Matthew gives us the story of Jesus' passion. Paul gives us the meaning.
The basic meaning that Paul gives us is this: the pre-existent Christ so humbles himself that he identifies with humanity all the way to the same physical death that human beings experience.
Vv. 6-11, the famous Christ hymn, divides into two equal parts. Vv. 6-8 are stanza one. There are two independent verbs in this stanza: "emptied" in v. 7 and "humbled" in v. 8. Vv. 9-11 are stanza two. The two independent verbs in the second stanza are "highly exalted" and "gave," both in v. 9.
On Passion Sunday our attention necessarily falls on the first stanza. What is clear in this stanza is that Jesus is going in the wrong direction! He starts at "the top," if you will--and everything goes downhill from there.
Joseph Hellerman1 has helped us look at the hymn within the context of the Roman Empire. He starts with the cursus honorum, or "course of honor," which was the formalized sequence of public offices that a young Roman aristocrat was to follow as he advanced in his career. At each stage the upwardly mobile young man gained new responsibilities and new privileges. Lower classes of people, both inside Rome and outside of it, developed their own sequence of offices that mimicked the upper classes. Hellerman argues that the concern for such honor ratings and status was, if anything, greater than normal in Philippi, because the elites in Philippi were Roman and the city was a Roman colony often called "little Rome."
The Christ hymn, suggests Hellerman, has taken the cursus honorum and turned it upside down. Instead of climbing the proverbial corporate ladder, Jesus descends it. And so Hellerman labels what is happening in Philippians as the cursus pudorum or "course of ignominy" or "course of shame."
And what do we see in this "course of shame"?
v. 6) Jesus is the one who was in the "form of God." The word for "form" is morfh, morphç, which means that what is inside corresponds to what is outside. So Christ Jesus is one who both inside and outside is in the form of God, sharing God's glory and in essence God. And this one "did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited." Christ abandons all claims to the status and privileges of God. The NRSV introduces the word "though," which is not in the Greek. That word sharply changes the meaning of the passage. As many scholars have suggested, it is in fact because he was in the form of God that he did not regard that equality as something to be used for his own advantage.
v. 7a-c) And so he emptied himself, as he moved in reverse gear from the exaltation of divinity to the reality of being a human. How did Christ empty himself? He took the form (same Greek word as in v. 6) and was born in "human likeness." Does "human likeness" mean that he did not become a real human being? No. What the hymn is doing is what Paul does when he writes in Rom 8:3, "by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh ... he [God] condemned sin in the flesh." Christ is a full human being, but there is a thin line of distinction between him and the rest of humanity: he does not sin. The word "likeness" protects that distinction.
vv. 7d-8) He was also "found in human form." The word for "form" is the term sch/ma schçma, which refers to the way a thing or person appears to our senses. So from what people could see and hear Jesus certainly was in form (sch/ma) a human being.
Humility is not a virtue in Paul's world. To be humble means to ignore the culture's concern for status, including your own, and to stop acting on the basis of social distinctions. In his continuing to move in reverse, Jesus humbled himself by becoming obedient (see also Rom 5:19). It is not that Jesus is obedient to death, as though death ruled over him. Rather, he is obedient to God and because of that obedience he dies. And he dies the most cruel and degrading death, death on a cross. Christ Jesus' negative career, his career in reverse has reached its end.
But why was this hymn included in the first place? The thesis of the letter is in 1:27-30: Christians are to conduct their lives in ways that are worthy of the Gospel of Christ. One of Paul's major concerns is the lack of unity in the congregation. And so in the introduction to our passage he calls on the Philippians to be of the same mind and have the same love (2:2), doing nothing from selfish ambition but looking to the interests of others (2:3-4). Paul's chief example of how to live is "Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God ...." Jesus is their example of a life that is lived free of concern for status and honor and open to radical service to God.
But the hymn has not ended. Perhaps it is awkward on Passion Sunday to read vv. 9-11, in which the exaltation of Jesus is at the center. But perhaps it is not so odd after all, for the second stanza reminds us at this beginning of Holy Week that the one who dies on Friday is not a misguided Israelite who got a bad deal, but he is the very one who has the title of Lord (v. 11), to whom every being in the universe will one day bow down and worship.
And so in the midst of the reverse gear of our Matthew text and the first half of the Christ hymn, Paul reminds us to look up in order to see where God is taking this drama--and us. And with that in hand, we can move into the week called holy.
1Joseph H. Hellerman, Reconstructing Honor in Roman Philippi: Carmen Christi as Cursus Pudorum (Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 132; Cambridge: Cambridge, 2005).