"Jesus is God”
Paul could have stated this clearly in Philippians 2:5-11, but instead he chose to tell us that Jesus “existed in the form of God” (v.6). This phrase doesn’t shroud the divinity of our Lord; rather, it’s emphatic—Jesus is truly and really God in His essential nature. The grandeur in this early Christian hymn is its radical selflessness, which is captured by the two words: “grasped” (v.6) and “emptied” (v.7).
Paul uses a rare Greek word, ἁρπαγμός, to capture the idea of grasped. Various English Bibles translate this word differently, including “robbery,” “grasped” and “exploited.” Each choice reflects a different nuance of the word.
• Robbery: Our oldest English translation puts a positive spin on this negative word, stating that Jesus, “...Thought it not robbery to be equal with God.” The crime of robbery is a valid accusation, considering the first created man, Adam, used his privileged position to steal from God when he sought to be like Him (Gen. 3:5). In robbing God, Adam died! However, Jesus “made Himself of no reputation,” and He was exalted.
• Grasped: Jesus had something that no human could ever relate to: divine glory and honor. One would be expected to cling to the possession of this treasure, but in His humanity, Jesus voluntarily relinquished His due glory.
• Exploited: This word builds off of grasped, and it provokes these questions: Although Jesus possessed a divine glory, would He selflessly give up His rights to that glory? We can see the foreshadowing of the answer in the temptation, where Jesus was told to feed Himself, glorify Himself and crown Himself apart from God. Jesus had rights to all of those things, but would He use them for His own self-advantage?
The correct translation of “grasp” is important because it distinguishes Jesus’ decision to give up His due glory—to not use it for self-advantage or try to steal it at an improper time. This decision had nothing to do with whether Jesus would stop being divine; it was about what it really meant to be divine!
As God, Jesus decided that the needs of the other would dictate His self-expression.
Jesus’ decision to “not grasp” is one facet of the gospel, and the other is “emptied” (v.7). Jesus didn’t empty out His divinity, but He emptied Himself into a bondservant. Notice Paul repeats the word “form” (cf. v.6) when he says Jesus took “the form of a bondservant” (v.7). As noted above, Jesus is truly a servant in His essential nature. This new and unimaginable state God entered into was that of a slave. A slave doesn’t receive glory and is in no position to seek glory, but he sets himself aside. This was Christ’s way, to give up His rights to glory and limit His self-expression as God in “being made in the likeness of men."
Jesus’ example eats away at one of our core values—our entitlement to rights. He was entitled to glory and had the right to be honored, but He didn’t exploit those privileges for His own self-advantage. People cowered in awe at the appearance of an angel, but they snubbed Jesus as merely "the carpenter’s son."
Talk of “giving up rights” makes people nervous. Christians wonder, "How far will God make me go?" Instead of attempting to answer this, I simply point to Jesus; God asked Him to give up His rights until He reached the end of Himself in death (v. 8). Jesus obeyed, and the death He suffered was the opposite of glorious; in fact, it evoked horror because crucifixion was reserved only for slaves, rebels and anarchists. We may exclaim, “No! God wouldn’t ask that.” Then, like the rest of the multitude, we conclude that because Jesus was crucified, He must not have been God.
We need to learn a few things
It’s true that death is the end of us, but it is not the end of God. It’s true that the way of the cross is humiliating, but that is God’s way to glory. It was “for this reason” —for the limiting of His own glorious self-expression, the not grasping at the honor due to Him, the coming to the end of Himself in obedience, even in shameful crucifixion—that “God highly exalted Him” (v.9). Could it be that giving up our rights and limiting our self-expression for the needs of the other is Christ’s path to glory? Because of this path, a slave is given “the name which is above every name,” and “every knee will bow” before the glory due His name (v.10).
It’s Jesus’ death that redeems us from enslavement to the reign of sin, and it’s His resurrection that gives us access to heaven's riches. But may we never forget Jesus’ selfless example, that we might,“...Have this attitude in ourselves which was also in Christ Jesus” (v.5).