kai\ sxh/mati eu(reqei\$ w($ a&nqrwpo$
“and in sxh=ma being found as a man”
This is the third of the three participial phrases, containing aorist participles, subordinate to the main aorist verb in 7a (e)ke/nwsen, “he emptied [himself]”); each successive phrase serves to describe and explain what it means that Jesus “emptied himself”:
The predicate (object) for each participial phrase involves a noun referring to the outward, visible appearance of something—morfh/, o(moi/wma, sxh=ma. The first two terms were discussed in the preceding notes; the latter (sxh=ma) will be studied today. Following the approach taking thus far in these notes, each word in the phrase will be considered in turn.
kai/ (“and”)—the force of the conjunction here serves to pivot between the third and fourth phrases, leading (syntactically) to the main clause of verse 8, and joining with it. In English punctuation, we would probably indicate this with a semicolon:
“but he emptied himself, taking (the) form of a slave, coming to be in (the) likeness of men; and, being found in sxh=ma as a man, he lowered himself…”
On the chiastic structure of this portion of the hymn, cf. my outline in the previous note.
sxh/mati—a dative form, equivalent to the prepositional phrase e)n sxh/mati (cp. e)n o(moiw/mati in v. 7c), i.e., “in sxh=ma.” I have left the noun untranslated above to avoid prejudicing the analysis; it also happens to be a word that is difficult to render with precision in English. The noun sxh=ma is ultimately derived from the verb e&xw (“hold”) and its irregular future form sxh/sw, and thus fundamentally refers to the way that something “holds (together)”, specifically, in its (outward) shape or appearance. A suitable English approximation to the noun might be “bearing”, though this still only captures a portion of the semantic range; it is variously translated as “form, shape, figure, fashion, constitution,” etc.
To gain a proper understanding of its meaning and significance here, we would naturally turn to occurrences of sxh=ma elsewhere in the New Testament; unfortunately, there is only one other occurrence (also by Paul, in 1 Cor 7:31, discussed below). It is equally rare in the LXX (just once, Isa 3:17), and thus occurs just 3 times in the entirety of the Greek Scriptures. It is more common in the contemporary Jewish authors Josephus and Philo of Alexandria, who each make varied use of the term in their writings. For Philo, it generally refers to the forms of things as they are perceived by the senses, and then understood by the intellect in their essential character.
Paul’s use of the term in 1 Cor 7:31 is of the utmost importance for our study, regardless of one’s view regarding the Pauline composition of the hymn itself. The word occurs toward the end of his long discussion on marriage (and marital relations) in chapter 7. An important point of emphasis, running through the discussion, is that, it is best if believers remain as they are currently; if already married, to stay married, even if joined with a non-believer; and, if single, to stay single, unless one is unable to do so safely (i.e. chastely). Paul offers several reasons for this, one of which is eschatological—the point he makes here in vv. 29-31, that all things in the present Age are “standing together” at this moment, and the current order of things (in this Age) is in the process of passing away. Here is the exact wording in verse 31:
“for the sxh=ma of this word-order [ko/smo$] leads (the way) along [i.e. passes along]”
The noun sxh=ma applies to the entire ‘order of things’ (world-order) in the present Age; in English idiom, we might say “the shape of things”, i.e., the way things are (and appear) right now. Most human beings live, act, and think in accordance with the way things seem to be in the world, valuing and responding to the outward appearance of things; only believers in Christ are aware of a deeper reality, the promise of a New Age, manifest now only through the presence and activity of the Spirit. Thus, we are to live according to the Spirit, and not according to the form and fashion of the current world-order.
If we now examine the use of sxh=ma in Phil 2:7, in light of the above analysis, we would have to posit two main points of significance:
- In every aspect of his appearance—including how he lived and conducted himself—Jesus was a human being (a&nqrwpo$)
- It also refers to a ‘mode of being’, living and acting in the world (of human beings), according to the standards and patterns of the current Age (i.e., eating, drinking, sleeping, working, socializing, etc)
In other words, if we were to see Jesus (objectively) during his life on earth, in his appearance and ordinary behavior, he would look more or less like any other human being. This is what is mean by the last expression w($ a&nqrwpo$ (“as a man”).
As mentioned in the previous note, this emphasis on the outward, visible appearance—reinforced by the trio of terms, morfh/, o(moi/wma, and sxh=ma—could easily be interpreted in a docetic sense. In other words, Jesus was not truly a human being, but only looked like one, merely appearing to be human. However, I see no evidence in the hymn, when judged in its mid-first century context, for anything like the Docetism of the 2nd-century; nor does the hymn serve as an apologetic against such a view of Jesus. How, then, should we understand these terms in context?
First, we must keep in mind the basic significance of the noun morfh/, used in the parallel, contrastive expressions “form of God” (v. 6a) and “form of a slave” (v. 7a). In the prior notes, I have argued that the main point of contrast is one of status and position—i.e., between the exalted position of God in heaven and the lowly position of human beings on earth. The morfh/ is the visible distinction between God and man—the traditional splendor (glory/honor) that surrounds God in visions and theophanies vs. the limitation, weakness, and suffering of the mortal condition. Jesus “took on” (vb lamba/nw) this mortal condition, with its weakness, when he united with humankind (“came to be”, vb gi/nomai), to the point of being born as a human child (implied in the hymn, cp. the use of gi/nomai in Gal 4:4; Rom 1:3). When other people saw him during his earthly life, he “was found” (vb eu(ri/skw, passive), i.e., he appeared, to be just like any other human being (“as a man”, w($ a&nqrwpo$).
Second, there is a definite progression in the lines of vv. 7-8 which needs to be recognized:
- “he emptied himself” —willingness to give up his exalted (highest) position with God in heaven
- “taking the form of a slave” —taking on the lowly (lowest) position of humankind on earth
- “coming to be in the likeness of men” —union/participation with the human condition, implying an actual birth as a human being
- “being found in form/shape/bearing as a man” —his earthly life, among other human beings
- “he lowered himself” —suffering and death, and his willingness to endure it
The trio of terms ultimately serve, simply, to refer to Jesus’ earthly life (and death) as a human being.
Finally, these terms can also be seen as part of an early attempt to express what we might call the ‘mystery of the incarnation’. Jesus was a human being—just like all others (in appearance), but different from all others in his unique relationship to God the Father (and in his identity as Messiah and Son of God). This uniqueness was originally understood (almost entirely) in terms of the resurrection, through which Jesus was exalted to a position at the right hand of God the Father in heaven. Eventually, however, believers came to the recognition that Jesus must have held this position (as Son of God) even prior to his earthly life (i.e. the pre-existence Christology expressed in vv. 6ff of the hymn). At the time the hymn was composed, Christians were only just beginning to explore what this divine pre-existence meant in terms of Jesus’ earthly life. We cannot expect to find in the hymn a systematic and fully developed Christological statement that dealt with all of the implications of this belief. We can, though, glimpse a powerful Christology taking shape—in some ways, all the more vibrant and compelling for its expression within the limitations of this poetic and hymnic form.