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The Poured-Out Life:
The Kenosis Hymn in Context
One of the most well known and moving passages in Paul's writings is
Philippians 2:5-11, known as the Kenosis Hymn (from the Greek word
ekenosen, "he emptied," v. 7). There is a lack of consensus
on how exactly to interpret the passage, and still less agreement on the
role it should play in the life of the community of faith. However,
few would deny the centrality of this particular passage in the Book of
Philippians or its broader importance for a deeper understanding of the
person and work of Christ. -1-
It is easy to forget, accustomed as we are to viewing the Bible through
large theological categories such as "Word of God" or "Truth," that much of
the Bible emerged from a community of faith that was itself grappling with
the down-to-earth problems of service to God. This is especially true of the
New Testament Epistles, which are real letters written (usually) by
individuals to particular people in particular situations in a given time
frame. To acknowledge this is not to assume that they are frozen in the past
by time and circumstance with no real value for today. Quite the contrary,
the community of faith has continually affirmed that the Epistles
communicate God's word to humanity and so have enduring value for faith and
practice. Yet the fact that the Epistles are real occasional letters must be
taken seriously in interpreting their message for appropriation by the
Church today. The recognition of this fact establishes some guidelines for
interpreting the Kenosis Hymn in Philippians.
Guidelines for Interpreting the Hymn
First, while Paul did not hesitate to
use lofty and magnificent theological formulations to address the rather
mundane problems of the New Testament churches (compared by one writer to
using a cannon on a rabbit! -2-), this particular passage
is not a theological treatise. The assumption that the passage is a mine out
of which propositional truths about divine reality may be dug has led to
some bitter divisions within the Body of Christ. Rather, the passage should
be approached initially in terms of the context and purpose of the letter
itself, and its function within that context.
Second, the Kenosis Hymn is generally
recognized by scholars to be an early Christian hymnic affirmation of faith
quoted secondarily by Paul. Much ink has been spilled trying to establish
the "original" meaning of the hymn to the Early Church. However, if we take
seriously the fact that Paul is writing to a community of faith to deal with
practical matters, then the original meaning of the hymn must be subordinate
to its present context and function within the Epistle.
Finally, being a letter, the "book"
of Philippians will to some degree reflect the needs and concerns of the
persons involved, both the author's and the recipients'. While a complete
portrait of neither Paul nor the church can be painted from the Epistle, the
life situation of both, their relationships to each other, and the matters
that concern each of them have shaped both its content and its manner of
expression. An awareness of these factors and how they are expressed will
provide both a social and a literary context in which to set the Kenosis
Hymn while providing a basis for application to the modern church.
The Historical Context
Paul's relationship with the church at Philippi had been warm and
cordial. Although he had been imprisoned on his first visit there (Acts
16:11-40), it was the first church founded in Europe. The initial success
there was fondly recalled by Paul (Phil. 1:3-5). The church had continued to
support Paul in his missionary efforts (4:15-18). The warm introduction to
the Epistle, its cordiality second only to 1 Thessalonians, reflects the
continuing close relationship between Paul and the Philippians (note 4:1).
However, it is clear that Paul is in perilous circumstances. Not only is
the gospel that he has preached faithfully being threatened by self-serving,
ambitious preachers (1:15-17; 2:20-21; 3:18-19), but he himself is in
prison, facing imminent death (1:7, 12-16; 2:17; cf. 3:8-14). Yet there is
no depression or gloom in this Epistle. On the contrary, joy and rejoicing
are prominent (1:4, 8, 25; 2:2, 17-18, 29; 3:1; 4:1, 4, 10). Paul faces his
circumstances with a faith born not only out of God's past sustenance and
provision (4:11-13) but also out of a lively hope in the future. His hope is
based on his own commitment to a set of values that so transcend earthly
concerns that he can refer to things highly valued by earthly standards as
rubbish (3:4-11; cf. 1:1 9-26; 3:20-21)!
Paul is so committed to values beyond himself that he can actually
rejoice in his own dire circumstances because they have advanced the
opportunity for the proclamation of Christ (1:1 2-14). This attitude is
reflected in the opening line of the Epistle by a self-designation common of
Paul: servant (or "slave"; Greek, doulos, cf. Gal. 1:10; 2 Cor 4:5; 1
Cor. 7:22). It is significant to note that while Paul customarily
establishes his authority as an apostle in writing to the churches (as in
the first verses of Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, and
Colossians), in this Epistle he simply calls himself (along with his
coworker, Timothy) "servant."
It is this warm relationship between the Philippian church and Paul, and
his portrayal of himself as the faithful bond-servant of God who suffers and
rejoices because he has chosen the path of service to others, that provides,
the backdrop for Paul to address the needs and concerns of the church at
The Literary Context
Paul's introduction in this epistle is cordial, including a prayer
(1:3-12) in which he emphasizes the communal nature of the gospel by the
repeated use of "all of you" (1:4, 7 [twice], 8, also 1:25; 2:17, 26). He
also emphasizes the commonality between them ("sharing," koinonia,
1:5; "partners," sugkoinonous, 1:7; cf. 4:4-16). He then expresses
his earnest desire to continue serving and working with them (1:23-25).
While the whole tenor of the letter to this point has evoked images of
community, close relationship, and selfless servanthood to God, the first
hint of a problem emerges in 1:27. Here Paul begins addressing practical
concerns relating to the life of the community of faith at Philippi. The
emphasis on being "steadfast in the spirit" and "struggling together with
one mind" for the sake of the gospel suggests that the unity of the
community needs strengthening.
It is critical for the interpretation of the rest of the Epistle to note
that the first imperative Paul directs to the Philippian community concerns
proper Christian lifestyle. While Paul makes the same appeal to other
churches (cf. Eph. 4:1; Col. 1:10; 1 Thess. 2:12), here he departs from his
usual vocabulary and uses a technical word
(politeuesthe, 1:27) that means "to discharge one's obligation as a
citizen" or "to fulfill one's obligation to the community." -3-
The Philippians were proud of their status as Roman citizens, their city
being a Roman colony, and would clearly understand Paul's call to fulfill
societal obligations. But Paul is not calling them simply to be good
citizens but to fulfill their obligations to the Christian community. This
would result in a unity of spirit, mind, and purpose. Paul does not
immediately explain what that obligation entails, but there is built into
the letter already an expectation that it is somehow related to Paul's dire
circumstances, a hint given support by his reference to suffering related
both to himself and to the Philippians (1:29-30).
This call to proper citizenship in the gospel is reinforced by the first
verses of the second chapter, where the love, compassion, and sense of
community (koinonia, 2:1) that come from Christ are used as a basis
for a renewed appeal for unity (the same mind-set, the same love, united in
spirit, of one purpose). The problem in the Philippian community is finally
revealed to be selfishness and arrogance (v. 3). Internal dissension is
threatening the love, unity, and fellowship of the community (cf. 2:14;
3:18-19; 4:2). While the cause is not revealed, the solution is understood
by Paul to be a proper ordering of one’s life. Priorities must be made
according to a set of values that places the welfare and interests of others
above concern for self (2:3-4); a humility arising from the very nature of
being Christian. This would have two implications: the Philippians would
fulfill their obligations to the community of faith as citizens of the
heavenly kingdom, and the community itself would be built around a set of
values and concerns far different from the rest of the world (3:17-20).
The Kenosis Hymn, then, occurs in this setting, giving expression to
Paul's call for worthy fulfillment of Christian obligation and servanthood.
The Kenosis Hymn (Phil 2:5-11)
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours
in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count
equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, taking the
form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in
human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death
on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the
name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee
should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every
tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The introductory line to the Kenosis Hymn (2:5) presents several problems
of interpretation. First, there is no
clear referent for "this" (touto). From the present context it is
reasonable to conclude that Paul is referring to the whole attitude of
like-mindedness, unity, and humility that has been the Epistle's focus since
Second, the phrase en humin,
usually translated "in yourselves," as a personal attitude each person
should have, probably should be understood within the context of the strong
emphasis on community as "among all of you"; that is, as an attitude toward
Third, the last phrase lacks a verb
in Greek. The usual practice is to supply a form of the verb "to be": "Have
this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus" (2:5, NASB; cf.
NIV, KJV). While this is permissible, it is also possible to use the
original verb ("have ... attitude") in the second clause, a common Hebrew
usage found less frequently in Greek. Understood in this way, the verse
reads: "Think this (in this manner of humility) toward each other which you
also think in Christ Jesus (as Christians)." "In Christ Jesus" refers to
those who have been baptized into Christ (cf. Rom. 6:11, 23; Gal. 3:28;
et al.). Therefore, being "in Christ" is the basis for having the
attitude of humility that Paul has just shown to be necessary: on the
basis of the attitude of humility that you have before Christ as Christians,
you should also have the same attitude in your relationships with one
another (cf. NEB). This understanding of 2:5 fits well with the context as
Paul elaborates the nature of the worthy conduct that is the obligation of
The actual Hymn itself begins in 2:6. It can be divided into three parts:
verse 6, introduced by the pronoun "who" referring to "Christ Jesus," which
focuses on the privileged status of Christ;
verses 7-8, introduced by the disjunctive "but," contrasting with verse 6,
which focuses on the self-abasement of Christ;
and verses 9-11, introduced by a strong referential conjunction (dio kai,
"therefore also"), implying that the last part is a necessary result of the
preceding, which focus on the activity of God exalting
Christ. Thus, there is a movement of the status of Christ within the
hymn. He first appears on a level of equality with God
(v. 6). Then, by his own choice, he lays aside that
equality and takes on the role of a servant (vv. 7-8). Finally, he is exalted by God to a status equal with God (vv. 10-11).
This pattern of
which is presented in the hymn as Paul's elaboration of the proper Christian
life-style, is shown to be working out in Paul's own life and is used as a
basic structural element of the entire Epistle. Paul has clearly cast
himself in the servant role by the initial greeting (1:1) and the recounting
of his circumstances (vv. 12-16). He also testifies that he himself has
enjoyed privilege, which he has gladly and freely laid aside and has
"counted as loss for the sake of Christ" (3:7, NASB; cf. vv. 8-14). He makes
it clear that he anticipates a day of exaltation so eagerly that "to die is
gain" (1:21). Paul sees himself so clearly following the path of servanthood
that was established by Christ, especially in his present circumstances,
that he can refer to "the fellowship of His sufferings" and "being conformed
to His death" (3:10, NASB). It is in this spirit that Paul can point to
himself and say, without trace of arrogance or pride, "Follow my example"
(3:17; cf. 1 Cor 11:1).
Paul deliberately uses himself and his circumstances to illustrate the
proper exercise of the role of servant exemplified by Christ. Paul
repeatedly uses the word phronein (to set one's mind on, to have an
attitude) to refer to the mind-set of humility and selflessness to which he
originally called the Philippians and which the Kenosis Hymn illustrates
(2:5; cf. 2:2; 1:7). He also uses it to refer to his own attitude of
selfless commitment, which he invites them to share (3:15). He uses the same
word to highlight the wrong mind-set, that of selfish preoccupation with
earthly values (3:19), and to commend their own concrete expression of the
proper concern for others (4:10).
It is this willingness to lay aside all rights of personal privilege, to
submit in the spirit of servanthood to the needs and concerns of others,
that is the heart of this letter. From Paul's side we see it as one who is a
faithful servant following the Servant-Christ. From the Philippians' side it
is as those who are obligated to exhibit that servanthood as followers of
Christ. To show Christ as a servant, then, is to illustrate what being "in
Paul argues that to fulfill one's obligation as a citizen of the heavenly
kingdom is to empty oneself as He did, and to take on the role of a servant.
One must commit oneself not only to sharing grace but also to suffering
(1:5, 7, 29-30). S/he must be willing to be "poured out" in the service of
others (2:17), to have a mind-set and lifestyle that is different from the
values of the world (3:18-19). S/he must exhibit true humility,
understanding that to be "in Christ" means to be a servant because Christ
came to the world, not as Lord but as Servant (cf. John 13:2-20)!
The Kenosis Hymn for Today
The Kenosis Hymn functions as an ethical example, an illustration of what
Christian citizenship means. Unity comes in serving God through service to
each other. There is danger of selfishly looking out for one's own interests
at the expense of others, or of arrogance born of pride in one's status,
birth, or achievements (cf. 3:2-11). The solution to problems in
interpersonal relationships is an attitude of humble commitment to others. A
spirit of self-sacrifice is an expression to others of the love exemplified
in Christ, love that was "obedient unto death, even a cross-death!"
True servanthood empties self. Paul uses Christ to illustrate
this. He had every right not to choose the path of servanthood rather
than claim His rightful status. And Paul bears witness that he himself is
walking the path of servanthood, perhaps to his own cross. And he calls the
Philippians to follow!
There is no room for triumphalism here! There is no room for a feel-good
religion that does not take its servant role seriously. There is no room for
a victory that does not first know the "fellowship of His sufferings" in
behalf of others; no room for piety that does not pour out, yes, even
totally empty, oneself for the interests of others.
But there is hope here. It is found in the last part of the Christ Hymn
(2:9-11). God eventually exalted the Servant-Christ. His humility became
glory. And Paul strongly points to an exaltation as well, affirming that
"the body of our humble state" God will transform into "the body of His
glory" (3:21, NASB). Jesus said to the religious people of His day: "The
greatest among you shall be your servant. And whoever exalts himself shall
be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted" (Matt. 23:11-12,
NASB). But for Jesus, the path to that glory led through an emptying of
himself, through servanthood that led to a cross. For Paul, the path to that
glory led through a prison cell, through a poured-out life that caused him
to say, "To die is gain" (1:21).
There is joy here, too (1:4, 25; 2:17-18; 4:4). It is not a superficial
joy that evaporates at the first adversity. It is a joy that goes hand in
hand with servanthood and sings in the face of death itself (2:17-19)! To
take seriously this sort of servanthood disallows any sense of exaltation as
reward or motivation, or as a formula for spiritual success: "Last now,
first later!" -4- That is not authentic servanthood.
The Church today is beset by petty quarrels and selfish attitudes not
unlike the churches of Paul's day. There are conflicts between larger
branches of Christianity (Catholic-Protestant), between denominations
(Baptist- Methodist), and between groups within denominations
(moderate-fundamentalist). But there are also conflicts within local
churches on all political (pastor-church board), economic
(businessman-welfare mother), social (executive-laborer), racial
(black-white), and personal (Smith-Jones) levels.
One local church board scrapped a successful busing program for
underprivileged children because the bus was bringing children who were poor
and of the "wrong" color into their affluent suburban church. "We can't
afford it! They don't pay their way," one said. "They're ruining our
carpet," said another. Still another, "They're not like us. Don't they have
their own church?"
Another church, claiming they could not possibly pay their excessively
high $18,000 mission and educational budget because of the tight economy,
spent nearly $20,000 to refurbish the church offices and landscape the
grounds. "We must maintain our image in the community," they said.
Still another church nearly disbanded because of a severe conflict
between opposing groups over how the worship service should be conducted.
"It doesn't fit our needs. There needs to be more freedom," one group said.
"We've never done it that way," another group said.
This sort, of pettiness even creeps into the ministerial ranks. I still
painfully recall the conversation with a young preacher who, nearly a year
after completing his ministerial education, was still working for a local
company. "Oh, yes, I've been called to four different churches," he said,
"but none of them could pay me more than $25,000 a year, and we have to have
at least $45,000 to maintain our standard of living."
The examples are endless. To persons with these attitudes Paul points to
the example of Christ, who traded His exalted position for the role of a
servant, eventually to give His life for others. "Look at the
servant-Christ," Paul says, "and be like that!"
The Church needs the unity of mind and purpose to which Paul is calling
the Philippians. It needs a unity built around servanthood, a servanthood
illustrated by the emptied Christ and the poured-out Paul. Perhaps the
Church needs to see itself in a new light. Maybe it needs to see itself less
as the proclaimer and defender of divine truth, and more as the servant of
humanity, the footwasher who expresses his love by humble service (John 13).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who poured out his own life at
the hands of the Nazis because he refused to allow the church to be the tool
of oppression, wrote:
The church is the church only when it exists for
others. . . . The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary
human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. . . . It must not
underestimate the importance of human example which has its origin in the
humanity of Jesus. -5-
We who profess holiness need the unity of mind and purpose to which Paul
is calling the Philippians. We need to see ourselves in terms of our
obligations to the community of those "in Christ" of which we claim to be a
part. Maybe we need to see ourselves less in terms of "those who never sin"
and more in terms of "those who serve," those to whom Jesus commanded, "Take
up [your] cross, and follow Me" (Matt. 16:24, NASB). Maybe we need to see
ourselves in terms of the Servant-Christ, the "man for others" who bends
himself to struggle for the wholeness and healing of a wounded world."
-6- Maybe we need to reexamine our own value structures that have
been so subtly shaped by the success-oriented society around us. We need to
see if we are acting in a manner worthy of the heavenly citizenship we
claim. For Paul, to claim that citizenship meant to have a mind-set
different from others. It meant a commitment to servanthood, a life poured
out in service to others, totally emptied of self.
We live in a society dominated by rights-activism, permeated with the
philosophy of "me first," and molded by the corporate ideals of efficiency
and success. The Church must be called to remember that demanding one's
rights and privileges may be popular, even necessary in some cases, but if
it does so at the expense of Christian unity and love, it is not Christian!
The Body of Christ must be called upon to refocus on Christian humility,
unity, and fellowship. We must make service to others, perfect love in
action, our primary responsibility. An attitude of Christlike humility does
not demand rights or protect its own interests; it seeks servanthood.
C. C. Meigs expressed this attitude in the song "Others":
Others, Lord, yes others!
Let this my motto be!
Help me live for others,
That I may live for Thee!
Idealistic? Yes. But then, so was Paul as he quoted the Kenosis Hymn to
the Philippians from his jail cell!
1. For a survey of interpretation of the Kenosis Hymn and
an extensive bibliography see Ralph P. Martin, Carmen Christi:
Philippians 2.5-11 in Recent Interpretation and in the Setting of Early
Christian Worship, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983).
2. Fred Craddock, Philippians, Interpretation
Commentary (Atlanta: John Knox, 1985), 43.
3. The only other occurrence of the word in the Greek New
Testament is in Acts 23:1 where Paul's defense of himself and his mission to
the Gentiles before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem is that he is fulfilling his
duty to God. The same implication is carried through Philippians by Paul's
use of a nominal form of the same word in 3:20 to contrast the mind-set of
Christians who are citizens of heaven with those whose mind-set is on
4. Craddock, Philippians, 42.
5. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison,
2nd ed., ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillan, 1971), 203-4.
6. The "man for others" is an idea developed by
Bonhoeffer to describe the Servant dimension of the Incarnation. Bonhoeffer,
An edited version of this article was originally published in The
Preacher's Magazine, 1986
-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright ©
Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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