John Harley

In New Covenant Theology, we acknowledge brilliant men from other theologies. Robert L. Reymond (1932-2013) was a theologian who, to some extent, flew under the radar. If you’ve ever wondered what a Systematic Theology by John Murray would have looked like, you need look no further than Reymond’s superb, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith. His brilliance shines throughout the book- except where it disagrees with New Covenant Theology! One section in particular draws my attention, namely, his exegesis of Philippians 2:5-11. It is a refreshing take on an extremely difficult text, grammatically and theologically speaking. In my view, Reymond’s exegesis of the text is one of the best I have ever read on any text. I will summarize his exegesis and comment upon it. In particular, I will focus on his exegesis of verses 6-8. After comments on his work, I will make a few comments on the relevance of Reymond’s exegesis for New Covenant Theology, and in doing so I will confirm the position of Geoff Volker and Steve Lehrer concerning their interpretation of Philippians 2:8.[1]


Reymond’s Greek Structure

He divides Philippians 2:6-11 into two sections, or strophes (as he considers the passage a combination of two hymns): verses 6-8; and verses 9-11.

It’s the first section I’m interested in. He breaks down the first hymn in verses 6-8 into two parts (strophes):


 although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, 

 and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.

He breaks down the Greek in the following manner:


[A] ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων
οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ,

7ἀλλ’ ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν

μορφὴν δούλου λαβών,

[B] ἐν ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων γενόμενος·
καὶ σχήματι εὑρεθεὶς ὡς ἄνθρωπος

8ἐταπείνωσεν ἑαυτὸν
γενόμενος ὑπήκοος μέχρι θανάτου, θανάτου δὲ σταυροῦ.

Reymond explains the sections:

  • Both strophes, A and B, have four lines. The first and last line of each section begins and ends with a participal clause:

ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων…. μορφὴν δούλου λαβών

ἐν ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων γενόμενος….γενόμενος ὑπήκοος μέχρι

θανάτου, θανάτου δὲ σταυροῦ

  • Each first line of a strophe begins with an en phrase: ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ…. ἐν ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων
  • “Form of God” (μορφῇ θεοῦ) is an antithetical parallel to “likeness of men” (ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων), and both are in the first line of their respective strophes.
  • Line 3 in each strophe contains a reflexive pronoun denoting Christ: ἑαυτὸν (himself)… ἑαυτὸν (himself). The use of the same reflexive pronoun suggests that Strophe A, line 3 means the same as strophe B, line 3:

But emptied himself = he humbled himself

This equation is made all the more likely if ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν is translated “poured out himself”, alluding to Isaiah 53:12, and ἐταπείνωσεν ἑαυτὸν is seen as an allusion to Isaiah 53:8 (LXX), which is quoted in Acts 8:33, “In his humiliation he was deprived of justice”. Both phrases refer to Isaiah’s Suffering Servant.

  • There is reverse parallelism in both strophes, in lines 1 and 3:

Strophe A, line 3 is about death                                 Strophe B, line 1 is about death

Strophe A, line 1 is about servanthood                    Strophe B, line 3 is about servanthood

  • In strophe A, “God” occurs in lines 1 and 2. In strophe B, “man” is the focus in lines 1 and 2.
  • Both strophes refer to Jesus’ humiliation.[2]


Reymond’s Exegesis

 Reymond rejects the view that ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ refers to an Adam-like figure. Adam was in the image of God; Jesus was in the form (image) of God. First of all, eikon and morphe are not synonymous. Second, in strophe A, line 3, it says that Jesus came in the “form” (morphe) of a servant. He did not come in the image of a servant, for he was the Servant of the LORD.[3]

“Form” (morphe) is sometimes taken to mean ‘visible form’ of something, as usage in the LXX suggests (Judg.8:18; Job 4:16; Isa.44:13; Dan.3:19 [sic]). Yet, we cannot refer to the visible form of God, for God is invisible (Col.1:15). Nor does morphe equate to doxa (“glory”), for one can hardly refer to the glory of the Suffering Servant. The morphe of God entails that Christ possessed all the attributes of the essence of God, or as Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 4:5 and Colossians 1:15, Christ was the “ “[essential] image of the [invisible] God” .”[4] [parenthesis Reymond’s] In like fashion, Christ took upon himself the essential attributes of a servant. As the participle ὑπάρχων implies, Christ continues to exist in the form of God, even though he was in the form of a servant. [5]

The Problem

To Reymond, the classical reading that begins with the preexistent Son is incorrect; the flow of the passage points, instead, to the incarnate Son in his Messianic mission.

  • For one thing, it does not make sense, thinks Reymond, to say that the preexistent Son “ “thought”…of his equality with God”, “for it does not matter.”[6] Why would the Son be thinking about this equality? It was natural to his existence.
  • The idea that the preexistent Son did not consider his equality with God as something to hold on to (res rapta) is theological heresy (see John 5:18; 10:28-33), for the Son was equal.[7] As God, the preexistent Son could hardly stop being equal to God the Father.
  • The reading that says that the Son did not think equality with God should be seized (res rapienda) introduces confusion into the text, for it implies that the preexistent Son did not have equality with God, when, in actual fact, as God he must have had equality with the Father.
  • What’s the purpose of saying that the preexistent Son did not grasp after something that he already had?[8] Thus, in the classical schema, it is the res rapta reading that is more appealing, for it at least does not constitute a theological inanity. That being said, the res rapta view entails the intolerable position that the preexistent Son emptied himself of the divine nature.[9]
  • Reymond’s position, by implication, is very clear: for the preexistent Son to have divested himself of equality with God would have required taking full divinity from him, for only by doing that could the Son stop being equal with the Father. Any form of divestiture of deity, such as the Son denying to himself the divine rights of deity, or the Son divesting himself of divine glory, are just as inconceivable, for the rights of deity and divine glory are essential to deity.[10]
  • The traditional movement from the preexistent Son in glory to the Son of humiliation up to the Son of exaltation is theologically redundant. As the preexistent, the Son was fully exalted to the position of God. Indeed, as God, the Son cannot be anything but wholly exalted. That being so, what is the purpose of Philippians 2:10-11 if the Son as God is already fully exalted? [11]

The Solution

The key to the passage is to start with the Son as “Christ Jesus” (v5). It is the incarnate Son, the Messiah, Christ Jesus, that Paul is referring to and not to the preexistent Son. The background is Matthew 4, most likely, and Satan’s temptation of Christ. Jesus, as the Second Adam- a theme popular in Paul’s writings (Rom.5:12-21; 1 Cor.15:43-49)- is undergoing a trial of his Messianic ministry. Satan tempted Christ to seize his status as equal with God (Matt.4:3, 6, 8), just as Adam was tempted to equality with God. However, the Son refused Satan’s temptation and did not seize upon his equality with the Father.[12]

The phrase “he emptied himself” in Philippians 2:7 takes us to the Servant Songs of Isaiah. The second hymn, in Philippians 2:10-11, borrows from Isaiah 42:1-8 and 45:23. And Christ’s humbling of himself and obedience unto death recall Isaiah 53:8 (LXX). “[H]e emptied himself” is the “dynamic equivalent to the Isaianic expression “He poured his soul unto death” ”.[13]

With these things in mind, the participle labon (Phil.2:7b) reveals the necessary precondition to Christ Jesus’ self-emptying unto death, namely, that he take upon himself the nature of the Servant of Isaiah 53. Only by becoming the Servant could Jesus pour out his life unto death on the cross.[14]

The second hymn now makes sense: for it is as the Messianic Son (the Second Adam and Suffering Servant) who suffered unto death, and who did not grasp at equality with God, that Christ Jesus is exalted to the position of Lord. Thus:

…the Father’s exaltation of Jesus Christ entailed for the Son, as Messiah, a new and genuine experience of exaltation. Precisely because we must use the word “human” as part of our description of him now, we can also say that something truly new and unique occurred at the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ: the man Christ Jesus- the Last Adam and Second Man- assumed de facto sovereignty over the universe, over all of the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, and over all other men, demanding that they submit to the authority of his scepter. That King’s name is Jesus, at the mention of whose office some day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ- the divine-human Messiah- is Lord![15]

Some Comments on Reymond’s Exegesis

By far and away, Reymond’s work is the best structural and theological exegesis of Philippians 2:5-11 that is available. It reveals excellence in Greek analysis, Biblical Theology, Systematic Theology, and Exegetical Theology. I have not found a better example of holistic exegesis than Reymond’s piece.

To many, Reymond’s reading is a hard pill to swallow because the text of Philippians 2 reads as though it is describing the descent of the Son of God from heaven and his incarnation as the Son of Man. However, Paul’s challenge is given to the Philippians to divest themselves of a divisive mindset, so that they might adopt a servant attitude toward one another. Paul’s concern is pastoral. When you saw Jesus, you observed God in the flesh; yet, he did not call upon his deity in such a fashion to subtract from his duty as the Servant of the Lord. The Philippians, who were indeed children of the Lord, were to conduct themselves in the flesh in a manner that exalted the salvation of the Lord in them. Paul had made the same point just previously in Philippians 1:21-30. What we are in the flesh must reflect our status as children of God through the beauty of our service to God and of others.

That being said,  I think we should re-consider Reymond’s understanding of morphe. I think there is evidence that ‘visible form’ is the proper translation. Let’s look again at the lexical evidence. It occurs three times in the New Testament: Mark 16:12; Philippians 2:6-7. Mark 16:12 states, “After that, He appeared in a different form [morphe] to two of them while they were walking along on their way to the country.” It is impossible to avoid the idea of outward appearance here. Jesus’ outward appearance was, physically speaking, different to his previous physical form before he died.

Reymond cites four times that morphe is used in the LXX: Judges 8:18; Job 4:16; Isaiah 44:13; and, Daniel 3:19. A correction is necessary, for Daniel 3:19 does not use morphe; probably Reymond was thinking of Daniel 5:6 LXX:

  1. Judges 8:18 (LXX) says, “And he said to Zebee and Salmana, “Where are the men whom you killed in Thabor?” And they said, “As you are, one like [homoios] you was like [homoios] them, as the son [morphe] of a king.” ” The reader will note the close similarity between homoios (“likeness”) and morphe. Moreover, morphe does not denote attributes but a type of person, a prince, the son of a king.
  2. Job 4:16 (LXX), “ “I arose and perceived it not: I looked, and there, was no form [morphe] before my eyes: but I only heard a breath and a voice” ” Patently, the form was something visible to the eyes, the representation of a person, and not the conglomeration of attributes.
  3. Isaiah 44:13 (LXX), “The artificer having chosen a piece of wood, marks it out with a rule, and fits it with glue, and makes it as the form [morphe] of a man, and as the beauty of a man, to set it up in the house.” The idol is in the form, or appearance, of a man; the idol does not bear the attributes of man.
  4. Daniel 5:6 (LXX), “Then the king’s countenance [morphe] changed, and his thoughts troubled him, and the joints of his loins were loosed, and his knees smote one another.” The appearance of Belshazzar’s face changed. The ‘attributes’ of his face did not change.

From the above evidence, it is apparent that morphe does not refer to essence or attributes, but to the external appearance of something, someone. If the form of God meant the essence of God, then the form of a Servant meant the essence of a Servant, and Christ was not a servant in his essence or being. Christ could not possible be, at the same time, in the essence of a Servant and in the essence of God. Servanthood belongs merely to his human nature, and was manifested in his sacrificial life.

Nor is there room for the view that morphe denotes a change in the one/thing bearing the morphe. It is true that Christ’s visible, external form changed. However, this does not entail that morphe means or connotes change. He change from one morphe to another. It is much simpler to say that morphe denotes the outward form regardless of whether there is a change. For example, in Isaiah 44:13 LXX the form of the idol is that of a man. There is no indication that this form (of a man) was the result of a change in the appearance of the idol.

The implication is that morphe denotes the appearance to the eye of an object or person. In simple terms, when one looked at Christ Jesus you saw, 1) God; 2) a Servant.  It was Reymond who said that Jesus Christ as preexistent Son could not be the visible appearance of One who was invisible. In his preexistent state he was invisible. I agree.  Yet, Jesus Christ the Messiah was God revealed in the flesh, so that his divinity was evident through his flesh to those who saw him:

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him. (John 1:18)

This beginning of His signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory, and His disciples believed in Him. (John 2:11)

For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, (Col.1:19)

For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, (Col.2:9)

Some have said that the idea of a visible form is a vague idea. I prefer it to the Aristotelian logic that divides between essential attributes and non-essential ones.[16] Moreover, my view has the merit of having lexical support from the New Testament and the Septuagint. Wasn’t it all about “seeing” the Lord?

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life— and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us— what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1:1-3; see Luke 1:1-2; John 20:25; Acts 1:1-3; 4:20).

In that regard, morphe functions similarly to homoioma, which denotes the likeness of a thing, event, or person, and, again, it is observable:

Romans 1:23: …and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the likeness [homoioma] of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.

Romans 5:14: Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness [homoioma] of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come.

Romans 6:5: For if we have become united with Him in the likeness [homoioma] of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection,

Romans 8:3: For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness [homoioma] of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh,

Likewise, schema (“appearance”) (Phil.2:7b) parallels morphe and homoioma:

1 Corinthians 7:31: and those who use the world, as though they did not make full use of it; for the form [schema] of this world is passing away.

In sum, all three words- morphe, homoioma, and schema– point to the outward appearance of a person or thing.

The phrase καὶ σχήματι εὑρεθεὶς ὡς ἄνθρωπος indicates the visibility of Christ Jesus, too. He was “found in appearance as a man”. Was Christ Jesus lost that he needed to be found? Andrew declared that he had “found” the Messiah (John 1:41). Yet, this Messiah was the man Jesus. And just as his equality with God did not prevent Christ Jesus from pouring out himself, so, in being a man, even the Messiah, Jesus humbled himself to death on the cross.

What Philippians 2:5-11 amounts to is that, if you had seen Jesus back in the day, you would have seen One equal to God, One who was God in the flesh. Yet, you would have noticed that he did not take advantage of this equality but consummated his service to God by becoming a slave, the Suffering Servant. When you looked at Jesus you saw his divinity used in service of his duty to suffer and die for the church. Nothing of his divinity was cast away or emptied out. All the divine titles applied to him as preexistent God; even as the incarnate Son, all the divine titles applied to him. Yet, as the incarnate Son, he did not claim any of them, nor grasp for their accompanying prerogatives. Rather, he humbled himself and through his humanity in the flesh his divine glory shone through. It was not until his exaltation (coming out of his resurrection), that Jesus the Messiah was raised up and the prerogatives that were always his were accredited to him as his as the Son of Man, the Messiah, as the Second Man (Adam) exalted. Thus, he was “given” the name Lord, even though, in point of fact, it belonged to him as God. In short, in his exaltation, what belonged to him as God was now transferred to him as Messiah, the Son of Man.

Some Comments from a NCT Perspective

1. One act of obedience on the cross. Not too long ago, Geoff Volker and Steve Lehrer challenged the traditional perspective that Jesus’ active obedience to the Law of Moses contributed to the obedience/righteousness that was reckoned to sinners through faith. As much as it might seem warranted to think that Paul is referring to the whole course of Jesus’ life on earth, he is not. It is the Messianic life of Christ, his commitment to the will of the Father that is the sole concern. But even then, it is specifically the act of obedience unto death on the cross that is singled out. Why? Because in that one act his role as the Servant of the Lord is manifested. Jesus poured himself out, unto death, as the Servant, for others. That is the key.

Now, even if Paul were referencing Jesus’ obedience as the Messiah from the moment of his baptism onward, Paul would subsume it under the death of Christ upon the cross. It is Jesus’ act of obedience in death that Paul explicitly refers to. This possibility would be tantamount to saying that Jesus’ death is the one goal of his Messianic obedience. In other words, all his other acts of obedience would contribute to the supreme act of obedience, in fact, the only act, in his death on the cross. Just as many tributaries flow into a river, so Jesus’ acts of obedience leading to the cross flow indistinguishably into the cross. However, as stated already, I do not think this is the best reading (yet it is also theologically accurate).

2. The death of Christ is contrasted to his humanity. There is another consideration that is too often overlooked. It is taken from verses 7c-8:

and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.

These verses are usually read to mean that Jesus became a man to die on the cross. There is, I think, another reading that has more weight. The whole context is about divesting oneself for the sake of others. There is not a descent here from God to man, but from God to Servant (vv6-7b) and from man to death (vv7c-8). We assume that his humanity is the necessary prelude, the precondition, of his suffering obedience. This is true theologically, but is not part of Paul’s pastoral message here in Philippians 2. As one made in the likeness of men, and being found in appearance as man, Jesus was identifying with humanity. This was not a lowly position as such. The Philippians, after all, were ‘men’. Yet, Paul called upon the Philippians to service to others. The basis of his call was the example of the man, Jesus, who being found as a man, just like the Philippians, nonetheless gave himself up unto death for the sake of others. This no doubt hints at the theology of the Second Adam and the Son of Man teaching in the Gospels.

The relevance of this reading for NCT is that it removes the emphasis from upon the whole extent of Jesus’ life as a human preparing for the cross, and places the stress upon his death on the cross as a man. Even as man, Jesus was sacrificing himself!

3. Jesus’ exaltation was a one-time, singular event. A third confirmation of Lehrer and Volker’s reading is that the exaltation of Jesus’ was in one event or act of God, and the Son was rewarded by the Father in one event, one time.

For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name… (Phil.2:9)

Just as Jesus’ obedience was revealed in the one event of his death on the cross as the Servant, so the Father’s blessing on the Son was in the one event of his exaltation and the bestowing on him of the name ‘Lord’. Therein lies the symmetry of Paul’s pastoral wisdom:

Jesus was God in the flesh                               But he acted in obedience unto death                                                                   CONSEQUENTLY                                                                                   God acted to exalt this obedient man           to his natural position as Lord/God

The Philippians were taught the invaluable lesson that the glory, exaltation, reward, and blessing came exclusively through the cross and through suffering for others. Their act of obedience in service of others will trigger God’s act of exalting them above the wicked on the day of Christ (Phil.2:14-18).



[1] Steve Lehrer, Geoff Volker, “Examining the Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ: A Study in Calvinistic Sacred Cow-ism,”, accessed 3/5/19,

[2] Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 2nd ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc., 1998), 253-255.

[3] Ibid., 257.

[4] Ibid., 258.

[5] Ibid., 257-258.

[6] Ibid., 260.

[7] Ibid., 260.

[8] Ibid., 260.

[9] Ibid., 260.

[10] Ibid., 260-261.

[11] Ibid., 261.

[12] Ibid., 262.

[13] Ibid., 262-263. Some scholars deny any link between the Suffering Servant and Adamic theology. One does not need to find a specific reference to Adam to see a reflection of Adamic theology. In the case of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 the whole context is suffused with references to a man, one who is despised and rejected. This is the Second Man, the Suffering Servant, who by his suffering stands apart from all the sons of men who came from Adam.

[14] Ibid., 263-264.

[15] Ibid., 264.

[16] And on the subject of philosophical preferences, there is no need to translate ὑπάρχων  (Phil.2:6a) to indicate an eternal ‘being’ or subsistence. The term ὑπάρχων is just a plain vanilla present participle that has the meaning, ‘being’ (Rom.4:19; 1 Cor.11:7; 2 Cor.8:17; 2 Cor.12:16; Gal.1:14, etc.).