5 reasons why Philippians 2:5-11 is not about the Incarnation

A famous and widely treasured set of verses, and yet their exact meaning remains elusive and controversial. Jesus was “in the form of God” but what does that mean? The Christ Hymn, as Philippians 2:5-11 is often described, is usually interpreted as a description of the incarnation of the pre-existing Son who chose to become human and then went to his death on the cross, but does that stand up to scrutiny when you look at it in detail? Here is the passage:

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5-11 ESV)

At first glance, this exalted praise for Jesus may appear to support such a doctrine. It seems to suggest a decision that the Son made prior to his birth. It seems to describe a conscious determination to become human. However, I don’t believe that Philippians 2:5-11 is about the incarnation, as is popularly understood. In fact there are many problems that make this view insurmountable. Here are five reasons why that interpretation should be doubted.

Reason 1: It’s about the man Jesus

The passage begins with a clarity that is often overlooked. Whatever it’s about, the subject is the man, Jesus. “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). The humility that is exemplified in these profound verses was therefore shown in Jesus, the Messiah – which is what the title “Christ” means.

Now we need to be precise about this; Jesus is the name for the child born to Mary (Matthew 1:21, Luke 1:31). If he did have some form of pre-existence then it is usually surmised to have been as the Word, the Logos or the eternal Son, not as Jesus, nor as Christ. The appellations Jesus and Christ are the name and title for the man who came from Nazareth, born from Mary. So whatever this passage is talking about, and whatever Jesus did, it must be something that he did during his life on earth. That makes it difficult to attribute the conscious humility of Christ Jesus to a supposed moment where he decides he will take on human nature and be born as a human.

Reason 2: What does “in the form of a servant” mean?

Philippians 2:6 is famously translated by the NIV as Jesus, “being in very nature God”. The translators have attributed a meaning to “being in the form of God” as specifically about essence or ontology. It kind of works in English – the form of something can most certainly refer to an object’s essence or being. And if that’s a correct interpretation, then this would support the incarnation of an eternal Son who was in very nature God.

But there’s a problem. The “form of God” is contrasted in this passage with “the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:7). True to their decision about verse 6, the translators of the NIV have rendered this as “taking the very nature of a servant”. I applaud their commitment to consistency there, but this really does highlight the problem with “very nature God”. What could the very nature of the a servant mean? Does a slave have a different essential nature than any other human being? Of course not.

Whether or not you follow the NIV translation, interpreting this passage to be about the incarnation makes little sense of Jesus choosing to be “in the form of a servant”. The contrast doesn’t really work if we understand Philippians 2 as claiming anything to do with essential being or essence. Being “in the form of God” must mean something else if the contrast with the “form of a servant” is to have any meaning.

Reason 3: The Greek word for “form” doesn’t mean essential nature

In fact, the Greek word morphe that is translated as form cannot even mean essential nature. It’s a word that always conveys something to do with outward appearance.

Compare the only other use of the word in the New Testament. “After these things he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country” (Mark 16:12). Here, two of the disciples of Jesus see him after his resurrection, however from their perspective, he appeared differently. The other form that Jesus was in was an expression of his appearance.

In Philippians as well, the context is quite specifically about how Jesus appeared to onlookers. He was “found” in the likeness of men. In other words, people saw him to be a true human being. He was in the form of a servant, which can only be that his observable demeanour and actions demonstrated a humility normally characterised by slaves.

So, again, whatever being in the outward appearance of God means, this observation rules out an incarnational interpretation.

Reason 4: The cross is the moment of humility

Let’s pay attention to the whole passage again for the fourth reason why we can’t read incarnation theology into Philippians 2. The whole literary flow is building to an exemplary show of humility from Christ Jesus. And we discover what that is in verse 8 when Jesus was humble “to the point of death, even death on the cross.”

However we slice and dice the literary structure, this is the pinnacle of Philippians 2. And therefore it would seem strange if another big event was also being described, prior to his birth, when he decided, in humility, to take on human nature and be born as a man. It seems to break the whole literary flow.

At this point, I do need to address the translation of verse 7 in the ESV, that describes Jesus as “being born in the likeness of men”. The word translated “being born”, literally meaning “becoming”, does not of itself require a “birth”, and the context determines whether that’s a valid translation or not. The NRSVUE seems to capture what the sentence is claiming.

Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,assuming human likeness” (Philippians 2:7 NRSVUE).

It’s not about “being born” according to this translation, it’s about “assuming human likeness”. You see, it’s back to appearances again. Onlookers thought that Jesus was one thing, (in the form of God), and yet he purposefully did certain things and followed a course of action that made him become just a regular human; a slave even. These onlookers “found” him as a normal guy, and watched as he even went to the shame and humiliation of the cross.

This interpretation fits the literary flow of the exalted prose, whereas inserting a dramatic cosmic humility before his birth doesn’t seem to fit the direction of the narrative.

Reason 5: This passage is supposed to be about a practical example

Finally, look back at the context. It’s always essential to do this whenever you’re tempted to draw out theological conclusions from a passage. Did the author of these verses intend to teach us specific Christological details?

At the start of chapter 2, Paul is launching his exhortation to the Christians in Philippi to act towards each other with love and in unity. He doesn’t want them to have “selfish ambition or conceit” (Philippians 2:3) but instead wants to provoke the genuine humility within them. And to do that, he turns to the most practical and profound example of humility he can. “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God…” displayed humility that can be taken as a template and applied to our own lives (Philippians 2:5-6).

Since the example and mind of Christ is supposed to be exemplary and a pattern for Christians to follow, is it a little incongruous to expect that Paul has in mind a cosmic choice to set aside divine prerogatives and take on human nature? How is that an action that can be copied and modelled in our own behaviour?

It’s much more likely that events such as Jesus washing his disciples’ feet in the upper room on the eve before he gave his life are the inspiration for such praise to Christ Jesus. He willingly laid aside his outer garment and took upon himself the role of a servant, (John 13:4-5), and then specifically told his followers that they “also should do, just as I have done to you” (John 13:15).


So, five different reasons why we shouldn’t read this famous passage as a description of the incarnation. Firstly, by paying attention to the subject of the passage, the man Christ Jesus, then noting the literary pattern and contrast between the form of God and the form of a servant. Thirdly, a lexical observation about the Greek word morphe, then another argument about the general literary momentum building up to the moment of the cross, and finally, a recognition that Paul’s intent is to provide a realistic, practical example.

So, if these five reasons are good enough to cast doubt on the traditional incarnation readings of Philippians 2, what else could it mean?

For that, you could check out our podcast episode 76, “In the form of God” where we discuss 4 options and provide what we think is a much more satisfying interpretation of what is undoubtedly an important passage.