Does Philippians 2 say that Jesus emptied Himself of equality with God?

Since Christ “did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself”, did He also empty Himself of “equality with God?

Philippians mapPhilippians is generally not a highly theological letter, but contains a profound statement of the nature and being of Christ.  The particular passage is 2:5-11.  Please read these verses carefully:

2:5 … Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped,
2:7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.
2:8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
2:9 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.

Jesus is not the same Person as God.

This passage makes a distinction between God and Jesus:

2:6 Before He was born as a human being, Jesus had “equality with God”.  This means He is distinct from God.

2:6-7 To become a human being, Jesus “did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself”.  It is implied that Jesus emptied Himself of equality with God.  That is something which God cannot do, for it is not conceivable that God could empty Himself of His divine nature.

2:9 After His death on the Cross, “God highly exalted Him.”  This emphasizes the distinction between God and Jesus.

Since a distinction is made between God and Jesus, Jesus is not the same Person as God.

John 1:1 contains a similar statement:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

The word “God” is used twice in this verse:

The word “God” in the phrase “the Word was with God identifies “God“.  This phrase makes a distinction between God and the Word (Jesus – See John 1:14.), which means that He is not the same Person as God.

The word “God” in the phrase “the Word was God” describes Him.  It does not identity Him.  This phrase has a similar meaning to the statement that Jesus had equality with God.  For all practical purposes, He is God.

Subordinate to God

Since it is God that “highly exalted Him” (2:9), Jesus is subordinate to God.  Paul concluded, “Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:3).

Christ had equality with God, but that does not mean He is equal to God.  When Jesus told His disciples that He will go to the Father, He said, “the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28).

Four Stages

Philippians 2:5-11 describes Jesus in four chronological stages:

I – Prior to birth

2:5-6 “Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped

This, in the first place, confirms that Christ Jesus really did exist prior to His birth as a human being.  This is one the very few instances where the Bible directly says something about the Son’s existence before He became a human being.

He existed “in the form of God”.  To be in the form of something, does not mean to be that something.  If an angel appears in the form of a man, he is still an angel; not a man.  The translation of this phrase as “in very nature God” (NIV) or “He always had the nature of God” (Good News), is therefore, not supported.  These may be true, but go beyond the meaning of the text.

But He did exist “in the form of God” and He had “equality with God”.  Isaiah saw:

the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. Seraphim stood above Him, each having six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called out to another and said, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory.’ And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out” (Is. 6:1-4)

Since Jesus previously existed in the form of God, this vision of “the LORD of hosts” could have been Jesus.  .  Ezekiel saw a similar vision, and He specifically mentioned that the one on the throne had “the appearance of a man” (Eze. 1:26).

II – Born as a human being

2:7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.

He Emptied Himself

Adam attempted to seize equality with God (Genesis 3:5 – “You will be like God”).  By contrast, Christ chose the way of self-emptying.  He voluntarily descended to the realm where He was “despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3).  “He had to be made like his brothers in all things” (Heb. 2:17 NASB).  “Our Lord Jesus Christ … though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor” (2 Cor. 8:9).

How? – How it was possible for the Creator of the universe, who “upholds all things by the word of His power” (Heb. 1:3), to be transformed into a human embryo, we cannot begin to understand, and we will not even try.  “The secret things belong to the LORD our God” (Deut. 29:29).

Emptied Himself

Of what did He empty Himself when He became a human being?

He “emptied Himself” of “the form of God” and took on “the form of a bond-servant … being made in the likeness of men” (2:6-7).

Since He “did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped” (v6), it is implied that He emptied Himself of “equality with God”.

Did he empty Himself of divinity?

Many believe that Jesus is part of the Being of God.  One often hear it said that the Being of God consists of three Persons.  They argue that it was therefore impossible for Him to empty Himself of His inner nature or essential attributes; that He only emptied Himself of His divine form and glory, and took on the form of a human being.

Jesus said He did not know the hour or the day of His second coming, “but the Father alone” (Matthew 24:36; cf. Mark 13:26-27, 32).  Those who hold that Jesus is God sometimes attempt to solve this by arguing that He was two beings in one; a divine and a human person.  They propose that His divine side knew all things, but His human side knew not.  This schizophrenic view of Jesus we reject.  He is a single Being.

As argued above, Jesus is not the same Person or Being as God.  The articles Jesus is not the same Person as God and God is the Head of Christ show that the Bible maintains a clear distinction between God and Jesus Christ.  But since He was not God, it was possible for Him to empty Himself of equality with God.

Jesus became a real human being.

He emptied Himself of His powers and knowledge, starting His human life as a baby (Luke 2:7; Gal. 4:4), without any knowledge or wisdom.  Just like us, He had to grow in wisdom and stature (Luke 2:52).  He became weary (John 4:6), thirsty (John 19:28) and hungry (Mt. 4:2).  He marveled at the faith of the centurion (Matthew 8:10) and experienced sorrow when Lazarus died (John 11:35).

He performed many miracles, like healing people and walking on water, but that was because He received that authority from the Father.  Explaining the healing of the paralytic at Bethesda, He said “The works which the Father has given Me to accomplish—the very works that I do” (John 5:36).

Gethsemane

Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered” (Hebrews 5:8).  In Gethsemane He grieved deeply, to the point of death (Mt. 26:38).  The next day He died (Mark 15:37).  Jesus does not just look like a man; He was truly and fully human.

Visible image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15) – That He emptied Himself when He became a human being tells us what God is like; that He loved His enemies so much that He was willing to become one of them and even die to save them.

Consider His statements of dependence in their contextAs a human being He was emptied of the powers which He had prior to His birth.  We must therefore be careful to distinguish between:

(1) What He was before He became a human being;
(2) What He became as a human being;

When we read a statements such as “I can do nothing on My own initiative” (John 5:30), we must always ask whether He made that statement because He emptied Himself, or whether that statement reflects His eternal state.

III – His Death

2:8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Obedient to the point of deathHe remained “obedient to the point of death“.  The important matter is not His death, but His obedience.  His entire life was a test, namely to see whether He would remain obedient.  Satan argued that it is impossible for beings to remain obedient to God under all circumstances.  Therefore, Satan was allowed to test Jesus, even “to the point of death”.  But Jesus remained faithful, even to death.  For more information, see Why Jesus had to die.

IV – Exalted above all

2:9 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.

Distinct – The statements that He is exalted by God has the following implications:

It makes a distinction between Jesus and God (v9) or “God the Father” (v11), implying that He is not God.

Since God exalts Jesus it is implied that “the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28).

Equal

However, “at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth”.  The phrases “every knee will bow” (2:10) and “every tongue” (2:11) are quoted from Isaiah 45:23, where God identified Himself as the One speaking in Isaiah 45 and says:

Is it not I, the LORD?  And there is no other God besides Me … to Me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance” (Isaiah 45:21-23).

 The “LORD”, in capital letters, translates the personal name of God, YHWH, usually pronounced as Jehovah or Yahweh.  “Every knee will bow” both to Jesus (Phil. 2:10) and to Yahweh (Is. 45:21-23), for He has equality with God:

All will honor the Son even as they honor the Father” (John 5:23).

Jesus prayed, “Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was” (John 17:5).  The Son now again has the glory which He had before He became a human being.

We worship Jesus

Philippians 2 implies that Jesus is worshiped.  As discussed in a separate article, the Bible commands us to worship only God, but we must also worship Jesus.  That confirms His equality with God.

Although He, as a human being, no longer had equality with God, He still was the same Person.  His willingness to humiliate Himself to become a human being only served to heighten the love and admiration which the heavenly hosts had for Him.  For them, even in the humble “form of a bond-servant” (2:7), He remained worthy of worship.  Jesus today again has “equality with God.

Summary

Prior to His Birth – Jesus is not God, for this passage makes a distinction between God and Jesus.  But before He was born as a human being, Jesus had “equality with God”.  That does not mean He is equal to God, for He Jesus is subordinate to God.

Equality with GodHis Birth – To become a human being, Jesus “emptied Himself”, even of His equality with God, and became a mere human baby, without any knowledge or wisdom.  But even after He gave up His “equality with God”, and became a vulnerable human being, He remained the same Person, deserving of the same worship as before.

His Death – His entire life was a test, namely to see whether He would remain obedient, and He remained “obedient to the point of death“.

After His Death – After His death on the Cross, “God highly exalted Him.”  He will be worshiped by all, which confirm His “equality with God”.

NEXT: Who is the Word in John 1:1?

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