- The adversative particle a)lla/ (“but”), and the main point of contrast, relates primarily to the phrase a(rpagmo\n h)gh/sato (cf. the discussion below)
- The figurative use of the verb keno/w (“[make] empty”), in common with the other 5 NT occurrences of the verb (all by Paul), is applied here to a person (Jesus); it should be understood in the sense of make him(self) to be of no significance or importance.
The following phrases in the verse are subordinate and explanatory, beginning with v. 7b:
morfh\n dou/lou labw/n
“taking (the) form of a slave”
That is to say, this phrase explains what it means that Jesus “emptied himself”, and indicates what this “emptying” entailed. Our analysis again will look at each word in detail.
morfh\n (“form, shape”)—the noun morfh/ in the accusative (object of the following participle labw/n). The same noun was used in verse 6a, and the expression morfh\ dou/lou (“form of a slave”) is clearly intended as parallel with morfh\ qeou/ (“form of God”). The noun was discussed in detail in the prior note (on v. 6a). The two instances of the noun here in vv. 6-7 are the only occurrences in the New Testament (apart from the ‘long ending’ of Mark [16:12]), and it is equally rare in the LXX (occurring just 8 times). A related verbal noun mo/rfwsi$ is also 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. It is important to keep in mind that the emphasis is on the visible form or appearance of something.
doulou/ (“of a slave”)—The noun dou=lo$ refers to a slave; related is the corresponding feminine noun dou/lh (for a female slave), the more abstract noun doulai/a (“slavery”), adjective dou=lo$ (“enslaved, [act]ing as a slave”), and verb douleu/w (“be a slave”). It is a common noun, occurring 126 times in the New Testament, including frequently in the Pauline letters. Paul sometimes uses it in reference to people who are actually slaves (in Greco-Roman society), but just as often it is used figuratively or metaphorically, either in a negative (e.g., human beings enslaved to the power of sin) or positive sense (e.g., believers bound in service to God). Of particular importance is the idiom of believers (esp. ministers of the Gospel) as “slaves” (dou=loi) of God and Christ (Rom 1:1; Phil 1:1, etc).
How should the word be understood here? We must bear in mind, first, that the expression “form of a slave” is set as a contrastive parallel with “form of God” in v. 6, with “slave” (dou=lo$) forming a precise contrast to God. As a contrast, this can be taken two ways:
- By “slave” is meant primarily a human being, in contrast with God
- The term signifies a lowly status and position, contrasted with the exalted status/position of God (in heaven)
If the former were intended, we would perhaps expect the parallel to be with “form of a man” (morfh\ a)nqrw/pou), rather than “form of a slave”. The noun a&nqrwpo$ does occur in the final two phrases of v. 7 (to be discuseed), making it clear that we are dealing with a human slave; however, this does not change the fact that the wording carefully avoids making a precise contrast between deity (God) and humanity (man) per se. The further terminology (in vv. 8ff), of “making low” and “making high,” strongly suggests that the point of the contrast here is one of status and position. God in heaven has the highest, most exalted position, while a human slave has one of the lowest.
Given the early Christian usage of the noun dou=lo$ to refer to believers (esp. ministers) as “slaves” of God and Christ (cf. above), is it possible that the term is meant to indicate Jesus’ position as a slave (or servant) of God? Some commentators have thought so, even suggesting that the Isaian “Servant of the Lord” motif is in view, by way of the “Servant Songs” of (Deutero-) Isaiah (esp. 52:13-53:12). There is no doubt that Jesus, as the Anointed One (Messiah), in his earthly life and ministry, and all the more in his sacrificial death, was seen by early Christians as fulfilling these Isaian Servant Songs (Acts 8:30-35, etc). Moreover, there does seem to be a certain similarity of theme between, for example, Isa 52:13-53:12 and our hymn. However, an emphasis on Jesus as the “slave of God” here, in my view, defeats the force of the contrastive parallel. The point is that Jesus went from the highest position to the lowest, which is symbolized by the motif of a human slave, a person with limited rights and freedoms, dependent entirely on the power and control of one’s human master(s), which could (at times) be harsh and cruel.
labw/n (“taking”)—an aorist active participle of the common verb lamba/nw (“take, receive”). It is clearly epexegetical to the main aorist verb e)ke/nwsen (“he emptied”); the only real interpretive question is whether the participle should be understood as a consequence of Jesus’ “emptying”, or characteristic of it. In other words, does his “taking the form of a slave” describe the emptying, or is it the result of a prior action? I believe the participles of v. 7 are best understood as descriptive—i.e., what Jesus’ “emptying” of himself entailed. It was an action, not of seizing/holding to an exalted heavenly/divine status (v. 6), but of taking on a lower and humbling status instead. This will be discussed further in the next note.
This may be an appropriate time to consider again the three lines of interpretation I put forth for understanding the term a(rpagmo/$ (“seizing, [something] seized”) in v. 6b (cf. the earlier note):
- 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.
The analysis above suggests that the second view is closest to what is being expressed in the hymn—viz., a willingness by Jesus to give up his exalted divine position (equal to God) and take on the low position of human “slave”. At the same time, the contrast between God and “slave” suggests the natural contrast between the slave and a lord or master (i.e. ruler). This, indeed, would frame the contrast even more sharply: ruler with God in heaven vs. lowly slave among human beings on earth. Thus, I believe, there is also an implicit emphasis in the hymn on Jesus’ willingness to abandon his ruling position for the sake of his redemptive mission on earth. The idea, common to many strands of developed orthodox Christology, that Jesus became a human slave while still maintaining his ruling position in heaven, is foreign to the hymn and should not be read into it. Indeed, I would assert that such a Christological interpretation, while legitimate in its attempt to balance the full weight of the theological implications brought about by the New Testament witness, actually contradicts (and defeats) the thematic structure and thought of the hymn itself. This will be discussed further in the upcoming notes.