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Philippians 2:5-8 (NRSV):

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

Verse 6 says that Jesus didn't regard his prior "equality with God" as something to be exploited. What does "equality with God" mean in this context, and how can it be "exploited"?

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    The translation 'did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped' is an interpretation. The original conveys a different concept, that of equality already being in existence. But being not inappropriate. The ESV interpretation is saying he was not equal God because he did not grasp it.
    – Nigel J
    Feb 13 at 21:16
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    @NigelJ - I changed it to NRSV Feb 16 at 19:03
  • This question now has two major question in it not just one. I will update my answer to reflect this.
    – Dottard
    Feb 16 at 20:25
  • @NigelJ due to the varying interpretations of this verse - I'd like to see your answer. ty.
    – steveowen
    Feb 16 at 23:00
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    @user48152 I do not actually agree with the question due to the interpretations being forced on αρπαγμον. Being in form, God, he thought it not robbery to be equal God is the literal : the concept expressing the divine condition, prior to voluntary humbling. The weakening of the concept is diminishing the force of in form, God, . . . . . equal God.
    – Nigel J
    Feb 17 at 14:15
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+50

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.

Attribute Old Testament New Testament
Creator Isa 44:24, 45:18 John 1:3, Col 1:16, 17, Heb 1:2
Savior 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
Glory Isa 42:8, 48:11 John 17:5, 24
Rock Isa 44:8; Deut 32:3,4,15; Ps 92:15 1 Cor 10:4
"I AM" 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.
Shepherd Psalm 23:1; Eze 34:11ff John 10:11-16; Heb 13:20; 1 Peter 2:25, 5:4; Rev 7:17
Bridegroom 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:

  1. "robbery", eg, KJV, NKJV, DRB, YLT
  2. "thing to be grasped" (or similar), eg, NLT, ESV, BSB, BLB, NASB, ASV, ISV, NET, NHEB, Weymouth, etc.
  3. "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.

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  • I changed the title a little bit, just letting you know in case you might want to update the answer Feb 16 at 19:05
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    "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" Matthew 1:23 just states 'they will call him Immanuel'. That's not an unambiguous statement IMO. Jesus is God's representative who was sent by God, and so God is with us through his representative, Jesus. Put it another way - I had a childhood friend named Emmanuel. Is that proof that he was God? Feb 16 at 20:52
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    @Dottard Do you hold then that Isaiah 7:14 is purely prophetic re the Messiah, and didn't apply to a child ('Immanuel') born during the time of King Ahaz? Feb 16 at 21:06
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    Re the translation of the name 'Emmanuel', though, that's entirely ambiguous. It's only by taking a trinitarian lens to it that you think it isn't. Jesus is a representative of The God, yes. He was sent by The God. In that sense, The God is with us. Feb 16 at 21:10
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    @Dottard Jesus says he's the Son of God. I simply read the Bible as it is, and so Jesus is not God. End of story! But seriously, it is you who are claiming there are clear, unambiguous statements that Jesus is God - how is that not raising the issue of the trinity? I am simply replying to it. Feb 16 at 21:21
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Phl 2:3-9 KJV - 3 [Let] nothing [be done] through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. 4 Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. 5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: 7 But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: 8 And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. 9 Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:

  1. The passage speaks of our learning humility from Christ
  2. The passage states that Christ was "in the form of God"
  3. It tells us that despite His being "in the form of God", He "took upon him the form of a servant"

We learn here of Jesus, Who being in God's form, and equal with God - as it was not robbery for Him to claim equality with God - as He did on many occasions causing the Jews to try and stone Him - humbled himself.

Taking the passage in context, we have Jesus, the One Who is equal with God (Is 9:6), as manifest by His not considering it thievery to claim that equality, setting us an example of humility by the way He humbled Himself in coming to earth for us.

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First let us have a direct literal translation of Phlp 2:5-8:

[5] τουτο γαρ φρονεισθω εν υμιν ο και εν χριστω ιησου [6] ος εν μορφη θεου υπαρχων ουχ αρπαγμον ηγησατο το ειναι ισα θεω [7] αλλ εαυτον εκενωσεν μορφην δουλου λαβων εν ομοιωματι ανθρωπων γενομενος [8] και σχηματι ευρεθεις ως ανθρωπος εταπεινωσεν εαυτον γενομενος υπηκοος μεχρι θανατου θανατου δε σταυρου
[5] For let this be regarded in you, that also [was regarded] in Christ Jesus [6] who, being in [the] form of God, did not consider being just like God [to be] robbery [7] but emptied himself, having taken [the] form of [a] slave, having come to be in [the] likeness of men. [8] And having been found [in] fashion as [a] man, [he] brought himself low, having come to be obedient even until death, moreover death of [a] cross.

Why did I choose to render "μορφη θεου" as "form of God" rather than "of [a] god" to match the parallel with "form of [a] man" later? Well, I felt that the "ισα θεω" did not make sense with an indefinite "θεω", so it should refer to (the true) God, in which case "μορφη θεου" should also refer to the form of God, since it is common to see the definite article dropped from "θεου" when modifying indefinite nouns like the "μορφη" here.

And why did I choose to render "ισα θεω" as "just like God" rather than "equal to God"? You may be surprised that this one is completely straightforward; "equal to God" in standard English may mean "identical to God" or "an equal to God". But neither of these are possible here! "ισα" is neuter, not masculine, so it cannot refer to Jesus himself! So "ισα θεω" here simply means "just like God" and nothing more, namely similarity in an abstract sense, just like in Luke 6:34 and LXX Job 10:10, 11:12, 24:20, Isa 51:23. If the author wanted to say "an equal to God", he should use "ισος" (masculine) instead as in John 5:18.

And why "robbery"? I did not find clear evidence that "αρπαγμος" can mean "a thing to be seized", so I went with the default "act of robbing" as per LSJ. Observe that the second meaning offered by LSJ is based on no evidence at all, because they cited Phlp 2:6 (which sheds no light) and also referred to a different word "αρπαγμα". Note that if related nouns are formed from the same root verb via different declensions, generally the "-ς" declension refers to the action itself, whereas the "-α" declensions refer to the result or abstract concept related to the verb. For instance compare "κρισις" (act of judging) and "κριμα" (judgement). So looking at the meaning of "αρπαγμα" provides no evidence for "αρπαγμος" meaning "object of robbing".

So, what does Phlp 2:5-8 mean as a whole? Clearly your question about what "exploited" means is not even the right question, since the text itself definitely does not have anything to do with "exploitation"! In simple English, I would say it means:

For you should keep this in mind, that also Christ Jesus kept in mind (who existed in the same form as God and so did not think that being just like God was robbery, but discarded that form and took the form of a slave and came in the likeness of a man): He was found to be living in the fashion of a man, and brought himself low by being obedient even until death, death of a cross.

To explain, Phlp 2:5-8 says that, since Jesus existed in the same form as God, he would of course not consider being just like God as a robbery, because he never took what he already had. That said, he discarded that likeness with God that he had and took instead the form of a slave, the likeness of a man, living in the fashion of a man, being obedient as if he was a lowly slave.

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  • In short: you conclude that Jesus pre-existed his physical incarnation and was like God, i.e. he had divine attributes, but he was not necessarily 100% equal to God, correct? Are there divine attributes that God has but Jesus doesn't? Feb 19 at 18:18
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator: Absolutely correct; that is what the texts literally imply, and consistently so throughout all the writings in the Protestant canon. For your second inquiry, there are certainly some clear-cut attributes on which Jesus and God differ: (1) God is not a man but Jesus is a man; (2) God is the source, but Jesus is not the source. But are those "divine attributes"? Maybe you won't consider them so. If you're asking about "divine nature" or something like that, then yes I would say that Jesus has exactly the same divine nature as God.
    – David
    Feb 19 at 18:20
  • What do you mean God is the source but Jesus isn't? How do you arrive at that conclusion? Feb 19 at 19:13
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    @SpiritRealmInvestigator: By the way, I cannot understand why you accepted RevelationLad's post at the other thread, given the indisputable errors he/she made all over especially in comments on my post. Even the "postscript" is just 100% circular! Of course if Jesus was a trinitarian he would say funny things; that is the natural consequence of being a trinitarian. But in reality Jesus was not a trinitarian...
    – David
    Feb 19 at 20:11
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    @SpiritRealmInvestigator: Did you see my objections to the post you accepted? As usual, trinitarians cannot deny my objections but always bring up many other unrelated verses that they twist to 'support' their theology. Note that RevelationLad also did not respond to my objection, but merely changed the last sentence to a kind of weasel phrasing, since "as the Jews understood" may mean either "as the Jews correctly understood" or "as the Jews believed", which are very different. As you can see from all the comment threads, no trinitarian actually wants to face the real facts I brought up...
    – David
    Feb 20 at 8:53
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English Standard Version

who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,

Thayer's Greek Lexicon

STRONGS NT 725: ἁρπαγμός

  1. the act of seizing, robbery (so Plutarch, de book educ. c. 15 (others 14, 37), vol. 2:12 a. the only instance of its use noted in secular authors).

  2. a thing seized or to be seized, booty: ἁρπαγμόν ἡγεῖσθαι τί to deem anything a prlze — a thing to be seized upon or to be held fast, retained,

In https://biblehub.com/parallel/philippians/2-6.htm, 16 versions translate the Greek word as "grasped". Only one translates it as "exploited".

Equality with God is God. It is a self-identity, a tautology. As such, God cannot be exploited by anyone.

The context shows Jesus' humility. Jesus did not seize upon this equality. The passage is not about anyone exploiting the equality of God. On the contrary, it is about Matthew 23:12

For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

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  • "Equality with God is God. It is a self-identity, a tautology." Then why does Paul talk about Jesus, then God, then equality? Wouldn't it be more straightforward for Paul to simply note an identity, instead of a strange phrase like 'in the form of God'? Feb 16 at 20:07
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    That's part of the mystery of the Trinity which is beyond my understanding. So my humble answer is: I do not know.
    – Tony Chan
    Feb 16 at 20:20
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My rendering of this is a non-trinitarian one, and relies on a keying to John 1:1, which I understand as (following Moffatt) "The Logos existed in the very beginning, the Logos was with God, the Logos was divine."

https://www.bibliatodo.com/en/the-bible/james-moffatt-new-testament/john-1

So I believe this first part "he was in the form of God" is basically a restatement of John 1:1 - Christ Jesus was with God and divine before his human incarnation.

The second part "did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited" I would translate instead as "thought it not a prize to be grasped at to be equal with God", following Ellicott's preferred translation.

https://biblehub.com/commentaries/ellicott/philippians/2.htm

In other words, although with God, he was willing to 'come down' and take human form and not 'grasp at' staying with God. This leads ultimately to death on the cross (as St. Paul notes) and also perhaps to God forsaken-ness on the cross ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Matthew 27:46). Whatever the case, it is a difficult row to hoe, but Jesus does it because it is God's will. If even Jesus is willing to come from being with God to death on a cross, so we similarly (continues St. Paul) should be willing to do things that are in accordance with God's will "without complaining or arguing" (Philippians 2:14).

Addendum: If Jesus was God, it doesn't make sense to say he could or could not 'grasp at' equality with God. If Jesus is God, he simply is equal to God in all respects. The sentence just doesn't make sense on a trinitarian reading.

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  • ty for your answer. I'm puzzled by how you place Jesus with God but not God. John 1:1-3 says nothing about Jesus or a son on purpose. Who is this Jesus with God? He is not an angel (as some strangely insist) There is no 'God the Son', there is no son until Jesus who is holy and has divine attributes.
    – steveowen
    Feb 16 at 23:09
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    @user48152 Your comment is a bit cryptic to me, so forgive me if I misunderstand it. 'Jesus' is a name given to a baby who is the incarnation of the Logos. So by reference, we can say 'Jesus' = the Logos = 'Christ Jesus'. I never said that Jesus is 'God the Son' - as you rightly point out, that isn't a Biblical term. Rather, Jesus is the 'Son of God'. Feb 16 at 23:13
  • Ahh, I get you now. Pls see link for another take on logos. I believe that John is telling us what the logos is not who. If not a who, there is no incarnation - which is not a biblical concept either. :) hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/47927/…
    – steveowen
    Feb 16 at 23:17
  • @user48152 Ya, that's an interesting idea ... I don't reflexively reject it, but as is obvious I have no problem with thinking John is identifying the Logos with Jesus. Feb 16 at 23:23
  • Of course he is... when Jesus was conceived and born @~4BC and of course as planned from the beginning Heb 1:2 - careful - it is, made the 'ages' not world. And as you point out, Jesus is, the representation of His (God's) nature
    – steveowen
    Feb 16 at 23:34
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Jesus had equality with God which he did not exploit (used for his own benefit) but which he did empty by serving others. He"came to serve not to be served"(Mark 10:45). That is, He used his equality with God for the benefit of others.

Philippians 2:5-8 (NRSV):

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

"Equality with God" was something Jesus did not "exploit" (i.e. did not use for his own advantage or benefit). When Christ had fasted for forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, Satan tempted him and told him to "turn the stone into bread" but Jesus refused because he did not want to use his equality with God for his own benefit (Matthew 4:1). In the wedding at Cana, Jesus "turned water into wine" using his divine power and that benefitted other people (John 2:8).

Therefore, Jesus was equal with God the Father in regard to being able to do miracles.

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    Jesus said 'he could do nothing of himself' - not that he wouldn't. He couldn't. If he was God then he wasn't 'made like us in every way'. Heb 2:17 We are not equal to God - neither was he. You have misunderstood John 5:19 it refers to what Jesus did, not how he did it. And what he said John 12:49. Even in Rev Jesus still has the same God as us, 1:1 God is still giving him what he needs.
    – steveowen
    Feb 17 at 5:20
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    +1 for giving a specific answer to what 'equality' might consist of - the ability to do miracles. I agree with @user48152 that the text is a bit problematic at John 5:19 for a claim to 'equality'. Feb 17 at 17:10
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    @Anthony Burg, I removed the part where I included John 5:19. I realised it is already discussing another verse unrelated to your question. I was referring to Jesus who was claiming to be equal with God in John 5:18. I guess a new question of why is it that calling God his own father means he's claiming to be equal with God in John 5:18. God is indeed our father (Malachi 2:10) but here in John 5:18 Jesus is singled out as equal with God just because he calls God his father.
    – Radz Brown
    Feb 17 at 19:23

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