In the second chapter of Philippians Paul gives us a wonderful description of Jesus Christ. Whether he uses material already in use among the churches or composes this ‘hymn’ himself, Paul endorses its content. As he advises the Philippian Christians about the best way to "live worthily of the Gospel of the Messiah" (1:27), Paul uses the example of Jesus and his mission to encourage them to abandon pride, self-seeking and self-interest and endorse a pattern of living that embraces humility and care for others.
To provide the strongest possible mandate for his teaching Paul defines in a most remarkable manner Jesus’ embracing of his mission as Messiah. He wants his readers to incorporate and express in life an attitude that is "the same as that of Christ Jesus" (2:5). His starting point defines the essential nature of Jesus. As the NIV renders it, Jesus is "in very nature God" (morphe theou). The words ‘very nature’ translate the Greek term morphe (a term repeated in vs. 7 "taking the very nature of a servant").
This is a tough word (morphe) to fully explain. Some see its sense to be located in its usage within Greek philosophy. It was used variously, but seems to define the appearance of a thing that is true to its essence. In other words there is true coherence between the true nature of a thing and how it looks. So ‘garden’ may take on various appearances, but its essence as garden will always persist. We recognize it as a garden. If this understanding is what Paul desired to convey, then he asserts very firmly in the phrase morphe theou that Jesus is God and in his pre-incarnate existence his appearance demonstrated this divine reality. If we saw Jesus prior to his earthly birth, we would see God. Paul emphasizes this truth immediately by affirming that Jesus is "equal with God". What is important to note is that Jesus never ceases to be essentially God.
Jesus takes for himself the "form of a slave" (morphe doulou) (vs.7). Whose slave is he? I think this must have reference to his relationship with God the Father. As we see Jesus in his human context, he is the "slave of God", submissive in every way to God’s purpose and sacrificing himself for the accomplishment of God’s plans.1 This is how he now appears to us, not as God’s equal, but as God’s slave. Paul describes this as "pouring himself out" (rendered in NIV as "made himself nothing"). The result is that we see him "in appearance as a human being" and subsequently he dies as a criminal. This is the dramatic and incomprehensible extent of his obedience to God.
In his incarnate role Jesus is just as much God as he always was. But when he chooses to exist as a human being, his deity becomes incognito, discernible but only with the assistance of faith. The Gospels through their narratives reveal Jesus as this ambiguous figure. Demons know and perceive his deity (i.e. the affirmations by demons), but some people regard him as demon-possessed. He raises people from the dead, but people still want him to perform "a sign from heaven". Three of his closest associates experience his transfiguration (metemorphothe) (Mark 9:2). For a short time God chooses to reveal to them the morphe theou of Jesus. They do not understand it. God Himself must intervene to explain the point of this event, that Jesus is "my beloved son, listen to him". Only in and through his resurrection and ascension do his most intimate followers discern his deity more fully.
Paul, the monotheistic Jewish Christian, must have struggled to understand how Israel’s central theological affirmation, that God is One, can incorporate this new truth that Jesus Christ, this crucified man, is God, equal with God, and Lord of heaven and earth. Yet he affirms it.
When Jesus redeems us, the Holy Spirit indwells us, and we live within God’s new family. We are being ‘transfigured’ (metamorphoumetha) into the image of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18). While we may appear to be just like every other human being, something essential has changed. God makes His home within us. This means that we no longer follow human ways of doing things or adopt human ways of understanding. Our mindset must now reflect that of Jesus (Phil. 2:5). Our appearance must conform to our new, essential selves as born-again members of God’s family. Selfishness and self-seeking have no place in our relationships. Humility marks our lives as the comprehensive way to manage and express ourselves. No other ideology can or should govern us. We cannot see everything from our point of view nor assume that everything exists in order to be interpreted from our personal vantage point. As Barth suggests, "always my neighbour is the barrier but also the door".2 My neighbour, in his or her humanness, still bears God’s grace and I must perceive, acknowledge and act in the light of this reality.
Application: as you reflect upon God’s word today,
- in what practical ways is the reality that Jesus is God affecting today your decisions, your actions, your ministry? What should change?
- Is the lofty vision that Paul presents in this passage for our living attainable? How is self-seeking infecting your ministry, your relationships? What spiritual ‘antibiotic’ might be used to address this infection?
- How will we ‘pour ourselves out’ as slaves of Jesus today?
- 1. Perhaps this is how Paul wants us to understand his self-definition in Philippians 1:1 as the "slave of Jesus Christ" (doulos Christou Iesou).
- 2. Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Philippians (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1962):59