The Humiliation of Christ
Topic: Expository Passage: Philippians 2:5-8
Read vv. 1–11
This morning, we have the privilege of studying one of the most significant passages in Scripture. As I studied vv. 5–8 this week, I came away with 3 impressions.
First, this is a glorious passage of Scripture. Paul contemplates the most stunning gift of love ever given. Jesus descended from infinite glory to humanity, then to death, and even to death by crucifixion. It is remarkable, and we will never fully grasp how much Jesus sacrificed for our salvation. So, this is a glorious passage.
My second impression is that this is a complicated passage of Scripture. This passage reflects on the hypostatic union, meaning the union of Christ’s divine and human natures into one person. Without question this is one of the most complicated doctrines we believe.
As a result, many of the most significant theological controversies in church history have centered on the nature of Christ and on this passage. We could talk about Docetism, Arianism, Nestorianism, Apollinarianism, the Kenosis Theory, and several other heresies that have seriously threatened the foundation of the church. All of them sprung in part from misunderstanding this passage.
And I want to emphasize that theological precision regarding the nature of Christ matters. 1 John says that if you reject either the fully deity or humanity of Jesus, you are not saved. So, if you often get impatient with theological debates and definitions, understand that eternity depends on getting this right. So, we are going to wade through some difficult concepts today. But you need to do your best to understand precisely what the text is saying.
My third impression is that this is a practical passage of Scripture. Because of the theological significance of vv. 6–8, it’s easy to forget that Paul’s primary purpose is to illustrate the humility and service he called us to practice Philippians 1:27–2:4. It would be a great tragedy if we missed the practical significance of Christ’s example for how we need to live.
So, our challenge this morning is that we need to balance all three strains of this text. We need to worship Christ for his incredible love. We need to comprehend the complexities of the gospel, because they matter. And we need to embrace the example of Jesus’ love, humility, and selfless service. That being said, I’d like to begin by pondering the example of Christ, and then we’ll close by considering the implications for us. Notice first…
I. Jesus exchanged glory for humanity (vv. 6–7).
There is no way that we will ever fully comprehend what Christ sacrificed to provide our redemption. But we should strain to appreciate as much as possible what he gave. And this begins with recognizing that…
Throughout eternity Christ enjoyed infinite glory. Verse 6 clearly states that Jesus’ life did not begin at birth. He had always been “in the form of God.” However, this little phrase brings us to first point of controversy.
In particular, we may wonder if “in the form of God” implies that Jesus is not the same substance as the Father. Is he just similar to the Father but ultimately a lesser being? This is what the ancient Arians taught, and it’s what the JW and LDS (i.e., Mormon) cults teach today.
However, that’s clearly not what Paul intends. First, the Greek term, morphe, doesn’t mean that something simply reflects the true reality; instead, it means that something possesses the essential qualities and characteristics of another. Therefore, Paul is saying that Jesus possessed the same nature as the Father. He was truly God.
And the end of v. 6 confirms this interpretation. Paul states explicitly that Jesus is “equal with God.” He couldn’t be any clearer. Jesus is not a lesser being. He is certainly not a created being. He possesses the same eternal attributes of glory and perfection that the Father possesses.
And this foundation is essential to appreciating the sacrifice Christ made. For all eternity, he dwelt in unapproachable He enjoyed all the perfections of heaven, and his divine nature could not be touched by any of the imperfections of this world. Jesus did not know temptation, pain, or any of the limitations that we endure every day. So, we must worship Jesus for the glory he possesses, and then we should marvel in stunned humility that…
Through the incarnation, Christ selflessly became a man. Notice the end of v. 6. Jesus, “did not consider it robbery to be equal with God.” The Greek word behind “robbery,” harpogmos, is another difficult word to translate. The basic meaning of the word is “robbery, plunder.” Think of soldiers filling their arms with the spoils of war after conquering an enemy.
But this meaning doesn’t make a lot of sense in context. Jesus didn’t need to steal glory. He is God. As a result, pretty much everyone agrees that Paul is using the term as an idiom and that the idea is that Jesus did not regard his glory as something to be “held tightly” or “grasped” for selfish advantage. Think a child who grasps a toy and screams, “Mine!” So, Paul is saying that Jesus did not grasp selfishly at the glory he enjoyed throughout eternity.
This meaning makes a lot of sense in context. Notice the exhortation in 3–4. Selfishness and pride are at the core of our sin nature. We naturally grasp to every ounce of glory and pleasure we can get. In contrast, Paul states that Jesus enjoyed a true glory that far exceeds the vain glory we crave. Yet unlike us, he didn’t selfishly grasp it tightly.
Instead, 7 proceeds to state that in an incredible act of self-sacrifice, “(He) made…” This is another glorious statement, that is also complicated, but richly practical. In particular, the main verb, “made Himself of no reputation” (kenoo) literally means “emptied Himself.” Based on this verb theologians often refer to the incarnation as the kenosis. However, the verb raises the very important question, “What exactly did Jesus empty himself of?” About 150 years ago a number of theologians developed what was called the “Kenosis Theory,” and it was not orthodox.
They argued that v. 7 is saying that when Jesus was born as a man he emptied himself of some of his divine attributes. He ceased to be all-powerful, all-knowing, and everywhere present. But the problem with this theory is that if Jesus gave up some of his attributes, he would cease to be God, which would mean that Jesus could not provide atonement. As well, the NT is clear that Christ’s divine nature did not change when he became a man (John 1:14, 18). Jesus fully possessed the glory of the Father, and he manifested his true character in his life on earth.
Therefore, Paul cannot mean that Jesus emptied himself of even part of the divine nature. As a side note, that’s why we don’t sing the original wording of the second verse of “And Can It Be.” Charles Wesley originally wrote, “Emptied himself of all but love.” No one is exactly sure what Wesley meant, but it certainly gives the impression that Jesus gave up his attributes. That’s why our hymnal has changed it to, “Humbled himself in matchless love.”
Furthermore, an honest reading of v. 7 clearly indicates that Paul was not saying that Jesus gave up his attributes. For one, when Paul uses this verb elsewhere, it means “to be emptied of significance,” or “to become powerless.” The verb does not demand that Jesus’ nature changed.
And the rest of the verse seals the deal, because Paul goes on to define how Jesus emptied himself. He emptied himself by “taking the form of a bondservant…” As a result, the NKJV translation is not literal, but it does capture the sense well when it says, “made himself of no reputation.” The point is that Jesus sacrificed his former glory to become a man.
So, notice the incredible contrast between v. 6b and v. 7a. Rather than grasping selfishly to the glory he enjoyed with the Father, Jesus let it go. That’s so different from sinners. Verse 3 describes how so often we desperately fight for vain glory. But Jesus had real glory like we cannot even imagine, but he willingly laid it aside. What an example and challenge!
And specifically, Jesus laid a side his gory, by taking “the form…” We will never fully grasp the glory of what God says here. But incredibly infinite God added a human nature and a human body to his divine nature, and they were joined together in one person. Jesus was at the same time fully God and fully man. John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh…”
As a result, infinite God subjected himself to all the limitations of humanity. He didn’t give up his divine attributes; rather, theologians like to say that he “temporarily gave up the free exercise of them.” And for the very first time God experienced being hungry or getting tired. Jesus felt the heat of a hot sun and the bitter cold of a dark night.
And what is most incredible is that because Jesus had a human nature, he experienced temptation. Hebrews 4:15 says he “was in all points tempted as we are.” The perfect Son of God felt the lure of sin for the very first time. However, Hebrews 4:15 quickly adds, “yet without sin.” Jesus always resisted. That’s why Romans 8:3 says he came only “in the likeness of sinful flesh.” Still it’s truly incredible that Jesus went that far in becoming like us.
But there’s even more. Verse 7 adds that Jesus “took the form of a bondservant.” There’s our word morphe Jesus didn’t just look like a servant; he really was one. Gordon Fee states, Jesus “entered our history not as kyrios (i.e., Lord), which name he acquires at his vindication, but as doulos (i.e., slave), a person without advantages, with no rights or privileges, but in servanthood of all.” Jesus whole life was about service. He gave and gave and gave. He exemplified the command in v. 4. He did not “look out…for his own interests, but…for the interests of others.”
So even as our heads spin at the complexities of it all, we must also stand in awe at what Jesus did for us. And then, we should be challenged to follow his example by living as humble servants in the church, in marriage, with our families, and with all other people. We’ll talk more about that later. In sum, vv. 6–7 declare the first great truth. Jesus exchanged glory for humanity. The second great truth is…
II. Jesus embraced the lowest depths of humanity (v. 8). Notice first…
Jesus humbled himself. The first phrase simply repeats the idea of v. 7. Jesus didn’t look any different from any other man. He didn’t have a halo over his head. He didn’t stand out in a crowd. If anything, he looked pretty unimpressive. He certainly didn’t look like infinite God.
But Jesus wasn’t done; instead, he “humbled Himself” even further. And I want to emphasize this verb, because it is very important to the grammatical structure of the text. That tells us that Paul wants it to stand out. He wants us to appreciate the incredible humility of Jesus in contrast to the “selfish ambition and vain glory” of sinners (v. 3). He set the standard of humble obedience and service. Specifically,
Jesus obeyed to the point of death. The idea of Jesus obeying the Father’s will is truly remarkable. Now, I think it has to be said, that there was no conflict between Christ’s will and the Father’s will. This was not an unwilling obedience. Regardless, the NT repeatedly emphasizes Christ’s submission to the Father. There is no power struggle in the Trinity.
And v. 8 says that Christ was willing to take submission to the point of obeying the Father’s command to die for sinners. I think that sometimes undersell how difficult this was. We think that he was just a machine who was untouched by pain, sorrow, and temptation.
But Matthew, Mark, and Luke all take the time to describe how Jesus anguished in the Garden just before his arrest. Jesus fully understood what was ahead. He knew he would bear the wrath of God against world’s sins in his own body. He knew that it would be awful. Therefore, his human nature was seriously tempted to disobey the Father’s will.
And yet Jesus obeyed and submitted to death. It’s remarkable. Jesus is God, and God cannot die. But by taking on a human nature and a human body he became capable of enduring death in his human nature and body. The Son of God subjected himself to the lowest consequence of the curse. And yet his descent into shame went even one step lower.
Jesus endured the humiliation of the cross. In the 1st century world, there was nothing more degrading and humiliating than crucifixion. The Romans had perfected crucifixion for one reason and one reason alone. They wanted rebels to suffer in absolute agony and shame in order to make a bold statement that you don’t want to mess with Rome.
Crucifixion was so reprehensible that the great Roman orator Cicero had said, “The very word ‘cross’ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but from his thoughts, his eyes and his ears.” So, to the Romans, Jesus was at the bottom of the human barrel.
And the Jews agreed. They had their own tradition of hanging criminals after they were executed. Peter Craigie states, “Hanging was not a method of execution, but something that was done after the death of a criminal, on the same day. When the man was dead, he would be hanged on a tree or a ‘wooden post’ of some kind; the gruesome sight would then serve as a warning to the population of the results of breaking those laws which were punishable by death.”
And notice what is said in Deuteronomy 21:22–23 about this tradition. The person hanging from a tree was cursed by God to the extent that God commanded Israel not to leave the body hanging overnight because leaving this cursed body hanging would “defile the land.” It’s not just that he was cursed, his cursed body threatened to curse the entire land. So, when the Jews saw Jesus’ dead body hanging on the cross, they would have seen him as cursed, utterly shameful and humiliated. He couldn’t get any lower.
In sum, Jesus’ descent into shame is truly incredible. Verse 6 begins with the fact that Jesus lived in the “form of God.” But rather than selfishly grasping at glory, he emptied himself by descending into humanity. Not only that he descended into slavery. And from there, he descended into death. And finally, he descended to the very bottom of humanity by dying on a cross. No other man has ever experienced a fall from glory like that.
We should marvel today at what Jesus did. What incredible obedience, humility, sacrifice, and love. Jesus set the highest example of selfless service.
But I have to emphasize that Jesus did more than set an example. There was a much higher reason why Jesus allowed himself to endure the curse of hanging on a tree. Galatians 3:13–14 build on the curse I mentioned a moment ago in Deuteronomy 21, and they state, “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, “Cursed iseveryone who hangs on a tree”), that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.”
Jesus bore my curse on that cross, because Jesus bore the punishment for my sin. He died in my place. And v. 14 says that the blessing of Jesus’ death is available “through faith.”
Maybe you have been moved today by the incredible example of Christ, but you’ve never really contemplated why he did it. Understand that the gospel begins with the fact that we are all cursed by God because we have broken his law. We deserve death. But Jesus bore our curse in his body.
And salvation can be yours if you will repent of your sin. In other words, you must acknowledge how wicked and vile your sin is. And then you must put your faith in the redemption that Jesus provided on the cross for salvation. If you have never put your faith in Christ for salvation, we’d love to talk with you today about how you can be saved, and we’d love to see you leave knowing the forgiveness that is in Christ.
In sum, Jesus did something complicated, glorious, amazing, and gracious, and we should stand in awe. But we haven’t even arrived at Paul’s main point. Rather, he has a very specific pastoral purpose. Notice how 5 links vv. 1–4 with vv. 6–8. The third great truth in this passage is…
III. We must embrace Christ’s attitude (v. 5).
Again, this verse is the hinge on which this incredible section turns. Specifically, it turns on the command, “Let this mind be in you.” Very simply, God commands us to imitate the humble attitude which governed the entire complex of events vv. 6–8 describe.
In light of the exhortations in vv. 1–4 and the emphasis of vv. 6–8, I believe that God is commanding us to imitate 2 aspects of Christ’s attitude. First…
Do not hold tightly to glory and privilege. Notice again the exhortation of 3. “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit (i.e., vain glory).” As I said last week, so much of the time we grasp for glory, power, status, and privilege. And when we achieve something, our heads swell with pride, and there is no way we will let go of that glory.
And then there’s Jesus. He had real glory. He sat at the Father’s right hand with a glory so great that if we ever saw it, we would fall over dead. But Jesus didn’t hold it tightly. He let it go.
So Christian, don’t live your life grasping for glory. Teenagers and young adults don’t waste your life and your joy obsessing over the fickle, worthless opinions of your peers. Men don’t waste your energy obsessing over worldly definitions of success based on career, cars, and toys. Ladies don’t sacrifice your joy chasing the praise of your peers, because they all know you have the trendiest tastes, you are the perfect mom and homemaker, or the ultimate career woman.
And for all of us, leave your pride and selfish ambition at the door when you walk into this church. We are not here to leave an impression, to get noticed, to get our way, or to receive praise. Quite the opposite, the second aspect of Christ’s attitude that we must imitate is…
Grow a humble spirit of sacrificial service. We all know that service is good! But very often we build a huge wall regarding how much we will actually give. We won’t serve to the point of exhaustion. We don’t even know what exhaustion is. If we are ever asked to step outside our comfort zone, we clam up and respond, “I could never do that.” Our homes are fortresses against the world, not hospitals for the sick.
So, I would challenge you that the next time you get a call late at night or you are presented with an uncomfortable, dirty ministry need, to remember what Christ did for you. He did far more than go into a dirty home, lose sleep, or endure the pain of a broken individual. He left heaven to come here. He lived like a slave, and he died naked and humiliated for your salvation. And everything good that you have is because of what he did.
And then by his grace, embrace the mind of Christ. Reflect to others the grace you have received. “Spend and be spent.” 1 John 3:16 sums it up perfectly, “By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down ourlives for the brethren.”