A Study of Philippians 2:5-9
“Inevitably, those who begin
their exegesis of this hymn with the assumption that it concerns a pre-existent
divine being tend towards a docetic interpretation of these lines.” Jerome Murphy O’Connor. Renowned Catholic
PHILIPPIANS 2:5-9 is best read from a word
for word Greek interlinear translation. Because of a docetic and often trinitarian
pre-existence bias, our current translations do not accurately express the
thoughts of these verses. Of course, some translations are better than others
and all render many parts of these texts accurately.
The Kingdom Interlinear word for word of the NWT reads :
"This be you minding in you
which also in Christ Jesus, who in form of God existing
not snatching he considered the to be equal (things) to God, but himself he
emptied form of slave having taken, in likeness of men having become;
and to fashion having been found as man he made lowly himself having
become obedient to death."
The literal English form becomes:
“Let this mental attitude be in
you which is also in Christ Jesus, who existing in the
form of God gave no consideration to a snatching [grasping], that
he should be equal to God, but he emptied himself having taken
a slave's form, having become in the likeness of men. Having been found
in fashion as man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death."
Young's Literal Translation reads:
"For let this mind be in
you that is also in Christ Jesus, who being in the form of God....but
did empty himself, the form of a servant having taken, in the likeness
of men having been made, and in fashion having been found as a man
THE SUBJECT OF PHILIPPIANS 2:5-9 IS THE HUMAN MESSIAH
Verse 5 says "Let this mental attitude be in you
which is also in Christ (Messiah) Jesus..." So the subject of these verses is not a pre-existent archangel
or heavenly being but the historical human Messiah Jesus who
came into existence at his birth (Luke 1:35, 2:11). It is as renowned biblical
scholar Jerome Murphy O’Connor notes that "Since the hymn
deals with Christ in his concrete terrestrial condition, one should
begin with the working hypothesis that the author views Christ as man,…The
anthropology of Wisdom provides an appropriate background on the assumption
that the author of the hymn was thinking of Christ as man.” Also
Associate Professor of NT Rodney Decker states regarding Philippians 2 that “The context shows that it was only as man that Christ
emptied himself" Further to thisJames Mackey directs us to “the fact that the subject of the hymn is specifically named
as Messiah Jesus, a man like ourselves…”
Phil 2:5-9 is now generally recognized by
bible scholars as a poem
that was probably drawn from Isaiah 53 'the suffering servant
who 'poured out his soul to the death' vs
12. It is not a theological treatise.
The context is: "but in humility of mind...let this mind be in you that
is also in Christ Jesus." (vss 3-5). So the subject is not
about a change of Jesus' essence or nature neither does it concern a pre-birth
time for Jesus.
ADAM CHRISTOLOGY IN CONTRAST TO
THE GNOSTIC REDEEMER MYTH
James Dunn on pages 125 and 126 of Christology
in the Making informs us that “these passages were written in the middle
of the first century, and the most obvious and really clear meaning is the
Adam theology and christology widespread in earliest Christianity. In short,
Adam Christology provides not only a plausible context of thought for
Phil 2:6-11 but also the most plausible context of thought. Alternative
explanations in terms of a Gnostic or proto-Gnostic Primal Man speculation
are not only unnecessary but also unconvincing…we have uncovered no real evidence
that the concept of a heavenly archetype of Adam had developed beyond that
of a Platonic idea by the time of Paul – no real evidence, in other words,
of an already established belief in a heavenly first man who became the redeemer
of Adam’s offspring”
Further confirmation of this understanding
is given by Karl-Josef Kuschel who says: “So this text would have been a piece
of Adam Christology, of the kind that also emerges in other contexts
in the New Testament. It would be a further example of the widespread two
stage Christology of the earliest Jewish-Christian communities…and thus
would not be in the context of mythical tradition, but of Old Testament tradition.
So there is no question here of a pre-existent heavenly figure. Rather Christ
is the great contrasting figure to Adam.” p251 of ‘Born Before All Time’
NOT A PAST TENSE 'WAS IN THE FORM
In vs 6 of the Greek, Jesus is described
as "existing (being ) in the form of God." It does not say 'was', 'was existing'
or 'existed'. 'Being' is used in Young's Literal, KJV, NKJV, NJB and NIV
'Being is a present participle
and doesn't define any particular time. Therefore, pre-existence is not being
spoken of here.' Karl-Josef
Kuschel. Examples are: "being a
prophet" (Acts 2:30) "If you being a Jew". (Gal 2:14). These
do not mean being so before birth or ceasing to be so.
'MORPHE' HAS A WIDE SPAN OF MEANINGS
By Koine times 'morphe' had come to
have the meaning of
"station in life, a position one holds, one's
rank. And that is an approximation of morphe in this context [Phil 2]"
'The practical use of the Greek New Testament.' p 84 Kenneth Wuest.
The context confirms this understanding because
'being a slave' is per se, a matter of STATUS rank, or position.
In modern English the word metamorphosis
can involve the change in appearance of a person e.g. weight-loss, or a change
in a person’s character or function. But they are still a human and they have
not undergone a change to a radically different substance.
'Morphe' does not carry the thought of change
in the metaphysical sense i.e. the substance or essence of something
The contrast is:
'Being in the
morphe of God' = 'an expression of divinity' Bauer's Greek Lexicon
'Being in the morphe of a slave'
= 'an expression of servility; " " "
Additionally : morphe
= 'the form by
which a person or thing strikes the vision ; the external appearance'.
appearance'. Gerhard Kittel's Theological Dictionary of NT
appearance'. Walter Bauer's Greek Lexicon
'Morphe' and 'eikon' (image) are near synonyms.
F.W.Eltester has shown that 'eikon' and 'morphe' are used as interchangeable
terms in the LXX. “The absolute fidelity of Christ justified the choice of
an alternative term (morphe rather than eikon), and permitted the contrast
between morphe theou and morphe doulou.” Jerome Murphy O’Connor.
So Jesus' "being in the image / form
means that, as the
human Messiah, he was the visible image of God, having divine
status. As Son of God he had the right to function as God as
had the rulers in Israel who functioned as 'gods'
(Ps 82:6 ; John 10:34). Eg "See I have made you [ Moses ] God to Pharaoh"
Ex 7:1. Also in Mark 2:7 the scribes state :
"who can forgive sins except one, God ?" Yet this authority
was delegated to Jesus by God as vs 10 says "But
that you may know that the Son of Man has
authority to forgive sins upon the earth."
Jesus was also granted authority to raise the dead. (John 5:21).
Further, "all judgment has been entrusted
to the Son" (John 5:22,23). Therefore
he functions as God but is not of God's essence or substance.
Note: To convey the idea of 'essential nature' one would have to
use the word 'eidos' not 'morphe'
WHY DID JESUS NOT GRASP AT EQUALITY WITH GOD?
not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped (harpagmos)."
“something that was not possessed
and so grasped at, or something already possessed and so grasped retentively
(the ambiguity of harpagmos)” P116 of ‘Christology in the Making’.
Satan offered Jesus "all the Kingdoms of the world" in exchange
for Satan worship. Yet Jesus refused; thereby refusing to grasp for an
equality with God in respect to world rulership that was his by right
but only when given by God at the appropriate juncture in His purpose. Similarly,
Satan told Eve that she could 'be like God' –
having the same status as God because of the premature
and inappropriate acquisition of power through knowledge. Genesis 3:5. After
Adam's sin God said "the man has become
like one of us in knowing good and evil" 3:22. This was
a snatching at equality with God in respect to knowledge prematurely and offered
by Satan rather than God.
The notes on this verse in the New American
Bible say "Many see an allusion to the Genesis
story: Unlike Adam, Jesus, though... in the form of God, did not reach out
for equality with God, in contrast to the first Adam.
Theologian Karl-Joseph Kuschel similarly
explains that this "hymn does not speak of the pre-existence of Christ
at all....but in good Jewish fashion as the counterpart of Adam...His
sinless condition gave him the right to be treated as if he were God."
James Mackey states that ”there is scarcely
enough difference between the Greek words eikon and morphe to
prevent us from seeing in the Genesis creation and garden stories the source
of our two phrases: man created in God’s image and likeness and grasping
after some status of equality with God (‘become like one of us’, ‘be like
WHAT DOES 'EMPTIED HIMSELF' MEAN?
It is often stated that Jesus emptied himself
of himself or of his ‘divinity ’(Trinitarian) or ‘god-form’ (Arian)
as if this were his essence. But as discussed above the ‘form’ (morphe) is
synonymous with image (eikon) and has the 1st century Koine meaning
of ‘status’ which is why Paul gives the comparison with “form of a slave” and not ‘form of a man’.
The phrase “form of a slave” makes no reference to one’s essence
or essential being but of one’s lowly status. Adam being in the image of God
certainly was not of God’s essential being. A basic difference in Jewish thinking
and Greek thinking of the time was that Jews thought in terms of ‘FUNCTION’
and would use a great deal of metaphorical language; whereas Greeks thought
more in terms of essence or substance, that is ontologically (substance)or
metaphysically. Many scholars have now recognized this difference and have
adjusted their interpretations accordingly.
The phrase "emptied
himself" (Greek 'ekenosen') is also translated
as: "but made himself of no reputation" KJV, NKJ. or "but
made himself nothing" ESV, NIV. It is a parallel thought to "poured out
his soul to the death" Isaiah
'kenos' -- divested himself of his prestige or privileges. Phil 2:7...An
early Christian confession holds that the kenosis is not the incarnation but
the cross [ Isa 53:12 ] ." Bauer's
Greek Lexicon of NT Literature.
This was a matter of self-renunciation by
Jesus including divesting himself of his right to incorruptibility that was
his because of his sinless condition.
WHEN DID JESUS 'EMPTY HIMSELF'?
The NWT of verse 7
himself and took a slave's form" gives the incorrect impression that he emptied himself
first and then became a slave; whereas, the Greek grammatical structure is:
"himself he emptied form of slave having taken".
This shows that Jesus emptied himself because he had already or at that point
in time "taken a slave's form".
Also the word 'and'
as used in the NWT changes the correct order of events; yet this word
does not exist in the Greek and is not implied as Ernst Lohmeyer states. The
correct structure also fits with the context, giving the meaning that Jesus,
having become slave-like then immediately began emptying (daily sacrificing)
Lohmeyer's translation reads : "but sacrificed himself having
taken the form of a slave"
The 'sacrificing' would have been Jesus'
entire life course leading to his death.
"In this case the aorist
'ekenosen' (he emptied himself) does not refer to a single moment of
'incarnation' but the completeness of a series of repeated acts; his
earthly life, looked at as a whole, was an unfailing process of self-emptying." A.H. McNeile. former Regius Professor of
“We have here an “emptying”
related directly to the terrestrial condition of Christ…” Jerome Murphy O’Connor.
Therefore in his life course Jesus (Messiah-the
man) laid aside such rightful dignity, prerogatives, privileges, and rulership;
humbling himself to live a life of servitude which ended with his death. Would
the Philippians be asked to copy the impossible example of emptying themselves
of their essence? Rather, they were to 'empty' themselves of their
contentious, egotistical and selfish nature and imitate Jesus' lifetime example
of humility and self-sacrifice. Paul does not appeal to us to be like an archangel
or heavenly being. He appeals to us to be humble servants as humans. Additional
context is shown when he says in Philippians 2:17 :"I (Paul) am being poured
out like a drink offering upon the sacrifice and public service
to which faith has led you." Yet Paul's essence was not poured out.
From 1860, a Lutheran theologian -
Gotfried Thomasius began what has now developed into the false doctrine of kenosis i.e. that Christ emptied himself of his
essence. This seems to be the first time that Philippians 2:7 was applied
in this way. It appears that the main reason for the development of this
doctrine by trinitarians was to explain how Jesus could be God and man without
postulating two centres of consciousness as in the doctrine of the hypostatic
The New International Dictionary of NT Words
asks: "Does Phil 2:7 really imply kenoticism
Neither the Gospels nor Phil
2 presents the picture of the abandonment of any divine attributes” Phil 2:7 does,
however, show Jesus accepting the status and role of a servant. (Mark
10:45; Luke 22: 27; John 13:3-16; 15:20). This dictionary does, however, show
belief in pre-existence, but for other reasons.
WHAT DOES 'TAKING THE FORM OF A BOND-SERVANT'
All heavenly beings, including the archangel
Michael, have always been servants of God. So this passage cannot apply to
any heavenly being who supposedly became the human baby Jesus. That is, it
does not refer to any change from ‘spirit’ to ‘flesh and blood’. Rather "Taking the form of a bond-servant"
means ‘Taking the status of a bond-servant’ with
the attitude of mind (vs 5) or disposition of a servant. So Jesus, although
being the Messiah, took on the
status of fallen mankind and did not take up his rights and privileges as Messiah but was servant-like.
There is no thought here of changing into the substance of a human; neither
is any location change indicated; but the simple accepting of a lowly status
by one who by right has a high status.
A growing number of theologians are seeing
this passage as being not about pre-existence but being expressed within the
confines of a two stage christology:
1) Jesus is born and lives his life in humility
until death. 2) He is resurrected and exalted.
So Jesus' "having become in the likeness of
men" means that
he grew up to be a man just as other men do. The phrase is effectively saying
‘having grown up to become a man’ Luke 2:40. It is "Not by
becoming a man from being something else (no one can do that), but
by becoming fully and completely human." 'The Human Face of God'.
p88. J.A.T Robinson. Also "Luther….recognized….
that Christ had to become a person through the normal process of maturation
and moral growth." p 79. ibid.
As a MORTAL it is impossible that Jesus had
previously existed as an IMMORTAL i.e.as an angel or heavenly being (Luke
20:36). However Jesus was only like other men; and not the same as
them because they needed to be reconciled to God, whereas he did not.
Again the phrase about Jesus’ "having been found in
fashion (schema) as (a) man." has no metaphysical meaning. Similar to morphe
means: 1) the generally recognized
state or form in which something appears, outward appearance, form or shape.
And 2) the functional aspect of something., way of life, of things; ‘this
world in its present form is passing away’ 1 Cor 7:31” Bauer’s Lexicon. Yet the world of mankind
will not have a change of the physical substance of which it is made but of
its character and manner of operation. The Diaglott renders this as “and being in condition as a man”
and REB renders it as “sharing the human lot.”
So according to Dunn it means that "Christ is being evaluated
as Adam - as representative man, as one with fallen man." (the 'a' does not apply). Further, Lohmeyer
renders vs 8 "and [though] being found as
Son of Man.." This verse is alternatively rendered as: "having been found
in the human scheme of things" or as "having
been found in the human condition."
Possibly this refers to the time that Jesus
came to manhood at about 30 years of age and then presented himself for a
baptism that led to his full servant-hood – a life of sacrifice.
A PARAPHRASE BASED ON JEREMIAS’
STRUCTURAL ANALYSIS OF THE PHILIPPIANS HYMN
Strophe I: As the Righteous
Man par excellence Christ was the perfect image of God. He was totally what
God intended man to be. His sinless condition gave him the right to be treated
as if he were god, that is, to enjoy the incorruptibility in which Adam was
created. This right, however, he did not use to his own advantage, but he
gave himself over to the consequences of a mode of existence that was not
his by accepting the condition of a slave which involved suffering and death,
Strophe II: Though in his
human nature Christ was identical with other men, he in fact differed from
them because, unlike them, he had no need to be reconciled with God. Nonetheless,
he humbled himself in obedience and accepted death.
Strophe III: Therefore, God
exalted him above all the just who were promised a kingdom, and transferred
to him the title and the authority that had hitherto been God’s alone. He
is the Kyrios whom every voice must confess and to whom every knee must bow.”
THE CONCLUSIONS OF LEADING BIBLE SCHOLARS
REGARDING PHILIPPIANS 2
“From this fact that the Jewish rather than
Hellenistic syncretism may be the key to understanding the Philippians hymn,
present day exegetes have drawn the radically opposite conclusion that the
Philippians hymn does not speak of the pre-existence of Christ at all.”
Karl-Josef Kuschel p250 “Born Before
”The picture is not of a celestial figure
lowering himself to become a man, to be exalted still higher than he was before.
Rather, it is that the entire fullness of God was enabled…to find embodiment
in one who was completely one of us as any other descendant of Abraham.”
J A T Robinson. p166 “The Human
Face of God”
“The fact that in the context of the hymn
in the actual epistle there is no mention at all of this anonymous divine
figure who becomes man…”
James P. Mackey. p52 ” The Christian
Experience of God as Trinity.”
"But of pre-existence and equality of being with God
we cannot discover any trace in Paul's letters" Bas van
Iersel, p45.'Son of God in the New Testament.'
"Philippians 2:6 is primarily concerned
with making statements about high status and by no means necessarily concerned
with pre-existence." Klaus Berger. Heidelberg exegete.
"No pre-existence of Christ before
the world with an independent significance can be recognized even in Phil.
2." Anton Vogtle. Freiburg exegete.
“Moreover it can readily be seen that the
outline of thought in the Philippian hymn fully matches the two-stage Christology
evident elsewhere in first generation Christianity. – free acceptance of man’s
lot followed out to death, and exaltation to the status of Lord over all.”
James Dunn. p115. Christology in the Making.
Christology in the Making. James Dunn. Professor of Divinity at the University of Durham.
Born Before all Time. Karl Joseph Kuschel. Catholic theologian at the University of Tubingen.
The Human Face of God. John A.T Robinson. Leading Protestant theologian in the UK
The Christian Experience of God as Trinity. James P. Mackey. Professor of Divinity.
Christological Anthropology in Phil.,II, 6-11.
Jerome Murphy O’Connor. Renowned Catholic Exegete