On Saturday morning I have three talks at Growing to Serve, Grace Church, Westerleigh. Here's an excerpt from the second message on the Incarnation of Christ, an exposition of Philippians 2:5-11.
1. The one who became incarnateWho became incarnate?
i. He who was in the form of God
Philippians 2:6. What does it mean that Jesus was “in the form of God”. Recent scholarship has suggested that “form” is more or less interchangeable with the words, “image” and “glory” (see Tyndale New Testament Commentary, IVP, Ralph P. Martin). Christ is certainly the image and glory of God (2 Corinthians 4:6). Taking “form” to mean “image” it is suggested that Paul is contrasting Christ with Adam in that Adam grasped at equality with God, while Jesus did not. But “form” has its own distinct meaning. Gordon Fee defines “form” as “that which truly characterizes a given reality”. (NICNT Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, Eerdmans). This is in line with the older understanding of the word.
B. B. Warfield used the illustration of a sword. The form of a sword consists of the features that make a sword a sword as distinct from other metal objects such as a fork or spoon. The sword is a metal cutting or thrusting implement with a handle and a blade. That is its essential form. So, says Warfield,
What Paul asserts then, when he says that Christ Jesus existed in the “form of God”, is that he had all those characterizing qualities that make God God. (The Saviour of the World, Banner of Truth, p. 253ff),
But what are the "characterising qualities of God"? The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks,
Q. 4. What is God?A. God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.
As Jesus is in the form of God, all those “characterizing qualities” belong to him. And so we can say with Warfield that, “He who is ‘in the form of God’, is God”. That is what lies behind the NIV’s translation that Jesus was “in very nature God”. In his eternal, pre-incarnate state, Jesus was fully divine in every respect. This is the starting point of Paul’s "hymn".
ii. Jesus and the divine identity
Let us reflect a little more on the divine identity of Jesus. He is at one time distinguishable from God [the Father], as he is "in the form of God" and being "in the form of God", he is God.
The deity of Christ is one of the central truths of the New Testament. Again and again the apostles very deliberately included Jesus in the divine identity.
As Jews they believed that the one true and living God was distinguished from idols by two great facts: He was the creator and he is the sovereign Lord of the universe. Genesis 1, Psalm 96:5, 97:1, 145:1, Daniel 4:34-35. With that in mind, notice that writers of the NT did not hesitate to include Jesus in the divine identity by describing him as both Creator and Lord, Deuteronomy 6:4 cf. 1 Corinthians 8:6, John 1:1-3, and Isaiah 45:22-23 cf. Phil 2:11. This understanding of Jesus went back to his own consciousness of being the Son of God, John 5:17-23, 8:28, 58, and was confirmed by his resurrection John 20:28. On occasion Paul referred to Christ as "God", or "our great God", Romans 9:5, Titus 2:13.
iii. Jesus was of the same divine essence as the Father
It was to safeguard Jesus’ place in the divine identity that the early church drew up the Nicene creed in 325 AD. The issue was this: Is Jesus fully divine – as much God as the Father is God, or is he “God” in some inferior, subordinate sense? The orthodox held that the Son was of the same essence as the Father. He was homoousios. Arius taught that the Son was heteroousios his essence was different to that of the Father. This was not a technical augment over words. If the Son was not homoousios with the Father, then he could not be the full and final revelation of God. How would John 1:18, Hebrews 1:1-3 hold true? Moreover, if he was not fully God, then his saving work lacked the infinite value and worth that was necessary for him to save human beings from sin, Ephesians 1:7. And so the Nicene Creed confessed,
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance [homoousios] with the Father, by whom all things were made.Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us….
Now, John Calvin was careful to make it clear that when we speak of the Son being begotten of the Father, we are not to think that the Father communicated the divine essence to the Son,
the Godhead is absolutely of itself [autotheos]. And hence also we hold that the Son, regarded as God, without reference to his person, is also of himself [autotheos]; though we also say that, regarded as Son, he is of the Father. Thus his essence is without beginning, while his person has its beginning in God". (Institutes I:XIII:25).
The Son, in his divine essence is I AM, the self-existing One. He did not derive his deity from the Father. He is Son because he is of the Father, but he is God because he is God. This insight eliminates any idea of the Son being God in a subordinate sense. Thus, according to B. B. Warfield, the church’s confession that the Son is homoousios with the Father came into its own. As the form of God Jesus was as much God as the Father and the Holy Spirit. And so we sing,
Who is he in yonder stall?
Tis the Lord, the King of glory!
This is what Paul wants us to understand about Christ Jesus, the one who from eternity was with God in the form of God. Paul’s teaching here is in accordance with Jesus’s self-understanding, as disclosed in the Gospels, John 17:5.
All three talks are on the 'Growing to Serve' website:
Introducing Philippians (here)
The Incarnation of Christ (here)
Developing Humility (here)