Philippians 2:5-8: A Literary Structure

In his commentary on PhilippiansMoises Silva outlines the literary structure to Philippians 2:5-8 in two parallel stanzas. This passage, regularly assumed to be an early Christian hymn, has received much attention from scholars  and for good reason. It beautifully describes the incarnation and crucifixion of our Lord, which entitled Jesus to receive the name of above all names (vv. 9-11).

Silva’s outline  discerns the structure of the hymn and helps the reader see the main points of the passage.

who in the FORM of God existing in likeness of men BECOMING
not an advantage considered his being equal with God and in appearance being found as man
but nothing he made himself he humbled himself
the FORM of a servant adopting BECOMING obedient to death

Here is his line-by-line explanation:

In this arrangement, the first stanza begins and ends with the noun form (morphe), whereas the second stanza begins and ends with the participle ‘having become’ (genomenos). This feature can easily be interpreted as [an] inclusio . . . and may suggest that indeed these lines begin and end discrete units. Moreover, each line of the first stanza finds some parallelism in the corresponding line of the second stanza. In both stanzas the first line contains a participle, and the participle rules a prepositional phrase. The contrast between God and man in that [first] line is repeated in the second line. The third line of each stanza describes Christ’s voluntary act (‘he emptied himself/humbled himself’). Finally, both stanzas puts us in touch with the original structure of the hymn, it is certainly suggestive and may have a bearing on exegesis. (Moises Silva, Philippians [BECNT; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005], 99)

The usefulness of this structure is evident in how it helps us see the contrast between God and man, the two main actions verbs, and the act of becoming human and dying on the cross in the place of men. Theologically, this structure coheres with the two main movements of Christ’s life—his incarnation and crucifixion. Likewise, it stresses the two natures of Christ—he is both God and man, and in his humanity his human form has hidden his divine form without replacing it, reducing it, or rejecting it. Last, Jesus’ primary actions of making himself nothing (i.e., emptying himself) and humbling himself relate in time to his incarnation and crucifixion. Yet, neither action is separated from the other. Christ’s humiliation on the cross came about because of his kenosis, and his incarnation also involved a significant step of humility.

All in all, Silva’s structure helps clarify our exegesis and theology in this key passage for biblical Christology.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss