home   about us   doctrinal statement   seminars   products    Donation   contact us 

 

 

Philippians 2:6-11 and the Incarnation and Exaltation of Jesus Christ—as YHWH

 

6 Who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

 Philippians 2:6-11, known as the Carmen Christi (“Hymn to Christ”)[1] was utilized by the early Christian church to teach and magnify the pre-existence, incarnation, and the full deity of Jesus Christ. The context of Philippians 2 is clear: Paul stresses to the Philippians that they ought to act in a harmonious and humble way. In which Paul instructs them to have an attitude in themselves “which was also in Christ Jesus,”—namely, humility (v. 5).

 Paul then exemplifies the ultimate act of humility: Jesus Christ, God the Son, voluntarily emptied Himself by becoming flesh. In six short passages, Paul provides a beautiful and well defined summary of the gospel of Jesus Christ expressing His essential nature as God (including His pre-existence; v. 6); His Incarnation and cross-work (i.e., His humiliation; vv. 7-8); and His exaltation to the glory of God the Father (vv. 10-11). His role as Mediator involves two states: 1) the state of humiliation and 2) the state of exaltation.

 

Note the following exegetical points that underline the theological significance and force of Paul’s high Christological Hymn:

 

1. Jesus is presented as God—distinct from God the Father.

In the first part of verse 6, Paul utilizes very specific terms to express clearly that Jesus Christ was always subsisting as God: “Who although He existed [huparchōn] in the form [morphē; or “nature” NIV] of God [theou]. . . .” (emphasis added). So, when Paul says that Christ “did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped” and “He emptied Himself” (vv. 6-7, which we will deal with shortly), these two statements must be interpreted in light of his first statement: Jesus was always “being in very nature God” (NIV).

 The word translated “existed” (“being” KJV, NIV) is huparchōn, which is a present active participle.[2] The participle here indicates a continuous existence or state of continually subsisting.[3] Hence, Jesus did not become the very form or nature of God at a certain point in time, rather He was always existing as God, just as Paul expressed (cf. John 1:18; Heb. 1:3). The same truth is found in John 1:1a: “In the beginning was [ēn] the Word—i.e., the Word was “always existing”[4] (also cf. John 1:18; 16:28; 17:5; Heb. 1:3; 10-12).       

 Next, the word translated “form” (NASB) or “nature” (NIV) is morphē. This word denotes the specific qualities or essential attributes of something. Here, it denotes “the expression of divinity in the pre-existent Christ.”[5] It expresses that which is intrinsic and essential to the thing. Thus, in His pre-existent state, Jesus possessed (always subsisting in) essential deity. Warfield clearly expresses its semantic force:  

Paul does not simply say, “He was God.” He says, “He was in the form of God,” employing a turn of speech which throws emphasis upon Our Lord’s possession of the specific quality of God. “Form” is a term, which expresses the sum of those characterizing qualities which make a thing the precise thing that it is … And “the form of God” is the sum of the characteristics which make the being we call “God,” specifically God, rather than some other being—an angel, say, or a man. When Our Lord is said to be in “the form of God,” therefore, He is declared, in the most expressed manner possible, to be all that God is, to possess the whole fullness of attributes which make God God. [6]

 To deny that the Son was truly the morphē of God is to deny that the Son was truly the morphē of man, “taking the form [morphē] of a bond-servant” (v. 7). The last part of the verse (“[He] did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped”) has been a topic of much discussion among scholars as to the precise meaning of the term harpagmos (“a thing to be grasped” or “robbery”). But as we have stated, the meaning must be in light of the first part of the verse: “always subsisting in the nature of God.” But as we have stated, the meaning must be in light of the first part of the verse: “always subsisting in the nature of God.” In other words, the meaning of harpagmos cannot be separated from the meaning of the participle huparchōn.

Because of the articular infinitive, to einai (“to be” equal to God), some would argue that the phrase “equal to God” refers back to the phrase morphē theou (“nature of God”). However, there are exegetical problems with that view.[7] A more plausible view would be to consider morphē theou ("nature/form of God") as referring to essential nature and “equality with God" as referring to function within the Godhead. In this way, the two phrases (“nature of God” and “equality with God” [v. 6]) are not synonymous. Rather, if this is the meaning, Paul would be stating in essence that although the Son was fully deity, always existing as God, He did not usurp (seize) the role of God the Father.[8]

 2. The Self-Emptying of God the Son. It was the Son who voluntarily “emptied Himself, taking the nature of a servant” (v. 7). The reflexive pronoun heauton (“Himself”) indicates that the subject (Jesus) is also the object (i.e., the one receiving the action of the verb—the verb being ekenōsen, “emptied”). Therefore, Jesus Christ, in His pre-existent state, emptied Himself; it was a “self-emptying” (lit., “He Himself emptied”).  

 The term “taking” is from the Greek aorist active participle, labōn. Semantically, this is a participle of means.[9] The participle of means describes the means or manner of the emptying. Hence, the Son emptied Himself by means of His incarnation (cf. John 1:14). The emptying did not involve in any way, shape, or form, His deity, for Paul safeguards against such an assertion in verse 6: “Who [Christ] always and continually subsisting in the very nature and substance of God” (lit., trans.). Further, the Hymn indicates plainly that it was not God the Father, as Oneness Pentecostals suppose, but the Son, who voluntarily emptied Himself and thus became obedient to death—“even death on a cross” (v. 8).

3. God the Father exalted God the Son. Verse 9 reads: “For this reason also, God [the Father] highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name.” The Father exalted God the Son, who emptied Himself by taking the nature of a servant. Scripture teaches that the Son is “functionally” subordinate to the Father (cf. John 14:28); He perfectly obeys Him and always does His will (cf. John 6:38). However, this does not mean that the Son is not ontologically (by nature) subordinate to the Father.[10] Paul says, “the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:3). But this does not mean that the woman (wife) is less human than the man (husband), nor, in the same way, does it mean that Christ is less God than God the Father. Rather, the passage is speaking about function and purpose, not nature. Since Jesus is not only God, but God-man, the Father exalting the “emptied” Son and glorifying Him with the divine glory they shared “before the world was” (John 17:5) is consistent with the doctrine of the Trinity.  

 4. “At the name of Jesus”: Jesus is the YHWH and thus the fulfillment of Isaiah 45:23. In verses 9-11,[11] Paul then concludes his glorious Christological Hymn with a “purpose of exaltation” (hina) clause:[12] The purpose of the Son’s exaltation was for the result of every knee bowing and every tongue confessing that “Jesus is Lord.” In verse 9, we read that the Father exalted Christ and bestowed on Him the “name” which is above every name. “Name” (onoma) is highly significant in a Semitic (“Jewish”) context. Generally, it carries the meaning of authority, power, or on behalf of (see 1 Sam. 17:45).

 In verses 10-11, without question, Paul is loosely drawing from Isaiah 45:23: “I have sworn by Myself, The word has gone forth from My mouth in righteousness And will not turn back, That to Me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance.” This passage is an undeniable reference to YHWH (cf. vv. 22-25). Paul, however, applies it here to Jesus Christ the Lord who glorifies the Father—namely, the YHWH of Isaiah 45:23.[13]

 There are further exegetical details that enhance the force of Paul’s Jesus-Isaiah connection. First, both Isaiah 45:23 (LXX) and Romans 14:11 (also from Isa. 45:23) contain future tenses (“every knee will bow,” every tongue will confess” [or “will swear allegiance”]) and indicative moods, indicating the future certainty of the event. However, in Philippians 2:10-11, Paul changes the original tenses and moods of the verbs from that of Isaiah 45:23 (and Rom. 14:11) to make, as indicated, Philippians 2:10-11 a purpose and result clause.[14] The purpose of God the Father exalting the Son, then, was for the result of every knee bowing and every tongue confessing that “Jesus Christ is Lord,” thus, the YHWH of Isaiah 45:23—hence Jesus will be the fulfillment of Isaiah’s (future) prophecy.

 

 Lastly, although most translations contain the phrase, “Jesus Christ is Lord” at the end of verse 11, the Greek reads, kurios Iēsous Christos (lit., “Lord Jesus Christ”). Here Paul places kurios (“Lord”) first in the phrase (viz. the emphatic position) to emphasize even more the Son’s exaltation as YHWH, the name that belonged to Him. The LXX translates the Hebrew Tetragrammaton, YHWH, as kurios. Thus, when a New Testament author would cite an Old Testament passage where YHWH appears, the author would use kurios (e.g., Mark 12:29-30; Rom. 10:13).[15]

Since the backdrop of Paul’s assertion of Christ centers on the prophetic word of YHWH in Isaiah 45:23, it is only natural then that he would place kurios first in the clause,[16] thus making his point: kurios [YHWH] Iēsous Christos (“LORD Jesus Christ”).  

 From start to finish, this Christological Hymn exegetically affirms the gospel of Jesus Christ; it affirms the two states of Christ, His humiliation (incarnation and death) and exaltation (every knee bowing and every tongue confessing that Jesus is Lord—the YHWH and thus the fulfillment of Isa. 45:23). The Hymn affirms two very fundamental aspects of Jesus Christ: 1) He always subsisting in the nature of God and 2) God the Son became man in order to die on the cross. The entire gospel of the Son is summarized in six short, but very powerful passages—the humiliation and exaltation of our Lord and God, Jesus Christ..


NOTES


[1] Also known as the Kenosis Hymn (from kenoō, “to make empty”).

[2] Huparchōn is from the verb huparchō (“to be in existence”).

[3] Cf. Thayer, 1996: 638; Bauer, 2000: 1029).

[4] The term “was” is from the Greek verb ēn, which is the imperfect tense of eimi (“to be”). An imperfect tense indicates continuous action normally occurring in the past, or an on-going past action (Wallace, GGBB, 541). Thus in the beginning the Word was already existing—no beginning. Jesus’ eternal existence is also seen in passages such as John 8:58 where the presence tense verb eimi (“am”) is in contrast with the Abraham’s created state denoted by the aorist form of ginomai (“came to be”): “Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born [genesthai], I am [egō eimi].”

[5] Walter Bauer, A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed., ed. and rev. Frederick W. Danker (BDAG; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 659.

[6] Benjamin B. Warfield, Biblical Doctrines (Carlisle: Banner of Truth Trust, 1988), 177.

[7] Cf. Wallace, GGBB, 220. 

[8] Ibid.

[9] Cf. Wallace, GGBB, 630.

[10] The mutual operation or functionality of the three Persons of the Trinity in that they have different roles/functions, yet they are working together, is defined theologically as the economic Trinity. The soteriological Trinity speaks of the specific roles/functions each of the Persons have in the work of salvation. And the ontological Trinity speaks of the very nature of the three distinct Persons being co-equal, co-eternal, and co-existent Persons sharing the nature of the one God.       

[11] “For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” 

[12] The Greek conjunction hina (“so that” v. 10) frequently denotes purpose and result (i.e., the purpose of X was for the result of Y; e.g., “He gave His only begotten Son in order that everyone believing in Him shall not perish, but have life eternal (John 3:16; lit. trans.). Thus, the purpose of God giving the Son was for the result of eternal life for everyone believing in Him.

[13] This is one of many places where a NT author applies an OT passage referring to YHWH, to Jesus Christ. For example, compare Psalms 102:25-27 with Hebrews 1:10-12; Isaiah 6:1-10 with John 12:39-41; Isaiah 8:12-13 with 1 Peter 3:14-15; Isaiah 45:23 with Philippians 2:10-11; Joel 2:32 with Romans 10:13.

 

[14] Specifically, the tenses and moods in Isaiah 45:23 and Romans 14:11 are future indicatives (“will bow,” “will confess/swear”). But in Philippians 2:10-11 Paul modified them to aorist subjunctives following the conjunction hina (“so that”) respectively (“shall bow,” “shall confess”).    

[15] A point to which JWs agree. Except, of course, when the OT passages is referring to Jesus Christ, they do not follow their own rule. For example, the phrase “Jesus as Lord” in Romans 10:9 is clearly the antecedent to the occurrences of the pronoun “Him” and “Lord” following up to verse 13:

9 that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved;

10 for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.

11 For the Scripture says, “WHOEVER BELIEVES IN HIM WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED.”

12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of  all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him;

13 For “WHOEVER WILL CALL ON THE NAME OF THE LORD [YHWH] WILL BE SAVED” (emphasis added).

“Jesus as Lord” is the object of salvation from verse 9-13. Throughout these passages, it is the same “Him” and same “Lord” beginning in verse 9. To say that the “Lord” in verse 9 is a different “Lord” than in verse 13 completely breaks the flow of the passages. The Lord that one confesses (v. 9) is the same Lord that one calls upon for salvation (v. 13). In verse 13, Paul cites Joel 2:32: “whoever calls on the name of the Lord [Heb. YHWH] will be delivered.” Just as he does in Philippians 2:10-11, Paul cites a passage referring to YHWH and applies it to Jesus. Thus, whoever confessing and calls upon Jesus as Lord, that is, Jesus as YHWH will be saved.  

[16] In biblical Greek, the placement of a word in a sentence was not always dependent on the subject-verb word order, but rather on emphasis. Specifically, in verse 11, the anarthrous predicate nominative kurios, occupies the “emphatic position” (i.e., first word of the clause): “Lord Jesus Christ.” As we have shown, the same is true in John 1:1c where the anarthrous predicate nominative theos, is also in the emphatic position: theos ēn ho logos (“lit., “God was the Word”), drawing attention to the Word’s nature as God.