October 13: Philippians 2:6a

Philippians 2:6a

o^$ e)n morfh=| qeou= u(pa/rxwn

The “Christ hymn” of Philippians 2:6-11 can be divided into two halves which mirror each other conceptually. This structure of the hymn will be discussed in more detail in the concluding note to this series; however, it is important at the outset to have at least the basic outline in mind. Verses 6-8 describe the lowering of Jesus from an exalted heavenly place alongside God the Father, while vv. 9-11 correspondingly describe the exaltation, the raising of him back to heaven. This may be framed as a chiastic outline—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

This will be studied in detail as we proceed through the hymn.

The opening lines of the hymn, in verse 6, establish the position of Jesus in heaven. This is usually taken as evidence of a pre-existence Christology, and correctly so; indeed, it would appear to be the earliest example of such a Christology in the New Testament (c. 60 A.D., or somewhat earlier). In the prior period (c. 35-60 A.D.), an exaltation Christology dominated Christian thought, whereby the deity of Jesus—his nature and status as the Son of God—was located almost exclusively in the resurrection, and his exaltation to heaven to reside at the “right hand of God”. Needless to say, Phil 2:6-11 attests both aspects of first-century Christology, with a pre-existence dimension (vv. 6-8) added to the (earlier) exaltation-aspect.

There are two clauses in verse 6, the first of which will be examined in today’s note. I have left it untranslated (above), so that its meaning (which has been much disputed) can be established through careful exegesis.

The initial clause begins with a relative pronoun (o%$, “which, who”), referring back to Jesus Christ (e)n Xristw=| Ihsou=) in v. 5 (cf. the prior note). There are number of hymn-like early Christological statements in the New Testament, where the lines are similarly governed by an initial relative pronoun (Col 1:15; 1 Tim 3:16; Heb 1:3). In context, the pronoun provides a transition between verse 5 and the hymn proper: “…in (the) Anointed Yeshua, who [o%$]…”. The remainder of the clause is considerably more difficult; the central phrase follows:

e)n morfh=| qeou=
“in (the) morfh/ of God”

The interpretive crux involves the precise meaning of the word morfh/, which occurs only here in the New Testament (apart from once in the ‘long ending’ of Mark [16:12]); it is also relatively rare in the Greek Old Testament (LXX), occurring just 8 times (Judg 8:18; Job 4:16; Isa 44:13; Dan 3:19; Tobit 1:13; Wisdom 18:1). A related verbal noun mo/rfwsi$ is similarly rare (Rom 2:20; 2 Tim 3:5), along with the verb morfo/w (only in Gal 4:19); neither word is used in the LXX. The fundamental meaning of the morf– word-group is that of the (external) form or shape of something—often specifically of human beings or animals, but it could apply to any object or feature of the visible world.

Given the connotation of morfh/ as referring to something visible, one should perhaps understand the expression morfh\ qeou= in traditional terms—of the divine/heavenly “splendor” that surrounds God when He appears in a vision (or theophany) to human beings. In other words, it is a visible mark which sets a divine/heavenly being apart, distinct from a human being. If we are to apply this to Jesus, it would mean that he is to be considered as something more than an ordinary human being. Early Christians would have affirmed this unquestionably of Jesus following the resurrection, with his exaltation to heaven; however, as noted above, vv. 6ff here attests to some form of pre-existence Christology as well—that Jesus had a comparable exalted status even prior to his life on earth.

The term “exalted” well captures the connotation of morfh/ as it is used here, and there can be little doubt that the early exaltation-Christology informs the imagery in vv. 6ff. The key image of this Christology is of Jesus standing in heaven “at the right hand of God”; that expression, or allusions to it, are frequent in the New Testament, and attest clearly to its central position in the earliest Christology (cf. Mk 12:36 par [citing Ps 110:1]; 14:62 par; [16:19]; Acts 2:25, 33-34; 5:31; 7:55-56; Rom 8:34; Col 3:1; Eph 1:20; Heb 1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Pet 3:22). Thus, it was well accepted that, after the resurrection, Jesus held an exalted position of supreme glory and honor alongside God Himself in heaven. The developing pre-existence Christology attributed a comparable divine position for Jesus in heaven, even prior to his earthly life.

Equally important for an understanding of the word morfh/ here in verse 6 is its parallel usage in verse 7, where the expression morfh\ dou/lou (“form of a slave“) is precisely parallel with morfh\ qeou= (“form of God“). If a position alongside God in heaven represents the highest, most exalted point, the position of a human slave represents the lowest point. This will be discussed further in the note on verse 7.

The final word of the clause in v. 6a is the (present active) participle u(pa/rxwn. The verb u(pa/rxw is quite difficult to translate in English; literally it means “begin under”, in the sense of beginning at a certain place or point. It came to be used in the more general sense of “be present, exist”, sometimes with the nuance of being in a particular state or condition or set of circumstances. It can also be used of something which belongs to a person, being “under” his/her control. This relatively wide range of meaning makes an interpretation of its use here, in relation to the phrase “in the morfh/ of God”, rather difficult.

It is helpful to consider how Paul uses the verb u(pa/rxw elsewhere in his letters; the most obvious example is in 1 Cor 11:7, where it is used in connection with the do/ca qeou= (“honor/splendor of God”), which, as noted above, is roughly comparable to morfh\ qeou= (“[visible] form of God”). In that verse, the same verbal form (present active participle) refers to the circumstances whereby someone is marked as possessing a certain (exalted) status or position. Here in Philippians, the verb is used again at 3:20, where it refers to the exalted position that awaits for believers in heaven; right now, at this moment, such a place exists in heaven, belonging to the heavenly realm, but we are yet to enter into it.

With this line of interpretation in mind, let us now turn to a translation of v. 6a; an extreme literal rendering would be:

“who, beginning under in (the) form of God”

We must remember that morfh/ refers to a visible shape or appearance, and that morfh\ qeou= is best understood in terms of a visual designation that sets God (or the divine) apart from human beings—i.e., the divine “splendor” (do/ca) manifest in traditional heavenly visions or theophanies. By using the verb u(pa/rxw (as a present active participle), the phrase emphatically affirms that Jesus exists (and existed) under just such circumstances, in an exalted position alongside God in heaven. Though not stated specifically in this verse, the context (of the hymn) indicates that Jesus held this position prior to his life on earth (which means prior to his death and resurrection).

Many commentators and theologians would seek to read a more expansive Christology into the hymn here in vv. 6-7, drawing upon later, developed Christological notions regarding Jesus’ divine nature and attributes, his precise relationship to the Father (from an orthodox, trinitarian standpoint), etc. However interesting such speculation may be, and important in its own right, it goes far beyond the thought of the hymn—and, indeed, of Paul’s own thought (for the most part) all throughout his letters. The tensions between orthodox Christology and the language and imagery used in the hymn becomes even more pronounced in verse 7, as we shall see. It is vital that we keep close to the actual wording and syntax of the text, avoiding the temptation to read wider theological concerns into the passage. Indeed, we can see the importance of this disciplined approach as we turn to the second clause of v. 6, which we shall do in the next daily note.

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