Philippians 2:5-6 – Equal with God

It is hard to over-estimate the theological importance of Philippians 2:5-11. This hymn is foundational for Christian understanding of the nature of Jesus and the incarnation.There are more than a few major theological problems in these few verses, such was what it means that Jesus is God, yet he emptied himself.

But Paul’s original intention was not to create a theological statement, he is focused on Jesus as the ideal example of humble service. Paul is drawing out a practical implication for “living a life worthy of the Gospel” (1:27-2:4) from this important theological statement: serve one another with the same attitude of Christ Jesus.

Corporate Ladder

The noun Paul uses to describe Jesus’ outward appearance (μορφή) is used twice in the passage: Jesus goes from “form of God” to “form of servant.”  While the word refers simply to “what something looks like,” it is used to describe the outward appearance of a god. Philo used the word to describe Caligula as “dressed up as a god” (Leg. 110). Most cultures have some sort of system of social stratification that can be discerned from what people wear. Joe Hellerman describes well the Roman emphasis clothing as an external sign of one’s social standing (Embracing Shared Ministry, 142).  For the most part, one could tell social status by the clothes a person wore. A slave, for example, could not parade around in a toga, nor would a wealthy Senator and leading Citizen of Rome dress in rags like a slave.

Jesus was “equal with God.” This parallel phrase uses “equal” (ἴσος). While the word often is used for two things that are equal (for example, Luke 6:34), it appears in several theological important passages.  In John 5:18 Jesus is accused of making himself “equal with God,” something the Jewish religious authorities though worthy of death! Some Greek and Roman rulers claimed to be equal with God. In 2 Macc 9:12, Antiochus claims to be “equal with God” (ἰσόθεος), Appian described the honors Augustus gave to Julius Caesar as “equal with God” (BCiv. 2.148, cited by Hellerman, 143).

But his equality was not “a thing to be grasped.” A “thing to be grasped” (ἁρπαγμός) refers to asserting a title or putting forth a claim for something, or something to be exploited. Think of someone who “makes a claim” for a legal settlement, they think they are entitled to compensation so the “make a claim.” The King James Version had “did not think it robbery,” reflecting the idea of grabbing at something.  Maybe another way to think of this is a benefit that gives you an advantage over other people, maybe handicapped or expectant mother parking at the mall. This is a “status” that allows someone to take an advantage over others.

Paul describes Jesus in this verse as occupying the very highest rank imaginable by anyone in the ancient world, he was in fact God. Yet that position and rank was not something he insisted upon, as the Romans would have done. He set aside that rank in order to humble himself.  The Roman world was based on extreme social stratification. There was a rigid social order in the Roman world, from the extreme minority elites who had virtually all the power to the majority slaves who had absolutely no power.

This humble attitude of mutual submission, even to people of a lower social class, flies in the face of the Roman world, and as Hellerman points out, it flies in the face of power relations within the church (p. 99). Paul’s main point here is to encourage the believer to serve other believers without respect to their rank or position in society. This includes everyone in a local church, including the pastor!

The larger a church grows, the more need there is for power structures reminiscent of American corporate business models. A church could have a “CEO Pastor” who is paid (respected) like CEO in a major business. Perhaps they think of themselves as too busy “casting vision” to drive a van for the youth group, or play games with the elementary kids, or teach a small Bible study, or weed the church lawn on a work day.

The pastor worthy of respect is the one who sets aside his title, respect and power, and serves others, doing tasks that might be “beneath” their position. This understanding of what it means to serve one another in love as the potential to transform local churches, but it is completely counter cultural to the way many American pastors understand their role in the church. Is it wrong for a pastor or church leader to see themselves as “vision casters” or function more like the CEO of a large business?

5 thoughts on “Philippians 2:5-6 – Equal with God

  1. I think the grammar here is more complicated (than you have space to mention). ISOS is in the accusative neuter plural, and since that doesn’t match anything, it must be adverbial here. Do you agree?

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  2. Thanks for the quick comment. Yes, not only is every word important, the syntax of each word/phrase is worth a few pages in a commentary! I am obviously glossing over a great deal of hard syntactical work here in a sermon-esque blog post.

    I would be inclined to describe τὸ εἶναι ἴσα as a substantive use of the articular infinitive (τὸ εἶναι) + object (ἴσα); the substantive construction is a direct object to ἡγήσατο (think, consider). This is a double accusative since he considered τὸ εἶναι ἴσα (“to be equal with God”) as οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν (“not graspable/not a title to be asserted”). This is essential what Wallace says in GGBB, 602.

    N. T. Wright argued the article refers back to the form of God (μορφῇ θεοῦ), but I am not sure he convinced many on this (N. T. Wright, “ἁρπαγμός and the Meaning of Philippians 2:5–11, ” JTS NS 37 (1986): 344.)

    If it were adverbial, what verb does it modify? The infinitive τὸ εἶναι? or ἡγήσατο? Or the action implied by the noun ἁρπαγμὸν? What is the exegetical payoff if you argue it is adverbial?

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    • We considered this verse for a long time in my undergrad Greek days. I think I would gloss it as “who, existing in the form of God, did not consider it something to be grasped to exist EQUALLY with God.” The point being, he never ceased to be equal with God, but only ceased to live equally, that is, receiving the glory, laud, and honor that he did as the pre-incarnate second person of the trinity.

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      • Okay, I can see what you are thinking now. I think the theology is correct, but is that the way an adverbial accusative functions? This is not really an example of a measure of time and space (the most common adverbial use of the accusative). The “adverbial accusative” (accusative of manner) “It is restricted to a certain group of words that, historically, were used adverbially,” like τὸ λοιπόν (Wallace GGBB, 200).

        It might be construed as an adverbial accusative of reference (with respect to being equal with God, he did not think it was a thing to be grasped), although the parallel (morphe) is in the dative.

        Maybe the simplest is best here, it is the object of the infinitive.

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  3. One thing I find really interesting in the church is that many people are unwilling to do the background work, or the dirty work. Looking at Jesus’ example in the Bible, He did everything that was laid out in front of Him. He wasn’t “too good” for any task. Christ-minded means to “think as Jesus thought,” which leads to living a life like Jesus lived (Longenecker 201). We must follow the model of Christ, in which no work is too little work, and allow Him to use us in whatever capacity He desires.
    For the “CEO Pastor” of a church, I do believe that a church is a business- you must know how to run it properly, whether that be with employees, financially, or advertising, etc. There should be someone overlooking it all, more or less leading the pack, but I do not believe that excuses them from doing the day-to-day little work. Vision-casting is important when aligning with God’s vision and leaning into next steps that He speaks to you, but again, the pastor should be just as quick to raise hand for leading a Bible study or doing a youth event. If we are Christ-minded, we are called to be self-emptying, or kenosis, humbling ourselves by any means for the Kingdom (Longenecker 202).

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