• Santosh Ninan

THE OLDEST HYMN (and a newer one)

White Crucifixion - Marc Chagall 1938

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as

Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather,

he made himself nothing

by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—

even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

This is Philippians 2:5-11. NT scholars are. in near agreement that Paul is using a pre-existing document that was already in circulation. The unique composition (using a chiastic structure), the clever uses of antithesis, and the appearance of being evenly divided into verses lead us to the conclusion that this was a hymn. Or perhaps a poem, but a poem that was used in worship settings. If this theory is true (and I believe it is) then this is the earliest hymn that we know of in existence. Some scholars date it to even a few years after the resurrection of Christ.

As I studied the text, I was struck by the depth of theology written here. Note my following observations:

  1. Christocentric - the hymn is profoundly centered around the person of Jesus Christ. Every single line teaches us more and more about an important aspect of the person of Jesus Christ.

  2. Theological richness - Within these very brief verses we are taught the following about Jesus:

  • divinity

  • humility

  • incarnation

  • death by crucifixion

  • exaltation

  • glorification

  • lordship of Christ

One could build an entire sermon series based on the revelations of Christ here. '

I am stunned that the early church (and Paul) were able to draw up these

conclusions and then pontificate on them so profoundly.

3. Practical Relevance

In the verses preceding this hymn, Paul makes admonitions that cut against the grain of our natural human makeup. Admonitions such as:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.

Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,

not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (v.3-4)

I do not naturally live this way. I battle my selfishness and self-centeredness. I am not looking out for the interests of others. The solution to the dilemma? Having the mind of Christ. The mind of Santosh cannot humble itself. But, if I have the mind of Christ, I have the mind of the One who took on the most humble descent imaginable. The descent from the throne room of heaven down to the state of a finite human being and then down to the shame of the Cross.

Now compare the richness of this hymn with this contemporary worship song:

Shadows may surround where I'm walking Even in the dark, I won't give in To this living hope, I am holding There's a light illuminating everything within There's a promise in the middle of these doubts There's a rainbow in the middle of these clouds You're brighter Color like nothing ever seen And every glory in between

God, You are brighter, brighter And You're stronger

Stronger than sunlight at noonday Greater than any storm I face God, You are brighter, brightеr Even though I walk through the valley There will be no shame that I carry 'Cause You turn my rags into beauty You turn darkness into light

(Brighter - Arise Worship from Immerse Live release July 16 2021)

Now - notice the differences. Profound theology in Philippians and then more experientially based lyrics by Arise Worship. The early hymn writer was able to access a depth of theological truth to enable a new life perspective (mind of Christ). The writer of Brighter accesses some more accessible and basic imagery:

living hope

illuminating light


rainbow in clouds



rags into beauty

darkness into light

The first hymn is birthed out of someone who had meditated and thought upon the reality of the person and experience of Jesus Christ. The more contemporary song appears birthed out of someone who has heard some basic descriptions of God and the reality of salvation.

I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on the difference between hymns and contemporary worship songs.

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