Some scholars believe that the “Christ Hymn” in Philippians 2 may be the oldest liturgical prayer or hymn of the Christian church. We know that the early church was singing the Psalms together, but likely they were singing short little songs like this one together, too. Unfortunately, we don’t have very much of this liturgical material available to us today. The early church didn’t put a book like the Psalms in the New Testament.
We have this one little snippet from the early church’s worship because Paul was using the text of the hymn to make a point. In the same way that we sometimes proclaim, “It’s like how that one song goes…”
Paul’s point in this instance is that the healthiest and most Christ honoring relationships will be ones that follow the Way of Jesus…the Way of servanthood.
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2)
Most relationships between sinful human beings like you and I are filled with competition and conflict. The very first conflict between Adam and Eve was that of blaming one another for their mutual failure. Cain and Abel’s conflict escalates even to murdering his own brother. Our competition is usually less extreme. We are much more likely to say horrible things about our “friend” to our other “friends” in hopes that they will like us a little more, trust us a little more, or be a little more loyal to us. It manifests in hundreds of other ways, of course. But it all comes down to competition.
The beauty of the Philippian Hymn is the way that it calls followers to set their own priorities aside for the sake of the Gospel. There is no need to compete because the call is to submit even to death. Christ’s willingness to be made low – to condescend – is one of the most remarkable aspects of the Incarnation. Jesus leaves the throne of all the earth to dwell with those that he loves.
Our condescension is much less remarkable because we are not in fact high and lifted up. We are just like our brothers and sisters. We only have to stop thinking of ourselves more highly that we ought. And then, in a gesture of love, make ourselves lower than our neighbor in an act of servanthood.
This self-sacrificial Way is made possible because God will exalt the lowly in the end. God will give glory and honor to the one who does not grasp for it on their own. God vindicates the righteous. Even if others take advantage of us in our act of humility, God’s grace is enough.