Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Lesson Focus:  This lesson is about the entrance of the Savior into the world. Paul taught a lesson about humility by using the example of the incarnation of Christ.

Glory to the Newborn King: Philippians 2:5-6.

[5]  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,  [ESV]

[5]  The issue that is uppermost in Paul’s mind is the harmony of the community, and humility and selflessness are the means by which to attain that harmony. It is not enough to tell people to be more loving and humble [2:1-4]; one must motivate them through example. Paul appeals to Christ as an example elsewhere [Rom. 15:3; 1 Cor. 11:1; 2 Cor. 8:9; 1 Thess. 1:6]. In this passage Paul writes that Christ is to be emulated because He is the redeemer [2:6-8] and the Lord [2:9-11]. Jesus Christ reveals the nature of God but also exemplifies the attitudes Paul wants the Philippians to adopt. If Christ did not please Himself but gave His life for others, His followers should not please themselves but should conform to the mind of their Lord. Since He humbled Himself, how can they be proud? Since He took the form of a slave, how can they seek to dominate others? Since He accepted the greatest dishonor – death on a cross – how can they strive after honors? Paul does not add redemptive language here because his purposes are different. To be sure, Jesus’ death and vindication is not simply an example for us to follow; it has eschatological and cosmic significance. Nevertheless, the story of Christ in 2:6-11 functions as an example that is applicable for developing norms of community behavior. Believers can be obedient, empty themselves of themselves, and take the form of a slave because of what God has done for them in Christ.

[6]  Paul’s argument assumes Christ’s preexistence. The word form denotes the characteristics and qualities essential to something. It designates Christ’s essential nature as opposed to His exterior nature. The meaning of the phrase a thing to be grasped is crucial for understanding this verse and has lent itself to differing interpretations: snatched or grabbed; clutched; or plundered. In what sense did Christ count or consider equality with God. Equality with God was widely assumed to mean privilege, power, and glory, as is evidenced by the behavior of the gods and goddesses in Greek mythology, who could do whatever they wanted. But Jesus did not consider His equality with God as something to be grasped or held onto in this manner. To do so would have been the opposite of the humility characterized by Christ in this passage. Not grasping means that Christ denies the common assumption that being equal to God entails doing whatever one likes and crushing anyone who gets in the way. Instead, He gave of Himself for others and gave until He was empty of everything but love. The verb count recalls the exhortation in verse 3 and intensifies its scope: Regard others as superior to yourselves in the same way that Christ did not regard equality with God as an opportunity to assert Himself over others. The verb reappears twice in 3:7-8, where Paul recounts how he no longer considers his heritage and achievements as an exceptional Jew as something he can take advantage of before God. Instead Paul counts everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Likewise Paul writes that Christ was willing to lay aside all of the honor and benefits of being equal with God in order to accomplish something of eternal value: the redemption of God’s people.

Veiled in Flesh:  Philippians 2:7-8.

[7]  but made himself nothing, 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.  [ESC]

[7]  The great change which took place in the Son was brought about in two stages. The parallel expressions made himself nothing … humbled himself describe the central action in the two divisions of the poem. By the end of verse 7 Paul has traced the course of the Lord Jesus to the point of His birth in the likeness of men; he then takes this as a starting-point (verse 8, found in human form) and follows the great downward course to the very point of death on the cross. When Jesus made himself nothing (or emptied himself), did He diminish Himself, and if so, in what way? Here is a thought which must obviously be handled with great care. It is helpful to note the fact that this verb in every other New Testament instance means “to deprive something of its proper place and use.” Thus Christ could not divest Himself of Godhead; but He kept it concealed for a time. He laid aside His glory in the view of men, not by lessening it, but by concealing it. The verb made himself nothing is at once followed by an explanatory clause, taking the form of a servant. Our eye, in other words, is removed from the realm of mystery (the relation between the new incarnate life and the eternal divine life) and focused on the realm of historical factuality, the reality of the eternal God becoming truly man. Christ Jesus brought the whole of His divine nature, undiminished, into a new and – had it not been revealed to us in Scripture – unimaginable state. The parallel between he made himself nothing and Isaiah’s word concerning the Servant of the Lord, that he poured out his soul to death [Isaiah 53:12], is too plain to be resisted. The fundamental thought is that of a deliberate, conscious consigning of oneself to a foreseen situation: the Servant of the Lord brought Himself voluntarily and totally into death; Jesus, in order to die, first brought His total being down to the condition of the Lord’s Servant. Concerning the state to which the Lord Jesus consigned Himself, Paul makes three points. First, the intention of the great change was obedient service; He took the form of a slave. Secondly, the sphere in which the service would be discharged was that of a true humanity; He was born in the likeness of men. Thirdly, His true humanity left room for that other reality which He brought with Him. It was a true humanity. The Son became the reality of a bondservant. None of this reality is taken away by the careful phrase in the likeness of man. His likeness to men was real, but it did not express His whole self. Throughout all this there is the same revelation of the mind of Christ. His are the eternal glories, both by nature and by right, but they are not a platform for self-display, nor a launching pad for self-advancement; they are all for self-denial. Self is something to pour out in acts that bring glory to God.

[8]  Christ Jesus was found in human form, that is to say, those meeting Him felt themselves to be in the presence of a man. They could say, Is not this the carpenter [Mark 6:3]? How exactly true their observation was, but, equally, how much they missed! Who would have believed, were it not revealed by God, that this is the Lord Himself come down to save? He seems the same as other men but in fact is vastly different. The question therefore is, what will He do with this difference? Will He use it as an occasion for self? Will it, in turn become a thing to be grasped [2:6]? What He did was, however, very different. He chose rather to take upon Himself that one thing which, without His consent, had no power against Him, death. He was distinct from all others because of His divine nature. In particular, He possessed immortality, proper to God alone. But He subjected His immortality to death and thus humbled Himself; nothing has now been held back; all has been given up. Paul tells us that this was done as an act of obedience to God. Death was the mode, not the master, in His obedience; the obedience was yielded to His Father: this was the cup that the Father has given men [John 18:11]. Furthermore, the obedience which He rendered to God also achieved a purpose for man: it was death on a cross. Our Lord’s cry of dereliction [Matt. 27:45-46] shows how truly He entered into the place of rejection and with what horror He was enfolded in so doing: He who was in the form of God came down to earth, down to the cross, down to the curse – and He did it for us. Finally, this Godward-manward act was undertaken by the will and consent of the Lord Jesus Himself: he humbled himself. This feature, so central to Philippians 2:6-8, must find its root in Isaiah 53, especially verses 7-9, where for the first time in the Old Testament we meet with a consenting sacrifice. He was brought like a lamb, but unlike every lamb that ever was He came by conscious consent and voluntary decision. Isaiah foresaw that only a perfect Man could be the perfect substitute and that at the heart of this perfection lay a will delighting to do the will of God. This was the mind of Christ. He looked at Himself, at His Father and at us, and for obedience’ sake and for sinners’ sake He held nothing back.

Christ by Highest Heaven Adored:  Philippians 2:9.

[9]  Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,  [ESV]

Again the passage changes both tone and structure. God becomes the subject, rather than Christ, and the purpose of God’s actions becomes evident. God exalted Jesus. What happened at the ascension? Before the eyes of chosen witnesses the Father gave visible demonstration of His estimation of Jesus: that He is Lord of all, heaven, earth and hell alike, that His deity is unquestionable, for He is worshipped in heaven where none can be worshipped but God only, and that He has now emerged from incognito into His full and acknowledged possession of the divine name and Lordship. Comparison of 2:9-11 with Isaiah 45:22-25 shows that it was the name Lord (i.e. the revealed name of God, Yahweh) which was accorded to Jesus, not in the sense of conferring what was not His before, but of calling attention to what He was and is now known to be. The historical, physical event of the ascension is a moral and spiritual comment on Jesus. The ascension is the divine response not to this or that aspect of the career of Jesus, but to the sort of person Jesus is, the way He looks at things, the values He cherishes, the principles He observes – His mind. From the brightness of the glory to the dust of death and the place of the curse, from the glory of a true humanity down to the lowliest identification with our common clay, by His own self-humbling decision, Jesus showed both obedience and love to the uttermost.

Hail the Heaven-Born Prince of Peace:  Philippians 2:10-11.

[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.  [ESV]

Verses 10-11 explain the goal or purpose of God’s exalting Jesus. Two parallel ideas express Jesus as the object of worship. They are: every knee should bow and every tongue confess. The knee and the tongue stand for worship and confession that Jesus is Lord. Ultimately, every creature in the universe will acknowledge who Jesus is. Wherever Jesus’ name has authority, He will be worshiped. Since He is authoritative everywhere, He will be worshiped everywhere. The emphasis of this text, however, is not directly on the worship of Jesus. The language is that of triumph. The bending of the knee was a posture of submission, as was confessing Jesus Christ is Lord. The hymn, therefore, speaks to Jesus as the conqueror of all and should be seen as parallel to such texts as 1 Cor. 15:24-28. Thus the hymn points out that everyone will acknowledge the position of Jesus in the universe. The second concern of this first purpose clause is the persons who submit to Jesus’ lordship. The text states, in heaven and on earth and under the earth. The meaning of the text is that it is the knees of beings located in these places. Jesus’ lordship encompasses spiritual beings (those of heaven: good or evil), living human beings (those of earth), and dead persons as well (under the earth). Thus the hymn includes every conceivable habitation of personal beings. The second purpose statement is that every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Thus both the universal nature of Jesus’ lordship and the acknowledgment of it are reemphasized. Every tongue includes the same beings as every knee which bows. The confession Jesus Christ is Lord encapsulates this aspect of the Christian faith and may well have been the earliest Christian confession. Honoring Jesus in this way fulfills God’s plan. He elevated Jesus to the position of lordship and the confession is to the glory of God the Father. There is perfect unity in the Godhead. The actions of Jesus in His exaltation bring glory to the Father. Thus the Father honors the Son, and the Son honors the Father. In this dynamic, both display selflessness, and both receive honor. This is an eschatological picture. The hymn brings the future into view by describing the culmination of history, when all persons will acknowledge Jesus’ lordship. No evidence states that such acknowledgment will bring salvation, however. That must be cared for in the present, before Jesus conquers His enemies. The church bears witness to Jesus’ lordship by confessing to the world Jesus Christ is Lord and offering salvation to those who accept that confession and make it the central part of their lives. Paul recognized, therefore, that some people will voluntarily accept the reality that Jesus is Lord and participate in His reign of glory. Others will deny that lordship and, in the end, be conquered by the Lord Himself. For them, it will be too late to participate in the glory, and they will be destined to the punishment appropriate for those who resist the Lord. In these verses, Paul reminded the Philippians of the greatest example of servanthood. The first section, on selflessness, applied directly to them. They were to be like Christ, the chief servant. Christ’s attitude was to become theirs. They were to focus on giving rather than receiving. Christ acted selflessly to accomplish the will of God. He even died to provide salvation as a part of the divine plan. God chose to honor Him, determining that Christ would be the focus of the Godhead in its interactions with creation. Because of Jesus’ actions, the way to honor God is to honor Christ. Even so, the glory Christ receives is a glory given to the Father. Again, a shared servanthood works to the mutual benefit of all involved. The church had to learn this lesson. It would learn this lesson by focusing on Christ Himself.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         How is it possible to have our minds changed to be like Jesus [see Psalms 86:11; 119:11,33-40; Romans 8:3-13,26-30; 12:2]? Why is humility and selflessness essential for harmony in the church? What does Paul teach us about true humility in these verses?

2.         What are the two stages of Christ’s humiliation in verse 7-8? What does Paul mean when he writes that Jesus made himself nothing (or emptied himself)?

3.         What happened at the ascension?

4.         What do verses 10-11 teach us about God’s purpose in exalting His Son? What does it mean to you personally to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord? What important truths are wrapped up in this confession?


Philippians, David Garland, EBC, Zondervan.

Philippians, Richard Melick, Jr., NAC, Broadman.

The Message of Philippians, J.A. Motyer, Inter-Varsity Press.

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