The Hymn of Christ 

There is a section of Paul's letter to the Philippians where he is believed to be quoting an ancient hymn to Christ:

  • “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

  • (Philippians 2:5-11).

The Form of God

What does it mean to exist in the "form of God"? Some commentators point out that, since no 'accidents' inhere in God's nature, this can only mean the essential nature of deity. But the hymn contrasts this form, in which Jesus is existing (present participle) prior to the incarnation, with the "form of a servant" He acquired in condescending to take our nature. Inasmuch as Jesus never gave up the essential nature of deity in becoming incarnate, this would be a contrast without a difference. It was while He was in this form that He did not consider it 'robbery' or plundered, ill-gotten goods to count Himself as equal with God the Father. As He humbled Himself, He remained equal to the Father in nature, though not in status or position, and His glory was cloaked and veiled, covered with the grime of earth. The 'form of God' speaks to Jesus' divine nature, the 'form of a servant' to the human nature He took on when He became incarnate in a babe born at Bethlehem. The two natures of Christ are on view in this passage; both belong to Him even in His lowliness, but both are not apparent.

The word 'form' can mean visible appearance: "After that he appeared in another form [μορφη] unto two of them, as they walked, and went into the country." (Mark 16:12). While the concept of visible appearance is problematical with the immortal, invisible God, something of decline and descent here in view can be grasped by comparing the majesty of Jesus's position in Isaiah's temple vision with His humble birth in a manger. John reports that Isaiah was talking about Jesus when he describes his great vision of God in the temple: "These things said Esaias, when he saw his glory, and spake of him." (John 12:41):

Things are less resplendent in a filthy stable. There has been a change, not of nature though the nature of humanity was joined to that of deity, but a change of circumstance. There is a dimming of visible glory, reversible though, as in the transfiguration. No one could trace out a wider arc through the skies: this is a roller-coaster ride, from the heights of heaven to the humblest of human circumstances, homelessness.

It is embarrassing to admit it, but the Jehovah's Witnesses will sometimes interpret the "form of God" by resorting to that great sage and theologian, the witch of Endor: "And the king said unto her, Be not afraid: for what sawest thou? And the woman said unto Saul, I saw gods ascending out of the earth." (1 Samuel 28:13). They think 'gods' are disembodied spirits, such as this necromancer saw. So when Paul speaks of the "form of God," he means what the witch of Endor might have meant by the phrase. When you plug 'monotheism' into the equation however, the result comes out rather differently. There are not after all so many who are or could conceivably ever be in the "form of God"; the realization the Jesus was in that condition is a recognition of His deity.


Robbery, Contemplated or Attempted

Some who hope to escape the implications of this passage play upon ambiguities in some English translations — ambiguities not present in the Greek. Here's the word by word rendering of the NASB, one of the less than stellar modern English translations:

hos    en     morphe      theou
who     in    [the] form   of God
huparchon                               ouch
He existed (lit. being, existing)    not
harpagmon                 hegesato
a thing to be grasped [did] regard
to einai isa                       theo
equality (lit. to be equal) [with] God

Notice that one word, 'harpagmon' gets a big five-word translation: "a thing to be grasped". This noun comes from the verb αρπαζω, meaning 'to snatch away, carry off. . .to steal, be a thief. . .to seize hastily, snatch. . .to plunder." (Liddell and Scott). The word means 'booty,' a thing plundered, a prize, or possibly the act of thievery; the merchandise carried off in a burglary, 'loot.' Even those struggling mightily against a proper translation admit the word refers to thievery: "But in reality, the word (and words related to it in Greek) is almost always used to refer to something a person doesn't have but grasps for — like a thief who snatches someone's purse." (Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God, p. 263). Notice that the passage very clearly says that this is what equality with God the Father is NOT: it is not thievery. The bad interpretations will find it necessary to drop that "not:" "And he is not — most definitely not — 'equal' with God before he becomes human." (Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God, p. 262). Hmmm. . .a passage that literally says equality is not thievery really means that He is NOT, "most definitely not," equal? Putting the pieces back together, we get ". . .who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped. . ." Jesus, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with the Father as plunder or ill-gotten gains to which He was not entitled by right.

The Jehovah's Witnesses interpretation of this passage recalls the 'theomachies' or battles of the gods in pagan mythology. The Watchtower conforms this passage to a 'warfare-in-the heavens' battle plan by playing on tenses and moods not found in the Greek, but suggested by some translations. The word 'hegesato' ('hegeomai') means 'count, reckon, esteem', not 'ponder' or 'contemplate'. Yet here is the New World Translation: "Keep this mental attitude in you that was also in Christ Jesus, who, although he was existing in God's form, gave no consideration to a seizure, namely, that he should be equal to God." (Philippians 2:5-6 NWT). This reads more like a creative transformation of the King James Version's language rather than a translation of the Greek. In this version, Jesus "gave no consideration" to a daring, day-light theft of equality rather than did not count or reckon equality as stolen goods. We are now evaluating a plan, not assigning weight or meaning to a thing or circumstance. The reader's thoughts are immediately channelled toward what it would mean to 'give consideration' to such a plan, though there is no plan at all, a future-tensed concept, in view in the original.

The Jehovah's Witnesses explain that Jesus, relegated in their pantheon to a 'subordinate god', might well have contemplated a 'coup' modelled after Satan's failed attempt, but drew back through cowardice, and it's this hesitation which is recorded in Philippians 2:5-11. The 'equality' with God the Father of which this passages speaks, which is plainly explained as not plunder or robbery, thus becomes. . .plunder and robbery! He didn't do it, though: this raiding expedition was not undertaken, because Jesus did not dare to follow in the footsteps of Satan's bold strike. In this interpretation, the 'not' has somehow been lost, and the meaning has been turned around by 180 degrees: 'equality,' which begins as 'not' 'plunder,' becomes in the hands of these translators just what it was not, 'plunder,' but, what a relief, the plundering expedition was only contemplated, not carried out. John Milton composed one of the great poems in the English Language, 'Paradise Lost,' on the framework of a similar scenario of a Satanic failed putsch, the Bible evidence for which is a bit thin. Is it possible that Jesus ever pondered or contemplated a coup attempt like that of Satan in 'Paradise Lost,' but drew back?

To answer, widen the focus. What is under consideration in this passage? Paul is commending humility. Humility is not the characteristic displayed by an underling who refrains from unlawful rebellion. Prudence or an instinct for self-preservation may be all that is on display. A crime not committed does not prove humility, though some underlings might obey the laws in good-will and loyalty, not only from fear. But Jesus' voluntary entering into the incarnation does provide a model of humility which Paul encourages us to emulate.

The first transformation is of ηγησατο, which is tweaked away from 'account, deem, think,' toward 'evaluate a plan.' The same word had occurred just above in verse 3, "Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem [ηγουμενοι] other better than themselves." Finding an instance in the New Testament where this word does mean 'evaluate a plan' is a fool's errand. Secondly, they play on the fact that some translators render the one word, 'harpagmos', a noun, by verbal phrases like 'a thing to be grasped.' They then 'tweak' these verbs toward future tense, optative mood: Jesus could've, would've, might have liked to, seize 'equality', but didn't, see. In English, 'to be grasped' sends the mind into the future, down a rabbit trail. There is no verb there to begin with, and nouns don't have tense or mood!

Unlike the English 'robbery', 'harpagmos' can describe either the act of robbery, as rendered in the KJV, or the spoils gained in a robbing expedition. Thus the meaning of the Greek is that Jesus did not 'count, deem, reckon' equality with God the Father to be the 'spoils of robbery'. . .because He held that equality by native right!


Paradise Lost

My own personal theory is that Charles Taze Russell was a man undone by paying attention in English class. They used to read John Milton's 'Paradise Lost' in school, and some readers, I suspect, were lulled by the majesty of the language into thinking they were reading something like scripture, though this great work of the imagination is more aptly classed in the fantasy genre:


  • “Moreover the word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Son of man, take up a lamentation upon the king of Tyrus, and say unto him, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Thou sealest up the sum, full of wisdom, and perfect in beauty. Thou hast been in Eden the garden of God; every precious stone was thy covering, the sardius, topaz, and the diamond, the beryl, the onyx, and the jasper, the sapphire, the emerald, and the carbuncle, and gold: the workmanship of thy tabrets and of thy pipes was prepared in thee in the day that thou wast created. Thou art the anointed cherub that covereth; and I have set thee so: thou wast upon the holy mountain of God; thou hast walked up and down in the midst of the stones of fire. Thou wast perfect in thy ways from the day that thou wast created, till iniquity was found in thee. By the multitude of thy merchandise they have filled the midst of thee with violence, and thou hast sinned: therefore I will cast thee as profane out of the mountain of God: and I will destroy thee, O covering cherub, from the midst of the stones of fire. Thine heart was lifted up because of thy beauty, thou hast corrupted thy wisdom by reason of thy brightness: I will cast thee to the ground, I will lay thee before kings, that they may behold thee.”

  • (Ezekiel 28:11-17).


The quality of true humility which Paul praises so highly in Philippians is brought out in a beautiful incident where Jesus washes the disciples' feet:

"Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself.  After that he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded. Then cometh he to Simon Peter: and Peter saith unto him, Lord, dost thou wash my feet? Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter. . .So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you? Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am.  If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you." (John 13:3-15).

It is difficult to know what to make of a world in which the living God washes a fisherman's feet. Such a world is topsy-turvy by our normal standards of accounting. It is accounted, esteemed and reckoned just right by God's standards. Though equal with His Father in the form of God, He emptied Himself and made Himself into a slave. Taken in its natural sense, this passage is a plain affirmation of His deity and His equality with the Father.


Reclaimed Glory

Christ's humbling and self-emptying come to a natural limit in this passage, which closes with a boomerang effect:

"At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. This decree must be obeyed ultimately throughout the universe. To the Victor of Calvary every creature shall render homage, either by choice or by compulsion. To His redeemed ones it is a deep delight to bow before Him in worship. On many occasions during the Lord's life on earth, the disciples gave Him this honor, and when from the slopes of Olivet He was carried up into heaven, the first act of the company that saw Him ascend was to worship Him. Their worship followed Him to the Throne, and ever since, the stream of unceasing adoration has proclaimed that — to His Church — He is both Lord and God." (H. C. Hewlett, The Glories of Our Lord, p. 112).

Jesus is both Lord and God, as this author realizes, but 'Lord' and 'God,' as Old Testament titles, have already come to a parting of the ways in Philo, a trend which continues in the New Testament. It's interesting to reflect what feature of Isaiah 45:25 may have inspired the Christian interpretation found here in the Carmen Christi. 'Lord' and 'God,' even in Philo Judaeus, a non-Christian first century theologian, have already come to have slightly different referents. Here is the Septuagint rendering of Isaiah 45:25: "By the Lord [απο κυριου] shall they be justified, and in God [και εν τω θεω] shall all the seed of the children of Israel be glorified. (Brenton Septuagint Isaiah 45:25). Early Christian readers were alert to the possibility that these passages weren't centered around mindless repetition, but rather pointed to a new and still imperfectly defined truth about God's nature: "The same variation between "the Lord" and "God" appears elsewhere in the context as well - for example, in Isaiah 45:25. . .In addition to reading Isaiah 45:23 as referring to two figures, the "Lord" Jesus and God "the Father," the other adaptation of the passage is the midrashic-like specification of the universal acclamation of Jesus in Philippians 2:l0." (Larry W. Hurtado. How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus (Kindle Locations 1066-1074).)