Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
This is passages is taken as support for the doctrine of the Trinity or the pre-existence of Christ, often due to misleading translations. Actually when examined, this passage does not support the doctrine of the Trinity at all.
1 Form, Greek morphe
Firstly, let it be noted that Paul says that Jesus was ‘in the form of God’. This phrase is unlikely to mean that Jesus had the nature of God.
The Greek word morphe (‘form’ [NKJV]) does not mean ‘very nature’ as NIV misleadingly translates it; morphe refers to external appearance, not essence or substance. An example is when Mark uses this word to refer to one of the resurrection appearances, saying ‘he appeared in another form [morphe]’ (Mark 16:12) – this does not mean Jesus changed his ‘very nature’, it means his appearance was different to they did not recognise him (cf. Luke 24:16). Another famous example from Jewish Hellenistic literature is the form, morphe, of a child resembling the mother in 1 Maccabees 15:4.
In what manner might I express the emotions of parents who love their children? We impress upon the character of a small child a wondrous likeness both of mind and of form. Especially is this true of mothers, who because of their birthpangs have a deeper sympathy toward their offspring than do the fathers. (1 Maccabees 15:4)
What Paul is saying is that Jesus was ‘in the image of God’; to take this is to mean that Jesus was God is simply unsustainable. In fact by saying Jesus was ‘in the image of God’, Paul is actually distinguishing Jesus from God. To be clear, when certain versions translate the beginning of verse six with phrases such as ‘though he was God’ (NLT) and ‘Christ was truly God’ (CEV) they are deliberately changing the meaning of the text to support their own ideology.
2. Not to be grasped at
Secondly, the phrase ‘did not consider it robbery to be equal with God’ is notoriously difficult to translate. The word here translated ‘a thing to be grasped’ (hapargmon) is used nowhere else in the New Testament and is used rarely in other Greek literature. The word has something to do with grasping, the question is does this refer to grasping to retain something or grasping to get hold of something new; the first option would imply that Jesus was already equal with God, the second option would imply the opposite. There are two reasons for supposing the second option is the correct one. First, as we have seen, Paul says that Jesus was ‘in the image of God’ – this would imply that Jesus was not equal with God but something that represented or emulated God. Second, in verse nine Paul says that God exalted Jesus and gave him ‘the name which is above every name’ – if Jesus was equal with God then he would already have this name and, presumably, could exalt himself.
Bearing these two facts in mind, we find that in this passage, far from teaching about the pre-existence of Jesus, Paul is making the comparison between the first and the last Adam. Consider, who else in scripture is said to be ‘in the image of God’? The first human beings (Gen 1:26-7). And with what were the first man and woman tempted with? Equality with God (Gen 3:5). So Paul draws the parallels between how Adam and Jesus dealt with the same temptation. Jesus, though he was made in the image of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped at but instead humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death on the cross.