Advent 2011: The Slave that Refused to Rape.

As we here in the West, and our brothers and sisters around the world, prepare to enter into the season of the Advent, we do so as a people who will be singing many hymns about the incarnation of the Christ.  Today, for just a few moments, I’d like to take you back to one of the very first such hymns, a hymn that is actually found in Philippians 2:5-8:

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Jesus the Christ, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

You see, while we sing songs about “silent nights” and “little drummer boys,” the early Christians were singing a very different tune, a tune that we here in the materialistic West would do very well to remember in this season of consumption.

Let’s start by taking a closer look at the phrase: “made himself nothing.”  The Greek word here is kenoo,[1] and if translated literally, it means “emptied himself.”  Now, in the past, many people have often suggested that we are to understand this to mean that Christ has “emptied himself” of his divine attributes, such as omnipotence, omnipresence, etc.… But when we take a look at how the Apostle Paul uses this verb elsewhere,[2] we come to realize that this is not about the emptying of certain qualities or traits.  Rather, it is about the Christ’s shedding His dignity and glory as He takes on mortal flesh.

But the hymn doesn’t stop there; and neither does Paul.  To say that the Christ sheds His dignity and glory is one thing, but to say that He takes on “the form of servant” is quite another thing altogether.  You see, the word we translate as “servant” is actually the Greek word doulos,[3] which means “slave.”  Now look back at the text:

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a doulos, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

Do you see how the phrase “form of a doulos” echoes the earlier phrase in which Jesus is described as being in “the form of God?”  The word “form” appears three times in this hymn and it means “nature” or “essence.”  So just as the Christ was the very nature of God – the very essence of God! – so too has He now become the very nature, or essence, of a slave and a human being.  In other words, this shedding of his dignity is not mere roll playing or play-acting.  This isn’t a riff on a Greek myth in which a god disguises himself as a human being to travel amongst the people of the earth.  This is Jesus, the Christ, the fully divine Son of God, electing to be fully human and fully enslaved.  His divinity, His humanity and His enslavement are all now a part of His essential nature; and this is what is happening at the moment of the incarnation, at the moment of His birth.

Now, before I close out this first mediation of the Advent season, I want to take you back to the passage one last time.

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a doulos, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

Do you see the phrase “to be grasped?”  This phrase is based upon the Greek word harpagmos,[4] which is a very difficult word to translate.  For not only is harpagmos a hapax legomenon within Scripture,[5] but it is also very rare in secular Greek as well.  Nevertheless, from the limited sources we have, our best translations of the term center around the idea of forcible theft or rape.  In other words, harpagmos is best understood as the violent act of taking that which you desire, regardless of the consequences to others.

Now look back to the text.  Christ, who is divine in nature, “did not count equality with God” as a thing to be violently seized even though such equality was rightfully His.  What the hymnist is trying to do here is to show you a contrast.   Consider for a moment the magnitude of violence involved in the seizing and raping of another human being.  In contrast to that, Christ set aside His own power and His equality with the Father and became incarnate as a slave unto mankind.

Are you beginning to grasp the nature of the descent.  This isn’t merely about relocation, although leaving the confines of heaven for the created order certainly qualifies as “downward mobility.”  And this isn’t merely about sacrificing personal relationships, although the Christ’s perfect union with the Father will be disrupted during His incarnation.  This is about becoming something that You never were for the sake of those that live in open rebellion against You, your Father and the One who had yet to come.  It’s about becoming degraded not by the forcible actions of others, but by a counter-intuitive move towards gracious condescension.

This season, as you begin to consider anew the work of the Savior in this world, I’m going to work to gently push you away from some of the standard images that surround this season.  For this was not a “silent night.”  It never was!  And there is no room for sugary sentimentality as we consider the actions of a King who dared to become a slave.


[1] Kenoo is the English transliteration of the Greek word: kenouv.

[2] In all of Scripture, kenouv is used only four times, all by the Apostle Paul. Thus, by seeing how Paul uses it in other letters, we can gain a better understanding of how he intends to use it in this passage.

[3] Doulos is the English transliteration of the Greek word: doulos.

[4] Harpagmos is the English transliteration of the Greek word: ‘arpagmos.

[5] An hapax legomenon is defined as a word that only appears one time within a given text.  Because of its unique status, it is near impossible to translate inter-textually; and requires that one use outside resources to interpret the meaning of the author.

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5 Responses to Advent 2011: The Slave that Refused to Rape.

  1. David Jones says:

    Scott, good blog entry, although I think you missed it on the meaning of harpagmos. While it is true the related verb harpazo has the sense of theft or taking something by force, and the related adjective harpax means ‘ravenous, violently greedy,’ harpagmos probably means–at least in the context of Phil 2–something more like “hoard.” It is an unwillingness to surrender what one already possesses. Jesus was not grasping for deity; he already possessed it. He was willing to surrender some of the prerogatives of deity in order to become human. Your interpretation almost makes it sound like Jesus did not possess deity (if you isolate that sentence or two from the surrounding context). The word “rape” is too strong. Apart from that quibble, I was blessed by your meditation on this important theme.

    • Hello David,

      So I have to say, I’m really pleased that you took the time to share a few thoughts. It honestly means a lot to me. Moreover, I will be the first to admit that your expertise in the field of New Testament languages far surpasses any meager knowledge I possess. So, having said that, it’s time for the student to ask the teacher why he feels that the word “rape” is too strong.

      When i was crafting the title of the post, I considered going with something along the order of: “The Slave Who Refused to Steal.” But I opted for the stronger sense of “harpagmos” because I think the tougher connotation makes the counter-response of the Christ all the more impactful to the reader. Although both involve the violent seizing of what does not rightfully belong to the perpetrator, there is no doubt that the difference between theft and rape is enormous. So had I gone with theft, I in some way felt as if I was undercutting the counter-move of the Savior’s condescension, which was enormously sacrificial in ways we cannot even conceive.

      Truly hoping you have the time to help a brother along. Thanks David.

      Yours,
      Scott

      P.S. By the way, if you’re wondering from where I derived the definition of “harpagmos,” I utilized the Liddell & Scott Greek Dictionary, which is based upon the whole of Greek literature. It defines “harpagmos” as “robbery,” “rape,” and/or a “prize to be grasped.” From the same source, “harpazo” is defined as: (1) seize hastily, snatch up, (2) snatch away, carry off, (3) seize, overpower, overmaster, (4) seize, adopt, (5) grasp with the senses, and lastly (6) captivate, ravish.

      • David Jones says:

        Scott,
        I do not have time for a full reply, but let me say this: As you mention, LSG focuses on the whole of Greek literature. There may have been a point in the development of the Greek language where the word could mean “rape” in certain contexts, but it appears to have lost that sense by the time the NT was written. The Greek lexicons I checked, most notably the Bauer-Danker lexicon (which focuses on the NT and other early Christian writings), do not list “rape” as one of the possible meanings for the word. Even if they did, context is king. You would have to argue that “rape” would make the most sense of the context of Philippians 2, which it does not. Something like “greedily hoard” makes better sense in context. Check the critical commentaries for more discussion. Hope that helps.
        David

  2. Diane says:

    Thanks Mr. Bryant. We have been in this verse for several days and your comments are so very timely. We look forward to further comments on these beautiful verses. As we try to understand the doctrine of Christ’s divinity and humanity we will be meditating on the fact that Christ emptied himself and became what we are (somehow). Praying for your health as well.

    • I’ve never put it into words like this before, so forgive me if I’m on shaky ground or if I need to correct my thinking later. But for me, the divinity of the Christ is what gives Him the authority to forgive, but it is the humanity of the Christ that draws me to a place of wanting forgiveness.

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