A young seminarian was excited about preaching his first sermon in his home church. After three years in seminary, he felt adequately prepared, and when he was introduced to the congregation, he walked boldly to the pulpit, his head high, radiating self-confidence.
But he stumbled reading the Scriptures and then lost his train of thought halfway through the message. He began to panic, so he did the safest thing: He quickly ended the message, prayed, and walked dejectedly from the pulpit, his head down, his self-assurance gone.
Later, one of the godly elders whispered to the embarrassed young man, “If you had gone up to the pulpit the way you came down, you might have come down the way you went up.” The elder was right. God still resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.
Paul has just shared his desire to see the unity of the Philippian church strengthened in order that they might endure conflict from a hostile culture for the sake of the gospel (1:27-30). Paul showed the relationship between unity and humility (2:1-4). And now in Philippians 2:5-11, he gives them a proper motivation for humility, namely the example of Christ.
The humility-exaltation motif throughout Scripture finds its climax in this passage. Consider how this restructures everything you think and do. As we better understand the mind of Christ, we begin to adopt that mind for ourselves.
The esteem that we long to receive does not come through self-assured promotion of our own accomplishments.
Spurgeon, “The higher a man is in grace, the lower he will be in his own estimation. Not because he is comparing himself with people, but because he is comparing himself with the Lord God.”
Read Philippians 2:5-11.
The Depths of Humility (5-7)
Christ is an example of the humble mind Paul exhorts us to have (5).
Jesus “was in the form of God” (6), clothed in preincarnate divinity. Before entering creation as an infant, the Son shared divine glory with the Father and Holy Spirit. Jesus “possessed inwardly and displayed outwardly the very nature of God himself” (Motyer).
We see this explicitly in John 1:1-2, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” And again in John 17:5, “And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.” And finally in Heb. 1:3, “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature…”
Jesus was God, but he did not exploit his position for his own advantage. He possessed equality with God, but He emptied himself by taking on the form of a servant (7). In what sense did Jesus “empty” himself?
1. He did NOT empty himself of his deity or any of the essential attributes of his deity. He did not cease to be God, even temporarily. He did NOT exchange his deity for humanity. It is not that Christ “exchanged the form of God for the form of a slave, but he manifested the form of God in the form of a slave” (F.F. Bruce).
2. He willingly laid aside the independent use of his divine privileges, taking the form of a servant.
a. He actually became a servant. As much servant as he is God. “It is not ‘Of what did he empty himself?’ but ‘Into what did he empty himself?’” (Motyer). “It’s subtraction by addition. He emptied himself by taking the form of a servant” (Derek Thomas; Sinclair Ferguson).
b. He received a servant’s treatment his entire life. He experienced the limitations of the flesh (i.e., eat, sleep, pain, suffering). He took on a role of poverty. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).
After a small child fell into a deep pit, the tribal chief took off his robe and headdress in order to rescue the child. He did not cease to be their chief at any moment—although the glory of his office was concealed. He laid aside his royal glory and privileges adopting the role of rescuer.
Christ did not diminish his divine nature but concealed it in his humanity. He humbly denied himself of the glory and position that he possessed in order to pour it out in sacrificial service. Christ’s obedience plumbed the depths of humility.
Jesus “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb 5:8), which was the cruelest form of execution the Romans divised. The cross was reserved for slaves and foreigners. Cicero, Roman statesman and philosopher, called crucifixion, “a most cruel and disgusting punishment.”
Not only did Jesus become a servant, but he became the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53. The Son of God withstood the betrayal, mockery, and torture of the crucifixion. Roger Ellsworth comments, “The death of Christ was nothing less than Christ experiencing hell for his people so they would never have to experience that hell themselves.”
There is simply no greater example of humility than the death of Christ. It is a depth of humility that we will never face.
Chapell, “Two brothers decided one day to play on sandbanks on the edge of the river in our hometown. Because our town depends on the river for commerce dredges regularly clear its channel of sand and deposit it in great mounds beside the river. There’s nothing more fun for children than playing on these mountainous sand piles. And few things are more dangerous.
While the sand is still wet from the river’s bottom the dredges dump it on the shore. The piles of sand dry with rigid crust that often conceal cavernous internal voids that formed by the escaping water. If a child climbs on a mound of sand that has such a hidden void the external surface easily collapses into the cavern. Sand from higher on the mound then rushes into the void, trapping the child in a sinkhole of loose sand. And this is exactly what happened to the two brothers as they raced up one of the larger mounds.
When the boys did not return home at dinner time family and neighbors organized a search. They found the younger brother. Only his head and shoulders protruded from the mound. He was unconscious from the pressure of the sand on his body. And the searchers began digging frantically. And when they had cleared the sand to his waist he roused to consciousness.
“Where is your brother?” the rescuer shouted. “I’m standing on his shoulders.” Replied the child. With the sacrifice of his own life, the older brother had lifted his younger brother to safety.”
The main problem with this illustration is that we aren’t the lovable little brother. Christ died for us while we were enemies of God (Rom 5:10). As the modern hymn states it, Christ was “scorned by the ones he came to save.” And he did this voluntarily! He did not resist or defend himself.
The Message of Philippians 2. The Incarnate God Becomes a Curse
All through the long years of animal sacrifice the Lord had driven home the lesson that in the divine purposes there could be a transference of sin and guilt from the head of the guilty to the head of the innocent. Whenever a sinner brought his animal to the altar and laid his hand on the beast’s head the lesson was plain: this stands in my place; this bears my sin. Yet the substitution was incomplete, for the central citadel of sin, the will, was left unrepresented in the uncomprehending, unconsenting animal. Isaiah foresaw that only a perfect Man could be the perfect substitute and that at the heart of this perfection lay a will delighting to do the will of God.
Jesus willingly endured the cross becoming a curse for us. He was forsaken by his Father in our place. Jesus became the suffering servant so that we could become the sons of God. Jesus didn’t have to earn anything. He already had the glory. Though Jesus was in the form of God, He willingly took the form of a servant.
John Calvin, “Christ’s humility consisted in his abasing himself from the highest pinnacle of glory to the lowest ignominy: our humility consists in refraining from exalting ourselves by a false estimation.”
That is the mind we are to have regardless of the role we fill in life.
› The next aspect of Christ’s humility is…
The Reward of Humility (9-11)
Beginning at v.9 Christ becomes the object of the verbs, receiving the active work of the Father.
God literally “hyper-exalted” or “super-exalted” Jesus. Does that indicate that Christ gained a position he did not have previously? There is a sense in which Christ has always possessed a sovereign rule, but there is another sense in which he assumed a new reign upon his exaltation.
The two kingdoms over which Christ reigns have been labeled the essential and mediatorial kingdom. Following Ebenezer Erskine and James Fisher (18th Century Scottish commentators on the WSC), Guy Waters writes,
“Jesus’ essential reign belongs to him as Second Person of the Godhead. This reign is unchanging and unchangeable. Jesus’ mediatorial reign, however, belongs to him as the Incarnate Son of God, the God-man. This reign he assumed upon his exaltation. This reign is subject to change and may be said to increase or grow. This reign extends to the ends of the earth, but has the church as its particular focus.”
While Christ went down to the lowest depths of humility in his crucifixion, he was rewarded with the pinnacle of glory in his exaltation.
At the name of Jesus every knee will bow; either out of reverence or hatred. This is a direct quote from…
Isaiah 45:22–25 ESV
“Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.’ “Only in the Lord, it shall be said of me, are righteousness and strength; to him shall come and be ashamed all who were incensed against him. In the Lord all the offspring of Israel shall be justified and shall glory.”
But notice how Paul is using this theme in the letter. He is teaching his readers about the humiliation and exaltation of Christ in order to encourage them to follow the same pattern. If they are going to experience the unity that he has been praying they would, then they are going to have to be characterized by humility.
Believers are given a similar promise in
James 4:10 ESV
Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
There is a divine joy that attends the humble in all they do because they know that the reward of salvation is peace with God.
A pastor was once convicted about his lack of humility. A friend recommended as a remedy, that he march through the streets of Chicago wearing a sandwich board, shouting the Scripture verses on the board for all to hear. The pastor agreed to this venture and when he returned to his study and removed the board, he said “I’ll bet there’s not another man in town who would do that.”
Humility quickly slips into pride when we take our focus off of Christ’s example. If there is not a joy that accompanies your service, you need to stop and ask yourself if you’re being properly motivated. It is likely that you have lost sight of the gospel. No one will continue to think too highly of themselves after sincere reflection upon the gospel.
The themes of unity and joy are tied to Christ’s redemptive work in this passage. What we believe shapes how we live. The hymnody, based upon stylistic and linguistic considerations, moves us from the mere intellectual contemplation of Christ to active and affectionate praise. Whether or not this hymn predates Paul’s writing, it suggests that the foundation of the Church is the person and work of her Savior. The church’s hope for the present and future is secured by the past incarnational work of Christ, his present reign, and his triumphant judgment upon his return.
The mind of Christ recognizes that God rewards humble obedience with grace and assurance. The first step of redeeming humility is repentance.
Jesus moved forward in obedience with the absolute confidence that he would be exalted. That’s not to say it was easy. We see a graphic display of his anguish in Gethsemane. His sweat became like great drops of blood as he agonized over the wrath he was about to endure on the cross. But it was the strength of his assurance of exaltation that motivated him to endure the depths of humiliation.
If you have not kneeled before Jesus as your Lord and Savior, today is the day salvation. It will be too late upon his return. When we turn to Christ in repentance and faith we receive his mind—that we might know him and become like him.
The very gospel that motivates us to live humbly before our God, is the same gospel that empowers us to complete the task.