October 19: Philippians 2:7a

Philippians 2:7-8

Verses 7-8 follow and are subordinate to v. 6, discussed in the previous notes (on 6a and 6b). 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!)

Each of these clauses and phrases is important for an interpretation of vv. 6-8 (and of the hymn as a whole). It is thus worth devoting an individual note to a careful examination of each of them, and thereby establishing a sound exegesis for the lines of the hymn, taken together. Attention must be paid to both the vocabulary and syntax. We begin with the first phrase of verse 7.

Philippians 2:7a

a)lla\ e(autw\n e)ke/nwsen
“but he emptied himself”

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 (or hold it) through force. The latter phrase provides the more immediate syntactical connection, and point of contrast; on the meaning of that difficult phrase in context, cf. the three lines of interpretation mentioned at the close of the previous note (and to be discussed further).

e(autw/n (“himself”)—this reflexive personal pronoun, referring to Jesus Christ (v. 5), is the predicate, providing the object of the verb that follows. That is, it declares what was “emptied” (by Jesus)—he emptied himself!

e)ke/nwsen (“emptied”)—an aorist active form of the verb keno/w (“[make] empty, empty out”), one of a sequence of aorist verb forms that govern the hymn and guide the syntax of the passage:

    • e)ke/nwsen (“he [Jesus] emptied [himself]”)—his ‘departure’ from heaven and birth/incarnation as a human being
    • e)tapei/nwsen (“he lowered [himself]”)—his suffering and death
    • u(peru/ywsen (“[God] lifted [him] high”)—Jesus’ resurrection and ascension/exaltation
    • e)xari/sato (“[God himself] showed favor [to him]”)—”with the name over every name”, as Lord and (Son of) God in heaven

The verb keno/w can refer to a concrete physical/material emptying, or, in a more figurative and metaphorical sense, to removing/nullifying the significance of something. The four other occurrences in the New Testament, all by Paul in his letters, use the verb in the latter (figurative) sense:

    • Rom 4:14—Paul’s argument in chapter 4 (repeating that of Galatians 3) makes the claim that, if the promise to Abraham is fulfilled through observance of the Torah, then the significance of trust (pi/sti$) in Christ is “made empty”
    • 1 Cor 1:17—Similarly, to rely on ordinary human wisdom and eloquence in preaching (the Gospel), risks “emptying” the central message of the sacrificial death (the cross) of Christ of its meaning and power
    • 1 Cor 9:15; 2 Cor 9:3—In these two passages, the verb is used in connection with the “boast” of Paul (and other Christian ministers), by which he refers to the practical effect of his faithfulness in proclaiming the Gospel—believers coming to trust in Jesus, the establishment of local congregations, their growth in faith, etc. The negative behavior and attitude of some believers (and churches) can effectively “empty” that boast of its meaning and validity.

But what does it mean for a person to “empty himself“? Based on the Pauline usage of the verb, utilizing a figurative sense of keno/w, it would have to mean something like making oneself to be of no significance or importance. Use of the verb this way, of a person, is quite rare; rather more common is the idea of something a person possesses being taken away. And, indeed, many commentators would interpret the phrase here in something like that latter sense—i.e., Jesus gave up (gave away) his divine attributes, or his divine status/position.

To speak of Jesus’ divine “nature” or “attributes” is out of place here in the hymn of Phil 2:6-11. It is understandable, of course, why commentators would feel impelled to read the passage in terms of a later, more developed, Christology; however, this should be avoided, if one wishes to gain a proper understanding of the passage in its original (first century) context. This important point will be discussed further as we proceed through vv. 7-8 (and the remainder of the hymn).

Which is not to say that there is no relationship between Phil 2:6-11 and the orthodox Christology held (and debated) by subsequent generations. Indeed, the passage has been key to Christological discussion and debate, much of it quite fascinating and provocative. An entire Kenotic theology developed, based largely upon this passage, framed by the conceptual matrix of vv. 6-8. The word kenosis, a transliteration of the Greek noun ke/nwsi$ (“emptying”, related to the verb keno/w), came to be used as a technical term for the idea that, in the incarnation, Jesus “emptied” himself, in a metaphysical sense, of the divine attributes which he possessed (as the Son of God) in his eternal existence alongside God the Father. Such “emptying” would explain many aspects of the New Testament portrait of Jesus, though not without resulting in a number of other difficulties that have to be considered.

However, I would maintain that all of this is quite foreign to our passage here. Neither the hymn, nor the way Paul uses it in his letter, indicates any attempt to make a definitive statement regarding the divine or human “nature” of Jesus Christ. The early Christology of the first century A.D. had a very different orientation, working from a different set of theological premises. We can gain a better sense of this through a careful study of each word and phrase, read in light of the theology expressed by Paul in his letters, and of the New Testament witness as a whole. In particular, we must pay close attention to the Christology that prevailed in the period prior to c. 60 A.D. (the time when Philippians was likely written).

The next phrase in verse 7 will be examined in the next daily note.

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