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Why Does Paul Quote from an Early Christian Hymn?
Both the Bible and the Book of Mormon contain important witnesses to the divinity of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Both are ancient witnesses of the premortal, mortal, and post-mortal ministry of Jesus and each teach about His divine role in unique ways.
Very memorable is Philippians 2:6-11, where Paul appears to be quoting or paraphrasing from what might have been a very early Christian hymn that succinctly summarized Jesus’s entire being and ministry, beginning with His premortal life and ending with his heavenly glorification (see Philippians 2:5–11). This beautiful hymn can be set forth in Greek as having two verses of two lines each, with a third verse comprised of a seven-part chiasm. But more significantly, each of the three main points raised in this hymn— the Savior’s premortal divinity, His willingness to die on our behalf, and His exaltation following His resurrection — can also be found represented and reinforced in the Book of Mormon and other restoration scriptures.
1. Jesus’s Premortal Ministry
The hymn begins with an opening couplet that can be rendered as:
Christ Jesus, who, though being in the likeness of God,
did not take advantage of being equal to God (Philippians 2:5–6).1
Through this opening statement, we learn that Jesus was in the presence of God and was like Him in the premortal life. Despite His high station, He did not seek for any benefit of His own.
In saying that Jesus was in the “likeness” or “form of God,” this hymn uses a word meaning “outward appearance” or “shape,” thus implying that Jesus and the Father looked similar to one another.2 However, while this word could be used to denote physical appearance, it was also used by Paul to denote the status or role of Jesus later as a “servant” while in mortality. Because of this, Frank Judd states that “when Paul taught that the Savior was ‘in the form of God’ and ‘equal with God’ in the premortal existence, he was teaching that both God the Father and Christ the Son were divine beings, sharing a semblance of status and attributes, as well as appearance.”3
Jesus’s status as a divine being is strongly reinforced in modern scripture. For example, in the book of Moses we learn that Jesus was in the premortal council in heaven before the world began. While Satan sought to grasp and take advantage of the Father’s glory, Jesus did not. Instead, He humbly offered, “Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever” (Moses 4:1–2). Because of Jesus’s willingness and desire to obey the Father even when He was still in a premortal state, He was called to be the Savior of the world.
However, Jesus was still different from Heavenly Father in one major aspect: Heavenly Father had a body, and Jesus did not. Because of this, Thomas Wayment noted that unless some action were to be taken, Christ “cannot be fully equal to God, it is a prize that he cannot fully achieve.” The remedy for this discrepancy between the Father and Son would ultimately be Jesus’ “birth and mortality,” coupled by His righteous living.4
2. Jesus’s Mortal Condescension
As the Savior of the world, Jesus would be born as a mortal so that He could lay down His life and take it again (see John 10:18). This is expressed in Philippians when the hymn next states:
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, humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross (Philippians 2:7–8).
Jesus would center His mortal ministry on loving and serving everyone, while inviting each of us to repent of our sins and become like Him. As a part of His role as a servant, the prophet Nephi “beheld multitudes of people who were sick, and who were afflicted with all manner of diseases, and with devils and unclean spirits. … And they were healed by the power of the Lamb of God; and the devils and the unclean spirits were cast out” (1 Nephi 11:31).
The Book of Mormon likewise affirms that, despite Jesus’s good works, He would be crucified for the sins of the world. Nephi, for instance, saw the crucifixion of the Savior in his vision (see 1 Nephi 11:32–33), and Abinadi taught that Jesus would be crucified according to a prophecy of Isaiah (see Mosiah 15:5–8).5 Even as others mocked or persecuted Him, Jesus “suffereth himself to be mocked, and scourged, and cast out, and disowned by his people” (Mosiah 15:5).
Jesus’s Resurrection, New Name, and Exaltation
Having suffered death on the cross, as the confessional hymn continues,
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 beings in heaven, and beings on earth, and beings under the earth;
and that every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9–11).
Having returned to the presence of the Father, Jesus Christ was exalted or raised to the glory of God the Father, thus being like Him.
The distinction between Christ’s mortal and resurrected status is made clear when one reads both the New Testament and Book of Mormon. Just as Peter taught that God exalted Christ to become a “Prince and Savior” (Acts 5:30–31), the Father introduced the Nephites to His Son by declaring that “I have glorified my name” in Him (3 Nephi 11:7). Jesus then tells the Nephites and Lamanites in his audience there that he wanted that they “should be perfect even as I, or your Father who is in heaven is perfect” (3 Nephi 12:48), he having become perfectly like the Father.6
Finally, Jesus is given a new name whereby all will recognize Him, bowing down to him and with their tongues confessing Him as their redeeming Lord, with words here drawing on Isaiah 45:22–23. The blessing of a new name is promised to all who keep their covenants with Christ (see Doctrine and Covenants 130:11; Revelation 2:17). As such, all will be able to become more like Him and become exalted as He is.
This significant early Christian hymn, somewhat like our modern day hymn Jesus, Once of Humble Birth, described the condescension of Jesus in clear terms, covering His premortal willingness, His mortal condescension and suffering, and His post-mortal adoration, all illustrating that His ministry was an act of pure love. Indeed, when asked if Nephi knew what the condescension of God meant, he simply answered that he did not, but he was confident “that he loveth his children” (1 Nephi 11:17). At this point, the vision of the ministry and love of the Savior opened to him.
As Byron R. Merril has noted, “the word ‘condescension’ implies ‘voluntary descent,’ ‘submission,’ and ‘performing acts which strict justice does not require.’ … Christ's selfless sacrifice merits profound gratitude and endearing love from all who are recipients of his supernal offering.”7
Because of His humble condescension, Jesus was exalted by the Father above all others, was given a “name which is above every name,” and entered into the glory of the Father (Philippians 2:9).8 Even more miraculously, Jesus Christ has opened these same blessings to everyone who follows Him and seeks to obey His commandments, so that “when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure” (1 John 3:2–3).
Frank F. Judd Jr., “The Condescension of God according to Paul,” Shedding Light on the New Testament: Acts–Revelation, ed. Ray L. Huntington, Frank F. Judd Jr., and David M. Whitchurch (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2009), 171–192.
Richard D. Draper, “The Mortal Ministry of the Savior as Understood by the Book of Mormon Prophets,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2, no. 1 (1993): 80–92.
Byron R. Merrill, “Condescension of God,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols., ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1992), 1:305.
- 1. The English Standard Version of the Bible also renders this verse as “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped” or “a thing to be held onto for advantage.” (The latter rendering is taken from the translator’s footnotes to the ESV.) For comparison, the King James Version reads Jesus “being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God.” Modern translations of the Bible, such as the English Standard Version, translate the Greek more literally. Additionally, the meaning of the verb translated as “grasped” could also imply exploitation, leading some translators to render the verb as such (e.g. the New Revised Standard Version).
- 2. Frank F. Judd Jr., “The Condescension of God according to Paul,” in Shedding Light on the New Testament: Acts–Revelation, ed. Ray L. Huntington, Frank F. Judd Jr., and David M. Whitchurch (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2009), 178.
- 3. Judd, “The Condescension of God,” 180.
- 4. Thomas A. Wayment, “‘Each Person Has a Hymn’: The Creator-Savior Hymns” in Thou Art the Christ: The Son of the Living God, The Person and Work of Jesus in the New Testament, ed. Eric D. Huntsman, Lincoln H. Blumell, and Tyler J. Griffin (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2018), 199.
- 5. Also see Book of Mormon Central, “Why Did Isaiah Prophesy of a Suffering Messiah? (Isaiah 53:10),” KnoWhy 648 (September 27, 2022).
- 6. Compare Matthew 5:48, where Jesus simply instructs the people to “be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.”
- 7. Byron R. Merrill, “Condescension of God,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols., ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1992), 1:305.
- 8. The name mentioned here, by which “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,” (Philippians 2:10–11) is a reference to the name of Yahweh, or Jehovah, as this hymn quotes from Isaiah 45:23.
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