The God who morphed

Let Christ Jesus be your example as to what your attitude should be. For he, who had always been God by nature, did not cling to his prerogatives as God’s equal, but stripped himself of all privilege by consenting to be a slave by nature and being born as mortal man. And, having become man, he humbled himself by living a life of utter obedience, even to the extent of dying, and the death he died was the death of a common criminal. —Philippians 2:5-8, JB Phillips (the apostle Paul writing).

t2This might be my favorite passage in the New Testament. It is perhaps the most poetic attempt to understand the Christ of Christianity, apart from Christ’s own words.

Paul’s language is forceful and rich, resulting in a variety of ideas about how best to capture in English what he has written in Greek. Let me quote a couple of other translations:

He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! —Philippians 2:6,7, The Message

… although [Christ] existed in the form of God, [he] 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. —Philippians 2:6,7, NASB

As we near the celebration of Christmas and the birth of Christ, this passage reveals what was happening behind the scenes, in the house of God, nine months before Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem.

We see in this passage the working out of the Trinity, at least in two of its three parts: Christ and God are said to be equal in status; they are equal in nature; they have the same form. The Greek word form is morphe, which refers to the outer shape and appearance of a thing. “To morph” became a verb a few years back with movies like Terminator 2: Judgment Day, where the liquid-metal T-1000 could morph itself into anything it touched, becoming a floor in one instance, taking on the appearance of several different humans in others. But whatever shape the T-1000 adopted, it remained (in its essence) the same machine with the same nature and the same mission.

Christ, who as God has the dazzling, pure-white brilliance of God, morphed himself into the form of a human being and entered the world as every human does, as a newborn.

Christ, who as God has the right to be worshipped as God, humbled himself, emptied himself of all privilege, embraced humility, poverty and submission and lived from the vantage point of the least of all human beings.

But this Christ was living in disguise. He was in fact the Very True God, and his words and miracles attest to that, just as his resurrection and transformation after his death remove any doubt as to his true identity.

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.”
Jesus replied, “Philip, don’t you even yet know who I am, even after all the time I have been with you? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father! So why are you asking to see him? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words I say are not my own, but my Father who lives in me does his work through me. Just believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me. Or at least believe because of what you have seen me do.” —John 14:8-11, NLT

It may seem weird to think of a God who disguised himself as a human. It may seem undignified, or beneath him to think of a God who lived in poverty and allowed himself to be subjected to the indignities of human life, not to mention the horrors of the cross. Perhaps it seems so because we can’t imagine doing such a thing ourselves.

Which is where Paul, who never shied away from meddling in the lives of his churches, turns up the heat on those of us who would call ourselves Christians.

Let Christ Jesus be your example as to what your attitude should be. —Philippians 2:5, JB Phillips

Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children who learn proper behavior from their parents. Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love. Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant. He didn’t love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. Love like that. —Ephesians 5:1,2, The Message

We can’t morph ourselves. But following the example of Jesus Christ, we who call ourselves Christians are to empty ourselves in imitation of his extravagant love, and love others—just as he bent down from heaven and loved us.

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  1. I am not sure if “morph” is an appropriate metaphor to describe Jesus. To say, “Christ…morphed himself into the form of a human being…” and “…God who disguised himself as a human” seem to blur or deny the idea that Jesus Christ was one person with two natures, human and divine. He did not morph or transform from one into the other. He was both! And only by being both, could He bridge the gap between man and God.

  2. Thanks for your comments. “Morph” is, of course, Paul’s own word choice, and I would say that it’s a good way to visualize the contrast between Christ prior to the incarnation, when he was in no sense human (but was with God and was by very nature God), and Christ after the incarnation, when he was fully human (and still one with God, in some mysterious way).

    The truth is, I don’t think we can really understand or describe what happened because such a thing is beyond our human experience. I think the concept of morphing helps strengthen the idea that Christ was fully human while at the same time retaining his Godliness, especially to those who are today ready to embrace Christ’s humanity but completely deny his God-nature.

  3. Paul did not use the English word ‘morph’ that hearkens back to T2. He used a Greek word that now has a 2000-year history as a root word for all sorts of words that don’t have the same sense as the original.

    Also, ‘morphe’ is not a verb. It’s a noun, and Paul never says that Jesus changed from one morph to another, which is what ‘morph’ in English means. What he says is that he was of the same morphe as God and that he took on the morphe of humanity. This has more to do with Plato’s forms and Aristotle’s essences than physical shape, which the English ‘morph’ suggests. Since nothing can lose those things, it’s not likely Paul thought Christ Jesus was giving up one and then adding the other. That would be like saying I could lose my me-ness and then someone still say

    I’m the very same me.

  4. Thanks, as usual, for your insightful comments. Of course, I didn’t say that morphe was a verb, as far as I can tell.

    My point is not that Paul would have envisioned T2, but that in fact T2 is a decent, modern illustration of what Christ did in taking on the form of a human without losing his essential nature as the Son of God. This stands in contrast to those who claim (as I know you don’t) that Christ was merely human, and no more a member of the Godhead than any of us.

    It is apparent that Paul did believe Christ “gave up” something when you read Phil 2:6,7 where Paul says that Christ set aside his rights and made himself nothing. He fully submitted himself to the bodily form he had taken on and to the task of living as a man.

    Just how that was actually accomplished (God becoming human) is a mystery, and I believe the idea of morphing gives us some insights into how the apparent dilemma of “fully God and fully human” might be reconciled. In the end, all illustrations of the divine nature have their shortcomings, and this one is no exception.

  5. I meant that ‘morph’ is a verb, and ‘morphe’ is a noun, which is already a big difference. Paul was talking about something true of Jesus, and ‘morph’ in English is something you do.

    I understand what you’re saying. I just thought it would be easy for someone to misinterpret this to think you’re claiming Jesus somehow changed his form from one thing to another.

  6. Ah, that clears it up. I hope I didn’t give the impression that Jesus was some sort of shape-shifter, which he was not. And of course, that was one of the characteristics of the T1000. What I was hoping to focus on was a modern way to conceive of the idea that Christ took on the form of a human while retaining his essential nature as God. Parables can be slippery things, as you know. Thanks again.

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