A Subversive Form of God

The Roman emperor Caesar Augustus wrote in Latin, Res Gestae Divi Augusti before his death in 14 AD, which was translated as the “Acts of the Divine Augustus”. In this document he laid much emphasis on his military achievements that not only brought civil wars to an end, but also extended the Roman power and control.

The divinity revealed in Augustus or any other Roman emperor was characterized by power, war, control and peace (i.e. peace through violence and subjugation). People within the Roman empire took it for granted how somebody with the “form of God” should act. According to the inscription of Priene dated 9 BC, near the provincial capital Ephesus, Augustus was celebrated as the ruler given by providence, “who has brought war to an end and has ordained peace…for the world, the birthday of the god (i.e. Augustus) means the beginning of the tidings of peace” (OGIS 458). Virgil, a Roman poet of Augustus period, wrote, “This, this is he whom so often you hear promised to you, Augustus Caesar, son of god, who shall again set up the golden age in Latium amid the fields where Saturn once reigned, and shall spread his empire past Garament and Indian, to a land that lay beyond the stars” (Virgil, Aeneid VI, 791-795, cf. Eclogue IV, 4-10).

This is normal imperial divinity. Most people today believe in this imperial God. However, this imperial “form of God” was challenged by a prisoner under investigation and held chained within Roman proconsular praetorium.

Paul, the apostle of Jesus Christ, quoted the “Christ hymn” in order to exhort the church at Philippi, a Roman colony, that Jesus Christ “was in the form of God” (Phil. 2.6-11). The “real theological emphasis of the hymn…is not simply a new view of Jesus. It is a new understanding of God.”[1] 

Although Jesus Christ “was in the form of God, (he) did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited” (Phil. 2.6). The Greek word harpagmos (NRSV: “something to be exploited”) means neither something not yet possessed but desirable (to be snatched at), nor something already possessed and to be clung to, but rather the act of snatching.[2] Jesus did not consider equality with God as plundering or grabbing or acquisitiveness or self aggrandizement. He understood equality with God as not getting, or using it for self interest. 

It is a popular view that God’s almightiness means the ability to do whatever he likes. God, like an earthly king, is often associated with wealth, splendour and power to gain self glory. Popular mind imagines that it is divine prerogative to do what he wants. This is what the divine Roman emperors did.

But Jesus thought equality with God otherwise. He considered it not an act of snatching, but an act of serving, not getting, but giving. Jesus Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Phil. 2.7-8).

Some understand Jesus’ self emptying as referring to his emptying of “the glories, the prerogatives, of deity.” The phrase “emptied himself” (kenosis) should not be read as a reference to the dispossession of something, whether divinity itself or some divine attributes, or even as self limitation regarding the use of divine attributes, but as referring to total self abandonment and self giving.[3] This is further explained by the phrases “taking the form of a slave” and “being born in human likeness” (Phil 2.7). The “slave” analogy was chosen not primarily with reference to the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, but mainly because slavery in the contemporary Greco-Roman society meant “the extreme in respect of deprivation of rights.” A slave, sold as a thing, hardly possessed any rights, even to his own person and life.

Enslavement, according to Orlando Patterson, entails natal alienation and social death. The slave is violently uprooted from his milieu. He is de-socialised and depersonalised. This process of social negation constitutes essentially external phase of enslavement. The next phase involves the introduction of the slave into the community of the master, but it involves the paradox of introducing him as a nonbeing. This conception of the slave as the outsider socially dead within the society predominated in the Greco-Roman society.[4]

Jesus, unlike a slave, voluntarily stripped himself of all rights as comparable to a slave constitutes a distressing description of his extreme self-emptying.

The “form of a slave” is in antithesis with the “form of God” in popular view. Kenosis and divinity do not belong together in popular perception. But the self emptying was an exhibition of Jesus’ equality with God or “form of God”. Although Jesus Christ was in the “form of God”, a status people assume meant exercise of power, he acted in character, – in a shockingly ungodlike manner according to normal but misguided popular perceptions of divinity, contrary to what we would expect, but in accord with true divinity – when he emptied and humbled himself.[5]        

Christ’s divinity, and thus divinity itself, is defined as kenotic in character. Kenosis, therefore, does not mean Christ emptying himself of divinity or of anything else, but rather Christ exercising his divinity, his equality with God. This radical perception “subverts and even lampoons how millions within the Roman empire took it for granted that somebody with the form of God should act.”[6]

“Therefore, God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend…and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord…” (Phil 2.9-11).

“Therefore” does not mean that God has rewarded Jesus Christ with a higher status for his self emptying and self humbling. Phil 2-6-11 does not express a pattern or sequence, i.e. humiliation followed by exaltation, or loss followed by reward, or descent followed by ascent. In Paul’s writings or anywhere in the New Testament, there is no support for the notion that Christ has temporarily foregone honour and glory and regained it later. Jesus was not “exalted” to a status higher than before, or “promoted” to a new status. Rather God has publicly vindicated and recognized Jesus’ self emptying and self humbling as the display of true divinity that he already possessed. There is an identification and simultaneity between Jesus’ kenosis and exaltation.

Because of the display of the highest divine attributes, i.e. self giving and service, the name “Jesus” is acclaimed as the highest name, and Jesus thus comes to be acclaimed as Lord, to the glory of God the Father. The glory that accrued was a revelation of the reality of divinity that was already there. That means, the divinity displayed in Jesus Christ has a form of servanthood.

That deity means not “being served” but “serving”, not grabbing but giving, is indeed the heart of the revelation in Christ Jesus. John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed wonder, “Is kenosis not just about Christ, but about God?…Is Kenosis…not a passing exercise in ultimate obedience, but a permanent revelation about the nature of God?…Does, then, a kenotic Son reveal a kenotic Father, a kenotic Christ image a kenotic God?”[7]

Kenosis perceived as an essential attribute of God is a revolutionary belief, and a subversive criticism against the notions and values of the contemporary Greco-Roman world, and even the present day society characterised by high consumption, compulsive acquisition and instantaneous gratification, and greed based religion.

Paul exhorts the Christians at Philippi, and Christians today, who live in a self centered and self serving society, to adopt in their mutual relations with one another the same attitude as was also found in Jesus Christ (Phil 2.5). Paul appeals to the believers to follow the example of Jesus Christ, who displayed his divinity through self giving and service.

The world in which we live is no more welcoming of this perception of God and reality, no more open to adopt this attitude, than was Roman Philippi. We are inundated with messages that promise life found in superior power, superior military force and weapons, in acquiring the best looks, bulging bank accounts, the best “stuff”. We are told that life is secured by our winning – socially, economically, politically, and religiously – and everyone else losing. There is little room for the claim that self giving and service reflected in Jesus’ divine life is God’s ultimate loving victory over the self serving powers of violence, control and greed. But Paul says this is the defining reality for the entire world!

As for the Christians, the response should not simply be to join in the chorus of adoration and confession that Jesus is Lord, but to follow Jesus, and to give glory to God by being conformed to the image of his son.


[1] N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), p. 84.

[2] C. F. D. Moule, “Further Reflexions on Philippians 2:5-11,” in Apostolic History and the Gospel: Biblical and Historical Essays Presented to F F Bruce on His Sixtieth Birthday, ed. W. Ward Gasque and Ralph P. Martin (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), pp. 264-76,

[3] Michael J. Gorman, ““Although/Because He Was in the Form of God”: The Theological Significance of Paul’s Master Story (Phil 2:6-11),” in Journal of Theological Interpretation, 1.2 (2007), pp. 147-169.

[4] Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982), p. 38.

[5] Gorman, “”Although/Because He Was in the Form of God,” p. 161.

[6] John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed, In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004), p. 289.

[7]Crossan and Reed, In Search of Paul, p. 290.

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