Episode 76: “In the form of God”

In this episode, instead of a high level overview, we delve deep into one complex and much debated passage in Philippians 2 which says that Jesus was “in the form of God”. Focusing on what this phrase might mean, Josh Dean and Dan Weatherall navigate through various translations, interpretations, and biblical contexts to uncover the essence of this pivotal scripture. Join them as they attempt to demystify one of the most important and challenging sections in the letter to the Philippians, shedding light on its implications for understanding Jesus and the message of personal service it conveys to believers.

Show Notes

Josh and Dan begin this conversation by sharing their aim to spend a whole episode on just one short section, and to go through this text in detail. They read through Philippians 2:5-11 in the ESV and notice how many questions immediately jump from the page. In fact, it’s such a contentious passage that the Word Biblical Commentary remarks: “This is the most important section in the letter and surely the most difficult to interpret. The number of genuine exegetical problems and the sheer mass of books and articles it has called forth leaves one wondering where to begin, despairing about adding anything new and well-nigh stricken with mental paralysis”.[1]

Background to Philippians

Beginning with questions about the background, Josh and Dan note how this letter was written by the apostle Paul to Christians in the Greek city of Philippi. Among sending them thanks for their generosity, Paul is also taking the opportunity to exhort them about their conduct with each other. As Philippians 2:1-4 states, “do nothing from selfish ambition”. Any interpretation of the famous section of Philippians 2 needs to work within this context.

Is “being in the form of God” about divinity?

The first interpretive option that Josh and Dan consider is the most common. This understands Jesus as being “very nature God” as the NIV translates Philippians 2:6, and concludes that this is about a pre-existing divine being choosing to become a human in what is often referred to as the incarnation.

Josh and Dan consider aspects of this passage that seem to support this interpretation, especially noting that the ESV for verse 7 seems to explicitly state that Jesus was “born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7).

However, there are several problems with this, including how it fails to account for the parallelism between “in the form of God” and “in the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:7). If being in the form of God means to have the very nature of God, then what does it mean to have the very nature of a servant. Josh and Dan also note that the Greek word morphe (translated form) doesn’t mean ‘nature’ or ‘essence’ – it always conveys outward appearance, as per its only other use in the New Testament in Mark 16:12. New Testament scholar Andrew Perriman writes, “It seems unlikely, in light of the preceding discussion, that Paul would have intended morphē theou as a reference to the being or some essential attribute of God… The thought is consistently of the outward appearance of an object or being, not of some inner quality.”[2]

Is Philippians 2 about the image of God?

Another option is that Jesus is described as being in the image of God, drawing from Genesis 1:26-27. This interpretation directs the reader to Genesis including the garden of Eden narrative, from which there are several parallels with Philippians 2. The woman has an opportunity presented to her to “be like God” (Genesis 3:5) and instead of refusing to grasp at that opportunity, she takes it, in contrast to Jesus who could have grasped at equality with God but refused to do so.

Josh and Dan note that the echoes to the garden temptation seem to be valid, and yet some problems remain with this interpretation. Not least, the fact that being “in the form of God” appears to be a phrase that is intended to set Jesus apart in some way, whereas “the image of God” is a descriptor of all humanity made in God’s image. The problems with morphe being a word to describe outward appearance are the same as with the first option. The parallel between the form of God and the form of a servant is again lost if “form of God” means “image of God”.

Washing the disciples’ feet

A third option considered by Josh and Dan is that “being in the form of God” relates to status. Jesus, as the Son of God, which was declared at his baptism (Matthew 3:17), nonetheless decided to act in a humble way, and took upon himself “the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:7). He even went to a slave’s death on the cross.

This interpretation sees echoes in John’s account of the last supper when Jesus deliberately laid aside his outer garment and washes the feet of his disciples, taking on the role of a servant. Jesus, John records, goes on to explain that he was doing this as an enacted parable about his death and an example of how they should serve each other. “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:14-15). This fits very neatly into the context of Philippians 2, where Paul is using Jesus as an example for the Christians at Philippi.

Whilst there are good parallels with Philippians 2 and also another link to a temptation narrative in Matthew 4, Josh and Dan nonetheless point out a few problems that this interpretation still has. Despite this, they believe that the overall sense of the passage is now clear, having considered several points of view. It is to encourage the believers to act with humility, like Jesus did during his ministry and at the point of his death, not in some pre-existing state before birth. However, since these small questions remain, it leads Josh and Dan into discussion of a fourth and final interpretation.

“In the form of a god”

This follows a recent publication by scholar Andrew Perriman, In the Form of a God[3], which understands Jesus and his reputation from the perspective of non-Jewish onlookers. They would have heard the reports and stories about Jesus and he would have appeared to them in the form of a god, or a semi-divine figure from their mythology. This is, in fact, exactly what happened to Paul and Barnabas in Acts 14:11 and Acts 28:3-6.

However, Jesus didn’t do what normal divine heroes do, and he refused to grasp at the opportunities to make a name for himself, and instead was willing to go to the cross.

Josh and Dan close by ironing out some loose ends, including suggesting that the ending of verse 7 should be translated “becoming” or, as the NRSVUE renders it, “assuming human likeness”. From the perspective of the onlookers, Jesus was originally perceived to be a divine figure, and yet he assumed human appearance when he willingly chose a servant role and a servant status. This is the one through whom all people and nations will come to worship the God of Israel, as the final quotation from Isaiah 45:22-23 states.

Related content

Other episodes that discuss aspects of Christology, i.e. who Jesus is, include:

Other related content includes blog posts on Jesus walking on water, and some statistics of Christians who believe Jesus did not pre-exist.

[1] Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians, vol. 43, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2004), 99

[2] Andrew Perriman, In the Form of a God: The Pre-Existence of the Exalted Christ in Paul (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2022)

[3] Ibid