It's big to be small - Philippians 2
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
One of the most famous catchphrases of the 1990’s was, of course, Victor Meldrew’s, ‘I don’t believe it’, usually exclaimed when life had dealt him another unexpected blow below the belt. But when it comes to one of Christianity’s central claims that is exactly the words we hear being uttered time and time again. The Jehovah’s Witness cries, ‘I don’t believe it!’ The Muslim likewise says, ‘I don’t believe it!’ and sadly there are some even within the mainline churches who also join in the refrain, ‘I don’t believe it!’ What is it they don’t believe? It is the claim that Jesus is God or to be more precise that Jesus of Nazareth is both God and Man and is to be worshipped as such. And what people really do believe is not simply expressed by the doctrinal statements they say, but by the songs they sing. And this was certainly the case with the early church and their beliefs about Jesus. So, when we turn to what many regard as one of the earliest Christian hymns written, Philippians 2:5-11, we have a graphically moving account of the divine journey, a journey undertaken by the Son of God which took him from the warm bright uplands of heaven into the dark, the frozen wastes of our needy world. So this morning I want you to accompany me on retracing that journey with the Apostle Paul and be prepared to be amazed.
The first thing we encounter is the divine identity, -v6, Jesus- ‘Who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.’ Now could you wish for a clearer statement of who Jesus is than that? He is in the form of God, having equality with God. Both point to the same reality- Jesus is the man who is God. Now, the word rendered here as ‘form’ (morphe) is sometimes used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament to translate the word ‘glory.’ So the claim being made is that Jesus is the resplendent manifestation of God- his glory. As such he is the one seen by Isaiah in the great vision of chapter 6, listen to this: ‘In the year that king Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty: the whole earth is full of his glory.”’. At least that is what the apostle John says was the case in his Gospel- John 12: 41, for having quoted the prophet he writes: ‘Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus glory and spoke about him’. When did he see Jesus glory? Well, when he was in the temple of course. James refers to Jesus in exactly the same way, ‘The Lord Jesus Christ, the glory’ (James 2:1). And that is what Paul is saying here, namely, from all eternity to all eternity the one we have come to know as Jesus is the magnificence of the One true God, endlessly worshipped by angels, who are overawed by his majesty and bathed in his glory. That is Jesus, the form of God so making him equal with God the Father.
But then what are we to make of this peculiar phrase-that he ‘did not count equality with God something to be grasped’? Is he equal with God or not? Now the verb translated ‘to be grasped’-(’harpagmos’) is not found anywhere else in the NT and that is why folk have found it very difficult to put it into English. Now without going into all the details, it is a phrase which speaks of using something which is at your disposal and exploiting it, but in this case it is a refusal to exploit something. So what was it that Jesus Christ, God the Son, refused to take advantage of? Well, it was his divinity. Just think about it. Jesus did not behave as we might have expected God to behave when he walked this earth. He did not flaunt his power in an act of divine pyrotechnics. He did not strut the world demanding homage. Think of what he says at his betrayal in Matthew 26: 47, ‘Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than 12 legions of angels?’ That is the idea, he could have done that but he didn’t. But in another sense he did behave in a way which was perfectly consistent with his divine nature, but divinity as it truly is and not as we mortals imagine it to be. For, you see, God within his own being is -a humble God. He is a God who is more concerned with giving rather than with getting. Let me ask: Why did God create the universe in the first place? Was it because, as some have suggested, he was a lonely God and wanted a bit of company? Of course not! Loneliness is not an option for God because in the family of the Trinity God the Father always had God the Son both loving each other through the agency of God the Holy Spirit. No, he created so that others could benefit from his being. He wanted to share his goodness. He wanted to give away his glory-that is why he made us, for our benefit not for his. He wanted creatures who would reflect something of his image to the world, who would delight in praising him, and discover meaning and purpose in relation to him, who would have the ability to comprehend that the whole cosmos is but the theatre in which he displays his unfailing love for the creatures he has made. That is why he created. But God goes even beyond this. For he is not just content to create us, he is determined to redeem us and so we come to the divine humility-v7.
‘He emptied himself, taking the form of servant, being born in the likeness of men.’ Tell me: How do you describe the indescribable? Well, you do so by using picture language-metaphors. That is what Paul is doing here when he speaks of Christ emptying himself. He doesn’t mean that God the Son ceased to be God at the incarnation, emptying himself of his divinity as if such a thing were possible. Rather, this emptying is not so much a matter of taking something off but more of a putting something on- emptying himself into something. Into what? Well, Paul tells us –emptying himself into the form of a servant. ’ Actually, the word is slave. In other words, there was a hiding of the form of God under the form of a slave. One writer, John Calvin puts it like this: ‘Here is something marvellous: the Son of God descended from heaven in such a way that, without leaving heaven, he willed to be born in the virgin’s womb, to go about the earth, and to hang upon the cross; yet he continuously filled the world even as he had done from the beginning.’ Isn’t that an amazing idea? As he lay there in his mother’s arms as a baby he was at the same time as God directing the constellations and the paths of the stars. His emptying was not so much a subtraction but an addition, the embracing of human flesh, God clothing himself in blood vessels, skin and nerve tissue as he entered into our world as a speck of human stardust in a Jewish teenager’s uterus. This means that in one instant the omnipotent became breakable. He who was larger than the universe became an embryo. He who sustains the world with a word became dependent upon a young adolescent girl. God as a foetus, holiness sleeping in a womb, the creator becoming created-that is what is captured by this little phrase. Another Christian thinker from the 5th century, Augustine gathered the same thoughts like this: ‘He, through whom time was made, was made in time; and He, older by eternity than the world itself, was younger in age than many of His servants in the world; He, who made man, was made man; He was given existence by a mother whom He brought into existence; He was carried in hands which He formed; He nursed at breasts which He filled; He cried like a babe in the manger in speechless infancy -- this Word without which human eloquence is speechless!’
Now, just let’s tease this out a little further to see what it means.
First, it means that the second person of the Trinity took a human body. You know, the first heresy the church had to face with regard to the Person of Christ was not denial of His deity but denial of His physical humanity. The great fact is God's Son took a human body which had exactly the same biochemical composition as our own, exactly the same anatomy and physiology as our own, the same central nervous system and the same sensitivity to pain as our own. It was a human body with a genetic composition very similar to ours. To this genetic composition His mother made the same contribution as any human mother makes to the genetic make-up of her child. One half of His chromosomes came from His mother. The rest were imparted miraculously in the creative act of the virgin birth by the Holy Spirit. Jesus had and still has a human body.
Secondly, it means that Jesus had a human mind and that that human mind was limited and finite. It had to reason in the way we all have to reason from premises to conclusions. It had to gather, store and organize information, just like we do. He was not, at the human level, omniscient- all knowing. For example, we find the Lord confessing His ignorance of the time of the Second Coming: `But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father' (Mark 13:32). This doesn’t mean that the Lord Jesus was fallible, able to make mistakes. Infallibility does not depend on omniscience, it depends upon the ministry of the Spirit, and Jesus enjoyed that in the totality both because of who He was and because of what He came to accomplish. But it is clear that the Lord's human mind was finite and His human perception limited. He underwent normal intellectual development and learned by observing the world around Him, listening to His mother teach him and searching the Scriptures which were about him. He was not ignorant of anything He ought to have known. His Father kept from Him nothing which it was good for him and his people to know. So that means we can trust what he says to be absolutely true and reliable, in fact he is the only person we can trust in this way.
Thirdly, the fact that God the Son took a human psychology means that He experienced the whole range of human emotions. He knew the emotions of joy and contentment (Mtt 11:25). The fruit of the Spirit we are told is love, joy and peace (Galatians 5:22) and since he was one full of the Holy Spirit it is reasonable to assume he bore the fruit in full measure, no one was more full of joy and peace and love than Jesus. In Mk 6:34 he is said to have had compassion on the crowd. He was no stranger to the darker side of our human emotions either. He felt the sorrow of bereavement at the tomb of Lazarus (and probably earlier, on the death of his father, Joseph). In Gethsemane we are told he was `deeply distressed (Mk 14:33) He was afraid, `even unto death'-that is depression language being used. Emotionally, he went to the outer limits of human endurance.
Fourthly, the Lord shared the affective side of our humanness. Isn’t it touching to know that he needed human relationships? Mark tells us that He chose the twelve simply to be `with him' (Mark 3:14). When He went to Gethsemane He took three of them along because He dreaded being alone. In the hour of His agony, he needs the presence of his own kind-people. All He asks is that they be there and stay awake which they fail to do. Aren’t you moved by that thought? We see the man Christ walking down the dusty road with friends, both male and female. We see how He loved children and would sit them on his knee. We see Him weep over Jerusalem. We see His spontaneous affection for the rich young man, he really did like him. In the Lord Jesus you do not see that dreadful emotionally stunted type of Christianity which keeps people at arms length for fear of getting too close, afraid of becoming too deeply involved with the attendant fear of vulnerability. Do you realise that there was no one more vulnerable than Jesus? The Lord Jesus was prepared to so love as to be vulnerable, and as a result he was hurt -cruelly hurt. One of his closest friends betrayed Him. His most favoured disciples abandoned Him. And in the end there was not one of his disciples at the cross to offer any encouragement or understanding. Can you imagine how that felt?
So here then is Jesus- one person with two natures, one fully human, one fully divine. That is what happened when God became one of us some 2000 years ago. But we have to ask, why? Why leave the joys of heaven and the adoration of angels to endure the pains of earth and the abuse of men? Paul tells us that it was to fulfil the divine rescue-v8
‘And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross.’ Now there is the shock. We might have expected the phrase ‘he humbled himself ’following on from what we have seen already, but the cross was such a place of utter contempt and disgrace that it is kept to this point in the hymn, the low point, the central point before it is mentioned at all. In our society the cross is a piece of jewellery, in Roman society it was an obscenity. The first century Jew or Roman could no more have a symbol of a cross around his neck than we would have a dogs entrails around ours-it was that gross. And Paul wants to rub that in. That is why the poem is so abrupt at this point. Poetically it should simply have read ‘he became obedient to death.’ But Paul spoils the scanning by putting in the phrase ‘even death on a cross’ like an exclamation mark-scrawling the obscenity on the wall. You want to know how humble God is?-asks Paul-I will show you-he goes to a cross!
You see, in his coming, God the Son became a slave, but in his death he became a curse. In the one he descended to earth, in the other he descended to hell. Here then is the very heartbeat of God’s mission- to bear away the guilt of sinners, to absorb into his pure and sinless body the divine wrath we deserve because of our impure and sinful acts. This is the divine rescue which plumbs the pitiful depths of divine condescension, as stripped naked, bruised and bleeding, his shame is displayed before the whole world to see-God’s own Son splayed on a cross and left to die. Friends, we worship the sin-bearing God and no other religion on earth does that.
And so we move to the final stage in -vv 9-11 the divine triumph: ‘Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed upon him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven, on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’
Having descended to the depths of hell Jesus is raised to the heights of heaven. He is declared by the Father to have the title which surpasses all other titles-he is LORD-echoing Is 45:21-23. Back there we read: ‘There is salvation to be found in no one else, everyone must turn to the Lord (Yahweh) and be saved.’ Now, in the light of the coming of Jesus and the cross, that means everyone must turn to Jesus and be saved for he is LORD. If it were possible for people to be forgiven by any other means than the cross do you not think that God would have scoured the universe to find it? If it were possible that our good deeds and our religious devotion could ensure eternal life, do you not think God would deign to accept it? But the fact that he goes to these lengths must mean that there is only one way of salvation and this is it. People will bow before Jesus one day, either as grateful believers or unwilling rebels, but bow they will.
Now throughout this passage Paul has been making an implicit contrast. Did you spot it? On the one hand there is Adam and all of us who have copied him ever since. Remember, he sought equality with God as something to be snatched at. He disobeyed God’s command and ate of the tree bringing the whole of the human race tumbling down with him in judgement. But then there is Jesus, the new Adam, who was God and obeyed his Father to the last by hanging on a tree taking our judgement upon himself and so restoring the new human race back into friendship with God. That is the progression of Christmas, from the crib to the cross.
Some 1700 years after this hymn had been written another one began to take shape, written by Charles Wesley. The words are different but the sentiments are the same: ‘Christ by highest heaven adored, Christ the everlasting Lord, Late in time behold him come, offspring of the Virgin’s womb. Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail incarnate deity, pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.’
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