Good question! A trinitarian or binitarian would use this text to claim Jesus must have existed in the "form of God" prior to his "days in the flesh" and its associated "emptying" to become a servant. So he was in God's form before he was in the form of a servant, with his birth somewhere in the middle. This must be read into the text as there is no indication of such a timeline. Allegedly, Jesus is God, and had a pre-existence and this 'proof-text' verse proves it!
Paul is the source of this passage and many others that on the matter of Jesus and his human nature. Let's note some significant facts before proceeding;
- If Paul had any idea (or inspiration) that Jesus was God, he had plenty of opportunity to say so. There was no need to vaguely infer such a thing as many think he did. He doesn't say Jesus is God anywhere.
- Apparently the incarnation is the moment when Jesus 'discarded' the form of God and became a man, a servant. This incarnation thing is also without a mention anywhere in the NT.
- Jesus is never outright said to be God, and God is never said to be flesh, so there's that.
- Paul is the one who started almost every letter by drawing a distinction between God and Jesus. They are never the same, Jesus is never God. Paul is the one who stated, "there is but one God, the Father", "and one Lord, Jesus Christ" 1Cor 8:6. He was quite firm in his understanding and clear in his delivery.
- There will always be those who claim, 'the logos became flesh' and the logos was God, so Jesus must be God! This primitive reckoning is without merit and has been addressed elsewhere. Suffice to say, John 1:1-3 speaks of logos, not Jesus. Jesus wasn't born yet and he could not have been 'in the beginning'.
- There is no mention of a "God the Son" anywhere in the whole bible.
- Paul confirms his concrete stance on God and Jesus with 1 Cor 8:6 and firmly distinguishes God from Jesus in each of his letters. According to Paul (like all other NT writers), Jesus simply cannot be God.
- Even in Revelations, it is perfectly clear, the exalted, now immortal Jesus, the Lamb is not God and God is not the Lamb.
there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we exist. And there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ.
Let's now establish from the bible the origin of Jesus. This part is important - we have 4 different gospel accounts that together provide a sound understanding in need of no interpretation.
…it seemed fitting to me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in an orderly sequence, most excellent Theophilus; 4 so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught Luke 1:3
the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and give birth to a son, and you shall name him Jesus Luke 1:30
He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. v32
The record of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham: Matt 1:1
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah was as follows: when his mother Mary… v18
We have the beginning of ‘Jesus’, the Christ. A descendant of David and Abraham. No one is talking about Jesus being God, no one speaks of his pre-existence as an eternal being – an ‘exact truth’, we’re told or ‘perfectly’, ‘diligently’, ‘accurately’. A baby boy born of Mary, named Jesus, the son of God.
Gal 4:4 But when the fullness of the time came, God sent His son, born of a woman, born under the Law.
From this consistently expressed humble beginning we have the rest of the NT which expands on the life of this Jesus, who grew to be a man, who lived an extraordinary life without sin and died as foretold in numerous prophecies, was raised back to life and exalted to the right hand of God!
Did David have God as his descendant, did Mary birth God?? Well, no one writes about this at all – nothing. Just a normal baby, born holy with a predestined future involving some hideous suffering and trial – not because he deserved it, but because God had arranged for him to pay for all sin with his perfect life. A model of sacrifice not needed to be done often as the Jews/Israelites were used to, but once only and for all creation/mankind.
This is the simple truth - no incarnation, no pre-existence, no God becoming a man. All these things, sadly, are made up to present another gospel about another Jesus who is not described in the bible at all - save a few 'proof-texts' that can be forced to infer something accommodating a traditional theology.
What does the NT say about Jesus' relative to God, his Father?
- He is the radiance of the glory of God Heb 1:3
- He is the image of the invisible God Col 1:15
- seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 2Cor 4:4
- being in the form of God.
Further, in Jesus' own words,
Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? John 14:9 And whoever sees me sees the One who sent me. 12:45
'Form', μορφῇ morphē is readily understood as something we see, an outward appearance, a shape, as presented in lexicons and dictionaries. Just as Paul and Hebrews point out in unison - Jesus represents God by his appearance. Mark 16:12, 2 Tim 3:5, and others are about the appearance or what is observed. Jesus transfiguration is a similar word, metamorphoomai) Matt 17:2, Mark 9:2.
While God is invisible, Jesus is not - he is just like one of us in every way (Heb 2:17) Jesus showed what God was like. When they saw him - this included everything he did, said, his emotions and responses, his behaviour and attitude.
Jesus was filled with God through the spirit God supplied, enabling Jesus to do all he needed to accomplish up to the final testing of the cross and his final agonised but triumphant breath, "It is finished!"
Of course, seeing God in Jesus is not about the eyes but the mind. We get to know, to see God by seeing and knowing Jesus.
And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. John 17:3
If you had known me, you would have known my Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him. John 14:7
Jesus is always in the form of God - always the image of God, always the vision of God's glory to the eyes of men. While he is holy and without sin, he represents his Father in all things. He could only accomplish this by subjecting himself and his own will to obediently serve God's purposes.
Jesus didn't empty himself of being God - that would be silly and impossible if he was God. He willingly, humbly denied himself the luxuries, the benefits, the privilege of being the son of the King, the son of God - but he remained as the form of God at all times. Hanging on the cross, his most humiliating and shameful moment, he was still the righteous and holy man who carried the love of God to the grave.
In an attempt to maintain a degree of authenticity of Jesus being God and yet be tempted and able to die, men have invented a two-natured Jesus. Ultimately, when it comes to explain the complex details of this construct, they pull the mystery card and claim it cannot really be fully understood - we have to believe by faith! Jesus did not come to present a mystery but a grand revelation!
No, we have all the details we need in the bible, the gospels, the epistles are more than sufficient to explain who Jesus is and how it is that he has a God - the same God we all do - whether we know Him or not. Jesus, a man of few words but perfectly suitable and precise words - inspired and provided by his God said this.
But as it is, you are seeking to kill me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God John 8:40
Do we believe his truth - that he heard from God? Do we accept the "accurate" gospel accounts of the prophesied baby Jesus born to Mary without reservation or adjustment?
Do we need to read in bizarre and incongruent new details beyond that which God has abundantly supplied? The manmade construct of Jesus or a GodSon pre-existing his conception is not a biblical truth. The Jesus, who is man and also God, does not fit the truth of the bible.
Jesus was the form of God and of the servant simultaneously and cannot be separated. That was the whole point of his coming. When Jesus was born, what are we told? The holy one is already having the form of God.
the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore also the holy one being born will be called the Son of God Luke 1:35
And the word became flesh and dwelt among us. And we beheld his glory, a glory as of an only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14
There is no more "form of God" than these descriptors.
What God requires, he provides.
God requires holiness, righteousness and designed man to be in His image. This was never going to come to fruition on its own. Before He created, He designed in a Saviour - a perfect sacrifice to cover all sin that was about to wreak havoc on His new creation.
God provides the perfect sacrifice in Jesus - fully perfect and holy, without blemish, but willing in absolute trust, love and humility, to offer himself for all others. No self-centred man could possible do this, only a holy man in the form of God, the son of God, who by choice, set aside his divine privileges in the form of a servant, to honour his God and his brothers.
Philippians 2:5-8 does not indicate chronological progression from one form to the other - in Jesus, they are inseparable and concurrent.
Let's finish with a quick survey of the immediate Phil 2 passage.
He humbled himself, having become obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him, and granted to him the name above every name v8-9
IF Jesus was God, why is God exalting him above everything and everyone else? Why is he not simply resuming his heavenly pre-existence? Because Jesus is a man only, and has qualified to rule with God - sitting at God's right hand. Could it be any clearer?
every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. v11
Jesus is Lord only, he is not God. He is the glory of God and God glorifies him.
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus v1
Have the humble trusting attitude Jesus exhibited - even though he had the form of God - being holy and perfect, he chose to serve the purposes of his God and not serve his own interests. Escaping the onerous death on the cross would be something to avoid - no, he took that up as God's servant, obedient to God's will over his.
having become obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified. Acts 2:36
The idea of Jesus being somehow equal with God is covered here.