[I'm sure these observations are not original with me and that many writers have done a better job of unpacking this, but the following chain of thought is mine (other sources cited as appropriate). I may, however, have over-interpreted, so I'm open to critique. Also, thanks to an excellent, intelligent class at Southeastern for their interactions and thoughts on this passage during our discussion].
It seems that, thematically, we have a progressive lowering of the Son of God via the verbs in this passage, a downward spiral, if you will (followed, of course, by a dramatic reversal; we'll get to that later).
The humbling of the Son
We start, first of all, with Jesus (1.) being in the form (morphe) of God Himself, yet nevertheless expressing humility to the extent that (2.) he decided not to "grasp" equality with God in the subsequent incarnation. The infinitive to einai is functioning substantively, of course, linking "equality with God" with the notoriously difficult noun arpagmon. This noun does not occur in the LXX, Josephus, or Philo (though note its similarity to the verb arpazw and the noun aprax ["thief"]). In fact, the word itself appears only twice in 1st century A.D. Greek literature, and both occurrences are in Plutarch (Questiones Convivales 644.A.3 and De Liberis Educandis 12.A.1), where it has the sense of "the act of grasping" or "the act of seizing" (actually as a reference to the act of kidnapping in the second reference!). So (more-or-less) literally, "He did not consider to be equal [the state of equality] with God something to be seized," a somewhat unclear statement that needs to be further explained.
So from being in the form of God himself, to refusing to take full advantage of his position, we then proceed to (3.) he emptied himself by (4.) receiving the form of a servant. Yet a servant can still be a powerful being, of course! Angels, after all, are servants, and mankind is said to be somewhat below them (Psalm 8:5). Nobody would dispute that angels can be powerful servants.
Yet the Son of God did not become an angel; no, he went even lower than that. This was not just any servanthood; this was servanthood (5a.) in the likeness of mankind, with all its frailties, agonies, and pain. Yet (5b.) having been found in the form (scheimati) of a man, this is still not humble enough. Some men are born to luxury while others are born to power and influence. Christ, however, was born to a poor family in a stable. Not being content with the incarnation as just any man, Christ adopts poverty and scandal. Thus Jesus (6.) humbles himself, ultimately (7.) "becoming obedient unto death."
The spiral continues to the very bottom. Experiencing death is not the epitome of humility. The death Christ experienced was not just any death; no, it was (8.) "the death of the cross," a very significant death. As Larry Hurtado writes,
"Crucifixion was one of several means used by Romans in cases of capital punishment, and carried a distinguishing significance and function. It was not intended simply to end the subject’s life but more particularly to degrade, humiliate and make shameful the person crucified. Moreover, it was deployed particularly for the execution of those deemed to have raised a hand against Roman authority. Hence, crucifixion was a Roman statement of power: Effectively, it said 'See, this is what happens to those who challenge Rome.'" (Hurtado, "Crucifixion," online; emphasis added)The crucifixion, then, is the absolute bottom of the downward spiral, the epitome of humility.
The glorifying of the Son
Fortunately, it does not stop there. The conjunction dio in verse 9 represents a dramatic reversal. Up to this point we have had the Son as the subject of these verbs of humbling; now, we have the Father as the subject of these verbs exalting the obedient Son (see Peter O'Brian's NIGTC commentary where he states that "The Father's act of exaltation is his reply to the Son's self-humiliation, and as such is to be understood as a response of vindication and approval"). Once again, structurally, we have two main verbs (the Father "exalts" and "gives a name" to the Son).
I'd like, however, to focus on the rare word katakthoniwn in verse 10 to demonstrate the extent of the Father's exaltation of the Son. In verse 10 we have a series of 3 words, genitive plurals, all modifying "every knee.". The first two words are a bit more straightforward ("heavenly things" + "things on the earth"). The last word is a bit rarer, but it is usually translated something along the lines of "things under the earth." I do, however, think we can get a bit more specific that that.
You see, the word katakthonios is not a general word for "things under the earth," as if somehow the cave dwellers and miners and moles were in view here. No, katakthonios is an extremely rare word that seems to refer to the dark denizens of the underworld itself! Thus, for example, in Strabo, Geography 220.127.116.11, the author is discussing a particular region and their belief in an oracle, declaring that "At any rate, only those who had sacrificed beforehand and propitiated the nether deities [tous katakthonious daimonas] could sail into Avernus" (trans. Horace Jones). In the other occurrence in Strabo, Geography 18.104.22.168, he discusses the government's reaction to a particular natural calamity and narrates how "the Senate sent a deputation to offer propitiatory sacrifices, both in the islet and in Liparae, to the gods both of the underworld [tois te katakthonois theois] and the sea" (trans. Horace Jones).
Is it not safe to conclude, then, that the Apostle Paul is saying that no devil in hell will be able to resist bowing the knee to the exalted Son? That no false god, no demon, no spiritual power of the underworld can stand up to him, that just like the angels above and the humans on the surface, the spirits below must acknowledge the glory of the Christ?
Thus we see that just as Jesus' humility sunk to the deepest depths, so also his exaltation as Christ rises to the greatest heights, superior to all angels of heaven, humans of earth, and demons of the nether realm.
So, what does this all mean for us? We must not forget that verses 6-11 are essentially the background, the reason for verses 1-4 (linked by verse 5). The Christian's response to others is based upon the humility of Jesus. If the great Son of God, destined to have the very demons of the underworld cower in fear before him, was willing to abase himself to this degree, how can I fail to show humility, compassion, and love towards my brothers and sisters in Christ? This great theological treatise/hymn on the kenosis, then, is the basis for the great imperative of love within the body of Christ.
Bibliography and Recommended Reading
Hansen, G. Walter. The Letter to the Philippians. Pillar New Testament Commentary.
Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2009.
Hengel, Martin. Crucifixion. London: SCM, 1977. Translated by John Bowden. This
is, perhaps, the greatest modern discussion of the background and significance of
Huratdo, Larry. "Crucifixion."
Accessed 13 October 2012.
O'Brian, Peter T. The Epistle to the Philippians: A Commentary on the Greek Text.
New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans,
Plutarch. De Liberis Educandis ("On the Education of Children").
_______. Questiones Convivales ("Table-Talk II").
Silva, Moises. Philippians. 2nd ed. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New
Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2005.
Strabo. Geography (Loeb ed.; translated by Horace Jones).