claiming Jesus’ divinity “in the form of God.” Some translations even present it as a direct claim: “Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to.” – NLT.

But did Paul really think of Jesus in these terms, as God Himself coming down to earth? Or even as a pre-existing, divine being? This is a hotly debated topic; critical scholars are nearly unified in believing that the idea that Jesus was God developed later in Christianity, so how should we interpret this hymn? What does it mean about early Christian beliefs? Earlier even than Paul, who quoted an already-existing source expecting it to be recognized.

There are some problems with the “Jesus is God” interpretation. The text is actually quite clear that Jesus was in the form of God, not God himself. And it is God who exalts Jesus, apparently exalting him higher than he was before … meaning, Jesus wasn’t God beforehand. So what was he? The scholarly opinions are legion.

Many scholars do not think it means Christ existed before birth. They think it is talking about Christ as the “second Adam,” who was like the first man, Adam, but who acted very differently. 

The first Adam is made in the image of God (compare to “in the form of God”), and so is the second Adam. The first Adam wanted to be “equal with God,” and reached for the fruit of the tree of knowledge that would make him like God. The second Adam, by contrast, denied himself that status, humbly submitting even to death. Therefore, God exalted him to a higher status than before.


  1. I was reading Dunn’s comments on this passage yesterday, and he took the same route. He even went so far as to deny that the passage supports Jesus’ pre-existence. The thing is, the passage says Jesus came in the likeness of men or had the appearance of men. I have a hard time seeing that any other way than to say that a pre-existent being became a human being.

  2. I think I quoted th NKJV, and “coming” isn’t a common translation; it’s usually “made in” or “born in.” Jesus humbles himself after birth, not before. Yet he appears almost surprised to find himself in a human body! Like you say, “found in appearance as a man” implies something other than a man, just as “being in the form of God” implies something other than God. Yeah, it’s a confusing passage, but I think very important to the study of Christianity.

  3. Yeah, I didn’t check the Greek. The way Dunn handled “born of a woman” in Galatians 4 was to say that Jesus shared the human condition, which (for Dunn) doesn’t necessarily say he was pre-existent.

  4. In that, I agree with Dunn. But that’s a little different than Paul quoting a hymn. Setting aside Paul’s interpretation for now, where did this hymn come from and what does it say about the earliest Christianity? It’s a little like examining the prologue to John’s Gospel and trying to figure out what it meant before John reinterpreted it in the light of John the Baptists. Fun stuff!

  5. Things get thornier when Dunn handles Colossians 1. Dunn thinks that Paul in Colossians 1 is interacting with an earlier hymn about wisdom. The thing is, Dunn tries to argue that Paul is not using the hymn to present Jesus as pre-existent. I thought that was kind of a stretch. I think he should have just said that Paul did not write Colossians, and thus Colossians 1 is irrelevant to characterizing Paul’s view on Jesus’ pre-existence, rather than trying to force Colossians into his interpretation of Paul.

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