Philippians 2 and the deity of Christ

by Luke Wayne

"Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross," (Philippians 2:5-8).

This is an extremely important passage regarding the deity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity. It explains that, prior to coming as a man, Jesus existed "in the form of God." Before He took on a human nature, Jesus already existed with a divine nature. He was not merely an angel or heavenly being. He was "in the form of God." His very nature was that of God. Just as He would afterward take "the form of a bond-servant" and be "made in the likeness of men." In the very same way that He literally became a man, He was literally God. And yet, the passage also speaks of "equality with God," and the verses that follow speak of His submission to God and bringing glory to God the Father. Thus, Jesus is God in His very nature, and yet is personally distinct from the Father. Therefore, this passage is not only asserting the deity of Christ, but also the Trinity. The Father and the Son are both God in essence or being, but they are distinct from one another as separate persons. The Spirit is not in view here due to the subject matter, but the premise is clear: The one true and living God exists as multiple, simultaneous, and interactive persons. Both the Father and the Son are God, yet the Scriptures know of only one true and living God. Thus, this passage helps to establish some of the essential elements of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Of course, there are objections. Some will contend that this passage is asserting that Jesus did not have equality with God and never claimed or sought such equality. They point, of course, to the claim that Jesus "did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped." They assume that this means that He did not have equality with God and never considered snatching or taking it. By itself, the Greek phrase can be understood that way, but that is not the only sense in which it can be understood. It can also mean that He did not consider His equality with God something to be clung to or held tightly. The NIV and HCSB, for example, say that He "did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage." The NRSV similarly translates it "something to be exploited," and the NLT "something to cling to." The NASB includes a footnote explaining the sense as something to be "utilized or asserted," and the ESV has a similar footnote explaining it as "a thing to be held onto for advantage." In other words, the translators for pretty much every reputable modern translation understand the verse to mean that Jesus has equality with God but, rather than clinging to its privilege, instead takes on the form of a servant by becoming a man and facing the cross. This understanding best fits the context. Note carefully the point Paul is making. In the verses leading up to this passage, he instructs the Philippians:

"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. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus," (Philippians 2:3-5).

The description of Jesus given in verses 5-8 is, then, an example of this attitude we are to emulate. Now, if Jesus was not God, He is not especially humble for not claiming to be God's equal. The haughtiest and most arrogant men I have ever known never claimed to be equal with God. They were quite proud, but they never asserted to share the throne of the Creator. There is nothing especially humble about not trying to become God when you are not. Further, If Jesus is a heavenly being in service of God, and is not Himself God, there is also nothing especially humble about Him submitting to God's authority. When an employee does what their boss wants them to do, the employee is dutiful, responsible, even honorable, but not necessarily humble. There is nothing particularly meek or lowly in submitting to those who are obviously already of much greater rank than yourself. Note that Paul does not tell the Philippians to imitate Christ's humility by regarding God, their obvious superior, as greater than themselves. He tells them to imitate Christ's humility by regarding one another, their essential equals, as being greater than themselves. That is what it means to be humble. Jesus was equal to God the Father, but He humbled Himself and submitted to the Father even when it meant the cross. Jesus had equality and laid it down in submission for the glory of the Father. That is what it means to be humble, and that is the attitude of Christ that Paul wanted Christians to emulate toward each other. The passage only makes sense when we understand that equality with God the Father is something Jesus possessed already but chose not to take advantage of.

Finally, we see that the passage closes out by saying:

"For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father," (Philippians 2:9-11).

It is important to note that this is applying to Jesus an Old Testament passage:

"Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth; For I am God, and there is no other. I have sworn by Myself, The word has gone forth from My mouth in righteousness and will not turn back, that to Me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance," (Isaiah 45:22-23).

The verses both before and after this make clear that the one speaking is YWHW (Yahweh, Jehovah). It is the one true God of Israel to whom every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess, and there is no other God. God has sworn this and proclaimed it to be His infallible and unchanging word. Jesus, who existed as God, is the one to whom every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess. Jesus, therefore, is the one true God alongside the Father. They are two distinct persons, but they are one Divine Being; one eternal God.