Ol’ Sam was a little amazed to note that the lesson for this week included no biblical passages on the preexistence of Jesus. Sounds like a natural opportunity to complement the existing lesson, so here we go…
Philippians 2:5-11, one of the authentic Pauline epistles:
Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
Who, though he was in the form (morphē) of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be grasped (harpagmon).
Rather, he emptied (ekenōsen) himself,
taking the form (morphē) of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
And being found in the likeness of a human,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient unto death, the death of the cross.
Wherefore, God has greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,
That at the name of Jesus
every knee should bow
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
And every tongue confess (exomologēsētai)
that Jesus Christ is Lord
to the glory of God the Father.
Text, Genre, Form, and Context
The text looks pretty solid. One point of mild disagreement seems to be whether exomologēsētai (confess) should be in the future indicative (Alexandrinus, Ephraemi, Bezae) or aorist subjunctive (P46, Sinaiticus, Vaticanus). NA27 opted for the later.
I have structured the text to show its potential as poetry. This indicates the presence of an important christological point, because lots of significant christological passages in the NT appear as either poetry or elevated prose. Many think that this passage was originally a hymn, pre-dating even Paul’s use in the present context.
In its present context, however, it lies in a paraentic section, in which Paul urges the Philippians to live a life worthy of the gospel (1:27-2:18). This means that the preexistence of Christ is not the point of the passage, but a premise on the way to the point. The competent reader will watch for some indication of how, exactly, Jesus is an example to the Philippians, noting also how Jesus’ preexistence contributes to this argument.
The passage has two distinct parts. In the first, Jesus is said to have humbled himself to the point of dying on the cross. In the second, God is said to have vindicated Jesus by giving him a name, the name “Lord,” which requires the indicated obeisance from all creation.
What is not clear are the precise claims made about Jesus by the words morphē and harpagmon. First, morphē is almost always translated “form.” The impact of this word, however, is far more than appearance. Most students of this passage agree that Paul is indicating that Jesus possessed divine status. This establishes the all-important contrast between what Jesus was, divine, and what he became, a slave. This should be thought of in terms of real status and position, rather than incidentals.
Although Jesus had divine status, he did not consider equality with God harpagmon. This term is, and has been, highly contested. Although both the Greek and the Latin fathers agreed that Jesus had equality with God, the Latin fathers understood harpagmon in terms of robbery or usurpation. For them, equality with God was Jesus’ by right, not something stolen. The Greek fathers thought of harpagmon in terms of a treasure. For them, Jesus’ divine status was something that he did not greedily cling to.
For my part, I think the Greeks have the right of it. Jesus did not regard his divinity as something he had to cling to.
Next, we read that Jesus emptied (ekenōsen) himself. This should not be understood to mean that he divested himself of his divinity, but that he did not insist upon, or take advantage of his status. This distinction is important because it establishes continuity between the inner reality of the preexistent One and the inner reality of the One who died the death of a slave.
And in these sentences, Paul has presented the ideas of preexistence and incarnation, but he has not explained them – indeed, they are taken for granted!
Finally, we read that God vindicated Jesus, exalting him above every creature. To better appreciate this point, consider Is 45:22-23:
Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself have I sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: “To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.”
Thus God has given Jesus the name “Lord,” requiring that all creation render also to him what is properly rendered to God.
And the point? Humility. Humility is one of the central lessons Paul derives from the cross. This instance is unusual, however, because the humility took place in two stages, not one — first in the preexistence, and then again as a man. To live worthy of the good news of salvation, Paul urges the Philippians to live in imitation of the humility that brought them that salvation, a humility first exercised in the preexistence, then brought to completion on the cross.