When asked to name a favorite Christian hymn I’m guessing that we could pretty easily come up with a lengthy list. “Blessed Assurance” would assuredly be on it. Over a thousand persons might say, “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing.” And wouldn’t it be that people in the Methodist tradition would quickly proclaim “And Can It Be?” as near the top. But how many would think to include Philippians 2:1-13, particularly verses 5-11?
Verses 1-4 and verses 12-13 in our assigned Second Lesson reading for today all reflect on the image of Christ and our calling to be Christ-like in all we do. Be like-minded. Have the same love. Be one in spirit. Be of the same mind. Don’t be selfish. Value others above yourself. Be humble, and look out for the interests of others, not just your own. As verse 5 summarizes, “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.” This can be hard, for we are by nature fallen. But Jesus, by nature, is fully God. And this great hymn of the early church tells us so.
Verse 6 says this explicitly, “Who, being in very nature God….” Some translations say that Jesus “was in the form of God” but that means much more than just a passing similarity. The Greek word Saint Paul uses there talks about something’s essence, its character, its nature. It is who or what we are at our core. It never changes. So even here, in this simple verse, we are seeing that Jesus Christ possessed the same, unchangeable, essential nature of God the Father.
And beyond this, the word “being” in the original Greek is a present, active participle. Paul is saying that Jesus always has been and continues to be in very nature God. This is why Our Lord could say in John 14, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Jesus did not become God at some point. He always has been and continues always to be God.
But notice, then, what we read in verses 6-7. Jesus did not cling to His divinity but rather willingly lowered Himself for our sake. As God, Jesus has always existed, and has existed in the heavens with the Father and the Spirit for all time. He didn’t need anything. He could have stayed right there, surrounded by the angels in glory. Not a bad situation at all! And yet according to verse 7 He made Himself nothing, or emptied Himself. The Greek word here, ekenosen, has the idea of pouring out. It’s what theologians often refer to as the kenosis of God.
One might ask what Jesus emptied Himself of? It wasn’t His divinity, Paul already covered that. Rather, Jesus set aside all the privileges of deity. He gave up His glory that He had in heaven, with the anthems of the angels and the face to face relationship with the Father. It’s why Jesus could say in John 17:15, “Now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I shared with you before the world was created.” He gave up His independent authority. While on the earth, He fully submitted to the will of His Father. “Not my will, but Thine,” He prayed in the garden of Gethsemane.
Think about the contrast between that approach to life and how many in the world live today. For many people it’s all about carpe diem, seize the day. Get as much as you can grab. My needs first, my will be done, not yours. We creatures want to be the Creator. And yet Jesus was indeed the Creator who was willing to become a creature.
When verse 7 continues by stating that Jesus “took the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” we find Saint Paul using the same word for “nature” or “form” that he used just a verse earlier. Jesus didn’t just show up and pretend to be a servant. He didn’t just go through the motions. He became a servant, a slave, the hands and feet of our loving God, all for you and for me. He became truly human, what theologians call the theanthropic nature of Christ. He was both fully God and fully man. This is the downward spiral of humility in the humanity of Jesus. In Christ, God condescended, came down with us. From heaven to earth. From deity alone, to adding to His deity our humanity.
We might say that His mission statement of sorts can be found in Matthew 20:28. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” He served fishermen. He served tax collectors. He served prostitutes. He served the dead, even bringing several back to life. He served everyone, and that included His disciples. They were gathered together in an upper room one day, getting ready to eat a meal and totally forgetting about serving each other. So Jesus got up, and put a towel around His waist, took a basin of water, and started washing their feet, serving them.
This is our example. This is God’s “good purpose” for us. As another great hymn says, “O to be like Thee, Blessed Redeemer!” Jesus became like us, so that we might become like Him. May it be so.