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An analysis of Philippians 2.6-7

“Who (Jesus), though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Philippians 2:6) 

Once we are freed from the trinitarian indoctrination which insists that being “in the form of God” simply means “being God”, and once we have regained some degree of clearmind­edness, we should easily be able to see that if Jesus was God there would have been absolutely no reason or need for him to “grasp” (harpagmos) at equality with God, since he already possessed it. Only someone who did not possess equality with God (as in the case of Adam) might desire to grasp at it (cf.Gen.3.5,6). Therefore, to make this verse say that “being God he (Jesus) did not grasp at equality with God” is to reduce this Scripture to meaningless­ness, indeed, to the verge of making nonsense (lit. “no sense”) of God’s word. This is surely a serious offence against the Lord and His word.

In the KJV translation of Phil.2.6 (“who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God”) there is something which does not quite make sense: If the statement is about two equal persons, under what circumstances would it be necessary to use a word like “robbery” in relation to the question of equality? Even allowing for poetic license, how does robbery come into this kind of discussion? Where two equal persons are concerned, there is ob­viously no relevance whatever for any reference to one “robbing” the other of equality. But even in the case of two non-equal persons, is equality a thing or status that one person can be deprived of by the other by means of “robbery”? For, to rob is not only to seize what is not one's own, but to remove what rightfully belongs to the other person. So to “rob” is not merely a question of trying by unscrupulous means to attain to equality with the other person, but it is to take away his status so as to make it one’s own. The other person would, if the robber were successful, not only lose his equality but also become subservient to the one who has taken away that equality, and be thereby reduced to an inferior position.

All of this makes absolutely no sense in regard to Phil 2.6. For if Jesus were God, the question of attaining equality with God is utterly redundant, and what purpose would the word “robbery” serve in this redundant statement? “Rob” in this sentence would make the state­ment not only meaningless but absurd. On the other hand, if Jesus were not equal to God, in what sense would it be meaningful to speak of “robbery” in regard to his acquiring equality with God? The only sense one could think of is that the attempt to seize equality would be an act of robbery against God, an act of rebellion, and this was some­thing Jesus definitely did not contemplate. This would make sense—except for the fact that the KJV has, instead, inverted the meaning by saying that Jesus did not think of it as robbery! What a thought to serve as the centerpiece of the “Christ hymn”! Is it even imaginable that this is what Paul called the believers to emulate (v.5)?! What is more, it becomes impossible to make such an outrageous state­ment connect in any meaningful way to the following sentence: “but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant...” (v.7). Furthermore, if Jesus was already equal with God, then the statement that “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name” etc (v.9) would have no significance or meaning whatever, since that would not add one iota to the status he already possessed.

Because this verse is of exceptional importance to trinitarians, and because the KJV was the only version of the Bible in general use in the English speaking world for some 300 years (early 17th to early 20th centuries), and still holds considerable sway over many Christ­ians today, it is necessary that we bring the matter into even sharper focus. 

In the previous verse (Phil.2.5) Paul exhorts believers to “have this mind in you which was also in Christ Jesus”. For this reason Phil.2.6 reveals to us what Jesus thought, what went on in his mind; this is to encourage us to learn to think as he did. Because this verse describes Jesus’ way of thinking, his attitude, his mindset, this could be brought out with greater clarity if we hear Jesus expressing it himself. Let us try to understand his mind described from the point of view of either of the two possibilities: (1) that he is God; (2) that he is not God.

What emerges when Phil.2.6 is read from the first point of view? (1) Jesus is God, and he thinks: I do not consider it robbery to be equal with God. What does such a thought tell us about his attitude and character? He does not think it robbery to be equal with God because he thinks it is his by right? But even if it were his by right, why does the idea of robbery come into the thought? Does it not suggest an adversarial attitude towards God? At the least, this way of expressing his thought would suggest some element of arrogance. (2) If Jesus is not God, but expresses his thought in the words: I don't think it robbery to be equal with God, what does that tell us about his “mind”? Would the thought not plainly indicate that seizing equality with God is not seen by him as robbery; it is for him an acceptable act, not an act of rebellion!

It should now be perfectly evident that there is simply no way to make this statement in the KJV express anything but some form of spiritual perversity. It expresses the precise reverse of what Paul intended to exhort the believers to think, namely, that Jesus would never entertain in his mind the thought of seizing equality with God; instead he chose the status of a servant (slave, doulos), and was obedient unto death.

What then has happened in regard to the KJV translation? The thought expressed here is in essence the thought of the devil, whose aim has always been to seize equality with God, indeed, to exalt himself above God’s throne, if possible, and whose ambition is declared in the words “I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high... I will make myself like the Most High.” (Isa.14.13,14). How is it that Satan’s mind has been allowed to subtly creep into this verse and be attributed to Christ!?

No less serious is the problem: Why is it that as trinitarians we completely failed to detect the fearful problem in the translation of this verse? Not only did we not see the problem, we constantly used it to “prove” that “Jesus is God”. It now dawns upon me that what trinitarianism has done is in fact perfectly expressed by this verse. Trinitarianism has robbed Yahweh God of His central position as the supreme Object of our faith. It has sidelined Him in order to give the central place to Jesus whom it elevated to deity, making him co-equal with God, and none of this was considered as robbery. In other words, Phil.2.6 perfectly expresses the thoughts and mentality of trinitarianism. It was precisely for this reason that as trinitarians we saw no problem with it.

Returning to the Greek text of Phil.2.6, and examining the word harpagmos, which KJV translates as “robbery”, and considering the word in the light of several Greek-English lexicons, we find that only BDAG gives “robbery” as one of the definitions for harpagmos. But then it immediately goes on to make the following striking comment regarding that definition: “robbery, which is next to impossible in Phil.2:6” and adds, “the state of being equal with God cannot be equated with the act of robbery”. So BDAG affirms that this equation makes no sense. From all this it becomes evident why most English translations do not use a word such as “robbery”[13] and do not structure the sentence as KJV did. They thereby save the sentence not only from absurdity but from what must be described as spiritual perversion.

Trinitarians simply refuse to face the fact that this verse makes it clearly evident that Jesus was not God, and that he made no attempt (unlike Adam and Eve) to grasp at equality with Him. Some trinitar­ians, not surprisingly, do not hesitate to go so far as to try to make the word which is translated as “grasp” in a number of English transla­tions (a few, like KJV, translate it as “robbery”) to mean something like: he did not “hold on to” it. But the Greek word harpagmos is not amenable to such word-twisting; here is its meaning in BDAG Greek-English Lexicon, “1. a violent seizure of property, robbery 2. something to which one can claim or assert title by gripping or grasping”, but regarding this second definition, the Lexicon admits that “This meaning cannot be quoted from non-Christian literature, but is grammatically justifiable”. This second meaning is not given in the other authoritative Greek-English lexicons such as that of Liddell and Scott, or Thayer. The primary meaning of the word harpagmos, “robbery”, is to seize that which does not belong to you. The second meaning given by BDAG aims at removing the violent character of the act of “robbery”, and makes it refer merely to the claiming of something by gripping or grasping it. But even this toned down meaning does not remove the fact that it is to grasp at some­thing that does not belong to the one who grasps at it.

All this shows that the meaning of Philippians 2.6 is patently clear: it states the exact opposite of what trinitarianism tries to argue from this verse. What this verse does say is that Jesus, though he was God’s supreme image, “the form of God”, made no attempt to seize or claim equality with God. He stood in perfect contrast to Adam. He did not sin as Adam did. As perfect man he could fulfill the exalted role of being the Savior of the world.

Far from wanting to claim equality with God, he “emptied” (kenoō) himself. In view of the foregoing discussion, we need not waste time discussing the trinitarian speculations about Jesus in his alleged preexistence emptying himself of his divine prerogatives. If they had paid more attention to what this passage actually says, instead of making every effort to read their own interpretations into the text, they would have seen that the meaning of “emptied himself” is explained in this hymnic passage by the poetic parallelism found in the very next line: “he humbled himself” (Phil.2.8), which is the poetic equivalent of “emptied himself” (this translation is not given in some modern versions; NIV, for example, renders it: “made himself nothing”).

By refusing to snatch at, or even to claim, equality with God (in stark contrast to Adam and Eve), it was thereby unquestionably established that Jesus was the image of God par excellence. But he went much further than not claiming that equality. For though in Jesus the Wisdom of God was “born in the likeness of men” (Phil.2.7; cf. Mat.11.19; Lk.7.35; 11.49)—and according to John 1.14 the Word (Logos) was incarnate in the man Jesus (was “found in human form”, Phil.2.7), something that Jesus was profoundly conscious of, as can be seen in John’s Gospel—yet “he humbled himself by becoming obed­ient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil.2.8).

The spiritual yet practical purpose of Philippians 2.6-8

In interpreting this “Christ hymn” (Phil.2.6-11), trinitarians lose sight of the reason why the Apostle Paul placed this hymn in this letter to the Philippians. But his purpose was stated explicitly in the sentence immediately preceding the hymn: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (v.5). This hymn was not placed in the midst of a theological discourse. Its chief purpose was to point to Jesus as the exalted example for every believer to emulate. Paul’s purpose, therefore, was intensely practical. He was not here intending to teach what later theology called “Christology”; and if the general opinion of scholars is correct, namely, that Paul was here quoting a hymn used in the early church, then he was not the author of the hymn, but quoted it because it eminently suited the practical purpose he had in mind. 

We get sidetracked from the original pur­pose of this whole passage when we drift off into theological speculat­ions, while losing sight of its call to live a Christ-like life. But if Christ is God, as trinitarians want to use this passage to assert, precisely how can he serve as an example for us human beings? We have no “divine prerogatives” to divest ourselves of, and indeed most people have no real prerogatives or even exceptional privileges to give up, even if they wanted to. Some of those who belong to privileged levels of society might consider giving up some of their privileges, but what about the majority of people? What practical application did Paul have in mind, seeing especially that most of the believers in his time could be classed as “common people”?

This is where the important connection between Phil.2.17 (“poured out”) and 2.7 has generally gone unnoticed, even though the semantic connection between “emptied” (kenoō) and “poured out” (spendomai) should have been fairly obvious, be­cause a vessel that has been poured out is thereby emptied. Paul always made it his aim to teach by example; what he had said about Christ in 2.7 he applied to himself within the scope of 10 verses!

But just as important (indeed, even more so for exegesis), Phil.2.17 throws light on the meaning of v.7, because it is in this light that the meaning of “emptied himself” becomes clear, all the more so because, as we have noted, it is evident that its meaning is explained in verse 8, “he humbled himself to the extent of becoming obedient unto death”. This obedience unto death, this pouring out of oneself, is precisely what Paul imitates in being ready to let his life-blood be poured out for the sake of God and His church. In 2Timothy 4.6 he is “already being poured out (spendomai, the same word as in Phil.2.17)… the time of my departure has come”. The practical spirit­ual purpose which Paul aims to emphasize in Philippians 2 can be summed up in his words, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor.11.1).

It should now be clear to us that the trinitarian speculations about Jesus’ “emptying” himself of his divinity, or its prerogatives, are ideas which are read into the text and are practically impossible for us to emulate or imitate—and emul­ation is, after all, the reason for Paul’s referring to Christ’s “emptying himself” in this passage: “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil.2.5). Moreover, even if the word “emptied” here did not refer to divine privileges, but only to human ones, there was scarcely anything for the Philippians (to whom Paul addressed this letter) to emulate because they belonged to the lower social classes (like most believers at the time, 1Cor.1.26) and were generally very poor (2Cor.8.2). What privileges or rights did they possess that they could empty themselves of? They could, however, be faithful and obedient unto death (Rev.2.10); they could be ready to be “poured out” as Paul himself was (2Tim.4.6; Ac.20.24). Paul wrote this letter from prison, and always lived with the prospect of imminent death for the sake of the gospel. The believers, too, constantly lived either under the threat or the reality of persecution. Paul was therefore calling believers to be espec­ially mindful of the example of Christ, which was now exemplified for them in his own life, and the death which he readily anticipated.

Philippians 2.6-11

The trinitarian interpretation of this passage is based on the trinitarian interpretation of John 1.1ff. Thus it is assumed that Phil.2.6f refers to the preexistent Logos interpreted to mean God the Son. Take away that assumption and the inter­pretation of Phil.2.6 in terms of a preexistent Jesus Christ is left without anything to stand on because it depends on the erroneous equation Logos = Jesus Christ which, as we have seen, is without foundation in John’s Gospel.

Moreover, Philippians was written before John (in the opinion of most scholars, about 30 years before John), so is there any reason to think that the church at Philippi would have understood Paul’s letter to them in terms of John 1.1, not to mention the trinitarian interpret­ation of it? They had been taught by the Apostle Paul personally; where in his teaching does he speak of a preexistent Christ? And there is nothing in the Philippian passage which requires it to be under­stood in terms of preexistence. Preexistence is read into the text, not out of it (eisegesis, not exegesis). This includes the term “form of God”.

Even if the attempt is made to interpret Philippians 2 in terms of preexistent Wisdom, one will be caught by the question: When did Wisdom ever make any attempt to grasp at equality with God? None of the other metaphorical “entities” such as Torah or Logos did this. This means that even if Christ is thought of as being the preexistent Logos in Phil.2.6, the clutching at equality with God is without any point of reference. The plain fact is that only Adam through his disobedience did something of this kind, and only Adam is relevant in terms of Pauline christology in which Christ is “the second man” (1Cor.15.47), “the last Adam” (1Cor.15.45).

Philippians 2.6-8

As trinitarians brought up on the doctrine of original sin and the total depravity of man, we were totally at a loss to know how to understand Paul’s statement that “man is the image and glory of God” (1Cor.11.7); not that man was (i.e. before “the Fall”) but “is” in the present tense! Of course, we had no grounds for saying that Paul had made a mis­take, nor is there evidence of error in the textual tradition.

Had Paul only said that “man is the image of God” that would have been problematic enough, because according to the doctrine of original sin that image was tarnished at the very least, or even totally destroyed, as a result of Adam’s sin. But the Scripture goes beyond this with the “double-barreled” statement that man is both “the image and glory of God”. That should have left our doctrines in total shambles but, nothing daunted, we simply ignored the Scriptures (as usual) when these contradicted our doctrines.

Had we not ignored these Scriptures we would not have had any difficulty understanding the term “the form of God” in what some scholars have called a “pre-Pauline hymn” in Phil.2.6-11; for “the form of God” is a term which appears nowhere else in the Bible, but is nevertheless an entirely appropriate way of speaking of “the image and glory of God” in poetic language, such as is used in a song or hymn. This will be discussed more fully below.

God is Spirit (Jo.4.24) and is, therefore, without visible form discernable to the physical eye. Yet He makes Himself “visible” by revealing His glory; Scripture repeatedly speaks of His visible glory: Ex.16.10; Lev.9.23; Num.14.10; 16.19,42; 20.6; Ps.102.16; Ezek.1.28; 3.23; 8.4; Acts 7.2,55. Thus His glory is His visible “form, outward appearance”, which is what the word morphē means. Thus Christ as man and, therefore, as “the image and glory of God” (1Cor.11.7) is “in the form of God” that reveals God to the world—he is “the light of the world” (Jo.8.12; 9.5; of believers, Mt.5.14).

Considering further the question of “invisibility” and “form” in speaking of God, we may ask: Why is God said to be “invisible” (1Tim.1.17)? Is it not precisely because God as Spirit (John 4.24) does not have “form”? How then can one speak of “the form of God”? Our only options are: either “form” is understood as “image”, or the term “the form of God” is a self-contradiction. Exegetically, therefore, we only have the first option. As was noted earlier, the term “form of God” occurs nowhere else in Scripture outside this poetical phrase in Philippians 2.6.

Philippians 2:

 6 who, though he (Christ) was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,

 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.

 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

This important passage has already been mentioned several times earlier in this book. Here we will make a few further observations:

Two things should be borne in mind in the interpretation of this passage which are generally overlooked or undervalued, and which, consequently, result in its misinterpretation:

(1) It is not usually noticed that this passage is about “Christ Jesus” (Phil.2.5) in which “Christ (Messiah)” is placed in the emphatic position before “Jesus” [14], so the whole Philippian pas­sage refers to Jesus as the Messiah. The problem is that the title “Messiah” is vir­tually meaningless to the non-Jew and that is why he reads “Christ” (the Greek form of “Messiah”) as though it is a personal name rather than a title. The Apostle Paul was a Jew and he certainly did not think of “Christ” as some sort of personal name; to him, as to most Jews of his time, the title “Messiah” carried great significance as the long awaited savior/king; but the Jews did not think of the Messiah as a divine being. The importance of the title “Christ” to Paul can be seen by a comparison of the statistics:

In a relatively short letter like Philippians, Christos (Messiah, Christ) occurs 37 times in the 104 verses of this letter (35.6% or an average of more than 1 occurrence in every 3 verses); in Romans it occurs 65 times in the letter’s 432 verses (15.04% or an average of 1 in 6.6 verses); compare this to John: 18 in 878 verses (2.05% or 1 in 48.7 verses), and Matthew’s 16 times in 1068 verses (1.49% or 1 in 66.7 verses). Statistically, the title “Messiah” or “Christ” occurs far more frequently in Philippians than in any other NT book; in terms of percentages, more than double that of Romans. This clearly indicates that the emphasis on Christ as the Messiah, man’s hoped for savior and king, is a key to our understanding of Philippians 2.6-11.

The Hebrew “Messiah” (“Christ” in Greek) means an “anointed one”. To explain the significance of this title I shall here simply quote ISBE [International Standard Bible Encyclopedia]:

‘The term is used in the Old Testament of kings and priests, who were consecrated to office by the ceremony of anointing. It is applied to the priest only as an adjective—“the anointed priest” (Lev 4:3,5,16; 6:22 (Hebrew 15)). Its substantive use is restricted to the king; he only is called “the Lord’s anointed, e.g. Saul (1 Sam 24:6,10 (Hebrew 7,11), etc.); David (2 Sam 19:21 (Hebrew 22); 2 Sam 23:1, “the anointed of the God of Jacob”); Zedekiah (Lam 4:20). Similarly in the Psalms the king is designated “mine,” “thine,” “his anointed.”’ (Italics added)

Notice the italicized words in this quotation, which when applied to “Messiah Jesus” (Phil.2.5) mean that Jesus is Yahweh’s anointed king. To quote ISBE again: “The Messiah is the instrument by whom God’s kingdom is to be established in Israel and in the world.” This fact provides an explanation for why every knee is to bow to Jesus and every tongue confess him Lord to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2.9-11). It is clearly for this reason that Jesus is “the Lord’s anointed”, the “king of kings” (Rev.17.14).

It is a historically well attested fact that kings had the tendency to claim divinity and/or to be deified by others. Nebu­chadnezzar was one such case in the OT, and Herod Agrippa I is a case recorded in the NT (Acts 12.21ff). The deification and/or self-deification of the Ro­man emperors is also well known. The Chinese emperors were called “sons of heaven”. This was precisely some­thing which Christ/Messiah Jesus refused to do (Phil.2.6).

Adam was also a king because he was given the world as his domain over which to rule (Gen.1.28). Judaic lore had some exagger­ated descriptions of Adam’s greatness both in physical proportions and in spiritual powers. Yet he fell because of yielding to a perverse desire to “be like God” (Gen.3.5).

This clutching at divinity, or a certain equality with God, is what Jesus, the new man, God’s anointed Messianic king, declined to do. Instead, he humbled himself in total submission to the Father, Yahweh, “becoming obedient unto death” (Phil.2.8). He demon­strated a fundamental spiritual principle of the kingdom: that spirit­ual greatness is not a matter of arrogating glory to oneself but of serving others, for “the greatest in the kingdom is the servant of all” (Mt.23.11; Lk.22.26). For this reason God exalted him above all others.

(2) The whole passage is poetry: a song about Christ/Messiah Jesus as “the Second Man” (1Cor.15.47).

Most people have little understanding of the characteristics of poetry. The result is that poetry is read as if it were prose, and poetic lang­uage is read as literal statements. Many English trans­lations help the reader to distinguish poetry from prose by printing poetry in verse form. Those who have such a Bible will quickly see that large portions of the OT, especially the Psalms and much of the prophetic books, are in verse form.

Philippians 2.6-11 is generally considered to be a hymn which Paul incorporated into this letter and, as such, it is poetry; yet it is often interpreted as though it is making prose statements. Consider what happens when one tries to read poetry as prose in Ezekiel 28:

 12 Son of man, raise a lamentation over the king of Tyre, and say to him, Thus says the Lord GOD: “You were the signet of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty.

 13 You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone was your covering, sardius, topaz, and diamond, beryl, onyx, and jasper, sapphire, emerald, and carbuncle; and crafted in gold were your settings and your engravings. On the day that you were created they were prepared.

 14 You were an anointed guardian cherub. I placed you; you were on the holy mountain of God; in the midst of the stones of fire you walked.

 15 You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created, till unrighteousness was found in you.

 16 In the abundance of your trade you were filled with violence in your midst, and you sinned; so I cast you as a profane thing from the mountain of God, and I destroyed you, O guardian cherub, from the midst of the stones of fire.

 17 Your heart was proud because of your beauty; you cor­rupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendor. I cast you to the ground; I exposed you before kings, to feast their eyes on you.

 18 By the multitude of your iniquities, in the unrighteousness of your trade you profaned your sanctuaries; so I brought fire out from your midst; it consumed you, and I turned you to ashes on the earth in the sight of all who saw you.

 19 All who know you among the peoples are appalled at you; you have come to a dreadful end and shall be no more forever.

This passage is about the king of Tyre. Another king of Tyre called “Hiram” is mentioned earlier in the OT as helping to supply the cedar wood need for the construction of the first Temple (2Sam.5.11; 1Ki.5.1; etc). The attempts to take this passage in Ezekiel as making literal statements meant that no human being could fit the descriptions given, with the result that the passage was made to apply to Satan.

The problems with this idea are many, not least that Satan is nowhere in Scripture specially associated with Tyre, least of all as its king. For other interpretive problems for this idea, reference can be made to any of the more scholarly commentaries or even to such popular commentaries as The Expositor’s Commentary, which rejects the application of the passage to Satan as exegetically unsustainable.

The same kind of problem arises when one takes every statement, or even every word, in Philippians 2.6-11 literally. This is done even by scholars who are (or should be) aware of the fact that this is poetry. They don’t even ask the basic question, “If these are literal statements, then why is it in poetic form?” Of course, this is not to say that no factual or literal statements can be made in poetry, but only that when the statements are eval­uated, the fact that they are made as poetry should not be overlooked. There is no doubt factual content in Ezekiel 28.12ff, but it is stated in florid poetic language, and when this florid language is taken literally, then it is supposed that the reference is to a supernatural being.

Prof. James D.G. Dunn, in The Theology of Paul the Apostle writes, “A vigorous debate still continues around this hymnic passage. However, the suggestion that the hymn has been con­structed with strong allusion to Adam or even modeled on the template of Adam christology is still persuasive.” (Paul, p.282.)

“On the nature of allusion” Dunn writes,

“For the fact of the matter is that too much of the debate on the exegesis of this passage has displayed rather crass artistic or literary insensitivity. As we have occasion to observe more than once in the present study, allusions by their nature are not explicit. Poets or literary critics who had to spell out every allusion and echo would undermine their art and deprive their more perceptive readers of the moment of illumination, the thrill of recognition. Their artistic skill would be reduced to the level of high school examination cribs.

“So with Paul in particular, we have already suggested a num­ber of allusions to Jesus traditions. And in his use of Adam motifs we noted the allusions (hardly explicit) in Rom.1.18-25 and 7.7-13; indeed, if our earlier analysis of Paul’s christology is at all justified, then Adam was a figure who lay behind a great deal of Paul’s theologizing. To make recognition of such allusions depend on precision of meaning in individual terms would run counter to the art of allusion. On the contrary, it is often the imprecision of meaning of a term or the multi­faceted imagery of a metaphor that enables the interconnect­ion or imaginative jump, which is the stuff of allusion. The importance of the point justifies its reiteration: exegesis of particular terms which insists on only one referential mean­ing for each term and denies all the other possible meanings will often be wrong exegesis because it unjustifiably narrows meaning (“either-or” exegesis) and rules out associations which the author may have intended to evoke precisely by using a sequence of such evocative terms. It need hardly be pointed out that such hermeneutical considerations have particular relevance when the passage is a poem or a hymn. The relevance of these reflections in this case should become clear as we proceed.

“In assessing Phil.2.6-11 it is not too difficult to identify four or five points of contact with Adam tradition and Adam christology as we have now become familiar with it.

“2.6a—in the form of God;

(Cf. Gen.1.27—“in his own image.”)

“2.6bc—tempted to grasp equality with God;

(Cf. Gen.3.5—“you will be like God.”)

“2.7—took the form of a slave [to corruption and sin];

(Cf. Wis.2.23; Rom.8.3,18-21; 1Cor.15.42,47-49; Gal.4.3-4; Heb.2.7a,9a,15.)

“2.8—obedient to death;

(Cf. Gen.2.17; 3.22-24; Wis.2.24; Rom.5.12-21; 7.7-11; 1Cor.15.21-22.)

“2.9-11—exalted and glorified.

(Cf. Ps.8.5b-6; 1Cor.15.27,45; Heb.2.7b-8,9b.)”

(Paul, 283-4 and, in brackets, footnotes 78-82)

Regarding Phil.2.6a Dunn writes,

‘The hymn uses the term “form (morphē)” rather than the term used in Gen.1.27, “image (ikōn).” In a discussion of allusion, however, the argument [objection] carries little weight. The terms were used as near synonyms, and it would appear that the writer preferred “form of God” because it made the appropriate parallel and contrast with “form of a slave.” Such a double function of a term is precisely what one might expect in poetic mode.’ (The Theology of Paul the Apostle, 284-285)

Lexical comparison of “form” with “image”

Phil.2.6: “form”, μορφή, morphē, “form, outward appearance, shape”, BDAG. Outside of Phil.2.6,7 only in Mark 16.12 where it means a different but visible form.

Let us compare this definition of the word morphē (“form”) with the definition of eikōn (“image”) which BDAG gives as follows: “1. likeness, portrait, 2. living image, 3. form, appear­ance”.

The similarity in meaning is evident. This means that “the form of God” is semantically similar to “the image of God”, for only if Christ was in “the form of God” could he be “the image of the invisible God” (Col.1.15; 2Cor.4.4). Jesus has made the invisible God visible. What Paul means by speaking of Jesus as “the image of God” in 2Cor.4.4 is explained two verses later by the fact that we see or experience “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2Cor.4.6). Thus “image” and “glory” are again seen to be linked together.

Misinterpretation resulting from trinitarian dogma

But the doctrine of man’s total depravity has blinded us to seeing that “the form of God” is a poetically expressive way of speaking about man as “the image and glory of God” (1Cor.11.7). As a result, we exerted ourselves, as trinitarians, to “prove” the deity of Christ from the words “the form of God”. Often we found it simpler not to exert ourselves in pursuing a rather futile enterprise and simply assume “the form of God” to be equivalent to “God”, even if we cannot demonstrate that to be the case. Most Christians are trinitarians anyway, so what need is there of proof? We were, after all, just “preaching to the converted”.

Also for this reason, it is hardly worth commenting on some of the commentaries on this verse because it is hard to believe that what is written there can pass for serious scholarship, and there­fore any evaluation of these commentaries will appear to be harsh. To illust­rate the point, one scholarly commentary (The Expositor’s Greek Testament), unable to determine the meaning of morphē (form) beyond something which it admits to be merely “probable”, nonethe­less concludes without further ado (in the next sentence) that “He (Paul) means, of course [!], in the strictest sense [!] that the pre-existing Christ was Divine” (exclamation marks mine). The “of course”, though a logical non sequitur, is made to do duty for the lack of evidence, that is, the “of course” simply replaces the needed evid­ence! In any other academic discipline this way of presenting a case would be thrown out with contempt.

Three important synonyms

In Phil.2.6,7 three synonymous words are used:

(1) morphē vv.6,7; “form, outward appearance, shape” (BDAG); the only other instance in the NT is in Mark 16.12, “After these things he (Jesus) appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country.”

(2) schēma, v.7, “the generally recognized state or form in which someth. appears, outward appearance, form, shape ” (BDAG).

(3) homoiōma, v.7, “state of being similar in appearance, image, form” (BDAG), in Rom.1.23 with ref. to idols; it is used 6 times in Deut.4.16-18, and is used with ikōn (image) in v.16; in 1Sam.6.5 it means “image”, see also 1Macc.3.48.

From this, the synonymity of “form” with “image” is made even clearer. This is to say that the identity of meaning between “form of God” and “image of God” is well-founded linguistically even without necessarily bringing in the fact of allusion. In contrast, linguistically there appears to be no way to argue for the deity of Christ on the basis of the words “the form of God.” [15]

Christ “the second man” is in the form and image of God

The ideas of form and image are so clearly linked even in the definition of the word morphē itself that it seems hardly necessary to point out once more that the Apostle Paul repeat­edly spoke of Jesus as “the image of God”, 2Cor.4.4; Col.1.15. The reason why trinitarianism finds it so difficult to accept this meaning in Phil.2.6 seems to have no other evident explanation than that trinitarianism has relatively little else to hold on to in the NT, so it must try to make “form of God” mean something it can use to support its dogma.

To summarize the foregoing discussion, the point being made in Phil.2.6-11 is that Christ, “the second man” (1Cor.15.47) was, like the first Adam, in the “form” or “image” of God, but unlike the first, he did not grasp at equality with God or clutch at becoming “like God” (Gen.3.5). On the contrary, “he became obedient unto death, death on a cross” (Phil.2.8), and it is precisely this by which he was “made perfect” (Heb.5.9; 7.28), making him the perfect man necessary for mankind’s salvation.

The early date of Philippians as another important factor

The relatively early date of Philippians (63 or 64 AD) needs fuller consideration. The church at that time was still pre­dominantly Jewish and, therefore, strongly monotheistic. Paul made it his objective to reach “the Jew first” (Ro.1.16), so whether at Philippi or in any other city where he preached, the Jews were always his primary “target” of evangelism. His passion for his own people, the Jews, is powerfully expressed in Romans chapters 9-11. He was more concerned about their salvation than his own, something which he expresses passionately at the begin­ning of that passage (esp. Ro.9.1-3). We can, therefore, easily imagine with what zeal he preached to the Jews wherever he went, and what hostility that zeal excited in some of the places he went to is recorded both in Acts and in Paul’s own account in 2Cor.11.23-27.

The point here is that Paul was not writing primarily, let alone exclusively, for Gentiles as we usually mistakenly suppose when we read Paul’s letters. Certainly, his letters were addressed to cities in the Greek-speaking world, but these were commercial centers where, in many cases, large numbers of Jewish business­men and craftsmen resided with their families. Paul himself is an example of a Jew who was born and grew up in the Greek-speaking city of Tarsus (“no mean city”, Ac.21.39) and learnt tent-making as a skill. In writing to Jews, Paul would certainly not have tried to alienate and antagonize them by including as a centerpiece in his letter (e.g. Phil.2.6-11) something contrary to monotheism.

That the congregations to whom Paul wrote were quite certainly largely Jewish at the time of his writing to them, and the early date of his letters (generally considered the earliest of the NT writings), are considerations that have an important bearing upon our understand­ing of the passage we are considering in Phil.2. For one thing, it cannot simply be assumed that the “pre-Pauline hymn”, as some scholars consider this passage in Phil.2.6-11 to be, was originally written in Greek. It is not unreasonable to assume the possibility that this song about (not to) Christ was written in Aramaic or Hebrew in the early Jewish church, and then translated by someone into Greek. It is even possible that Paul himself translated it (no scholar to my knowledge has suggested that Paul composed it himself).

In view of these observations, it is relevant to bear in mind the Semitic background, especially that of the OT, because the passage abounds with allusions to OT passages as James Dunn has pointed out (quoted above). Its Semitic origin, including Paul’s authorship—we keep forgetting that he was a Jew, and was not ashamed to declare himself “a Hebrew of Hebrews” which he stated precisely in this Philippian letter (3.5!)—practically “guaran­tees” the monotheism of this passage. If we still insist on forcing a polytheistic trinitarian interpretation upon Phil.2.6f by claiming that it speaks of Jesus as a “second divine person” that surely, in the light of all the gathered evidence, is to “adulterate (doloō, also falsify, distort) the word of God” (2Cor.4.2) to suit our dogma.

Conclusion

We have examined the word “form” as used in the Greek OT, which was the Bible of the early Greek-speaking part of the church, such as those at Philippi. We have also looked at some of the Hebrew words underlying the Greek translation to gain a more precise idea of the concepts expressed by those words. We looked at the Hebrew word tmunah which the Greek OT translates as morphē (“form”). The fact that the Hebrew word appears in an ancient work like Job does not at all mean that it is obsolete and that its meaning may have changed. This same word (tmunah) was used much later in rabbinic literature with much the same meaning. An example of this is given in M. Jastrow’s Dictionary of the Talmud, under tmunah:

form, shape. Mekh, Yithro, s, 6 (ref. to Ex.XX,4)… I may think (from the word pesel [idol]) that one must not make for himself a carved figure, but may make a block: therefore the text says, ‘nor any shape’” (Hebrew script omitted).

It will be recalled that Ex.20.4 appears in the quote from BDB that entered in the discussion on Job 4.16 above. This quotation from Jastrow serves to confirm the definition of tmunah and thus also of morphē. [16] [17]

Christ’s obedience

The trinitarian interpretation of Philippians 2.6 is that the pre­existent Christ at some point in eternity refused to grasp at equality with God but emptied, or humbled, himself so as to become man. This self-emptying or humbling of oneself is the very essence of obedience, an obedience which submitted even to death on the cross. Now if Jesus was already perfect in obedience in heaven, an obedience which reached its conclusion and climax on the cross, then why does Hebrews speak of his having “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb.5.8), and that he was “made perfect through suffering” (Heb.2.10)? This clearly shows that Hebrews has a very different understanding of the matter than that of trinitarians. Hebrews indicates that Jesus learned obedience on earth; it is not something that a supposedly pre­existent Christ already possessed in heaven. The gospel accounts confirm this when they describe Jesus’ submission to God in the Garden of Gethsemane in the words, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Lk.22.42).

Moreover, a careful look at the whole Philippian passage (2.6-11) shows that the only element characterizing Jesus’ life and death is his obedience. And as far as his salvific ministry was concerned, nothing else was needed: “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5:19). It is this “one man’s obedience”, not that of a divine being, which is absolutely crucial for mankind’s salv­ation; and it was precisely this obedience that was the key element of Jesus’ life and death on earth. This means that his refusal to grasp at equality with God (Phil.2.6) had to do with his life on earth, and not his alleged preexistence. Now it should also be evident why it is a serious misinterpretation of John’s Gospel to allege that Jesus did actually claim equality with God in that Gospel.

Philippians 2.9-11

 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,

 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

First, the exalted name was given to Jesus by God the Father. Charizomai means “to give freely as a favor” (BDAG). If the divine glory had belonged to Jesus by right in his preexistence, it could not now be conferred on him as an act of grace or favor. For, to simply return to him what had already been his before cannot correctly or truthfully be described as giving him something “freely as a favor”.

Secondly, because of the conferring of the exalted name, every knee is to bow and every tongue is to confess “Jesus is Lord” (vv.10,11a; cf. Isa.45.23). From this it is evident that the title “Lord” (kurios) is also “given freely as a favor” (BDAG) to him by “God the Father” (v.11). Here again it is not his by right. He is spoken of as “the Lord Jesus Christ” precisely because this title was given him by God. That is why Peter proclaimed that “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).

Notice again that it is God who has made him Lord. Lordship was conferred on him by God, and the same is true of his messiah­ship (Christ). The remarkable thing about Jesus is that everything he has was given him by the Father, including the name “Jesus” (Mt.1.21). Jesus was happy to go even further than that by saying that “the Son can do nothing of his own accord” (Jo.5.19,30). What we usually fail to see is that precisely herein is found the secret of Jesus’ spiritual greatness—which is something at the opposite pole of grasping at equality with God. And it is precisely for this reason that Yahweh, the Father, confers upon him the highest possible honor.

Thirdly, this super-exaltation of Jesus is “to the glory of God the Father” (Phil.2.11). What can this mean but that this astonish­ing act of favor given to Jesus reveals God’s unspeakable gracious­ness and magnanimity such as to cause everyone to praise and glorify Him? For “God our Father”, by bestowing on Jesus “the name”, in some significant sense bestows on him a place of honor which practically places him on a level with Himself.

In terms of Biblical exegesis our work on this passage is not yet complete until we have examined the evident reference to Isaiah 45.23 in this passage.

“Turn to me (Yahweh) and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other (also v.21). By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear (allegiance)’” (Isa.45.22,23).

It will immediately be noticed that this passage contains strong affirmations of monotheism, “I (Yahweh) am God, and there is no other” (vv.21,22). Given Paul’s own explicit monotheism (1Cor.8.6, 1Ti.1.17, 2.5, etc.), how is the reference to Isaiah 45.23 in Phil.2.10 to be understood? Consistent with the synonymity of “form of God” with “image of God”, and Paul’s repeated affirm­ations of Jesus as God’s image (2Co.4.4; Col.1.15), what else can “every knee” bending to the image of God mean except adoring Yahweh in His image? And to acknowledge as Lord the one whom the Father has chosen to appoint as Lord, this can surely mean nothing else but the acknowledging of the Father’s absolute sovereignty in what He chooses to do. All this is evidently “to the glory of the Father”.

An image is, in its very nature, a reflection of the one whose image it is, so any honor paid to a true image is honor given to the one represented by that image. This was what Adam was meant to be but failed through disobedience; yet this was precisely what Jesus attained through his absolute obedience, thereby becoming the perfect image of God, reflecting God’s glory and drawing all men to Him. In this way the first part of the quotation in Isaiah is fulfilled in Christ Jesus, “Turn to me (Yahweh) and be saved, all the ends of the earth!” (Isa.45.22). “Christ our savior” (Tit.1.4; 3.6 etc) is the exact reflection of “God our Savior” (Tit.1.3; 2.10; 3.4 etc); in God’s plan of salvation as revealed in the NT, men are drawn to “the only true God” (Jo.17.3) through Christ Jesus the Lord. Yahweh God is adored and glorified through His image; for the fundamental principle in Script­ure is that everything comes to us from God through Christ. God is the ultimate source of all things; and He has appointed Christ as the channel. Thus God is the source of salvation, hence He is “God our savior”; Christ is the one through whom God’s salvation comes to us, hence he is “Christ our savior”. Paul puts it like this: “for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live” (1 Corinthians 8:6, NIV).

Finally, an important principle is established here: Jesus is only properly exalted when his exaltation brings glory to the Father; this was the aim of his entire ministry as is also the teaching of the NT. But exalting Jesus at the expense of the Father’s glory, in particular the exalting of Jesus instead of the Father—making Jesus the center, the God, of the Christian religion—is certainly false and therefore “heretical” where the Scriptures as a whole are concerned. This Biblical principle—that all things are “to the glory of God the Father”—is definitely beyond any dispute.

It cannot be otherwise because, as God’s image, Jesus is the embodiment of God’s glory as is splendidly stated in Hebrews 1.3: “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.” There is, therefore, no way to glorify the Biblical Jesus without glorifying God the Father whose glory he represents—unless another Jesus and another gospel is preached contrary to what is in the Bible. If false teaching is to be avoided it is absolutely necessary to adhere to the principle clearly enunciated here: all true teaching is “to the glory of God the Father”, “the Father” being none other than Yahweh God, the LORD God.[18]

1Corinthians 15.45-47, 49, “the image of the man of heaven”

 45 Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being” [Gen.2.7]; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.

 46 But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual.

 47 The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.

The phrase “the second man is from heaven” has led some to assume that Jesus, “the second man”, is here said to be preexist­ent. But Prof. Dunn has pointed out that this meaning is negated by the statement in the previous verse that the natural man “is first”, that is, he existed before the spiritual man (James Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, p.289). Even apart from this valid observation, “from heaven (ex ouranou)” provides no proof of preexistence as can be seen from the way this term is used in the NT. For example, Matthew 21:25, “The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven (ex ouranou) or from man?” (also Mk.11.30; Lk.20.4) Clearly, the quest­ion here is whether John’s baptism was from God or from man. This meaning corres­ponds with “from heaven” in John 6:31, “Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” There is no suggestion here about the manna being something preexistent but that it was sent down from God. Like­wise, Jesus is “the true bread from heaven” (vv.32,33, etc).

“From heaven” can also mean “spiritual” as distinct from “earthly” or “natural”. Thus, 2 Corinthians 5.2, “For indeed in this house [earthly body] we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven” (NASB) i.e. our spiritual body, the resur­rection body. So “from heaven” here means, essentially, “spiritual”. This meaning also fits 1Cor.15.47 perfectly: the first man was earthly, the second man is spiritual. This echoes precisely with vv.46 and 48.

All that concerns us here is summed up in verse 49, “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven”; for we shall become perfectly like him, as 1John 3.2 says, “we will be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” But we have already taken the first steps in this direction: “you have put off the old self (Gk: man) with its pract­ices and have put on the new self (man), which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col.3.9,10). So, this being conformed to His likeness is a process which has already begun through the transform­ing of our minds (Ro.12.2). If we are in Christ, we are to “put on the new self (Gk: man), created after the likeness of God in true right­eousness and holiness.” (Eph.4.24). We are “the new man” referred to in Ephesians 2.10, “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus”, so we already now begin to “bear the image of the man of heaven”; and, as the Apostle put it, “I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1.6).

 


[13] Actually this is not the usual word for robbery in Greek; Woodhouse's English-Greek Dict. gives harpagē as the equivalent for “robbery”, but not harpagmos.

[14] “Christ Jesus” occurs 95 times in the NT, “Jesus Christ” 135 times, while “Jesus” is found 917 times.

[15] See further Appendix 8: “More evidence from the Hebrew Bible”.

[16] Full name of Jastrow’s work: Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature, by Marcus Jastrow.

[17] Which Hebrew word would a modern Hebrew translation use to translate “form” in Phil.2.6? The Salkinson-Ginsberg Hebrew NT translates “in the form of God” as בִדְמוּת אְֶלֹהִים bdmuth elohim. The definition of bduth is given as “likeness, similitude, of external appearance” in BDB, where Genesis 1.26 (man was made in God’s “likeness”; and “image” and “likeness” are used as synonyms) is cited as an example.

[18] In what way does trinitarianism glorify God in maintaining that Jesus as the Son was in all aspects equal with the Father from all eternity, and merely laid down his glory temporarily at his incarnation? For, if this were the case, the Father merely returned to the Son what was his from eternity. How can this bring glory to the Father? But the trinitarian is, after all, not really concerned about the glory of the Father because he has already replaced the Father with the Son as the true center of the Christian religion, which they declare to be Christocentric.

 

 

 

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