What does "emptied himself" mean in Phil.2:6?

by Pastor Ron Jones, © Titus Institute, 2003

What does Phil.2:6 “Jesus did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself” mean?

The Selflessness of Jesus Christ

In Phil.2:1-3 Paul encourages the believers in Philippi to be of one mind and not to be selfish toward one another. Paul then gives the supreme example of what it means to “do nothing out of selfish ambition” in v.3. He exhorts his readers to have the same attitude Christ had when he did this. Then in v.5-11 he shows what attitude Christ had and what he did to demonstrate that attitude.
The purpose of this passage is not to give an explanation of the deity or humanity of Christ (although that is behind it theologically), but to explain that Jesus became a servant, giving up the “way of life” of deity to take on the “way of life” of a servant. Jesus exchanged the form of God for the form of a bondservant (v.6-7)
In v. 6 Paul says, "who although he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped.” Paul moves back through time into eternity into Christ's pre-incarnate state before Christ became a man to reveal to us what led Christ to his decision to become a man.
"Form" (morphe) in the Greek is the outward expression of something, it is a particular mode of existence of something, how something manifests itself or displays itself outwardly. "God" means "deity." Paul says in Jesus' pre-incarnate state He existed in a state of the outward expression of God which is how God manifests himself in heaven.
And what in Scripture is another word for the manifestation of God or the display of who God is? It is the glory of God. God's glory is the manifestation of who He is. It is the outward expression of the nature and attributes of God. The "form of God" is "the glory of God." (Ex. 33:17-23)
Before the Son of God became a man he existed in the fullness of the glory of God. Christ displayed in His person the fullness of God's glory. One of the ways that glory is expressed is by light (1 Tim. 6:15-16, Rev. 21:22-23). Before the Son of God became a man He dwelt in unapproachable light; He manifested the splendor and majesty and glory of God. He was merely manifesting His essence, that is His deity. “Form” (morphe) implies that Christ is God because it is the outward manifestation of one’s inward essence; only God can manifest the glory of God.
But in v. 6 Christ did not hold onto this existence in this outward manifestation of his deity. Paul says that He "did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped." "Equality with God" is literally in the Greek “to be (exist) equally with God." "Equally" is a neuter adjective which functions adverbally. An adverb describes manner of being, how Christ existed. This is another way of describing the form of God, the outward manifestation of God. What does it mean to “exist equally with God”? It means to exist equally in position, authority, privileges, and glory as the Father and the Spirit, as God. This equality is not in person or essence, but in manner of existence. Again, this implies deity, because only God can exist as God.
Paul is saying that Christ did not regard His existing in divine position, privilege, authority, honor and glory as something to be held onto at all costs, as something to be grasped tightly. But he was willing to give it up. He is like an earthly king who had all the wealth prestige, position, honor, and glory and looked upon it not as something he would never give up, but who was willing to give all that up for a time to meet the needs of his people. It is not giving up His kingship, but the outward expression of it.
The Son of God existed in all the splendor and majesty of deity all the position, authority, and privilege that it afforded yet, he did not regard it as something to be held onto tightly, never to be given up. What an incredible attitude, what incredible humility and selflessness. When there was a need for Him to give that up temporarily, He humbly and selflessly did that very thing.
In v. 7 Paul says "but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant and being made in the likeness of men." He emptied Himself of that which He did not regard as a thing to be grasped. He emptied Himself of the form of God and his existence of living in a manner equal with God.
He laid aside the outward expression of the majesty and splendor of God. He did not empty himself of His essential glory, which is part of His nature as God only the outward expression of it. He temporarily veiled the unapproachable light, which He displayed. He temporarily laid aside the outward expression of His divine position, authority, privilege, honor, and glory.
He veiled His glory, stopped exercising His authority as God, stopped using His privileges as God, stopped receiving honor due Him as God while all the while still being God and still having all these things in His essence. He did this by taking the form of a bondservant and by becoming in the likeness of men. Both of these clauses describe what He did when He emptied Himself , what took place at the moment of emptying.
Paul says in v. 7, "taking the form of a servant." Christ emptied Himself of the form of God, the outward expression of deity and took upon himself the form (morphe) of a servant, the outward expression of a servant. “Servant" is “doulos” and refers to one who is in subjection to someone else, one whose will is submitted to the will of another.
Christ took upon Himself the outward expression of a servant. Christ exchanged dwelling in glory for dwelling as a servant. Christ exchanged dwelling in authority and honor, as the ruler of the universe, for dwelling in submission and obedience, the submission and obedience of a servant. And whose servant did He become? God's (Jn.4:34, Jn.5:30) Christ whose will was supreme, submitted His will to the Father and while a man only did the Father's will.
This is Christ’s attitude. The perfect master became the perfect servant. He not only showed the outward form of a servant but He was indeed a servant. This speaks of his human nature. He became a servant of God, by becoming a man. This is implied here and in v.7.
He was v. 7 "being made in the likeness of men." "Being made in the likeness" means “becoming an exact representation of something else in its appearance.“ In other words, when Jesus took the form of a bondservant he became in appearance as a man. He didn't look any different than any other man. He was an exact and perfect likeness, because He became a man. The emphasis by Paul here is not on Jesus' becoming a man (although that is stated by Paul in other Scriptures), but how he appeared outwardly.
He exchanged the outward glory of divine perfection for the imperfect body of humans. He exchanged the throne of God for the world of men on earth. He exchanged the privileges of deity for the toil and labor of man. He exchanged the authority of deity for the servitude of men. But yet, He was willing to do this.
Why? Because He did not regard His position in heaven as something to hold tightly to. But with humility of mind, He regarded us as more important to Himself than He was to Himself.
This Paul describes in v. 8, Paul says, "And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross." Paul wants to describe to the Philippians the extent to which the Son of God went in thinking of others before Himself in pure humility. Christ not only entered the human realm, but when He was in this human realm He humbled Himself. He lowered Himself even farther than He had already done and became obedient (as a servant of God) even to death on a cross.
Then Paul not only wants the Philippians to be motivated to be humble by Christ's attitude and consequent action, but also by the results of Christ's humility. What happened when He displayed this humility? He was exalted, lifted up in honor to the highest place. Read v.9-11 which describes the exaltation of Jesus Christ to the highest place of honor, with a name above all names to whom all will bow and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord!