Taking the Form of a Slave: Philippians 2:7

taking form slave(2)

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b) Phil 2:7: The Son’s greatest declaration of his fundamental equality with the Father came when “himself he emptied.”[1]

By placing “himself” first for emphasis and using an active verb, the hymn writer strongly suggested the voluntary nature of this deed accomplished by the preexistent Son. This was not something the Father ordered Christ to do.[2]

Every other New Testament occurrence of “empty” (kenoō) as a verb involves nullifying a thing to make it of no account (Rom 4:14; 1 Cor 1:17; 1 Cor 9:15; 2 Cor 9:3).[3]

Jesus “emptied himself” of what would have prevented him from becoming fully human.[4]

This involved divesting himself of his sacred privileges and prestige.[5] However, the metaphor does not convey a loss of divine attributes.

That he “emptied himself” poetically states that Christ poured himself out completely for the benefit of others, becoming poor that he might make many rich (2 Cor 8:9).

The Greek translation of the Old Testament uses this verb to describe Rebekah “pouring out” water into a trough for the benefit of thirsty camels (Gen 24:20).[6]

The Son accomplished this metaphorical emptying of himself by “taking the form (morphē) of a slave” and “becoming in human (anthrōpos) likeness” (Cf. Gen 1:26–27).[7]



Note that the term doulos, which some Bible versions translate as “servant,” instead means “slave” (e.g. Rom 1:1, where Paul describes himself as “a slave of Christ Jesus”).[8]

Unlike other synonyms for “slave” in Greek, doulos stresses the total dependency of a slave upon his master. No term provides greater contrast to “God” or “Lord.”[9]

In a status-conscious city like Philippi,[10] the notion that Christ chose to strip off his divine privileges to put on the qualities of a man in subjugation would evoke shock.[11]  As living property, slaves received no rights.[12]

For example, the first century AD author Martial admonished a slave-owner with these words, “You say the hare is not sufficiently cooked, and call for a whip. You would rather cut up your cook, Rufus, than your hare.”[13]

In some respects, Greco-Roman slavery differed substantially from that practiced in the United States and the United Kingdom. Roman slaves worked as physicians, teachers, authors, bailiffs, and sea captains, in addition to performing manual labor. Legislation provided for most slaves to be set free by age 30, making enslavement a temporary condition.[14]

Nevertheless, by “taking the form of a slave” the Son adopted the essential quality of a slave.[15] He temporarily put himself completely at the will of another.[16]

This position of extreme abasement diametrically contrasted with Christ’s preexistent condition.[17]

Greco-Roman gentiles accepted the concept of a god putting on human form, for Zeus and Hermes cavorted as people. Yet, their gods would never choose enslavement. That would upend their hierarchical society and demolish their code of honor and shame.[18]



A second aspect of the Son’s “emptying himself” is that “in the likeness of human beings he was born.”[19]

In renouncing the “form of God” and taking on the “form of a slave,” Christ became a man in appearance, thought, and emotion. Only in his consistent obedience to the will of God did he differ from other people (Luke 2:51–52; Heb 4:15).[20]



The 12th century theologian Bernard of Clairvaux noted, “We behold Light withholding its rays, the Word an infant, the Living Water athirst, him who is the Bread of Heaven suffering hunger. Attend and see how Omnipotence is ruled, Wisdom instructed, Power sustained; the God who rejoices the angels is become a babe at the breast; he who consoles the afflicted lies weeping in a manger.”[21]

Various heresies arose to try to explain this mystery, which tended to emphasize either Jesus’s humanity or his deity while understating the other. Consequently, the emperor called church leaders to the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

They wrote this confession:

We all with one voice confess our Lord Jesus Christ one and the same Son, at once complete in Godhood and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man…acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, or without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way abolished because of the union, but rather the characteristic property of each nature being preserved, and coming together to form one person.[22]

Since that church council, the church universal has affirmed that the eternal Son of God took on our humanity, resulting in both a human and a divine nature within one body.[23]



Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) wrote:

If Christ had remained only in the divine nature, he would not have been in a capacity to have purchased our salvation, not from any imperfection of the divine nature, but by reason of its absolute and infinite perfection.

For Christ, merely as God, was not capable of that obedience or suffering that was needful. The divine nature is not capable of suffering, for it is infinitely above suffering. Neither is it capable of obedience to that law which was given to man.

It is as impossible that one who is only God should obey the law that was given to man, as it is that he should suffer man’s punishment.[24]



Although in every way equal to the Father and the Spirit, while Jesus lived on earth, he voluntarily divested himself of those rights (John 17:1–5, 20–26).[25]

The world’s fastest sprinter joining you in a three-legged race provides a good analogy of the incarnation: Jesus remained fully God but became functionally limited in his abilities while in his earthly body.[26]

In Christ, we see God living a fully human life,[27] in addition to a person living in complete reliance upon the Father and the Spirit (John 11:40–44; Luke 4:1).[28]

Image via Wikimedia Commons


Read Phil 2:7. What was the effect of Jesus’s “emptying himself”? Why was it necessary for him to be both human and divine to secure our salvation? How does reflecting upon the change in his status which Christ willingly accepted impact your relationship with him?





Go to Obedient to the Point of Death (Phil 2:8)

[Related posts include Let Us Make Humanity (Gen 1:26); Equality with God (Phil 2:5–6); A Summary of Trinitarian Creeds (Appendix to Phil 2:5–6); The Eternal Subordination of the Son to the Father: Orthodoxy or Heresy?Obedient to the Point of Death (Phil 2:8); The Name Above Every Name (Phil 2:9–11); In the Beginning Was the Word (John 1:1–2) and Greek Translation of the Old Testament]

[Click here to go to Chapter 3: The Image of God (Genesis 1:26–31)]


[1] Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, 208.

[2] Hawthorne, Philippians, 116–7.

[3] Thielman, Philippians, 117.

[4] Witherington, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 145.

[5]Danker, et al., “κενόω” (kenoō), BDAG, 539.

[6] Hawthorne, Philippians, 117.

[7]The noun here is anthrōpos, which can refer to a person of either gender per BDAG p. 81. See Equality with God (Phil 2:5–6) for an in-depth discussion of the term morphē.

[8]Danker, et al., “δοῦλος” (doulos), BDAG, 259–60.

[9] Karl Heinrich Rengstorf, “δοῦλος” (doulos), TDNT 2:261–80, 261, 278.

[10] Witherington, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 143.

[11] Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, 204.

[12] Witherington, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 143.

[13]Martial, Epigrams (revised by Roger Pearse; London: Bohn, 2008), 3.94, https://archive.org/stream/epigramsofmarti00mart#page/174/mode/2up.

[14] S. Scott Bartchy, “Slavery: New Testament,” ABD 6:65–73, 69–70.

[15] Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, 211.

[16] Hawthorne, Philippians, 119.

[17] J. Behm, “μορφη” (morphē), TDNT  4:750.

[18] Witherington, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 148.

[19] Hawthorne, Philippians, 120.

[20] Johannes Schneider, “′oμοιωμα” (homoiōma), TNDT 5:191–8, 197.

[21]Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons of Saint Bernard on Advent and Christmas Including the Famous Treatise on the Incarnation Called “Missus Est” (Translated by St. Mary’s Convent; London: R & T Washbourne, 1909), 39, Https://archive.org/stream/sermonsofstberna00bernuoft#page/38/mode/2up.

[22]Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 3rd Ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), 111–5.

[23]Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1938), 321.

[24]Jonathan Edwards, A History of the Work of Redemption; Comprising an Outline of Church History (New York: American Tract Society, 1816), 207–8, https://archive.org/stream/historyofworkofr00edwa#page/208/mode/2up.

[25] Hawthorne, Philippians, 115.

[26]Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd Ed., 670–1.

[27] Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, 213.

[28] Erickson, Christian Theology, 658.