Having described Jesus in the highest terms redolent of divine majesty (see here), Paul now tells us what he who was in the form of God was willing to do. This is the mindset or attitude that we are to imitate, Philippians 2:5.
i. Christ Jesus did not regard his equality with God something to be grasped
Some in the church at Philippi were selfish and grasping, Philippians 2:1-3. Christ expressed a different attitude, Philippians 2:6-7.
Does this mean that Jesus did not choose to grasp at equality with God? We have already seen that equality with God was his from eternity as the Father’s only Son, John 5:18. One does not grasp at what one already has. There is no need to speculate that the Son was somehow tempted to usurp the Father’s primacy in the Trinity (contra. Alec Motyer's Bible Speaks Today commentary on Philippians, IVP). As man Jesus was subject to temptation, but not as God, James 1:13
What Paul means is that Jesus refused to "grasp" in the sense of hold onto his equality with God at all costs. He was willing to forgo his divine privileges and be made low for the sake of others. For Jesus, being equal with God did not consist in grasping and taking for himself, standing on his dignity. Rather, as he who was “in the form of the giving God”, being equal with God consisted of giving rather than getting. Hywel Jones argues that the words translated in the ESV,
‘though he was in the form of God’ pointing out the contrast between his eternal deity and his subsequent condescension… could be understood in a causal sense and translated ‘Because he was in very nature God he did not regard equality with God as something to hold on to.’ This would declare that everything that which comes into the category of his self-giving is the consequence and expression of the kind of deity which belongs to him. (Welwyn Bible Commentary on Philippians, EP, p. 75).
So NIV and NKJV, “Being in very nature God”, “Being in the form of God”. The thought is not that of contrast, but self-expression. "Being in the form of God he emptied himself". How different to the lords and potentates of this world. We are currently witnessing the grotesque spectacle of Gaddafi holding on to power at all costs. Not so Jesus. He was not self-seeking, self-regarding or self-important. Love does not seek its own. This was the attitude led to the Son of God becoming man. It was also the attitude that governed his incarnate life, John 13.
ii. Christ emptied himself by taking the form of a servant
That is a literal translation of Philippians 2:7. The one who was equal with God emptied himself. Does this mean that on becoming man that Jesus emptied himself of his deity? That was the old liberal view. We sometimes see a variant of it among Evangelicals. Some attempt to make sense of Mark 13:32 by saying that at the incarnation the Son laid aside or somehow voluntarily limited his infinite knowledge. Hymns tell us that Jesus “laid aside his glory”, contrary John 1:14. However, when Paul says that Jesus “emptied himself” he does not mean that he emptied himself of one iota of his divine being and attributes. Rather “emptied” often means to become powerless or emptied of significance, 1 Cor 1:17. The AV translation captures the meaning, “he made himself nothing”.
Paul further explains what he means by the self-emptying of Christ. He emptied himself “by taking the form of a servant”. When he who was in the form of God took the form of a servant he did not cease to be God, rather he became the God-Man. And not a great man either. He took the form of a servant or slave (doulos). Slaves had no rights. They were the lowest of the low in the Roman Empire. Writing of the period of the Roman Republic, just prior to the coming of Christ, Tom Holland describes the lot of slaves in the ancient world,
Gangs [of slaves] were bough wholesale, branded and shackled, then set to labour from dawn until dusk. At night they would be locked up in huge, crowded barracks. Not a shred of privacy or dignity was permitted them… Exhaustion was remedied by the whip, while insubordination would be handled by private contractors who specialised in the torture – and sometimes execution - of uppity slaves. The crippled or prematurely aged could expect to be cast aside, like diseased cattle or shattered wine jars. After all, as Roman agriculturalists liked to remind their readers, there was no point in wasting money on useless tools. (p. 146-147, Republic).
Read in this light, Paul is saying something amazing, “He who was in the form of God made himself nothing, taking the form of a slave.” That is the costly, self-giving, self-abasing mindset that is to characterise those who follow the Servant King. The Old Testament background to Jesus as servant is found Isaiah's 'Servant Songs', Isaiah 42-53. Jesus identified himself as one who came to serve, Matthew 20:28.