Obedient to the Death of the Cross: The Christological Hymn in Phillipians

David W. Smith, “Obedient to the Death of the Cross: The Christological Hymn in Philippians,” in BYU Religious Education 2010 Student Symposium (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2010), 127–137.

Obedient to the Death of the Cross: The Christological Hymn in Philippians

David W. Smith

President Thomas S. Monson taught that Jesus Christ is “the Exemplar of the perfect life. . . . He is the literal Savior of the world, the Son of God.”[1] The Savior is the person to whom mankind should look to know how to act and is the only being through whom salvation comes. These words of President Monson echo those of the prophet Nephi: “And now, my beloved brethren, I know by this that unless a man shall endure to the end, in following the example of the Son of the living God, he cannot be saved” (2 Nephi 31:16). It is in the scriptures that we find Christ’s example, the pattern we must follow to gain salvation.

One such example of this model is found in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians. This particular passage, Philippians 2:6–11, helps us to appreciate, understand, and apply the teachings and example of Jesus Christ. It focuses on the condescension and subsequent exaltation of Christ:

Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:

But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:

And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:

That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;

And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

By viewing Paul’s teachings in light of modern-day revelation and by understanding their historical and literary contexts, we can gain an appreciation for and understanding of Jesus Christ and know how to emulate him in our own lives in order to be saved.

Contextual Setting

During one of his many imprisonments, Paul received a gift from the Philippians and news that the Saints in Philippi were both remaining true to the faith and suffering false teachers and doctrines. In response to both the gift and the news he received, Paul sent a letter to the Saints in Philippi. Therefore, the “major functions generally understood to be the complex of purpose behind Philippians are (1) to respond to their gift, (2) to allay fears of his own welfare, (3) to warn of false teachers (‘opponents’), and (4) to exhort them to be steadfast and unified in the face of conflict.”[2] Philippians 2:6–11 occurs during the discussion on exhortations to steadfastness and unity.

Paul includes the words as a means of encouraging the Philippian Saints to emulate Christ and live the gospel; the verses following the hymn conclude with exhortations to be obedient and to live lives befitting Saints of God. The hymn also reveals the character of Christ and his desire to serve God the Father.[3] As will be discussed later, scholars debate which of these purposes (an exhortation to the Saints or an example from Christ) is the true meaning behind the hymn.

Literary Construct

Some scholars consider Philippians 2:6–11 to be a Christological hymn, a poem that was recited or sung by early Christian Saints to both remember Christ and teach doctrines concerning his earthly and exalted status.[4] To use a contemporary parallel, singing this hymn during early Christian church services could be viewed as similar to singing a sacrament hymn during modern-day sacrament meetings to help members remember Jesus Christ, his Atonement, and his example for us. The poetic structure of the hymn contains two main parts with three verses each.[5] The first part speaks on the condescension of Christ while the second details the exaltation of Christ.

The introductory verse of the passage (v. 5) “does not have a verb in the Greek text and interpreters debate over what verb to supply in translation.”[6] An example of this issue is the translation provided in the English Standard Version, which reads, “have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,” and includes a footnote saying, “or which was also in Christ Jesus.” Two primary interpretations of this verse have emerged in the Christian world: the ethical and kerygmatic approaches.[7] The ethical approach assumes that the hymn “presents the example of Christ as a way of life characterized by humility and self-sacrifice,” while the kerygmatic approach emphasizes that the hymn “points to the salvation event, not a piece of teaching on his [Christ’s] ethical example.”[8] The passage clearly deals with the salvation event and emphasizes Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Also, Paul stresses the ethical approach by stating, “Let this mind be in you” (Philippians 2:5), indicating that both a kergymatic and an ethical emphasis appear to be appropriate.

Condescension of Christ

The preeminence of Christ is clearly laid out in verse 6 of the passage, where Paul teaches that the Savior, “being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God.” Christ, in his premortal glory, stood with the Father and “reigned on the throne of eternal power as the Lord Omnipotent.”[9] Furthermore, Christ not only holds the power of the Father but also is in the image of the Father.[10] Christ’s image is the pattern after which all men were created, as he declared to the brother of Jared: “Seest thou that ye are created after mine own image? Yea, even all men were created in the beginning after mine own image” (Ether 3:15). Thus man is made in the image of Christ, who himself is made in the image of the Father. This relationship between the image of man, the image of Christ, and the image of the Father heralds compelling doctrine concerning man’s eventual glory.

Paul’s next statement, in verse 7, carries particular weight after his emphasis on Christ’s premortal glory. He states that Christ “made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men.” The phrase “made himself of no reputation” contains the Greek term kenosis, which is used to signify the “emptying” of Christ and is defined as the “self-renunciation of the divine nature, at least in part, by Christ in the incarnation.”[11] The Latter-day Saint equivalent of kenosis is the condescension of God. Nephi witnessed a vision in which he was taught concerning the condescension of God: “And the angel said unto me again: Look and behold the condescension of God! And I looked and beheld the Redeemer of the world” (1 Nephi 11:26–27). Nephi then saw the baptism of Jesus, his ministering unto the people, his healings, and finally the raising up of the Son of God on the cross: “And I looked and beheld the Lamb of God, that he was taken by the people, yea, the Son of the everlasting God was judged of the world; and I saw and bear record. And I, Nephi, saw that he was lifted up upon the cross and slain for the sins of the world” (1 Nephi 11:32–33). Christ condescended to earth, and by doing so fulfilled the will of his Father (see 3 Nephi 27:14).

This term kenosis, dealing with the descent of the Son of God from his throne of glory, also coincides with the subsequent clause in the hymn, “took upon him the form of a servant” (v. 7), as explained in one biblical commentary:

The word translated ‘servant’ in the NIV [New International Version] is the common word for ‘slave’ . . . But in what sense did Jesus take the form of a slave? From the standpoint of the Romans, Jesus was a common Jew . . . [and from] the Jewish perspective, . . . rule by a foreign power was slavery. . . . Jesus became just such a slave, sharing the curse of the law that had fallen on God’s people (Gal. 3:10; 4:4), although he alone among God’s people had broken none of God’s laws.”[12]

Thus Christ descended from his exalted status to live among, and become like, those who were considered as dust of the earth.

In verse 8 of the hymn, Paul states that Christ humbled himself. The example of Christ becoming humble before the Father is an excellent pattern for the Philippian Saints and for Latter-day Saints. The Savior said to his disciples, “For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15). He taught the Nephites, “Behold I am the light; I have set an example for you” (3 Nephi 18:16). We must become humble like the Son in order to become like him (see Moroni 7:41–48). Cyril of Alexandria said, “He humbled himself, according to the Scriptures, taking on himself the form of a slave. He became like us that we might become like him.”[13]

Subsequently in verse 8, Paul teaches important doctrine concerning the status of Christ, his relation to God, and the mission which he performed. Paul says that Christ “humbled himself, and became obedient unto death.” Nephi spoke of the humility of Christ: “But notwithstanding he [Christ] being holy, he showeth unto the children of men that, according to the flesh he humbleth himself before the Father, and witnesseth unto the Father that he would be obedient unto him in keeping his commandments” (2 Nephi 31:7). Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained that Christ “had to work out his own salvation, to serve in mortality, to humble himself before the Father, to keep the commandments, to endure to the end.”[14] Christ became obedient to the Father and suffered death so that all men might follow his footsteps and return to the Father to obtain immortal and exalted glory.

Verse 8 also includes the term “cross,” thus highlighting Paul’s frequent use of imagery of the cross and reiterating the slave image in the previous verse. Paul says that Christ became obedient unto death, “even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8). Ralph Martin explained that “only the lowest order of society—the slave-class—died by crucifixion.”[15] The Son of God, who was omnipotent, descended to the lowest order of man and suffered those afflictions reserved for that order. Christ, the Son of God, took upon himself an imperfect and mortal body, went to a people in captivity, became as if he were a slave, and died a “most humiliating and painful death . . . [that] was particularly revolting to Romans.”[16] Thus we have the two extremes: Christ coming from his pre-earthly glory where he, “while yet a spirit being, had gained power and intelligence that made him like unto God” and “had become, under the Father, the Creator of worlds without number,”[17] and then descending “below them all” (D&C 122:8). In the words of one biblical commentator, “These three stanzas [vv. 6–8] lead, in one great sweep, from the highest height to the deepest depth.”[18]

Exaltation of Christ

The second part of the hymn describes Christ’s exaltation. Paul says, “God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, . . . and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:9–11). President Gordon B. Hinckley wrote, “He, the lowly babe of Bethlehem who two millennia ago walked the dusty roads of the Holy Land, became the Lord Omnipotent, the King of kings, the Giver of salvation to all. . . . We unequivocally declare with the centurion who said at His death, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God’ (Mark 15:39).”[19] Christ is above all creatures. To him all men must bow and give glory. Not only shall men bow and give glory to the Son in our day, but in the Millennium the words of Paul will be completely fulfilled as prophesied by Isaiah, who—speaking the words of Christ—declared, “Unto me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear” (Isaiah 45:23).

The last phrase in verse 11, “to the glory of God the Father,” concludes the second part of the hymn. Although a small collection of words, when viewed within the context of the preceding declaration of honor to be given to the Son, a glorious truth is reaffirmed: the gospel and the exaltation of man is intended to glorify, honor, and exalt the Father. By exalting his children the Father exalts himself,[20] and for the Father’s glory was man sent to earth, and for the Father’s glory Christ died on the cross. The Savior declared, “In me hath the Father glorified his name” (3 Nephi 9:15). Why should every tongue confess that Jesus is the Christ, that God sends help through the Anointed One? So declared Paul, “To the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:11).


Paul, by including his Christological hymn in his letter to the Philippians, conveys many doctrines of Christ and his mission and provides an example for the Saints to follow. Paul first sets forth the preeminence of Christ in the form of God and then demonstrates Christ’s humility and other characteristics that brought the Son of God to Earth with the power to die, which power was eventually exercised through his submission to death on the cross. In the second part of the hymn, Paul specifies the exaltation and glorified status of Christ above all things and the purpose for that veneration.


This hymn provides a striking testimony of the mission of the Lord Jesus and a powerful exhortation to persevere in the gospel. We must first recognize, as Paul first points out in the hymn, that Christ is in the image of God, that we are children of God and are made in his image as Christ is. Paul taught that because we are children of God, we become his heirs, “heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together” (Romans 8:17; emphasis added). Christ promised, “To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne” (Revelation 3:21). By understanding Christ’s premortal and postmortal glory and that we can obtain glory as he did, we naturally develop a testimony of our possibilities for ascension and exaltation, giving us hope that we “will share God’s glory, power, and activity in eternity . . . [for] faithful saints will share divine creation and leadership.”[21]

Paul’s hymn also teaches that Christ “became obedient” to the Father, and so likewise we must be obedient to the Father and the Son if we are to obtain the same blessings Christ did. We must learn to obey all the commands of God in order to receive all promised blessings. We do this by developing humility, including the humility to hearken to the precepts of God and listen to and obey the words spoken by the prophets, the humility to accept the doctrines taught by those persons, and the humility to ultimately receive the Son. “For none is acceptable before God, save the meek and lowly in heart” (Moroni 7:44). Accepting Christ through humility will lead us to receiving all the Father has, for so declared the Savior: “And he that receiveth me receiveth my Father; and he that receiveth my Father receiveth my Father’s kingdom; therefore all that my Father hath shall be given unto him” (D&C 84:37–38). Thus is displayed the grandeur to be bestowed upon the faithful, those who have been obedient to the laws of the kingdom of heaven.

All men of all ages are saved only through the grace that Christ offers through the Atonement, for it is “by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Nephi 25:23). Because all men are saved only through Christ, eventually every person will bow to Christ as the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, for “every knee shall bend and every tongue shall speak in worship before Him.”[22] It is he who has “trodden the wine-press alone, even the wine-press of the fierceness of the wrath of Almighty God” (D&C 76:107). When we understand that it is through Christ that we are redeemed, then we will yearn to know him, to follow him, and to obey him. If we do not understand the preeminent position of Christ, then we will have no such desire and will, in the end, be compelled to recognize his glory and exaltation before being cut off from his presence (see Alma 12:15–16).

An understanding of Jesus Christ and the example he set for us will lead us to act so that we may be sanctified. Knowing, studying, and internalizing this unique passage from the writings of Paul, in light of the restored gospel, will lead the faithful to recognize the source from which salvation springs and follow the admonition of Nephi to “do the things which I have told you I have seen that your Lord and your Redeemer should do” (2 Nephi 31:17), which will lead the valiant Saint to receive the ultimate reward promised to those who follow the example of Christ: “Behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life” (2 Nephi 31:20).


[1] Thomas S. Monson, “The Way of the Master,” Ensign, January 2003, 7.

[2] James A. Smith, Marks of an Apostle: Deconstruction, Philippians, and Problematizing Pauline Theology (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005), 41.

[3] See Demetrius K. Williams, Enemies of the Cross of Christ: The Terminology of the Cross and Conflict in Philippians (London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), 69.

[4] The term “Christological hymn” refers to passages that contain what are thought of as originally being hymns that speak of Christ. See Ralph P. Martin, “Some Reflections on New Testament Hymns,” http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/hymns_martin.pdf; also Eric D. Huntsman, “The Christological Hymns in Paul,” http://hccl.byu.edu/faculty/HuntsmanE/EducationWeek/2008/Hymns/2-HymnsPa....

[5] For various interpretations as to the exact structure of the hymn, see Williams, Enemies of the Cross of Christ, 61–62.

[6] Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, eds., Ephesians—Philemon, vol. 12, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 218.

[7] Kerygma is defined as “the apostolic proclamation of salvation through Jesus Christ.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., “kerygma.”

[8] Williams, Enemies of the Cross of Christ, 127–28.

[9] Bruce R. McConkie, “Our Relationship with the Lord,” devotional address given at Brigham Young University, March 2, 1982; see also Mosiah 3:5.

[10] “Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is ‘the express image’ of His Father’s person (Heb. 1:3)” (First Presidency, “The Origin of Man,” Ensign, February 2002, 28).

[11] Oxford English Dictionary, “kenosis”; http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50125987.

[12] Clinton E. Arnold, ed., Romans to Philemon, vol. 3 of Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 355–56.

[13] As cited in Mark J. Edwards and Thomas C. Oden, ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament VIII—Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians (InterVarsity Press, 1999), 250; emphasis in original.

[14] Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, vol. 2, Acts—Philippians (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1972), 533.

[15] Ralph P. Martin, Philippians (London: Oliphants, 1976), 99–100.

[16] Longman and Garland, Philemon, 221.

[17] McConkie, “Our Relationship with the Lord.”

[18] Quoted in Martin, Philippians, 100.

[19] Gordon B. Hinckley, “We Testify of Christ,” Ensign, March 2008, 4–7.

[20] Joseph Smith, Jr., “The King Follett Sermon,” Ensign, April 1971, 13–14.

[21] Richard Lloyd Anderson, Understanding Paul, rev. ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2007), 294.

[22] “The Living Christ,” Ensign, April 2000, 2.