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Philippians, Chapter 2, verses 5-11
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the God the Father.
The inclination of our sinful human nature is not toward humility, love, and service, but toward selfishness, so triumph over self is the great necessity for believers who truly desire to put their Christian faith into practice. In the familiar words of this section, the apostle underscores his previous encouragement to the Philippians. He points them, and all believers, to the Lord Jesus as both the perfect example and the ultimate source of strength for living lives of Christian humility and love.
The attitude that accompanies triumph over self and results in true harmony among Christians is found at perfection in Christ. The more thoroughly believers come to know Christ, the more completely Christ and his love will fill their hearts. The more they are in Christ and Christ is in them, the more Christlike and unselfish they will be in their attitudes and actions. So, by way of encouragement to Christians to adopt their Savior’s attitude as their own, Paul offers this magnificent description of the attitude of Christ.
The apostle’s words are offered here as encouragement, but they are much more than that. Suddenly, perhaps surprisingly, they expand into a significant doctrinal statement, one of the great New Testament summaries of the humiliation and exaltation of our Savior. With a loftiness and dignity of style that well suits the profound nature of his subject matter, the apostle takes us by the hand and leads us to see the divine mysteries of the person of Christ and the work that brought about our salvation.
The apostle begins this significant section of his epistle with an unparalleled description of the humiliation of the God-man. In order to understand Jesus’ humiliation, we must first understand that he is God “in very nature,” as Paul says. From all eternity Jesus has been one with the Father, being truly God. His eternal existence as God is unshakable and unchangeable. Jesus’ divine nature is not capable of experiencing humiliation, yet Jesus, while fully retaining his divine nature, took on a true human nature. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He who is true God from all eternity became a true man and dwelt among men. This we call the incarnation, and we accept it as one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith.
In Jesus’ incarnation, the human nature that Jesus assumed shared in all the characteristics of his divine nature. The two natures are now perfectly united. After the incarnation the Bible speaks of one divine-human Christ, the Godman. Jesus possesses all the fullness of the divinity. Yet, because he is truly man as well as truly God, he could and did humble himself for us. Because our human understanding of divine things is limited by sin, we cannot fully fathom this, but God clearly reveals these awe-inspiring truths to us in his Word. We humbly accept them in grateful faith.
Jesus is indeed true God, equal with the Father in power, authority, and majesty, and he possesses all the characteristics of God. This he clearly demonstrated during his earthly ministry. Here was a man who could read the hearts of men, feed multitudes, control the weather, cast out demons, heal the sick, and even raise the dead. Those who observed him closest had to declare, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Jesus was and is in very nature God.
Nevertheless, the apostle tells us, he “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped.” Jesus was well aware of the fact that he is God. He knew perfectly that he possessed all the majesty of God from all eternity and that he possessed it fully also during the days of his earthly ministry. But Jesus did not consider this something to be exhibited or displayed for his personal self-advancement and glory.
In Paul’s day, victorious generals and other public figures would frequently honor themselves and their achievements by using their moment in the sun to erect monuments to themselves and their achievements. Today also the great men of the world frequently use the privileges and trappings of their offices to enhance their reputations, further their careers, and perhaps even line their pockets.
Jesus, though he was God in very nature, did not appear on earth to glorify himself. He did not look for his own advantage. Nor did he arbitrarily use the divine privileges and powers he possessed to satisfy passing fancies or to gain earthly fame and power. If such had been the reasons for which he assumed his human nature, it would have been useless for him to assume it. The mission he received from the Father simply could not be combined with a gaudy display of divine majesty. So there was no such display. When he who is in very nature God came to this earth, he fully considered the mission and the work for which he had assumed his human nature. He considered us, and he humbled himself.
In accomplishing his humiliation, the God-man “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” Human language struggles to give adequate expression to the greatness of what Jesus did. The expression “made himself nothing” literally means “emptied himself.” Jesus, of course, did not empty himself of the deity, as some wrongly teach. He was and always remained true God. At times, even in his state of humiliation, he clearly gave evidence of the divine characteristics and powers he still possessed. We think, for example, of the miracles, his transfiguration, or even the sudden display of his almighty power that he showed his enemies in the Garden of Gethsemane.
The divine nature was always there, and all that his deity bestowed on his human nature was always his as the God-man. But during his earthly life and ministry, Jesus emptied himself of the full and constant use of all the prerogatives of his divinity. He laid aside the unlimited exercise of his power and did not always use or demand his rights as God. Instead, he took on “the very nature of a servant.” It was as if he covered the glory of his divine majesty with the tattered rags of a beggar. He became altogether lowly. He became like every other human being—lowlier, in fact, than most—in his earthly manner of living. Though he himself was sinless, he assumed human nature in the weakened condition in which we have it, burdened with the consequences of sin. Although he is the Lord of the universe, he was born in a stable. He never possessed earthly property or wealth. He was despised by many of his contemporaries. He placed himself under the demands of God’s law. He took on the nature of a servant while he retained, but did not always use, the full power and majesty of God.
Jesus’ emptying himself of the full and constant use of his divine majesty and taking on a servant’s form was a necessary part of his office as our Redeemer. If he had lived on earth only as the disciples saw him on the Mount of Transfiguration, his redemptive obedience to the law as our substitute as well as his rejection, suffering, and death would never have taken place, and our salvation never would have been won.
What a remarkable difference there is between the way earthly rulers or conquerors seek victories and the way Jesus gained the greatest victory of all for us. Earthly rulers seek victories through strength. They are forever building up weaponry, armies, and alliances to guarantee power for themselves. Jesus worked to gain his victory for us in the very opposite way. He deprived himself of the full use of his power and became altogether lowly in order to become the substitute for the sinful world and carry out the Father’s plan to save sinful mankind.
With particular reverence, Saint Paul describes for us the lowest depths to which the humiliation of the God-man sunk. This humiliation began at the moment the only-begotten Son of God took on a human nature and entered our world. It did not end until he died on the cross. Not only did Jesus humble himself to become a man among sinful men. Not only did he live an earthly existence that was altogether humble and lowly. For man’s sake he lowered himself to depths no other man has ever gone or could ever go when he “became obedient to death . . . on a cross.”
That someone dies on a cross is not an altogether unknown experience among human beings, but Jesus’ death on the cross went beyond ordinary human experience, because it was no ordinary death. Death on a cross was a shameful death, the most shameful death a man could experience at that time. It was a form of death reserved for only the vilest criminals and slaves. It was an excruciatingly painful death. Even more significantly, it was a kind of death cursed by God.
In Old Testament Israel, after a wrongdoer had been put to death, the civil laws prescribed that his dead body be nailed to a post or a tree. This was to impress upon the people that this individual, by his transgression, had suffered the ultimate curse of being cut off from God and his believing people. If, in the sight of God, the hanging of a dead body signified his curse, how much more then would the hanging of a living person be considered a curse, especially when that person was experiencing anguish beyond description. How deliberately and heavily the words fall as the apostle describes the ultimate humiliation of the God-man: even death on a cross.
The shame and degradation of this slave’s death made many, like Paul himself before his conversion, absolutely sure that Jesus could not be the Messiah. The lowliness simply did not conform to what they expected the Messiah to be. So the cross of Jesus became a “stumbling block” to many, especially among the Jews (1 Corinthians 1:23), and still remains “a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall” (Romans 9:33).
But Holy Scripture’s clear answer to all human protests is that Jesus’ humiliation was in fulfillment of the Scriptures. It was a voluntary act by which Jesus, as the substitute for the entire human race, bore our sins and took our curse to carry out the Father’s plan for our salvation. The depth of Jesus’ humiliation was at the same time the height of his self-giving, self-sacrificing love. He in whom the Godhead dwelt in bodily form hung on a post of wood as one accursed. He was charged by God with the collective sin and guilt of the world and was forsaken by God into the torments of hell. This is the noblest act of love the world has ever seen, the mystery of the gospel that even the angels desire to look into.
And it was all done to benefit us. Because Jesus took our sins, God declares us sinless in his sight. Because Jesus paid for our guilt, we are set free. In God’s marvelous great exchange, our sins were charged to Christ and his righteousness credited to us. By his humiliation Jesus reconciled us to the God from whom we had been separated by our sins.
Now, Paul says, we as Jesus’ followers are to imitate his lowly-mindedness and self-sacrificing love. If we truly understand the significance of what the God-man did for us, can we refuse to listen to this admonition? Can we live selfishly when we belong to such an unselfish Lord? Can we refuse to relinquish our rights or to suffer wrong at the hands of others when love requires it? He became obedient to death for us, and by faith we now have the mind of Christ. Will we not serve one another willingly for his sake? Will we not joyfully make those relatively small sacrifices by which we serve one another and thus give evidence that we truly have the mind of Christ?
But the mighty basis on which Paul’s admonition rests includes not only Christ’s humiliation. It also includes his exaltation. As the God-man, Christ willingly humbled himself for us and for our salvation, but this humiliation was not a permanent thing. It was only for a definite, limited time, and it was undertaken only to accomplish a specific purpose. When that purpose was successfully achieved and man’s salvation was fully accomplished, Jesus’ humiliation ceased forever.
When Jesus’ mission was completed, “God exalted him to the highest place.” God himself thereby crowned the work that Jesus had done and declared it perfect and complete. In his state of humiliation, Jesus, the God-man, laid aside the full and complete use of his divine powers, covering them with the beggar’s cloak of lowly obedience. In his state of exaltation, the beggar’s cloak, the slave’s form, has been dropped, and Jesus no longer treats with restraint the fact that he is God.
Yes, Jesus is still the God-man, but he is no longer subject to the weakness and the frailty of fallen humanity. No longer does he use his divine qualities and powers in only a limited or restricted way. Now he fully exercises his majesty as the exalted God-man to rule over everything in heaven and on earth. The God-man, who once humbled himself to the lowest depths to save our race, is now exalted to the loftiest heights as the King of kings and Lord of lords.
The Apostles’ Creed lists the various events of Jesus’ exaltation: “He descended into hell. The third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.” What a glorious victory these words describe. Jesus, our Savior, having successfully completed his redemptive work for us, openly triumphed over the forces of hell. Death had to relinquish its hold on him. Earth could no longer contain him. Heaven opened its doors to receive him. Jesus, our victorious Savior, now holds in his hands the reins of the universe. He rules all things in heaven and on earth in the interest of his believers, and he will come again to end this age, judge the world, and take his believers to be with him and to share his glory in eternal life.
By virtue of his exaltation, Jesus has received “the name that is above every name.” He who in his humiliation made himself nothing has in his exaltation a name and a reputation second to none. His name–which was spoken with contempt by his enemies, especially by those who condemned him to death as a blasphemer—is the only “name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Only through Jesus’ name, and through faith in his name and the gospel revelation that stands behind it, can sinners be saved. Upon their relationship to Jesus and his name depend the eternal destinies of all human beings. Either by faith they accept Jesus and his saving revelation of himself and are saved, or they reject him and are lost. We who have been called to faith by the Spirit through the gospel rejoice in the privilege of knowing and confessing that name above all others, the name of Jesus, our exalted Prophet, Priest, and King.
In his humiliation Jesus submitted to the reproach and rejection of sinful men. In his exaltation it is the Father’s will that he receive the homage of all created beings. “At the name of Jesus,” Paul concludes, “every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” All created beings must and will confess Jesus as Lord: the saints and angels in heaven, all human beings on earth, even the demons and the damned in hell.
The only question is how and with what spirit they will make that confession. Even now heaven rings with the perfect praise of the saints and angels. On earth sinful and imperfect believers faintly echo that heavenly praise. On judgment day the whole universe will stand before Jesus, the exalted judge. His glory and majesty will be fully revealed to all. Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess Jesus as Lord. Unbelievers, of course, will make that confession to their shame and disgrace. The devils will openly admit their eternal frustration. But believers on earth and in heaven will rejoice on that great day to confess together the most important truth in all the universe. They will joyfully confess throughout eternity that Jesus Christ is Lord. This universal acknowledgement will also glorify the Father, who sent Jesus into the world on his saving mission and exalted him as a consequence of that mission’s success.
The humiliation and exaltation of Jesus were unique, because his person is unique. By his humiliation, the God-man Jesus satisfied divine justice, atoned for the world’s sin, and earned perfect righteousness for sinners; he alone merited the super-exaltation that confirmed the success of his work.
In that unique and redemptive sense, none of us can be like Jesus, but the apostle urges us Christians in our renewed lives to imitate the spirit of lowliness and humility that was basic to all of Jesus’ acts of self-renunciation. Such a spirit is also what Jesus seeks when he says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Believers who cultivate this attitude and follow in Christ’s steps of humility have the promise that they will also share in the exalted Savior’s glory. “If we died with him,” Paul tells Timothy, “we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him” (2 Timothy 2:11,12).
Christians do not earn a share of Christ’s glory by their lowliness and suffering for Jesus’ sake. The glory is theirs as a free gift. Nevertheless, to encourage believers in lives of lowliness lived for him and to his glory, the Lord graciously promises that in eternity he will acknowledge lives of self-sacrificing service as evidence that believers were truly loyal to him. And, even though they do not deserve any reward, he will reward believers for lowly, humble service. We call that “the reward of grace.” The Christian’s life, like Jesus’ life, travels the path from humility to glory, from cross to crown, because Jesus has graciously determined that it should be that way.
Moved by the perfect example of our Savior and empowered by his Spirit’s work in our hearts through the gospel, let us therefore strive to cultivate Christ’s attitude of self-sacrificing humility, that we may follow him through life’s humiliation to heaven’s glory. Let us joyfully and confidently confess him as our Lord and invite others also to confess him. When he at last reveals himself as judge of all the world, he will acknowledge us as his own, and we will join the saints and angels in singing unending hymns of praise to him and the Father in the eternal glory before his shining throne.