The phrase “emptied himself” is an alternative rendering for the phrase in bold below:

Philippians 2:5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

This is a passage that has been a focus, one could almost say boxing ring, for theological debate for 20 centuries and consequently the passage has been put under a microscope as regards almost every word. Particular attention has been paid to the following words.

  1. form
    2:6a who, though he was in the form of God, ….. 7b taking the form of a servant, …
    ~ with the meaning of “form” or “shape” (Greek morphe) dissected.
  2. equality
    2:6b did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped
    ~ for centuries mistakenly rendered as “thought it not robbery to be equal with God” (Wycliffe, Tyndale, KJV) the opposite of what the verse intended.
  3. made
    2:7b born in the likeness of men (ESV)
    ~ perhaps the idea of the translators here (ESV) being that he only appeared to be a baby? Yet the text says “made”.
  4. emptied
    2:7a but emptied himself (ASV, NASB, NRSV) made himself nothing (NIV, ESV)
    ~ from the verb “emptied” (kenoo) comes the theological term, kenosis, emptying.
  5. likeness
    2:7c being born in the likeness of men.
    ~ debate about exactly what “likeness” (homoiōma) should mean.
  6. fashion (KJV)
    2:8 being found in human form
    ~ debate about exactly what “fashion” (Greek schēma) should mean.

Too much use of the microscope?

The problem with these word issues — and the terms under discussion are all of them reasonably straightforward terms in Greek, and in English — is that they distract so much from the main question, one which can only be understood by context and all-round familiarity with the NT message about the Lord Jesus.

The main question is very simple — is this passage teaching that a divine being came to earth in the guise of a man for 33 years, or is the passage teaching that a man who had every right to claim the kingdoms of the earth as (literally) God’s son, forwent that right in order to submit himself in obedience to the saving of mankind.

Compared with this big question the other issues are fine pointing. Is this passage about:

  1. An immortal being humbling himself to enter the womb of a woman?
  2. A man born  with God as his Father humbling himself in his adult life.

So, in turn, we will ask that one big question of the controverted words:

1. form

The word form (morphe) clearly implies outward appearance. The following is typical of classical and Jewish usage:

Mark 16:2 After these things he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country.

But what does “being in the outward form of God” mean in terms of the big question – a divine being humbling himself before birth or a mortal being humbling himself in life? If Christ is himself God, them to say he was in the form of God is totally inappropriate. Can we say that God himself is “in the form of God”? Clearly not.

Then if Christ in the outward form (morphe) was a divine being — in the outward form of an angel perhaps — then is taking the outward form of first a baby then a man truly the outward form of a servant? And how do the Philippians emulate this? How can a Christian in Philippi produce the form (morphe) of a servant if it requires descending from heaven into a womb?

2. robbery

This is something of a historical issue now, since the only modern version to preserve the “counted it not robbery” error of the KJV is the NKJV, and the error is noted in most commentaries. Apart from the NKJV all versions read:

Phil.2:6 …did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped (ESV)

(* The problem appears to have originated with Wycliffe, in 1395, having misread the Latin to produce:  that whanne he was in the forme of God, demyde not raueyn, that hym silf were euene to God; he deemed it not rapine that himself were even to God. Though the mistake was also found in several early European versions as well – including the Luther Bible.)

3. emptied

Although there are renderings such as “made himself nothing” (ESV, NIV) ultimately there is not much difference between the translations. The original Greek word is the most common word for ‘to empty’:

Genesis 24:20 So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough (LXX)

The Greek Old Testament contains other literal uses (2 Sam 13:9. 2Chron.24:11 etc.), which are typical of the literal way “empty” is used in most Greek texts, pagan or Jewish. The five NT uses, all by Paul, and all figurative, are unusual (Rom. 4:14 1Co.1:17, 9:15 2Co. 9:3, Php.2:7)  but nevertheless the meaning “emptied” can be understood to mean “made void” “made nothing” when figurative.

The question again would be how a divine being truly “empties” himself by descending from heaven to be in the body of a baby which learns and grows (Luke 2:40, 52). The context again points to the adult life of Christ: but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant.

4. made

The word should be “made”, or “become”. There is another verb for ‘born’ (gennao) which speaks of the act of birth, but ‘made’ (ginomai) speaks of the nature of someone, whether they become (ginomai) that nature at birth, as an adult, or both.

Mark 1:7 become (ginomai) fishers of men

So instead of “being born in the likeness of men”, something at birth, we may be talking about “become” or “made” as an adult process.

5.likeness

The idea (homoiōma) shows a likeness in some aspect: either nature or appearance or meaning.

Romans 6:5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his (homoiōma), we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

It is clear that the ESV translation “being born in the likeness of men” takes this likeness to mean “born looking like a baby, but inside wasn’t like a human baby”, since of course the actions of a baby would not tell us anything. But “being made in the likeness of men, and being found in human schema” would imply something else — the similarity of the adult Jesus with all his brethren, except in one respect, the one respect that matters — he did not sin.

6. schema

The word used (schema) has wide range from  manner, character, figure, in the below “present form”:

1 Co 7:31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form (schema) of this world is passing away.

So readings such as “And being found in human form” (ESV), “appearance” (NIV) and “in fashion as a man” (KJV) are possible. But again the reading is in the context as to whether this schema is merely disguise, camouflage, of the infant birth, or the real substance of Christ’s adult character.

Back from the microscope again

The problem with looking at all those words is again we focus in too closely on the detail and miss the overall picture. What really is being described here? What does Paul want the Philippians to do?

The passage in question 2:6-8 is preceded by an instruction 2:5

Philippians 2:5 Have this mind among yourselves,
which is yours in Christ Jesus,

6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant,
being made in the likeness of men.
8 And being found in human form,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.

What does the phrase “which is yours in Christ Jesus” add to “Have this mind among yourselves”? What mind is “yours” here, and how can these things described 2:6-8 possibly be of the Philippians if this is about events before Christ’s birth?

Missing the cross

The phrase “can’t see the wood for the trees” probably never applied to any Bible passage more than Phil.2:6-8. The concentration of the birth of Jesus (and the microscopic detailing and redetailing over the six Greek words above) can lead anyone sucked into it to miss the point of Paul’s example. He’s not asking the Philippians to emulate the descent of a divine being into the womb of a woman, casting of powers, “emptying” or erasing memory of preexistence in heaven, Paul is simply asking the Philippians to take up their cross:

8 … he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

This is the message of Phil.2:6-8. The road of sacrifice, obedience, that Christ followed as an adult is what leads to this conclusion:

9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Conclusion

The conclusion here is in some ways ambiguous. Deliberately so. It would be very easy to state that we have concluded here that because we have been proposing that a passage designed for the Philippians to emulate could only be about Christ “emptying himself” in his adult life, not “emptying himself” in the descent of a divine being into the womb, we have somehow demonstrated what “emptied himself” means.

We haven’t. That is not going to be demonstrated to every reader by simply stressing the before-and-after of the passage:

2:5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus………………………. ……………………..8. he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

For any reader, even the original ones in Philippi, an example by Paul based on the most personal acts of Christ cannot be felt and absorbed without going to Christ in the gospels to truly be convinced of what Paul is saying. This should be the conclusion that the Philippians themselves made when Paul told them to emulate Christ “emptying himself”.

But where were they going to find the example of Christ “emptying himself” recorded? There is no pre-birth gospel of Jesus to describe the decision of a divine being to “empty himself” and enter the womb of Mary. Therefore if Paul expected the Philippians to take an example from that, Paul was demanding that they take an example from imagination or direct revelation. However if the “emptying himself” is the life of the Jesus of Nazareth whom we see in the Gospels, then Paul expects the Philippians to take their example from what they see.

So this is the only practical, doable, conclusion – the answer is not in these words of Phil. 2:6-8 alone, no matter how hard they are put under the microscope. To really start to answer the question: What does it mean that Jesus “emptied himself”? The answer is here:

  • Matthew ch.1-28
  • Mark ch.1-16
  • Luke ch.1-24
  • John ch.1-21

These four books are what will explain Phil. 2:6-8 in a way that makes 2:5 possible to “Have this mind among yourselves”. And this is why Paul starts with:

Philippians 2:5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,

Because it was theirs in Christ Jesus, they had the example of Christ’s “emptying himself” in front of their eyes.

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