A Few Reflections on the ‘Form of God’ and What It Means for Christmas

rachael-henning-9RAHI3JRINk-unsplashChrist Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
— Philippians 2:6–8 —

On Sunday our church considered the birth of Christ and what it means for Christ, who is God, to empty himself and take the form of a servant.  On that topic there are many questions and errant assumptions.

To help think clearly about the Incarnation, here are five reflections—ancient and modern. May these words from Augustine, Calvin, Bavinck, Donald Macleod, and Stephen Wellum serve you and stir your affections for Christ during this season of Christmas.

Augustine of Hippo

Because of the Word of God’s incarnation, which for the sake of restoring us to health took place that the man Christ Jesus might be mediator of God and man (1 Tm 2:5), many things are said in the holy books to suggest, or even state openly that the Father is greater than the Son. This has misled people who are careless about examining or keeping in view the whole range of the scriptures, and they have tried to transfer what is said of Christ Jesus as man to that substance of his which was everlasting before the incarnation and is everlasting still. They say that the Son is less than the Father because it is written in the Lord’s own words, The Father is greater than I (Jn 14:28); the truth, however, shows that as far as that goes the Son is less even than himself. How could it be otherwise with him who emptied himself, taking the form of a servant (Phil 2:7)?

For he did not so take the form of a servant that he lost the form of God in which he was equal to the Father. So if the form of a servant was taken on in such a way that the form of God was not lost—since it is the same only begotten Son of the Father who is both in the form of a servant and in the form of God, equal to the Father in the form of God, in the form of a servant the mediator of God and men the man Christ Jesus—who can fail to see that in the form of God he too is greater than himself and in the form of a servant he is less than himself? And so it is not without reason that scripture says both; that the Son is equal to the Father and that the Father is greater than the Son. The one is to be understood in virtue of the form of God, the other in virtue of the form of a servant, without any confusion. (De Trinitate74––75)

John Calvin

The form of God means here his majesty. For as a man is known by the appearance of his form, so the majesty, which shines forth in God, is his figure. [103] Or if you would prefer a more apt similitude, the form of a king is his equipage and magnificence, shewing him to be a king — his scepter, his crown, his mantle, [104] his attendants, [105] his judgment-throne, and other emblems of royalty; the form of a consul was — his long robe, bordered with purple, his ivory seat, his lictors with rods and hatchets. Christ, then, before the creation of the world, was in the form of God, because from the beginning he had his glory with the Father, as he says in John 17:5. For in the wisdom of God, prior to his assuming our flesh, there was nothing mean or contemptible, but on the contrary a magnificence worth of God. Being such as he was, he could, without doing wrong to any one, shew himself equal with God; but he did not manifest himself to be what he really was, nor did he openly assume in the view of men what belonged to him by right. (Commentary on Philippians 2:6)

Herman Bavinck

The figure we encounter in the person of Christ on the pages of Scripture is a unique figure. On the one hand, He is very man. He became: flesh and came into the flesh (John 1:14 and 1 John 4:2-3). He bore the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom. 8:3). He came of the fathers, according to the flesh (Rom. 9:5), of Abraham’s seed (Gal. 3:16), of Judah’s line (Heb. 7:14), and of David’s generation (Rom 1:3). He was born of a woman (Gal. 4:4), partook of our flesh and blood (Heb. 2:14), possessed a spirit (Matt. 27:50), a soul (Matt. 26:38), and a body (1 Peter 2:24), and was human in the full, true sense. As a child He grew, and [grew] strong in spirit, and increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man (Luke 2:40 and 52). He was hungry and thirsty, sorrowful and joyful, was moved by emotion and stirred to anger. He placed Himself under the law and was obedient to it until death. He suffered, died on the cross, and was buried in a garden. He was without form or comeliness. When we looked upon Him there was no beauty that we should desire Him. He was despised, and unworthy of esteem, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (Isa. 53:2–3).

Nevertheless this same man was distinguished from all men and raised high above them. Not only was He according to His human nature conceived by the Holy Spirit; not only was He throughout His life despite all temptation, free from sin; and not only was He after His death raised up again and taken into heaven; but the same subject, the same person, the same *I* who humiliated Himself so deeply that He assumed the form of a servant and became obedient unto the death o the cross, already existed in a different form of existence long before His incarnation and humiliation. He existed then in the form of God and thought it no robbery to be equal with God (Phil. 2:6). At His resurrection and ascension He simply received again the glory which he had with the Father before the world was (John 17:5). He is eternal as God Himself, having been with Him already in the beginning (John 1:1 and 1 John 1:1). He is the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end (Rev. 22:13); He is omnipresent, so that though walking about on the face of the earth, He is simultaneously in the bosom of the Father in heaven (John 1:18 and 3:13); and after His glorification he is unchangeable and faithful and is the same yesterday, and today, and forever (Heb. 13:8); He is omniscient, so that He hears prayers; He is the One who knows all men’s hearts (Acts 1:24: unless the reference here is to the Father); He is omnipotent so that all things are subjected unto Him and all power is given to Him in heaven and on earth, and is chief of all kings. (Our Reasonable Faith, 316–17)

Donald Macleod

Taking these facts together, it seems clear that morphé belongs to a group of words which describe God not as he is in himself but as he is to an observer. To an angel, for example, God has a form, an image, a likeness and a glory. He makes himself accessible in his form. What the New Testament does is to insist that this form (Phil. 2:6), image (Col. 1:15) and glory (Jas. 2:1) belong to ‘Christ Jesus’ in exactly the same way and to the same degree as they do to God the Father. He is God (Jn. 1:1); and he has the image and the glory and the likeness and the form that go along with it. The morphé is not the essence, but it presupposes the essence, and ‘truly and fully expresses the being which underlies it’. The subject of the kenosis, therefore (the one who ‘emptied himself’), is one who had glory with the Father before the world began (Jn. 17:5).

He was, in the words of Frank Houghton’s hymn ‘rich beyond all splendour’ (2 Cor. 8:9). He possessed all the majesty of deity, performed all its functions and enjoyed all its prerogatives. He was adored by his Father and worshipped by the angels. He was invulnerable to pain, frustration and embarrassment. He existed in unclouded serenity. His supremacy was total, his satisfaction complete, his blessedness perfect. Such a condition was not something he had secured by effort. It was the way things were, and had always been; and there was no reason why they should change.

But change they did, and they changed because of the second element involved in the kenōsis: Christ did not insist on his rights. In the context, this is the main point Paul is making [in Philippians 2:6]. (The Person of Christ213–14)

Stephen Wellum

In [Philippians 2:6] Paul points to the preexistence and deity of Christ by the phrase “who, though he was in the form of God” (hos en morphé theou huparchon). Many scholars have attempted to define the precise meaning of “form of God,” but Peter T. O’Brien’s recent treatment of the term stands out as the most helpful.” After surveying the term, O’Brien concludes that morphé refers to that “form which truly and fully expresses the being which underlies it.”” In general, then, Paul uses morphé to explain that Jesus truly and fully expresses the essence of God (v. 6) and the essence of a servant (v. 7).

O’Brien’s conclusion builds off the work of R. P. Martin, who focused on the use of morphé in the LXX.” Martin discovered in the LXX that (1) morphé denotes the appearance or form of something by which we describe it; (2) morphé and eikon (“image”) are used interchangeably; and (3) eikon and doxa (“glory”) are also equivalent terms. Taken together, this means that morphé belongs to a group of words “which describes God not as he is in himself but as he is to an observer.” Morphé, then, does not describe God’s nature per se, but it presents a form that truly and fully expresses the underlying divine nature.”

So in Philippians 2:6–7, we can now see that Paul uses the conceptual and communicative power of morphé to affirm the full deity (morphé theou) and humanity (morphén doulou) of Christ. The preincarnational person of Christ has always existed as the full expression of what it means to be God. And this same divine person became incarnate, so that Jesus now also exists as the full expression of what it means to be a man-servant. As will be explained below, the movement between these two forms is not subtraction or transformation but addition for salvation and glorification. (God the Son Incarnate, 175)

As Steve Wellum concludes, the reason God the Son became incarnate is to bring salvation to humanity and to receive the eternal praise of mankind. This is why we celebrate the birth of Christ at Christmas.

God the Son took on human form in order to die on the cross in the place of his people. The birth of Christ is not an end in itself; it is the just the beginning. As the rest of Philippians 2 explains, Christ received the name that is above every name because of his perfect obedience. And as these reflections indicate, this praise to Christ comes from the Son’s human obedience. Still, when we begin to consider the two natures of Christ, we should rest in the fact that we will not be able to understand all of it.

For this reason, let’s close our reflection on the Incarnation with one more word from Herman Bavinck. Observing the wonder of Christ’s two nature, he states, The incarnation of the Word is not a problem which we must solve, or can solve, but a wonderful fact . . . we gratefully confess in such a way as God Himself presents it to us in His Word” (Our Reasonable Faith, 322).

At Christmas time let us marvel at this fact, God has become a man, and may our growing understanding of that reality lead us to worship him with greater awe and adoration.

Merry Christmas!!

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo by Rachael Henning on Unsplash

4 thoughts on “A Few Reflections on the ‘Form of God’ and What It Means for Christmas

  1. Note that in the Ancient Near East, the “King” of a nation was thought to be “divinely appointed by the gods to rule”. As such, the King represented the people (nation) before the gods, and also the gods to the people.

    In effect, the King was a “bridge” (think Jacob’s ladder!) between Heaven (the realm of the gods) and Earth (the realm of humanity). In other words, the “King” was a “Mediator” between Heaven and Earth.

    This points to the ANE background for Jesus Christ’s authority as both MEDIATOR and KING (Davidic King-Messiah-Son of God) of all Creation (including Mankind)!

    • This ancient concept of the “King” also points to Jesus’ dual nature: being fully God and fully human at the same time.
      He is thus fully qualified to be Mediator (representing both parties equally).
      As He represented God to mankind during His 1st Advent on Earth, He also represents Man to God during His current reign in Heaven (prior to His 2nd Coming).

      • Re: Christ’s representation of God to Mankind during His 1st Advent and representation of Mankind to God during current enthronement as Davidic King Messiah in Heaven, this is analogous to Moses (a “type” of Jesus) coming DOWN (descending) from the mountain top of Sinai to relay God’s word to Israel, and going back UP (ascending) to the mountain top to speak with God and “intercede” for Israel as the Covenant Mediator.

  2. This ancient “kingship” concept of the King as Mediator of Heaven and Earth could explain why Melchizedek was known as a King-Priest, combining both offices, before God assigned the priestly function exclusively to the Levite tribe during the original Exodus.

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