Equality with God

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2) Phil 2:5–6: Philippians 2:5–11 has generated more discussion among scholars than virtually any other passage in the Bible.[1]

These verses contain one of the most beloved and exalted descriptions of Christ in Paul’s letters.[2] The apostle depicted the Son of God from his preexistence to his time on earth,[3] shedding important light on the identity of “us” in Gen 1:26.

Paul then detailed Christ’s status after the incarnation, including the future submission of all of creation to him.[4]

Verse 5 provides a critical transition, for it enables us to understand the frame of reference for interpreting the hymn which follows.[5]

That the context of the passage is Phil 2:2–4 is evident by Paul’s beginning with an emphatic,[6] “This think among yourselves which [was] also in Christ Jesus.”[7]

Christians must develop the same attitudes exhibited by our Lord in our dealings with each other,[8] not the “selfish ambition” and “conceit” of v 3.[9]

Most modern scholars view Phil 2:6–11 as a preexistent hymn which Paul inserted into his letter.[10]

However, even those who consider this Paul’s own composition recognize its poetic rhythm and highly unusual vocabulary. Three of the words here occur nowhere else in the New Testament (NT).[11]

The absence of the apostle’s usual emphasis upon the resurrection,[12] as well as the omission of the name Jesus or Christ until Phil 2:10–11 also suggest this represents existing material used by Paul.[13]

This ode provides us with a glimpse of the earliest form of Christian worship, revealing what followers of Jesus believed about him even before the four gospels were written.[14]

Verse 6 begins with “Who being in the form of God,” pointing to the Son’s preeminence before he took on “the form of a slave.”[15]

Although “form” (morphē) appears only twice in the NT, here and in Phil 2:7,[16] it is well-attested in ancient literature.[17]

For example, the Jewish philosopher Philo (ca. 20 BC–40 AD) described Moses’s encounter with the burning bush (Exod 3:1–3).

He wrote, “And in the middle of the flame there was seen a certain very beautiful form (morphē), not resembling any visible thing, a most godlike image, emitting a light more brilliant than fire, which any one might have imagined to be the image of the living God.”[18]

No English word has precisely the same meaning as morphē.[19] Typically, it connotes “an outward form which completely expresses the underlying reality of the person or thing’s essential nature.”[20]

Thus, one’s “form” consists of what is objectively there, rather than a subjective appearance.[21]

Consequently, before he put on flesh, the Son of God possessed all of the characteristics of God,[22] including his sovereign divine majesty.[23]

Christ was equal to the Father in cosmic authority while in his pre-incarnate state. Such parity was always his. Paul did not convey that “equality with God” was something Jesus desired which he did not have.[24]

The Greek term perichoresis best captures the essence of the Trinity. As in a perfectly choreographed dance, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit so interpenetrate one another that they possess a unified will.[25]

Dance scenes from a Jane Austen movie illustrate this well. A group of people moves in perfect time and placement in relation to each other, with no one member of the unit more important than another.

Even so, in the Trinity, where there is one, so are the other two, without any one being greater than the others.[26]

As Augustine (354–430 AD) stated, “Believe then that the Son is equal with the Father…For if he be not equal, he is not a true Son.”[27]

A review of Philip Schaff’s massive work The Creeds of Christendom indicates that the currently popular notion that Jesus was subordinate to the Father by obeying him prior to his birth does not occur within orthodox Christianity. In fact, the few creeds which mentioned such submission by Christ vigorously condemned the concept.[28]

Equally difficult to grapple with is the meaning of the phrase “He did not consider being equal with God harpagmon.”

Only here in the NT does this word appear.[29] In Greco-Roman literature, where it rarely occurs, it means “robbery,” which does not fit the context of the passage.[30]

However, this word is synonymous with harpagma, which occurs much more frequently.[31] That term refers to “taking advantage of a thing which one already possesses,” instead of meaning “grasping at something which one does not have.”[32]

Contrary to what one would expect of a sovereign Lord, Jesus did not regard his equality with God as a right to utilize while he lived on earth.[33]

According to the 4th century bishop Eusebius, when it came to the prospect of suffering torture for their faith, “Some, shrinking from the trial, rather than be taken and fall into the hands of their enemies, threw themselves from lofty houses, considering death [by suicide] advantageous (harpagma) to the cruelty of the impious.”[34]

Eusebius also noted that the Apostle Peter considered death on a cross to his advantage (harpagmon) because of the hope of salvation.[35]

These martyrs considered death a beneficial opportunity.[36]

In addition, Eusebius recounted a proclamation made by Constantine to those who had been exiled, permitting them to return if they considered it to their benefit (harpagma).[37]

Philippians 2:6 uses the same sense of harpagmon as “an advantage to be seized.”[38] Despite his equality with the Father, Jesus chose not to exploit his position but to unselfishly give himself.[39]

Consequently, the best translation of this phrase is, “He did not regard being equal with God as something to use for his own advantage.”

The issue is not whether Christ possessed equality with God, but whether he used it for his own benefit (Rom 15:3).[40] People living in the Roman colony of Philippi would have expected grasping and seizing by a lordly power.[41]

Paul did not command his audience, in a city comprised largely of military veterans, to give up their Roman citizenship to embrace their heavenly allegiance (Phil 3:20). Similarly, Christ did not lose his heavenly identity when he became human.[42]

Yet, he chose not to pursue his right to satisfy his own desires ahead of tending to the needs of others (Phil 2:4).[43]

Image via Wikimedia Commons

 

a) Read Phil 2:5–6. What was Jesus’s status before he became human? What evidence supports that view? How can you emulate Christ?

 

 

 

Go to Taking the Form of a Slave

 

[Related posts include Let Us Make Humanity (Gen 1:26); A Summary of Trinitarian Creeds (Appendix to Phil 2:5–6); The Eternal Subordination of the Son to the Father: Orthodoxy or Heresy?; Taking the Form of a Slave (Phil 2:7); Obedient to the Point of Death (Phil 2:8); The Name Above Every Name (Phil 2:9–11); and Citizens of Heaven (Phil 3:20)]

 

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

 

[1]Frank Thielman, Philippians (NIVAC; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 113.

[2]Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 192.

[3]Ben Witherington III, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 136.

[4] Thielman, Philippians, 109.

[5] Witherington, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 137.

[6] Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, 199.

[7] Although this says, “This think in you” (plural), en humin is an idiom for “among yourselves” (BDAG, p. 1066).

[8] Thielman, Philippians, 113.

[9] Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, 196.

[10] John T. Fitzgerald, “Philippians, Epistle to the,” ABD 5:318–26, 323–4.

[11] Thielman, Philippians, 110.

[12] Witherington, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 132.

[13]Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians (WBC; Dallas: Word, 2004), 110.

[14] Thielman, Philippians, 109–10.

[15] Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, 202–3.

[16] Hawthorne, Philippians, 110.

[17]Danker, et al., “μορφη” (morphē), BDAG, 659.

[18]Philo, On the Life of Moses I (vol. 3 of The Works of Philo Judaeus; trans. Charles Duke Yonge; London: Bohn, 1855), 16, https://archive.org/stream/worksphilojudaeu03philuoft#page/16/mode/2up.

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

[20] Witherington, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 140.

[21] Johannes Behm, “μορφη” (morphē), TNDT 4:742–52, 743.

[22] Hawthorne, Philippians, 114.

[23] Behm, “μορφη” (morphē), TNDT 4:751.

[24] Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, 207–8.

[25]Kevin Giles, The Trinity and Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God and the Contemporary Gender Debate (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 113.

[26]William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 3rd Ed. (ed. Alan W. Gomes; Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2003), 250.

[27]Augustine, “Sermon 140,” in Sermons (131–140) on Selected Lessons of the New Testament (NPNF2) (ed. Philip Schaff; trans. R. G. MacMullen; Edinburgh: Eerdmans, 1867), 5, https://www.ewtn.com/library/PATRISTC/PNI6-13.TXT.

[28]Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, 3 Vols. (rev David S. Schaff; Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1931), https://archive.org/details/bibliothecasymbo020scha.

[29] Hawthorne, Philippians, 115.

[30] Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, 205.

[31] Thielman, Philippians, 116.

[32] Witherington, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 134.

[33] W. Foerster, “′αρπαγμος” (harpagmos), TDNT 1:473–4, 474.

[34]Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History (ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace; vol. 1 of Church History, Life of Constantine, Oration in Praise of Constantine (NPNF2); Edinburgh; London; New York: T & T Clark, 1890), 8.12.2, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf201.iii.xiii.xiii.html.

[35]Eusebius, Commentary on Luke, 6. Cited by Thielman.

[36] Thielman, Philippians, 116.

[37]Eusebius, The Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine (ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace; vol. 1 of Church History, Life of Constantine, Oration in Praise of Constantine (NPNF2); trans. Ernest Cushing Richardson; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), 31.2, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf201.iv.vi.ii.xxxi.html.

[38] Roy W. Hoover, “Harpagmos Enigma: A Philological Solution,” HTR 64, no. 1 (January 1971): 95–119, 109, 117, http://digilander.libero.it/domingo7/Harpagmos8.jpg, http://digilander.libero.it/domingo7/Harpagmos13.jpg.

[39] Thielman, Philippians, 116.

[40] Thielman, Philippians, 118.

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

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

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