Christ and the Earliest Christian Hymn
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. —Philippians 2:7
How should the Incarnation impact our behavior in the Christian community? What does the fact that the divine Son became human tell us about how we should live? We find answers to these questions in what might be one of the very oldest Christian hymns: Philippians 2:1-11.
For the most part, the Philippian church was a healthy one, a strong partner in Paul’s ministry. But some of their leaders were not getting along well (4:2-3). No doubt it was easy for others to get caught up in divisive and hurtful arguments. So in the first verses of Philippians 2, Paul calls his flock to get along with each other, loving one another and working together in the Gospel (2:2). He urges them not to be “selfish,” but rather to be “humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves” (2:3). In sum, the Philippians “must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had” (2:5, literally, they are to have the thinking of Christ).
And how are we to know the attitude of Christ? Paul answers this question by including what most biblical scholars believe to be an early Christian hymn. Some think Paul wrote it. Others believe he borrowed a piece of early Christian worship. Either way, this hymn focuses on the self-giving sacrifice and humility of Christ. “Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appears in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross” (2:6-8). Christ was humbled twice: first in becoming human, second in being crucified. Notice that this hymn begins by underscoring the humility of the Incarnation. For one who was fully God to become human was, indeed, a demonstration of stunning humility.
Thus, the Incarnation becomes a model for us. Even as Christ chose the way of humility, so should we. Even as he opted for the path of self-sacrifice, so should we in our relationships. When we begin to think too much of ourselves, when we value our opinions so much that we don’t care what others think, we need to remember and model our lives upon the Incarnation.
Keeping Christmas well means letting the Incarnation of Christ teach us how to live together as the people of God. It means choosing the way of humility and servanthood, knowing that our imitation of Christ honors him even as it strengthens the church, which is the body of Christ.
Mark Roberts is the Executive Director of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Seminary. He writes digital daily devotions at Life for Leaders. This article is adapted from his original article “Keeping Christmas Well: Imitate the Humility and Sacrifice of Jesus” at TheHighCalling.org.