Christ is more than a mere model, but He is a model for our behavior nonetheless. Thus, Paul rightly uses Jesus as an example of service that puts others first, service that he commends in Philippians 2:1–4. Beginning in today’s passage, the Apostle explores Christ as our model of humble, selfless service to others. In so doing, he provides a key passage for our Christology (doctrine of Christ).
We refer, of course, to the Carmen Christi — the hymn to Christ — found in Philippians 2:5–11. This passage has been subject to much debate in recent decades, with much ink spilled over the text’s origins, meaning, and so forth. It is often called a hymn because many scholars believe it was a song the first Christians sang in worship. Others see it as one of the very first Christian creeds, assuming that Paul borrowed it for his letter and that it did not originate with him. There is no good reason, however, to believe the Apostle was not the initial writer of this text, and we cannot be certain of its precise use in early Christian worship. In any case, Paul’s inclusion of these verses in his letter means that the Carmen Christi is the inspired Word of God (2 Tim. 3:16–17).
Philippians 2:5–11 reveals that service to one another is not inconsistent with authority — in fact, serving others is the true mark of leadership. Christ exemplifies true greatness and models excellent leadership because He did not use His position as an excuse not to serve; rather, He saw meeting others’ needs as inherent to leading them. The greatness of Christ Jesus is assumed at the outset of this hymn, for Paul tells us that Jesus “was in the form of God” (v. 6). Morphē is the Greek word translated as “form” in verse 6, and it means that which corresponds inwardly to an outer appearance. Essentially, Paul is saying that the Son of God shares fully in the very essence of God; to borrow a phrase from the Nicene Creed, the Son of God, Jesus Christ, is “very God of very God.” The early church father John Chrysostom wrote, “The form of God is truly God and nothing less. Paul did not write that he was in process of coming to be in the form of God; rather ‘being in the form of God,’ hence truly divine. This is much as to say ‘I am that I am.’” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT vol. 8, p. 227; hereafter ACCNT).