There are two major parts to this question which I will deal with sequentially.
A: Equality with God
The idea of Jesus' equality with God is expressed in various ways in the immediate context and in other places such as:
- Phil 2:6 - Jesus was "in the form of God"
- John 1:1-3 - Jesus was both "with God" and "was God"
- John 5:17, 18, “In his defence, Jesus said, ‘My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.’ For this reason they tried all the more to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was calling God his own Father, making him equal to God.” See also Luke 22:69-71.
- John 5:23, “so that all may honour the Son just as they honour the Father. Whoever does not honour the Son does not honour the Father who sent Him.”
- John 10:30, “I and the Father are one.” (Compare Deut 6:4.)
- John 20:28, “Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God.’” (This declares Jesus as ὁ Θεός.) [Compare this statement with Ps 35:23, “Contend for me, my God and Lord.” See also V24.]
Note: If we take the corpus of the four Gospels, Matt 1:23 and John 20:28 (& 21:19) we find that they begin and end with clear, unambiguous statements that Jesus is God, more specifically, “The God” = ὁ Θεός.
Ellicott comments as follows:
The sense [in Phil 2:6] is that, being in the form of God, and therefore having
equality with God, He set no store on that equality, as a glory to
Himself, compared with the power of giving salvation to all men, which
He is pleased to consider a new joy and glory.
Barnes reaches a similar conclusion -
Thought it not robbery to be equal with God - This passage, also, has
given occasion to much discussion. Prof. Stuart renders it: "did not
regard his equality with God as an object of solicitous desire;" that
is, that though he was of a divine nature or condition, be did not
eagerly seek to retain his equality with God, but took on him an
humble condition - even that of a servant.
This idea of Jesus' equality with the Father as God is seen throughout the NT - here is a sample of how the OT takes unique attributes of God and applies them to Jesus.
||Isa 44:24, 45:18
||John 1:3, Col 1:16, 17, Heb 1:2
||Isa 43:3, 11, 45:17, 21
||Matt 1:21; Acts 4:12; 2 Tim 1:10; Tit 1:4, 2:13, 3:6; 2 Pet 1:1, 11
||Isa 42:8, 48:11
||John 17:5, 24
||Isa 44:8; Deut 32:3,4,15; Ps 92:15
||1 Cor 10:4
||Ex 3:13-15; Deut 32:39, Isa 41:4, 43:10, 13, 25, 45:19, 46:4, 48:12, 51:12, 52:6 (LXX)
||Matt 14:27, Mark 6:50, Mark 13:6, Luke 21:8, Mark 14:62, Luke 22:70, John 4:26, 6:20, 8:24, 28, 58, 13:9, 18:5-8.
||Psalm 23:1; Eze 34:11ff
||John 10:11-16; Heb 13:20; 1 Peter 2:25, 5:4; Rev 7:17
||Isa 49, 54, Jer 2, Hosea
||Mark 2:19, Matt 9:15, Luke 5:34, 35
|First & Last
||Isa 41:4, 44:6, 48:12
||Rev 1:17, 18, 22:13
|Lord of Lords
||Deut 10:17, Ps 136:3, 26
||Rev 17:14, 19:16
|Lord of All
||Deut 10:17, Josh 3:11, 13; Ps 97:5, Zech 4:14, 6:5, Mic 4:13
||Acts 10:36, Rom 10:12, Col 1:15
|Seven Eyes of the the LORD
||Zech 4:10 (& Zech 3:9)
||Rev 5:6 (Lamb)
B: The Noun ἁρπαγμός
The noun ἁρπαγμός (harpagmos) occurs only in Phil 2:6 in all the NT and is never used in the LXX, nor in any other early Christian literature. Its meaning is debated as is clear from the three basic meanings (and two sub-meanings) in BDAG. Most other lexicons similarly prevaricate. The modern version are also very diverse in their translations.
[The cognate verb ἁρπάζω (harpazó) is used frequently is places like John 10:28, 1 Thess 4:17, Rev 12;5, 2 Cor 12:2, 4, with the idea of seizing and stealing or snatching away property, robbing.]
The basic and fundamental meaning is: something that is grasped and snatched away, robbery. However, as BDAG observes, "which is next to impossible in Phil 2:6 ... the state of being equal with God cannot be equated with the act of robbery."
[Neither UBS5 nor NA28 list any variants in the text of Phil 2:6 and none for this word specifically.]
The modern translations can be classified into several groups:
- "robbery", eg, KJV, NKJV, DRB, YLT
- "thing to be grasped" (or similar), eg, NLT, ESV, BSB, BLB, NASB, ASV, ISV, NET, NHEB, Weymouth, etc.
- "something to be used to his own advantage", or "something to be exploited", or, similar, eg, NIV, NRSV, CSB, HCSB, CEV, GNB, GWT, etc.
As shown above, the NT goes to considerable lengths to portray Jesus as "equal to God" as this very verse makes clear. Further the following verses (7, 8) also describe Jesus' infinite humiliation by His seven-step descent to the lowest level of humanity:
- emptied himself
- taking human likeness
- the form of a servant
- humbled Himself
- became obedient to death
- even death on a cross
Thus, the force of Phil 2:6 appears to be that Jesus' equality was not something that He would grasp and not let go but was willing to humiliate Himself in the process of the incarnation. That is, the best rendering of the verse is probably (and surprisingly) given by NLT: "Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to."
The pivotal importance of this passage in Phil 2:5-11 cannot be overstated.
- Jesus was God and equal to God before the incarnation
- Jesus humbled Himself during the incarnation
- Jesus was exalted to the highest position after the incarnation.
This simple passage in Phil 2:5-11 simply explains the many "subordination" references such as John 5:19, Matt 26:39 - Jesus voluntarily gave up some of His divine privileges during the incarnation such as omnipresence and omnipotence - He still had them but voluntarily did not use them but depended on the Father at all times during the incarnation.