Paul’s view of the Person of Christ

This article follows our brother’s first article on Paul’s View of the Law in the November 2005 volume of Precious Seed.

Did Paul concentrate on the risen exalted Christ so that he abandoned the historical Jesus?
Many modern theologians claim that Paul concentrated so much on the risen exalted Christ, the Christ of faith, that he abandoned any interest he might have had in the historical Jesus. In this way a wedge is driven between the Jesus of the Gospels, i.e., the Jesus of history and the Christ presented in Pauline teaching. Some of the proponents of this view find support for their argument in Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians,1 where it is contended that he plays down the significance of the historical Jesus. They argue that he was indicating that once he had an interest in the historical Jesus (Christ according to the flesh) but this interest was abandoned after his conversion to Christianity. But is this view tenable in the context of this passage and other Pauline epistles? It is perhaps ironic that Paul’s writings are probably the earliest record that we have of the historic Jesus!2

Paul provides us with enough evidence that he had more than a passing interest in the historical Jesus

In the fifth chapter of his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, the apostle outlines the reasons why, despite persecution (‘This slight momentary affliction'3) and failing faculties,4 he is confident in his future prospects, which lie beyond death.5 The certainty of this hope is assured by the presence of the Spirit of God who guarantees his future inheritance.6 As Paul develops this theme of future glory he also warns the Corinthians about impending judgement.7 This then leads him to consider the motives surrounding his own service towards the Corinthians.8 He cannot live for himself because of the constraining love of Christ,9 which is revealed in the death of Christ.10 Since, therefore, Christ had died for Paul, he could no longer live for himself;11 his old unregenerate life had come to an end.12

At this point in his argument Paul clarifies how a life of self-rejection can be achieved.13 Before his conversion, he had judged individuals, including Christ, wholly on the basis of appearance and according to the flesh or by worldly standards14 but since his conversion his approach had entirely changed. Life in Christ brought a new standard of judgement.15 The so-called super or false apostles whom Paul upbraids at Corinth16 continued to be guilty of judging people according to the flesh. If further proof is needed to confirm that this interpretation is correct in the context of 2 Corinthians 5 then it should be noted that the phrase ‘according the flesh’ or better rendered ‘from a human point of view’, 17 in verse 16 qualifies the verb ‘to know’, not the noun ‘Christ’. Thus Paul previously viewed Christ in a restricted manner from a human point of view but his present outlook and attitude had changed through faith in Christ. The New English Bible puts it appositely, ‘With us therefore worldly standards have ceased to count in our estimate of any man; even if once they counted in our understanding of Christ, they do so no longer’.18 F. F. BRUCE suggests in commenting on 2 Corinthians 5. 16, ‘He (Paul) is not contrasting his own post- Easter knowledge of Christ with the knowledge that the Twelve had of him before the cross, neither is he deprecating an interest in the Jesus of history as something improper, or at least spiritually irrelevant for a Christian. Did he avoid asking or learning anything about the earthly life of Jesus when he talked with Peter and James at Jerusalem in the third year after his conversion?’19

Paul provides us with enough evidence elsewhere to suggest that he had more than a passing interest in the historical Jesus. He knows that:

  • Jesus came from the line of David,20
  • He was an Israelite,21
  • He came to establish the Abrahamic covenant,22
  • He instituted a memorial feast,23
  • He died (killed by the Jewish people) by crucifixion, was buried and rose again three days later in accordance with Hebrew scriptures,24
  • He was human and poor,25
  • He lived under the Mosaic law,26
  • He had twelve disciples,28 and
  • He had brothers29 and one was called James.30

Implicit in some of Paul’s teaching is that he is dependent upon the sayings of the historic Jesus for his material.31 As David Wenham points out, ‘His (Paul’s) readers can see how fundamental Jesus-traditions are to Paul’s teaching without being told’. Additionally, sayings or words of Christ (verba Christi) can be traced in Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7. 10 and 9. 14. Who would doubt the link between the claims of Jesus in Luke chapter 22 verse 27 to be a servant and Paul’s clear exposition of His status as a servant in Philippians 2. 7?

Paul’s theology was rooted in the Jesus of history

In my view Paul’s theology was rooted in the Jesus of history. There is ample evidence from Paul’s writings to confirm that he was concerned with the historic Jesus. When he graphically portrayed Christ crucified before the Galatians,32 we have no doubt that details concerning the historic Jesus would have been included in his graphic presentation of the facts. Paul was not however called upon to provide further information about the historic Jesus but to present the overwhelming future significance of His death and resurrection. It was an inseparable part of the gospel that he preached.33 In summarizing the negative and positive features which make up a gospel, F. F. BRUCE suggests that, a gospel is not a gospel when it is detached from the Jesus of history’, and ‘a gospel is a gospel when it maintains contact with the Jesus of history, affirming that ‘’this same Jesus'’ who came in the flesh and died is the vindicated and exalted Lord’.34

Did Paul think of Jesus as having existed before incarnation?

We next consider whether Paul thought of Jesus as having existed before incarnation. In other words, did Paul believe that Jesus existed before His birth? This question can, in my view, be answered in the affirmative. Whilst Paul does not major on this issue in his writings, he clearly accepted the pre-existence of the Lord Jesus in a number of well-known passages.35

Paul’s major text on this point is Philippians 2. 5-11

One of Paul’s major texts on this point is Philippians 2. 5-11. This passage has an almost hymn-like quality to it. It is apparent from other New Testament texts36 that the early church expressed itself through, amongst other things, hymns and spiritual songs. RALPH MARTIN37 points out that the church was cradled in Judaism, and borrowed many of its forms of worship from the temple and synagogue. He suggests that antiphonal singing goes back to the pre-exilic period of Jewish history.38 Scholars are divided as to whether Philippians 2. 5-11 is an example of a pre-Pauline hymn that Paul has edited and included within his letter. Whether he did or not does not negate the inspiration of the passage.

Considerable interest has been shown in the interpretation of this hymn but two main approaches seem to have won the day. The first is the ‘Ethical’ view which was developed by the Reformers in the sixteenth century and the second is the ‘Kerygamtic’ view which is a twentiethcentury analysis.39 In the ‘Ethical’ view the hymn is interpreted in the light of the exhortation contained in the fifth verse. In this way, Paul sees in the condescension of Christ His willingness to serve the interests of others, not Himself. This is precisely the point he has been at pains to teach in the fifth verse and the hymn is used to augment his exhortation. Christ, according to Paul, is the supreme example or role model to be followed by the Philippians. The ‘Kerygmatic’ view sees that the key to the passage is found in the expression, 'en Christo Jesou’ found in the fifth verse. This is regarded as a technical expression by some for being ‘in the domain of Christ’. The Philippians had been guilty of quarrelsomeness and arrogance,40 and they have set before them in the hymn41 not a lesson to imitate or an ethical idea to follow but a solemn reminder that they were ‘in Christ’. True obedience in submission to His authority was required from the Philippians.

Probably the best way of looking at the hymn is to understand that the context is ‘Ethical’ but the content is ‘Kerygmatic’. What is clear however is that Philippians 2. 5-11 is a Christological hymn that is used by Paul, ‘not primarily to give instruction in doctrine but to appeal to the conduct of Christ and to reinforce instruction in Christian living’.42 Paul’s use of the material is therefore incidental to his main purpose of exhorting the Philippians.

Paul is making a decisive statement about the preexistence of Christ

Paul is here43 making a decisive statement about the pre-existence of Christ. He tells us that He existed ‘in the form of God’ (this is the key phrase to the whole passage which aids us to see things that are really out of sight) and in the next verse that He became a man. But in what way did Christ exist before coming into the world? What does Paul mean by the expression ‘the form of God’? To answer this question we need to consider the meaning of the word ‘form’, morphe, and how Paul uses it in this immediate context.

At its simplest, the Greek word morphe denoted figure, shape or outward appearance. It is contrasted with the Greek word schema which is translated by the word ‘fashion’ in verse 8.44 LIGHTFOOT suggested that the word morphe implies not the external accidents but the essential attributes. He argued that the morphe of a definite thing as such, for instance of a lion or a tree, is one only, while its schema changed every minute. Thus, in his view, Paul used the word morphe in a metaphysical way to be equivalent to the substance of being. In other words, when Paul spoke about the pre-existence of Christ he meant that He possessed all the essential nature and character of God. Whilst there has been a considerable amount of debate since LIGHTFOOT made this assertion in the middle of the nineteenth century, it is still, in my view, the most tenable interpretation. Another view which has found widespread support is that the phrase morphe Theou’ is equivalent to the word doxa (English = glory). This would link Paul’s thoughts to the Jewish idea of the radiance (Shekinah) or presence of God dwelling in the midst of His people. The Shekinah was used by Targumist and Rabbi to signify God Himself and was another name for the glory of God. Jews thought of God as enveloped by an effulgent light which also radiated from His person and that His angels shared in His effulgence. KITTEL arrives at the same conclusion that Christ is nothing else than the divine glory by translating the conjunction ‘and’ as ‘even’ in Acts 7. 55 to read, ‘And saw the glory of God,45 even Jesus standing on the right hand of God’. So Christ is viewed here in His pre-existent state imbued with the glory of God.

One other view that has been taken of the word morphe is that it is equivalent to the Greek word eikon (English = image) and the whole passage could be interpreted in the light of Genesis 1. 26- 27 and 3. 1-5 through an Adam/Christ comparison and contrast.49 Adam came into the world through creation not procreation. He was made in the image of God and a little lower than the angels. He was given dominion over the earth and although he found himself in congenial surroundings, fell when he sought equality with God. Christ came into the world through incarnation not procreation. He was the image of God and was made a little lower than the angels. He did not, however, fall when tempted nor did He grasp equality with God. Through His death and resurrection He has been given universal dominion.

Whatever exegesis is preferred, it seems to me that Paul is unmistakeably asserting that Jesus had a divine existence before coming into the world. The very language he uses indicates that there was the continuance of a preceding state or condition. As LOH and NIDA state, The word rendered “being" is not the common Greek word for “being”, it denotes one’s essential and unchangeable nature. The participle is either present or imperfect. In either case, it signifies a continuing state, so it is best rendered “he always had”, or “was his from the first”. No one, of course, could exist in the form of God who was not God’.

A consideration of the second part of Philippians 2 verse 6 and the first part of verse 7

This leads us on to a consideration of the second part of Philippians 2 verse 6 and the first part of verse 7, i.e., that Christ did not think it robbery to be equal with God but emptied Himself. Later translations of the second half of verse 6 suggest that what Paul had in mind here was that Christ did not regard equality with God something to be exploited. This makes Paul’s intention much clearer and provides a more accurate rendering of the underlying Greek text. When Christ became incarnate, He could have exploited His position in the Godhead to further His own ends. Take, for example, His refusal to use His power when tempted in the wilderness, Matt. 4. 1-11. This He refused to do and through incarnation He divested Himself of all those outward manifestations of deity so that when men saw Him they saw a lowly servant – someone who had freely given up all His rights and prerogatives.50 He became what He had never been before, (human), but remained what He had been from all eternity, (God).

There were, of course, occasions when His innate glory became visible51 very much like the Shekinah glory of God bursting through the tabernacle in the wilderness.52 Paul explains the full extent of the condescension of Christ further in the second half of verse 7. There is a progression of thought in these words. The first line of verse 7 announces the birth of Christ, the divine takes human form but leaves unexplained the issue as to whether this is a full incarnation or simply a theophany. It is the next line that clinches the matter and declares that all His external appearance showed that He was a real man among men. However, being human means much more than the mere possession of a body.53 Jesus exhibited in His life emotions and as other men, He knew joy54 and sadness.55 He grew up in a normal way,56 enjoyed family relationships attending a wedding with His family and generally lived His life in thoroughly human terms. His humiliation is not complete though until the final indignity (or extremity) of death on a cross. PETER O‘BRIEN succinctly puts it, ‘Here the rock bottom of Jesus’ humiliation was reached’.

Now God, as it were, takes the initiative in verses 9-11, and exalts the Lord Jesus giving Him a distinguishing name and title which is above all other titles. This bestowal of God is the rarest of all honours, in view of His assertion in Isaiah 42 verse 8, ‘I am the Lord: that is my name: my glory I give not to another, nor my praise to idols’. To the Lord Jesus is given universal dominion and authority, Isa 45. 32. The implication of calling Jesus ‘Lord’ must then be the acceptance of the risen Christ as equal with God, Isa. 42. 8.

To be Continued.


  1. 2 Corinthians 5. 16
  2. 1 Thessalonians 2. 15
  3. 2 Corinthians 4. 17
  4. 2 Corinthians 4. 8-16
  5. 2 Corinthians 5. 1-4
  6. 2 Corinthians 5. 5
  7. 2 Corinthians 5. 10-11
  8. 2 Corinthians 5. 12-13
  9. 2 Corinthians 5. 14
  10. 2 Corinthians 5. 14
  11. 2 Corinthians 5. 15
  12. Cp. Romans 6. 6
  13. 2 Corinthians 5. 16
  14. Greek = kata sarka
  15. 2 Corinthians 5. 17
  16. 2 Corinthians 11. 5-13
  17. New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition) OUP
  18. 2 Corinthians 5. 16
  19. When is a Gospel not a Gospel – Bulletin of the John Rylands University of Manchester
  20. Romans 1. 4
  21. Romans 9. 5
  22. Romans 15. 8
  23. 1 Corinthians 11. 23-26
  24. 1 Thessalonians 2. 15
  25. 1 Corinthians 15. 3-4 and 2 Corinthians 13. 4
  26. 1 Corinthians 15. 47, 2 Corinthians 8. 9 and Galatians 4. 4
  27. Galatians 4. 4
  28. 1 Corinthians 15. 5
  29. 1 Corinthians 9. 5
  30. Galatians 1. 19
  31. For example, Romans 13. 7-8 and Galatians 5. 14 which are remindful of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 17. 25; 22. 21; Mark 12. 31; and Luke 20. 25.
  32. Galatians 3. 1
  33. 1 Corinthians 15. 3-7
  34. BRUCE Op cit.
  35. 1 Corinthians 8. 6; 2 Corinthians 8. 9; Philippians 2. 5-11; Colossians 1. 15-20.
  36. Ephesians 5. 19; Colossians 3. 16
  37. Worship in the Early Church (Reprint 1974: Marshall, Morgan and Scott)
  38. See, for example, Exodus 15. 21 and Numbers 10. 35f. Of considerable interest in this context is the extant letters (10. 96-97) of the Roman official Pliny the Younger who wrote to Emperor Trajan seeking advice from him as to how he should deal with certain Christian practices. Pliny was governor of Pontus/Bithynia from 111-113AD. There had already been a local outbreak of persecution towards the Christian community in these areas of Asia Minor and Pliny sought to obtain a legal opinion from Trajan on how he should proceed. What is remarkable about the exchange is the reference made by Pliny to the fact that these early Christians, ‘met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately amongst themselves in honour of Christ as if to a god’. RALPH MARTIN states that these words give an insight into the practice of Christian worship in the second century, which is known otherwise only for occasional references. (Carmen Christi, Philippians ii. 5-11 in recent interpretation and in the setting of early Christian worship (CUP; 1967) 1
  39. For a detailed analysis of this view see RALPH MARTIN’s magisterial work Carmen Christi
  40. Philippians 2. 1-2
  41. Philippians 2. 6-11
  43. Philippians 2. 6
  44. Philippians 2. 8(KJV)
  45. See Exodus 19. 16; 24. 15; 40. 34-38.
  46. Exodus 16. 10; Isaiah 6. 3
  47. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament by G Kittel
  48. John 17. 5; Hebrews 1. 3
  49. Cp Romans 5. 12 et esq.
  50. Isaiah 53. 12 may be in Paul’s mind when he thought about Christ’s kenosis.
  51. Matthew 17. 2; 2 Peter 1. 16-18
  52. Numbers 16. 42
  53. Psalm 40. 6-8
  54. John 15. 11
  55. Matthew 26. 37
  56. Luke 2. 52
  57. John 2