In a prior Christmas season article, I discussed the two passages in the Pauline Epistles (Rom 1:3-4, Gal 4:4-5) which refer in some way to the birth of Jesus. Today I will look very briefly at another passage dealing with what we would call the Incarnation of Christ: the so-called Christ-hymn in Philippians 2:6-11. If the birth of Jesus proper is hardly mentioned (outside of Matthew 1-2, Luke 1-2) in the New Testament, there are a few more references to the idea of Christ’s incarnation—that is, of his becoming human, or of taking on human flesh.
The best-known and most prominent passage is the ‘prologue’ to the Gospel of John (Jn 1:1-18), itself a kind of ‘Christ-hymn’; see especially v. 14—”and the Word [lo/go$] became flesh and set up tent [i.e. dwelt] in/among us”. Note also Romans 8:3f: “for the Law (being) powerless, in that it was weak through the flesh, God, sending his own Son in (the) likeness of sinful flesh, judged against sin in the flesh, that the justice of the Law might be (ful)filled in us”; and cf. 1 Tim 3:16; 1 Pet 4:1, etc.
Philippians 2:6-11 is generally called a hymn, and is often thought to be an earlier (non-Pauline) composition which Paul quotes here. Aspects of the vocabulary, style, and theology of these verses have been considered unusual enough in comparison with that of the (undisputed) Pauline Letters as a whole. However, if it is an earlier hymn, Paul has carefully adapted and integrated it, for many words and phrases and ideas are echoed already in vv. 1-5.
The Christ-hymn is actually extremely difficult to translate, especially the first half (vv. 6-8); but even in verse 5, there are difficulties—the syntax surrounding the verb (tou=to fronei=te…o^), and the relation of e)n u(mi=n to e)n Xristw=|. The text as it stands would normally be rendered something like: “have this mind in [i.e. among] you which also/even (was) in Christ Jesus”. Occasionally it is understood with the sense of “have the (same) mind among your(selves) which (you have) in Christ Jesus”, but this seems contrary to thrust of the hymn the verse introduces.
I will be focusing specifically on verse 7, in the context of the vv. 6-8 (the first half of the hymn). However, as these verses are especially rife with difficulties, it is necessary to make a few exegetical notes here:
- e)n morfh=| qeou= (“in [the] form of God”)—the precise meaning of this phrase is disputed, particularly in light of: (a) the phrase i&sa qew=| (“equal with God”), and (b) the parallel morfh/ dou/lou (“[the] form of a slave”) in v. 7. Conceptually, the “form” could imply: (i) the essential shape (i.e. the divine “nature”), (ii) the ‘visible’ appearance (i.e. the energy/power/glory of God). Probably the latter is more likely, to allow some distinction with i&sa qew=|.
- u(pa/rxwn—the verb u(pa/rxw fundamentally means “begin to be (in/under etc)”, with the nuance of “being”, “existing”, “being present”, “belonging”, and so forth. A key question here is whether the emphasis is on divine existence (and pre-existence) as such or on existing in a particular condition. It is a subtle distinction, perhaps, but the latter is probably more accurate.
- a(rpagmo\n h(gh/sato—this phrase, and its relation to what follows, has been hotly debated. The verb h(ge/omai literally means to “lead (out)”, sometimes in the sense of “bring (something) to mind”. The rare noun a(rpagmo/$ is a “seizing (by force)”. There have been four principal interpretations of this phrase, in connection with to\ ei@nai i&sa qew=|:
- 1. “he did not consider it robbery to be equal to God”, that is, because he was, in fact, equal to God. This has been popular as an orthodox christological statement, but it seems quite foreign to the rest of the hymn. In particular, it generally disregards the adversative a)lla\ at the start of verse 7.
- 2. “he did not consider being equal to God as something to be seized”—in other words, though he was in the “form” of God (i.e. divine), he would not attempt to be “equal” to God. This would seem to be the more natural sense of the words, and can be understood in a more (or less) orthodox sense as the case may be.
- 3. “he did not think being equal to God was something to use for (his own) advantage”—this treats a(rpagmo\n h(gh/sato as a particular idiom implying opportunity/advantage, something like the English expression “seize the opportunity”. An interpretation along these lines is becoming more popular among commentators today. Like #1, it treats “in the form of God” as synonymous with “equal to God”
- 4. Another popular modern interpretation holds that these verses have nothing to do with the deity or pre-existence of Christ, but rather reflect an Adam-Christ typology (as in Rom 5 and 1 Cor 15)—i.e., even though Jesus was in the image/form of God (like Adam) he did not wish to be like/equal to God Himself (unlike Adam), cf. Genesis 3. This, however, seems to read too much into the text; while there may echoes of such a motif in verse 6, it is harder to maintain throughout the hymn.
- to\ ei@nai i&sa qew=| (“to be equal to/with God”)—as indicated above, much depends on whether this phrase is meant to be equivalent to “in the form of God”, or something quite distinct and separate from it. In any event, a parallelism is clearly intended (whether synonymous or contrasting):
e)n morfh=| qeou= u(pa/rxwn (‘being’ in [the] form of God)
ou)x a(rpagmo\n h(gh/sato (he did not bring ‘seizing’ [it to mind])
to\ ei@nai i&sa qew=| ([the] being equal to God)
Verses 7-8 follow and are subordinate to v. 6. There are any number of ways to outline these; my arrangement below illustrates some of the linguistic and conceptual parallels:
a)lla\ e(auto\n e)ke/nwsen (but he emptied himself)
morfh\n dou/lou labw/n (taking [the] form of a slave)
e)n o(moiw/mati a)nqrw/pwn geno/meno$ (coming to be in [the] likeness of men)
kai\ sxh/mati eu(reqei\$ w($ a&nqrwpo$ (and being found [in] shape/appearance as a man)
e)tapei/nwsen e(auto\n (he lowered himself)
geno/meno$ u(ph/koo$ me/xri qana/tou (becoming obedient [lit. hearing/listening] until death)
qana/tou de\ staurou= (—but a death of [i.e. on] [the] stake!)
As in v. 6, there are several problematic words and phrases in verse 7:
- a)lla\ (“but”)—the connection of the adversative particle is a major question: does it tie back to ei@nai i&sa qew=| or to a(rpagmo\n h(ghsato? If the former, then it signifies that Christ forsook equality with God (in some sense); if the latter, that he forsook any desire to seize it (by force), perhaps in the sense indicated above—of not using the divine nature for his own advantage.
- e)ke/nwsen (“emptied”)—the force of the verb here has been debated for centuries, principally whether it is: (a) metaphysical, emptying himself of the divine nature/identity (in some sense), or (b) metaphorical, humbling himself by taking on the human condition. The parallel with verse 8 (“emptied”/”lowered”) would suggest the latter (b).
- morfh\n dou/lou labw/n (“taking/receiving [the] form of a slave”)—the phrase is clearly meant to contrast with e)n morfh=| qeou= (“in [the] form of God”) in v. 6. I take the aorist (active) participle here as parallel with the aorist (passive) participle eu(reqei/$ (“being found”), and so “form of a slave” with “[in] shape/appearance as a man”.
- e)n o(moiw/mati a)nqrw/pwn geno/meno$ (“coming to be in [the] likeness of men”)—this is the second of three participial phrases. To get a sense of the thought-structure of the verse, it may help to illustrate again how the three relate:
Taking/receiving [labw/n, aorist active particple] the form of a slave
Coming to be [geno/meno$, aorist middle participle] in the likeness of men
Being found [eu(reqei\$, aorist passive participle] in shape/appearance as a man
I have chosen the chiastic arrangment especially to draw attention to the middle phrase, as specifically related to the birth of Jesus—this coming-to-be (which can be understood as coming to be born) rightly stands between the active and passive: between the act of God’s own will (in Christ) and the helplessness of the human condition (into which Christ entered), we find the incarnate Lord being born, in our own likeness and at one with us!