“Jesus...being in the form of God, thought it not a thing to be grasped at, to be equal with God; but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant” (Phil. 2:5-11).
These verses are taken to mean that Jesus was God, but at his birth he became a man. It is significant that this is almost the only passage which can be brought forward to explain away the ‘missing link’ in trinitarian reasoning - how Jesus transferred himself from being God in Heaven to being a baby in Mary’s womb. The following analysis seeks to demonstrate what this passage really means.
1. There are a number of almost incidental phrases within this passage which flatly contradict the trinitarian idea.
a) “God also has highly exalted” Jesus “and given him a name” (v.9) shows that Jesus did not exalt himself - God did it. It follows that he was not in a state of being exalted before God did this to him, at his resurrection.
b) The whole process of Christ’s humbling of himself and subsequent exaltation by God was to be “to the glory of God the Father” (v.11). God the Father is not, therefore, co-equal with the Son.
2. The context of this passage must be carefully considered. Paul does not just start talking about Jesus ‘out of the blue’. He refers to the mind of Jesus in Phil. 2:5. Back in Phil. 1:27 Paul starts to speak of the importance of our state of mind. This is developed in the early verses of chapter 2: “Being of one accord, of one mind...in lowliness of mind...look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus...” (Phil. 2:2-5). Paul is therefore speaking of the importance of having a mind like that of Jesus, which is devoted to the humble service of others. The verses which follow are therefore commenting upon the humility of mind which Jesus demonstrated, rather than speaking of any change of nature. Just as Jesus was a servant, so earlier Paul had introduced himself with the same word (Phil. 1:1 cp. 2:7). The attitude of Jesus is set up as our example, and we are urged to join Paul in sharing it. We're not asked to change natures; we're asked to have the mind of Jesus- so that we may know the "fellowship of sharing in his [Christ's] sufferings, becoming like him in his death and so to attain to the resurrection from the dead" (Phil. 3:10,11).
3. Jesus was “in the form of God”. We have shown in an earlier study that Jesus was of human nature, and therefore this cannot refer to Christ having a Divine nature. The N.I.V. translation of this passage goes seriously wrong here. In passing, it has to be noted that some modern translations designed for ‘easy reading’, tend to gloss over the precise meaning of the Greek text, and tend to give a paraphrase rather than a translation in certain passages. Phil. 2:5-8 is a classic example of this. However, this is not to decry their use in other ways.
That “form” (Greek ‘morphe’) cannot refer to essential nature is proved by Phil. 2:7 speaking of Christ taking on “the form of a servant”. He had the form of God, but he took on the form of a servant. The essential nature of a servant is no different to that of any other man. In harmony with the context, we can safely interpret this as meaning that although Jesus was perfect, he had a totally God-like mind, yet he was willing to take on the demeanour of a servant. Some verses later Paul encourages us to become “conformable unto (Christ’s) death” (Phil. 3:10). We are to share the ‘morphe’, the form of Christ which he showed in his death. This cannot mean that we are to share the nature which he had then, because we have human nature already. We do not have to change ourselves to have human nature, but we need to change our way of thinking, so that we can have the ‘morphe’ or mental image which Christ had in his death.
The Greek word ‘morphe’ means an image, impress or resemblance. Human beings can have a ‘morphe’. Gal. 4:19 speaks of “Christ (being) formed in” believers. Because he had a perfect character, a perfectly God-like way of thinking, Jesus was “in the form of God”. Because of this, Jesus did not consider equality with God “something to be grasped at”. This totally disproves the theory that Jesus was God. Even according to the N.I.V. translation, Jesus did not for a moment entertain the idea of being equal with God; he knew that he was subject to God, and not co-equal with Him. There are many examples in the Greek Old Testament of the Greek word morphe being used to mean 'outward form' rather than 'essential nature'- e.g. Jud. 8:18 [men had the morphe , the outward appearance, of a king's sons]; Job 4:16 ; Is. 44:13 [a carpenter makes an idol in the morphe or outward appearance of a human being- but not in the very nature of a human being!]; Dan 3:19 [the king's morphe or appearance changed because he got angry; his essential nature remained the same]. And likewise in the Apocrypha: Tobit 1:13; Wis. 18:1; 4 Macc. 15:4. If Paul meant nature or essence he would have used the word ousia or physis- as he does in Gal. 2:16 where he speaks of "We who are Jews by nature [physis]...".
4. Christ “made himself of no reputation”, or “emptied himself” (R.V.), alluding to the prophecy of his crucifixion in Is. 53:12: “He poured out his soul unto death”. He “took upon himself the form (demeanour) of a servant” by his servant-like attitude to his followers (Jn. 13:14), demonstrated supremely by his death on the cross (Mt. 20:28). Is. 52:14 prophesied concerning Christ’s sufferings that on the cross “his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men”. This progressive humbling of himself “unto death, even the death of the cross” was something which occurred during his life and death, not at his birth. We have shown the context of this passage to relate to the mind of Jesus, the humility of which is being held up to us as an example to copy. These verses must therefore speak of Jesus’ life on earth, in our human nature, and how he humbled himself, despite having a mind totally in tune with God, to consider our needs.
5. If Christ was God in nature and then left that behind and took human nature, as trinitarians attempt to interpret this passage, then Jesus was not “very God” while on earth; yet trinitarians believe that he was. This all demonstrates the contradictions which are created by subscribing to a man-made definition such as the trinity.
6. A point concerning the phrase “being in the form of God”. The Greek word translated “being” does not mean ‘being originally, from eternity’. Acts 7:55 speaks of Stephen “being full of the Holy Spirit”. He was full of the Holy Spirit then and had been for some time before; but he had not always been full of it. Other examples will be found in Lk. 16:23; Acts 2:30; Gal. 2:14. Christ “being in the form of God” therefore just means that he was in God’s form (mentally); it does not imply that he was in that form from the beginning of time.
7. "In the likeness of man... in human form" (Phil. 2:7) doesn't mean that the Lord Jesus only appeared as a man, when He was in fact something else. Rather the emphasis is upon the fact that He truly was like us. Going deeper, F.F. Bruce has suggested that these terms "represent alternative Greek renderings of the Aramaic phrase kebar-'enash ("like a son of man") in Daniel 7:13" (1).
8. Paul's writings are shot through with allusions back to the Gospels and to incidents in the life of the historical Jesus. In addition to the crucifixion, Paul seems to also have in mind the way that Jesus as Lord and Master of the disciples "laid aside" his clothing and humbled Himself to wash their feet. His comment that they were to follow His example and "become as... he that does serve" (Lk. 22:26 RV) lays the basis for the implication in Phil. 2:7 that Jesus became as a servant. No change of nature is therefore in view here; the 'becoming as' refers rather to the decided mental attitude of chosing to serve others. Paul is beckoning his readership to likewise have the mind of Christ and 'become as' He was then. And Paul surely has the same ideas in mind when he says that he himself "have made myself servant unto all" (1 Cor. 9:19). As Christ on the cross and in the upper room was "servant of all", so Paul made himself a similar servant. Philippians 2 is surely Paul asking his entire readership to follow his own example, motivated and inspired as it was by his response to the way the Lord Jesus had made Himself a servant.
Philippians 2 In First Century Context
It has been shown that the hymn of Phil. 2:6-11 is alluding to various Gnostic myths about a redeemer, the son and image of the "highest God", who comes down to earth, hides himself as a man so as not to be recognized by demons, shares human sufferings, and then disappears to Heaven having redeemed them (2). I suggest that these allusions are in order to deconstruct those myths. Paul's point is that the redemption of humanity was achieved by the human Jesus, through His death on the cross, and not through some nebulous mythical figure supposedly taking a trip to earth for a few years. The hymn also alludes to the many wrong ideas floating around Judaism at the time concerning Adam. Messiah was not Adam; Adam is compared and contrasted with Jesus in Phil. 2:6-11- he like Jesus was made in the image of God, yet he grasped at equality with God ("you will be like God", Gen. 3:5), which Jesus didn't do. The description of Jesus "being in the form of God" was therefore to highlight the similarities between Him and Adam, who was also made in the form of God. The choice Jesus faced was to die on the cross or not, and it is this choice which Phil. 2:6-11 glorifies. The context of Phil. 2 shows that it was in this that He was and is our abiding example in the daily choices we face. If His choice was merely to come to earth or stay in Heaven, then there is nothing much to praise Him for and He is not our example in this at all.
We can understand 2 Cor. 8:9 in this same context- the choice of Jesus to 'become poor' for our sakes is held up as an example to the Corinthians, to inspire their financial giving. The choice is whether or not to live out the cross in our lives- rather than deciding whether or not to come down from Heaven to earth. Jesus gave up the 'riches' of His relationship with God, calling Him "abba", to the 'poverty' of the cross, in saying "My God, Why have you forsaken me?" (Mt. 27:46). Poverty was associated with crucifixion, rather than with a God coming from Heaven to earth: "Riches buy off judgment, and the poor are condemned to the cross" (3). It is Christ's cross and resurrection, and not this supposed 'incarnation', which is repeatedly emphasized as being the source of our salvation (Rom. 5:15,21; Gal. 2:20; 3:13; Eph. 1:6; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 3:18). This is a far cry from the teaching of Irenaeus, one of the so-called 'church fathers', that Christ "attached man to God by his own incarnation" (Against Heresies 5.1.1). The New Testament emphasis is that we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son. The whole of Phil. 2 is about the Lord's attitude in His death and not at His birth. It was after His birth but before His death that the Lord could talk of his freedom of decision as to whether or not to lay down His life (Jn. 10:18)- and it is this decision which Phil. 2:9-11 is glorifying.
One of the dangers of the Trinity is that it de-emphasizes the colossal human achievement of Jesus as a man. It also makes God Himself somewhat of an irrelevancy, if Jesus is our Saviour God. And thus it's been observed that the history of Christian art shows icons etc. progressively giving prominence to Jesus, with God Himself portrayed increasingly as an old man with a white beard, somewhere in the background. Yet Jesus came to bring us to God, living out a breathtaking partnership of God and man which remains our constant pattern.
Trinitarian theology sees God's salvation of humanity as being on account of His supposed 'incarnation' in Christ, and His sending of the [supposedly] pre-existent Christ into the world. But the New Testament emphasis is upon the death of Christ, His victory within Himself and subsequent resurrection, as the crucial means by which our redemption was enabled. And further, how He saved us through the cross and through His own self-debasement is held up as our very real example in passages like Phil. 2 and 2 Cor. 8:8-10. We are not pre-existent gods in Heaven awaiting an incarnation on earth. We are very real, human guys and gals. His pattern can mean nothing for us if it was all about saving others through submitting to some kind of 'incarnation'. But the Biblical emphasis makes His sufferings, death and victory in resurrection our very real pattern, so real that we are to be baptized into it (Rom. 6:3-5) and live according to this as a pattern for human life every moment.
My friend Paul Clifford pointed out to me that we should remember that Philippi was in Macedonia, it was named after Philip, the father of Alexander the Great. Alexander was some sort of hero there. He was held to be successful in his exploits because after conquering a people, he did not have a policy of ruling by suppression but instead made all attempts to befriend them by making himself a servant to the people. Alexander was perceived to have an hypostasis (the substantial quality) of both master and servant. It seems that Paul may be making a conscious connection between the Lord Jesus, and Alexander the Great. But the Lord Jesus went so much further. He emptied Himself of all pride and became a servant to all. In our context, the point I take from this is that Alexander didn't change natures when he, the master, became a servant to his people; and the same is true of the Lord Jesus. His humiliation and self-deprecation was specifically upon the cross; and as such He is our example. We too are to have His spirit. We are unable to change natures; the challenge rather is to change our minds. Peter says the same, perhaps alluding to Paul's words here: "Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time".
The Acme Of Humility
Trinitarian theology uses Phil. 2 to justify their 'V-pattern' view of Christ- that He was high in glory in Heaven, then descended briefly to earth, and then returned to high glory in Heaven. All such talk of a V-pattern, albeit on the lips of eloquent churchmen and theologians (4), is frankly a serious missing of the point. Phil. 2- and the whole teaching of Jesus- is that the true greatness is in humility, the servant of all becomes Lord of all. The pinnacle, the zenith, the acme- was in the humility of the cross. The New Testament presents the death of Christ as His final victory, the springboard to a J-curve growth, involving even literal ascent into Heaven. What seemed to be defeat turned out to be the ultimate victory.
(1) F.F. Bruce, Paul And Jesus (London: S.P.C.K., 1977) p. 77.
(2) Documented in Rudolf Bultmann, Theology Of The New Testament (London: S.C.M., 1955) p. 166. Bultmann showed that many of the 'difficult passages' in John have similar connections (ibid p. 175). I would argue that John likewise was alluding to these Gnostic [and other] redeemer myths in order to deconstruct them.
(3) Quoted in Martin Hengel, Crucifixion In The Ancient World (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977) p. 60 note 15.
(4) The V-pattern analogy is to be found, e.g., in C.F.D. Moule, Forgiveness And Reconciliation (London: S.P.C.K., 1998) p. 36; C.K. Barrett, A Commentary On The Second Epistle To The Corinthians (London: A. & C. Black, 1973) p. 336.
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