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Is there any evidence that μορφῇ θεοῦ (morphe theou) in Philippians 2:6 means the "nature" of God the Father?

ὃς ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ, — SBLGNT

Several translations including the NIV render it as "nature":

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; — NIV

While many others (e.g. ESV, NASB, HCSB, ISV, NET, etc.) render it as "form":

who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage. — HCSB

Is there evidence in the NT and/or contemporary first century literature that morphe is used as having the meaning of "nature"?

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6 Answers 6

I'm of the opinion that there is no credible evidence to suggest that EN MORFH THEOU meant that he shared God's "nature" (whatever that might be). I'm of the opinion that it refers to his divinely granted status as the son of God and as his anointed one such that he was a god of this world. As such John rightly felt unworthy to baptize Jesus or untie his sandals:

Luk 3:16 John replied to all of them, "I am baptizing you with water, but one is coming who is more powerful than I, and I'm not worthy to untie his sandal straps. It is he who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

Paul says that even though this was his status he did not entertain any thought of trying to seize equality with God by theft. He tells the Philippians to adopt his mindset where he didn't focus on his aggrandizement but rather on fulfilling his duties to God as a servant. He adopted the status of a slave and was obedient to God to such a degree that he even obeyed when called to die.

Because of his obedience God exalted him and gave to him the title above all titles, KURIOS. He was invited by God to sit at his right hand. He was not metaphysically equal to God but his station was such that he operates with all authority over all except God himself:

1Co 15:27 (ISV) for "God has put everything under his feet." Now when he says, "Everything has been put under him," this clearly excludes the one who put everything under him. 1Co 15:28 But when everything has been put under him, then the Son himself will also become subject to the one who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.

In evidence of this view I point you to the story of Nebuchadnezzar who's pride was judged by him being debased from a great king to a deranged animal. When he came to his senses God restored his fortunes. He describes this as "my form returned to me":

Dan 4:36 [Rahlf] (4:33) αὐτῷ τῷ καιρῷ αἱ φρένες μου ἐπεστράφησαν ἐπ᾿ ἐμέ, καὶ εἰς τὴν τιμὴν τῆς βασιλείας μου ἦλθον, καὶ ἡ μορφή μου ἐπέστρεψεν ἐπ᾿ ἐμέ, καὶ οἱ τύραννοί μου καὶ οἱ μεγιστᾶνές μου ἐζήτουν με, καὶ ἐπὶ τὴν βασιλείαν μου ἐκραταιώθην, καὶ μεγαλωσύνη περισσοτέρα προσετέθη μοι.

Dan 4:33 [Brenton] At the same time my reason returned to me, and I came to the honour of my kingdom; and my natural form returned to me, and my princes, and my nobles, sought me, and I was established in my kingdom, and more abundant majesty was added to me.

The word could refer to his physical appearance but I think the context makes it clear that he's referring to his status and station, his pomp and circumstances.

So though he was as a god he acted as a servant to God and men.

This is not only in contrast to Nebuchadnezzar but also to Adam who sought to be like God by eating the fruit.

Also, it is in contrast to the other Nebuchadnezzar (the tower builder) who wanted to ascend and be like God - by theft but was instead brought low.

Some seem to read this as "Though he was God..." which has the following problems:

  • it would be a confusing way to say it;
  • it would conflict with "he didn't consider robbery to be equal to God" (why would you think about violently stealing what you already had?);
  • it would not parallel "he adopted the role of a slave" since he was not a slave to men, he only assumed the role;
  • Paul never teaches anywhere that Jesus is God so this would utterly confuse his hearers;

An alternative I considered was the fact that Jesus was a second Adam and like Adam was a son of God and like Adam he was made in the image and likeness of God. So a possible sense I considered was:

...who being in the form [image and likeness] of God, unlike Adam, did not contemplate stealing to be equal/like God...

But then we lose the contrast with "taking the station of a slave".

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It would be helpful to note what Greek Daniel you’re quoting. From what I can figure out, the text is not found in the Old Greek LXX, only Theodotion (which is what Brenton translates evidently). (Odd that that verse corresponds to the Aramaic MT pretty closely except that the word of interest translates “majesty and splendor”!) – Susan Sep 14 at 4:17
It is the Septuaginta by Rahlfs:… – WoundedEgo Sep 14 at 20:21
Rahlfs Daniel 4:36 at the German Bible Society site you link to doesn’t include that text (which is, as noted above, [so-called] Theodotion). Apparently Rahlfs compiled both, though (see note 3). – Susan Sep 14 at 20:54
@WoundedEgo - That is "Daniel (Theodotion)" which was the Greek used in the church's Greek scriptures, not the "old Greek" (LXX). See also Jellicoe on Theodotion and LXX Daniel as well as the intro to the NETS Daniel (ed. Tim McLay). Hope that helps. – Davïd Sep 14 at 21:25
Interesting, thanks. I had a hardcover LXX once and was struck by that usage. I don't have it anymore and I don't remember what edition it was. Apparently Theodotion, though I don't remember the name. Now I have e-sword and it identifies it as Rahlfs from 1935. I just realized what you said in your first comment about MORFH being translated in the Aramaic as "majesty and splendor"... that's the general idea of what I understood it to mean from the context. The king's kingly "state" was restored. – WoundedEgo Sep 14 at 21:30

As Radz mentioned, there seems to be instances in the NT of both meanings ("appearance" and "nature").

I would say that "nature" fits in the case of Phil 2:6-7 because of the context - namely the contrast between "he existed" (ὑπάρχω (5225)) and "he took" (λαμβάνω (2983)). The first form (being God) is the original, the second form (a servant) was an extension or addition that He chose. This is consistent with another typical use of "nature": to describe our sin condition versus our being made in the image of God.

Of course, this is assuming my understanding of the English word "nature" is even valid...

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I think the sort of “nature” you’re referring to in the last sentence of the second paragraph is φύσις rather than μορφή, drawn from Eph 2:3 - "ἤμεθα τέκνα φύσει ὀργῆς ὡς καὶ οἱ λοιποί·" - "We were by nature children of wrath, just like the rest." – Susan Sep 15 at 18:30
Welcome to the Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange, we are glad you are here. When you get a chance, be sure to read up on how this site is a little different than most other sites. This is not a comment on the quality of your answer, but rather a standard welcome message. – ThaddeusB Sep 15 at 19:01

The Greek Phrase ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ means “in very nature, God” ( NIV 2011)

In Biblical Greek, μορφῇ means “form” ( nature, outward appearance). It’s dual meaning is used in the Bible. MORPHE as “nature” is used for about 5 times in the NT ( Phil. 2:6, Romans 12:2, Phil. 3:10 and 21,Gal. 4:19 ) and as “outward appearance” in both the OT (Daniel 3:19 ) and the NT ( 2 Timothy 3:5 ).

The context wherein the Greek word μορφῇoccurs in the Carmen Cristi reveals that its denotation is ‘nature’ and not ‘appearance.’

Who, existing in very nature, God …taking the very nature of a servant… ( Philippians 2:6-7 NIV).

God has no physical appearance but rather, he has a real essence.

“The Greek term translated form indicates a correspondence with reality. Thus the meaning of this phrase is that Christ was truly God.” ~ NETBible on Philippians 2:6's "en morphe theou."

"Christ was truly God..." ( Philippians 2:6 CEV).

In Philippians 2:6-7, it is clear that Jesus has dual form.

Jesus is ‘God in form.’ ~ Philippians 2:6 Jesus is ‘servant in form.’ ~ Philippians 2:7


1) English Dictionaries define “form” as “essence” (nature) not just “external appearance."

2) Christ did not literally emptied himself.

Christ did not literally make himself empty of anything in Philippians 2:7.

In Romans 4:4, Paul said that “faith is made void ( Greek: ἐκένωσεν ).”Faith did not literally emptied itself of anything. Likewise, in Philippians 2:7, Jesus did not literally make himself empty of anything.

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Jesus was both "in the form of God" (ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ) and "took the form of a servant" (μορφὴν δούλου λαβών).

Jesus "took the form of a servant" (Phil. 2:7) and he was a servant (Isa. 42:1). Jesus was "in the form of God" (Phil. 2:6) and he was __.

form of a servant: servant :: form of God: ___

form of X: X :: form of Y: Y

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The occurrence of morphe and its co-words in the New Testament proves that it denotes " nature" not just mere appearance:

Moral nature Romans 12:2 ( are we to change in "appearance' only as Christians and not in our moral nature? also 2 Corinthians 3:18 ) Servant's nature Philippians 2:7 ( did he just "appeared" to be a servant or really become a servant?) God's nature Philippians 2:6 ( Even though if it means "appearance" here it still requires that he has the Father's nature because only the Father has a divine appearance. Check below)

"Son of Man" Daniel 7:13

"Son of Man" Revelation 1:13


"The hair of his head was pure like wool" Daniel 7:9

"The hairs of his head were white like wool, as white as snow" Revelation 1:14


"A Man clothed in Linen" Daniel 10:5

"A Man clothed with a Long Robe" Revelation 1:13


"With a belt of fine Gold" Daniel 10:5

"With a golden sash" Revelation 1:13


"His face like the appearance of lightning" Daniel 10:6

"His face was shining like the sun shining in full strength" Revelation 1:16


"His eyes like flaming torches" Daniel 10:6

"His eyes were like a flame of fire" Revelation 1:14


"His arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze: Daniel 10:6

"His feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace" Revelation 1:15


"The sound of his words like the sound of a multitude", Daniel 10:6

"His voice was like the roar of many waters" Revelation 1:15


"I fell on my face in deep sleep with my face to the ground" Daniel 10:9

"When I say him I fell at his feet as though dead" Revelation 1:17


"And behold a hand touched me and set me trembling on my hands and knees" Daniel 10: 10

"But he laid his right hand on me…" Revelation 1:17


"Then he said to me, Fear not" Daniel 10: 12

"…Saying, Fear not" Revelation 1:17

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The word μορφῇ means "form, outward appearance, [or] shape"1 (occurring in the dative in this context following the preposition ἐν). To be very blunt, translating this as "nature" (as the NIV does) is a poor translation choice. Discussion of God's nature is theologically charged and thus using "nature" in this context could be misleading. The NET translators explain the usage of μορφῇ in Philippians 2:6 by saying:

The Greek term translated form indicates a correspondence with reality. Thus the meaning of this phrase is that Christ was truly God.2

The next verse uses the same word (but in the accusative) in the phrase μορφὴν δούλου λαβών ("taking [the] form of a slave"). Jesus truly was God, and also he truly was a servant. For an in depth understanding of the usage of μορφῇ both in biblical and extra-biblical writings I have copied a lexical entry for you:

μορφή, ῆς, ἡ (Hom.+) form, outward appearance, shape gener. of bodily form 1 Cl 39:3; ApcPt 4:13 (Job 4:16; ApcEsdr 4:14 p. 28, 16 Tdf.; SJCh 78, 13). Of the shape or form of statues (Jos., Vi. 65; Iren. 1, 8, 1 [Harv. I 67, 11]) Dg 2:3. Of appearances in visions, etc., similar to persons (Callisthenes [IV B.C.]: 124 Fgm. 13 p. 644, 32 Jac. [in Athen. 10, 75, 452b] Λιμὸς ἔχων γυναικὸς μορφήν; Diod S 3, 31, 4 ἐν μορφαῖς ἀνθρώπων; TestAbr A 16 p. 97, 11 [Stone p. 42] ἀρχαγγέλου μορφὴν περικείμενος; Jos., Ant. 5, 213 a messenger fr. heaven νεανίσκου μορφῇ): of God’s assembly, the church Hv 3, 10, 2; 9; 3, 11, 1; 3, 13, 1; Hs 9, 1, 1; of the angel of repentance ἡ μ. αὐτοῦ ἠλλοιώθη his appearance had changed m 12, 4, 1. Of Christ (ἐν μ. ἀνθρώπου TestBenj 10:7; Just., D. 61, 1; Tat. 2, 1; Hippol., Ref. 5, 16, 10. Cp. Did., Gen. 56, 18; of deities ἐν ἀνθρωπίνῃ μορφῇ: Iambl., Vi. Pyth. 6, 30; cp. Philo, Abr. 118) μορφὴν δούλου λαβών he took on the form of a slave=expression of servility Phil 2:7 (w. σχῆμα as Aristot., Cat. 10a, 11f, PA 640b, 30–36). This is in contrast to expression of divinity in the preëxistent Christ: ἐν μ. θεοῦ ὑπάρχων although he was in the form of God (cp. OGI 383, 40f: Antiochus’ body is the framework for his μ. or essential identity as a descendant of divinities; sim. human fragility [Phil 2:7] becomes the supporting framework for Christ’s servility and therefore of his κένωσις [on the appearance one projects cp. the epitaph EpigrAnat 17, ’91, 156, no. 3, 5–8]; on μορφὴ θεοῦ cp. Orig., C. Cels. 7, 66, 21; Pla., Rep. 2, 380d; 381bc; X., Mem. 4, 3, 13; Diog. L. 1, 10 the Egyptians say μὴ εἰδέναι τοῦ θεοῦ μορφήν; Philo, Leg. ad Gai. 80; 110; Jos., C. Ap. 2, 190; Just., A I, 9, 1; PGM 7, 563; 13, 272; 584.—Rtzst., Mysterienrel.3 357f) Phil 2:6. The risen Christ ἐφανερώθη ἐν ἑτέρᾳ μορφῇ appeared in a different form Mk 16:12 (of the transfiguration of Jesus: ἔδειξεν ἡμῖν τὴν ἔνδοξον μορφὴν ἑαυτοῦ Orig., C. Cels. 6, 68, 23). For lit. s. on ἁρπαγμός and κενόω 1b; RMartin, ET 70, ’59, 183f.—DSteenberg, The Case against the Synonymity of μορφή and εἰκών: JSNT 34, ’88, 77–86; GStroumsa, HTR 76, ’83, 269–88 (Semitic background).—DELG. Schmidt, Syn. IV 345–60. M-M. EDNT. TW. Spicq. Sv.3

Concerning the usage of μορφή in both passages, in v. 6 "being" (ὑπάρχων) in the form of God was natural (he was 'in the form of God'), while in v. 7 'taking' (λαβών) the form of a slave was an active choice.


1 William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 659.

2 Biblical Studies Press, The NET Bible First Edition Notes (Biblical Studies Press, 2006), Php 2:6.

3 Arndt, Danker, and Bauer, 659.

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Let me know if you want to know more about any of the works referenced in the lexicon. I have a guide to the abbreviations used; I know they are not always clear. – Dan Apr 15 '13 at 3:03
Do you find any significance in the different cases? – swasheck Apr 15 '13 at 15:13
@swasheck not particularly, just the role they play in each sentence. In v. 6 it is in the dative because of the preposition. In v. 7 it is in accusative because it is the direct object of the participle. The genitive 'slave' just modifies the object here to explain what type/kind of form was taken. Am I missing something? – Dan Apr 15 '13 at 15:17
@swasheck If I played on anything linguistically it would be that "being" (ὑπάρχων) in the form of God was natural (he was 'in the form of God'), while 'taking' (λαβών) the form of a slave was an active choice. – Dan Apr 15 '13 at 15:20

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