Upside-Down Living, part 2 (Philippians 2:6b-8)

Last week we began looking at this wonderful expression of the humiliation of Jesus Christ.  He has existed forever as God, but took on human flesh to serve and sacrifice His life for us.  That is expressed in Philippians 2:5-8 as a way of illustrating the kind of perspective, attitude, thought pattern, that Paul wanted the Philippians to adopt.

5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Because we are “in Christ Jesus” we have the capacity to think like Jesus.  As illustrated in John 13, Jesus, though God most high and exalted, humbled Himself to serve others.  That was the pattern of His whole life, according to these verses before us today.

So let’s pick up with verse 6. We had noted last week that the first clause of verse 6 speaks loudly and clearly that Jesus existed with the same essence and character as God the Father.

Now, speaking of the incarnation, Paul says that Jesus “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.”

Here again, Jesus’ full deity is affirmed in the word “equality.”  It indicates that Jesus was “exactly the same, in size, quality, quantity, character or number.”  We use words like isometric (equal in number) and isosceles triangle (a triangle with two equal sides).

This very claim is what got Jesus in trouble with the Pharisees.  In John 5:18 we read…

This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.

And in John 10:33 they also say…

33 The Jews answered him, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.”

That’s all they saw Jesus as—a man.  But He was more than that.  He truly was God, it’s just that His humanity veiled that identity somewhat.

But in this first step downward.  Jesus refused to selfishly hold onto His equality with God (the rights and privileges of His deity).  Our verse says that He “considered” it, He gave careful thought to it.  He knew that He could not hold onto His full deity.  He couldn’t hang onto that full equality and become a man who would die, on a cross.  He thought it through and decided that “bringing many sons to glory” (Heb. 2:10) was worth the cost of letting go of the full rights and privileges of His glorious deity.

The word “grasp” is usually meant in an aggressive sense, to “take by force, to seize” or to “hang onto.”  You’ve maybe had to grasp onto something when you were falling, like from a ladder.

I was helping my brother-in-law, on Becky’s side of the family, re-roof her father’s house.  I was rolling out tar paper, backing up step by step, and suddenly I stepped off the roof.  I didn’t have time to grasp hold of anything.  Believe me, I would have if I could have.  Fortunately, the roof of the porch was just about 3 feet below the roof, so that is as far as I fell and didn’t hurt myself.

But in cases like that, you want to grasp hold of something to protect yourself.  Jesus didn’t do that.  Instead, He let go.

Unlike Adam, who senselessly sought to grasp after an equality with God he never had; the second Adam, Jesus Christ, although He had always enjoyed full and true equality with God the Father, refused to derive any advantage from it during His days on earth.

This is where it all starts—with a humility of mind that is willing to lay aside the true rights we have.

The New Living Translation reads, “Though he was God, he did not demand and cling to his rights as God.”

What normally causes disunity?  Two people asserting their rights, fighting to give their opinions and agendas top priority.

“Christ did not please himself” (Rom. 15:3).  In humility, he counted the interests of others as more significant than his own (Phil. 2:3–4).

This downward mobility is further explained by the contrast indicated by the word “but” in verse 7.  It is a strong contrast.  In contrast with hanging onto His full equality with God, Jesus “emptied himself.”

The ESV reads

7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.

The words “made himself nothing” are literally “emptied himself,” but that begs the question, “What did He empty Himself of?”

William Barclay, mistakenly says, “He emptied himself of His deity to take upon Himself His humanity.”  In other words, He traded one for the other.  When he became man He ceased to be God.

There are those who think this means that Christ willingly gave up His divine attributes—omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, eternality…”

But there are four reasons why it could not be the case that Jesus gave up His deity

  • First, to give up any of His attributes—to actually lose one or not be able to fully use it—would destroy His deity, making Him no longer God.
  • Second, it would effectively “annul” the Trinity, for there would be no more “Son” in the Godhead.
  • Third, it would deny the attribute of immutability (James 1:17), the fact that God doesn’t change.
  • Fourth, it would undermine the atoning work of Christ. If He was not God, then His work on the cross would lose its sufficiency in satisfying God’s wrath against sin.

Besides, Jesus did use His attributes at times.  He just fully submitted them to God’s will and plan.

Jesus did not stop being God, but something did change.

So, what did He empty Himself of?  Or, in what way should we understand this concept?

  • First, he emptied Himself of His glory—the blazing splendor of His character (John 17:5). In the Old Testament men would die if they saw God’s glory face to face.  When Jesus came He veiled that glory, though a small portion was apparently revealed at the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17; 1 Peter 1:15-18).
  • Second, Jesus voluntarily limited the use of His divine powers, so that He didn’t always do the miraculous and even experienced needs Himself. Whereas He didn’t stop being omniscient, in His humanity He “grew in wisdom” and stated at one point that even the Son of Man did not know the time of a future event (Matthew 24:36).  Thus, He voluntarily limited His abilities.
  • Third, He lived in total dependence upon the Holy Spirit in the miracles that He did (e.g. Matthew 12:28; Luke 4:14). In other words, when Jesus did do miracles and display His omnipotence, He did that in conscious dependence upon the power of the Holy Spirit instead of His own power.  He did this to model for us a Spirit-led, Spirit-empowered life.
  • Fourth, He submitted to the will of the Father. He came to “do His will” (God’s will) rather than His own.  He submitted to God’s will in the Garden, even though He knew it would be excruciating.  In this sense he “learned obedience” through suffering (Hebrews 5:8).
  • Lastly, he gave up a favorable relationship with God, choosing instead to suffer alienation as the sin bearer on the cross (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

All this Jesus willingly did for you and me.  Am I willing to limit myself and place myself totally in submission to God?  How might that help you in your interpersonal struggles with your spouse or someone else?

But Jesus didn’t stop there.

He took the next step down.

There is a sense in which He didn’t simply empty Himself by giving up something, but He emptied Himself by taking on “the form of a bondservant” (v. 7).  He gave up the free expression of His glory and power and appeared to His kindred as a humble man, one who would serve.

The word “form” here (morphe) is the same word that we saw in verse 5.  Thus, just as “God very God was his form” then, now His form is a “bondservant.”

Of course, we know that in the Incarnation Jesus took on a second nature, a human nature.  From conception He was now not only God very God, but fully God and fully man.  And as a man, His form was that of a bondservant, a slave, a doulos.

We’ve seen this word before.  Paul claimed it in the beginning of the book, when he introduced he and Timothy as “servants of Christ Jesus.”

Jesus came “not to be served, but to serve, and give [His] life a ransom for many.”

But this word doulos goes beyond the mere activity of serving or helping someone.  It refers to the position of being a slave, or not having rights of your own.

Jesus, the most free and sovereign being in the universe, gave up that freedom to submit to the Father and even to men.

All along, Paul has been encouraging the Philippians to adopt this same attitude of seeing themselves in the serving position rather than in the power position, getting their way.

What about you, are you willing to position yourself as a slave, giving up your rights?  What about in your marriage?  Is there a strained relationship that would benefit from taking the stance of the servant, of yielding?

Then comes another step down in the latter part of verse 7, when it says He was “made in the likeness of men.”

Here, “being made” is from a verb that indicates—not continual existence (like huparcho, in v. 6)—but which indicates an existence that began at a certain point in time and continues now.

Thus, Jesus was (and is) eternally God, but He became man (adding a second nature) at a fixed point in space-time history.

At that point He was given the attributes of humanity.  He looked like a man and had a body like a man.  He wasn’t a ghost (as the Docetics claimed).  In every likeness or point of similarity Jesus was just like you and me.  He got tired, He had to sleep, He got hungry.

Just at it is important that Jesus remain God in the Incarnation, it is also important that He becomes man.

Colossians 1:21-22 says, And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him,

Jesus didn’t have that “body of flesh” in heaven before His incarnation.  In order to die for you, He had to become a man.  He had to become “flesh and blood” as Hebrews 2:14 tells us, in order to redeem those who are flesh and blood.  It is how He became a sympathetic high priest” (Heb. 2:17) for us.

He became flesh so he could “sympathize with our weaknesses” experiencing all our pains and struggles and loses and temptations, “yet without sin.”

Are you willing to find points of contact and identification with the people you’re in conflict with?  Follow the example of your Savior.

Then came the fourth step down.

When it says in verse 9 that Jesus “was found in appearance as a man,” it is saying something different than He became flesh and blood.  It’s not just a repeat of the end of verse 7.

Rather, when they saw his schema as looking human, that’s all that they saw him as.  This looks at the humiliation from the viewpoint of the people who saw him.  They looked at him and saw little to nothing that would make them think He was God.  Instead, they saw him as a man just like us.  Just a normal, everyday man-next-door.

This is likely what Paul is referring to in 2 Corinthians 5:16

16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer.

Prior to the resurrection, Paul says, it was normal for people to view Jesus as just a good-old-boy, a run-of-the-mill person.  Nothing special.

It was humbling enough for God to hide his glories and become a man, but another thing for men to see him as just another man.

How about you?  Are you willing to be seen as “nothing special,” to allow your weaknesses and vulnerabilities to show?  Are you willing to do that so that you can reach them?

But this isn’t all.  Not only do they treat the majestic King of the Universe as a mere man, but in this next step down they treat him like the worst of all, like a criminal.

But when Jesus was reviled, spit upon and flogged, did He fight back?  No, He did not.

Instead, He humbled Himself under the punishment, shame and ridicule, the false charges, mock trials, betrayal and abandonment.

It was humiliating enough to leave the glories of heaven, but now to submit to utter humiliation…that is love indeed.

And He did humble Himself, for it was His choice!  He wasn’t humiliated because He was at the whim of other’s choices.  He made the choice to endure this shame and humiliation.

Again, what about you?  Are you willing to stand silent when accused?  Are you willing to utter a blessing when you’ve been cursed?  Are you willing to entrust your reputation to God?

The sixth step downward in Christ’s humiliation, is found in the words “obedient to the point of death…”

We might say, “Stop, that’s enough.  I can’t take anymore.”  But not Jesus.  Jesus goes further, all the way to sacrificing His life.

Instead of, in the last moment, finally revealing Himself as He truly was and saving Himself from a cruel, shameful death, He obeys God’s will to the point of death.

And finally, this was no normal death.  No, it was the most cruel, most shameful kind of death that could happen in those days.  The word “even” introduces us to the shock and horror that this was “death on a cross.”

We’ve cleaned up and pasteurized the cross today so that we can wear it around our necks and feel nothing of the searing shame and terrible torture of that instrument of death.  I mean, imagine someone today wearing an electric chair or a syringe around their necks!

No one would have worn a cross like that in the first century.

This is the very bottom, the end of the line.  To be crucified on a cross was the most excruciating, more embarrassing, most degrading, most painful form of torture ever devised.

Yet Jesus freely and willingly chose it to bring reconciliation to us!

This form of torture was so demeaning and degrading that the Romans wouldn’t even use it on their own citizens.

The Jews themselves believed that a person being crucified must be under the curse of God (Deut. 21:22; Gal. 3).

There He is, stark naked, hanging wounded and vulnerable before the watching world, an object of mocking and derision.  This is your God!  The God who created the universe, who made the very wood and iron which was used to nail Him to the cross.

Somewhere along the line you’d think He’d say to himself. “You know, these people are just not worth all that.  That is too degrading, too humiliating to put myself through for them.”

But that’s what He did.  The One who is above all powers, all wisdom, all riches, before time began to the moment He was hanging on that cross—thought of us “above all.”

You can see Lenny LeBlanc’s Above All music video

Above all the searing pain, the jeering laughs, the betrayal by a friend, being abandoned by His disciples, but most of all having the Father turn His back on Him for the first time in all of time—beyond all that Jesus “endured the cross and despised the shame” (why?)…”for the joy that was set before him.”

What was that joy that drove Christ to offer His body to be tortured this way?  What was the joy that caused Christ to forfeit His harmony with His Father?

It was the joy of “bringing many sons to glory” (Heb. 2:10), of seeing that you and I would be reconciled to the Father by gladly and willingly embracing Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord.

Let me remind you:  Paul didn’t write this simply as a keen theological exercise.  He is using the example of Jesus’ humiliation to teach us that sometimes it takes great personal sacrifice to resolve conflicts and reconcile relationships.  Are you willing to follow in the footsteps of your Savior?

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Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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