From Glorification to Humiliation: Reassessing Philippians 2:6-8 (Part 2)
In this series, we have been examining the popular assumption that Phil. 2:6-8 describes the incarnation. Our previous article looked at the first half of the passage, which can be laid out as a four-line stanza, and found strong linguistic evidence that Jesus “in the form of God” is not a disembodied state but rather a physically glorified state. This points to the form Jesus was in at the transfiguration, which recalls the physical state of Adam just prior to the fall.
Now we turn our attention to the second stanza. Below is our literal translation Phil. 2:6-8, laid out in the two-stanza format discussed by Moises Silva:
Who, being in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God a thing to be seized
but emptied himself,
having taken the form of a servant.
Having become in the likeness of men,
and having been found in visible condition as a man,
he humbled himself,
having become obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Having become in the likeness of men,
Many translations render the verb genemenos in this line as “born.” Others choose the word “made.” Still others opt for “come.” Indeed, the premier Greek lexicon BDAG notes that genemenos has many nuances resulting in no less than 10 different definitions. The fifth definition for this word reads: “to experience a change in nature and so indicate entry into a new condition, become.” 1 Under this fifth definition, our line in Phil. 2:7 is listed as an example.
Silva chooses “become” for his own translation as well, since genemenos has this meaning when it is used again in Phil. 2:8 (“having become obedient”). He points out that “the second stanza begins and ends with the participle γενόμενος· (genomenos, having become). This feature can easily be interpreted as inclusio and may suggest that indeed these lines begin and end discrete units.”2
Of course, one could still interpret this line as a reference to Jesus’s birth if one assumes that “the form of God” in Phil. 2:6 refers to Jesus in a pre-existent state. But in Part 1 of this series, we discovered significant evidence that this key phrase refers to the glorified form Jesus manifested at the transfiguration. And with that event as the starting point, this line described his transfigured form changing back into “the likeness of men.”
The word homoiomati (“likeness”) is typically used to describe the way a certain thing resembles something else. It turns out that Paul is responsible for five of the six times it appears in the NT, and outside of Phil. 2:7, he uses it only in the book of Romans. There we gain critical insight into what he has in mind:
Rom 1:21-23 (ESV) — 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling [homoiomati] mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
In her book Conformed To The Image of His Son, Haley Goranson Jacob shows that the glory originally bestowed upon Adam serves as the background for the glory mentioned in Rom. 1:23. She notes that this verse describes “humanity’s intended identity and purpose as God’s viceregents by describing its exchange of and thus loss of God’s glory – the glory that the son of man in Psalm 8 is intended to possess.”3
We can discern a contrast in this passage between the immortality that is obtained by possessing the glory of the immortal God, and the mortality that results from the loss of that glory. Paul highlights a generation who exchanged their intended Adamic glory for an idolatrous likeness (homoiomati) of mortal man, which is to say, an idolatrous likeness of sinful man. But in Rom. 8:3, we discover the stunning way God chose to reverse that devastating choice:
Rom 8:3 (ESV) — For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness [homoiomati] of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh…
Jesus was sent to the cross in the physical likeness (homoiomati) of sinful flesh. The word “likeness” is the appropriate choice, because in reality he had no sin. He was an innocent pre-fall Adam (Rom. 5:14-17), yet he resembled sinful men (Rom. 8:3) in that he had a mortal body lacking the glory and honor originally bestowed upon Adam. The sacrifice of his body in this humble state would restore to men and women the immortal glory they were always intended to possess (Rom. 8:29-30).
Scholars widely recognize the link between Rom. 8:3 and Phil. 2:7, given the similar use of the word homoiomati. This tells us that the latter verse should be understood in light of the former. Thus “the likeness of men” implicitly refers to the likeness of sinful men. After visibly manifesting his status as an unfallen Adam at the transfiguration, Jesus changed to the same state as every other human since the fall – fully mortal and lacking in glory.
and having been found in visible condition as a man,
Much like the previous line, this line refers to Jesus in a particular physical state. It is helpful to consider the parallel between his “visible condition” (schemati) in Phil. 2:8 and the future change of believers’ visible condition (metaschematisei) from a body of humiliation to a body of glory in Phil. 3:21. This indicates that Phil. 2:8 depicts Jesus in the inglorious state of a mortal man, specifically in contrast to the glorious state of an immortal man.
Jesus’ lowly physical condition was predicted in the most famous of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant passages. The description of the Messiah found there is commonly identified by scholars as the background for the Philippians 2 hymn:
Isaiah 53:2-5 (ABP) — 2 We announced as of a male child before him, as a root in a land thirsting. There is no appearance to him, nor glory; and we beheld him, and he does not have appearance nor beauty. 3 But his appearance was without honor, and wanting by sons of men. 4 This one our sins bore, and on account of us he was grieved. And we considered him to be for misery, and for calamity by God, and for ill treatment. 5 But he was wounded because of our sins, and he was made infirm on account of our lawless deeds. The discipline for our peace was upon him; by his stripe we were healed.
Significantly, Isaiah doesn’t present us with a contrast between a glorious pre-existent spirit and an inglorious human being; no hint of a spirit becoming a human can be found here. Instead, Isaiah contrasts the Messiah’s inglorious physical state with a subsequently glorified physical state:
Isaiah 52:13 (ABP) — Behold, shall perceive my servant, and he shall be exalted, he shall be glorified, and he shall be raised up on high exceedingly.
Thus the Suffering Servant background underscores Paul’s point: the Messiah would fulfill his mission in a humble physical form that stood in contrast to his unfallen innocence. However, there is one key difference between the first and second lines of this stanza. Previously we were told that Jesus became (genomenos) in the likeness of men. But in this line, he was “found” (heuretheis) as an individual man.
While this could simply mean he was found to be in such a condition whenever people encountered him, the preceding line already implies as much. A more compelling option is that this line alludes to Jesus being “found” by the very people who were seeking to put him to death:
John 18:3-5 (ESV) — 3 So Judas, having procured a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, went there with lanterns and torches and weapons. 4 Then Jesus, knowing all that would happen to him, came forward and said to them, “Whom do you seek?” 5 They answered him, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said to them, “I am he.”
In Gethsemane, Jesus did not shine forth in all of his royal glory like Adam before the fall. That moment had come and gone. Instead he was found in the same inglorious and mortal state as his archetypal ancestor just after the fall. We are reminded of the Jewish tradition that describes the immediate consequence of Adam’s sin:
[Adam’s] skin was a bright garment, shining like his nails; when he sinned this brightness vanished, and he appeared naked. (Targ. Yer. Gen. iii. 7; Gen. R. xi.; Adam and Eve, xxxvii.).
Jesus made a similar transition from a shining appearance just days earlier to the inglorious appearance encountered by his enemies. But there is an important contrast between the two Adams. The first Adam hid in the garden after he was stripped of his glory, while Jesus, in the same physical state, boldly stepped forward in the garden to face the monumental consequences of his predecessor’s sin.
he humbled himself,
This phrase stands in parallel to the line “he emptied himself” in the first stanza. Silva correctly points out that “only a wooden approach to this poetic passage would insist that the verbs [’emptied’ and ‘humbled’] refer to two different and separate stages.”4 Indeed, the “emptying” and “humbling” of Christ both describe the same voluntary choice to obey his Father’s will regarding the cross rather than succumbing to his own will (Lk. 22:42).
When his enemies found him in Gethsemane, Jesus was faced with the alluring temptation to call down an army of angels in a fearful show of glorious power (Matt. 26:51-54) – not unlike the power that was on full display at the transfiguration. Instead, he humbled himself by allowing his enemies to arrest him on false charges.
The verb “humbled” (etapeinosen) in Phil. 2:8 is paralleled by man’s body of “humiliation” (tapeinoseos) in Phil. 3:21. It reflects the fact that Jesus voluntarily chose to subject his innocent body to the ultimate penalty for sin, in solidarity with all men since the fall who have likewise faced the judgment of physical death.
having become obedient unto death – even death on a cross.
This line distills into one memorable expression the exemplary obedience of Jesus, who submitted to his Father even when it meant an excruciating and undeserved death at the very prime of his life. It elaborates on the final line of the previous stanza, “taking the form of a servant” – now we are told in explicit terms just what that action entails. James McGrath aptly summarizes the gravity of Jesus’ decision on that fateful night in Gethsemane:5
And it is the very decision not to grasp the kingship, but to allow God to be the one to make him king after he suffers, that represents Jesus’ obedience unto death. It is not merely the willingness to die, but precisely the choice to follow that route rather than grasp by other means at equality with God…The choice was between the path of violence that went along with self-appointment as Messiah, depicted in the resort to armed resistance by one of Jesus’ disciples in the Gethsemane story, and the path of humility.
Jesus’ “obedience” (hupekoos) to God is mentioned explicitly in only two other places. The first is in Rom. 5:19, where it is contrasted with the disobedience of Adam. The second is in Heb. 5:8, where Jesus is described as learning obedience in the Garden of Gethsemane. In other words, the praiseworthy “obedience” of Jesus revolves around the decision of a second Adam to obey his God in a second garden.
This choice was far more difficult than the one faced by the first man in Eden. Adam merely had to avoid a particular tree to remain alive, and even this simple task he failed to obey; Jesus had to face a particular tree in order to die, and even this difficult task he faithfully accomplished.
In this series, we have contended that Phil. 2:6-8 describes the mind of Christ from the time he began to focus on the ultimate goal of his earthly mission. The hymn therefore opens with the event that inaugurated this final stage of his ministry. At the transfiguration, Jesus’ form was changed into Adam’s glorious pre-fall state, while his mind was focused upon his upcoming sacrifice. Thus it vividly reminded the Philippian church that Jesus chose not to seize his glorious destiny apart from the cross.
The hymn then turns to the form Jesus transitioned back into after the transfiguration: Adam’s humble post-fall state. The key moment for Jesus in this physical condition unfolded in the Garden of Gethsemane. There his enemies found him to be a mortal man rather than an immortal king. He resisted the urge to overwhelm them with a blinding show of power and allowed himself to be numbered among the transgressors. In so doing, he took upon himself the judgment for Adam’s sin and initiated the reversal of Adam’s curse.
The final stanza of the hymn (Phil. 2:9-11) highlights the final glorified state of Jesus. It therefore serves as the bookend to the opening of the hymn. The story begins with Jesus in the glorious royal form that was his birthright, and ends with him victoriously inheriting the glory and honor first glimpsed at the transfiguration. But the crux of the Carmen Christi lies in between, where the path from birthright to inheritance is marked by sacrificial obedience.
The implied contrast to Adam’s story would have been obvious and unforgettable to the Philippian church: Adam flouted a command designed to preserve his life; Jesus obeyed a command designed to sacrifice his life. Both decisions affected the fate of all mankind. But which command required greater faith? Which would result in greater honor and glory? Paul gives us the definitive answer: every knee will bow and every tongue confess the Lordship of Jesus, to the glory of his God and Father.
- William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 198. ↵
- Moises Silva, Philippians (BECNT), p. 99. ↵
- Haley Goranson Jacob, Conformed to the Image of His Son: Reconsidering Paul’s Theology of Glory, p.101. ↵
- Silva, p. 104. ↵
- James McGrath, “Obedient Unto Death: Philippians 2:8, Gethsemane, and the Historical Jesus,” p. 10. ↵