Apart from the absence of the "not/but" contrast, this sentence is formally very much like the preceding one. It begins (1) with a participle emphasizing Christ's present "mode" of being, in this case "as a human being," followed (2) by the main clause (he humbled himself), followed (3) by a similar participial modifier, again spelling out how he did so (became obedient to death), which in turn (4) is brought to rhetorical climax by specifying the kind of death (even death on a cross). Thus the two sentences in their essential parts are parallel:
Being in the form of God,
he emptied himself
by taking on the form of a slave,
by coming in the likeness of human beings.
Being found in human appearance,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to the point of death,
death, that is, on a cross.
But in contrast to the preceding sentence, full of mystery and metaphors as it is, this sentence is straightforward and literal. It tells how the divine self-emptying One showed the same mindset in his humanity.
The word found expresses the divine reality from our human perspective, while appearance puts the idea of likeness in a slightly different way, referring to the external qualities of something that make it recognizable. Christ Jesus, who came in the likeness of human beings (both similar and dissimilar to us), "appeared" in a way that was clearly recognizable as human. Together the two phrases accent the reality of his humanity, just as the first two phrases in verse 6 accent his deity.
As with true deity, true humanity is expressed in his humbling himself, picking up the language of verse 3. The obedience that characterized his entire human life found its definitive expression in his death on a cross. The emphasis on obedient to death points to his readiness, as one of us, to choose the path that led to a death "destined for our glory before time began" (1 Cor 2:7). Which is quite in keeping with him who, as God, impoverished himself by taking on the role of a slave.
The potency of the final phrase, death on a cross, lies in the repetition of death back to back: "to death, death, that is, on a cross." At the same time it combines with "in the `form' of God" (Phil 2:6) to frame the narrative to this point with the sharpest imaginable contrast: God on a cross. Here is the very heart of Pauline theology, both his understanding of God's being and his understanding of what God is doing in our fallen world. Here is where the One who is equal with God has most fully revealed the truth about God: that God is love and that his love expresses itself in self-sacrifice—cruel, humiliating death on a cross—for the sake of those he loves. The divine weakness (death at the hands of his creatures, his enemies) is the divine scandal (the cross was reserved for slaves and insurrectionists).
No one in Philippi, we must remind ourselves, used the cross as a symbol for their faith; there were no gold crosses embossed on Bibles or worn as pendants around the neck or lighted on the steeple of the local church. The cross was God's—and thus their—scandal, God's contradiction to human wisdom and power: that the One they worshiped as Lord should have been crucified as a state criminal at the hands of one of "lord" Caesar's proconsuls; that the Almighty should appear in human dress, and that he should do so in this way, as a messiah who died by crucifixion. Likewise, this is the scandal of Pauline ethics: that the God who did it this way "gifts" us to "suffer for his sake" in this way as well (see 1:29).
How radically different is God's view of our being fully human from the bland and shallow "beautiful people" Western culture exhibits to sell us on ourselves. Having abandoned both God and the one true Human, Christ Jesus, our culture fawns on—and takes advice from (!)—any and every celebrity, empty-headed as he or she might be, who appears on a television talk show. What fools we mortals be, whose truth about ourselves is finally to be found in the one truly human life that inhabited our planet.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.