STUDY 5: PHILIPPIANS 2:5 – 8

© Rosemary Bardsley 2020

To reinforce the commands he has just given about humility and caring for each other above ourselves, Paul pointed us to Jesus Christ as the ultimate example of humility and the prioritisation of the other. He said ‘Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus’ (2:5). Now in verses 6 – 8 he describes what this mindset looked like in Jesus Christ. He tells us how the way Christ thought determined the way he acted.

A. ‘... IN VERY NATURE GOD ...’ (2:6)

Jesus is God. That is the core truth of Christianity. It is from this truth that all other truths emanate. Paul reminds us of this – that in his very nature, in his essential essence, Jesus is God. This is who he is. This is who he had always been from before the beginning.

Check these verses. What do they say about the true deity of Jesus Christ?
John 1:1 – 4

John 10:30

Romans 9:5

Romans 10:9

Colossians 1:16

Colossians 1:19

Hebrews 1:2, 3

Hebrews 1:8

1John 5:20

 

As Paul wrote in Romans 9:5, Jesus Christ ‘is God over all, forever praised!’ And as we read in Hebrews, the angels of God worship him. He is the Creator and Sustainer of all things: everything is dependent on him for its existence and its continuance.

In saying that Jesus is ‘in very nature God’ in Philippians 2:6, Paul is telling us that Jesus Christ is the most exalted being that exists. Nothing is as great and powerful as he is. Nothing is as glorious and majestic as he is. There is no being above and beyond him in whose presence he must bow: everything and everyone must bow to him.

One of the most powerful descriptions of God’s holiness and majesty is found in Isaiah 6:1 – 3:

‘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 ... and they were calling to one another:

“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”’

Commenting on Isaiah 6 John wrote in his gospel ‘Isaiah said this when he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him’ (John 12:41). Here in Isaiah 6 Isaiah saw Jesus’ glory!

This is who Jesus Christ is: this glorious, holy, majestic LORD Almighty.

This is the one whose extreme humility and self-denial Paul is about to describe in Philippians 2.

For reflection and discussion:
Think of the most significant and powerful human you know. How likely is it that they would willingly leave their position to live in a different community totally unrecognized, abused and rejected?

 

Think of all the things that give you significance among your relatives and friends, things that identify and define you. How would you feel about giving up all of that to live among people who saw nothing special about you?

 

Now take it further: If someone suggested to you that you should become an ant in order to warn and save a colony of ants faced with an approaching flood, how would you respond? Would you agree to such a suggestion, and do it, or would you recoil from such a loss of identity, such a jettisoning of all the power and significance of being human? Would your ‘selfish ambition and vain conceit’ that Paul mentions in verse 3 prevent such a laying aside of your human glory?

 

Which of the above suggestions most closely reflects the choice made by Jesus, who was in very nature God, to come to earth as a human?

 

A.1 ‘... did not consider equality with God something to be grasped...’ (2:6).
Jesus, who was in very nature the eternal and all-powerful God, did not feel compelled to hold onto that equality with God; he did not grasp hold of it with a deliberate refusal to let go of it. He did not stand on his divine dignity and say,

‘No! I am God! That is below my dignity, that is contrary to my position, that would undermine my authority!

No! I will not become human! I will not hide my power and glory in human flesh!

I will not forgo my eternity and become trapped in time.

I will not let go of my infinity and become locked in physical space.

I will not become so reduced, so insignificant, so unknown.

I, who am spirit, will not become flesh.

I, who am the Creator, the Lord of all, will not put myself under the power and authority of my human creatures, my rebel human creatures.

I, who created the entire universe, will not become one infinitesimally tiny speck on one small speck in one galaxy that exists among countless galaxies known and unknown.

I, who created the womb, will not become dependent on a human womb.

I, who created the trees and the iron, will not be nailed to a wooden cross with iron nails!’

Jesus didn’t say any of that, or anything like that. Rather, his choice was the choice of the triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Synergistically working as one, without division, without debate, without difference. Of one mind. Of one choice. But only one could actually come. Only one would put aside the evident glory, and become hidden in human flesh.

Check these verses. What do they say about the commitment of the Son, Jesus Christ, to this amazing divine plan?
John 4:34

 

John 5:19 – 23

 

John 8:28, 29

 

John 17:4

 

Hebrews 10:7

 

Matthew 26:39

 

Matthew 26:53 – 53

 

B. ‘... BUT MADE HIMSELF NOTHING ...’

The creator of everything, the one who sustains everything by his powerful word, ‘made himself nothing.’ The Greek text reads ‘he emptied himself’ – the verb is kenoo. There has been much debate about the meaning of Paul’s statement. It is variously translated:

‘made himself of no reputation’ – KJV.
‘made himself nothing’ – NIV, NEB
‘gave up all he had’ - TEV.
‘emptied himself’ – NASB.

The debates centre on the issue of how much of his deity did he put aside when he became human? Was he still fully God during the years of his incarnation? Or was he just/only a human being?

There is a novel by Mark Twain titled The Prince and the Pauper, in which two look-a-like boys, a prince and a pauper, swap roles. The prince is still the prince, but he does not look like it at all. Similarly in his incarnation the Son of God was still one hundred percent God, but he did not look at all like it. He looked like the ordinary human being he had deliberately become.

To keep us within the boundaries of biblical truth various creeds and confessions of the church have endeavoured to define the person of Christ regarding his divine and human natures.

The Nicene Creed, 325 A.D.
‘And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten son of God, begotten of the Father before all world, 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 ...’

The Definition of Chalcedon, 451 A.D.
‘Therefore, following the holy Fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance [homoousios] with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin the God-bearer [theotokos]; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized IN TWO NATURES, WITHOUT CONFUSION, WITHOUT CHANGE, WITHOUT DIVISION, WITHOUT SEPARATION; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence [hupostasis], not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same so and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the Fathers has handed down to us.’

The Athanasian Creed, c500 A.D.
‘Now this is the true faith: ...
That we believe and confess
that our Lord Jesus Christ, God's Son,
is both God and human, equally.

He is God from the essence of the Father,
begotten before time;
and he is human from the essence of his mother,
born in time;
completely God, completely human,
with a rational soul and human flesh;
equal to the Father as regards divinity,
less than the Father as regards humanity.

Although he is God and human,
yet Christ is not two, but one.
He is one, however,
not by his divinity being turned into flesh,
but by God's taking humanity to himself.
He is one,
certainly not by the blending of his essence,
but by the unity of his person.
For just as one human is both rational soul and flesh,
so too the one Christ is both God and human.’

The Scots Confession, 1560 A.D.
When the fullness of time came God sent his Son, his eternal wisdom, the substance of his own glory, into this world, who took the nature of humanity from the substance of a woman, a virgin, by means of the Holy Ghost. And so was born the “just seed of David,” the “Angel of the great counsel of God,” the very Messiah promised, whom we confess and acknowledge to be Emmanuel, true God and true man, two perfect natures united and joined in one person. So by our Confession we condemn the damnable and pestilent heresies of Arius, Marcion, Eutyches, Nestorius, and such others as did either deny the eternity of his Godhead, or the truth of his humanity, or confounded them, or else divided them.’

The Westminster Confession of Faith, 1647 A.D.
‘The Son of God, the second Person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance, and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon him man’s nature, with all the essential properties and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin: being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, of her substance. So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparable joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man.’

For reflection/discussion:
Which statements in the above definitions and creeds best help you to understand and explain the two natures of Jesus Christ?

 

 

Did Jesus stop being God when he became human? Explain your answer.

 

What can you think of in the gospel records that demonstrates that Jesus was still the Lord Almighty when he was on the earth as Jesus of Nazareth?

 

Read these verses. How do they help you to believe/understand that the man Jesus was at the same time the Lord of all?
Matthew 1:22, 23

 

Mark 1:27

 

Mark 2:5 – 12

 

Mark 4:39 – 41

 

John 20:30, 31

 

When Paul wrote that Jesus ‘made himself nothing’, or in the literal meaning of the Greek, ‘emptied himself’, he did not mean that Jesus ceased to be God. Jesus was still truly God, but this deity was apparent only for those to whom he chose to reveal himself, and only on the occasions when he chose to do so.

What it actually meant to ‘empty himself’ is expanded by William Hendriksen to ‘emptied himself of his existence-in-a-manner-equal-to-God’ and described under these headings:

He gave up his favourable relation to the divine law.
He gave up his riches.
He gave up his heavenly glory.
He gave up his independent exercise of authority.
     (P. 107f, New Testament Commentary – Philippians, William Hendriksen, Baker Academic, 1962.)

How do the texts below confirm Hendriksen’s description of what the Son of God gave up?
Matthew 3:13 – 15

John 1:29

2Corinthians 5:21

1Peter 2:24

2Corinthians 8:9

Mark 10:45

Isaiah 53:6

John 17:4

John 5:30

Hebrews 5:8

Paul has already described the mindset of the Son of God that preceded the incarnation – the making himself nothing: he ‘did not consider equality with God something to be grasped ...’ (2:6). That is the how and why. Now in the rest of verse 7 and verse 8, Paul explains what this ‘emptied himself’ actually looked like. This is the ‘what’ of Jesus’ action. What did he actually do? What did the incarnation actually involve?

What does it mean that Jesus made himself of no reputation?

B.1 ‘...taking the very nature of a servant ...’ 2:7
He who was ‘in very nature God’ (2:6) made himself nothing by ‘taking the very nature of a servant’.

It is not that he swapped or exchanged the nature of God for the nature of a servant so that he ceased to be God, but rather that he who is God took the nature of a servant. As Hendriksen puts it “He, the sovereign Master of all, becomes servant of all. And yet, he remains Master. ... He took the form of a servant while he retained the form of God.” (ibid, p. 109).

The nature of God is not at all the nature of a servant: God is the Almighty, the Sovereign, the King, the Lord, the Master. He is unlimited, totally independent, not subject to any authority, not working for any ‘boss’.

By contrast, describe the nature of a servant.

 

 

 

In his incarnation Jesus, the Son of God, equal with the Father, became God’s ‘servant’.

Check these verses from the Servant Songs of Isaiah. How do they describe Jesus Christ as the servant of God?
Isaiah 42:1 – 7

 

 

Isaiah 49:1 – 7

 

 

Isaiah 50:4 – 9

 

Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12

 

 

But that is not all. In his incarnation, Jesus, the Son of God, also became our servant:

What do these verses teach about Christ serving humans?
Mark 10:45

 

Luke 22:27

 

John 13:3 – 17

 

Isaiah 53:4 – 6

 

 

Isaiah 61:1 – 3

 

 

For reflection/discussion:
[1] In what ways has Jesus Christ ‘served’ you?

 

 

[2] In the above references, how much does Jesus’ serving God and serving us overlap, so that in doing one Jesus was also doing the other?

 

 

[3] Think about God, in his actions of creation and redemption. To what extent is the heart of the Almighty, Creator God, also, at the same time, the heart of one who is committed to our good?

 

 

 

B.2 ‘... being made in human likeness ...’ (literally, having been made in human likeness)
B.3 ‘... being found in appearance as a man ...’ (literally, having been found in human appearance)
He was just like a human being. When he was alive, no one doubted that he was human. Everybody knew that he was. They knew his mother, they knew his brothers and his sisters. They had seen him grow up. He was their carpenter. He was so very obviously human. That was never a question. And it was this obvious humanity that, for his contemporaries, made his claims to equality with God highly offensive and impossible to believe.

How do these verses express recognition of the obvious real humanness of Jesus Christ?
Matthew 21:18

Mark 4:38a

Mark 6:1 – 3

John 10:33

 

[Before we move on to Paul’s next phrases, it is necessary to pause here to note one significance difference between Jesus and the rest of us: that he was without sin. Jesus himself challenged the Jews about this in John 8:46. It is also taught very clearly in Hebrews 2:9 – 18 and 5:14 – 16. Check out these studies.