Exegesis of Philippians 2:5-11 (Verse 6)

Philippians 2:6

     Verse 6, which begins with a “relative clause” proclaims; “who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped” (NASB). Paul begins verse 6 via a discussion of the Son’s “existence,” though it is better contextually to view Paul’s words as “preexistence.” The apostle uses the word ὑπάρχων (huparchwn)[1]to speak about the “eternality” of the Divine Son;[2] a present active participle denoting, “to be in a state or circumstance.”[3] James R. White explains; “The first phrase of verse 6 sets the tone for the theological discussion to follow. Paul says that Christ was ‘existing’ (huparchon) in the ‘form of God’. . . The participle is again ‘timeless’ in that it does not point to any moment when Jesus ‘started’ to exist . . . Christ has always been in the form of God.”[4] Interestingly, the use of “timeless” terms in reference to Christ’s “being” is not unique to the Epistle to the Philippians and is not limited to Pauline authorship. Rather, in the Fourth Gospel, the apostle John uses ἦν (en), the imperfect form of the verb εἰμί (eimi) to denote Jesus’ timeless existence.[5] 

     This “huparchon” or “state of being” is related to the Son’s preexistence in the “form” (μορφὴν > morphe) of God via verse 6. μορφὴν (morphe), which generally means “form, outward appearance,  shape,”[6] in this context carries with it a much more specific meaning of “substance” or “nature” (oὐσία  > ousia)[7] in verses 6-7, according to many evangelical scholars. Dennis W. Jowers explains;

The interpretation of μορφῇ in Phil 2:6–7 as equivalent, in meaning or at least in reference, to oὐσία commands widespread allegiance among evangelical scholars as well. F. F. Bruce, for instance, follows Lightfoot in holding that “the noun morphe ‘implies not the external accidents but the essential attributes.’” Leon Morris, likewise, believes that, by describing Christ as ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ, Paul unambiguously ascribes deity to him. “It is not easy,” writes Morris, “to see ‘being in the form of God’ as meaning anything less.” I. H. Marshall, similarly, affirms that in Phil 2:6–7 “there is described the way in which a being who had the nature of God renounced the privileges of that state and took on the form of a human servant of God.” David J. MacLeod contends that μορφῇ in Phil 2:6–7 “refers to nature or essence.” In the view of Gerald Hawthorne, verse 6a indicates that “Christ was God, possessed of the very nature of God.” Gordon Fee identifies the phrases ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ and ἴσα θεῷ as “among the strongest expressions of Christ’s deity in the NT”; and Richard Melick declares that “the NIV correctly translates ‘in the form of God’ as ‘in very nature God.’”[8]

     What this understanding implies is that the eternal Son, in His preexistence, was in very nature θεὸς (theos) in both substance and title. Jesus, being in the form of God, implies that His ὑποστάσεως (hupostasews, Heb. 1:3) is fully divine, a claim that cannot be made by any mere creature.[9] Also in view in verse 6 is the existence of two Divine persons. The personal pronoun “who” (ὅς > hos) grammatically refers back to the subject of the discourse as found in verse 5, “Christ Jesus.” However, a second person is also included in verse 6, “God” (θεῷ > “thew”), who is later identified as the Father in verse 11.[10] Interestingly, Paul’s identification of two “persons” is used in a manner of both contrast and unity, with the individual personhood of both the Father and Son clearly related to the reader within the text, and, an equally clear proclamation of the harmony of these two persons in regards to their attributes and divinity. The implications of Paul’s identification of two Divine persons are profound and become clear throughout the discourse. The Son, who is separate from the Father in personhood, nevertheless possesses the Divine name of YHWH in both title and substance, with the Son holding an ontological equality with the Father.

     Along with the Divine μορφῇ (morphe) that Jesus possessed, the apostle Paul further explains the “equality” (ἴσα > isa) that Jesus possessed in His pre-incarnation. Before proceeding any further, it is vital to recall the context in which the apostle is framing his argument. Paul has repeatedly called for his readers to be of “one mind” and has exhorted them to place the needs of others above their own. Beginning in verse 5 of chapter 2, the apostle uses the example of Christ as the ultimate illustration of humility. In the first clause of verse 6, Paul explains that Jesus is fully God, having held the μορφῇ (morphe) of God in preexistence. And now, Paul proceeds further and explains that Jesus, being fully God, did not count the “equality” (ἴσα > isa) that He held as the second member of the Trinity, as something to be retained or held onto. The term ἴσα (isa) generally implies; “being equivalent in number, size, quality, equal.” [11] Its specific application in Phil. 2:6 means to “be equal with someone.”[12] James Montgomery Boice makes this profound statement about Paul’s use of the word ἴσα (isa); “Paul’s use of this word in reference to Jesus teaches that Jesus is equal to God.”[13]  Boice’s comment is quite revealing when one considers the accusative noun, “grasped,” in relation to the “equality” (ἴσα) previously mentioned.  The “grasping” (ἁρπαγμὸν > harpagmon) according to the verse can mean “violent seizure or robbery”[14] (“robbery,” KJV, NKJV), but, is contextually inappropriate. Rather, ἁρπαγμὸν (harpagmon) in this context is more likely referring to “grasping” or “something claimed.”[15] If correct, the image being relayed to the reader is of the Son’s full equality (“being in the form of God”) and His willing forfeiture of that equality.

     The NASB, ESV, Lexham, NET and NIV (1984) all translate the second clause of 2:6 similar to; “did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped” (NASB).[16] However, the NIV (2011) seemingly has captured the fuller English “idea” when it states that the pre-incarnate Son; “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage” (NIV, 2011).[17] This rendering fits well contextually with Paul’s illustration of humility and brings out the force of Paul’s use of morphe a bit further. The eternal Son, while holding the “form” of God, did not “count” or “regard” (ἡγέομαι > hegeomai) His equality as something to be held onto to for his own advantage, gain or comfort. F.F. Bruce explains; “A powerful argument for maintaining the active force proper to harpagmos is presented by C. F. D. Moule . . . The point of the passage is that, instead of imagining that equality with God meant getting, Jesus, on the contrary, gave—gave until he was ‘empty’ . . .  he thought of equality with God not as plērōsis but as kenōsis, not as harpagmos but as open-handed spending—even to death.”[18]

     In reference to the apostle’s use of ἡγέομαι (hegeomai) it is vital to note that the Son, per Paul’s teaching topic, willingly displayed the greatest act of humility. Thus, there is a correspondence between the actions of Christ in verse 6 (“did not consider”) and the apostles exhortation to the Philippians in the preceding context; “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4, NASB). Paul’s point is that the Lord Jesus, having held all of the privileges of God, willingly laid them aside for the sake of others; hence, the Philippians should as well, regarding their earthly privileges. J.H. Greenlee explains; “He was willing to relinquish that existence of equality with God in order to come to earth as a human being . . . he did not regard his equality with God as something which he should hold on to. As such, this clause focuses the emphasis upon Christ’s utter unselfishness in laying aside his equality with God.” [19]

[1] huparchwn, “to be,” or “to exist” BDAG, 1029.

[2] “The phrase ο͂ς ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων ‘who, existing in the form of God’ is translated ‘he always had the nature of God’ [TEV]. This verb means to be originally, to be by nature, to be from eternity, implying Christ’s pre-existence; his eternal existence is also implied in the context. The present tense indicates that this was a continuing condition both in his preincarnate existence and his existence afterward.”  J. Harold Greenlee, An Exegetical Summary of Philippians, (Dallas, TX. Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1992), Phil. 2:6.

[3] BDAG, 1029.

[4] James R. White. “The Pre-existence of Christ in Scripture, Patristics and Creed.” Alpha and Omega Ministries. http://vintage.aomin.org/The_Pre_Existence_of_Christ.html (accessed Feb. 11, 2012).

[5] John’s use of ἦν in John 1:1 is contrasted with his use of the temporal ἐγένετο in 1:14 of the same Gospel. A.T. Robertson explains; “This Greek tense shows continuous existence, not origin. This is not ‘became’ for the incarnation of the Logos (John 1:14).” Archibald T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, (B&H Publishing Group), Locations 4500-4501.

[6] BDAG, 659.

[7] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2005), 514. “The word μορφή may mean either the mode of manifestation, that which appears, as when it is said ‘the king of heaven appeared on earth ἐν μορφῇ ἀνθρώπου;’ or the nature or essence (φύσις or οὐσία) itself. The latter view is adopted by most of the fathers. The former, however, is more in accordance with the common usage of the word, and with the immediate context.”

[8] Dennis W. Jowers, “The Meaning of Morphe in Philippians 2:6-7,” (JETS 49, no. 4, December 2006), 763.

              [9] Interestingly, Gen. 1:26 in the LXX uses the word εἰκών regarding mankind being created in the image of God. εἰκών, “an object shaped to resemble the form or appearance of something” (BDAG, 282) always carries with it temporal existence, unlike Paul’s use of μορφῇ in 2:6 regarding Christ’s preexistence.

[10] θεῷ, a dative, singular noun; c.f. John 1:1-2, 1:18.

[11] BDAG, 480.

[12] Ibid.

[13] James Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith, (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 1986), 269.

[14] BDAG, 133.

[15] Ibid.  

[16] Phil. 2:6b, NASB.

[17] NIV 2011. It is helpful to note that the apostle, in using what is most likely an ancient hymn of the infant church, is not suggesting, as some claim, that Jesus simply did not attempt to gain or that He did not strive for equality with God; much in the manner of Satan’s desire of equality with God. This interpretation simply does not address the question of humility that Paul is calling for in verses 1-11. If this was indeed the case, than any creature that did not attempt equality with God would serve equally well as Paul’s example (e.g. Michael, Gabriel). Instead, Paul’s point is that Jesus held equality with God in eternity past and forfeited that equality. In John 17:5, Jesus alludes to the glory and equality He held pre-incarnation when He proclaims; “And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (NASB).

[18] Bruce, Locations 1871-1876.

[19] J. H. Greenlee, An Exegetical Summary of Philippians, (Dallas, TX: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1992), Phil. 2:6.