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Does 1 Timothy 3:16 Affirm the Deity of Christ? Pt. 2

Sam Shamoun

We continue our examination of Paul’s writings in order to see what this holy servant of the risen Lord Jesus had to say about Christ’s divine preexistence and incarnation.

In the following verses, Paul refers to God sending forth his Son to accomplish redemption for the believers:

“For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Romans 8:3-4

“But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.” Galatians 4:4-7

NT scholar Douglas McCready shows why attempts to explain away the clear testimony provided by these references to Christ’s prehuman existence are simply desperate to say the least:    

“This passage is often considered in conjunction with Galatians 4:4 because the two passages are the key 'sending' passages in Paul's letters. As in the Galatians passage, the sending language in Romans 8:3 is awkward unless the Son who was sent already existed. What else can the words 'in the likeness of sinful flesh' mean except that the Son already possessed some other likeness (for lack of a better word)? That is why the early church understood this passage in incarnational terms. Theodoret and Augustine understood Paul to say Christ took to himself mortal flesh. In so interpreting, they assumed Christ's personal, pre-incarnate existence. Pseudo-Constantinius and Pelagius said that the passage explicitly teaches Christ's preexistence. For early Christian writers, it was a given that the Son's having been sent required that he already exist.

“Stott says by itself the sending language does not necessarily imply preexistence since God sent both his Old and New Testament apostles, but that it was God’s own Son who was sent ‘may well be intended to indicate that he enjoyed a prior life of intimacy with the Father.’ Cranfield, though, warns us not to dismiss the sending language too lightly. We need to pay attention to the consequence of the sending for the one sent: he enters into a human existence. This makes it difficult to deny he previously enjoyed another existence. Referring specifically to this passage, Kasper says, ‘Talk of the Son being sent by the Father clearly presupposes the pre-existence of the Son.’  Hanson describes this verse as one of four in the undisputed Pauline letters ‘where Paul uses the word Son in a context which must refer to a pre-existent relationship.’ O’Collins notes the passage focuses not on Christ's preexistence but on his being sent to effect human salvation. Nonetheless, Paul’s soteriology presupposes a christology of preexistence. ‘It is precisely because Christ is the pre-existent Son who comes from the Father that he can turn us into God's adopted sons and daughters.’ By itself, says Ferdinand Hahn, the idea of sending is simply about commissioning, but as soon as it becomes associated with the incarnation it moves into the realm of preexistence. Ernst Käsemann considers the passage a liturgical statement describing the incarnation of the preexistent Son of God. For Martinus de Jonge, the language of Romans 8:3 and Galatians 4:4 implies Christ enjoyed an earlier existence in a different form before being sent, but he argues Paul never speculated about this earlier existence. Even Charles Talbert agrees both the Romans and Galatian passages assume Christ's preexistence in their use of sending language. These citations, spanning the history of Christian interpretation and theological beliefs, overwhelmingly support the belief that Paul's sending language presumes the preexistence of the one sent.” (McCready, He Came Down From Heaven, pp. 95-97; bold emphasis ours) 

The following is believed to be another pre-Pauline hymn adopted by the Apostle which also affirms Christ’s divine preexistence and incarnation:

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing BY taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” Philippians 2:5-11

McCready writes:

“The term morphe, which appears twice in the first half of this passage, has been understood in two sharply different ways. That the word appears only twice and in different settings makes determining its meaning more complicated: the two places morphe appears are so close together it seems certain one meaning must apply to both. Traditionally, morphe has been understood to mean status, essence or nature. Morphe denotes not a superficial or illusory appearance but an essential shape or character. According to O‘Brien, morphe refers to the ‘form which truly and fully expresses the being which underlies it.’ This would make the hymn first speak of its subject as possessing the divine nature and then the nature of a servant, which the hymn associates with humanity. As Witherington notes, the hymn’s subject chose to take on human flesh, ‘a choice only a pre-existent one could make.’ Fee points out that Paul wrote Christ came in the likeness (homoioma) of humans ‘because on the one hand he has fully identified with us, and because on the other hand in becoming human he was not only human. He was God living out a truly human life, all of which is safeguarded by this expression.’  

“Understanding morphe as status makes good sense in both verses, yet biblically the only one who can enjoy the status of God is God himself. The transition from divine status to that of a servant or slave is a significant humbling. This interpretation fits neatly with the descent-ascent understanding of the passage that includes preexistence. With any other interpretation, the beginning of verse 8 merely repeats verse seven. For Wright, the passage requires we understand it to mean the one who became Jesus was from all eternity equal with God. Thus the choice of 2:6-7 was that of  ‘the pre-existent one … to be obedient to the saving purpose of the Father by becoming human and dying on the cross.’” (McCready, pp. 76-77; bold emphasis ours)


“… The hymn tells chronologically the story of one who possessed the essence of deity but did not let his divine status interfere with God's salvific plan. Instead, he entered into human existence and suffered the extreme humiliation of being rejected and killed by those he had come to save. For this great selflessness God glorified him by publicly identifying him as deity so he might receive the honor due to God alone. Such a one was necessarily a preexistent person because the Bible nowhere allows for humans to be exalted as deities in their own right, and the Jesus of Philippians 2:6-11 certainly is designated as deity. Attempts to show that the apparent meaning of the passage cannot be the real meaning have been completely unsuccessful. Silva notes that although the passage may not intend an ontological description of Christ, it nonetheless reflects an ontological interpretation of Christ.” (Ibid, p. 80; bold emphasis ours)

McCready isn’t the only scholar to interpret this passage in this manner:

“Fundamental to this ‘hymn’ is the contrast between what Christ was prior to his incarnation and what he became as a result of it. There has been some confusion on how the unusual Greek word harpagmon in v. 6 is to be translated and understood. If it is construed as a participle, it refers to the act of snatching something away, that is, to robbery; if it is construed as a passive verbal noun, it refers to what is snatched away.  Yet in either case, it seems odd that Christ would regard equality with God, which he already had according to 2:6a, as either robbery or something he needed to grasp. Neither alternative seems to fit the context. In fact, there is another way to construe the word. It is highly likely that Paul is using an idiom referring to exploitation of something for one’s own gain. Hence v. 6 would best be translated ‘who, although he was in the form of God, did not count that equality something to exploit for his own benefit.’ Rather, as v. 7 says, Christ emptied himself of that God-likeness and took the form of a vulnerable being.

“A second humiliation followed: not only did Christ give up his God-likeness, he also gave up his human life on the cross in obedience to God (v. 8). Because of that self-denying obedience, God exalted Christ to a higher level than he had before the incarnation and crucifixion by giving Christ God's own name, ‘Lord’ (‘Lord’ is used in the Hebrew Bible in place of the personal name of God, YHWH, which was never pronounced). As a result Christ has now resumed his God-likeness, and, having been given God’s sacred name, is now to be publicly worshiped by the whole creation (vv. 9-11).” (Paul J. Achtmeier, Joel B. Green & Marianne Meye Thompson, Introduction to the New Testament: Its Literature and Theology [William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, U.K., 2001], pp. 395-396; bold emphasis ours)

And here is what these same scholars write in the box found on p. 396 of their book:

The notion that somehow Jesus, the man of Galilee, had also shared God’s own nature in some mysterious way arose VERY EARLY in the Christian faith, as Phil 2:5-11 shows. One of the characteristics that Pliny noted when he investigated the beliefs and practices of the Christians in Asia Minor around the year 110 CE was that in addition to pledging to do no wrong, they also sang a ‘hymn to Christ as to a God’ when they assembled (Letters 110). That was no problem for Pliny to understand, since the Romans, like the Greeks, knew of many gods. It was a problem for the monotheistic Jewish background out of which Christianity arose, however, and the problem of how could there be one God and yet have Jesus, and later the Holy Spirit, also share that divinity was not worked out until centuries later at the church councils of Nicea (325 CE) and Chalcedon (451 CE). Understanding the reality of a God who is triune and yet one remains at the heart of the Christian faith and distinguishes it from other religions, both monotheistic and polytheistic.” (Bold and capital emphasis ours)

These examples from the Pauline epistles demonstrate that there can be little doubt that, when we take into consideration Paul’s Christology, 1 Timothy 3:16 does speak to the issue of the divine preexistence and subsequent incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Jesus’ Preexistence in the Rest of the NT Writings

Paul isn’t the only inspired witness to speak of the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ to the earth in order to save his people from their sins. Nor is he the only writer to use such terms as erchomai and phaneroo to describe Christ’s advent.

Synoptic Gospels

Both Luke and Mark refer to Jesus as having come to save lost sinners:

“And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came (elthon) not to call the righteous, but sinners (hamartulous).’” Mark 2:17

“For the Son of Man has come (elthen) to seek and to save (sosai) what was lost.” Luke 19:10

What makes the passage from Luke rather interesting is that Jesus claims to do what Yahweh in the OT says that he himself will actually do when he comes!

“For thus says the Lord GOD, ‘Behold, I MSELF will search for MY sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd cares for his herd in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for My sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered on a cloudy and gloomy day. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries and bring them to their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the streams, and in all the inhabited places of the land. I will feed them in a good pasture, and their grazing ground will be on the mountain heights of Israel. There they will lie down on good grazing ground and feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I will feed My flock and I will lead them to rest,’ declares the Lord GOD. ‘I WILL SEEK THE LOST, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken and strengthen the sick; but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with judgment.’” Ezekiel 34:11-16

In the third part our discussion we will examine what John has to say concerning this issue. But for now we want to turn our attention elsewhere.

The Book of Hebrews

Hebrews is another writing which speaks of Christ’s divine preexistence and incarnation:

“Otherwise Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But he has appeared (pephanerotai) once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself. Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” Hebrews 9:26-28

There is an obvious connection between Christ’s first and second comings, one which affirms Jesus’ prehuman existence, i.e. just as Christ will descend from heaven at his second coming, so too did he descend from there when he came the first time.

The following passage speaks of Christ entering the world and taking on a body that had been prepared for him in order to do God’s will:

“Therefore, when Christ came into the world (eiserchomenos eis ton kosmon), he said: ‘Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. Then I said, “Here I am it is written about me in the scroll—I have come to do your will, my God.”’ First he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them”—though they were offered in accordance with the law. Then he said, ‘Here I am, I have come to do your will.’ He sets aside the first to establish the second.” Hebrews 10:5-9

Hence, this is another reference which explicitly testifies to both Christ’s prehuman existence and subsequent incarnation.

Hebrews even goes so far as to claim that Christ is God’s unique Son who created and sustains the entire cosmos by his powerful word:

“Long ago God spoke to the fathers by the prophets at different times and in different ways. In these last days, He has spoken to us by His Son. God has appointed Him heir of all things and made the universe through Him. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of His nature, sustaining all things by His powerful word. After making purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high… But of the Son he says, ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.’ And, ‘You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands; they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment, like a robe you will roll them up, like a garment they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will have no end.’” Hebrews 1:1-3, 8-12

The only way that the author could say that the Son is the sovereign Lord whom the Father used to create and sustain all things is if he assumed that Christ existed before creation came into being.

This, therefore, leaves absolutely no doubt that the inspired writer of Hebrews also believed in the absolute Deity and incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ, much like the blessed Apostle Paul did.

We come to the end of this part of our analysis. It is now time to move on to the final part of our response.