The Frog Prince, The Matrix,
and the Way of the Cross:
A Meditation on Philippians 2:5-11

A lecture delivered to the faculty and students of Westmont College
September 25, 2000
Bruce N. Fisk (© 2000)


Long ago there lived a princess who was so beautiful that the sun himself wondered at her beauty each time he shone over her. One day, while she was playing with her golden ball by the brink of the well in the great dark wood, the ball dropped into the well and sunk down out of sight.
As she sat weeping over the lost toy, a voice spoke: “What ails you, King’s daughter?” It was a frog, an ugly, horrid frog, who promptly promised to retrieve the golden ball if only the princess would love him, invite him to her table, let him drink from her cup, and let him sleep in her bed. Dumbfounded, the princess agreed, though secretly she had no intention of granting the frog’s request. Soon enough, the frog reappeared, golden ball in slimy mouth. Overjoyed, the princess retrieved her plaything and scampered off, leaving the frog to fend for himself.  
On the very next day the frog arrived at the castle. Tearfully, and only because her father insisted, she fulfilled her obligation. “What you have promised in your time of necessity, you must now perform,” the king said. And so she did, and so the frog dined at the royal table and ate from the princess’s golden plate. That night, in the royal chambers, the frog suddenly ceased to be a frog and became a prince with beautiful kind eyes. You see, a wicked witch had bound him by certain spells, spells that only the princess could break. And so the two were wed, and together they boarded a carriage to be whisked away to his father’s kingdom, where they both lived happily ever after.

The Frog Prince, one of many German folktales collected by the Brothers Grimm, is a story of descent and ascent, of humiliation and exaltation. Exalted prince becomes humble frog becomes exalted prince. A perilous journey down is followed by a glorious journey back up again. Any story involving mutant mammals and talking amphibians is certainly peculiar, but is
The Frog Prince unique? Is the story one-of-a-kind, or has it appeared and reappeared in countless variations throughout human history?

Consider with me another story, this one from my son’s favorite film: The Matrix. Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) willingly chooses to descend into the matrix, and almost certain death, in order to rescue Morpheus, the leader of the rebellion. Neo fights nobly, with very cool special effects, but the forces of evil pummel Neo’s cyber-self, finally rendering his real, physical body lifeless. He lays down his life so his doomed friend could live.
But the story doesn’t end there, for at this point Trinity, the woman in Neo’s life, realizes her affection for him. She embraces his lifeless body, and the sheer power of her love brings him back to life. Now, in his glorified, resurrected state, Neo no longer finds himself vulnerable to the attacks of the enemy. Now he is super-human, you might even say divine. So The Matrix is another story of descensus and ascensus. The noble Neo humbles himself, to the point of death, only to be liberated from death and exalted once again. Another perilous journey downward is followed by a glorious journey up again.  

Once you start looking, you discover that tales of descent and ascent are everywhere:

But this V-shaped pattern is not restricted to Greek myth and English legend, is it? Think of Araham’s son, Isaac, bound on the altar and as good as dead, but then delivered and restored to become the grandfather of God’s people. Or the nation of Israel, descending into Egypt and into bondage, before rising up once again to freedom. Reread the story of Naaman, captain of the Aramean army, whom Elisha told to descend into the river Jordan 7 times if he would be healed of his leprosy. Or Noah or Moses or David: descent down into the Ark, or out into the desert or the hill country, followed by deliverance and ultimately exaltation.2.

On and on we could go. Greek or Hebrew, Biblical or pagan, hero or heroine—someone descends from a position of dignity and influence into a state of lowly humiliation and impotence, only to be rescued and returned, one way or another, to even greater power and glory. Dramatic humiliation followed by glorification. Death followed by life. Emptiness followed by fullness. What is it about these sorts of stories, about their up—down—up shape, that resonates deep within the human psyche? More importantly, what does all this mean when we turn to consider the Christian story, with its claim that Jesus’ humiliating crucifixion was followed by a glorious resurrection and exaltation? We can hardly pretend that the church has stumbled onto something new, can we? The story of Jesus’ dying and rising may be remarkable, but it is certainly not unique. Long before Jesus collided with the Roman empire, and countless times since, stories of death and new life have been told and retold, reinvented and recycled, feeding humanity’s deepest hopes and embellished by her wildest fantasies.3. Does this mean that the tale of Jesus is simply one more tasty bit simmering away in the timeless “Cauldron of Story”4. floating alongside other favorite morsels—those Olympian tales, Arthurian legends, and popular allegories that we love to tell our children? Does it mean that the incarnation, the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus are not, strictly speaking, historical events but are rather expressions of an ancient and universal myth—legendary expansions that were attached to the historical Jesus by his earliest, and rather naïve, devotees, driven by the quintessentially human desire to escape Death and to share in a Happy Ending? Does it mean that the staying power of Christian theology is tied, not to its ability accurately to describe reality, but to its capacity to resonate with our innermost yearnings? Does the universality of a myth undermine the particularity of the Gospel?

Let’s not rush to answer these questions. They are too weighty to receive a hurried, cliched response. What we need, rather, is to consider the Christian story more closely, by exploring a passage in Paul’s letter to the Philippians: Philippians 2:5-11.

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)

These remarkable verses have a stained-glass, candles-and-incense feel about them, don’t you think? Almost like they should be delivered in Gregorian chant. And yet these words are anything but the musings of medieval monastics. In fact, many scholars believe that we have here one of the very earliest expressions of Christian worship, that we are peering through the mists of history at what may be a primitive hymn composed by some early Christian troubadour and recited here by Paul.5. Music was important from the very beginning of the Christian movement—that much the NT makes clear.6. As Michael Card put it in a recent Christianity Today interview, theology was often “sung before it was systematized.”7.

Could it be that we have in hand a page from the first Christian hymnal? Could the elevated diction, unusual vocabulary, and striking theology of these verses signal that Paul was quoting lines he himself did not originate? The truth is: we don’t know. Scholars cannot agree on the poetic meter or even the original line-breaks of the hymn, if hymn it is. Nor is there consensus on which parts, if any, Paul has added to a pre-Pauline composition. Such discord among scholars is not surprising. We are dealing, after all, with an ancient letter, written in non-rhyming, Hellenistic Greek,8. not with the predictable lyrics of Britney Spears or Ricky Martin. Could Paul himself have risen, in a moment of singular inspiration, to compose such lofty prose? Perhaps. If some of his other letters display marks of literary finesse,9. why couldn’t Paul have waxed eloquent here as well?

Whatever their source, whether Paul composed these words on the spot, recalled them from memory, or freely borrowed and adapted them like a college sophomore downloading an essay from—whatever their source, we stand before a highly crafted, artful expression of very old, and remarkably high, Christology. And my assignment was to write a paper about it! Seems almost cheeky, irreverent. Grandeur should evoke awe-filled silence, not chatty commentary. No one arriving at the rim of the Grand Canyon wants to hear a droning tour-guide. But even annoying tour guides can sometimes help us understand better what we are looking at. So perhaps you’ll allow me to point out four prominent features of our passage—four landmarks you’ll want to recognize if ever you return to the brink of this text and peer over the edge.

Landmark #1: Before his sojourn on earth, Jesus displayed the glory and radiance that belonged only to God. [2:6a]

The opening clause of verse 6 is rendered by the NRSV “though he was in the form of God.”10. What could it mean to exist in God’s form? Did Paul and the early Christians imagine God as a physical being, and Jesus as his look-alike? Like Father, like Son? Or did they think of God’s form much the way Aristotle thought of a thing’s substance or essence, so that Jesus is said to share in the very essence of deity?11. Or were these words supposed to remind us of Adam, the first human, who was made according to God’s image and likeness (Gen 1:26-27)? If Adam is lurking in the shadows of this text, as many suspect,12. then perhaps the hymn portrays Jesus repudiating Adam’s quest to be even more like God (Gen 3:5, 22), and identifying with Adam’s humiliation in order to undo his wrong.13.
How is the average Bible reader to sift through all these possibilities? Or should we simply ignore the scholars and let the Spirit lead? (That’s what I call the “Joseph Smith and David Koresh Memorial” approach to exegesis.) My suggestion is that we begin by exploring how Paul’s Bible (our Old Testament) uses its terms. It turns out that the word we translate form (morphe) occurs only a handful of times in the Greek Old Testament, and almost always refers to the visible appearance of something.14. So perhaps we should be asking: how does God appear? In the OT the answer to that question is clear: God’s appearance is glorious. When God appears—on Mt. Sinai (Exod 19:18-25; 24:15-18; 33:18-23), over the Temple (2 Chron 7:1-3), among God’s people (Isa 40:5)—God appears in glory.15. Perhaps this was why John Calvin found the key to Philippians 2:6 in the Gospel of John 17:5. “So now, Father,” Jesus prayed shortly before his death, “glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.”16. If Jesus in the Gospels offered occasional glimpses of the Father’s majesty (Matt 17:2; John 1:17; 14:9; 2 Cor 4:6), then Jesus before the Gospels—the pre-incarnate Jesus, as they say—displayed even more fully the glory and radiance that belonged only to God.17.

Landmark #2: Divine equality was not something Jesus sought to exploit. [2:6b]

The first half of verse 6, then, pictures a glorious Jesus “clothed in the garments of divine majesty and splendour,”18. but the main point of the verse actually comes at the end, in a 7-word clause that has caused many Bible translators to go prematurely gray, perhaps even bald.19. According to the popular New International Version, Jesus “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped.” You’ll find the same idea in the NASV, the RSV and the NKJV, but what could it mean? That Jesus was neither equal with God nor inclined in that direction? Or does it mean that even though Jesus was equal with God he didn’t cling tightly to that equality? Are we then saying that Jesus had to let go of his divinity, or some part of it, in order to walk the earth? And that he regained it only after the resurrection?

At the risk of oversimplifying a lengthy and complex debate,20. let me suggest that Paul’s Greek is rendered more helpfully in the New Revised Standard Version: Jesus “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited.”21. The crucial question is not whether or not Jesus enjoyed equality with God. The question is whether or not Jesus chose to exploit that equality for his own advantage.22. He didn’t. Unlike so many oriental despots and pagan gods in Paul’s day, Christ refused to strut and swagger in his regal robes. Unlike so many politicians, personalities, and power brokers in our day who parlay social status into personal gain, Jesus did not equate glory with self-promotion. One might say he refused to seize the day. “Christ did not please himself,” is the way Paul puts it in Romans (15:3). “Though Christ was rich, for your sakes he became poor,” we read in 2 Corinthians (8:9). Some might call it “downward mobility.” Others might simply call it “un-American.

Landmark #3: Jesus emptied himself through an obedient life and a slavish death. [2:7-8]

With verse 7 we arrive, finally, at the Greek word keno¦sis (emptying), from which this conference derives its name.
Actually, that’s not true. The word here is not the noun keno¦sis but a close cousin: the verb kenoo, which commonly means “to make empty.”23. “Christ emptied himself.” Of what? you are wondering. Contrary to the impression left by hymn writer Charles Wesley, the correct answer is not that Jesus “emptied himself of all but love.”24. “All you need is love” sounds more like Paul McCartney and the Beatles,25. not Paul the apostle and the early church.

But if Christ did not empty himself of “all but love,” then what did happen when he took the form of a slave? Did he off load his divine equality, or perhaps certain divine attributes? Did the kenosis occur when Christ set aside his Father’s glory? Or was it that Christ placed a moratorium on independently using his authority? Any number of “kenotic” theories have been advanced over the years to answer this question. But if no one theory has managed to stick, it may be because we are are asking a question scripture doesn’t care to answer.26. Like a good poem, the metaphors go unexplained. The imagery does not shout—it whispers softly: “he. . . emptied himself. . .”

One way to increase the volume of this passage—one way to unpack the metaphors—is to return, once again, to Paul’s Bible, this time to the prophet Isaiah. Listen to the imagery of Isaiah 53:12: “he poured himself out to death, and was numbered with the transgressors.” The prophet has been describing the plight of the “servant of the Lord,” a celebrated, if rather cryptic, figure who pops up here and there in the second half of the Isaiah scroll,27. as the one (or the nation) who takes the sins and sorrows of others upon himself, and whom God rewards with lofty exaltation.28. Was Paul retelling the story of Jesus with diction borrowed from Isaiah 53? Apparently so.29. Christ’s kenosis was not so much a single event as it was an unfolding journey, downward, into humiliation and death.

We should not miss the irony. Christ’s self-emptying may be less about what he gave up, and more about what he took on—less about subtraction and more about addition. Christ emptied himself by taking on the form of a servant; he humbled
himself by donning the cloak of obedience. He embraced humanity, and with humanity came death.

I’m struck by the fact that Paul does not depict the cross as a great evil, as the ultimate act of violence, nor even as a lamentable tragedy.30. Nor does Paul show any inclination to finger the earthly villains responsible.31. What Paul wants us to know is simply that Christ died, and that he died in willing obedience to the Father.32. Paul’s emptying language, in other words, is his lyrical way of declaring that Christ descended, lived among us and went to the cross—that Christ poured out his life in obedience to God.33. This brings us to the end of verse 8. We have reached bottom. “O God, it’s come to this.”34.

Landmark #4: In the divine scheme of things, humiliation leads to vindication. [2:9-11]

The willing victim has done his work and died his death. The curtain falls. But then something magical happens. God the Father explodes onto the stage, acting quickly to reverse and to undo the humiliation experienced by his Son. In the words of Aslan, Lion of Narnia, Death starts working backward.35. In the words of Saint Paul, God “highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.” Perhaps you can you hear the acapella (of verses 6 to 8) giving way to symphony (in verse 9). Perhaps you can sense Paul’s grammar and diction suddenly change to join in the celebration.36. But even if you were tone deaf and illiterate, you could see that Christ’s glorious ascent has begun. God lifts him out of his humiliation, raises him up and bestows upon him the highest of all names—a dramatic reversal of all he endured on the way to the cross.37.

What is the name above all names? Is it “Jesus”? Or “Lord”?38. Or is “the name” of Jesus simply shorthand for the person Jesus himself, who is more than worthy of receiving the highest praise creation can offer? Perhaps we don’t have to decide, for at the end of the day, Paul assures us, every knee will bow and every tongue will acknowledge that the story of Jesus has ended as it should. The dragon has been slain. The serpent’s head has been crushed. The hero has returned.

Not so fast. Consider, for just a moment, the little word “therefore” (dio) at the beginning of verse 9. “Therefore God also highly exalted him.” Was Christ’s exaltation a reward? Did Jesus deserve it, like a waiter who deserves a tip, or a student who deserves a college degree? Are we saying that God was indebted to Jesus?39. For many this sounds like a doctrine of merit or works, which renders it immediately suspect. After all, Paul offers no hint that Jesus died to obligate God or to keep his part of a bargain. Rather, Paul reminds us that Christ’s death was an act of humble obedience (2:8). But if the exaltation of Christ was not a hard-earned payment for service, what was it? A random act of kindness? A spontaneous gift, granted to a fortunate Son by his magnanimous Father? This suggestion has the advantage of avoiding the unpalatable idea that Jesus forced God’s hand,
but it fails to account for that strategic word “therefore” (in verse 9). Can we explain, rather than explain away, the link between Christ’s humiliation and his glorification?40.

I think we can, but only if we pause to consider the character of God and the sort of moral pattern God has built into the universe. Consider the following biblical sound bites:

Wherever God is in charge, true humility “leads inevitably to exaltation.”41. So the vindication of Christ was not God’s payment for faithful service, but neither was it a random act of generosity. It was God doing what God has always done: give grace to the humble and lift up the lowly. It was God intervening in accord with the way things are in a God-ordered universe. If God breaks into our lives, to elevate the truly meek—the little children— among us, how much more would God respond to the selfless, sinless emptying of Christ—the keno¦sis of his own Son—in a way that reflects God’s own just and righteous character?

Precisely because Paul recognized this moral pattern he did not despair when he contemplated the downward movement of his own life. The apostle knew all about suffering for Christ’s sake (3:8).42. Almost daily he shared in Christ’s humiliation; from city to hostile city he endured the pain of rejection, alienation, deprivation. Paul would call it “being conformed to Christ’s death” (3:10). We might call it cruciform discipleship, the via crucis—the way of the cross. Yet Paul could also look forward to the day when his life’s direction would be reversed, the day when he, like Jesus, would attain to the resurrection of the dead (3:11), when he would obtain “the prize of the heavenly call of God” (3:14). Paul inhabited a universe, in other words, in which the humble are exalted. If not now, then later. If not in this life, then in the life to come. One way or another, the V-shaped pattern that marked Christ’s life will mark the lives of those who follow his example and embrace the path of humility, anonymity and cruciform discipleship.

That would be good news for Paul’s Philippian converts, and for the rest of us honorary Philippians as well, for it means that our downward mobility is, for now, a move in the right direction, and it means we won’t be descending indefinitely. Sometimes we choose to descend, when we seek out the poor and powerless—by spending a semester in Tanzania, or a summer in Manila, or a day at the Rescue Mission. Sometimes our descent is more reluctant—when serving Jesus leads to ridicule or betrayal or handcuffs or worse. But whether our humiliation comes by grace or by gunpoint, we know it can’t last forever, for we anticipate a day when the glorified Christ “will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory” (3:21).43. Paul is not being masochistic when he describes suffering for Christ as a “gracious gift” (Phil 1:29).44. In his mind, suffering for the sake of the Gospel means participating in the kenosis of Christ, which also means sharing in Christ’s exaltation.

All of this puts a different spin on the questions with which we began. As you recall, we were wondering why it was that frogs always become princes—why, that is, so many folk stories and legends unfold according to a predictable up—down—up pattern. And we worried a bit over whether this predictable pattern—so widespread, even universal—might not undermine the credibility and singularity of the Christian Gospel. Perhaps we’ve got it all backward. If we are right that the descent—ascent profile of Jesus’ story is built into the very character of God and into the very fabric of this universe, then we can hardly be surprised if this pattern pops up elsewhere, in legends and folktales whether from ancient Greece, medieval Germany or modern Hollywood. Indeed, we should be concerned if Jesus’ story didn’t seem familiar!45.

But in spite of all the symmetry between Jesus’ downward—upward journey and so many others, we dare not ignore the profound differences. Jesus is not just another prince who came to live among us frogs, for he descended willingly, and not under a devilish spell of some kind. Nor is Jesus simply a first-century Neo who descended into our Matrix to rescue his embattled friends, for Jesus’ mission was not to reject and discard this world, but to embrace and redeem it. On and on we could go, contrasting Jesus to the best stories the world has to offer. We could show how Jesus out-Cinderellas Cinderella, how he out-Hercules Hercules, how he out-Isaacs Isaac. We might even persuade a few folk to abandon their hero or heroine, and follow ours.

But is this really the best way to proceed? Are Christians consigned to play endless rounds of the game “my-story-is-better-than-your-story”? In the end, are we simply saying that we find the story of Jesus more noble, more condescending, more world-affirming, more inspiring than even the best tale from the Brothers Grimm, or the coolest screen play from the Brothers Wachowski? Or is there something that sets Jesus apart—something that puts the story Paul tells in Philippians 2 in a league of its own? Paul’s answer to that question is clear. The apostle didn’t decide to follow Jesus because he found the Christian plot inspiring. He followed Jesus because he was convinced that Jesus was no longer dead—that he was alive, right here in the real world. The gospel Paul preached was about a series of events in history. We are saved, he would say, by the death and resurrection of Jesus, not by a story about the death and resurrection of Jesus.46. If Paul was right, then the life of Jesus resembles so many legends in the same way that an artist’s original resembles every copy. Jesus’ incarnation—his life among us, his death and exaltation—turns out to be the primal story of descent and ascent, of which all others are genuine, but imperfect, replicas.

I leave you with the musings of J. R. R. Tolkien, mythmaker, story-teller, creator of Bilbo and Frodo. On the subject of fairy tales, Tolkien deeply suspected that “every writer making a secondary world, a fantasy. . . wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world. . . [is] derived from Reality.”47. I am suggesting that the glorious story of Christ’s humiliation and vindication is that Reality of which every true fairy tale may partake. Tolkien would say that the Gospel “has not abrogated legends; it has hallowed them.”48. If that is so, it is tempting to add that the grand hope of the people of God—the hope of all who have embraced the way of the cross—is simply to live, with Jesus, happily ever after.49.

Conversation Partners

Charles Cousar, The Letters of Paul (1996).

James D. G. Dunn, Christology in the Making (1980; 1996).

C. Stephen Evans, “The Self-Emptying of Love: Some Thoughts on Kenotic Christology” in Davis and O’Collins, edd., The Incarnation (OUP, forthcoming).

Northrop Frye, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature (1982).

Stephen E. Fowl, The Story of Christ in the Ethics of Paul (1990).

Robert H. Gundry, “Style and Substance in ‘The Myth of God Incarnate’ according to Philippians 2:6-11” in Crossing the Boundaries: Essays in Biblical Interpretation in Honour of Michael D. Goulder (1994)

Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians (1983).

Martin Hengel, Crucifixion (1977).

Morna D. Hooker, “Philippians 2:6-11” in Jesus und Paulus (1975).

Roy W. Hoover, “The Harpagmos Enigma: A Philological Solution” HTR 64 (1971).

I. Howard Marshall, “The Christ-Hymn in Philippians 2:5-11” TBull (1968).

Dale B. Martin, Slavery as Salvation: The Metaphor of Slavery in Pauline Christianity (1990).

Ralph P. Martin, A Hymn of Christ: Philippians 2:5-11 in Recent Interpretation and in the Setting of Early Christian Worship (1967, 1983, 1997).

C. F. D. Moule, “Further Reflections on Philippians 2:5-11” in W. Gasque and R. Martin, eds., Apostolic History and the Gospel (1970).

Peter O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (1991).

Gerard S. Sloyan, The Crucifixion of Jesus: History, Myth, Faith (1995).

Robert B. Strimple, “Philippians 2:5-11 in Recent Studies: Some Exegetical Conclusions” WTJ (1978-79).

J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories” in C. S. Lewis, ed. Essays Presented to Charles Williams (1947).

N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant (1991).

Robin Scroggs, “Christ the Cosmocrator and the Experience of Believers,” in A. Malherbe and W. Meeks, eds., The Future of Christology (1993).


1. Virgil nicely traces the two-stage journey we are describing: “The descent to Avernus is easy; the gate of Pluto stands open night and day; but to retrace one's steps and return to the upper air, that is the toil, that the difficulty.” Northrop Frye, in The Great Code, p.169, suggests that this pattern "recurs in literature as the standard shape of comedy, where a series of misfortunes and misunderstandings brings the action to a threateningly low point, after which some fortunate twist in the plot sends the conclusion up to a happy ending." He contends, further, that "the entire Bible, viewed as a 'divine comedy', is contained within a U-shaped story of this sort, one in which man, as explained, loses the tree and water of life at the beginning of Genesis and gets them back at the end of Revelation."(back)

2. For the purposes of this paper, the charming episode of Solomon's dream (1 Kings 3:5-15) is particularly apt. God grants authority to Solomon, the son of David (v. 5), who confesses his own lowliness (v.7), prompting God to confer greatness, wealth and wisdom (vv.11-13). (back)

3. One line of inquiry of particular interest to German scholarship has been the quest for a pre-Christian Heavenly Redeemer myth in which a “heavenly man” descends to earth. Various religious traditions have been quarried, including Zoroastrianism, Manichaenism, Mandaism and the Hermetic literature, but it is now widely agreed that the clearest examples of this myth all betray signs of Christian influence. (back)

4. J. R. R. Tolkien, ‘On Fairy-Stories’, p. 53. (back)

5. A full defense of the notion that Paul has adopted, and adapted, an early Christian hymn is mounted by Ralph Martin, Hymn of Christ (1983, 1997). See also C. Cousar, Letters of Paul, 55. (back)

6. See, e.g., Acts 16:25; 1 Cor 14:15, 26; Eph 5:19; Col 3:16; Rev 5:9; cf. 1 Tim 3:16. For contrasting assessments of the early evidence, see R. P. Martin, “Hymns, Hymn Fragments, Songs, Spiritual Songs,” in G. F. Hawthorne, et al, eds., Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (1993) 419-423, and Stephen E. Fowl, The Story of Christ in the Ethics of Paul (1990) 30-45. (back)

7. Christianity Today (July 10, 2000) 64. (back)

8. To complicate matters, some have wondered if this “hymn” was originally written in Aramaic. (back)

9. See, for example, Romans 8:31-39 and 1 Cor 13:1-13. (back)

10. The Greek term, found only here in Paul’s letters, is morphe. (back)

11. This view was popular among 19th century British scholars, including J. B. Lightfoot (Philippians, 1868), M. R. Vincent (Philippians, 1897), and H. C. G. Moule (Philippians, 1899). For Lightfoot, morphe implied “not the external accidents but the essential attributes.” A more recent variation on this view comes from G. F. Hawthorne (Philippians, 1983, 84): “This somewhat enigmatic expression, then, appears to be a cautious, hidden way for the author to say that Christ was God, possessed of the very nature of God. . . , without employing these exact words.” (back)

12. This view is defended by J. Hering (1936), O. Cullmann (1957), C. K. Barrett, (1962), R. Martin (1983, 1997) 119, 161-164, J. D. G. Dunn, Christology (1980, 1989) 114-121, N. T. Wright, Climax (1991) 57-62, and others. Paul explicitly compares Jesus and Adam in Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Cor 15:20-22, 45-47, on which passages see again N. T. Wright, Climax, 26-40. Christ is called the “image (eikon) of God” in 2 Cor 4:4 and Col 1:15. (back)

13. Dunn argues further that the Adam Christology of Philippians 2 offers no support for the doctrine of Christ’s pre-existence. For Dunn, our passage depicts Jesus facing “the same archetypal choice that confronted Adam.” Jesus, however, “chose not as Adam had chosen (to grasp equality with God). Instead he chose to empty himself of Adam’s glory and to embrace Adam’s lot, the fate which Adam had suffered by way of punishment” (ibid., 117). Thus, according to Phil 2:6-11, Christ “undid Adam’s wrong.” He “rejected Adam’s sin, but nevertheless freely followed Adam’s course as fallen man to the bitter end of death; wherefore God bestowed on him the status not simply that Adam lost, but the status which Adam was intended to come to, God’s final prototype, the last Adam” (ibid., 119). For the problems with Dunn’s view, see Peter O’Brien, Philippians, 1991, 266-268, and N. T. Wright, Climax, 90-97. To say that Christ is an Adam-figure in this passage (reminiscent of Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Cor 15:20-28) is not necessarily to say that the hymn chronicles only Christ’s earthly descent (i.e., his faithful obedience, his righteous choices, his voluntary submission to the will of God, in contrast to Adam’s disobedience, sin and rebellion against God). The parallelism between Adam and Christ here is real, if not strict. Christ’s life of righteous obedience was not the only thing that distinguished him from Adam. Nor does the hymn simply celebrate Christ’s successful restoration of obedience to a wayward Adamic humanity. It also alludes, I would argue, to Christ’s prior existence and exalted sinlessness. To read Philippians 2 only as an earthly account of the first truly faithful human being is, so to speak, to sing one hymn to the tune of another. It may work, but something gets lost in the performance. Some might reply, of course, that this other tune is the one we should have been singing all along. (back)

14. See Judg 8:18; Job 4:16; Isa 44:13; Dan 3:19; Tobit 1:13; Wis.18:1; 4 Macc.15:4; as cf. Theodotion’s rendering of Daniel 4:33; 5:6, 9, 10; 7:28; and Aquila’s of Isa 52:14. See also S. Fowl, Story of Christ, 53-54. (back)

15. Similarly, recall the various quasi-physical descriptions of God, e.g., in Isa 6:1; Ezek 1:26-28; Dan 7:9. (back)

16. NRSV. See also Heb 1:3. Paul himself uses glory (doxa) of God’s visible splendor in Rom 1:23; 1 Cor 11:7; 2 Cor 3:18; 4:6. For the full scoop on this view, see O’Brien, Philippians, 208-211 and Martin, Hymn, 104-105. (back)

17. Keep in mind also that the next clause (2:6b) reiterates this idea with the phrase “being equal with God” (to einai isa theo). The two lines appear to be mutually illuminating. (back)

18. O’Brien, Philippians, 208. (back)

19. Consider the following English renderings of Phil 2:6b: (back)

  • did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped
  • did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped
  • did not consider equality with God something to be grasped
  • did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited
  • thought it not robbery to be equal with God
  • did not look upon equality with God as a prize which must not slip from his grasp
  • did not consider His equality with God something to cling to
  • did not consider that equality with God consisted in snatching
  • did not think to snatch at equality with God
  • did not demand and cling to his rights as God
  • did not think His being on an equality with God a thing to be selfishly grasped

20. At the heart of the problem is the obscure word harpagmos. Jesus “did not consider this equality with God to be ‘harpagmos’.” The word occurs only here in the Greek Bible and rarely in Hellenistic literature. Does it mean “the act of seizing” (cf. the KJV), “the booty stolen,” “the prize gained” or, as we shall suggest, “the thing to be taken advantage of”? Brave souls who wish to review the interpretive options should consult J. B. Lightfoot, Philippians (1868, 1913, 1953) 133-137, R. Hoover, “The Harpagmos Enigma” (1971) and Wright (1986, 1991). The philologically inclined can examine parallel, though not identical, expressions (employing cognates harpagma and harpazein and similar predicate accusative constructions) in Heliodorus (Aethiopica VII.11, 20; VIII.7), Plutarch (Timoleon 23; Philopoemon 15.2; Dion 26.1), Josephus (War 4.2.4); Eusebius (Comm. in Luc. 6; Eccl. VIII.12.2; Vita Constantini 31.2), and Cyril of Alexandria (De ador. I.25). (back)

21. For variations of this view, see C. F. D. Moule, “Further Reflections,” (1970), R. Hoover, (1971), Wright (1986, 1991) and O’Brien, (1991). (back)

22. See Hoover (1971) 118. (back)

23. The noun occurs nowhere in the Greek Bible. The verb occurs twice in the Greek OT (Jer 14:2; 15:9) meaning something like “languish,” and four times elsewhere in the NT (Rom 4:14; 1 Cor 1:27; 9:15; 2 Cor 9:3) with the sense “make void, empty, nullify.” (back)

24. Recalling the lyrics of And Can It Be That I Should Gain? One can imagine Wesley’s curt reply: “Let’s see you rhyme with “He left his Father’s throne above”! (back)

25. Technically, John Lennon composed the song along with Paul McCartney (in June of 1967, just days before the Beatles performed it live before some 400 million T.V. viewers). (back)

26. This is not to gainsay attempts theological and philosophical to puzzle out what exactly happened at the incarnation, but only to suggest that the focus of our passage lies elsewhere. For a thoughtful consideration of the broader question of divine self-limitation, see the recent essay by C. Stephen Evans, “The Self-Emptying of Love: Some Thoughts on Kenotic Christology.” (back)

27. Specifically, Isaiah 41:8-16; 42:1-4, 19; 43:10; 44:1-2, 21; 45:4; 49:3-7; 52:13-53:12. (back)

28. Compare the exaltation language of Isa 52:13; 53:12 with Phil 2:9, and note the citation of Isa 45:23 in Phil 2:10. (back)

29. Though it would probably be more accurate to say Paul was rethinking Isaiah’s “servant of the Lord” in the light of Jesus. See Wright, Climax, 60-61. Confident of an Isaiah/Philippians linkage, along with Wright, are H. W. Robinson (1926), J. Jeremias (1953, 1963), L. Cerfaux (1954), R. Strimple (1978/79), and R. H. Gundry (1994). The unpersuaded include M. Hooker (1978) and O’Brien (1991). Uncertain is R. P. Martin (1983, 1997). (back)

30. The ending of verse eight, especially in Greek, does hint that death by crucifixion was particularly humiliating. “Cross” is the final word in the verse, and belongs to a brief 3-word phrase (5 in most English versions) tacked on to explain the manner of Jesus’ death. (This is why some have contended that these were some of the words Paul himself added onto a pre-existing composition.) Death by crucifixion was the single most barbarous form of execution the ancients could dream up, and everyone knew it. For a valuable, but very disturbing, introduction to the subject, see Martin Hengel’s Crucifixion (1977). I recommend reading it during Lent, in preparation for Good Friday, perhaps along with Gerard S. Sloyan, The Crucifixion of Jesus: History, Myth, Faith (1995) 9-23. (back)

31. This is true throughout Paul’s correspondence, except perhaps in 1 Thess 2:14-16 and 1 Cor 2:6-8. (back)

32. Compare Rom 5:8; 8:32; Gal 1:3-4; 2:20. (back)

33. One is reminded of Paul’s own testimony in Philippians 2:17: “But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you.” Cf. 2 Tim 4:6. R. Gundry (1994) 274, 285, mounts an impressive argument for the alternate view, viz., that Paul's metaphors (emptying, slavery, lowering) focus more exclusively on the cross. As evidence Gundry points to the suffering of the servant/slave in Isaiah 53 and to the reputation of crucifixion as the slaves’ punishment in Roman society (on which see, esp. Hengel, Crucifixion, 51-63). But slavery in the Greco-Roman world was “multifaceted and ambiguous” (D. Martin, Slavery as Salvation [1990] 132) and would not have been automatically and always associated with “extreme deprivation” (O’Brien, 223). Moreover, crucifixion was also administered to soldiers, rebels, traitors, and others among the lower classes. Gundry essentially equates “taking the form of a slave” (v.7b) with “being obedient unto death” (v.8b), and does so on the basis of a particular construal of the hymn’s structure, and of the aorist participles in v.7cd (“becoming” and “being found”). On both points I have reservations, in part because I am still drawn to a “chronological” reading of the hymn, and because I take “form of a slave” as a transitional point between “form of God” (v. 6a) and “death on a cross” (v.8d). (back)

34. Randy VanderMey, Kenosis: A Song Cycle, #12. (back)

35. C. S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) 133. (back)

36. My Greek students will no doubt have observed that compressed participial clauses have given way to indicatives, subjunctives, and more elaborate descriptive phrases. (back)

37. Although Christ’s exaltation is not described in progressive stages, as was his descent, the series of clauses in verses 9-11 do provide a measure of balance to verses 6-8, as seen here (following the NRSV): (back)

Though he was in the form of God,
he did not regard with equality with God as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,

he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death—

even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him

and gave him the name that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father. (back)

38. C. F. D. Moule, “Further Reflections” (1970) 270, represents the minority view that “Jesus” is the name in question. He renders v. 10: “when the name ‘Jesus’ is uttered,” and remarks: “Because of the incarnation, the human name, ‘Jesus’, is acclaimed as the highest name.” The majority, however, think the name is “Lord” (kyrios), in part because of verse 11. See, e.g., G. F. Hawthorne, Philippians (1983) 91; S. Fowl (1990) 67; P. O’Brien (1991) 238; R. Martin (1983, 1997) 236. (back)

39. See Paul’s own contrast in Rom 4:4-5. (back)

40. Notice how these two problematic ways to explain the link between humilation and exaltation stand in sharp opposition: (back)

 God is compelled to exalt.  God spontanteously exalts.
 Exaltation is a deserved reward.  Exaltation is an unearned blessing.
 Humility merits response.  No work/deed merits response

41. The phrase belongs to G. Hawthorne, Philippians (1983) 90: “in the divine order of things self-humbling leads inevitably to exaltation. This is an inflexible law of God’s kingdom that operates without variance, equally applicable for Christians at Philippi as for Christ himself.” (back)

42. For a catalogue of the physical afflictions Paul endured as a “servant” of Christ, see 2 Cor 11:23-33; 12:7-10. See also Phil 1:12-13; 4:12; Acts 9:16, 23-25; 14:19; 16:19-40; 22:22-25; 23:10. (back)

43. It is illuminating to compare 2:6-11 closely with 3:20-21 (on which see Morna Hooker, “Philippians 2:6-11” [1975] 155). The following linguistic corresopndences emerge: (back)

being (hyparchon)
form (morphe)
appearance (schema)
humbled (tapeinoo)
every (pan)
glory (doxa)
Lord Jesus Christ
is (hyparchei)
conformity (symmorphon)
transform (metaschematizo)
humiliation (tapeinosis)
all things (panta)
glory (doxa)
Lord Jesus Christ

44. To the embattled and persecuted Philippians Paul wrote: “to you it has been graciously granted (echaristhe, from charizomai, meaning give freely or graciously as a favor) . . . to suffer for his sake.” (back)

45. In “Myth Became Fact” (from 1944; available in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics [1970] 67), C. S. Lewis put it this way: “We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology. We must not be nervous about ‘parallels’ and ‘Pagan Christs’: they ought to be there—it would be a stumbling block if they weren’t.” (back)

46. Although the resurrection is not explicitly mentioned in Phil 2:9-11, Paul refers to the “power of his resurrection” in 3:10 and alludes to it in 3:21. We find more explicit statements, e.g., in Rom 4:24-25; 6:4-9 and 1 Thes 4:14, and a sustained argument linking the resurrection of Jesus with the future hope of believers in 1 Corinthians 15. (back)

47. Tolkien,“On Fairy Stories” 82-83. Tolkien can also view the matter the other way round: “the Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories” (ibid., 83). (back)

48. Once again, Tolkien, 84. (back)

49. Heartfelt thanks to Janice Fisk, Karen Jobes, Jonathan Wilson, Randy VanderMey and Telford Work for their thoughtful reflections on earlier drafts of this paper. They, of course, bear full responsibility for any infelicities and heresies that remain. (back)