Debating Bible Basics Duncan Heaster  
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1-5 “Being in the Form of God”

“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. If this is true, then every point made in Studies 7 and 8 must be explained away too. It is submitted that one verse cannot be allowed to contradict the general tenor of Bible teaching. 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.

3. Jesus was “in the form of God”. We have shown in Study 8.3 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 are spoken of as having “a form (‘morphe’) of Godliness” (2 Tim. 3:5). 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. 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.

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. Finally, 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.

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", coming 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 (1). 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 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" (2). 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 idea 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.


(1) 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.

(2) Quoted in Martin Hengel, Crucifixion In The Ancient World (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977) p. 60 note 15.