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William Wachtel

 

THE FORM OF GOD

Philippians 2:5-11

 

by WILLIAM WACHTEL


Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.  And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  (Philippians 2:5-11 NASB)

In Philippians 2:6, Paul writes that Christ Jesus was "in the form of God," as many English versions render the Greek expression en morphe theou.  This phrase has given rise to the claim that Jesus is "very God of very God," as declared in the Nicene Creed, the ancient and first official formulation of the Trinitarian faith.  According to this faith, Christ is "co-equal, co-eternal, and consubstantial" with the Father, and is the "second person" of the trinity.  This means that Jesus is really and truly God in every sense, apart from his being also man born of woman.  All of this is declared to be a "mystery" which must be accepted by faith, under pain of excommunication or--in past centuries--death.
The investigator who has already been convinced by Jesus' words in John 17:3 that the Father is "the only true God" and by his testimony to the Samaritan woman that the Jews were correct in their doctrine of God (John 4:21,22)--a doctrine which left no room for anything but the absolute oneness of God--is puzzled by this insistence on viewing God as "three persons."  One becomes further alarmed at such a requirement when reading John's criteria for a saving faith:  "Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.  But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name" (20:30,31).  Nothing here about the necessity of believing that Jesus is in fact God, the Eternal One.  No hint here of the Trinitarian title, "God the Son."  It is all a straightforward requirement to believe Jesus is the Christ, the Anointed One, the promised Messiah of Israel, and that he is truly God's own Son. 

           

In light of such facts, one must seriously ask what Paul meant, in saying that Jesus was "in the form of God."  First of all, we note that he is talking about "Christ Jesus," the historical figure who had been born and later had been "anointed" by the Holy Spirit at his baptism, so becoming "the Christ" or "Anointed One" (Acts 10:38).  Trinitarianism assumes that Paul is talking about what Jesus was before his "incarnation"--that is, during his supposed pre-existence as God in heaven before he was born.  Paul gives no hint here, however, as he specifies the historical person Christ Jesus, that he has any such notion in mind.  This interpretation can only be in the minds of those who have already decided that Jesus pre-existed as a person, either as a divine member of the Trinity, or as an angelic being--the Arian view.

No, the one who was "in the form of God" is the Man called "Christ Jesus," and Paul is describing what was true of that Man while he was on the earth!  But what does
Paul mean by this phrase?  Trinitarian commentators often interpret the Greek word morphe in light of some of its usage in classical Greek literature, that is, from the period five or six centuries earlier.  That usage could imply "what is essential and permanent."  But the New Testament is not written in "classical Greek," but rather in what is called Koine Greek, the popular language of Paul's day.  From many Koine manuscripts discovered by archaeologists and dating from the first century, we know that some terms had acquired new meanings.  One of those terms was morphe, usually translated "form."  From Professor of Greek at Moody Bible Institute, Kenneth S. Wuest, himself a Trinitarian, we learn that in Koine Greek the word morphe had come to refer to "a station in life, a position one holds, one's rank.  And that is an approximation of morphe in this context [Philippians 2]" (The Practical Use of the Greek New Testament, p. 84).

 

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