The mystery that Jesus is both fully God and fully man – the reality of the incarnation – receives perhaps its most detailed explanation in the book of Philippians. Paul writes this not just for the sake of lofty theology, but to give the Philippians an illustration of true humility.
Paul begins in Phil. 1:27 to explain what it means for the people of God to conduct their lives in a manner worthy of the gospel. He writes that the Christian life chiefly involves being united with one another (1:27; 2:1-2). And the key to experiencing unity, he explains, is humility.
Disunity festers as long as it’s fed by selfishness, pride, and arrogance. But when believers have a proper view of themselves in light of the holiness of God, all notions of entitlement—the sense that it is our right to be treated a certain way—vanish. Disunity simply cannot survive amongst believers who are permeated with the kind of self-forgetful humility that seeks its own happiness in the happiness of others. And so Paul commands believers to do “nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but in humility of mind regarding one another as more important than ourselves, not merely looking out for our own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (2:3).
Then he provides his readers with the supreme example of that kind of humility—the incarnation and gospel mission of the Lord Jesus Christ: “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus” (2:5).
The birth of the Lord Jesus Christ isn’t just a nice story to be read on Christmas Eve.
For followers of Christ, Christmas has ethical implications
The incarnation of Christ should have a visible impact upon our lives. It is intended to make us a humble people. Paul explained the fine points of Christ’s pre-existence and incarnation to demonstrate the heights from which the Lord came, and the depths to which He humbled Himself. And he gave us this picture so that we would have an example to follow as we pursue humility and service to our brothers and sisters.
The call of Christmas is a call to humility.
In this article, I want to consider the Christ in whom we behold the supreme example of humility, and meditate on the glory He renounced, the rights He relinquished, and the shame He embraced.
The Glory He Renounced
Even before the baby Jesus was born, Christ was “existing in the form of God” (Phil. 2:5-6).
What this does not mean is that Jesus only seemed to be God in form, but wasn’t actually God. The Greek word that is translated as “form” is the word morphe, which speaks of the outward manifestation of the inward essence (Kent, 126). In other words, in His very nature, Jesus was God (see the NIV’s translation; see also John 1).
But what is the outward manifestation of the inner essence and nature of God? It’s His glory. When God manifests His presence in the midst of His people, the manifestation is His shekinah glory. This glory is seen all throughout the Bible—in the cloud and the pillar of fire and the smoke that fills the Tabernacle. And this glory has belonged to Jesus from all of eternity (see John 1:14; 17:5).
In Isaiah six, the Prophet writes that he “saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple,” and the angels cried out, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory” (Isaiah 6:1, 3). John would later write that it was Jesus whom Isaiah wrote of in this passage (John 12:41).
This is the heavenly glory our Savior renounced. Jesus Christ is God Himself—God of very God! Before the world was, He eternally existed in the very nature of God, in the very essence of God, and in the very glory of God.
It is from this magnificent height of Heaven that God the Son descended in the humility of His incarnation. John Calvin writes, “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!” (55).
The Rights He Relinquished
Paul writes to the Philippians, “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men” (2:5-7).
Even though Christ existed before the world in the very nature and essence and glory of God, ruling creation in majesty, and receiving the worship of the saints and angels in Heaven, He did not regard these as things to cling to. Instead, He humbly renounced the glories of Heaven and welcomed the restrictions of humanity in order to accomplish salvation for sinners.
Paul writes that He “emptied Himself” (2:7). A better translation might be that He “made himself nothing” (NIV), or that He “nullified Himself.” He did this by “taking the form of a slave, and being made in the likeness of men” (Verse). Christ made Himself nothing by taking on human nature.
We tend to miss the gravity of the incarnation because humanity is all we know. But think of what Christ left behind. This is the Creator of the universe, the possessor of divine glory and majesty, the One rightly worshipped by all the heavenly host—taking the form of a slave. We should be astonished at the humility of Christ.
Consider how much you would love to rid yourself of the weaknesses of the flesh, of the sinfulness of your heart, of the pain and decay that characterizes the human existence. And then consider that Jesus—free from weakness, pain, and decay— contemplated the riches of His pre-incarnate glory, and humbly chose to take on humanity, to live and die as a slave. He is the ultimate example of one who regarded others as more important than Himself. He looked out not merely for His own interests, but also for the interests of others. And in so doing, He modeled for us what we are now called to do.
As sad as it is to admit it, the holidays for many are not a happy time. Empty chairs around the table remind families of loss and heartache. Dinner preparations, travel plans, and endless shopping fill homes with stress. And at this pivotal time of the year, expectations for gatherings can clash against each other, resulting in bitterness and disappointment. These all provide opportunities for tempers to shorten and pride to strengthen.
Especially during this time of year, we need to have in ourselves this attitude which was also in Christ Jesus. In the midst of conflict, though we might be right, we must remember the only One who ever had a right to assert His rights, and didn’t. Then we can regard one another as more important than ourselves, and give preference to one another in honor (Rom. 12:10) for the sake of true unity. Calvin wrote, “He [Jesus] gave up his right: all that is required of us is, that we do not assume to ourselves [a higher position] than we ought” (54).
If God the Son has stooped this far, to what depths of humility will you refuse to stoop?
The Shame He Embraced
Paul continues, “Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (2:8).
Jesus didn’t just become a man; He became an obedient man. From all of eternity the Son was equal to the Father in glory and majesty, but now in His incarnation, He relates to the Father in terms of authority and submission (see John 5:30; 6:38). And Christ’s humble submission to the Father leads Him to the point of death. Jesus was born to die. The point of Jesus’ incarnation is Jesus’ passion.
Christmas is simply the introduction to Good Friday
The Author of Life humbly submits to death. The One who is without sin humbly submits to sin’s curse. The One who has life within Himself (John 1:4; 5:26)—the One who gives life to whomever He wishes (John 5:21)—humbly releases His grip on His own life in submission to the Father and in love for those whom His Father has given Him. This is humility shining as the sun in its full strength.
The cross meant one thing: the most horrific and shameful kind of death. In crucifixion, metal spikes were driven through the victim’s wrists and feet, and he was left to hang naked and exposed, sometimes for days. Because the body would be pulled down by gravity, the weight of a victim’s own body would press against his lungs, and the hyperextension of the lungs and chest muscles made it difficult to breathe. Victims would gasp for air by pulling themselves up. But when they would, the wounds in their wrists and feet would tear at the stakes that pierced them, and the flesh of their back—usually torn open from flogging—would grate against the jagged wood. Eventually, when he could no longer summon the strength to pull himself up to breathe, the victim of a crucifixion would die from suffocation under the weight of his own body.
There on Golgotha, 2,000 years ago, the innocent, holy, righteous Son of God died this death. God. On a cross.
This was the Highest of the high gone to the lowest of the low. And if He, the One who was worthy of all honor and praise could submit Himself to this, can we continue in selfish ambition and empty conceit? Can we continue to bicker with one another, and insist on our own rights? Can we withhold forgiveness? Can we do anything less than surrender all of our rights, and lay down our lives in the sacrificial service of one another?
A wise man once asked, “How can anyone be arrogant when he stands beside the cross?”
The Divine Curse
But as hard as it may be to believe, the shame and pain of the cross was not the lowest depth to which the Son of God humbly submitted Himself. The Old Testament taught that anyone hanged on a tree is accursed of God (see also Gal. 3:13). Worse than the pain, the torture, and the shame, crucifixion also brought with it a divine curse.
We need to dwell long and hard on what it meant for God the Son to be cursed by God the Father. He never deserved to know His Father’s wrath. He only ever deserved to know His Father’s delight and approbation. And there on Calvary, He was cut off from the apple of His eye, from the joy of His heart. And He was innocent! I can barely imagine the sense of bewilderment the Son of God must have experienced, when for the first time in all of eternity, He felt His Father’s displeasure. No wonder He cried out, “My God, why have You forsaken Me?”
That was my sin that did that. My wrath that He had to endure. That was my frown from the Father, my alienation. That was my cry of dereliction. I can barely handle that thought.
And friend, if you haven’t felt the pain of that thought in the depths of your soul, and cried out with every fiber of your being for God to have mercy on you, you remain dead in your trespasses and sins. But I beg you: feel it now. Cry out now in repentance and faith, and cast yourself on the mercy of Christ. Turn from your sin—abandon all your “good works” that you would rely on to get you to heaven, and beg for forgiveness on the basis of the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Trust entirely in His righteousness alone for salvation. And God promises you will be saved. His death will have become your death. His curse, your curse. And His righteousness, your righteousness. What could stop you from seizing eternal life, this very moment?
And to my brothers and sisters who have seized it, “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus.” If He could come from the glories of heaven itself, all the way down to the abject degradation of the cross, surely we can humble ourselves to be servants of all. Surely we, mere creatures of the dust, can surrender our rights for the sake of maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
The call of Christmas is the call to humility. May it be that we answer that call, by the grace of God.