Another reason why Philippians 2:6 is difficult is the following statement: “He thought it not robbery to be equal with God.” This is a statement that somehow manages to mean nothing, or almost nothing, to many believers.
Here are two facts about Paul’s statement: First, the word robbery is the Greek word “harpagmos,” which refers to the action of snatching at something, or you could say seizing something, or grasping something. This could include the idea of “theft” in the sense of snatching something that is not one’s own, but the word doesn’t demand this connotation, since the verb form of the word is used of the rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4:17: “caught up.” No one is going to accuse the Lord of stealing people when he catches them up to be with Him forever! They are His people. The best way to translate “harpagmos” is “a thing to be grasped or seized.”
A second fact about Paul’s statement is that “to be equal with God” is an infinitive phrase that is the direct object of the verb “he thought” and so it ought to come directly after “he thought.” Thus the proper translation is: “He did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped, or seized.” So there are two facts about the statement, jotted down quickly during interruptions from my kids every sixty seconds or so. Thank God He gives grace to be patient; the two of them are continuing to interrupt me, which tells me I’m doing OK with them.
Now consider one possible understanding of Phil. 2:6: “Because he was existing in the form of God, he did not consider equality with God to be robbery.” The big problem with this rendering is that it make Paul’s statement out to be redundant. It is essentially saying, “Because he was equal with God, he didn’t think of being equal with God as robbery.” He was equal, so He didn’t mind being equal. Hmmm. I’m not sure this is the right view. Paul could have simply said, “Though he existed in the real condition as God, he made himself of no reputation” and the meaning would have been abundantly clear.
Another option: “Although He was existing in the real condition as God, He did not consider equality with God as something to be held on to.” Here is the problem with this understanding: It teaches that though the Son was full Deity, He decided not to hold on to Deity. It says the Son “let go of” equality with God. In other words, it teaches that God can change in His essence, which denies Immutability (“I am the Lord, I change not”). This destroys the faith, for if God can change in His nature or promises or character, then who knows how He’ll evolve. Perhaps a century from now, the new “good” will be this century’s “evil.”
Another option: “Although he was existing in the real condition as God, He did not consider equality with God as something to be seized.” This option is internally inconsistent. The first half claims the Son has full Deity, but the second half denies he ever had equality with God. “Held on to,” from option #2, implies He let equality with God go, which is bad. “Siezed” implies he never had it at all, which is if possible even worse.
So how are we to understand this verse?!?
I think the key is the distinction between “essential equality,” and “functional subordination.”
“The Son was existing in the real condition of God.” This is a statement of essential equality, that is, the Son is equal with God in His essence. God’s essence, mentioned for example when the writer of Hebrews uses the word hupostasis in Hebrews 1:3, is the combination of attributes that makes Deity Deity. Such attributes are omniscience and omnipotence, both of which can be easily demonstrated from Scripture as belonging to the Son. The Son is fully God.
The next statement, “he did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped, or seized,” means that the Son assumed a role that was subordinate. He did not become less than God; He simply subordinated Himself functionally to His Father. “The Father is Greater than I” (John 14:28), “I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of my Father” (John 6:38). “I come to do thy will O God” (Heb. 10:7).
So Philippians 2:6 is the record of the thoughts in the mind of the Son when He considered the plan of redemption. Though He was fully God, He thought “I will subordinate myself to my Father in the Incarnation to save sinners.” It is a rare glimpse into the thought world of the Son, and what it reveals is incredible love and awe-inspiring humility. And if He humbled Himself so, who are we to exalt ourselves?
Distinguishing between “essential equality” and “functional subordination” also fits with the context beautifully. The Son “humbled himself” (verse 8) before an equal, His Father. He didn’t give up condition as Deity, He gave up position, or “reputation” as the KJV so aptly puts it in verse 7.
Finally, the distinction between “essence” and “function” fits the previous context too, where believers are encouraged to humble ourselves below our essential equals (v. 3-4), and then we are encouraged to look to Christ as our great example of that same sort of humility. Christ (who was fully God, the Almighty creator, co-equal, and co-eternal) humbled Himself and took to Himself a human nature, and always did the will of His Father. It is a message worthy of millennia of preaching. Oh, for a thousand tongues to sing our great redeemer’s praise!