Philippians 2:5–11 is taken by Trinitarians as a key proof that Christ was God and that he preexisted before his birth of Mary. How do we answer this assertion and what do these verses really teach?

The Trinitarian teaching on these verses  suggests that Jesus as ‘God the Son’, being  originally in the very form and nature of  God, made a decision from heaven to take upon  himself the form and nature of a servant, a mortal  man, in order to die on the cross and effect salvation  for mankind, before resuming a fully divine aspect.

In addressing this suggestion, we need to consider  carefully the text itself, the context of the verses  and what is really being taught by the Apostle Paul  as he expands upon his advice in verse 5, “Let this  mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus”.

The Father – “the only true God”

Before we go through this review process, we might  just note aspects of this passage which are at odds  with the Trinitarian viewpoint. Firstly, consider that  Christ “humbled himself and became obedient unto  death”. To whom was he obedient? Clearly to the  Father: “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup  pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou  wilt” (Matt 26:39). How can we make sense of this  if Christ was God, co-equal and co-eternal with the  Father and the Holy Spirit? Secondly, Paul tells us  that “God also hath highly exalted him”. This too  makes sense only in the context of our understanding  of God as the Father, the Creator exercising His  divine authority to elevate His Son. And, thirdly,  in verse 11 we have the exhortation that “every  tongue [shall] confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to  the glory of God the Father”. To acknowledge the  now elevated status of Jesus Christ as Lord is to  give glory to God, who is “the Father”.

So we have three clear statements in verses 8 (obedience  to God), 9 (elevation by God) and 11 (glory  to God) that make nonsense of a Trinitarian understanding  of Deity but fit with perfect harmony our  understanding of God as the one God, the Father, and  the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who existed only  in his Father’s mind and purpose until his conception,  by divine power, in the womb of Mary his mother.

The context – developing the Christ mind

We begin with the setting from Philippians 2:1–4.  The scene is set in verse 1: “consolation in Christ”,  “comfort of love”, “fellowship of Spirit” and “bowels  and mercies”. These are expressions of love, compassion,  fellowship and consideration, aspects the  apostle saw in the Philippian ecclesia, but which  were overshadowed somewhat by elements of discord  and disharmony, particularly evidenced in the  friction between those two otherwise fine sisters  in Christ, Euodias and Syntyche (4:2). The apostle  makes a passionate appeal for unity. Success in this  would fill him with joy. He exhorted them to “be  likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord,  of one mind” (v2). Here are four expressions  of active unity within the ecclesia. What ecclesias  we would have if this could be achieved among us!

The apostle continues in verses three and four to  outline three expressions of selflessness and submission.  Firstly: “Let nothing be done through strife  or vainglory”. When our behaviour is calculated  to elevate our own importance, no good can come.  Secondly: “… but in lowliness of mind let each esteem  other better than themselves”. Suppressing any  desire for personal recognition, we genuinely should  see in others better qualities than our own. Finally:  “Look not every man on his own things, but every  man also on the things of others”. If we adopt the  standpoint of verse three, we will be looking to the  benefit of others before ourselves. Paul summarises  this principle in verse 5 where he says, “Let this mind  be in you which was also in Christ Jesus”. Since  Christ embodied this spirit of humble service and  love to others, we can best achieve the lofty goals set  for us by the apostle, if we let Christ’s mind be in us.

The apostle has introduced us firstly to those  desirable qualities of selflessness, service and love  of brethren. Now he points us to Christ Jesus as  the supreme example of these principles, which  brought him elevation and honour, to the glory of  God; and he provides a pathway to salvation also  to those who follow him.

The example and work of Christ in Philippians  2:6–11

Verse 6 “Who, being in the form of God” The  opening words of this verse are mistranslated with a Trinitarian bias by some. For example, the RV margin  has “being originally”. The word in the original  is used some fifty or so times in the New Testament,  but never with the sense of “being originally”. The  word is used by Paul of Abraham in Romans 4:19  “when he was about an hundred years old”; clearly,  it could not have the sense that he was originally  an hundred years old. Christ simply was, during his  mortal existence, in the “form of God”. The word  “form” is morphe in the Greek. This is not to say he  had divine shape or physical substance and so was  God. The term is used in an abstract sense as well.  For example, in Galatians 4:19: “until Christ be  formed in you”. Paul is not suggesting the Galatians  would develop Christ’s physical form, but that  rather the principles of Christ would be adopted  by them. The term is also used in Philippians 2:7 in  the expression “form of a servant”. There the sense  is clearly that, though not technically a servant, he  took a servant’s status or standing. A similar sense  applies in verse 6. He had a divine status. There was  a divine aspect to Jesus, though not in the sense of  the Trinitarian belief. He was “the only begotten  of the Father” (John1:14). The angel declared to  Mary: “that holy thing which shall be born of thee  shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). Jesus  declared: “I and my Father are one” (John 10:30)  and “I am in the Father, and the Father in me” (John  14:7–15). His life declared God to Israel yet from  that high status he was prepared to adopt the status  of a servant to accomplish his Father’s purpose.

“thought it not robbery to be equal with God”  This is a poor and misleading translation. The RSV  (and ESV) has: “did not count equality with God a  thing to be grasped”; the Diaglott: “did not meditate  a usurpation to be like God” and the NASB: “did  not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped”.  Though having a divine status, the Son chose the  way of humility and service. It was Eve’s choice in  the beginning to grasp for divine status that led to  the first sin and the woeful state of humanity ever  since (Gen 3:5–6). How could Christ remedy that  folly by emulating it?

Verse 7 “But made himself of no reputation”  Rather, as the expression here literally is, “he emptied  himself ” (RV, RSV, NASB). This was Christ’s  response to his Father’s will and purpose. He “took  upon him the form of a servant” or bondslave,  knowing that to him fell the task of being Yahweh’s  servant, foretold so long before by the prophet  Isaiah (Isa 52:13–14). Christ taught those servant  principles to his disciples, not only by his example  when he washed the disciples’ feet (John 13:4–15)  but directly when he said, “… but whosoever will  be great among you, shall be your minister: And  whosoever will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all.  For even the Son of man came not to be ministered  unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom  for many” (Mark 10:43–45).

He was “made in the likeness of men”. The expression  “was made” (Gr genomenos) occurs in verse  8 where he “became obedient”. The sense is simply  that he showed himself to be in the likeness of men,  as he showed himself to be obedient to the will of  his Father. He was a man, living among men, but  with a purpose to fulfil beyond what any other man  was called upon to achieve.

Verse 8 “And being found in fashion as a man”  Weymouth translates this: “And being recognised  as truly human”. It was this human condition that  gave Christ his empathy with men and women. In  that position, he accepted the great cause of God,  which demanded his complete submission and  obedience. He “was in all points tempted like as we  are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15). In the garden, alone,  that fearful trial looming before him, he made his  final commitment: “O my Father, if this cup may  not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will  be done” (Matt 26:42). So in the words of Paul, he  “became obedient unto death, even the death of  the cross” (v8). Two poignant comments in John’s  Gospel testify to our Lord’s full understanding  of every moment of suffering he must endure. In  John 18:4: “Jesus therefore, knowing all things that  should come upon him, went forth

” And then,  as the end came: “After this, Jesus knowing that all  things were now accomplished, that the scripture  might be fulfilled …” (19:28). These expressions are  like the bookends of his suffering, marking out its  full and terrible dimensions, all of which he knew.

Verse 9 What else then could Paul say in the  next verse in Philippians 2:9 but – “Wherefore  God also hath highly exalted him”. Death came  to Jesus, not because of sin but due to the mortality  he inherited as part of Adam’s race. But resurrection  and glory were God’s attestation of his sinless,  faithful life as the ever obedient beloved Son. Paul  quotes from Isaiah 52:13: “Behold, my servant …  he shall be exalted and extolled, and be very high.”  What a joy this must have been to the Father to so honour His triumphant Son. And what a joy to  the Son, for the Psalmist declared, speaking Christ’s  mind hundreds of years before: “in thy presence is  fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures  for evermore” (Psa 16:11).

Verse 10 Part of his honour was to receive “a  name which is above every name, that at the name  of Jesus every knee should bow”. It is interesting  to note that following his triumph over sin and  death, the New Testament writers almost always  refer to the risen Lord as “the Lord Jesus Christ”,  “Jesus Christ”, or “Christ”. The name “Jesus” alone  does not give full recognition to the one who has  been crowned “with glory and honour” (Heb 2:7).  We honour Christ as the bearer of the divine name  by following the example of the apostles and using  their terminology. Paul, here in Philippians, has  quoted from Isaiah 45:23: “I have sworn by myself,  the word is gone out of my mouth in righteousness  and shall not return, that unto me (Yahweh) every  knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear”. These  expressions are appropriated by Paul to the glorified  Son of God. He sits at God’s right hand, subservient  to the Father, but one with Him. Paul quotes  from Isaiah 45:23 again in a context which depicts  the Father and Son working in concert: “… for we  shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.  For it is written, As I live, saith the Lord, every knee  shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to  God. So then every one of us shall give account  of himself to God” (Rom 14:10–12). The work of  judgment is Christ’s work. But confession to him  is as confession to God; not because he is God,  but because he carries out God’s work with God’s  authority, “exalted and extolled, and … very high”!

Verse 11 This final expression, the ultimate  fulfilment of which still lies ahead, completes the  picture – universal acceptance of Jesus Christ as  Lord and by that very acknowledgement, giving  glory to Almighty God, whose work it was.

These verses do not depict God becoming man,  but rather a man (though certainly with a divine  status as Son of God), bowing to the will of God,  and setting an example of humility to fulfil his  ‘servant purpose’ and effect salvation for his fellows.

So to the brethren and sisters of Philippi, Paul  might have said in conclusion, ‘Can you now see the  fullness of that seemingly simple expression, “Let  this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus”?  Consider what it entailed. Observe how Christ  lived. Note the level of his service and humility,  even unto the death of the cross. Follow his example  and empty yourselves.’ The apostle expresses his  confidence in them in verse 12: “As ye have always  obeyed,” so you must continue on, after the example  of your Lord, and “work out your own salvation with  fear and trembling”. And so must we all.