The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached in March 2022*
Sermon Audio: He Emptied Himself (Phil 2:5-11)
The great New England pastor and theologian Jonathan Edwards once wrote: “God is God, and distinguished from all other beings, and exalted above them, chiefly by his…” How would you finish that sentence? What makes God God? What distinguishes him from all other beings, and exalts him above them? His power? Sovereignty? Omniscience? Holiness? All of things He possesses, of course. But what Edwards is getting at is what sets God apart most from all other creatures, what distinguishes Him most supremely? Here is what Edwards thought: “God is God, and distinguished from all other beings, and exalted above them, chiefly by his divine beauty.” (Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections)
It is the beauty of God that reveals to us more than anything else what God is like.
In another sermon, Edwards considers what it is that draws us to God. Perhaps it is His sheer greatness and immensity? No, he explains, “it is a sight of the divine beauty of Christ that bows the will, and draws the heart of men,” (Works of Jonathan Edwards, 25:635). We are hardwired for beauty. It summons our attention like nothing else will, it transcends our rationality and grips us at our very core. The great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky once said, “Beauty will save the world.” That may seem naïve at first. In all the brokenness of our world, what can beauty do? It may charm us or ennoble us, but it can’t fix anything. But Edwards says it is the divine beauty of Christ that bows the will—power may overwhelm it, but beauty alone transforms it. Our world is broken, but no amount of politics or economics or social programs will be able to solve our woes because it is we who are broken, we need something that can bow down our arrogant wills. We need, as Edwards says, a sight of the divine beauty of Christ.
I frankly have struggled to prepare this sermon because the truths here are so precious that I don’t know how to do them justice. If someone stood next to you by the Grand Canyon at sunrise and asked you, “Can you explain to me why this is beautiful?” you would struggle to respond. It just is. In our text today we see the beauty of God displayed in His most sublime act: His emptying of Himself for our sins. How can I explain to you its beauty? I don’t think I can, but I hope I can simply bring you before our God and let the beauty of the gospel itself draw you into Him.
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 emptied himself, by 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. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. – Phil 2:5-11
When you draw the letter “V” you start at the top and draw a line slanted down, and then a line slanted up. This whole passage is “V” shaped. Many have noted that verses 6-11 have a poetic structure to them, leading many to believe that verses 6-11 are actually a well-known hymn used in the early church that Paul is simply quoting here (sometimes referred to as the Carmen Christi). One commentator explains the strange paradox of this hymn: “The first three stanzas do not lift up our eyes to the heavens to see the wonders of creation; they do not even lift up our hearts by showing us wonderful miracles of healing and deliverance; they take us down, down, down to the deepest, darkest hell-hole in human history to see the horrific torture, unspeakable abuse, and bloody execution of a slave on a cross,” (Hansen, PNTC). It has been said that Christianity is the only religion that has the humiliation of its God at its center.
So we will start with the descent down in Christ’s humiliation (6-8), and then the ascent up in Christ’s exaltation (9-11), before turning to our participation (5).
Christ’s Humiliation (6-8)
Verse 6 opens with, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,” (Phil 2:6). The word for “form” used in vs. 6, “in the form of God” refers to the outward physical appearance, the exact representation of what God is like. No one can see God, but the Son of God makes God known to the world. Consider two passages concerning Jesus:
“Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” John 14:8-10
“He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature,” Heb 1:3 (cf. Col 1:15; John 1:18)
In the Bible no one was able to see God directly, but they could see the glory of God radiating outward. Jesus represents the visible representation of God, much like the radiance of God’s glory in the OT. So, when we look at Jesus, we are not seeing the first work of God’s creation, we are not seeing a stand-in, or an archangel—we are seeing God Himself. He is in very nature God, of the “same essence” of the Father, as the Nicene Creed explains. The second half of the verse, in fact, does not make any sense if we are to understand Jesus as anyone less than God!
Look again at verse 6. “[He] did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited, or taken advantage of, or held onto for his own advantage.” The ESV translates the word as “grasped” and it can give the mistaken notion that Jesus had the opportunity to stretch upward to lay hold of equality with God (whatever that would even mean). That isn’t what this means; rather, it refers to something that Jesus already possesses (equality with God), that He is willing to forego. The pre-incarnate Son of God could have remained in heaven and received the praise and adoration due Him and avoided all the shame and degradation the rest of the verse details; He could have retained that right, but He forsook that right, He did not take advantage of it. It is one thing to suffer against your will because you lack the power to stop the suffering, but it is another thing entirely to have every opportunity and every chance to avoid suffering, but choose to willingly accept it. That’s what Jesus does here.
And from here on out, the rest of verses 7-8 unroll like a cascading descent into utter condescension, humiliation, and shame.
First, we are told that He “emptied himself.” Does this mean when Jesus became man He un-God-ed Himself? No, not only is this clearly not what the verse means (as the rest of the verse shows), but it is simply impossible. Jesus can no more stop being God than God can cease to exist. When Paul tells us that Jesus “emptied himself” he is setting this up as a contrast to what he said just earlier: he did not count equality with God as something to be exploited. Instead he emptied himself…”
This doesn’t mean that Jesus emptied Himself of something in particular, as if He was a container that He reached into and pulled something out of. Rather, He did not empty Himself of something, but emptied Himself. That may seem abstract, so let’s look at the text. He did this through three things:
1. He became a servant. “By taking the form of a servant” (Phil 2:7). The word “servant” here is the same word for “slave.” The Philippians would have been well-acquainted with the world of Roman slavery and how degraded and powerless slaves were—to be a slave meant to be taken advantage of. The repetition of the word “form” causes us to naturally contrast this with the previous phrase in verse 6, “the form of God.” What a contrast! From the position of total power, to utter powerlessness; from honor and glory, to shame and disrepute, from having the rights of heaven, to no rights.
Jesus taught, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many,” Mark 10:45. “The one, who could have rightfully claimed the highest position in human history and justly received supreme honors, deliberately sought the lowest position and submitted himself to extreme humiliation.” – Hansen, PNTC
2. He became a man. “being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form,” (Phil 2:7-8). Part of Jesus’ emptying Himself is adding to Himself a human nature. Not appearing to be a human, or partially becoming human, but fully and entirely taking on a human nature—to the degree that He was born! Jesus did not descend down upon the earth as a 30-year-old emperor and sit upon a stately throne in a sumptuous palace. He became an infant who had to be burped and couldn’t hold his own head up. An infant destined to a life of poverty and servitude—a slave. “Being found in human form” refers simply to the fact that Jesus’ humanity was verifiable by others. Jesus did not float a few inches off the ground, but His earthy humanity was evident to all.
3. He humbled himself to death. “He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross,” (Phil 2:8). Jesus was not humbled by others. That is often how you and I become humble—you live long enough in this world and the school of hard knocks will knock you down a peg or two and humble you. Jesus, however, wasn’t knocked down. He freely stepped down to the humble place. He submitted to the Father’s plan. When He was in the garden of Gethsemane He asked if the Father could provide any other way to avoid the cross, but prayed, “Not my will, but your will be done,” (Mark 14:36). He said, “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord,” (John 10:18).
This reminds us of the great prophesy of the servant of the Lord of Isaiah 53 who suffers and dies in the place of God’s people so that they may be healed and forgiven. At the end of the chapter God promises to His servant, “Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors,” (Isa 53:12). Jesus emptied himself by pouring out his soul to death: becoming a servant, becoming a man, humbling himself to obedience, and dying on a cross.
Notice that point of emphasis Paul adds at the end of verse 8: even death on a cross. It is hard for us to conceptualize just how shameful and humiliating this form of death was.
“To speak of a crucifixion is to speak of a slave’s death…If Jesus’ demise is construed merely as a death — even as a painful, tortured death — the crucial point will be lost. Crucifixion was specifically designed to be the ultimate insult to personal dignity, the last word in humiliating and dehumanizing treatment. Degradation was the whole point. As Joel Green describes it, “Executed publicly, situated at a major crossroads or on a well-trafficked artery, devoid of clothing, left to be eaten by birds and beasts, victims of crucifixion were subject to optimal, unmitigated, vicious ridicule”…This was the destiny chosen by the Creator and Lord of the universe: the death of a nobody,” (Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion).
Not only this, but the book of Deuteronomy tells us that anyone who is hung on a tree is cursed by God (Deut 21:23). Paul picks up on this in the book of Galatians, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Gal 3:13). So not only is Jesus shamed and ridiculed by society, but He receives the shame and condemnation of the Father Himself. He takes our very sin into Himself, bears our iniquity and guilt, and then stands before the Father’s judgment. Utter scorn, utter shame, utter humiliation.
Why? Why would Jesus condescend to literally the lowest of the lows? Look back at vs. 6 with me where we are told, “who, though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,” (Phil 2:6). Most every other translation just says, “being in the form of God.” The editors of the ESV have chosen to interpret the participle “being” as a concession, so, “in spite of Jesus being God, He did not take advantage of it and emptied himself.” So the emphasis is on the contrast between how different God is from the lowly humiliation that follows in verses 7-8. However, this week I was reading an article by John Barclay, a New Testament professor out of the University of Durham, who argues that it makes more sense to interpret it not as a concession, but as a cause. So, rather than, “though he was in the form of God,” it is, “because he was in the form of God.” Barclay explains, “On this reading, Christ did not cease to be in the form of God when he emptied himself and took the form of a slave: it was the very fact that he was in the form of God that impelled him to take the slave-form, because it is of the very essence and character of God to give of God’s self in this way…Christ’s condescension is not an abandonment or renunciation of his true identity, but its expression and embodiment.”
What is God like? Jesus taught, “I am gentle and lowly of heart.” It is the very heart of God to stoop, to condescend, to take the lowly place. He could not do anything else.
Consider this passage from the prophet Hosea:
How can I give you up, O Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
9 I will not execute my burning anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and not a man,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath. – Hos 11:8-9
It is natural to man to explode in anger when someone hurts you. It is natural to man to abandon someone when they seriously betray your trust. It is natural to man to run out of patience and abandon those who repeatedly sin against you. But, praise God, God is not like us. His compassion warms Him and He comes, not in wrath, but in grace. That is what sets God apart from man.
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. – Phil 2:9-11
We find several key truths here.
First, notice that the passage begins with a “Therefore”, so what follows is connected with what happens just prior. It is the humiliation of Christ that serves as the ground for the exaltation of Christ. The cross comes before the crown, or as Proverbs tells us, “humility comes before honor,” (Prov 18:12). Notice in verses 6-8 it is Christ who humbles himself, but here in verses 9-11 it is the Father who exalts the Son. When we pursue honor before humility, we get nothing, but when we pursue humility as our main priority and trust the Lord to take care of our exaltation, we shall be raised up. Jesus taught His disciples, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted,” (Matt 23:11). It is the meek who will one day inherit the earth. This is precisely what Jesus did—He went down to the lowest place, only to be “highly exalted.”
Second, here He receives the “name that is above every name”, that is the divine name of Yahweh, or what is translated as “LORD” in our English Bibles, the name given to Moses and repeated all through the Old Testament (see Isa 42:8). Jesus, being God, of course already possessed the divine name; but now, after the incarnation Jesus has became both truly God and truly man, so in His humanity Jesus now receives, like a coronation, the divine name.
Third, we are told that at the name of Jesus every knee will 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. This is almost a verbatim citation of Isaiah 45:23, “To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.” This is rather scandalous because here Paul is not merely saying that Jesus is associated somehow with Yahweh in the Old Testament, rather it is saying that Jesus is Yahweh. When you read the Old Testament and you see the Lord interacting with His people, you are reading about the pre-incarnate Son of God.
Verses 9-11 show us a window into reality. The ‘real world’ is not the fantasy our TV shows and news and social media present to us. It isn’t your spiritual dullness or boredom; it isn’t the anxieties and fears the world spins for us; it isn’t the bleak despair that Satan tries to strangle us with by shoving all the pain, suffering, and sin of this world into our face. Reality is that our humble Savior, our crucified Messiah, exalted to the right hand of the Father and receiving all authority in heaven and earth, and one day everyone will confess, everyone will acknowledge that truth. And how did Jesus arrive at this exalted place? Through exploiting others? Stepping on others? No—by dying, by losing, by going down to the low place. The ‘real world’ will try to tell you that the way to win is to get on top, look out for yourself, love yourself, and don’t let anyone drag you down. Live for you! But Jesus shows a different way, He shows the path of quiet beauty, the path of lowliness and service. The path that doesn’t make sense. And what happened? He was exalted to the highest place.
Let’s return to verse 5, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, (2:5). Paul is connecting what he said previously with the hymn of 6-11 with verse 5. In verses 3-4 we read, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others,” (Phil 2:3-4).
The V-shaped life of Jesus is to be our life. We are to follow the pattern Jesus laid out, but notice what verse 5 tells us: have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus. What does that mean? The mind of humility and lowliness of verses 3-4 is already ours because we have been united to Christ. So, this means that when we empty ourselves, when we take the low place, we are not just molding our lives to an external model, rather we are submitting ourselves to our true identity, we are finding our real life—this is who we are.
And that also means that our future mirrors Jesus’ future! So, the book of James reminds us, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you,” (James 4:10). We are responsible for drawing the down-stroke of the “V”, and trusting God to draw the up-stroke. We can trust that when we are relegated to the low-place, when we follow Jesus into the place of a servant, we know that God Himself will one day exalt us.
Examples of what this looks like: an ordinary life of a thousand acts of small, unseen faithfulness.
– Coming to church
– Be willing to serve where it is uncomfortable
– Admit your faults
– Caring for children
When Jesus disciples got into an argument about which one of them was the greatest Jesus explained to them:
“If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” – Mark 9:35-37
Verse 36-37 almost seem like a non-sequitur. Jesus doesn’t grab a child and then say that the disciples must become like children to enter the kingdom (as He does in Matt 18:2-4). He exhorts them to become the “servant of all”, to take the low place, and then for an object lesson he grabs a child and then tells the disciples: take care of them. Raising and caring for children is a great example of serving in the low place. It is often thankless and tedious, but it is precious in Jesus’ sight. When we receive children, we receive Him.
In closing, consider the Lord’s beatitudes, a picture of the paradoxical picture of the upside-down path to true blessedness:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.