Christ Jesus “in the form of God” and “the form of a servant:” Philippians 2:5-11
by Andrew Lindsey
In Philippians 2:5-11, the Holy Spirit through the Apostle Paul commands us to humility. This passage calls us to follow Christ as our example of humility. It also, implicitly, holds out a promise to us. God the Father exalted Christ Jesus due to His humble obedience. We who have been united to Christ by faith (1 Cor 6:17) will share in His exaltation as we follow His example.
Paul gives an argument from the greater to the less. Christ exercised humility, as Calvin notes, “[B]y abasing Himself from the highest pinnacle of glory to the lowest ignominy.” We, on the other hand, exercise humility simply by not thinking higher of ourselves than we ought.
In this argument from the greater, Paul presents the highest Christology: a proclamation of Jesus as God. The high Christology of Philippians 2:5-11 is seen in at least two ways: 1) in Philippians 2:6, Christ Jesus is declared to be “in the form of God;” 2) the language of Philippians 2:10-11 directly parallels that of the statement about the LORD God in Isaiah 45:23. The remainder of this article will explore the first of these two ways.
Christ Jesus was “in the form of God.” “Form” in Philippians 2:6-8 is equivalent to “nature.” Christ emptied Himself by taking on a human nature. The Word became flesh (John 1:14). The Word—who “was God” (John 1:1)—was called a man (1 Tim 2:5). Christ forever retains His bodily form (Col 2:9). So both forms—the divine form, which is eternal, existing before His incarnation, and the human form, assumed in time—now remain everlasting.
Of these concepts, while commenting on Philippians 2:5-11, John Chrysostom helpfully remarks: “Let us not then confound nor divide the natures. There is one God, there is one Christ, the Son of God; when I say ‘One,’ I mean a union, not a confusion; the one Nature did not degenerate into the other, but was united with it.”
The incarnation and crucifixion were due to a voluntary act of the divine will as expressed through the subsistence within the Trinity known as the Word (as in John 1) or Son, and identified in the text under present consideration (Phil 2:5-6) as Christ Jesus. As Simon Gathercole notes, “[Christ’s] act of emptying himself in the incarnation is paralleled with his act of humbling himself to the point of death.” As Christ chose to go to the Cross (John 10:18), He had previously chosen to be born of the Virgin Mary. No one chooses the manner of his own birth: no one save Christ, “[who] emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” Notice the human existence the Christ chose: not a life of fame and fortune, but one that (for most of His time on this earth) was characterized by obscurity and poverty.
In Philippians 2:7, “taking on” modifies the ‘emptying’ that is mentioned. Contrary to the kenotic theory, which teaches that Christ lost or set aside aspects of His divinity in the incarnation, the ‘emptying’ is not a losing but a gaining. The Son does not lose anything of His divinity, but he adds a human nature to His divine nature. This is an ‘emptying’ because it temporarily masks His divine glory and becomes the opportunity for His suffering on behalf of others.