I love reading biographies and especially missionary biographies. The account of the life of Gladys Aylward is one of my favorites. She was born to a working class family in London in 1902. Having believed in Jesus, she was determined from an early age to go overseas as a missionary. She applied to China Inland Mission, only to be turned down because of her inadequate academic background. Undeterred, she saved up funds while working as a housemaid. She spent all that she had on a train passage to China through Siberia. In Siberia she was forced to get off the train and walk because of a war that was going on. She traveled by train, by boat, by foot and finally made her way—through a long, arduous journey, to China. And when she finally arrived at her destination the local villagers threw stones at her. Ultimately she was much used by God to bring the light of the gospel to that very dark place.
It’s a long way from London to the remote region of China where Gladys traveled. And when you think of missionary endeavor in times past, imagine how long and hard it was for people to go to those far away places. But no matter how far any of us ever travel, or how hard and difficult our experience in serving Jesus, nothing compares to the missionary journey Jesus took when He left His Father’s throne above and came to this sin-cursed planet to die on a cross from our sins.
Philippians 2:5-8 is all about Jesus’ missionary descent from heaven to earth to die for our sins.
The word translated “attitude” in verse 5 means “to think, have an opinion, to be mindful of, be intent on.” The Greek term is used 31 times in the NT. 11X in Philippians. One such usage is in Philippians 3:19 which speaks of those who “set their minds on earthly things.” Put simply, the term speaks of a way of thinking.
The term is a present tense imperative. The fact that we are commanded to have this attitude means that it is something possible for us to do. The reason why it is possible for us is not because of us. It is because of what God has done and is doing in us. The believer is a person who has been born again and thus made to be a new creature in Christ. One who has been identified with Christ in His death and resurrection that he might walk in newness of life. One who is indwelt by the Spirit of God, who works to mediate the very presence of Christ to us and in us. It is possible for us, as believers, because we’ve been crucified with Christ and it is no longer we, in our old selves, who live, but Christ lives in us.
It is a present tense command. So it is a way of thinking by the Spirit that attends our everyday walk in Christ. It is not something to be turned on and turned off according to some kind of spiritual schizophrenia. It is the way of thinking that is to characterize our lives 24/7.
Note this about our passage. We are exhorted to maintain this attitude that was the attitude of Christ. And that attitude is explained to us in verses 6-8. The passage is saying that we need to maintain a way of thinking that is congruent with that of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It goes on to speak of His incarnation, servanthood, and crucifixion, things which all have great relevance to us as believers when it comes to our salvation. He came as a man. He came to serve and give His life for sin. He died on a cross to save us. But what this text is saying that He is not only our Savior by way of His sacrifice, He is also our example. The cross is not something we believe not just because of its power to save, the cross is something we also look to for the power of its example.
That being said, we do the passage a kind of theological disservice if we get bogged down in the theological minutiae that is here. There are wonderful and important things that are spoken of regarding the person and work of Jesus Christ here in this passage. Many suppose that this represented an early Christian hymn that was sung in the churches of that day. And we can see why! But we need to pay attention to those truths as we consider this incredible truth—we are called to think and walk in a way that resembles that of the Lord Jesus Himself.
A main point here is this passage is the “humility of Christ.” This passage speaks to that.
- Humble in His Renunciation
“Who although He existed in the form of God”
The Greek term translated “form” refers to “an outward manifestation which corresponds to the essence.”
It is an affirmation of the deity of Jesus Christ. As the NIV puts it, “Who, being in very nature God.”
Jesus is the eternal Son of God. He has always been and will always be the Divine Son of God.
That’s the truth affirmed to us in John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
That’s the truth affirmed to us in John 8:58, where Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I Am.” His audience understood what He was affirming about Himself inasmuch as they took up stones to throw at Him.
“Did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped.” The term translated “regard” refers to “a judgment based on facts.” It is the same word used in verse 3 with respect to how we are to think of ourselves in relationship to others.
The term “grasped” (translated “robbery” in the KJV) can have two distinct meanings: 1) to unlawfully seize something; and 2) to grasp and hold on to something at all costs.” The second meaning is the sense here. Jesus was willing to let go of privileges and blessings associated with His glorious heavenly existence. He did not cease to be God, but He was willing to leave Heaven’s glory that He might come to this sinful world and die for sins.
It is the truth spoken of in 2 Corinthians 8:9, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.”
It is the same truth spoken of in the hymn, “He is Lord”:
Emptied of His glory; God became a man
To walk on earth in ridicule and shame.
A Ruler, yet a Servant; A Shepherd, yet a Lamb
A Man of Sorrows, agony and pain.
Now note this regarding Jesus’ humble renunciation. He voluntarily and deliberately purposed to do what He did. This denial of self and selfish concern and selfish prerogative characterized His earthly life and ministry. And He voluntarily and purposefully did that.
There is an interesting exchange between Jesus and Peter that is recorded for us in Matthew chapter 16. Peter correctly identifies Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of God. And Jesus commends Peter for His God-given understanding of that truth. Then Jesus spoke to His disciples of how He had come to suffer and die and rise again. And Peter’s response? That should never happen to you. Then Peter receives a totally different response from Jesus, “Get thee behind Me, Satan!” But it’s the rest of what Jesus had to say that should catch our attention: “You are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s” (Matthew 16:23). Then Jesus went on to explain that His followers are called to the same “self-denying” manner of life that is exemplified in Him. “Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him (likewise) deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me’. (Matthew 16:24).
God’s interests vs. man’s interests. God’s way vs. man’s way. Dying for self vs. living for self. These are the two different ways that are set before us. The one, God’s way, is the way set forth for us in the example of Jesus Christ. The other, man’s way, is the way of the world, the flesh and the devil.
Jesus did nothing from selfishness (i.e. self-will), we are exhorted to follow His example (Philippians 2:3).
- Humble in His Incarnation
“But emptied Himself.”
KJV, “Made himself of no reputation.”
The Greek term translated “emptied” has been the subject of much debate by theologians. My NASB has this note in the margin—i.e. “laid aside His privileges.”
It is not that Jesus laid aside His deity—that would be heresy—but that He emptied Himself of privileges pertaining to His deity. One way to think of this is to set this text against what we read about in Matthew 17. Jesus took Peter and James and John up a high mountain by themselves. “And He was transfigured before them; and His face shown like the sun, and His garments became as white as light” (Matthew 17:2). The experience was so startling that, after the Father spoke, the disciples fell to the ground in fear. John would later write of it in John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld His glory.” Peter likewise would write of being “eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Peter 1:16). But Jesus did not live His life before people in this transfigured way. In the word of the prophet Isaiah, “He had no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him” (Isaiah 53:2).
Or, as the hymn puts it, “He left His Father’s throne above, so free, so infinite His grace! Emptied Himself of all but love, and bled for Adam’s helpless race.”
He emptied Himself by “taking the form of a bond-servant.”
“Bond-servant” is the same term Paul and Timothy applied to themselves. A bond-servant is a willing servant. It is not one brought into a place of involuntary servanthood. He is one who freely serves from a good motive.
The term “form” is the same used in verse 6. And here it has the same sense. An outward manifestation that corresponds to the essence. What is affirmed here in verse 7 is readily apparent in what we see in the life of Jesus. As He Himself said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). And what we see in Him when He set aside His garments and wrapped Himself with a towel and proceeded to wash the feet of the disciples.
“And being made in the likeness of men.”
This is a different term than the term “form” used in verse 6 and 7. It denotes something which is made like something. Vine’s points out that this phrase does not either imply or exclude, by itself, the “reality of the nature Christ assumed.” But other texts in Scripture make it clear that Jesus was a man. In fact, Jesus was 100% God and 100% man.
This is the truth affirmed in John 1:14, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
As the Nicene Creed puts it: “I believe…in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made; Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”
Theologically speaking, this truth—that Jesus is fully God and was fully man—is of great importance. To deny either is to misunderstand or misrepresent the truth about Jesus Christ. As it says in 1 John 4:2-3, “By this you know the Spirit of God, every spirit that confesses Jesus Christ has come in flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God.”
- Humble in His Crucifixion
“And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself.”
It is an amazing thing this humility of Christ. And we’ve already noted that the word holiness means literally “lowliness.” The Divine Son of God, the creator of all things, humbled Himself. He was not “humbled” by somebody or something, He put Himself in that position.
And His life and ministry is characterized by humility.
- He, the creator of all things, was born in humble circumstances. And we read how there was no place for Him in the inn and how He was laid in a feeding trough in His birth.
- He, who reigns over all, lived in subjection to His parents.
- He, who through whom all things exist, had no place to lay His head.
- He came and lived not as a King, but as a servant.
- He took on the task of the servant when He set aside His garments, wrapped Himself in a towel and proceeded to wash the feet of His disciples.
- He purposed to subject Himself to the evil forces who worked to arrest and try Him. He refused to make a defense when falsely accused. He allowed Himself to be beaten and crucified.
Calvin sums up the practical application of our text: “Since, then, the Son of God descended from so great a height, how unreasonable that we, who are nothing, should be lifted up with pride!”
“By becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Jesus lived a life of perfect submission. He came to do the Father’s will. When the cross drew near He prayed, “My Father, if it possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as Thou wilt” (Matthew 26:39).
Hebrews 10:7, “Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come…to do Thy will, O God’.”
The Father’s will led Jesus to the cross. And He purposed to submit Himself to that.
He endured physical suffering. The cross was an especially brutal way to die. But what was worse for Jesus was the spiritual agony He experienced when “He who knew no sin was made sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21). A commonly used word in Isaiah 53 is the word “bore.” He bore our sins on the cross. And then it says in Isaiah 53 that the “Lord was pleased to crush Him.” The full weight of man’s sin was put upon Him and He cried out, “MY God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” The perfect and sinless Jesus felt the full measure of the Father’s wrath against sin. And He was utterly alone there on that cross. Galatians 3:13 quotes Deuteronomy when it says, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” He was made a curse so that we could be redeemed from the curse.
1 Peter 2:24, “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.”
1 Peter 3:18, “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that HE might bring us to God.”
This passage should work to stimulate both adoration and emulation of Jesus Christ. We adore Jesus in who He is and all that He has done. We also fix our eyes on Him, the author and perfecter of faith (Hebrews 12:2), endeavoring to live our lives according to His example.
The exhortations give to us in verses 2-4 were all perfectly fulfilled in the life of Jesus.
“Do nothing from selfishness.” Jesus’ life was the antithesis of selfishness. Agape love does not seek its own (1 Corinthians 13:5). Jesus did not seek His own.
We are to do nothing from “empty conceit” but are to instead live according to a “humility of mind” (Philippians 2:3). Jesus, the Divine Son of God and creator of all things, lived a life of humility. He washed the disciple’s feet.
The world has known of no better servant. He came not to be served, but to serve. And we are likewise called to serve. According to Christ’s example.
Philippians 2:3 exhorts us to put the needs of others ahead of our own. Consider Jesus, who lived a perfectly selfless life. Who was always putting the needs of other ahead of His own. And who died on a cross for our sins that He might bring us to God.
Augustus Strong, “And Christ’s purpose is, not that we should repeat Calvary, for that we can never do, but that we should reflect in ourselves the same onward movement and gravitation towards self-sacrifice which He has revealed as characterizing the very life of God.”
Does your life bear resemblance to Christ? Are you living according to Jesus’ radically different way of thinking and living? When people see the way you think and act do they see something akin to the spirit of Jesus? He is a glorious Savior and in Him we have a wonderful example!