Paul does not begin his discussion of Jesus from the vantage point of the incarnation but from that of eternity. What Paul stresses in the first part of this chapter is the example of humility that Jesus gave us in his willingness to divest himself of the form of God. This of course does not suggest that he ceased be God. I am not suggesting that he stripped himself of deity.
To get a grasp on what this implies, all we can rely on is the language of the text. The word ἐκένωσεν means to make one’s self empty, or as Thayer suggests, “he laid aside.” How do we explain how, even in the flesh, Jesus was still God yet remained so without retaining anything that defines divine nature? Perhaps ‘to lay aside’ offers the best explanation. He laid that nature aside as one would a garment.
In the text, empty is the verb that defines the action. Equal is the adjective that defines his nature. Equality and nature are the nouns that tell us what he emptied out. He exchanged one nature for another. This was not a passive action. This was self-actuating. No one was doing this to him. He was the one who did the emptying. What he emptied out of himself was both equality with God and divine nature. He must possess these qualities intrinsically in order to empty them out of himself.
In order for Jesus to fulfill his redemptive mission, he must assume a fleshly posture. We can find at least four reasons for this in scripture.
1) Divine essence cannot die. As man he will die.
2) The requirements of the Law of Moses required a sacrifice of flesh and blood. Divine essence is not made of flesh and blood.
3) His heritage must come from a specific fleshly linage. As God, he has no linage.
4) The demands of the Law were imposed upon man and it was required that man fulfill them. The Law required not only that man fulfill its demands but that only a man of the seed of Abraham to whom the Law was given. Thus, a Gentile could never have satisfied the Law, Romans 1:1-5.
Fulfilling the function of a sacrifice required that he assume the form of a sacrifice. In this metamorphosis, he poured out of himself every expression of deity. We do not know how he does this, only that this text shows us that he did. Divine essence is now submitted to limitations. As God, these characteristics of essence are, by their very nature, without boundaries or limitations, but as man, he will be subject to all of the same sets of determined relations that limit all men. Divine character is now submitted to vulnerability. As God, he cannot be tempted, but as man, he yields his divine character to the onslaught of Satan. He becomes the second Adam. He exposes his own moral integrity to the same temptations that are common to all men, Hebrews 2:18, 4:15, and 5:2. Yet, unlike Adam, he maintains his integrity all the way to the cross, Hebrews 4:15 and 2:9. He succeeds where Adam failed. He simply never sinned.
The Form of a Servant:
Taking the form of a servant is an exchange of nature. He exchanged the essence of God for the essence of man. Spirit clothes itself with flesh, John 1:1-2, Hebrews 2:14 and 10:5-10. This is much more than just a transformation from spirit to flesh. Every attribute that defined him as God will either be submitted to limitations or subjected to vulnerability. Omnipotence yields itself to dependency. The all-sufficient one now becomes fully dependent, Isaiah 12, John 5:30 and Matthew 4:1-10. He became subject to all of the same sets of determined relations that are part of all human existence. Omniscience gives way to revelation. He must learn God’s will as a man and submit to it, Hebrews 10:7, Deuteronomy 18:18-19, John 12:49-50 and 17-4. Omnipresence confines itself to the limitations of time and space. His Eternal nature is surrendered for mortality - he became subject to death. The transcendent One became an equal among his fleshly brethren, Hebrews 2:17. The unified One became the cursed of God, Mark 15:34, Galatians 3:13 and 2Corinthians 5:21. The unchanging One became subject to change. He not only changes form but his fleshly form will also be subject to all of the changes of natural biological processes.
In keeping with the posture of a servant / slave, Paul says that he did nothing through selfishness; that he did not seek his own glory but regarded others as more important than himself. He placed the needs of others above his own. He emptied himself. The servant reserves nothing of himself. He stands stripped of all personal will. All has become completely subjected. This is total surrender of control. Now, he is in the likeness of man. In the beginning, God, this God, created man in his own image, according to his own likeness. Now, this same God steps out of eternity into time to be made in the image of his creation - man. The Creator becomes the creature. The Lord of all becomes the servant of all. The Governor of the universe becomes subordinate to another and all of this by his own will.