I invite you now to come with me into the very center of the Christian faith. And I invite you to do so through a text of Scripture with which you are, no doubt, very familiar. Just before my family and I left the Philippines and returned to the United States, this text opened up for me in an explosive way. I had, by that time, studied and taught it for nearly 20 years. But it was not until November of 1988 that the text's fundamental affirmation finally opened up to me. Why I had not seen it before, I do not know. It's all so obvious to me now, and so very humbling.
As a result, this text has become my interpretative center of life. I judge all things against it, and in light of it, everything needs to be interpreted. I look for any excuse to study and preach it, although I feel more and more woefully unworthy to do so.
The text is Philippians 2:5–11. Because of its rich vocabulary and poetic and rhythmic style, many scholars argue that what we have in this text is an early Christian hymn. Dr. Ralph Martin, with whom I had the privilege of first studying Philippians, wrote a 364-page book on this text entitled, Carmen Christi: A Hymn to Christ.
Philippians 2:5–11 is not the only hymn in the New Testament, as you know. We hear a number of them in the Revelation of Jesus Christ—hymns that help us fix our eyes on Jesus. In Revelation 4:8, for example, the living creatures surrounding the throne of the universe do not cease singing, day and night, "Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come." In Revelation 5:9, the living creatures and the 24 elders sing to Jesus Christ, "Worthy are you to take the scroll and break its seal; for you were slain and you purchased for God with your blood men and women from every tribe and tongue and people and nation." In fact, on nearly every page of the Revelation, someone breaks out with a song.
In his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul quotes a hymn likely sung at baptisms. Ephesians 5:14: "Awake sleeper, and arise from the dead and Christ will shine on you." In his first letter to Timothy, Paul also quotes a hymn that was apparently used as an affirmation of faith: "He who was revealed in the flesh, was vindicated in the Spirit, beheld by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory" (1 Timothy 3:16). Then, in his letter to the Colossians, Paul quotes a hymn that could lead to serious discipleship for a physics student at the University of California. So begins Colossians 1:15–20: "He is the visible expression of the invisible God. By him and for him all things were created."
Finally, the apostle John begins his gospel with what many believe to be a hymn. It's found in John 1:1–18: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God." The hymn builds to its climax—"The Word became flesh and dwelt among us"—and ends with, "No one has seen God at any time, the only begotten God who was in the bosom of the Father, he has explained him."
But the hymn of all hymns is Philippians 2:5–11. Oh, what a song it sings! Whether Paul composed it as he was writing the letter, whether he composed it earlier and then incorporated it as he was writing the letter, or whether some unknown worship leader composed it and then Paul took it and put it in his letter, we do not know. But what we do know is that this song turns everything upside down. The title, Carmen Christi: A Hymn to Christ, gives way to the title, Carmen Patri: A Hymn to the Father. It begins, "Have this mind in you, which was in Christ Jesus;" it ends with, "to the glory of God the Father." Why? How does a hymn that is so radically centered in Christ end up being a hymn to the Father?
The hymn can be neatly divided into three stanzas. These three stanzas depict the three major movements in our Lord's career—if career is even the right word to use. The first stanza, 2:6–7a, sings of Jesus' pre-earthly existence. The second stanza, verses 7b–8, sings of Jesus' earthly existence—of Bethlehem to Calvary. The third stanza, verses 9–11, sings of Jesus' post-earthly existence—of a time stretching from Bethlehem and Calvary to the present and on into the future.
It was the Swiss theologian Emil Brünner who suggested we could represent this threefold movement of our Lord's career using the mathematical model of a parabola.
Movement one: Jesus' career begins in the heights of glory.
Movement two: Through progressively deeper stages of self-emptying, he descends into the depth of creatureliness, becoming a human being and accepting the entirety of the human condition.
Movement three: Because he accepted and fulfilled this descent, he is exalted to the highest place in the universe.
This whole threefold movement turns on a decision. It all emerges from a decision that Jesus made in his pre-earthly state. In verse 6, the hymn sings, "He did not regard," or better, "He did not consider." The whole of salvation history flows from that decision. "He did not consider" is the driving force of history.
In order to appreciate the magnitude of that decision, we need to make sure that we understand the other key terms and words in this hymn. I want to take each word, hold it up, and then briefly comment on it. Though a little bit heady, it prepares us for an incredible revelation.
Verse 6: "Although he was in the form of God." Was. The Greek word has two meanings—to exist and to be at one's disposal, to have possession of. In his pre-earthly state, Jesus Christ existed in and possessed the form of God.
Verse 6: "Although he was in the form of God." Form. The word speaks to how "the outward shape of a thing conforms to the inward reality." The outward shape is what it is because of the inner reality that it expresses. He was in the form of God. The hymn is saying that in his pre-earthly shape, Jesus Christ possessed inwardly and displayed outwardly the very nature of God. What the living God is inside, the pre-earthly Jesus was. What the living God expresses of himself outwardly, the pre-earthly Jesus expressed.
The hymn goes on to use the term equality—"he did not consider equality with God something to be grasped." Equality with God is what Jesus possesses in his pre-earthly state. Which is why, just before going to the cross, Jesus can pray, "And now, Father, glorify me together with yourself with the glory I had with you before the world was." Before becoming a human being, Jesus Christ was divine; he possessed the form of God, and his divinity was on the same level as the one he calls Father.
Another key term is found in verse 7: "He emptied himself." As you are fully aware, there is much scholarly debate about this word. Of what did he empty himself? Some answer that the pre-earthly Jesus emptied himself of his divine nature. Some argue that the pre-earthly Jesus chose to willingly forego, in his incarnation, the prerogative of his Godhead. But it should be noted that the hymn does not say he emptied himself of anything—just that "he emptied himself." In fact, the hymn suggests that this emptying was not so much due to subtraction as it was due to addition. "He emptied himself, taking—."
Thus, another term from verse 7: "Taking the form of a slave." The word used here is the same as the word used in verse 6. He who was inwardly and outwardly divine chose to live as a slave, inwardly and outwardly. Most translations render it "servant." The NRSV renders it a "slave." The word refers to someone who has no rights. He or she is bound to the master. He or she does what the master wants, when and how the master wants it. The divine one became a servant or slave.
Why did he do such a thing?
Look at another term in verse 8: "Being born in human likeness." The writer of this hymn is choosing words very carefully. The Greek word for likeness is related to the word for image, but with a slight difference. Image implies an exact representation of the original. Likeness emphasizes a similarity, a congruence, but it allows for a difference between the original and the copy. The point is that he who was by nature God, became a human being, but not merely a human being. As Ralph Martin puts it, "He is truly man but he is not merely man." And he is not merely man because he is still divine. Jesus is truly human and truly God, and that affirmation is protected by the term "likeness."
Isn't this exciting stuff? The one who has always existed in the form of God—in equality with God—becomes a real flesh-and-blood human being like us, yet without ceasing to be God!
But why did he do it?
Another term, verse 8: "He humbled himself and became obedient unto death." As a human being, Jesus, the servant or slave, chooses a life of obedience. Here the writer of the hymn is drawing a deliberate contrast. The first human, Adam, chose to live out human freedom in disobedience, and that disobedience resulted in the ruin of the world. But when the eternal one, the last Adam, becomes a human being, he chooses to exercise human freedom in obedience, and his obedience means the redemption of the world.
Another term from verse 8: "even death on a cross." In the first century, death on a cross was the most degrading of all deaths. J. B. Phillips translates the passage in this manner: "And the death he died was the death of a common criminal." You can see, then, that the descent is total—from heaven to earth, choosing to live the life of a servant or slave, and becoming obedient unto a degrading death.
But why? Why did he do it?
We need to understand one more term. In verse 11, notice the word name: "Therefore, God has highly exalted him, and given him the name above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." The servant/slave has been exalted to the throne and given the name above every name. What is that name? In the Greek text, the word used is the Roman title given to the emperor—especially after the emperors began to think of themselves as divine. In the Jewish world, this particular word was the equivalent of the sacred name of the God of Israel—equivalent to the name "Yahweh."
What a claim to make for the itinerate preacher from Nazareth! He is worthy of the same reference and acclaim given to Roman emperors, and he is worthy of the same reverence and acclaim given to Yahweh, the God of the Jews. As someone has put it, "He who was completely obedient must now be completely obeyed." Thus it is written: "At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord"—that Jesus Christ is Yahweh—"to the glory of God the Father."
But why is the servant/slave given that name? And why does declaring, "Jesus is Lord," bring glory to God the Father?
Jesus' pre-earthly decision highlights what it means to be God.
We are ready to appreciate the magnitude of the decision Jesus Christ made in his pre-earthly state.
The hymn says, "Let this same mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, he did not consider equality with God something to be grasped." He did not consider. Everything in the Christian story turns on that decision. And the nature of that decision turns on the meaning "something to be grasped."
The word used here is very challenging because this is the only place in the New Testament where the apostle Paul uses the term. In Greek literature, it's hardly used at all. Older versions of the Bible rendered it "something to be grasped," but newer versions are rendering it "something to be exploited." Why the shift? Dr. Hoover of Harvard University has demonstrated that the word Paul uses does not mean "something to be grasped," but rather "something to seize upon." In another sense, "something to take advantage of." That's how the word is to be translated—something to take advantage of. The hymn is declaring that in his pre-earthly state, Jesus Christ did not consider equality with God something to take advantage of—something to be exploited—but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, a slave.
But why? Why did he do it?
Part of the reason is our need. We need him to make this descent, don't we?
Part of the reason is our worth to him. He considers us worthy of this descent. The pre-earthly Jesus looked at us rebellious, broken, sinful human beings and considered us worth emptying himself for.
But you will notice that the hymn doesn't even mention us. It doesn't mention our need. It doesn't mention our worth.
Then why? Why did he do it?
We come now to the heart of the text, and I suggest that we are coming now to the heart of the Christian faith. I would even suggest that we are now coming to the heart of the universe!
In his pre-earthly state, the Son of God is contemplating what it means to be equal with his Father, and he comes to a conclusion that no one, except the Father, expects. He comes to the conclusion that equality with God is not something to take advantage of, but rather a means toward emptying one's self and taking the form of a servant. Did you hear that? Equality with God means emptying one's self and taking the form of a servant.
Let me put it a bit differently. The Son of God is contemplating what it means to be God, and he comes to the conclusion that to be God is to be a servant. In choosing to become one of us—in choosing to adopt the life of a servant or slave—the Son does not give up equality with God. That would be impossible. Rather, he considers the form of God as being most appropriately expressed in emptying himself. It is most naturally expressed in taking on the form inwardly and outwardly of a servant, accepting the powerlessness and mortality of humanity, and dying the death of a common criminal.
Let me quote from New Testament scholar N. T. Wright: "Nothing described by either in the form of God or by to be equal with God is given up. Rather, it is reinterpreted, understood in a manner in striking contrast to what one might have expected. Over against the standard picture of Oriental despots, who understand their position as something to be used for their own advantage, Jesus understands his position to mean self-negation." In the words of another scholar, "Divine equality does not mean getting but giving, and it is properly expressed in self-giving love."
Did you hear that? I struggled to find the language to articulate this. In becoming a human being, Jesus Christ—God the Son—did not cease to be what he was. He did not renounce his divinity. Rather, in becoming human and becoming a servant, he was expressing what all that divinity means. He considered equality with God to be self-emptying servanthood.
The Son of God, who from all eternity is equal with God the Father, understands being God in terms of incarnation, servanthood, and crucifixion. The Son of God, who from all eternity is equal with God the Father, understands that the best way to express being God is through a cradle, a towel, and a cross.
The real humiliation of the Incarnation and the Cross, says Dr. Wright, is that, "one who was himself and who never during the whole process stopped being God, could embrace such a vocation." He later writes this: "The real theological emphasis of the hymn, therefore, is not simply a new view of Jesus. It is a new understanding of God."
Wright continues: "Against the age-old attempts of human beings to make God in their own arrogant, self-glorying image, Calvary reveals the truth about what it means to be God."
And that is why the hymn sings, "Therefore, God has highly exalted him." That is why the crucified servant is given "the name above every name." God the Father gives the name Yahweh to Jesus because in his decision to give himself in self-emptying love, Jesus has rightly understood what it means to be Yahweh. It is because he empties himself. It is because he takes on the form of our humanity. It is because he becomes a servant. It is because he lays down his life for us that he is worthy of the name Lord, Yahweh. The title is not granted to Jesus because he goes to the throne; the title is granted because he empties himself. Self-emptying love is the proper expression of divine status.
The Gospel writers understood the divinity of Jesus' self-emptying love.
Now we can understand this curious scene in the Gospel of Mark at the foot of the Cross. A Roman soldier is looking up at the dying Jesus, and he says, "Truly this was the Son of God." What made this soldier realize that? What did he see that warranted that statement? Nothing we would expect—just this self-emptying, self-giving love. In that moment, he knew that this was the Son of God. For the Gospel writers, the passion of Jesus is not his human misfortune. The passion of Jesus is his decisive manifestation of his divinity.
Now we can also better understand the flow of Jesus' life according to the Gospel of John. In the Gospel of John, the words "glory" and "glorify" are found over and over again. They're found from the beginning of his ministry right up to before the Crucifixion. Again and again we hear the expression, "His hour had not yet come." The hour is the hour of glorification.
In the last week beneath the growing shadow of death, Jesus says, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it abides alone, but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Now my soul has become troubled. And what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name."
"Now is the time?" Just before the cross? We would expect the words after the Resurrection and the Ascension. But no! They come before the Crucifixion. Why? Because it is in the Cross—in the culminating act of self-emptying love—that equality with God is fully expressed. It is when he who had the form of God entered into his passion that divine glory became most evident.
I am haunted by the picture of Jesus down on his knees, washing his disciples' feet. For years, when I preached on that passage, I used to use phrases like "the great contradiction" or "so incongruous." That's because I had not yet seen. In chapter 13, John is careful to tell us that Jesus knows who he is. John 13:1: "Jesus, knowing that his hour had come, and that he would depart out of the world to the Father." John 13:3: "Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands." He had come forth from the Father and was going back to the Father. John wants us to realize that when Jesus is down on his knees, he's not confused about his identity. John wants us to know that Jesus knows who he is when he gets up from the table and then gets down on his knees and washes his disciples' feet.
We cry out, "But, Jesus, you are Lord! You are Master! This is so incongruous! This act of servanthood is a contradiction of your identity!" But it is not a contradiction; it is a manifestation. It's a revelation of his identity. Jesus does what he does because he is who he is.
I've often imagined being there in the Upper Room during that scene. As Jesus washes his disciples' feet, I go over to him, and I quietly ask, "Why are you doing this? Where did you get the idea to do this?" And he looks up at me and says, "Did you not know that I had to be about my Father's business? This is my Father's business. I learned this from my Father. I told you. I only do what I see my Father doing."
Jesus understands being God not as something to take advantage of, but as taking the form of a bondservant and emptying himself for others. Because he does, and because he acts on it to the full extent, he is granted the name above every name. The servant or slave is called Lord.
Can being human mean anything less than this, too? We were created in the image of God, and as Karl Barth has taught us, that means we are created to reflect the nature and character of God. This means we are most fully human when we most completely reflect God's nature and character. In Jesus, we discover that God understands being God in terms of servanthood. We, therefore, are most what we were created to be when we empty ourselves and take the form of a servant. Deep down in our souls, we know this is right. Who are the most fulfilled people in our lives? Are they not those who have lost themselves in creative self-giving?
Just before leaving Manila, in 1989, I had the privilege of seeing and listening to Mother Teresa. She was the guest at the National Prayer Breakfast. I knew that she was a small lady, but in person she's even smaller. She is very, very tiny. There's nothing physically attractive about her. She looked so frail at the head table, sitting between the President and the Archbishop. And yet that tiny, frail lady draws the powerful of the world to her like a magnet. Why? The Supreme Court Justice who introduced her said, "Mother Teresa is a living model of the gospel of self-giving."
I'm married to someone who understands Philippians 2:5–11. I do the exegesis. I do the preaching. She does the living. I regularly stand in awe of Sharon. Giving herself for our four children and for me and for the students she's mentoring, radiating with joy the whole time she's doing it. I often feel like I'm in kindergarten next to her. Sharon gets it. She understands that when Jesus says to us, "Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me," he's not squeezing us into an alien mold. He's simply calling us to be what comes naturally for him and for his Father, and what, therefore, comes naturally for anyone created in their image.
We cling to our lives, protect our agendas and careers, insist on the fulfillment of our wishes and dreams, and keep our lives for ourselves. But in doing that we lose because we've violating who we were created to be.
As God calls us to follow him by losing our lives, we cannot lose. Indeed, we're crazy to not follow this self-giving God. This is the God who understands godhood in terms of servanthood. This is the Lord who understands lordship in terms of foot washing. This is the God who, having hurled galaxies into space, finds joy by placing all that he is at our disposal. This is the God who finds his most glorious moment in giving himself to us.
Brothers and sisters, no matter how high we go, he will be higher still. No matter how low we go, he will be lower still. No matter how low you have to stoop to serve, he will stoop lower still. At the beginning and at the end of everything is servant love—the servant love between a Father and a Son. Out of that servant love, we were created and redeemed, and for that servant love, we were created and redeemed.
Oh, what a song the text sings!
Darrell Johnson has been preaching Jesus Christ and his gospel for over 50 years. He has served a number of Presbyterian congregations in California, Union Church of Manila in the Philippines, and the historic First Baptist Church in the heart of Vancouver, Canada. He has taught preaching for Fuller Theological Seminary, Carey Theological College in Vancouver, and Regent College in Vancouver.