5 Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: 6 who, existing in the form of God, counted not the being on an equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself [from being in the form of God], taking [by entering] the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men; 8 and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross. (ASV Philippians 2:5-8)
Original Greek: ὃς ἐν μορφῇ Θεοῦ ὑπάρχων
μορφῇ is Dative Feminine Singular (shape, appearance, outline, form).
μορφῇ is the root of our verb "to morph" (to change into another form).
Θεοῦ Genitive Masculine Singular of Θεός (deity)
Best translation would be "in the likeness of God", especially if we compare with LXX [Jdg 8.18]:
καὶ εἶπεν πρὸς Ζεβεε καὶ Σαλμανα Ποῦ οἱ ἄνδρες, οὓς ἀπεκτείνατε ἐν Θαβωρ; καὶ εἶπαν Ὡσεὶ σύ, ὅμοιος σοί, ὅμοιος αὐτῶν, ὡς εἶδος μορφὴ υἱῶν βασιλέων.
Then Gideon asked Zebah and Zalmunna, “The men you killed at Tabor—what were they like?” “Like you,” they replied. “They all had the look of a king’s son.”
As a continuation of Codosaur's fine answer, I'll put forward some suggestions as to how and why the apostle Paul chose (by the Spirit's prompting) the words "form of God" when referring to Jesus Christ.
Paul knew very well what the Woman at the Well needed to be reminded of; namely, that
God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth (John 4:24 NIV).
The Triune God existed and forever will exist eternally as spirit. In that form (so to speak) he is visible only to whomever he chooses to reveal himself. Even then, the angels, for example, cannot truly see God, but only some aspects of his resplendent holiness and glory, which have been defined as "the outshining of God's presence."
All that changed when God became flesh and dwelt--or tabernacled--among us (John 1:14). The essence of who God was, is, and ever shall be did not change with the birth of the God-Man, Jesus of Nazareth. God's methods of communicating with humankind did change, however.
While God may have indeed manifested himself in human form prior to the birth of Jesus, as he did for a short time with Abraham in Genesis 18, the body which Jesus inhabited during his time on earth will live on forever. He will always be "God made visible." As the hymn writer expressed this thought,
Crown him the Lord of love;
behold his hands and side,
rich wounds, yet visible above,
in beauty glorified;
no angels in the sky
can fully bear that sight,
but downward bends their burning eye
at mysteries so bright.
Jesus, after his resurrection, had to remind Thomas the doubter that his scarred body was not a ghost but a living Savior and Lord.
26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”
28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” [my bolding].
29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20 NIV).
What I am suggesting is that for two thousand years or more, the Hebrews were told that God Himself could not be seen through human eyes unless aided by God's power, for to see God--to really see God in all his glory, meant certain death (see Exodus 33, where God's "goodness" passed by Moses who was hidden by God's hand in the cleft of a rock).
Here comes Jesus in the first century of the common era, and as a man he has the audacity to claim to be God. John 10:
31 The Jews picked up stones again to stone Him. 32 Jesus answered them, “I showed you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you stoning Me?” 33 The Jews answered Him, “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy; and because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God.”
No small wonder, then, the Jews by and large rejected him as their Messiah and Savior. Not that their rejection of Jesus was excusable, but the Jesus they saw did not fit their stereotype of what a Messiah should look and act like.
In conclusion, how then could Paul describe Jesus, not only to his fellow Jews but also to the Gentiles, as being God incarnate? The answer: By describing Jesus as "God made visible." In other words, Jesus was, is, and ever shall be in "the form of God." His incarnation did not empty him of his deity, but it did make his divinity visible and touchable, forever.
[For your edification, I commend to you the reading of the following Bible passages, which may serve to shed light on the great stoop Jesus took in becoming man and dwelling among us because of the great love he has for each of us:
- Exodus 21:5-6
- Deuteronomy 15:16-17
- Psalm 40:6:7
- Hebrews 10:5-7]
The parallelism of the "was in the form of God and equal to God" and "took the form of a servant(=humans) and became equal to humans" necessarily implies that "in the form of God" means "in the same reality as God", just like "in the form of slave(=human)" means in the same reality as humans. Thus, in Paul the "form" of something denotes the reality of this very something standing for the expression of this very something, like, for instance if one says Pelé is 'in the form of a football star", it means that Pelé is a football star, for football starship is perfectly expressed in him. With a big difference that Pelé had to work hard to reach the starship, but Jesus has always naturally been in the form of God.
Thus, if there is no doubt that He was truly human, there should be no doubt that He was truly God, even hadn't Paul added for even a greater clarity that He did not consider it to be a robbery or an imposture to be equal to God, because being in the same reality as God, that is to say, "sharing" the same reality, is nothing else but a claim of Divinity. I put the "sharing" in quotation marks because it is not quite an adequate term, better is to say that the Son's very existence is the same existence as that of the Father, like the verb "to be" in John's wording "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30), which indicates the identity with regard of the Godhead of the Father and the Son, while the plural of the verb ("are") - the difference with regard of their Persons.
God has never given us anything by which we could formulate a picture of him as a spiritual being outside of his intrinsic attributes. What he has given us in scripture defines certain aspects of his nature, character, and function. When we talk about the nature of anything, it must be understood bi-camerally. The nature of any object or person is always made up of two parts. The first part is essence. Essence refers to those qualities that make a thing what it is. Take for example a flower. The essence of any flower is those traits that classify it as a flower. A flower is a seed producing plant consisting of four sets of organs - carpels, stamens, petals, and sepals. These traits typically classify the object as a flower. The second part is character. Each flower has its own distinguishing characteristics that define it still further. These characteristics separate it from all other flowers and give it individuality. These would be such traits as structure, type, shape, color, fragrance, type of fruit, and the type of climate and soil it requires. These are all qualities that define what kind of flower it is. Now, if we may be permitted to assign this definition to the nature of God, then the essence of God would be those qualities that make God, God. The extended properties of God would be those qualities that describe what kind of God he is. You may prefer to think of them as primary and secondary attributes. The ‘essence’ of God defines the intrinsic qualities of God.
The essence is what I regard as signature traits. These traits qualify God as God. Intrinsically, the essence of God is:
The character of God is what I would regard as attributes that define His moral integrity. The character of God is:
These are some of the qualities we find ascribed to God in the scriptures. Every attribute of essence and character that scripture assigns to God are assigned also to Jesus.
The word form μορφῇ (morphé) is the Greek root for the words metamorphosis and morphing. It is unfortunate that the English word form emphasizes too much on the outward appearance. It is not just the outward image of God as we are images of God. We are not morphés of God. The morphé of God is the form and content of God. It is the Godhead morphs into a form for our perception and interaction conveniences.
In Greek, "Form of God" is actually μορφῇ θεοῦ, transliterated morphe theou. God's μορφῇ (Morphe) can actually be compared and contrasted with the εἶδος (eidos) of God, which also translates to "Form of God."
The understanding of these words are heavily influenced by Greco-Roman philosophy and can be illustrated in Plato's Allegory of the Cave. In this allegory, Plato uses his metaphor to help us better understand his Theory of Forms.
In Plato's theory, εἶδος (eidos) represents the "Visible Form" while, μορφή (morphē) represents the "shape". Additionally, within Greco-Roman philosophy, there were also the φαινόμενα (phainomena), "appearances" which underwent significant philosophical discussion but are not particularly germane to the OP's question.
In Plato's allegory, Plato asks Glaucon to imagine a prisoner in the cell of a cave. Out of view of the prisoner is a light source. This light source illuminates an object - again out of view of the prisoner. The prisoner in the cave is only able to see the shadow cast by the object:
In terms of the Allegory, the εἶδος (eidos) is the object or vase while the μορφή (morphē) is the projected image of the object, or the shadow of the vase.
As Wikipedia notes,
The English word "form" may be used to translate two distinct concepts that concerned Plato—the outward "form" or appearance of something, and "Form" in a new, technical nature, that never
...assumes a form like that of any of the things which enter into her; ... But the forms which enter into and go out of her are the likenesses of real existences modelled after their patterns in a wonderful and inexplicable manner....
The objects that are seen, according to Plato, are not real, but literally mimic the real Forms.
So in terms of God, the form of God as it appears to us (where we are the prisoner in Plato's cave) is the μορφή (morphē). This term acknowledges that our ability to view God is imperfect, and we are not capable of truly seeing God fully and directly. In trinitarian thought, the incarnation of Jesus might be thought of in some contexts as μορφή (morphē) - incarnate as Jesus, God was able to appear to us (which helps to put into context later discussions about the -ούσιος (ousia) "substance" and nature of God.)
Conversely, God's true form could be thought of as εἶδος (eidos). It holds the concept of God's true and actual form which we lack the ability and perspective to view properly due to our humanly limitations.
What does in the “Form of God” mean?
Jesus God’s “only-begotten Son,” the Word, was a spirit person like his Father, hence “existing in God’s form” (Philippians 2:5-8), but later “became flesh,” residing among mankind as the man Jesus. (Joh 1:1, 14) Completing his earthly ministry, he was "put to death in the flesh, but [was] made alive in the spirit."
1 Peter 3:18 (NET Bible)
18 Because Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, to bring you to God, by being put to death in the flesh but by being made alive in the spirit.
His Father resurrected him, granted his Son’s request to be glorified alongside the Father with the glory he had had in his prehuman state
John 17:4-5 (NET Bible)
4 I glorified you on earth by completing the work you gave me to do.[b] 5 And now, Father, glorify me at your side with the glory I had with you before the world was created.
God made him "a life-giving spirit." "So also it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living person”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. (1 Corinthians 15:45 (NET Bible)The Son thus became again invisible to human sight :
1 Tim. 6:16 NET
"He alone possesses immortality and lives in unapproachable light, whom no human has ever seen or is able to see."
Deuteronomy 4:15-20 shows that God’s form is not known by men, Furthermore Paul wrote:
Hebrews 1:3 (NIRV)
3 The Son is the shining brightness of God’s glory. He is the exact likeness of God’s being. He uses his powerful word to hold all things together. He provided the way for people to be made pure from sin. Then he sat down at the right hand of the King, the Majesty in heaven.
1 John 3:2 (NIRV)
2 Dear friends, now we are children of God. He still hasn’t let us know what we will be. But we know that when Christ appears, we will be like him. That’s because we will see him as he really is.
“Form of God "= μορφη θεου= morphe theou= "life-giving spirit." (1 Cor.15:45 NET)= "exact likeness of God’s being" (Heb 1;3 NIRV)
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...And the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us (and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father), full of grace and reality.
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
So little to be among the thousands of Judah,
From you there will come forth to Me
He who is to be Ruler in Israel;
And His goings forth are from ancient times,
From the days of eternity.
we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we became eyewitnesses of that One’s majesty. For He received from God the Father honor and glory, a voice such as this being borne to Him by the magnificent glory: This is My Son, My Beloved, in whom I delight.
Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider being equal with God a treasure to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, becoming in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man,
now, glorify Me along with Yourself, Father, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.
There's lots of ways to study/approach the Bible. I hope you and me could discover what John 1:1, 14; 17:5; Micah 5:2; 2 Pet 1:16-17; (Mt 17:1-2;) Philip 2:5-8; indeed all of Holy Scripture refer to and state. I hope you'd ask any questions if you can't see the connections between these scriptures. It's not complicated. As beautiful, and true in upholding Christ's deity, as most of the Answers are, "form of God" doesn't mean 'reality,' 'character,' 'essence,' incarnate 'visibility,' nor 'representation' here.
The Word, God, the Son from the Father, became flesh, man, to do God's eternal purpose.
As 'form of a slave,' 'likeness of men,' and 'fashion as a man' means the appearance of a common man, so the 'form of God' refers to God's appearance. Which in one word might best be 'glory,' magnificent glory.
In becoming the man Jesus, Christ, the Son of God, who is God, equal with God, emptied Himself of His appearance, for the sake of redeeming man. (Like I say: all Scripture gets involved.)
Who has believed our report?
And to whom has the arm of Jehovah been revealed?
For He grew up like a tender plant before Him,
And like a root out of dry ground.
He has no attracting form nor majesty that we should look upon Him,
Nor beautiful appearance that we should desire Him.
He was despised and forsaken of men,
A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
And like one from whom men hide their faces,
He was despised; and we did not esteem Him.
Fortunately, Jesus and his apostles have been quite clear what they meant. Jesus is described as the 'form of God', the image of God, the radiance of the glory of God, 'the representation of His nature'.
When Jesus spoke about paying taxes and he asked for a coin, showing of course Caesar; the same wording is used.
Matt 22:20 And He said to them, "Whose likeness and inscription is this?"
eikōn is the Greek word used in both these verses for image and likeness.
Col 1:15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.
The rationale behind making Jesus God, is the same as saying the coin IS Caesar!
No, the coin represents the Ruler, just as Jesus represents God - carrying God's authority and various other attributes of his Father.
That Jesus was the FORM of God, means that he represents God in all he says and does - as if it was God saying and doing those things. So Jesus could say, If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.
Clearly this has nothing to do with the eyes, but the knowing of the mind.
John 1:18 No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.
So being in the 'form' or 'image' etc is an expression that Jesus is NOT God, but the next best person to God - able to demonstrate to the world as the last Adam what God is about in an authentic and accurate manner.
Which is why we read;
Heb 2:5,7-8 For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. 7 You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honour, 8 putting everything in subjection under his feet.”
If Jesus was God the Son, it would already be subject to him as he made everything...
This is confirmed with Heb 1:2
in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things
Making Jesus God makes the meaning of these texts absurd.