This passage is beyond doubt the most theologically significant statement about the person and work of Jesus to be found in the NT. I have summarized it in 20 points.
1. It has long been suggested that 2:6-11 is a pre-Pauline hymn to Christ. Support is drawn from the presence in the text of numerous words that appear only once in the NT as a whole. The balanced clauses have a poetic form that might belong to an early hymn. If the verses are read aloud and slowly, they are seen to possess a rhythm that is similar to the parallelism of Hebrew poetry. "But in any case," writes Vincent Taylor, "whether St. Paul is using a 'hymn' composed by himself or by a predecessor, he uses it to express his beliefs concerning the person of Christ" (The Person of Christ in New Testament Teaching, 63).
2. Context is crucial in understanding this passage. This is not an isolated theological statement about the person and work of Christ. The previous paragraph (2:1-4) contains Paul's appeal to put aside selfish ambition and the pursuit of empty glory and to embrace self-sacrificial humility in the interests of others and with a view to unity in the body of Christ. Verse 5 is a transition from the exhortation in vv. 1-4 to the premier example of such a life in vv. 6-11. When Paul says, "Have this attitude in yourselves," he has in view the attitude just described in vv. 1-4. The most perfect illustration of "this" attitude or mindset is Jesus himself ("which was also in Christ Jesus"), whose self-giving for the sake of others is explained by Paul in vv. 6-11. O'Brien summarizes:
"Accordingly, the Christ-hymn presents Jesus as the ultimate model for Christian behaviour and action, the supreme example of the humble, self-sacrificing, self-giving service that Paul has just been urging the Philippians to practice in their relations one toward another (vv. 1-4). There is a relationship between the saving events of the gospel and the conduct appropriate to those who are in Christ" (205).
3. Some have suggested that Paul constructed the hymn on the basis of his familiarity with a famous incident in the life of Jesus: the foot-washing episode in John 13. Although the verbal parallels are few, the conceptual and theological similarities are striking:
a. In John 13, knowing he had come from God, Jesus rises from the table and lays aside his outer garments (v. 4). In Phil. 2, from his position of eternal, pre-existent equality with God, Jesus, as it were, lays aside the garment of his visible glory (vv. 6-7).
b. In John 13, Jesus clothes himself with a towel. In Phil. 2, Jesus clothes himself with human nature.
c. In John 13, Jesus performs a menial task often assigned to slaves (washing the feet of others). In Phil. 2, Jesus takes the form of a slave and serves others.
d. In John 13, when Jesus finishes, he once again takes his outer garments and puts them on. In Phil. 2, after his work on earth is finished, he returns to the visible glory with the Father that was his before time.
e. In John 13, Jesus resumes his place at the table, from which he had temporarily departed. In Phil. 2, Jesus is exalted by the Father and sits down again on his heavenly throne.
f. Jesus concludes by saying, "You address me as teacher and Lord (kurios) and rightly so, for that is what I am" (v. 13). In Phil. 2, every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (kurios) to the glory of God the Father (v. 11).
g. The story in John 13 is an example of humble service. In Phil. 2, Paul uses the incarnation and humiliation of Christ as an example of humble service (see vv. 1-5).
Gerald Hawthorne summarizes: "The Johannine account is an acted parable to summarize the essence of Jesus' teaching: 'Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to hold the first place among you must be everybody's slave' (Mark 10:43-44), while the Philippian text is a hymn to illustrate powerfully Paul's teaching, which at this point is identical with that of Jesus: humble, self-sacrificing service to one another done in love is a must for a Christian disciple who would live as a Christian disciple should (Phil. 2:3-4)" (p. 79).
4. There are also potential theological lessons to learn from what appear to be parallels between the first Adam (Gen. 1-3) and the last Adam (Phil. 2).
a. The first Adam was made in the divine image. So, too, the last Adam is the image of God (v. 6; also Col. 1:15).
b. The first Adam thought it a prize to be grasped at to be as God. But the last Adam thought it not a prize to be grasped at to be as God.
c. The first Adam aspired to a reputation. The last Adam made himself of no reputation.
d. The first Adam spurned being God's servant. The last Adam took upon himself the form of a servant.
e. The first Adam sought to be in the likeness of God. The last Adam was made in the likeness of men.
f. The first Adam was found in fashion as a man (dust). The last Adam was found in fashion as a man (cf. Rom. 8:3).
g. The first Adam exalted himself. The last Adam humbled himself.
h. The first Adam became disobedient unto death. The last Adam became obedient unto death.
i. The first Adam was condemned and disgraced. The last Adam was highly exalted and given the name of Lord.
["This is an intriguing analogy," writes Fee (209), "but it must be noted that its basis is altogether conceptual, since there is not a single linguistic parallel to the Genesis narrative."]
5. A significant phrase is "although he existed" (NASB), a translation of the present tense participle huparchon. The word certainly points to the prior existence of the Son, i.e., he existed in the form of God before or antecedent to the activity described in v. 7. It would be reading too much into the word to say it speaks of eternal pre-existence (although, of course, we know this also to be true from such texts as John 1:1ff.; 8:58; 17:5). The translation "although" he existed is accurate, because the subsequent context alerts us to the idea of sacrifice, i.e., in spite of the fact that he existed in the form of God . . . he emptied himself.
Others take the participle not as concessive ("although") but as either causal ("precisely because he was in the form of God he did not regard this equality with God as something to be used for his own advantage") or circumstantial ("who, in the circumstance of being in the form of God, as he always was, did not act selfishly . . . ".
6. The pre-existent Son was in "the form of God". The Greek word translated "form" (morphe) is used only twice in the NT, both instances here in Phil. 2 (vv. 6 and 7; it also occurs in the dubious text, Mark 16:12). Early students of this text defined the "form" of God as meaning the substance, essence, or nature of God, i.e., the essential attributes of deity (cf. NIV - "being in very nature God"). B. B. Warfield articulated this view as follows:
"'Form' is a term which expresses the sum of those characterizing qualities which make a thing the precise thing that it is. . . . 'the form of God' is the sum of the characteristics which make the being we call 'God' specifically God, rather than some other being -- an angel, say, or a man. When our Lord is said to be in 'the form of God,' therefore, He is declared, in the most express manner possible, to be all that God is, to possess the whole fulness of attributes which make God God" (The Person and Work of Christ, p. 39).
More recently emphasis has been placed on the way this word is used in the LXX. On four occasions it translated 4 different Hebrew words, each of which, however, refers to visible form or appearance (Job 4:16; Judges 8:18; Isa. 44:13; Dan. 3:19). The article by Behm in Kittel (IV:746) says: "The term always refers to the exterior, to that in man which may be seen." To what, then, is "form" referring? Most believe it is the "glory" or doxa of God. Thus the idea is not so much the inner attributes of deity as it is the majestic splendor, the unapproachable brilliance and visible token of all that God is in himself (i.e., the Shekinah of God). In the OT the Shekinah was the blinding display of God's presence among his people. Glory, then, is the majestic radiance of the divine nature.
If "form" = radiant display of divine glory, it may be significant that Paul says he was "in (en) the form of God" and not simply that he was "the form of God." In other words, the form of God is portrayed as the sphere, so to speak, in which Christ existed or the garment in which he was clothed.
Since it would be impossible to possess the "glory" of God without that internal, essential character or quality of which the "glory" is the outward display, the second person of the Trinity possesses the very nature of deity.
Notwithstanding the above analysis, most commentators now believe that "form" covers such a broad range of meanings that we are better off allowing the context of Phil. 2 to establish its meaning. Two factors in the immediate context are of help:
a. In v. 6b the Son is said to be "equal with God," or more literally, "to be in such a manner as God." Surely, then, to be in the "form" of God is synonymous with being "equal with God." But "to go beyond this equivalence," notes Moises Silva, "and inquire whether morphe tells us precisely in what respects Jesus is equal with God (in essence? attributes? attitude? appearance?) is asking too much from one word" (115).
b. Another contextual clue as to the meaning of "form" is the only other use of this word in the NT, found in v. 7. Clearly, "form of a servant" (which is further defined by the phrase, "in the likeness of men"), is set in antithetical parallelism with "form of God." The point is that Jesus is wholly and truly man even as he is wholly and truly God. Whatever is essential to human nature, whatever constitutes human "form," is true of Jesus. Likewise, whatever is essential to the divine nature, whatever constitutes divine "form," is true of Jesus as well.
7. The phrase translated "a thing to be grasped" represents one word in the Greek text and has been the focus of considerable disagreement. The debate has focused on whether the idea in this word is active or passive:
a. If active, Paul would be referring to the act of robbery (cf. the KJV). But this would conflict with the preceding context. Paul has just exhorted the Philippians to be humble and not always insist on their rights. "Surely, in such a context the idea that Christ asserted his rights - 'thought it not robbery to be equal with God' - does not fit" (Hendriksen, p. 129). In other words, Paul is pointing not to a right which Christ claimed but to a dignity which he renounced.
b. If passive, Paul would be referring to a prize to be held on to, a treasure to be clutched. But there is a remaining question: is this prize ("equality with God") something Christ already has in his possession and retains, or is it something to which he aspires, something "out there" to be eagerly sought? Surely the former is correct:
1) Otherwise Paul would be saying that someone who existed in the form of God lacked existence in a manner equal with God, and that is absurd.
2) In 2 Cor. 8:9, a parallel text, the emphasis is on Christ in some sense giving up the glory he already had. See also John 17:5.
3) The context stresses the idea of sacrifice: one must be willing, like Jesus, to give up certain things in the interests of others.
4) Finally, "the notion of Christ's aspiring (or being tempted to aspire) for equality with God is completely foreign to the NT; conversely, the notion that Christ set aside His 'advantageous' position for the sake of others is at the very heart of the NT message" (Silva, p. 118).
Perhaps a good paraphrase would be: "Be humble as Christ was humble. He, although existing before the world in the form of God, did not treat his equality with God as a prize or a treasure to be greedily clutched and selfishly displayed; on the contrary, he resigned the glories of heaven."
Or again, as Silva puts it: "The divine and preexistent Christ did not regard the advantage of His deity as grounds to avoid the incarnation; on the contrary, He was willing to regard Himself as nothing by taking on human form" (113). That is to say, the preexistent Son did not regard equality with God as excusing him from the task of redeeming mankind through suffering. Indeed, it uniquely qualified him for that vocation.
8. It is important to observe the contrasts in this text. Take note of the words "although" and "did not regard". The point is to stress Christ's voluntary sacrifice. Notwithstanding the infinite, immeasurable grandeur of his glory as God, he did not look upon it as something to be greedily clutched or grasped. Rather, he considered the work of love a greater thing than the manifestation of power and glory. [And as far as the context is concerned, Paul's point is that this is precisely the attitude (v. 5) we are to have toward one another in the church!] As John Murray put it:
"The thought is simply that Christ Jesus did not make his own self the all-absorbing and exclusive object of interest, concern and attention. He became absorbed in concern for others" (238).
In summary, then, "the concern is with divine selflessness: God is not an acquisitive being, grasping and seizing, but self-giving for the sake of others" (Fee, 211).
9. Observe again that he is described as being both "in the form of God" and "in the form of a bond-servant." In other words, Christ is as much man as God, as genuinely a slave as deity! "There is no idea here that Christ possessed the external appearance of a slave or that he disguised himself as a slave. Rather, it means that he adopted the nature, 'the characteristic attributes' of a slave. In other words, he became a slave" (Hawthorne, p. 86). Furthermore, "Paul does not teach that our Lord was once God but had become instead man; he teaches that though He was God, He had become also man" (Warfield, p. 41).
10. Yet another obvious contrast is the use of the verb translated "being made" in v. 7 and the participle "being in the form of God" in v. 6. The point is that whereas Christ always existed in the form of God (v. 6), at a point in time he came into existence or was made in the likeness of men (v. 7).
11. We now come to the all important statement in v. 7 that the Son "emptied himself" (NASB) or "made himself of no reputation" (KJV) or “made himself nothing” (ESV).
The verb used is kenoo, and is found in the NT only in Paul's writings: Romans 4:14; 1 Cor. 1:7; 9:15; 2 Cor. 9:3; and here in Phil. 2:7. A crassly literal rendering, "to empty," (as is found in the NASB), inclines us to ask the question: "Of what did Christ empty himself?" In spite of the fact that the "it" or "content" of which Christ allegedly "emptied himself" is nowhere stated in the text, many have insisted on supplying an answer.
The argument has often been made that he emptied himself of the divine nature or the "form of God" (v. 6). Others point to his position or status of "equality with God" (v. 6) as the content of which he emptied himself. H. A. W. Meyer, for example, writes: "Christ emptied himself, and that, as the context places beyond doubt, of the divine morphe, which he possessed, but now exchanged for a morphe doulou" (88).
The theological implications of such a view must be noted. It would mean that by virtue of the incarnation, the second person of the Trinity ceased to be God. This view, known in history as the doctrine of Kenosis (hence Kenotic Christology), entails a form of divine suicide. More on this below.
A slight variation (and, in my opinion, improvement) on the Kenosis doctrine is the assertion that it was the "glory" or doxa of God of which he emptied himself. I.e., the Son divested himself of the visible splendor and outward radiance of deity by clothing himself with human flesh. He remained God, but the glory of his deity was obscured and hidden "by the dark lantern of His humanity" (Taylor).
Clearly, however, Paul intends us to interpret this verb in precisely the way he uses it elsewhere in his epistles. In each of the other texts the meaning is "to make void," "to render of no effect," "to nullify," "to despoil," "to make of no reputation," or the like. The point of the word is not to specify some content of deity or divine glory of which Christ emptied or divested himself. Rather, it is designed to emphasize the radical and far-reaching dimensions of his self-renunication.
Again, not surprisingly (if we keep in mind the crucial role of context), the meaning of this verb is in vv. 7-8. He "emptied himself" by taking the form of a bond servant and by being made in the likeness of men and by being found in appearance as a man. In other words, Christ did not divest himself of any divine attributes or in any sense become less than God. Rather, Christ "emptied" himself, paradoxically, by taking something to himself. Simply put:
THE INCARNATION IS THE KENOSIS!
That which constitutes the self-renunciation or self-emptying of Christ is the assumption of human nature. The second person of the Trinity "made himself of no reputation," not by ceasing to be God, but by becoming man!
Certainly it is true that by becoming a man and living life as a human being, the glory of his divine nature was barely visible (indeed only on rare occasions, such as the Mt. of Transfiguration). It is also true that during his time of earthly humiliation he voluntarily chose not to exercise the prerogatives and powers of deity, opting instead to depend upon the empowering ministry of the Holy Spirit. But this was not because he was less God after and because of his incarnation than he was before.
Therefore, the contrast in this paragraph is not between "the form of God" (which Christ was but no longer is) and "the form of a servant" (which Christ was not but now is). The contrast is rather between existence in "the form of God" alone and existence in "the form of God" and "the form of a servant" simultaneously.
In summary, then, of the meaning of the verb kenoo, Fee observes that "Christ did not empty himself of anything; he simply 'emptied himself,' poured himself out. This is metaphor, pure and simple. The modifier is expressed in the modal participle that follows; he 'poured himself out by having taken on the 'form' of a slave" (210).
12. There may be a deliberate play on words here that bears some practical significance. In v. 3 Paul warns the Philippians about "empty conceit" (NASB). The Greek word is kenodoxia. It is used in this verse to refer to people who without cause or justification insisted on being leaders, always being heard, having their own way. But in v. 7 Jesus is characterized, not by kenodoxia, but by kenoo, not by demanding for himself but by giving to others; not leading but serving, not insisting on his own rights but sacrificing for the sake of others
13. Jesus is said to have been "in the likeness of men" and to have been found "in appearance as a man" (vv. 7-8). This choice of terms is not meant to suggest that Jesus was not truly man but only "like" men. Paul most likely used this terminology to prevent his readers from concluding that in taking the "form of a servant" Christ assumed "sinful" flesh (see Rom. 8:3). In saying that Jesus was "in appearance as a man" Paul emphasizes that there was no difference in external characteristics and circumstances between Jesus and other men of his day. Simply put, he looked human. When all three of these phrases are taken together, as Paul surely intended them to be, they provide a powerful declaration of the reality of Christ's humanity. In every respect, be it the inward nature (soul, spirit, mind, emotion, will) or the outward form (appearance, circumstances of life, bodily weakness), Jesus was truly human
14. The climax of Paul's argument concerning the depths of divine self-sacrifice is reached in the final phrase of v. 8. Christ Jesus didn't simply humble himself by becoming a man, he became a slave. Greater still, he didn't simply humble himself by becoming a slave, he became obedient to the point of death. Greater still, he didn't simply humble himself by dying, he died on, of all things, a cross! It wasn't just death, but death on a cross, a mode of execution reserved for the scum of society. "Never let us forget," wrote E. K. Simpson, "that the death that Immanuel died was the lowest indignity to which the most abject social pariah could be doomed
Thus, "even to death on a cross" is the last bitter consequence of "taking the form of a slave" and stands in the most abrupt, shocking contrast with the beginning of the hymn and its description of His pre-incarnate glory. Christ Jesus went from the highest imaginable high to the lowest imaginable low
15. Following the description of Christ's incarnation and humiliation in vv. 6-8 is the portrayal of his exaltation in vv. 9-11. At the heart of this is the bestowal of "the name which is above every name," to which name every knee will bow and every tongue confess for the glory of God the Father
But what is this name? Most likely it is the name "Lord" (kurios), not "Jesus". Several things suggest this
a. No name can be more exalted than the name YHWH or Lord
b. There appears to be a progression in the paragraph to the universal confession that Jesus Christ is LORD (v. 11). Now, in addition to every other name and title ascribed to Jesus, there is the name of Lord
c. Verse 10 is a citation of Isa. 45:23 (vv. 20-25) where the God of Israel is alone worthy of the title Lord. This text is here applied to Jesus! In other words, Jesus is that very Lord in human flesh!
Hawthorne summarizes the point well:
"For 'the name of Jesus' does not mean that everyone will bow 'at the name Jesus' . . . but that everyone will bow 'at the name of Jesus' . . . i.e., 'at the name belonging to or that is borne by Jesus.' And that name is kurios, 'Lord'" (92).
Paul's point is that this man called Jesus, this one who subjected himself in humility to the life of a servant and willingly endured not just any death but death on a cross, "this one, Jesus, whom people so ill-treated, God has made both Christ and Lord (cf. Acts 2:36). He is saying that the one 'who was completely obedient must now be completely obeyed'" (Hawthorne, 92).
16. The implications of Paul's citation of Isa. 45:23 and its application to Jesus are theologically immeasurable. This OT text is one of the strongest declarations of monotheism in the Bible. In Isa. 45:21 God declares, "there is no other God besides Me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none except Me." Again, in the very next verse we read, "For I am God, and there is no other" (v. 22). It is "to Me," says this God, that "every knee will bow" and "every tongue will swear allegiance" (v. 23).
Yet in Phil. 2, it is to JESUS that this text and its truth are applied! The point, again, is that Jesus is YHWH incarnate. This is not the only time when OT texts that speak of YHWH are applied to Jesus in the NT. See also Joel 2:32 / Rom. 10:13; Malachi 3:1 / Luke 1:76; Ps. 45:6-7 / Heb. 1:8; Isa. 6:1-12 / Jn. 12:37-41; Ps. 34:8 / 1 Pt. 2:3-4; Isa. 41:4; 44:6; 48:12 / Rev. 1:17.
17. The universal dimensions of this confession that Jesus is Lord ought to be noted. Every knee, lit., pertaining to those in heaven, pertaining to those on earth, and pertaining to those under the earth, shall bow to Jesus. In other words, all angels (heaven), all humans (earth), and all demons (under the earth) will bow to the name of Jesus. Others suggest that those "in heaven" = both angels and demons, and those "under the earth" = the dead who know not Christ.
Those who try to derive a doctrine of soteriological universalism from this statement ignore both Paul's teaching in his other epistles as well as in Phil. 1:28.
18. Several observations of a theological and historical nature are also in order. From this text in Phil. 2 an entire Christological theory emerged that has exerted widespread influence on the church for many years. I am referring to the doctrine known as tthe Kenosis, according to which there occurred some real modifications, if not abdication, of the divine attributes as a necessary condition of the entrance of the Son of God into human history and experience.
There have been numerous variations within the doctrine of Kenosis, ranging from the assertion that the Son merely divested himself of certain relative divine attributes (such as omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience), while retaining the absolute or essential attributes of deity (truth, holiness, love), to the radical and heretical notion (advocated by W. F. Gess [1819-1891]) that the second person of the Trinity "reduces himself to the germ of a human soul," in effect having committed divine suicide in the process of becoming a man.
Among the objections to this doctrine, are the following:
· It annuls the doctrine of the Trinity. The Son of God cannot be severed from the Father and Spirit without God ceasing to be God.
· It would appear to compromise the doctrine of divine immutability.
· It diminishes the deity of Christ Jesus. Says Muller: "Christ without divine attributes is not truly God; and a God who has incapacitated Himself to such an extent, in order to become a man, that He has abandoned His divine manner of existence, is no real God any longer" (84).
· It undermines the value and sufficiency of the atonement. Our mediator, our redeemer, must be wholly God and wholly man.
Nevertheless, there may well be a valid element in the concept of kenosis, in the sense that God the Son voluntarily suspended the exercise of his divine powers in order that he might live as a human in dependence on the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. More on this later.
19. As noted earlier, the force of this paragraph derives from its relation to the immediately preceding context. But we also see in the subsequent context two concrete, personal examples of self-sacrifice similar to that of Christ. In the lives of Timothy and Epaphroditus we see a "kenosis" of the nature which Paul hopes will characterize all believers.
20. A suggested exegetical and homiletical outline:
A. His State of Humiliation - vv. 6-8
1. His state of mind - v. 6
a. his character
b. his choice
2. His state of being - vv. 7-8
a. his incarnation - v. 7
1) his form
2) his features
b. his humiliation - v. 8
1) his appearance
2) his obedience
B. His State of Exaltation - vv. 9-11
1. His exaltation by God - v. 9
a. his high estate
b. his great name
2. His exaltation by man and creation - vv. 10-11
a. exalted by their submission - v. 10
b. exalted by their confession - v. 11
1) its extent
2) its essence
3) its end