This passage is one of the most debated in the New Testament. Famed British theologian F. F. Bruce said of it, “The diversity of opinion prevailing among interpreters in regard to the meaning of this passage is enough to fill the student with despair, and to afflict him with intellectual paralysis.” (Bruce, The Humiliation of Christ, p. 11.)
While the passage has been widely debated by translators and interpreters, there is much that we can understand about these Scriptures if we approach them without prejudice and allow them to speak to us in their context.
A. What Phillipians 2:5-8 is saying:
Paul’s alpha point in these verses concerns the minds and lives of believers at Philippi. Note verses 3 and 4: “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.”
In the next four verses, Paul draws a mental picture of what “regarding others as more important” than themselves and looking out “for the interests of others” would ideally look like. The illustration he gives them is from the attitude and life of Jesus. Shortly after that, Paul will also write about his co-worker Timothy whose attitude in service was uniquely one of seeking the interests of others (Philippians 2:20-21).
Jesus – Paul’s Example
Verse 5 – “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus.”
Jesus was the perfect example of a man who regarded others as more important than himself and looked out for the interests of others.
Verse 6a – “Who though he existed in the form of God…”
Jesus was the only begotten son of God (John 3:16). By a miracle in a virgin, this man was literally God’s human son (Luke 1:35). Thus, from his birth, Jesus had a station that was far greater than the rest of us.
As God’s human son, he was uniquely in the likeness and image of God. Just as Adam was in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), so was Jesus (2 Cor. 4:4). Paul goes on to write that Jesus:
Verse 6b – “did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped.”
Adam failed when he was being tempted by the thought that he could “be like God” (Genesis 3:5). He was not an example of humility and obedience that Paul could point out to the Philippians. Jesus, on the other hand, did not regard “equality with God a thing to be grasped.” Jesus was the perfect example for the Philippians. He succeeded where Adam failed.
Jesus was Royalty
Because God choose for his son to be born in the linage of David (Matthew 1:1), God could declare him to be the heir to the throne of David (Luke 1:32). He determined that Jesus would rule over the house of Israel forever (Luke 1:33). And, while he was born the king of the Jews (Matthew 2:2), Paul tells the Philippians that Jesus:
Verse 7a – “emptied himself…”
The AV and a number of other translations say: “But made himself of no reputation.” That is the case. For example, when Jesus as the future King of Israel came into the City of Jerusalem in “triumphal entry,” he did not come riding on a great stead suitable for royalty. Rather, he came riding on a beast of burden – a donkey (Matthew 21:7).
Verse 7b – he “took on him the form of a bondservant”
Though he was royalty, Jesus choose to take on himself the form of a servant. He did that even in his actions toward his own disciples. For example, at the end of his ministry, he presided over a wonderful meal for them and at the conclusion of the meal he washed their feet (John 13:14). Jesus, the only begotten human son of God, the son of David, heir to the throne of David, performed the acts of a servant toward his people.
Verse 7c – “being made in the likeness of men.”
Jesus was “made.” The God who “made” him, made him in the likeness of men. In fact, he was made like us “in every respect” (Hebrews 2:17 – NRSV).” God could have had a son that was anything he wanted him to be. Yet, by God’s choice, Jesus was truly a man – a human being – one of us..
Verse 8a – “being found in appearance as a man”
Jesus was found and indeed found himself in the mode or circumstance of being a man (“appearance” – schema). From his youth, he had a wonderful God awareness. By at least the age of 12, he was keenly aware that God was his Father (Luke 2:49). Yet, while he grew up realizing that God was literally his Father, Jesus knew that he himself was truly a human being. God created him as a true man so that he could become the savior of the rest of us (Romans 5:15).
God made Adam “from scratch.” Yet, by the choice of God, what resulted was a human being – the first human being. Jesus, on the other hand, was made by a miracle of God with the benefit of a human mother. Yet, as was the case with Adam, what God choose to make Jesus was also a true human being. Paul tells us that the man created in Genesis was the “first man Adam,” and that Jesus is the “last Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45). Jesus was the second man to be created by God in such unique fashion.
Verse 8b – “He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Jesus humbled himself to do the will of God even to the point of dying (Mark 10:45). And not dying just any death, but a terrible death on a cross. He was willing to die because he understood that by his death, the sins of many would be forgiven (Matthew 26:28). Jesus knew that as God’s only begotten human son he was uniquely loved by God (Matthew 17:5). He knew that he was of great value in the eyes of his Father. So much so, that God accepted his death as a sacrifice for the rest of us (Ephesians 5:2). For This Reason – God has exalted Jesus.
Verse 9 – “For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name.”
Jesus was the only begotten son of God. He was God’s “beloved” son (Matthew 12:18). For that reason, he was exalted by God and given great place and station. God made him to be both “Lord” and “Christ” (Acts 2:36). Yet, God also exalted him because of his service: his care and love for his fellow man. The willingness of Jesus to die in order to redeem the rest of us to God was awesome (Revelation 5:9).
For all of these reasons, God determined that Jesus would be heir of all things and that those who are the people of Jesus will be joint heirs with him (Romans 8:17). This is the wonder of God’s favor upon the man Christ Jesus. It is a favor that flows over onto those who are his people.
B. What Philippians 2:5-8 is not saying…
Philippians 2:5-8 does not describe an obedience and sacrifice made by a non-human Jesus before his conception and birth. In that idea a pre-human Jesus makes the “sacrifice” of leaving a supposed splendor in heaven to take on human flesh and save human beings. That unfortunate story developed after the Bible was written and remains popular to this day. That is not what Paul is writing about in this passage.
The real Jesus had a literal beginning in the womb of a virgin. He was the only son ever begotten by God. Jesus had no prior existence as “God” (Trinitarianism, Oneness) or as an angel / super-being (Arianism). God did “foresee” Jesus and there is a sense in which he existed from the very beginning in God’s plans for humanity (Acts 15:18). God had Adam in mind before he made him. Likewise, He had Jesus in mind from the beginning and foresaw that Jesus would succeed where Adam failed (Acts 2:23).
The Simplest Understanding is the Right One
Acclaimed Bible scholar N. T. Wright states that this passage in Philippians, “is one of the most notoriously complex passages in Paul.” (Wright, A Biblical Portrait of God, in The Changing Faces of God: Lincoln Lectures in Theology, p. 23.)
The adage that the simplest explanation is usually right is very applicable to these Scriptures. The obedience and sacrifice of a human Jesus is wonderfully simple and direct. There is nothing that Paul seeks to illustrate in Philippians 2:5-8 that isn’t clearly established in the life of the real – human Jesus.
The notion of a sacrifice made in heaven by a pre-human Jesus is very complicated. It is not talked about in this passage and is an idea that has left much of the Christian world with what amounts to a theological headache. Such a teaching greatly confuses Paul’s lesson and leaves us without a compass for rightly understanding this passage.
Paul’s words in Philippians 2 become painfully confusing only when interpreters and translators begin imposing a pre-human Jesus on them. It is the equivalent of trying to force a theological square peg into a round hole. That agenda itself is what leaves an N. T. Wright using the words “notoriously complex” regarding this passage.
Five Problems with the Pre-Human Jesus Idea
No. 1 – “Wrong Person” – It proposes “the wrong person.” Paul says nothing about a supposed “pre-human” Jesus in this passage. Rather, from the beginning of his example (v. 5), he points the Philippians towards having the mind of the “anointed” (Christ) Jesus. It is men on earth – not God or super-beings in heaven who are anointed. The man Jesus was anointed “by God” for his ministry and work (Acts 10:38). It is that anointed Jesus that Paul is writing about to the Philippians.
The idea that God or a super-being had to come to earth and be robed in flesh to purchase our salvation entirely supposes the wrong person. It was a man that sinned and brought death upon mankind. The salvation of men that leads to unending life could only be accomplished by a man – not by a God or super-being coming to earth (1 Corinthians 15:21). It should also be noted that Jesus took upon the form of a servant. Servanthood is a “station” not an “essence.”
No. 2 – “Place” – It proposes “the wrong place for sacrifice.” Paul does not once use the word “heaven” in Philippians 2:5-8. He says nothing of the idea of a pre-human Jesus making a sacrifice “in heaven” by leaving his supposed splendor and coming to earth. That is a story that is never described in the Bible itself. It is a picture that has been painted by post-Biblical poets, songwriters and expositors. The obedience and sacrifice that Paul is pointing out to the Philippians took place on earth – not in heaven. It is the human Jesus who took upon him the station of a servant.
No. 3 – “Sacrifice” – It proposes “the wrong sacrifice.” The only sacrifice Paul speaks of in this passage is the one that the “man” Christ Jesus made on the cross. To direct people’s attention toward a supposed sacrifice in heaven by a non-human Jesus takes away from the honor due the man Jesus for giving his life for us on the cross (Galatians 6:14).
Again, Philippians 2:5-8 is not a picture of God or a “super-being” making the supposed “supreme’ sacrifice by becoming a man. It was not God who sinned – it was humanity. It required a true human being to become a sacrifice to God for the rest of us (Romans 5:19)..
The conception and birth of Jesus were not occasions of sacrifice by God or a super-being. They were occasions of joy on the part of a Father who now has a new human son. A son who from the day of his birth grew in favor with God (Luke 2:52). A son who would – with God’s blessings and help – purchase our salvation and reconcile us to God (Romans 5:10).
God did make a sacrifice in this matter. But it was not by taking on human flesh or dying on a cross. God’s sacrifice was that he gave his beloved – only begotten – human son to die. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son” (John 3:16).
No. 4 – “Example” – It proposes “the wrong example.” Paul says nothing about following the example of a non-human Jesus who comes to earth. How would that be an example to the Philippians? The Philippians are not “super-beings” who could seek to “morph” from one kind of being into another. The true Jesus – born the son of God; the son of David; the heir of all things – who humbles himself and obeys God – even to the giving of his life on a cross – becomes the most incredible example that we as human beings will ever have.
No. 5 – “Reward” – It proposes “the wrong reward.” Jesus receives a reward for his obedience and sacrifice. However, the picture that Paul presents to the Philippians in verses 9-11 is not of a Jesus who is “restored” to his “own”supposed former glory in heaven. Rather, Paul shows us a man who because of his obedience and death on a cross has been glorified and now sits at the right hand of God in heaven. God has “bestowed on him” the name which is above every name. It is not something that he already had. One of “us” now sits at the right hand of God (Acts 3:13).
It is said that no one should build a doctrine on a passage that seems complicated or unclear. If that is true, then it is certain that we should never build a doctrine about a “pre-human Jesus” making a “sacrifice in heaven” based on Paul’s writing to the Philippians. As we saw, in referring to the passage, N. T. Wright uses the words “notoriously complex.” F. F. Bruce uses the words “fill the student with despair, and…afflict him with intellectual paralysis.”
For me, the beauty of the amazing example of the human Jesus shows exactly how I should love and serve my fellows. That example is more than enough to occupy my thoughts and guide my actions for the rest of my life. Peter writes:
1 Peter 2:21 (NRSV) For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
*Unless otherwise indicated Scriptures quoted in this article are from the NASB-95.