How Jesus Christ was a “Slave” Philippians 2:7

March 28, 2016 — Leave a comment

This weekend we celebrated Good Friday (in remembrance of Christ’s death) and Easter (in remembrance of Christ’s resurrection). Jesus Christ came to earth as God’s Son was to serve as a “slave” or “servant” on behalf of the people of the earth. But, what does it mean that Christ was a “slave” or “servant”? How could God incarnate as human be a “slave” or “servant”?

The word that will be examined in this word study is slave used in Phil 2:7, “Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form” (New Living Translation). In section 1 I will review the word used in other English translations as well as provide a definition of the word slave. In section two I will provide the meaning of the Greek word, δουλος, which is often translated as slave. In section three I will provide some conclusions on slave in Phil 2:7.

How Jesus Christ was a "Slave" Philippians 2:7

Photo Credit: Norditalienischer Maler

I. OTHER TRANSLATION OF PHIL 2:7 AND A DEFINITION OF SLAVE 

A. Other Translations of Phil 2:7

It appears that most translations chose the word servant (ten translations) to describe the role Jesus took on earth, the word slave (seven times), and bondservant (twice). Another observation is that some of the “literal” translations used servant (ASV, ESV) while the “dynamic” translations used slave (NET, NLT, Message).

1. Translations that Use Slave

  • “[B]ut he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men. And when He had come as a man in His external form,” (HCSB).
  • “[B]ut emptied himself by taking the form of a slave, by becoming in the likeness of people. And being found in appearance like a man,” (LEB).
  • “Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, he became human!” (Message).
  • “[B]ut he emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature” (NET).
  • “Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form,” (NLT).
  • “[B]ut he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form” (NRSV).

2. Translations that Use Servant

  • “[B]ut he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men;” (ASV).
  • “[B]ut made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:” (AV).
  • “But emptied himself, taking the form of a servant being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man” (D-R).
  • “[B]ut emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (ESV).
  • “Instead of this, of his own free will he gave up all he had, and took the nature of a servant. He became like a human being and appeared in human likeness” (GNB).
  • “But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:” (KJV).
  • “But he gave up his place with God and made himself nothing. He was born as a man and became like a servant” (NCV).
  • “[R]ather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (NIV).
  • “[B]ut emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness of men” (RSV).
  • “[B]ut did empty himself, the form of a servant having taken, in the likeness of men having been made,” (YLT).

3. Translations that Use Bondservant

  • “[B]ut emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men” (NASB).
  • “[B]ut made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men.

B. An English Definition of Slave

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines “slave” as “a person who is legal property of another and is formed to obey them; a person who is excessively dependent upon or controlled by something: a slave to fashion.” The Marriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines “slave” as “a person held in servitude as the chattel of another; one that is completely subservient to a dominating influence.”

Some of the synonyms of slave are bondman, bondsman, chattel, thrall, attendant, handmaiden, or servant. Antonyms of slave are freeman, freedman, enslave, slaveholder, master, slaver.

II. THE MEANING OF THE GREEK WORD TRANSLATED, SLAVE

Paul uses the word slave 27 times in his other letters. He also uses the word servant four times and enslaved by once. The words slave, servant are often translated from the Greek word, δουλος.

A. Origin of the Word Δουλος

1. To the Greeks

The distinctive feature to the Greek person was freedom, so they found personal dignity in being free. Therefore, the Greek mind was greatly separated from being a slave or servant.[1] Aristotle (384-322 BC) and Plato (424-348 BC) saw δουλος and its word groups (συνδουλος, δουλη, δουλεω, δουλεια) as derogatory because man should not be have been dependent on men in any way.[2] Furthermore, when looking at religious service and relationship there was no clear connection in the Greek mind to the idea of being a slave being a slave or servant to a god.[3]

2. To the Jews

In the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), words from the δουλος family were used “whenever there is a reference to service.”[4] Therefore, the word is not necessarily restricted to the service of slaves.

B. Δουλος in the Greek New Testament

The word slave in Phil 2:7 is a translation of the Greek word, δουλος. BDAG categorizes this word as “a male slave as an entity in socioeconomic context, slave.[5] This use of slave can be

  • to a master,[6]
  • to a free person,[7] or
  • in contrast to being a fellow Christian.[8]

Another categorization of δουλος by BDAG is to “one who is solely committed to another, slave, subject.[9] In this use a person is

  • a slave, subject in a pejorative sense,[10]
  • a positive sense of the relationships of humans to god,[11] or
  • a positive sense in relationships to a superior human being.[12]

The Greek word δουλος is used 123 times in the Greek New Testament. This word is translated in the New Testament of the NLT as slave 55 times and servant 55 times. Some of the more unique ways the NLT renders this word is

  • enslaved by (1 Cor 7:23),
  • man (Matt 18:26, 28),
  • workers (Matt 13:27),
  • messengers (Matt 22:6),
  • household servants (John 18:18),
  • household slaves (John 18:26),
  • servants—men (Acts 2:18).

Sometimes the NLT text uses pronouns to translate δουλος for stylistic reasons which can be seen in Matt 18:27, 28; 25:19; Luke 14:22, 23.  Of those 123 instances of δουλος in the New Testament, 32 of them are within Paul’s writings. As part of Paul’s letters the New Living Translation renders the word as slave 27 times, servant four times, and enslaved by once. While the NLT text has translated δουλος about 50 percent as servant and 50 percent as slave, Paul appears to mostly use the word as slave.

III. CONCLUSIONS REGARDING SLAVE IN PHILIPPIANS 2:7

The word slave has been examined in light of Phil 2:7 in this study, “Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being.” Philip Comfort provides a more poetic reading of this verse to help shed light on its meaning, “And being found among men as man he humbled himself in human servitude becoming obedient even to the point of death.”[13] Comfort also provides a more filled out rendering of Phil 2:7, “Rather, he emptied himself. He poured himself out into the form of a slave, a servant of divine will.”[14] Based on the NLT translation and Comfort’s two additional translations the use of δουλος in Phil 2:7 speaks of a person that did not have advantage, rights, or privileges of his own.[15] As O’Brien notes, “Slavery pointed to the extreme deprivation of one’s rights, even relating to one’s own life and person.”[16] In this way, when Jesus came into a human being “he displayed the nature or form of God in the nature or form of a slave.”[17] In this way Jesus completely stripped away his rights and securities as be compared to a slave.[18]

Jesus in the “humble position as a slave” is a more dynamic translation of the literal text, the “form of a slave” in Phil 2:7 which mirrors the literal translation of Phil 2:6, “the form of God.” Jesus, while being in the form of God also took the form of a slave. This means that the Son of God took on a new form, a new mode of being, which was an entire transformation of character from being equal to God (Phil 2:6) to being a servant of God (Phil 2:7).[19] Furthermore, it is pointed out that when Paul used δουλος (slave) to describe Jesus as a slave, no other term “stands in greater contrast” to θεος (God in Phil 2:9) and κυριος (Lord in Phil 2:11).[20] This transformation was Jesus emptying out one form (“the form of God” in Phil 2:6) and taking another form (“the form of a slave” in Phil 2:7). Therefore, the “slave” is the end of Christ’s emptying.[21]

Who was Jesus a slave to? So much has been explained about what the form of a slave meant to Jesus on earth, but who was he a slave to? It is not directly stated, but likely Jesus was a slave to God for three reasons.

  • First, the word δουλος is found in Paul’s writings most often referring to the Christian life and service.
  • Second, the context of Phil 2:6-7 about being a slave in contrast to God suggests he was a slave to God.
  • Third, the service of Phil 2:7-8 should be seen as a response to the divine act of God.[22]

As a slave Jesus became God’s servant in order to carry out the Father’s will.

Bibliography

Arndt, William, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Comfort, Philip. “Philippians” in Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, vol. 16. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Publishers, 2008.

O’Brien, Peter. The Epistle to the Philippians. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1991.

Rengstorf, Karl Heinrich. “δουλος” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 2. Ed. by Gerhard Kittell. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1964.

Endnotes

[1] Karl Heinrich Rengstorf, “δουλος” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard Kittell (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1964), 2:261.

[2] Ibid., 263.

[3] Ibid., 264.

[4] Ibid., 265.

[5] William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 260.

[6] Matt 8:9; 10:24; 13:27; 18:23, 26; 21:34; 22:3, 6, 8, 10; 24:45, 48, 50; 25:14, 19, 21, 23, 26, 30; 26:51; Mark 12:2, 4, 13:34; 14:47; Luke 7:2, 8, 10; 12: 37, 43, 45; 17:7, 19; 14:17, 21; 19:13, 15, 17, 22; 22:50; John 4:51; 13:16; 15:20; 18:10, 18, 26; Acts 2:8; Eph 6:5; Phil 2:; Col 3:22; 4:1 Tim 6:1; Tit 2:9.

[7] John 8:35; 1 Cor 7:21; 12:13; Gal 3:28; 4:1, 7; Eph 6:8; Col 3:11; Rev 6:15; 13:16; 19:18.

[8] Phlm 16.

[9] Arndt, Danker, Bauer, BDAG, 260.

[10] John 8:34; Rome 6:17, 20; 16:16; 2 Peter 2:19.

[11] Luke 2:29; Acts 2:18; 4:29; 16:17; Rom 1:1; 1 Cor 7:22; 2 Cor 4:5; Eph 6:6; Gal 1:10; Phil 1:1; Col 4:12; 2 Tim 2:24; Tit 1:1; 1 Peter 2:16; 2 Peter 1:1; James 1:1; Rev 1:1; 2:20; 7:7; 10:7; 11:18; 15:3; 19:2, 5; 22:3, 6.

[12] Matt 18:23, 26; 20:27; 22:3, 6, 8, 10; Mark 10:44; Luke 14:17, 21.

[13] Philip Comfort, “Philippians” in Cornerstone Biblical Commentary (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Publishers, 2008), 16:172.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Peter O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1991), 223.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 224.

[18] Ibid., 222.

[19] Comfort, “Philippians,” 16:169.

[20] Rengstorf, “δουλος,” 278.

[21] Comfort, “Philippians,” 16:174.

[22] O’Brien, Philippians, 223.

Christopher L. Scott

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Christopher Scott is Small Groups Pastor at Rocky Hilly Community Church in Exeter, CA. He has more than ten years of experience leading volunteers, running nonprofit programs, and teaching the Bible in small group settings. He holds a bachelor's degree from Fresno Pacific University and master's degree from Dallas Theological Seminary.

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