Birth of the Son of God: Philippians 2:6-11

“God sent His Son”

An important aspect of the Birth of the Son of God (the theme of these Christmas season notes) is the idea of God (the Father) sending Jesus. For a key reference in early Christian preaching, see Acts 3:26 (v. 20 apparently being to Jesus’ future appearance). It also appears numerous times related to Jesus’ earthly ministry (in his own words, as preserved in Gospel tradition)—Mark 9:37 par; Matt 15:24; Luke 4:18 (citing Isa 61:1), 43; 10:16—often in the specific context of salvation (cf. Acts 13:26). In the sayings of Jesus, there is a (reciprocal) parallel to his sending of the disciples (Mark 9:37 par; Lk 10:16; John 13:20; 17:18ff; 20:21, also Matt 10:16; Lk 10:3; 22:35; Jn 4:38). In the Gospel of John, there are dozens of instances where Jesus refers to himself (or “the Son”) being sent by the Father (several of which have already been mentioned):

Jn 4:34; 5:23-24, 30, 36-37; 6:38-39, 44, 57; 7:16, 18, 28-29, 33; 8:16, 18, 26, 29, 42; 9:4; 10:36; 11:42; 12:42-45, 49; 13:16, 30; 14:24; 15:21; 17:3, 8, 18, 21, 23, 25; 20:21

A number of these strongly suggest divine pre-existence of the Son (cf. Jn 1:1ff; 8:58), while others indicate, at the very least, being sent prior to his (human) birth.

Among the most important references to Jesus (as God’s Son) being sent are Galatians 4:4 and Romans 8:3, both of which have been discussed in detail in prior notes (cf. in Advent season and on “Paul’s view of the Law in Romans” [soon to be posted here]):

o%te de\ h@lqen to\ plh/rwma tou= xro/nou e)cape/steilen o( qeo\$ to\n ui(o\n au)tou= geno/menon e)k gunaiko/$ geno/menon u(po\ no/mon
“but when the fullness of time came, God set forth out from (him) his Son, coming to be out of a woman, coming to be under the Law…” (Gal 4:4)

o( qeo\$ to\n e(autou= ui(o\n pe/mya$ e)n o(moiw/mati sarko\$ a(marti/a$ kai\ peri\ a(marti/a$ kate/krinen th\n a(marti/an e)n th=| sarki/, i%na to\ dikai/wma tou= no/mou plhrwqh=| e)n h(mi=n
“…God, sending his own Son in (the) likeness of flesh of sin [i.e. sinful flesh] and about [i.e. for the sake of] sin, judged against sin in the flesh, (so) that the just/right (thing) of the Law should be filled up [i.e. fulfilled] in us” (Rom 8:3b-4a)

 There is a similar passage in John 3:16-17 and the parallel 1 John 4:9-10 (v. 14) which also emphasize Jesus’ sacrificial (and salvific) death—God sends his Son as Savior, through his death and resurrection. Indeed, according to at least one strand of early Gospel preaching (as preserved in the book of Acts), it is specifically through his resurrection (and exaltation) that Jesus was understood to be ‘born’ as Son of God (see esp. the use of Psalm 2:7 in Acts 13:32-33). These two aspects—his death and resurrection—provide the defining structure to the so-called “Christ hymn” of Philippians 2:6-11.

Philippians 2:6-11

This famous passage, which, according to the view of many scholars, is part of an earlier hymn that Paul makes use of in his letter, begins with Jesus’ divine status/position/nature in verse 6—”beginning under [i.e. being/subsisting] in the form of God [e)n morfh=| qeou=]”. It is not possible to examine this difficult phrase in detail, but it certainly indicates some manner of pre-existence. The second phrase of the verse is even more problematic (and controversial), but I interpret the basic idea to be that Jesus did not take the opportunity of seizing equality (lit. “did not lead seizure [for himself] to be equal”) to God—which can be understood several different ways (cf. my earlier note on this passage). More important in terms of Paul’s purpose is the fact that Jesus willingly “emptied [e)ke/nwsen] himself”—a kind of self-sacrifice, referred to in theology as kenosis (from Greek ke/no$, “empty”). This is connected to the doctrine of incarnation—the divine Christ/Son taking on human form, which, of course, cannot be separated from the reality of his (human) birth. Note the phrases which follow in vv. 7-8:

  • morfh\n dou/lou la/bwn “taking the form of a slave” (par. to “the form of God” in v. 6)
  • e)n o(moiw/mati a)nqrw/pwn geno/meno$coming to be in the likeness of men” (note the similar use of gi/nomai as in Jn 1:14; Gal 4:4; Rom 1:3, and of “likeness [o(moi/wma]” in Rom 8:3)
    kai\ sxh/mati eu(reqei\$ w($ a&nqrwpo$ “and being found having (the) shape/appearance as a man”
  • geno/meno$ u(ph/koo$ me/xri qana/toucoming to be obedient [lit. hearing under] until death…” (v. 8)

The clause “he lowered himself” (e)tapei/nwsen e(auto\n) beginning verse 8 is parallel to “he emptied himself” (e(auto\n e)ke/nwsen) at the start of verse 7. In traditional theological/christological language, this emptying/lowering is referred to as the humiliation of Christ—the first of two so-called “states of Christ”. It is followed by the second state—his exaltation—in vv. 9-11:

  • V. 9a: “God lifted/raised him high” (o( qeo\$ au)to\n u(peru/ywsen)
    —V. 9b: “and showed favor [e)xari/sato] to him (with) the name th(at is) over every name”
  • V. 10-11: this powerful compound clause depicts Jesus’ exalted status in heaven—as ruler/judge

There is a clear Christological chiasm expressed in these verses—moving from divine/heavenly (pre-)existence, and back to an exalted status (as God/Lord) in heaven:

  • God sends his Son from him (i.e. from heaven)
    • to be born (lit. come to be) of a woman (Gal 4:4)
      • into the suffering/slavery of the human condition (v. 7a)
      • suffering/death on the cross (v. 8)
    • through the resurrection, Jesus is “born” (i.e. firstborn of the dead)
  • God exalts him to heaven, at his right hand, as Son of God (cf. Ps 2:7 / Acts 13:32-33) and Lord

This same sequence is indicated, in simpler form, by the four main aorist verbs that 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

Phil 2:9-11 shows the importance of Jesus’ name and titles—which, according to the ancient/traditional mindset, indicate and represent his essential identity. In this regard, the name and titles used in the Lukan Infancy narratives are especially significant:

  • Jesus/Yeshua ( )Ihsou=$)—v. 10; Luke 1:31; 2:21 (cf. Matt 1:21 for the traditional etymological association with salvation)
  • Lord (ku/rio$)—traditionally used to render YHWH, and almost certainly the “name” granted to Jesus in vv. 9-10; cf. Luke 1:43, 76; 2:11
  • Son of God (o( ui(o\$ qeou=)—Luke 1:32, 35; not used in Phil 2:6-11, but note the parallel to Gal 4:4; Rom 1:3-4 and the general context of vv. 6, 9
  • Anointed (xristo/$)—Luke 2:11 (also v. 26); note the traditional juxtaposition of “Anointed” and Jesus/Yeshua at the end of v. 5, right before vv. 6-11 (the relative pronoun o%$ [“who”] at the start of v. 6 refers specifically to “[the] Anointed Yeshua”)

Finally, it is worth noting the association of the expression “coming to be (born) of a woman” (Gal 4:4; cf. similar use of gi/nomai [“come to be”] in Rom 1:3; Jn 1:14 and here in Phil 2:7) in terms of the suffering of the human condition, including a specific connection with sin. This is a most sensitive point, to be discussed in upcoming notes. In Phil 2:6-11, this is referred to under the common Pauline motive of slavery (“taking the form of a slave“, v. 7). Consider the parallel (and at least partly synonymous) expressions:

  • “under the Law” (Gal 4:4)—”God sent forth his Son, coming to be… under the Law”
  • “in the likeness of flesh of sin” (Rom 8:3)—”…sending His own Son in the likeness of flesh of sin” (cf. also 2 Cor 5:21)

However we may interpret these difficult passages—i.e. in terms of the connection between Jesus’ incarnate human nature and sin—they must be understood primarily from the standpoint of Jesus’ sacrificial and atoning death. This is also the context of the occurrence of genna/w (“come to be born”, cognate with gi/nomai) in John 18:37, in his dialogue with Pilate prior to the crucifixion (cf. the recent discussion): “unto this have I come to be (born), and unto this have I come into the world.” Here, as in several other passages which we have looked at in these Christmas season notes, the birth and death of the Son of God come together—two sides of the same Gospel message.

The Birth of Jesus and the Christ Hymn of Phil 2:6-11

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=teo^), 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!