Sermon, November 24, 2019 | Grace Reformed Church
As IAs I said last week, this week we are going to cover one of the more quotable, more memorable, more famous passages in the Bible, the so-called “Christ Hymn” that we find here next in the text, in Philippians 2:5-11. It is such a beautiful passage, and as we consider each part of it, we will peel back the layers, like an onion, and we’ll be able to marvel at the incredible, indescribable, person and work of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. We’ll encounter some things that don’t quite fit in our minds, things that we can’t capably describe with the limits of our language. As I mentioned last week when we looked at the verses which precede the Christ Hymn, this is going to take several weeks to get through, because there is so much theological depth here. Don’t worry, we will get through the whole book eventually, but we will spend at least three weeks here in these verses. Trust me, that’s not a lot—I’ve consulted sermon series of 7 or more sermons right here. I’ll try not to be too long-winded!
But for this first message on this beautiful passage, we will be taking a more global, bird’s-eye view of the whole passage. As we read it, listen for the three-part structure that jumps out right away. First, who Christ is before the incarnation. Second, who he is in and during the incarnation. And third, who he is now, after the incarnation. Let’s read it. Listen, this is God’s Holy Word:
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.
The Word of the Lord.
Last week when considering the verses immediately before this, we read the entire section, 1-11, because they are tied together. The Christ Hymn can stand on its own and be understood, and often is, but unless we look at the greater context, we won’t understand why it appears here. Why did Paul write this here, for what purpose? Well, to answer that question we need to look at where we just were.
If you remember from last week, Paul was getting back to his point. He was telling the Philippians to live like Heaven-citizens based on all of the blessings they had as Christ followers. He’s been talking about that since verse 27 of chapter 1—telling them how to look like what they are, followers of Christ, citizens of Heaven, already but not yet. And in verses 1-4, he said “complete my joy” by being what? Unified. He told them that unity was going to be a hallmark, a token of what it would look like to be in true Christian fellowship with each other. Unity in the truth of the gospel. Unity in purpose, in spreading the gospel. And then he gave them several ways that the unity was going to be achieved, in verses 3 and 4:
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.
And the one word, the thread that can be pulled through both of those verses is the word humility. Each person in this body of Christ approaching each other with humility was going to be what brings unity to the body. So when we continue to verse 5, when Paul says, “have this mind among yourselves,” the “mind” he is talking about, the “this” is what he was just talking about. He says have this humility, this humble posture toward each other. And before the reader can even ask “what is humility, really?” Paul answers the question by providing the greatest example of humility imaginable. Not even imaginable! As we look at it, we’ll find that we can’t even comprehend the depths of the humility of Christ.
On the surface, when we read it, as we just did, the passage itself seems totally comprehensible. But when we step back and take each part that I mentioned in turn, we will be shocked by how profound the humiliation of Christ was, and how deserved his reward. Let’s dive in:
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
When I was mentioning the structure before, this is the part that delivers some truth about who Christ is before the incarnation.
Have you ever met someone—I’m sure you have—that just strikes you as arrogant? I’m thinking especially about someone who might be arrogant about their abilities, what they can do. I’ll tell you, in the world of professional musicians, we never find that at all! This has happened to me a number of times, of course, especially with guest solo artists (I’m not going to name any names). You meet them, and they seem a little full of themselves, and then you go into rehearsal with them and you see what the guest soloist is actually capable of musically (and they’re really amazing!). Every time that happens a lot of us think to ourselves, “kind of arrogant, but at least they can back it up.” So in a way, what is my mind telling me there, that the arrogance is justifiable, because they are talented. Another idiom comes to mind from the sporting world: “Don’t let your mouth write checks that your body can’t cash.” Good advice, right? But I guess if your abilities can back up what you say, you can say whatever you want, right?
What Paul says of Jesus is so completely opposite! “Though he was in the form of God.” The word “form” there indicates more than just shape, it infers essence—Paul says, “even though he was God,” he what?—he didn’t count that as something to be grasped. That’s a tricky phrase—what does it mean “to be grasped?” What he’s saying is he didn’t hold on to that, he didn’t count it as something to be exploited for his own gain. Think about that. Jesus was God. He wasn’t just a human being who happened to combine natural talent and hard work to be exceptional at something—he was God! There isn’t a single check his mouth could write that he couldn’t cash. He was GOD before the incarnation. He could justifiably be “arrogant” about anything. And he chose to do something completely alien to our natural order. He did not count that reality, that he was God, to be something to selfishly exploit. Wow. We’re actually going to look at that verse, verse 6 next week, and unpack that reality a bit and talk about the divinity of Christ.
The second part of the passage talks about what Christ did, what his work was in the incarnation. Though he was God, he chose to voluntarily do something completely against human nature but completely in his nature: he didn’t stand on his God-ness. He instead chose to be humbled, taking on human flesh. And Paul drills down even farther. However humbling it was for Christ to take on flesh in the first place, he was even more humbled by taking the form of a servant. If God was to be contained in flesh, he would have at least deserved to be a great man, or the greatest man, would he not?
We have to remember that this concept of a god in human form was not entirely foreign to the gentile audience. Think of the pervasive Greek mythology in the area at the time—there are many stories of those gods disguising themselves as human and living among people, but they didn’t voluntarily do it with the purpose of saving humanity. There was usually some self-interest. The Greek gods were capricious, changeable, emotional, much like people, only with a few extra powers and immortality.
No, here we see Paul reminding us that Christ was born into a human body, at low station. We are going to take time to reflect on the reality of that, what the real significance of it was and how profoundly humbling that was, but not today. We’ll do that in two weeks—the incarnation is a fitting first message in Advent, in December.
But that’s not all, the birth was only the beginning of the incarnation. We drill down even further—once Christ was here, what did he do? What did he do here as God incarnate? Verse 8: “He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Isn’t that incredible how much theology is wrapped up in that sentence? Do we dwell on that often enough? Paul sums up the earthly work of Christ in only a few words. Here we see the extent of Christ’s obedience. The depth of this humiliation talked about here should grab our attention for sure. Here was God the Son, in a human body—an unimaginable humiliation to begin with. Then a further humiliation, because of that condition living a life of complete obedience, which included temptations we can only imagine. And then what is the final act of obedience? Death—death that he did not deserve based on his actions, unlike every single human that had come before. And Paul makes sure that we don’t forget, even the death itself was the most humiliating form, being put to death on a cross. The humiliation is complete.
This is definitely the low point of the passage, here in verse 8—the humiliation complete. But what comes next? One commentary I read spoke of this Christ Hymn as the “great parabola.” You remember the shape of the parabola, right? High School trigonometry? A regular parabola swoops down and back up again, and it’s exponential, so as it gets further out on each side, it approaches infinity, and approaches it faster as it goes. But just as much as it swoops down, once it leaves the low point, there’s nowhere but up, infinitely up. Here we see the upward side of the parabola, the result of all of this humiliation. Verse 9:
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.
You may have noticed that all of the preceding statements, talking about Christ being humble, Jesus Christ himself is the active one. He did not see his deity as something to be grasped, he emptied himself, he took on flesh, he was obedient throughout his life, he was obedient to death. In all of those statements, Christ is the actor. Then we hit the bottom of the parabola like a rock with one word: Therefore. Now who’s acting. God. The reaction, God’s reward for that multitude of unimaginably humble acts. Therefore God highly exalted him.
Do we see humility rewarded anywhere else in Scripture? You don’t have to look far, it’s everywhere. We can look at more examples in a couple of weeks when we spend a specific message on Christ’s humility, but we definitely know that it is something that God desires. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Meek, humble. Jesus was ultimately humble and he received an ultimate reward. He was highly exalted, received the name above every name, and then the worship of every creature in the creation, above, within, and below the earth.
Now here’s another slippery path to a bad application of this passage. Jesus was humble, see? So now you go out and try to be that humble too, and then you can somehow force God to reward you just like he did Jesus. I’ll let you in on a secret, the application of none of these sermons is going to be “try harder at X, and God will reward you.” That’s not the gospel, in fact that is the application of that terribly pernicious American invention the “prosperity gospel.” Do X and God will reward you. That can’t possibly be the application here. If it was, what was your motivation for being humble, why would you chase after humility? For your own glory, so you would get a reward, so you would be lifted up. Is that what motivated Christ? Was he thinking “boy, this incarnation is going to be really terrible, but I’ll keep my eye on the prize because I know there’s a reward coming.” Not at all! Christ was motivated by love. For God so loved the world, that he sent his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him might not perish but have everlasting life.
It’s love that needs to motivate the Philippians, and us, to humility. You can, as Paul says previously, count others’ needs as greater than your own when you genuinely care for them. It’s so completely counter-cultural. But we see that sacrifice in our lives often—the love of parents for children. If it was all self-interest, if God didn’t bless us with a natural sacrificial love for our children, they would all die, because there wouldn’t be one changed diaper, one spoonful of food served, or any of the other things we do that self-interest would say no to.
So to circle back around—this Christ Hymn is here, this beautiful parabola of humiliation and exaltation, as the perfect example to the church, the Philippians and ours, of what it’s going to take to achieve the unity to which they’ve been called. Unity is going to take humility, and here is the story that you know so well, Paul says, of your savior. You want to be humbled? Put yourself up next to this example of humility—how humbled do you feel? After really considering the humility of Christ and his sacrifice for you, is there really anything left to do but bow down and worship him? How do you feel about yourself, how you sacrifice for others, when put up next to Christ? The answer isn’t “try harder, “ it’s bow down and worship your king. That’s the reaction you should have—we should all be awestruck by the person and work of Christ on our behalf, and it should drive us to worship him.
And so our application is this. There are many, but we’ll stick with this one for the day. That the only way to truly be humble is to be more and more like Christ. And the better we know him, the more we’ll be like him. The better we know him, not the more we try. If you want to chase after humility, chase after Christ. Don’t chase after acts of humility—if you do, they probably have the wrong motivation. Chase after Christ. He’s right here, speaking to us through all of the Scriptures, there always to perfect and deliver your prayers to the Father, and his Spirit is in you all true believers right now. It’s all, ever and always, about Christ. It’s why Paul sounds like a broken record. The gospel, the gospel, the gospel—because the gospel is Christ! He’s concerned about the spread of Christ and his love. That’s what motivates him, and it should be what motivates you too. I hope that you will remember and return often to this, the Christ Hymn, and let what it says both awe you and inspire you to cling to your savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Dear Heavenly Father,
Thank you for sending your Spirit to inspire your servant Paul to preserve this beautiful picture of the person and work of Christ to us. We pray that it will continue to inspire us through the rest of our lives and that we will never forget the great humiliation and sacrifice of Jesus, but also that that wasn’t the end of the story, and that he now sits enthroned in heaven, our perfect prophet, priest, and king, with an name above any other names. Help us, by Christ’s example and through the power of the Spirit, to be more humble each and every day. In Jesus’s precious name, Amen.