o^$ e)n morfh=| qeou= u(pa/rxwn
“who, in beginning under in (the) form of God”
The translation above is extremely literal; however, a more precise rendering which properly captures the full sense of the line is difficult (cf. the detailed exegesis in the prior note). The morfh/ (“[visible] shape, form”), as applied to God, is perhaps best understood in terms of the kind of visible “splendor” (do/ca) manifest when human beings, traditionally, behold God in a vision or theophany. As a visual mark, or designation, it serves to set the divine apart and distinct from human beings. The present participle u(pa/rxwn indicates that Jesus exists in that condition, an exalted status and position alongside God in heaven—and he possessed that same position even prior to his earthly life (and resurrection). A more nuanced (interpretive) translation might be:
“who, being present (there) in the visible (glory) of God…”
This first clause, as weighty as it might be, actually serves to set the stage for the second line, the Greek of which reads:
ou)x a(rpagmo\n h(gh/sato to\ ei@nai i&sa qew=|
I will again refrain from any initial translation, allowing it to be established through exegesis of each word and phrase. The clause begins with a negative particle (ou)[x]); this particle directly precedes the noun a(rpagmo/$, but actually governs the entire clause, negating it.
The key noun is a(rpagmo/$, which occurs nowhere else in the New Testament (nor in the Greek Old Testament [LXX]); the related noun a(rpagh/ occurs several times, along with the verb a(rpa/zw (14 times, 3 by Paul [2 Cor 12:2, 4; 1 Thess 4:17]). The noun a(rpagma/, close in meaning to a(rpagmo/$, while not used in the New Testament, occurs 18 times in the LXX. The fundamental meaning of the verb a(rpa/zw is “seize, take by force”; the noun a(rpagmo$ can be used in an active (verbal) sense (“[act of] seizing”), or in a passive sense (“something seized”), which is similar in meaning to a(rpagma/, i.e. something that is “seized” —a prize gained in contest, plunder in battle, etc.
The verb that follows is h(ge/omai, a middle deponent verb related to a&gw, meaning “lead”, especially the sense of functioning as a leader, one who leads the way, etc. It can be used figuratively for leading something out before one’s mind—i.e., to think, consider, regard. The verb occurs 28 times in the New Testament, including 11 times in the Pauline letters; of the 9 (or 11) instances where Paul uses it, six are here in Philippians. It was used earlier in 2:3, in referring to how believers conduct themselves, giving attention and priority to the needs of others, rather than one’s own interests (cf. the recent note on 2:1-4). This provides the context for the hymn in vv. 6-11, and Paul’s use of h(ge/omai in v. 6 very much needs to be understood in light of v. 3—in terms of a way of thinking and acting.
How then shall we understand the expression a(rpagmo\n h(gh/sato taken together? Literally, it would mean “he led a seizing” or “he led himself to seizing”, which, in terms of our understanding of the verb as indicating a way of thinking and acting, would then seem to connote an inclination or tendency toward seizing something. The ‘something’ is represented by the cognate object phrase to\ ei@nai i&sa qew=|, a phrase which has proven most difficult to interpret. Literally, it means “the being equal to God” (or “…equal with God”), which we should perhaps gloss as “the (position/condition of) being equal to God”. From the standpoint of orthodox theology, “equal to God” is a loaded expression, but we must be careful not to read the developed Christology of later times into this first-century passage.
The modifying adjective/adverb i&so$, which can be used in a qualitative or quantitative sense, occurs just 8 times in the New Testament. It is not a Pauline term, as it only occurs here in all the letters. Let us briefly survey the other instances where it is used:
- Mark 14:56, 59—in reference to the testimony of the ‘false’ witnesses during the Sanhedrin interrogation of Jesus, to the effect that the witnesses were not in agreement (i.e. their testimony differed, and was not the same).
- Matthew 20:12—in Jesus’ parable, all the workers are given equal pay (i.e. the same amount, regardless of how long they worked)
- Luke 6:34—likewise in this proverbial teaching, a more or less equal amount of money is involved
- Acts 11:17—again the idea is of a gift that is essentially the same, regardless of who receives it
- Revelation 21:16—the reference is to (precisely) equal distances
Of special interest is John 5:18, where, as part of the reaction to Jesus’ provocative saying (v. 17), and his healing miracle performed on the Sabbath, it is narrated that some of the people wished to kill him, both for his violation of the Sabbath, but even more importantly because
“…he counted God (as his) own Father, making himself equal [i&son] to God”
The episode itself, rather than abstract theological considerations, must define what i&so$ signifies here; the answer is twofold:
- Jesus identified himself God’s Son, possessing a special relationship to God (YHWH) as his Father; so close are they that they say and do very much the same things.
- Jesus claims to do the same kind of work as God the Father, which includes miracles that manifest the life-giving creative power of God
I would argue that the significance of i&so$ here in Philippians is comparable, but defined by way of the exaltation of Jesus, rather than the miracles performed during his earthly ministry. Through the resurrection, Jesus was raised to a position at God’s “right hand”, which entails a ruling position that is essentially equal to God’s own. He stands alongside God the Father, sharing the same exalted (divine) position and status. The pre-existence aspect of Phil 2:6ff attributes to Jesus the same sort of exalted position even prior to his earthly life. The motif of sonship is not prominent here in the hymn, unlike in the Gospel of John (where it is pervasive); however, in the early Christology, Jesus’ identity as the Son of God was very much tied to his exaltation. As this Christology further developed, the same sense of divine Sonship was recognized as part of his eternal pre-existence as well (Heb 1:2-3, etc).
Bringing the words of verse 6b together, we have:
a(rpagmo\n h(gh/sato to\ ei@nai i&sa qew=|
An attempt at a literal, glossed translation would be:
“he led himself (to regard) the being equal to God (as) seizing (something)”
or, reading a(rpagmo/$ in a passive, concrete sense:
“he led himself (to regard) the being equal to God (as something) to be seized”
The negative particle governing the clause (cf. above), of course, says that this is just what Jesus did not do. But exactly what did he not do? Here the views and opinions of commentators have differed considerably. It depends largely on the precise meaning of “seizing” (a(rpagmo/$, vb a(rpa/zw) in context. There are several possible lines of interpretation:
- Though Jesus had an exalted position alongside God, he was not equal to God in all respects; he might have been inclined to seek this greater status, this equality, but he chose not to grasp after it. Some commentators see here a contrastive parallel between Jesus and Adam, who was tempted by the promise of becoming just like God.
- Jesus did possess this equality with God, but not as something which one grasps hold of in an ambitious way, or to protect one’s position; he was willing to let go any attachment to his divine status for the sake of his redemptive mission on earth.
- The exalted position of Jesus alongside God, by which he shares equal rule with the Father, is not characterized by a grasping after power, such as ambitious human rulers do; rather, it is characterized by a willingness to sacrifice oneself for the good of those over whom one rules.
Most other interpretations I have seen tend to reflect some variation on the three views given above. Before we can narrow down a more definite interpretation, it will be necessary first to examine the remainder of verses 7-8. In the next daily note, we will beginning grappling with arguably the most problematic and controversial lines of the hymn, in verse 7.
There have been a number of detailed modern studies on the meaning and background of the word a(rpagmo/$ (see above), among the most notable of which are:
- R. W. Hoover, “The HARPAGMOS Enigma: A Philological Solution”, Harvard Theological Review [HTR] 64 (1971), pp. 95-119.
- N. T. Wright, “a(rpagmo/$ and the Meaning of Philippians 2:5-11″, Journal of Theological Studies [JTS] 37 (1986), pp. 321-52.
For a good summary of the evidence, cf. Peter T. O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians, The New International Greek Testament Commentary [NIGTC] (Eerdmans: 1991), pp. 211-16. Any reputable (critical) commentary will provide a bibliographic list of the relevant resources related to the passage.