In response to a currently ongoing discussion about whether God emptied Himself in order to become human, here are some thoughts based on two sermons I preached about two years ago. One on Philippians 2:1-11 called “Rejoice! And Be Made Nothing” and one on Isaiah 9:6 called “Was Jesus Really Both God and Man.”
In this first post I want to take a look at Philippians 2:1-11 and the humility of Jesus, and in a subsequent post I will be digging into the humanity and deity of Jesus.
Unity: The Identity of a Christian
Let me start off by asking a couple of questions to probe your heart.
Do you feel any comfort of being in Christ?
When He saved you, He drew you near to Him, and made you a new creation and you were united to Him as a member of His body. How does this truth affect you when you are in need of His comfort because of any sort of suffering you are going through? How does being in His presence, being His child, being part of His family with many brothers and sisters encourage (in the sense of comfort) you in times of need? Do you feel any consolation from being in Christ? Paul says elsewhere, “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” (2 Cor. 1:15). And the psalmist says, “When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul.” (Ps. 94:19). There is great encouragement, comfort and consolation to be found in Christ, but do you feel it? Do His consolations cheer your soul?
Do you feel God’s love for you?
God loves you. Consider that for a moment. The creator of the universe, the holy and perfect God loves you. In fact, He cannot stop loving you. He loves you so much that while you were His enemy, while you were separated from Him because of your sin, He sent His own son to die for your sins so that you could have a relationship with Him again. God loves you, always, in every circumstance, and whatever you are going through. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ— by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:4-5).
Do you feel the reality of the Holy Spirit in you?
When you received Christ as your Savior, you also received the Holy Spirit. You were baptized in the Holy Spirit. Your spirit got renewed (regenerated) by being united with the Holy Spirit. You can now have fellowship with the Holy Spirit, and experience His joy and His comfort, and His counsel, and His truth in your life. In fact, Paul says in Romans 5:5 that it’s God’s love that has been poured into your heart through the Holy Spirit. How real in the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in you? How much do you call upon Him in the everyday things of life?
Do you feel a deep love for your brothers and sisters?
When you see one of your brothers or sisters going through some hardship, some sorrow, some weakness, some testing, how spontaneous does your heart go out and desires to help him or her? Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35). If we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. Do you feel a deep capacity to love your brothers and sisters?
Now, you may wonder why I am asking you these questions. Well, here’s the thing. At the end of chapter one, Paul exhorts us to let our manner of life be worthy of the gospel by standing firm in one spirit and with one mind striving side by side for the gospel – in other words, being in unity together as we deal with all sorts of external conflicts – Paul now continues by saying: “So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” (Phil. 2:1-2)
So let me ask you this question: were you able to answer the four questions I asked you with a resounding ‘yes’? In other words, does being in Christ, and being in God’s love, and being in His Spirit, move you to be manifest His love to one another? Because this is what Paul is saying. That if we are united in Christ, and are united in His love, and united in His Spirit, and united by our love for one another, then let us be living in unity with one another, be knit together in mutual affection for one another.
This is our identity as Christians. You could say these are four gifts to a Christian – encouragement in Christ, comfort from love, participation in the Spirit, affection and sympathy. They are real. Communicated to us both in a direct, spiritual way from Jesus, as well as from Jesus through each other to each other. These four gifts are to lead to a deep, abiding, internal unity amongst each others, united in heart, soul, and spirit, setting our mind on the same thing. And it continues what Paul started talked about in the previous chapter: to live a manner of life worthy of the gospel, side by side striving for the faith of the gospel. But in order to do this, Paul encourages the Philippians to get their act together.
Unity is our identity.
Humility: The Activity of a Christian
So how do we attain this unity amongst each other? Paul continues: “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Phil. 2:3-4)
Now this statement is absolutely countercultural. Our world exists, thrives, for selp-help, self-esteem, self-love, self-actualization. Not for humility. In the world, humility is not a virtue. It is not found. It is not what people desire or look for, at all. And so we must rebel against our sin nature, against our culture, against western civilization, that life is about your destiny and your rights and your vision and your calling and your giftedness and your glory. We must rebel against all of that, because it’s not true. It’s simply not true. Paul here gives us safeguards about love. He gives us the activity which both flows out of our identity as well as allows us to move toward it. Love through unity is both our starting point as well as our goal. He says first: “do nothing from rivalry or conceit.” Do nothing through strife/self-ambition, or vain/empty glory. Nothing! Because pride works itself out in these ways. So flee it with all that is in you.
Strife, rivalry or self-ambition is at the heart of our human fallenness, and it has to do with a desire to put yourself forward, to promote your own interest, your own ambitions, and your own goals at the expense of others. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul lists it as a work of the flesh (Gal. 5:20). And James in his letter says this: “Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.” (James 3:13-16)
Second, Paul says: “but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Now, what is humility? Humility is not to be confused with false modesty; it does not mean that you should falsely consider others better than yourself. But it has to do with a proper estimation of yourself, being well aware of both your weaknesses and of your glory (we are made in His image after all), but making neither too much or too little of either. Elsewhere Paul says, “I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment” (Rom. 12:3). True humility is therefore not self-focused at all, but looks to the concerns of others. We are to consider other not in our estimation of them, but in our caring for them, putting them and their needs ahead of our own. So, it is not so much that others in the community are to be thought of as better than you, but as those whose needs and concerns surpass your own.
Here is what I believe Paul says, and which I think is very important to understand so that we can apply it: pursuing humility by God’s grace starts with personal obedience of each one of us individually, but can only be worked out in the context of community; meaning that we need each other in our pursuit of humility. If humility means putting the needs of others ahead of our own, we need others’ needs to be able to do this, right? And I believe that if each one of us individually decides to pursue humility by the grace of God, that this will lead to the unity that Paul is talking about. Nothing builds a church stronger and healthier than humility. Nothing breaks and destroys a church faster and certainly than pride.
Where unity is our identity, it is humility which is the activity that fuels that identity.
The Example We Have In Christ
So, are you pursuing humility or not? The only way to pursue humility is that you and I would not work out of rivalry and conceit, thinking that we’re smarter than everyone else and better than everyone else, but by God’s grace in humility look at Jesus. Paul knows this. And so Paul lifts up Jesus as an example of not only the most humble that ever lived, but the only humble person that every lived or will ever live, by saying, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:5-8)
Paul starts in such a comforting hopeful way. He says, “have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,” implying that it is possible this mindset. Paul doesn’t give us an example which is impossible to follow or attain. No, he exhorts us to pursue this mind of Christ with everything in us. It is all too easy for us to read this description of Jesus and admire it from a distance. God wants us to be awed by it to be sure, but also to see it as something that we must enter into and imitate. Obtaining this mindset, this attitude, is something we have a choice about. It is something we must choose to walk in. And I believe here as well, Paul is giving us a picture of identity followed by activity. The picture starts with the identity of Jesus, and Paul says that in eternity past Jesus was God. Jesus’ identity is that He is God. Certainly as God, Jesus did not need anything. He had all the glory and praise of heaven. Together with the Father and the Spirit He reigned over the universe. But then Paul says that Jesus did not consider His equality with God as something selfishly to be held on to. Jesus did not think of Himself; He thought of others. His attitude was that of unselfish concern for others. And so He made Himself nothing(!), taking the form, taking the identity of a servant. This is an incredible statement. I won’t bore you with the Greek grammar behind this, but what it implies that the true identity of God, His true inward nature, is that of a servant. Let that sink in for a minute. If you would have to answer the question: “Who is God? What is His true identity?” then the correct answer is: “God is a servant. That is His true identity”. We also mustn’t think that in making Himself nothing that God emptied Himself of His divine attributes to take on the form of a servant (more about this in the next post). No, His true identity, his true nature, is that of a servant, and He added humanity to His nature. This to me is absolutely mind-blowing.
When we read on, Paul tells us the activity that flows out of this identity: “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Wow! Jesus humbled Himself when He became obedient. This was something that Jesus could only experience by coming down from the throne of heaven and becoming a man. When God sits enthroned in heaven’s glory, there is no one He obeys. Jesus had to leave heaven’s glory and be found in appearance as a man in order to become obedient. One key to Jesus’ obedience on earth was the endurance of suffering, as it says in Hebrews, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” (Heb. 5:8). This again was something He could only learn by experience by becoming a man. Here is what Paul is saying. Jesus is the most humble person and His death on the cross is the most humble event and act in the history of the world. Jesus willingly humbled Himself. Why? That He might lift us up! What?! Yes. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 8:5). God left being worshiped by angels continually to be disrespected by stiff-necked, stubborn, unrepentant, self-righteous, proud people, like you and me. And how did we respond to Jesus, who is God? We murdered Him. That is how proud we are. Not only that, Jesus, allowed us to murder Him. That’s how humble He is. And in dying, He is so humble that He died for me that I might have salvation and love and reconciliation with God who made me. My pride is laid on Jesus, and His humility is laid on me. This is absolutely astonishing!
How is all this for our example? Here’s why. We cannot be like Jesus in that we can die for the sins of world. That was His specific mission. But we can follow Jesus’ example in our pursuit of humility. Here are two thoughts:
- Humility means to be a servant: We have the tendency to be confused. Whereas God doesn’t think He is us, we too often think that we are like god. But if this were true; if we truly want to be like god, we would have to also portray the true identity of God, meaning: taking the form of a servant. Because God is a servant, and Jesus came to serve.
- Servanthood comes with sacrifice: Many people are willing to serve others if it doesn’t cost them anything; and if there is a price to pay, they suddenly lose interest. But that’s not serving. Serving comes with a sacrifice. Jesus did not only come to serve, but to give His life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28). This means that service and sacrifice go hand in hand.
Jesus revealed that the principle by which God operates is that in order to be exalted, you have to humble yourself and become a servant. It makes sense thus that Paul concludes by saying: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so 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 God the Father.” (Phil. 2:9-11)
When we seek to take honor to ourselves, we will always be humbled – if not on earth, then for all of eternity. The promise of exaltation for the humble and humiliation for the proud is one ultimately fulfilled in eternity. Peter said this in his letter, “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you” (1 Peter 5:5-6). The whole purpose of Christ’s humiliation and exaltation is the glory of God. As Jesus faced the cross, the glory of God was uppermost in His mind: “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you” (John 17:1). The joy of pursuing humility comes not primarily from helping others, but from the knowledge that we are glorifying God. We may not see the glory today, but we shall see it when Jesus comes and rewards His faithful servants.
Let us imitate Jesus and make ourselves nothing, becoming a humble servant, willing to sacrifice for the benefit of others. Let us not think about glory other than the glory we want to give to God. Let us not think about our own glory. Jesus didn’t when He came down to rescue us. And if, if, we receive glory, let it be received through the giving of God, which is true glory, everlasting glory.