The Exalted Position Jesus Left
although He existed in the form of God, (2:6a)
Jesus’ humiliating step downward was from the exalted position seen in the truth that He existed in the form of God. Both before, during, and after His incarnation, He was, by His very nature, fully and eternally God. Existed translates a present active participle of the compound verb huparchō, which is formed from hupo (“under”) and archē (“beginning”) and denotes the continuance of a previous state or existence. It stresses the essence of a person’s nature, that which is absolutely unalterable, inalienable, and unchangeable. William Barclay comments that the verb refers to “that part of a [person] which, in any circumstances, remains the same” (The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians. Rev. ed. [Louisville, Ky.: Westminster, 1975], 35).
Jesus Christ eternally and immutably existed, and will forever continue to exist, in the form of God. Morphē (form) refers to the outward manifestation of an inner reality. The idea is that, before the Incarnation, from all eternity past, Jesus preexisted in the divine form of God, equal with God the Father in every way. By His very nature and innate being, Jesus Christ is, always has been, and will forever be fully divine.
The Greek word schēma is also often translated “form,” but the meaning is quite different from that of morphē. As Barclay points out,
Morphē is the essential form which never alters; schēma is the outward form which changes from time to time and from circumstance to circumstance. For instance, the essential morphē of any human being is humanity and this never changes; but his schēma is continually changing. A baby, a child, a boy, a youth, a man of middle age, an old man always have the morphē of humanity, but the outward schēma changes all the time. (Philippians, 35–36)
To the Colossians, Paul expressed the truth of Christ’s deity in these words: “He [Jesus Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15). Speaking of Christ, John opened his gospel with the declaration: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.… And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1–2, 14). Jesus said of Himself, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am” (John 8:58), and later prayed, “Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.… Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, be with Me where I am, so that they may see My glory which You have given Me, for You loved Me before the foundation of the world” (17:5, 24). The writer of Hebrews reminds us that God “in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power” (Heb. 1:2–3).
In light of the profound reality of Jesus’ full and uncompromised deity, His incarnation was the most profound possible humiliation. For Him to change in any way or to any degree, even temporarily by the divine decree of His Father, required descent. By definition, to forsake perfection requires taking on some form of imperfection. Yet without forsaking or in any way diminishing His perfect deity or His absolute holiness, in a way that is far beyond human comprehension, the Creator took on the form of the created. The Infinite became finite, the Sinless took sin upon Himself. The very heart of the gospel of redemption is that the Father “made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). Although that infinitely marvelous and cardinal gospel truth is impossible to understand, it is necessary to believe.
The example for those who have saving faith in Christ is clear. Because of their relationship to Christ, they have special standing and privilege before God. Through Christ, they are God’s children. “As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name” (John 1:12); and because they are His children, “when He appears, [they] will be like Him, because [they] will see Him just as He is” (1 John 3:2). Although they will always be His servants, He deigns to call them His friends: “I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). Believers are indwelt by Jesus Christ (Eph. 3:17) and by the Holy Spirit (John 14:17; Rom. 8:9, 11; 2 Tim. 1:14). While on earth, they are the living temples of God (1 Cor. 6:19) and “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor. 5:20). They have been divinely “blessed … with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ,” chosen “in Him before the foundation of the world,” predestined “to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself” (Eph. 1:3–5). They are “predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son” (Rom. 8:29), “called according to His purpose, … justified,” and one day will be glorified (8:28, 30). They are “living stones, … being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ … a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession” (1 Peter 2:5, 9; cf. Rev. 1:6; 5:10; 20:6).
But Christians are God’s children solely by adoption (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:5; Eph. 1:5), not by inherent right. Every marvelous blessing and privilege they have is entirely because of divine grace, theirs because of their union with God’s only true eternal Son, Jesus Christ. Therefore, if God’s eternal Son humbled Himself in such an incomparably sacrificial way, how much more should God’s adopted children be determined to live humbly and sacrificially?
It is tragic that, in self-centered disregard both of their Lord’s teaching and example, some Christians take pride in their position as children of God. As “children of the King,” they believe that they deserve to live like royalty, although the King of kings, the Lord Jesus Christ, often had “nowhere to lay His head” (Matt. 8:20; cf. John 7:53–8:1) and commands His followers to “take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart” (Matt. 11:29). It is not by accident that the first Beatitude reads: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3).
did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, (2:6b)
From His exalted position as God, Christ’s first step downward was not to regard equality with God a thing to be grasped. Although He continued to fully exist as God, during His incarnation He refused to hold on to His divine rights and prerogatives. Equality with God is synonymous with the preceding phrase “form of God.” In repeating the declaration of Christ’s true nature and essence, Paul emphasizes its absolute and incontestable reality. It is interesting that isos (equality) is in a plural form (isa, “equalities”), suggesting that Paul may have been referring to every aspect of Jesus’ deity. The term refers to exact equivalence. An isosceles triangle has two equal sides. Isomers are chemicals that differ in certain properties and structure but are identical in atomic weight. In becoming a man, Jesus did not in any way forfeit or diminish His absolute equality with God.
During His earthly ministry, Jesus never denied or minimized His deity. He was unambiguous in acknowledging His divine sonship and oneness with the Father (John 5:17–18; 10:30, 38; 14:9; 17:1, 21–22; 20:28), His “authority over all flesh” and power to “give eternal life” (John 17:2), and His divine “glory which [He] had with [the Father] before the world was” (John 17:5; cf. v. 24). Yet He never used His power or authority for personal advantage, because such prerogatives of His divinity were not a thing to be grasped. That was the choice that set the Incarnation into motion. He willingly suffered the worst possible humiliation rather than demand the honor, privilege, and glory that were rightly His. Nor did He use the powers of His undiminished sovereign deity to oppose the purpose of His Father because the price was too high.
To be grasped translates the Greek noun harpagmos, which refers to something that is seized or carried off by force. It was also sometimes used of a prize or award. Because Jesus already possessed equality with God, the meaning of to be grasped is not taking hold of but of holding on to, or clinging to. He had all the rights and privileges of God, which He could never lose. Yet He refused to selfishly cling to His favored position as the divine Son of God nor view it as a prized possession to be used for Himself. At any time He could have appealed to His Father and at once received “more than twelve legions of angels” to come to His defense (Matt. 26:53). But that would have thwarted His Father’s plan, with which He fully concurred, and He would not do it. Although He was doubtless terribly hungry after fasting for forty days in the wilderness, He refused to turn stones into bread in order to feed Himself (Matt. 4:3–4). Yet He graciously multiplied the loaves and fish so the hungry multitudes might be fed (Mark 6:38–44; 8:1–9).
It is that attitude of selfless giving of oneself and one’s possessions, power, and privileges that should characterize all who belong to Christ. They should be willing to loosen their grip on the blessings they have, which they have solely because of Him. Christians are set apart from the world as children of God and joint heirs with Jesus Christ. Yet they must not clutch those privileges and blessings. Instead, like their Lord, they must hold them loosely and be willing to sacrifice them all for the benefit of others.
The Truth About Jesus Christ
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped.
Having taken a survey of the greatest Christological passage of the Book of Philippians (2:5–11), we settle down now to a verse-by-verse study of the text. In verse 6 Paul writes that before his incarnation Jesus Christ was in the form of God and was God. Phillips paraphrases the verse, “Let Christ Jesus be your example as to what your attitude should be. For he, who had always been God by nature did not cling to his prerogatives as God’s equal.” Who is Jesus Christ? The only adequate answer to that question is one that carries the mind back to Christ’s equality with God before creation and which projects it forward to see him reigning with God and as God forever.
One summer during a trip around the Mediterranean Sea, a friend and I visited Luxor, the city in upper Egypt where tourists may visit the remains of ancient Thebes, once the capital of Egypt. We began our sightseeing in the company of an old guide who first showed us the great temple of Luxor erected by Amenophis III. On top of one of the tall columns of this temple was a small house, and we were curious about how it got there.
The guide explained that during the last century, before the excavations at Luxor were begun, the area on which we were standing was covered with sand. One local farmer tried to find a solid foundation for his home and scratched about in the sand to find some bedrock on which to build. In time he came upon a smooth surface, and he erected his home here. In the desert where the wind is constantly blowing and where the sand shifts according to the air currents, anything permanent will cause the sand to shift away from it. As the sand drifted away from his cottage the farmer discovered that his house was actually built on a piece of hand carved stone, presumably from an ancient temple. It was only after the excavations had begun that the farmer realized that the stone was a standing column, and after the excavations were completed he found that his home was nearly eighty feet above ground level.
There is a parallel here to some people’s understanding of the Lord Jesus Christ. Many people claim that their lives are built on Jesus Christ, but they may know as little about Jesus Christ as that Egyptian farmer knew about the foundation of his home. Many people will admit Christ’s existence, acknowledge his example, and speak of him as a great religious teacher. These things are true. Yet by themselves they are as misleading as the Egyptian farmer’s belief that he was building his house on bedrock. If you can say no more about Jesus Christ than this, then you have an inadequate understanding of his person. To see him in proper perspective you must push aside the years of human history and catch a glimpse of him coexisting with God the Father from eternity.
The New Testament writers do this frequently. John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God” (John 1:1). John later says that the Word became flesh. But the one who became flesh was no other than the one who existed with God and was God from the beginning. In Colossians Paul speaks of Christ as “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). The author of Hebrews writes in a passage that parallels the one in Philippians 2: “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven” (Heb. 1:1–3).
These passages teach that Jesus Christ cannot be understood on the basis of his earthly life alone. Jesus Christ is a man. But he is also God. We must first say that about him.
The Nature of God
These truths are taught in Philippians 2:6 by means of two words that deserve closer study. The first is the Greek word morphe. It occurs in the phrase, “being in very nature God.” This word points both outward to the shape of an object and inward to ask about things that cannot be detected on the surface. As one commentator said, Christ “possessed inwardly and displayed outwardly the very nature of God” himself.
The second word that occurs in Philippians 2:6 of Jesus Christ is isos, meaning “equal.” We have this word in the scientific terms isomer, isomorph, and isometric. An isomer is a molecule having a slightly different structure from another molecule but being identical with it in terms of its chemical elements and weight. Isomorph means “having the same form.” Isometric means “in equal measure.” In Philippians 2:6 the word isos teaches that Jesus is God’s equal.
How quickly these two phrases cut across the lesser confessions of Christ’s deity. Many will admit that Jesus Christ was divine in the sense, so they say, that all people are divine. Many will call him the Son of God in the sense that we are all children of God. The late theologian Paul Tillich can speak of Christ’s “permanent unity with God” in the sense that we all should attain such unity. But this is not the teaching of Scripture. When Christians speak of the person of the Lord Jesus Christ they are not speaking about any such divinity. They are speaking of the eternal and unique Godhead of the Lord Jesus Christ. And they maintain that he exists eternally as the second person of the Godhead and as such is equal with God the Father.
Everything that God Almighty is to me, so also is the Lord Jesus Christ. Is that true for you? It should be, for that is the teaching of the Bible. There is no real knowledge of the Father apart from a knowledge of the Son.
The Glory of God
The teaching of Philippians 2:6 is also conveyed by a phrase used elsewhere that points emphatically to the divine nature, and consequently is also used of Jesus. The phrase is “the glory of God.” Jesus speaks of this glory when he prays: “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began” (John 17:4–5). These verses say four things about glory. First, Jesus possessed a glory before the incarnation. Second, this glory was God’s glory. Third, he did not have it after the incarnation. And fourth, there is a sense in which he did possess it while on earth, for he revealed it by finishing the work that God gave him to do.
How can this be? How can Christ possess God’s glory, renounce it, and yet have it? And what does the phrase “the glory of God” mean anyhow?
In the early years of the Greek language when Homer and Herodotus were writing, there was a Greek verb (dokeo) from which the Greek noun doxa (meaning “glory”) sprang. The Greek verb meant “to appear” or “to seem,” and the noun that came from it then meant “opinion.” From this meaning we get the English words orthodox, heterodox, and paradox for “straight opinion,” “other opinion,” and “contrary opinion.” In time the verb was used only for having a good opinion about some person, and the noun, which kept pace with the verb in this development, came to mean the “praise” or “honor” due to one of whom a good opinion was held. Kings possessed glory because they merited the praise of their subjects. It is in this sense that Psalm 24 speaks of God as the King of glory.
Who is this King of glory?
The Lord strong and mighty,
the Lord mighty in battle.
… The Lord Almighty—he is the King of glory.
Psalm 24:8, 10
At this point, we can see the effect of taking the word over into the Bible and applying it to God. For if a person had a right opinion about God, he was able to form a correct opinion of God’s attributes. The orthodox Jew knew God as all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present, merciful, faithful to his children, holy, just, loving, and so on with all his other perfections. When he acknowledged this he was said to give God glory. God’s glory consists of his intrinsic worth embedded in his character, and all that can be known of God is merely an expression of it.
This understanding of God’s glory is reinforced in the English language by a word that means almost the same thing as glory. This is the Anglo-Saxon word “worth.” It too refers to intrinsic character. The worth of a person is his or her character. The worth of God is God’s glory. Consequently, when people are engaged in praising God they are acknowledging his worth-ship. Since these last two syllables are difficult to say together in English, a number of the consonants have been dropped, and our present word “worship” is the result. Philologically the worship of God, the praise of God, and the giving of glory to God are identical.
It is this glory—a glory that embodies the idea of God’s intrinsic worth and character—that Jesus claimed to share and to have made known to his disciples. What does it mean when the disciples are said to have beheld Christ’s glory at the wedding feast in Cana? It means that the disciples beheld his character and that this was the character of God. If you have seen Jesus in this way, you have seen the Father.
Alongside this conception there is an entirely different meaning of the word glory, which entered the Greek language at a later time only through its contact with Hebrew religion and culture. It is the idea of “light” or “splendor,” and it is found in the Greek language only after the translation of the Old Testament into Greek.
In Hebrew thought any outward manifestation of God’s presence involved a display of light so brilliant that a person could not approach it. This brilliant outward manifestation of God’s presence was described by the word shekinah, and in the Greek Old Testament the word doxa is often used to translate it. This glory was the radiance that was transferred to the face of Moses during the days he spent upon Mount Sinai with God “so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory” (2 Cor. 3:7). It was embodied in the cloud that overshadowed the wilderness tabernacle during the years of Israel’s wandering. Glory accompanied the angels as they appeared to the shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus. It was the glory of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah that the disciples saw on the mount of transfiguration. Glory filled the sky when Jesus appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus, and it left him blinded. It is this glory with which Jesus will be clothed when he returns one day for those who believe in him and who await his coming.
Put these two meanings of the word “glory” together and you have a clear picture of Christ’s oneness with God and of the humbling of himself when he became a man. Before his incarnation Jesus Christ existed with God and was identical with God both inwardly and outwardly. He shared to the full the divine nature, and he was clothed with the splendor that had always surrounded God’s person. During the incarnation Jesus laid aside the outward glory (which would have made it impossible for human beings to approach him) and took the form of a servant. What remained was God’s glory in the inward sense, for even in the flesh Jesus Christ was God and retained all of the divine nature. Finally, in the garden just before his crucifixion, Jesus prayed that he might once more receive the visible glory that he had enjoyed with God before he became man. And he received this when he ascended again into heaven and took his rightful place with God the Father.
If you love the Lord Jesus, the idea of Christ’s glory should evoke praise in your heart. But there is something even more personal than this. If you are a child of God, God is conforming you to the image of Jesus Christ. And this means that since Jesus Christ perfectly manifests God’s glory, you also are to share that same glory—as amazing and as unbelievable as that may seem. Paul writes, “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18).
In the preceding verses Paul had been speaking of the veil worn by Moses so that the people might not be blinded by his glory. But now, he says, it is different; now there is no veil between the believer and his Lord. You see him in Scripture. And in him you see God’s glory, which means you see God’s character. As you see it, you are changed into the same likeness by the presence of his Spirit in you.
That is not all. One day you will participate even in the visible glory. For the work begun by Christ’s atonement and applied to each believer at the moment of his or her conversion does not remain unfinished but continues through daily victory over sin to the moment when the entire company of the redeemed stands spotless in the glorious presence of the Father. In that day the glorified body of believers will appear as a brilliant jewel, refracting in a million ways the bright radiance of him who is the Father of lights and of his Son in whom is no darkness at all. You and I will not only point to that radiance, we shall also participate in it—to the glory of God.
6 Paul’s argument assumes Christ’s preexistence (see Jn 17:5; Col 1:15; cf. Martin and Dodd, 74–95). “Who, being in the form of God” is the circumstantial use of the participle and is not concessive. The word “form” (morphē, GK 3671; NIV, “nature”) denotes the characteristics and qualities essential to something. Lightfoot, 110, claims it designates Christ’s essential nature as opposed to his exterior nature, and the NIV translation “in very nature God” expresses this meaning. Fowl (Story of Christ, 53–54) argues, however, that it is not “primarily a dogmatic statement about Christ’s nature” but instead refers to his preincarnate status as one of glory, radiance, and splendor, which was associated with the appearance of God.
The meaning of the phrase ouch harpagmon (“not … something to be grasped,” GK 772) is crucial for understanding this verse and has lent itself to differing interpretations: (1) Christ, being in the form of God, was equal to God and considered this status to be his by right and not something he snatched or grabbed; (2) Christ, being in the form of God, was equal to God and did not consider this status a prize to be clutched or held on to for dear life; (3) Christ, being in the form of God, was equal to God and did not consider this status, which he already possessed, to give him a carte blanche for grasping, plundering, or rapacity. This last meaning is judged impossible by some, since the state of being equal to God cannot be considered an “act of robbery” (BDAG, 133). I would argue that this meaning is not only possible but correct.
The word harpagmos means “robbery” or “plunder” and can apply to the spoils of war (Appian, Civil Wars 5.12). The Greek negative ou negates the word it precedes, as it does in every instance in Philippians, and a correct translation should place it before “robbery,” not before the verb: “he considered equality with God not [a means for] plundering.” It refers to taking advantage of something that one already possesses (see R. W. Hoover, “The Harpagmos Enigma: A Philological Solution,” HTR 64 : 95–119; N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and Law in Pauline Theology [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992], 62–90). Equality with God was widely assumed to mean privilege, power, and glory, as is evidenced by the behavior of the gods and goddesses in Greek mythology, who could do whatever they wanted. Harpagmos represents the epitome of selfishness, which stands in contrast to Christ’s selflessness. This understanding of the phrase comports well with the temptation accounts in the Gospels, where the devil seeks to preempt the Spirit and coax Jesus to use his powers for selfish ends (Mt 4:1–11; Lk 4:1–13). “Not robbery” means that Christ confutes the common assumption that being equal to God entails doing whatever one likes and crushing anyone who gets in the way. Instead, he gave of himself for others and gave until he was empty of everything but love.
The verb “consider” (hēgeomai) recalls the exhortation in v. 3 and intensifies its scope: “Regard others as superior to yourselves in the same way that Christ did not regard equality with God as an opportunity to assert himself over others.” The verb reappears twice in 3:7–8, where Paul recounts how he no longer considers his heritage and achievements as an exceptional Jew as something he can take advantage of before God.
6 With the relative pronoun “who,” Paul proceeds from the foregoing imperative directly to the narrative about Christ.38 Again, even though the details are not easy, his overall concern seems plain enough. Beginning with Christ’s pre-existence, and by means of a striking “not/but” contrast (in keeping with the similar contrast of vv. 2–4), he portrays two ways of thinking, of “setting one’s mind,” one selfish, the other selfless. Thus he reminds the Philippians that everything Christ did in bringing them salvation was the exact opposite of the “selfish ambition” censured in v. 3.
The sentence begins with a participial phrase, “who being in the ‘form’ (morphe) of God.” Despite some recent interpreters, this language expresses as presupposition what the rest of the sentence assumes, namely that it was the Pre-existent One who “emptied himself” at one point in our human history “by taking the ‘form’ of a slave, being made in the likeness of human beings.” Very likely Paul used the participle rather than the finite verb because of Christ’s always “being” so.42 The participle also stands in temporal contrast with the two aorist participles at the end of the sentence. That is, prior to his “having taken the ‘form’ of a slave” he was already “in the ‘form’ of God.” Moreover, it also stands in contrast in a substantive way with the final participle, “being born/made in the likeness of human beings,” which only makes sense if “being in the morphē of God” presupposes prior existence as God.
But what about morphē? Our difficulties here are twofold:45 discovering what Paul himself intended by this word, and translating it into English, since we have no precise equivalent. The key to understanding the word lies with Paul’s reason for choosing it, which in turn lies with what transpires in the sentence itself. His urgency is to say something about Christ’s “mindset,” first as God and second as man. But in the transition from Christ’s “being God” to his “becoming human,” Paul expresses by way of metaphor the essential quality of that humanity: he “took on the ‘form’ of a slave.” Morphē was precisely the right word for this dual usage, to characterize both the reality (his being God) and the metaphor (his taking on the role of a slave), since it denotes “form” or “shape” not in terms of the external features by which something is recognized,48 but of those characteristics and qualities that are essential to it. Hence it means that which truly characterizes a given reality.
What the earliest followers of Christ had come to believe, of course, on the basis of his resurrection and ascension, was that the one whom they had known as truly human had himself known prior existence in the “form” of God—not meaning that he was “like God but really not,” but that he was characterized by what was essential to being God. It is this understanding which (correctly) lies behind the NIV’s “in very nature God.”50 And it is this singular reality, lying in the emphatic first position as it does, which gives such extraordinary potency to what follows, and therefore to the whole.
That Paul by this first phrase intends “in very nature God” is further confirmed by the clause that immediately follows, which also happens to be one of the more famous cruxes in the letters of Paul. “Being in the ‘form’ of God,” Paul begins. “Not harpagmon did Christ consider to be equal with God,” he adds next. But first a closer look at harpagmon will aid the discussion that follows.
The difficulties are two: its rarity in Greek literature; and where it does appear it denotes “robbery,”53 a meaning that can hardly obtain here. This means that scholars have been left to determine its meaning on the basis either (a) of (perceived) context, or (b) of the formation of Greek nouns, or (c) of finding parallels which suggest an idiomatic usage. Also involved is the question as to whether “equality with God” was something Christ did not possess but might have desired or something he already possessed but did not treat in a harpagmon way.
Although the jury is still out on this question, the probable sense of this word is to be found in one of two refinements—by C. F. D. Moule and R. W. Hoover—of earlier suggestions. The former based his conclusions on the formation of Greek nouns, in which nouns ending in -mos do not ordinarily refer to a concrete expression of the verbal idea in the noun but to the verbal idea itself. In this view harpagmos is not to be thought of as a “thing” at all (“something” to be treated by the verbal idea in the noun). Rather it is an abstract noun, emphasizing the concept of “grasping” or “seizing.” Thus, Christ did not consider “equality with God” to consist of “grasping” or being “selfish”; rather he rejected this popular view of kingly power by “pouring himself out” for the sake of others. In Moule’s terms, equality with God means not “grasping” but “giving away” (272). This view has much to commend it, and in any case, surely points in the right direction in terms of the overall sense of the noun in context.59
The alternative is to see the word as a synonym of its cognate harpagma (“booty” or “prey”), which in idioms similar to Paul’s denotes something like, “a matter to be seized upon” in the sense of “taking advantage of it.” This view has much to commend it and probably points us in the right direction, although it is arguable that the evidence for the interchangeability of harpagmos and harpagma is not as strong as its proponents suggest. In either case, it should be pointed out, the clause comes out very much at the same point.
Back then to Paul’s point with this “not” clause, which is twofold (= two sides of a single concern). First, he is picking up on, and thereby reaffirming, what he said in the initial participial phrase, that Christ before his incarnation was “in very nature God.” This reaffirmation is accomplished by means of two complicated points of grammar, which together make it clear that Paul intends the infinitive phrase (“to be equal with God”) to repeat in essence the sense of what preceded (“being in the ‘form’ of God”). Thus Paul intends (by way of a structured elabortation):
Being in the ‘form’ of God as he was,
Christ did not consider a matter of seizing upon to his own advantage,
this being equal with God we have just noted,
but he emptied himself.”
This, then, is what it means for Christ to be “in the ‘form’ of God”; it means “to be equal with God,” not in the sense that the two phrases are identical, but that both point to the same reality. Together, therefore, they are among the strongest expressions of Christ’s deity in the NT. This means further that “equality with God” is not that which he desired which was not his, but precisely that which was always his.
Second, Paul is thereby trying to set up the starkest possible contrast between Christ’s “being in the ‘form’ of God” and the main clause, “he emptied himself.” Equality with God, Paul begins, is something that was inherent to Christ in his pre-existence. Nonetheless, God-likeness, contrary to common understanding, did not mean for Christ to be a “grasping, seizing” being, as it would for the “gods” and “lords” whom the Philippians had previously known; it was not “something to be seized upon to his own advantage,” which would be the normal expectation of lordly power—and the nadir of selfishness. Rather, his “equality with God” found its truest expression when “he emptied himself.”
What is thus being urged upon the Philippians is not a new view of Jesus, but a reinforcement, on the basis of Paul’s view of the crucifixion, that in the cross God’s true character, his outlandish, lavish expression of love, was fully manifested.69 This is what Paul is calling them to by way of discipleship. The phrase, “not harpagmon,” after all, corresponds to “not looking out for one’s own needs” in v. 4. Here is Paul’s way of saying that Christ, as God, did not act so. Thus, as he has just appealed to them to have a singular “mindset” (phronēte), which will express itself in “humility” as they “consider” one another better than themselves, so now he has repeated the injunction to have this “mindset” (phroneite, v. 5) which they see in Christ Jesus, who did not “consider” (same verb as in v. 4) being equal with God as something to be taken selfish advantage of, something to further his own ends.
We should note finally that many have seen Paul here to be playing on the Adam-Christ theme that appears elsewhere in his letters.72 Most who hold this view understand Christ to be set in studied contrast with Adam, who, “being in God’s image,” considered his “equality with God” as something to be seized. Christ, on the contrary, disdained such “grasping” and did the opposite; as Adam tried to become “like God,” Christ, as God, in fact became man. This is an intriguing analogy, but it must be noted that its basis is altogether conceptual, since there is not a single linguistic parallel to the Genesis narrative. Whether the Philippians would have so understood it without some linguistic clue probably depends on whether Paul himself had used such an analogy at some point in his time with them.
6. The following notes try to give the meaning of the words in the text. See the Additional note (pp. 114–118) for a consideration of the form, style and authorship of the verses.
Being in very nature God looks back to our Lord’s pre-temporal existence as the second person of the Trinity. The verbal form translated being, hyparchōn, need not necessarily mean this, but it seems clear that this sense is the only satisfactory one in the context. rv margin translates ‘being originally’, and this must refer to the pre-incarnate state to which Paul elsewhere makes reference (see Rom. 8:3; 1 Cor. 10:4; 2 Cor. 8:9; Gal. 4:4). ‘The form of God’ (niv margin) may be taken in two ways. The older commentators (e.g. Gifford, Lightfoot, followed by Hawthorne) interpret the term in its philosophical sense as here meaning the essential attributes of God ‘in a sense substantially the same which it bears in Greek philosophy’.8 A newer view suggests that there is a connection between ‘form’, morphē, and the term ‘glory’, doxa. When this fact is applied to the apostle’s teaching on the person of Christ there is ample attestation that he saw in the pre-existent and glorified Christ both the image (i.e. ‘form’) and glory of God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15); and these terms are rooted in the Old Testament tradition of Adam as created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26–27; cf. 1 Cor. 11:7) and reflecting the divine kabōd or splendour (Ps. 8:5 hints at this) which he subsequently forfeited at the fall.
Equality with God is again a phrase which has been taken in a number of ways. The main issue is whether it is equivalent to being in the ‘form of God’ (Hawthorne), or is to be regarded as something future in the ‘experience’ of the pre-incarnate and incarnate Lord and which he could have attained but refused to do so.
Some writers regard the first possibility as correct in one of two ways. On the one hand, it is held, following Lightfoot, that the pre-incarnate Son already possessed equality with the Father and resolved not to cling to it. Or, on the other view, he had no need to grasp at divine equality because he already possessed it as the eternal Son of God. It is questionable, however, whether the sense of the verb can glide from its real meaning of ‘to seize’, ‘to snatch violently’ to that of ‘to hold fast’; and the second interpretation hardly does justice to the structure of the whole sentence as well as to the force of ‘exalted to the highest place’ in verse 9. Attempting a different approach, Kennedy and those who see as a background here the Genesis story and the temptation presented to Adam to ‘be like God’ (Gen. 3:5) draw the parallel between the first and the last Adam. The former senselessly sought to grasp at equality with God, and through pride and disobedience lost the glorious image of his maker; the latter chose to tread the pathway of lowly obedience in order to be exalted by God as Lord (vv. 9–10), i.e. to be placed on an equality which he did not have previously, because it is only by ‘the suffering of death’ that he is ‘crowned with glory and honour’ (Heb. 2:9, rsv).
Something to be grasped is one translation of the key-word harpagmos which may be taken actively as in av/kjv or passively as in rsv: ‘did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped’. Both versions are linguistically possible. The real difficulty is encountered in the questions: Does it mean that Christ enjoyed equality with God and surrendered it by becoming man, or that he could have grasped at equality with God by self-assertion, but declined to do so and embraced rather the will of God in the circumstances of the incarnation and the cross? Or is the hymn saying that ‘Jesus reckoned God-likeness not to be snatching’ (C. F. D. Moule)?
Here once more, if the key to the text lies in the intended parallel between the first Adam and the second Adam, one of the latter options is to be preferred; and this is the generally prevailing modern view which Stauffer believes has been definitely settled: ‘So the old contention about harpagmos is over: equality with God is not a res rapta … a position which the pre-existent Christ had and gave up, but it is a res rapienda, a possibility of advancement which he declined.’ There is, however, another possibility which may be briefly stated as follows. Harpagmos can have the meaning of ‘a piece of good fortune, a lucky find’. Bonnard takes the illustration of a spring-board (tremplin) with the same essential thought of an opportunity which the pre-existent Christ had before him. He existed in the divine ‘condition’ or ‘rank’ as the unique image and glory of God, but refused to utilize this favoured position to exploit his privileges and assert himself in opposition to his Father.
The key-word harpagmos is here interpreted as the holding of a privilege which opens up the future possibility of advantage if only the possessor will exploit it to his own profit. In his pre-existent state Christ already had as his possession the unique dignity of his place within the Godhead. It was a vantage-point from which he might have exploited his position and, by an assertion of his right, have seized the glory and honour of the acknowledgment of his office. At this point he made his preincarnate choice. He considered the appropriation of divine honour in this way a temptation to be resisted, and chose rather to be proclaimed as equal with God as the ‘Lord’ by the acceptance of his destiny as the incarnate and humiliated one.
This verse has given rise to such diverse opinion that it seems presumptuous to state baldly an interpretation and pass over in silence much that has been suggestively and plausibly written. All we can do here is to pursue one line of enquiry that seems to be the most fruitful for an understanding of these profound words. The association of thought is the Old Testament, and there is an implied contrast between the two Adams. Less probably it has been proposed that the temptation and fall of Satan (see Isa. 14) as interpreted by later Jewish writers is the clue to the passage (so Stauffer).
‘The form of God’ (rsv; niv being in very nature God is more an interpretative paraphrase rather than a rendering of en morphē theou) takes us back to the ‘status’ of Christ in eternity. Attempts to deny this aspect come to grief on the requirement (from v. 6b) that the element of choice necessitates a ‘state’ to be left—his pre-temporal glory (John 17:5)—if he is to become incarnate. Yet once we are firm at the point of Christ’s pre-existing we can see how the model of the ‘two Adams’ could have dictated the flow of the passage. Adam in Genesis 1 reflects the glory of the eternal Son of God who from all eternity was ‘with God’ (John 1:1; 17:5) as the exact image of the ineffable and invisible God (Heb. 1:3). The ‘act of robbery’ was attempted as Adam, the son of God (Luke 3:38) and made a little lower than God (Ps. 8:5, niv mg.), asserted himself to be ‘as God’ (Gen. 3:5, 22), i.e. to be lord in his own right and independently of God his maker. But he failed in this aspiration.
The eternal Son of God, however, faced with a parallel temptation, renounced what was his by right, and could actually have become his possession by the seizure of it, viz. equality with God, and chose instead the way of obedient suffering as the pathway to his lordship. The circumstances of this tremendous decision are described in the verses which follow.
2:6 This verse begins the so-called Christ-hymn that is one of the most well-known sections of the entire epistle. The overall structure of the hymn can be broken down into two parts: what Jesus did (2:6–8) and what God did (2:9–11).
The hymn begins with the clause who, though he was in the form of God, referring back to Christ Jesus in the previous verse. By saying though he was in the form of God, Paul is indicating that Christ did something unexpected. His point, then, is that though we might expect someone who was in the form of God to count equality with God a thing to be grasped, he did not. Within a Greco-Roman culture that prized status and the pursuit of honor, it would be surprising that one who was the very form of God did not regard that status as an opportunity for selfish gain.
In saying that Christ was in the form of God, Paul uses a word (morphē) that outside of the two occurrences here in 2:6–7 does not occur elsewhere in the New Testament. The range of meaning for morphē ‘includes the concepts of the physical form or shape of someone or something.… In some cases, it can refer to the essential nature of something, but even in these cases, that nature is perceived by the senses.’ By using this word Paul emphasizes that Christ is the visible expression of God Himself, a point made elsewhere in the New Testament (John 1:1–18; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:1–3). Although the Old Testament records numerous accounts where God visibly appears to people in various ways, it also repeatedly notes that no one can see the face of God and live (Exod. 33:20). Yet in Christ we see the very form of God Himself, the visible manifestation of everything that God is in His very essence. From all eternity Christ was the visible expression of the glory of God.20
Even though Christ was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped. The verb rendered count (hēgeomai) was used in 2:3 to call the Philippians to count others more significant than themselves; here it describes the intentional decision of the pre-incarnate Christ not to do some-thing. By equality with God Paul means simply that the pre-incarnate Christ was fully and completely God. John 5:18 uses a similar expression when the Jews sought to kill Jesus because by calling God his Father, Jesus was ‘making himself equal with God’. Thus not only was the pre-incarnate Christ the visible expression of God’s glory (i.e., the form of God), but He was also in the fullest sense of the word God Himself (i.e. equality with God).23 Both His visible appearance and His inward nature/essence were divine.
Yet Christ did not regard His status of equality with God a thing to be grasped. The Greek word (harpagmos) behind this translation is so rare that it is difficult to decide how to render it. After weighing all of the available evidence, it seems best to understand harpagmos as ‘something to be selfishly exploited’. Immersed in a Greco-Roman culture that cut its teeth on stories of the gods using their powers and privileges for their own selfish gain, the picture of one who was fully divine deliberately not acting in this manner—indeed, laying aside His divine privileges for the everlasting good of His creatures—would have been a startling contrast to what their native world view taught them.
Paul uses this unusual vocabulary to paint for us a stunning picture of the pre-incarnate Christ, who from all eternity was the visible expression of the Father. Yet despite this exalted position of receiving unceasing worship from the heavenly host, Christ did not consider that exalted position as something to exploit for His own selfish advantage. As Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 8:9, ‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.’ If the Philippians truly share the same mindset of Christ Jesus, it will be demonstrated by a life that sees positions of privilege as opportunities to serve others rather than advance one’s own selfish agenda.
2:6 / If the Philippians are urged to have the same “attitude … as that of Christ Jesus,” how was his attitude shown? It was shown in his humbling himself to become man, in his humbling himself to take the very nature of a servant, in his humbling himself to submit obediently to death—and death by crucifixion at that.
Who, being in very nature God: literally, “being already in the form of God.” Possession of the form implies participation in the essence. It seems fruitless to argue that these words do not assume the pre-existence of Christ. In another passage where Paul points to Christ’s self-denial as an example for his people—“though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9)—his pre-existence is similarly assumed (although there Paul makes his own choice of language, whereas here he uses a form of words that lay ready to hand). Elsewhere in the Pauline writings Christ is presented as the agent in creation: he is the one “through whom all things came” (1 Cor. 8:6; cf. Col. 1:16, 17). Other nt writers agree with Paul in this presentation (cf. John 1:1–3; Heb. 1:2; Rev. 3:14); it is evidently bound up with a primitive Christian identification of Christ with the divine Wisdom of the ot (cf. Prov. 3:19; 8:22–31; also, with “word” instead of “wisdom,” Ps. 33:6). First-century Christians did not share the intellectual problem involved for many today in “combining heavenly pre-existence with a human genetical inheritance” (Montefiore, Paul the Apostle, p. 106).
Various renderings are offered of the next statement: in addition to the niv text, he did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, we have the marginal rendering in gnb, “he did not think that by force he should try to remain equal with God.” But these two renderings do not exhaust the possibilities. “Existing as he already did in the form of God, Christ did not regard equality with God as a harpagmos”—such is the literal force of the words. The interpreters’ crux lies in the Greek noun harpagmos. This noun is derived from a verb that means “snatch” or “seize.” There is no question of Christ’s trying to snatch or seize equality with God: that was already his because he was in very nature God. Neither is there any question of his trying to retain it by force. The point is rather that he did not treat his equality with God as an excuse for self-assertion or self-aggrandizement; on the contrary, he treated it as an occasion for renouncing every advantage or privilege that might have accrued to him thereby, as an opportunity for self-impoverishment and unreserved self-sacrifice.
Several commentators have seen a contrast here with the story of Adam: Christ enjoyed true equality with God but refused to derive any advantage from it in becoming man, whereas Adam, made man in the image of God, snatched at a false and illusory equality; Christ achieved universal lordship through his renunciation, whereas Adam forfeited his lordship through his “snatching.” But it is not at all certain that this contrast was in the author’s mind.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). Philippians (pp. 122–125). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (2000). Philippians: an expositional commentary (pp. 114–118). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Garland, D. E. (2006). Philippians. In T. Longman III (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, pp. 219–220). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Fee, G. D. (1995). Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (pp. 202–210). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
 Martin, R. P. (1987). Philippians: An Introduction and Commentary (Vol. 11, pp. 105–108). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
 Harmon, M. S. (2015). Philippians: A Mentor Commentary (pp. 205–210). Great Britain; Ross-shire: Mentor.
 Bruce, F. F. (2011). Philippians (pp. 68–69). Peabody, MA: Baker Books.