The Pre-Incarnate Majesty, Incarnation, and Humiliation of the Son of God3
Let’s now turn our attention to this magnificent passage, starting with its portrayal of the Son of God in eternity past.
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:5-11).
We are alerted right from the start that Paul wants us to understand the incredible sacrifice made by the Son of God for our sakes. He does it by saying, “although he was in the form of God” (v. 6a). In other words, it was in spite of the fact that he existed in the form of God . . . that he emptied himself.
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 Philippians 2 (vv. 6 and 7).
Many argue that the “form” of God refers to the divine essence or the very nature of God himself. The NIV translates this, "being in very nature God.” And of course this is true: the Son is God, no less so than are the Father and the Holy Spirit. But I don’t think Paul has this primarily in mind.
I believe this word points to the "glory" of God, which is to say the manifest appearance of God, his visible splendor (cf. the LXX of Job 4:16; Judges 8:18; Isa. 44:13; Dan. 3:19). 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.
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. In fact, in the second half of v. 6 Paul equates being in the “form” of God with being “equal” with God.
So here we see the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, “in the form of God,” entirely “equal” with God, who nevertheless did not regard this about himself as “a thing to be grasped” (v. 6b), as a prize to be held onto or a treasure to be clutched.
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 Moises 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. Thus, "the concern is with divine selflessness: God is not an acquisitive being, grasping and seizing, but self-giving for the sake of others" (Gordon Fee, 211).
The one word translated “he made himself nothing” (v. 7a) may well be the most debated term in all of Scripture. The NASB translates this, he "emptied himself", whereas the KJV renders it, "made himself of no reputation" (KJV).
The verb used here (kenoo) 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.
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.
A more likely view is 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-renunciation.
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 servant and by being born in the likeness of men and by being found in human form. 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.
The self-renunciation or self-emptying of Christ is the assumption of human nature. The second person of the Trinity "made himself nothing," not by ceasing to be God, but by becoming man!
Christ did not empty himself of anything. He simply emptied himself. He poured himself out. He made himself of no reputation not by losing anything but by gaining human nature, by becoming a human being in addition to being God.
In becoming a man in what we call the incarnation the Second Person of the Trinity chose to willingly suspend the exercise of his divine attributes so that he might live a genuinely human life, subject to all the limitations and demands you and I commonly experience. That which he had (all the divine attributes), by virtue of what he was (deity), he willingly chose not to use. Thus we read the gospels and see a human being doing super-human things and ask “How?” The answer is: Not from the power of his own divine nature, but through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Thus the Son of God chose to experience the world through the limitations imposed by human consciousness and an authentic human nature. The attributes of omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience were not lost or laid aside, but became latent and potential within the confines of his human nature. They are truly present in Jesus but no longer in conscious exercise. The incarnation thus means that Jesus “actually thought and acted, viewed the world, and experienced time and space events strictly within the confines of a normally developing human person” (Gerald Hawthorne, The Presence and the Power, 210).
Jesus is also said to have been "in the likeness of men" and to have been found "in human form" (vv. 7-8). This choice of terms is not meant to suggest that Jesus was not truly man but only "like" men. Paul is emphasizing 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 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.
The climax of Paul's argument concerning the depths of divine self-sacrifice is reached in a crucial word in v. 7 – he took the form of a “servant,” or better still, of a “slave”! 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.
Thus, "EVEN 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 (“the form of God,” “equality with God”) to the lowest imaginable low (“the form of a slave,” “even death on a cross”).
We’ll conclude this brief study of Philippians 2:6-11 in the next article.