Twice in the space of a few verses in his letter to the Christians in Philippi Paul used the verb summorphizō (“becoming like” (NIV) 3:10) and the cognate adjective summorphos (“will be like” (NIV) 3:21). These are the only contexts in the New Testament, apart from Paul’s use of the adjective in Romans 8:29 (“to the likeness”), where these terms occur. As well, Paul employed the noun morphē (“very nature” (NIV) twice in Philippians 2:6-7. The concentration of these terms in the Philippian epistle is noteworthy. Why did Paul select this language and what key ideas was he expressing?
Hawthorne states that Paul has coined this terminology (summorphizō) for his own purposes.1 However, in doing this Paul probably is reflecting his prior use of the phrases morphē theou (“in very nature God” Phil.2:6) and morphē doulou (“the very nature of a servant” Phil. 2:7) by which he seems to define the pre-existent nature of Jesus as Son of God and his incarnational existence.2
The usage in 3:10 occurs in an extended sentence that covers verses 8-11. While it is not possible to be dogmatic, the verbal form summorphizomenos in v.10, probably modifies the action of the verb in verse 8: “I consider them rubbish…(v.10) in order to know him and the power of his resurrection and fellowship of his sufferings, becoming like him in his death…”(NIV). If this is the correct understanding of Paul’s statement, then this shaping of life such that it embraces the scandal of the cross shows the value that he places on his relationship with Jesus Christ in comparison to his former way of life.
The reference to the Messiah’s death in connection with summorphizomenos in v.10 also expands in some sense what Paul means by the expression “in order to know…the fellowship (koinōnian) of his sufferings.” To share in something and to become like something are related ideas. The Messiah’s suffering and death are also related concepts. What does the suffering and death of the Messiah represent? It is the context in which “righteousness” for Paul and the rest of believing humanity was won. It brought “the righteousness of God” into reach for sinful humanity through “faith in the Messiah.”
But Paul seems to take these ideas at least one step further. If we do not become like the Messiah in his death, then we will not be able to share in the resurrection from the dead. Verse 11 seems to presuppose this similarity with the death of the Messiah. Our identification with the Messiah in this present life brings us the privilege of experiencing resurrection in the future. The participle summorphizomenos is a present form, indicating a current, continuing activity or condition. This ‘conforming’ is a process that extends throughout the rest of Paul’s life and gives the context for explaining the various things that he is encountering. While he is spiritually “becoming like” the Messiah, it is the Messiah in his incarnational role as morphē doulou in which death expresses the Messiah’s obedience to God the Father, enabling God to provide righteousness for humanity. As his life is embedded in the life of the Messiah Paul realizes that circumstances such as imprisonment for Jesus’ sake are part of this “conforming in his death.” Perhaps Paul here references some of Jesus’ teaching about discipleship in which “taking up one’s cross” is the paramount expression of faithfulness. Death for the Messiah defined his rejection and Paul’s suffering similarly defines his rejection in the Greco-Roman and Jewish worlds because of his loyalty to the Messiah.
Present conformity in death engenders assurance of future conformity in resurrection, when the Lord Jesus Christ “will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like (summorphon) his glorious body” (v.21). Paul does not pause here to explain more fully what this transformation means for Christians. It is accomplished by the hard-at-work powerful activity of the Messiah and includes us in the Messiah’s glory, a glory that God himself grants to the Messiah (2:9-11). So while our current likeness to the Messiah may be shaped by suffering and humiliation, even as we experience “the power of his resurrection” (v.10), the future will be far more wonderful than anything we can imagine currently.
I think Paul wants the Philippian Christians to understand that the pattern of the Messiah’s “form/nature (morphē)” (Phil.2:6-7), finds replication in the experience of the believer now, “becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3:10) , but whose future life “will be like his glorious body” (Phil. 3:21), when the Messiah returns. It is this reality that generates within him peace, contentment and confidence and presses him to an evangelistic and ethical lifestyle.
- in what ways is your current life circumstance as a believer expressing “a likeness to the Messiah’s death,” i.e. pressure and suffering that results from loyalty to the Messiah in the midst of a culture that is God-rejecting? Do you accept this reality as a sign of your partnership with the Messiah and does this generate joy or resentment within you?
- how eagerly are you awaiting Jesus Christ’s return? Does your confidence in future “conformity to the Messiah’s glorious body” empower you today to live “in conformity with the Messiah’s death?” How does this shape your daily ethical decisions?