The Humility-Driven Gospel (Mike Riccardi)

Philippians 2:5–8   |   Sunday, March 17, 2013   |   Code: 2013-03-17-MR



I’ve been in school most of my life. Even between the time I finished graduate school and came to seminary, I was a teacher, and so I was still in school, I was just on the other side of the desk. And one thing I learned about myself in all those years of education was that I am a visual learner. Now, I’d like to think that when somebody explains something to me that I can understand it OK. But often times I don’t really have a proper grasp on something unless I can see it. If someone is trying to teach me to do something, I usually ask them to do it first while I watch, and then to watch me while I try it.


I don’t think that principle has been any more obvious to me than when I’ve had to assemble furniture, like a desk or a bookcase. I open the box, lay out all the materials on the floor, take out the instructions, and I read this: “Connect three Shelves and Bottom Panel to the Left Side Panel by aligning the pre-drilled holes on the cleats of the Shelves and Bottom Panel to those of the Left Side Panel. Secure by inserting an Allen Bolt through a Spring Washer and a Flat Washer through the pre-drilled holes on the cleats of the Shelves and Bottom Panel and into the pre-drilled holes of the Left Side Panel using the Allen Key.”


And on the brink of despair, just as I’m about to decide that we don’t really need a new bookcase, and that we can just pile our books up on the floor, I read three blessed words: “See Figure One.” And there’s hope! I can see a step-by-step, graphical representation of what it is they want me to do! The proverb, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” is never more true than in an instruction manual for assembling furniture. And as I follow the instructions and attempt to put this thing together, I’m constantly referring to the pictures to guide me.


And we observe this reality in other areas of life. Just the other day, Dave Muxlow, who is one of our elders and the head of our facilities department, gave a presentation to the elders about some exciting new plans he has to upgrade certain rooms on our church campus. He was showing us pictures of what these rooms look like now, and then he showed a computer-generated image of what the renovated room would look like. And I was amazed at the detail of those architectural models and blueprints! But of course it makes sense. It’s not like the architect simply explains to the contractor how he wants the building to be, and then tells him to go make it happen. No, the construction crew constantly refers to those detailed models and blueprints to guide them every step of the way as they build those buildings.


Or to change the analogy again, if you’ve ever seen an artist attempting to sketch a picture of a landscape, you recognize this principle. Does the artist look at the landscape once or twice, get a fixed image of it in his mind, and then keep his head buried in his canvas as he seeks to reproduce the image? No, of course not. He constantly—even moment by moment—looks from the landscape, back to his canvas, back to the landscape, back to the canvas—seeking to paint with precision the picture he sees in reality.


Well what we have in Philippians chapter 2 verses 5 to 8 is the diagram for our instruction manual, the blueprint for our construction project, the landscape for our canvas.


You see the Apostle Paul has begun to explain for the Philippians what it will mean for them to conduct their lives as citizens in a manner worthy of the Gospel, chapter 1 verse 27. And in the context of the Philippians’ facing opposition from the outside world because of their commitment to Christ, living in a manner worthy of the Gospel chiefly involves being united with one another. If the people of God are to have any hope of standing firm in the face of opposition—if they are to have any hope of propagating this Gospel of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ amidst a hostile society—they will need to be unified. And so chapter 2 begins with a clarion call to Christian unity, which we’ve examined in detail. And last week we discovered that the means of true Christian unity—the way that such unity is achieved in practice—is for the people of God to be characterized by Gospel-driven humility. The key to unity is humility—doing 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.


Christ Our Example (v. 5)


And so Paul, (a) having commanded them to live their lives in a manner worthy of the Gospel, and (b) having called them to the unity through which they will be able to withstand opposition, and (c) having instructed them to be marked by the kind of humility without which that unity cannot be realized, he now, in verses 5 to 11 gives them a concrete example of that humility—a picture that is worth more than a thousand words. And not just any example. Not just any picture. But the ultimate model for Christian conduct—the supreme example of self-sacrificing humility: the Lord Jesus Christ. Verse 5: “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus.”


If we are to accurately trace the virtue of Gospel-driven humility upon the canvas of our lives, we must constantly, moment by moment, bring our eyes upon the landscape of Christ’s example. The Lord Himself taught His disciples this very principle on the Eve of the Passover, when the Master of the Universe arose from the dinner table, girded Himself with a towel, and performed the slave’s task of washing the disciples’ feet (John 13:1–5). And He said to them, John 13:13, “You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you.” And so it is in Philippians chapter 2: we are called to follow Christ’s example.


And though this passage reveals to us perhaps the loftiest and most precise Christology anywhere else in Scripture—speaking in detail about the Lord’s pre-existence as the eternal Son of God, the mystery of the incarnation, His being fully God and fully man, having two natures “without confusion, without change, without division, and without separation” bound up in a single person—even though all that is here in this text, it is not Paul’s primary point to discourse on the finer points of Christology. Those truths are there in the text. And they are glorious! And we’re going to study them. But we have to keep in mind that all of that theology is here to serve as an illustration—a magnificent illustration and example—of the humility that Paul has called us to in verses 3 and 4. We are to be marked by a Gospel-driven humility because we have been saved by a humility-driven Gospel. The whole point of explaining the fine points of Christ’s pre-existence and incarnation is to demonstrate the heights from which the Lord came, and the depths to which He humbled Himself in His birth, life, death in the service of others: so that we would have the clearest picture of His example to follow as we pursue humility and service to our brothers and sisters.


A Word about Theology and Practice


And with that, I want to make a brief observation before we jump right in. I want you to notice how the Word of God weaves the most practical instruction with the loftiest and most unsearchable theology. The most practical, mundane, applicable matters of Christianity—like personal humility and unity within the church—are wedded to the deepest and most difficult doctrines for the mind to conceive.


So many professing Christians say things like: “I don’t want to hear about doctrinal debates and theological controversies. I want practical teaching. I want a Christianity that shows me how to live right where I’m at.” My friends, in the light of Philippians chapter 2 that is a statement of pure foolishness. There is no such dichotomy between theology and practice. If this passage teaches us anything it’s that a Christianity focused on the heart, and on practice, and on application cannot be divorced from deep thinking and hard truths. They are woven together inextricably. It is by thinking deeply, it is by meditating on this difficult theology, that we understand the Christian life in its fullness, and are equipped to live it in a way that is most pleasing and most honorable to God.


And so because this practical instruction about humility is wedded to some of the most exalted theology about the Person of Jesus Christ, it will be our challenge this morning to try to explore and understand that theology while also keeping the big picture in view. As we delve into the technical points of high Christology, we need to be reminded that this is not a cold, detached intellectualism, or simply an academic exercise. Rather, it is summoning all of our faculties in an endeavor to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Because if we’re going to truly understand the humility to which we’re called, we have to understand the example of that humility which we’re called to imitate.


And we’ll examine these truths about the Lord Jesus Christ by hanging our thoughts on three headings that will function as our outline this morning. We’ll look at Christ’s pre-incarnate glory, His pre-incarnate humility, and His incarnate humility. Again: (a) His pre-incarnate glory, which is to say His exalted position in Heaven before He became a man; (b) His pre-incarnate humility, which we’ll see is the expression of His humility as God the Son even before He came to earth; and finally (c) His incarnate humility: that humility that He displayed as the God-man here on earth.


And because this tends to get a bit complex, I think it will be helpful to just summarize what the passage is saying right up front, so that you can keep the big picture in mind as we examine the parts in depth. Here is an excellent summary of verses 6 through 8 from commentator Moises Silva: “The divine and preexistent Christ did not regard the advantage of his deity as grounds to avoid the incarnation; on the contrary, he was willing to regard himself as nothing by taking on human form. Then he further lowered himself in servanthood by obeying God to the point of ignominious death” (99).


I. Pre-Incarnate Glory (v. 6a)


Let’s look first, then, to that “divine and preexistent Christ,” as we consider Him in relation to, number one, His pre-incarnate glory. Verse 5: “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God…” — and a better translation of that would simply be, “Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God…” It’s not helpful to translate that in the past tense, because Paul intentionally uses a participle in the present tense to express ongoing, continuous action. Before He became a man, Christ was eternally “existing in the form of God.”


And here we have a clear, explicit reference to the pre-existence of Christ. Jesus Christ did not come into existence at the incarnation. Jesus Himself tells the Jews in John 8 verse 58: “Truly, truly I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.” In John 17:5, Jesus speaks of “the glory which [He] had with [the Father] before the world was.” And of course, John chapter 1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.” And so even before His life as a man, this Jesus was existing.


But how? Existing as what? Paul says in verse 6 that He was existing in the form of God. Now, this phrase is actually the first of many in this passage that has caused a lot of people plunge into Christological error and even heresy. What does Paul mean when he says that Christ was existing in the “form” of God? Does he mean that Christ only existed in the form of God, such that He was like God but really not God?


No. The word that’s translated “form” there is the Greek word morphe, from which we get other words like morphology and metamorphosis. Now, the translation “form” is really unfortunate, because “form” in English conveys the idea of merely the outward appearance of something. But there really isn’t a better option in the English language. One Greek scholar wrote, “‘Form’ is an inadequate rendering of morphe, but our language affords no better word” (Vincent, 57). So rather than a single, one-to-one word equivalent, we have to explain what the term means. In Greek, morphe refers to the outward manifestation that corresponds to the inward essence (Kent, 123)—to the external form that represents what is intrinsic and essential (Kent, 126). It is “a form which truly and fully expresses the being which underlies it” (Moulton & Milligan, 417). Christ was existing in the morphe of God because in His very essence and His being He was God.


This is plain from the texts we just read regarding Christ’s pre-existence. “Before Abraham was born, I am,” Jesus said, not only explaining that He pre-existed Abraham who lived 2,000 years earlier, but also identifying Himself with the divine name, I AM, Yahweh. That’s why the next verse tells us that the Jews picked up stones to kill Him, because He was equating Himself with God. And back to John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”


And in fact, we don’t even have to leave our passage to understand that morphe refers to the essential divine nature and thus indicates Jesus’ deity. Later in verse 6 Paul says that Christ did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped. “Equality,” there is the Greek word isos, from which we get the word isomers, which describe chemical compounds that have the same number of the same elements, but have different structural formulas. On a chemical level, they are equal to each other, so we call them isomers. To switch from Chemistry class to Geometry, you might remember that an isosceles triangle is a triangle that has two equal sides. Jesus is “isa theo;” He is equal to God. And when you consider such statements as Isaiah 46:9, in which God says, “For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me,” the conclusion is inescapable. If (a) no one can be equal to God but God Himself, and (b) Christ is equal to God, then (c) Christ Himself must be fully God (cf. Ware, 18).


And if that wasn’t enough, I’ve got more for you. As I said, morphe refers to the outward manifestation of the inner essence and nature. Well what is the outward manifestation of the inner essence and nature of God? It’s glory. Throughout the Old Testament as God’s presence is described with His people, there is a manifestation of that shekinah glory—the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire, the bright light that filled the Tabernacle and the Temple. You say, “Did Jesus exist in divine glory?” Yes indeed. We read it before in John 17 verse 5. Christ prays, “Father glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.” John 1:14: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” And not only this! In Isaiah chapter 6, the prophet says that in the year of King Uzziah’s death he “saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple” (Isa 6:1) and the angels exclaimed, “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory” (Isa 6:3). And in John 12, John quotes Isaiah 6 and then says, John 12:41, “These things Isaiah said because he saw His glory, and he spoke of Him.” And the “Him” in John chapter 12 is none other Jesus!


Oh friends! Behold the pre-incarnate glory of your Savior! Jesus Christ is not merely a man—not merely a good teacher or an exemplary prophet! He is not merely god-like! He is not merely a god among many gods! He is not the first created being who then created other beings! He is not Michael the Archangel! He is God Himself! God of very God! Before the world was, He was eternally existing in the very nature of God, in the very essence of God, and in the very glory of God!


And keeping in mind the point of our passage, it is incumbent upon us to understand that it is from this magnificent height of Heaven, of divine equality, and divine glory, that God the Son descended in humility. In this passage, the reason we dwell upon Christ’s pre-incarnate glory is because we must understand how far He had come. Calvin puts it perfectly, “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).


II. Pre-Incarnate Humility (vv. 6b–7)


Having beheld a glimpse, then, of Christ’s pre-incarnate glory, let us now turn our eyes upon His pre-incarnate humility. Look with me at verses 5 through 7: “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed 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.”


Even though Christ existed eternally, even though He was existing in the very morphe—the very nature and essence and glory of God—, even though He was existing in equality with God the Father, ruling creation in majesty and receiving the worship of the saints and angels in Heaven —— He did not regard that equality as something to be grasped. He didn’t regard equality with God something to cling to—something to take selfish advantage of and use to further His own ends (Fee, 209). Rather, He humbly accepted the mission of His incarnation, in which He would renounce the glories of Heaven for a time, take on the nature of a human being, and live with all the restrictions of what it meant to be human. Though He had every right to continue in unlimited manifest power and authority, in receiving the worship of the saints and angels, in participating in the glory of His Father, in perfect, face-to-face fellowship and unity with His Father and with His Holy Spirit, He did not selfishly count those blessings to be slavishly held on to, but sacrificed them to become man and accomplish salvation for sinners.


He “emptied Himself,” verse 7 says. He emptied Himself. Now, this is another phrase that has caused many students of Scripture to stumble in the most unfortunate of ways. The Greek word is kenóo, and that’s where we get the word kenosis. Often, this passage, Philippians 2:5–11, is called the kenosis passage because it speaks of the “emptying” of Christ.


And so, many theologians have asked, “Of what did Christ empty Himself?” And the answers to that question almost always indicate Christ emptied some form of His deity—that in some manner He ceased to be fully God in His incarnation. Some believe that Christ emptied Himself of His essential equality with God, such that during the incarnation He was a true man but limited His deity to such a degree that He was no more than a man. Others believe that Christ retained His “essential attributes” of deity, like holiness and grace, but gave up what they call His “relative attributes,” such as omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence, and immutability. This is what we call “kenotic theology,” named after the term kenosis.


But not only is it impossible, by definition, for the eternal, self-existent, immortal, and immutable God to cease to exist as God, but the rest of the New Testament causes us to reject such views. In His time here on earth, the Lord Jesus never ceased being fully God or ceased being equal in essence with the Father. Throughout His ministry He only reaffirmed those things. He told the Jews, as simple as it could be said, “I and the Father are One,” John 10 verse 30. And the Jews got the message because they picked up stones to kill Him for blasphemy. “You,” they said, verse, 33, “being a man, make Yourself out to be God!” And Jesus everywhere affirmed this. John 14:9: “If you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father.” Even as man, the Son has authority over all flesh, John 17 verse 2. When Thomas bows before Him in John 20:28 and confesses Him as Lord and God, Jesus receives that worship. And of course, on the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus’ deity is revealed in visible form, when He peels back the veil of His humanity, as it were, and lets His inner essence of divine glory shine forth (Matt 17:2). So Christ does not empty Himself of His deity. He does not surrender His divine attributes.


“Well what did He empty Himself of, then?” Well, first we have to properly understand the term. Though the verb kenóo means “to empty,” everywhere it is used in the New Testament it is used in a metaphorical sense. In New Testament usage, kenóo doesn’t mean “to pour out,” as if Jesus was pouring something out of Himself. There’s another Greek word, ekcheo, that’s used for that sense (e.g., Luke 22:20; John 2:15; Titus 3:6). Rather, kenóo means “to make void,” “to nullify,” “to make of no effect.” Paul uses it that way in Romans 4:14, where he says, “For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified.” You have that same word, “to make void.” But nobody thinks to ask, “Of what has faith been made empty?” Clearly the idea is that faith would be nullified, it would come to naught (cf. Silva, 105), if righteousness could come by the law.


With this understanding of the word, it no longer makes sense to ask, “Of what did Christ empty Himself?” Christ emptied Himself—He nullified Himself. He made Himself of no effect. In fact, the Old King James Version grasps this very idea in its translation. It says Christ “made himself of no reputation.” The NIV also gets the idea; it translates it: he “made himself nothing.”


So what does it mean for Christ to make Himself nothing? Well, the very next word tells us how He did it. Look again at verse 7: “…[He] emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave, and being made in the likeness of men.” The word “bond-servant” in the NAS is the Greek word doulos, with which we’re all very familiar. It means “slave,” and is referring to the weakness of humanity. And we’ve already spoken about the word form back in verse 6; it refers to the outward manifestation of the true essence or nature. When you add the following phrase, “being made—or it even could be translated: being born (Gal 4:4; Rom 1:3)—in the likeness of men,” it becomes clear: Christ made Himself of no effect by taking on human nature in His incarnation. This is an emptying by adding. It is a subtraction by addition.


You say, “Come on. Is that really emptying? Is become human really such a nullification?” I love what Pastor John says: “In light of the profound reality of Jesus’ full and uncompromised deity, His incarnation was the most profound possible humiliation” (123). We may struggle to understand the gravity of such an emptying because we’re already down here. But think of what He left. Here is the Creator of the universe. Here is the possessor of divine majesty. Here is the Lord and Master taking the form of a slave.


It’s striking to read the literature about what it meant to be a slave. Listen to some of the things that I found: “Slavery pointed to the extreme deprivation of one’s rights” (O’Brien, 223). A slave is “a person without advantage, with no rights or privileges of his own, for the express purpose of placing himself completely at the service of all” (Hawthorne, 87). “A slave has the lowest position; he is powerless; he has no rights. He has no glory: no honor; only shame” (Hansen, 148).


Though all analogies fall short of the reality, Mark Twain’s novel, The Prince and the Pauper may help to illustrate here. The Prince and the Pauper is a story about Edward, the son of King Henry VIII, who temporarily exchanged places with Tom, a poor boy in London. The boys switch clothes. Tom goes to the royal court, and Prince Edward goes to Tom’s house and seeks to cope with Tom’s drunken and abusive father, along with the other miseries of life as a pauper. But during that time, the young prince surrendered none of his identity. He was indeed still the Prince of Wales, and could have exercised his power as such at any moment he wished. But his royalty, while fully possessed the entire time, could not be fully expressed as long as he had chosen to submit himself to life as a beggar.


Well in the same way, in taking upon Himself the nature of a slave, Christ fully possessed His divine nature, attributes, and prerogatives. But for the sake of becoming truly human—to be made like His brethren in all things in order to be a merciful and faithful high priest (Heb 2:17)—He did not fully express His divine nature, attributes, and prerogatives. They were veiled. There were certainly times when He did express them, such as when He reads people’s minds (Matt 9:4) and works divine miracles. But the Prince willingly submitted Himself to the life of a pauper.


He was not what He was in the glories of Heaven. He was now fully human. Back to verse 7: “…being made in the likeness of men.” The word “likeness” here simply means that in all respects apart from sin (Heb 4:15) He became like other human beings (O’Brien, 225). Jim Boice said, “With the exception of being sinful, everything that can be said about a man can be said about the Lord Jesus Christ” (121). He was born, He needed the care of His parents. He had a human body—Hebrews 2:14 says He partook of flesh in blood. And even though He never sinned, that didn’t mean He didn’t have a body that was fraught with the effects of sin. He got hungry and thirsty, He felt pain and sadness, He got tired, He slept, and He died (MacArthur, 130). He didn’t just put on a human disguise; He was human in the fullest sense.


Let us marvel at the pre-incarnate humility of Christ. God the Son contemplated the riches of His pre-incarnate glory, and nevertheless submissively chose to take on human nature and the weakness of human flesh—to live and die as a slave of all. In the language of verses 3 and 4, He was doing nothing from selfishness, but was regarding others as more important than Himself. He was not looking out merely for His own interests, but also for the interests of others.


Could Jesus have clung to His equality with the Father? Sure. As eternal God, He had every right to do so. But for the sake of His loving obedience to His Father, His delight in His Father’s will, and His love for sinners, He regarded those blessed privileges as something to be surrendered. And in the same way, in the midst of a conflict with a brother or sister in Christ—or with a family member, or even with a spouse—though we might be right about something, and though we might have a good case to make, we can think on the only One who ever had a right to assert His rights and didn’t, and we can regard one another as more important that ourselves, and give preference to one another in honor (Rom 12:10) for the sake of unity. Calvin said, “He gave up his right: all that is required of us is, that we do not assume to ourselves more than we ought” (54). The One who sustained all things by the Word of His power, submitted Himself to be sustained by the breast of a young Hebrew maiden. If God the Son has stooped this far, to what depths of humility will you refuse to stoop?


III. Incarnate Humility (v. 8)


Well, then, having observed the pre-incarnate glory from which He came, and having observed the pre-incarnate humility in which God the Son purposed to lay aside His privileges to become man, let us now consider His incarnate humility. His incarnate humility—the pinnacle of His humility that He displayed as the God-man here on earth. Read verse 8 with me: “Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”


That opening phrase, “Being found in appearance as a man,” underscores the reality of Christ’s true humanity. The word “appearance” is the Greek word schema, from which we get schematics. It refers to “the outward form that is perceptible to the senses” (Kent, 127). This is in contrast to the term morphe that we saw earlier, and in fact the two words often appear together in the New Testament “to differentiate external appearance from the form that is intrinsic and essential” (Kent, 127). One commentator put it this way: “A baby, a child, a boy, a youth, a man of middle age, and an old man always have the morphe of humanity, but the outward schema changes all the time” (Barclay, 35–36).


Because Christ was truly and fully man, He had both the morphe and the schema of a human being. The point here is that Christ “appeared” in a way that was clearly recognizable as human (Fee, 215). Another commentator writes, “Solid, empirical evidence led all who observed Christ to conclude that he was an authentic, not a counterfeit, human being” (Hansen, 154). Jesus didn’t hover three inches above the ground. He didn’t have a golden halo around His head. He was a normal, Middle Eastern man—to the point that when He starts talking about how He’s the bread of life come down from Heaven, the people say, “Isn’t this just Jesus, the son of Joseph? Don’t we know His mother and father?” (John 6:42). To the people He grew up with, He was just Jesus.


Amazing. Even here, there is humility to be admired. In the majesty of Heaven, to look on Him would have been to look on the epitome of all beauty. But “being found in appearance as a man,” Isaiah 53 tells us that He had “no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him. He was despised and forsaken of men…and like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.”


But of course His humility didn’t stop at merely becoming human. His humility expresses itself in obedience to the Father’s will. Throughout the Gospel of John, which was written particularly to showcase Christ’s deity, are continual statements of His submission to the Father. John 5:30: I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. John 6:38: For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. But it’s not as if such obedience is coerced. In John 10:18, Jesus says, “No one has taken [My life] away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.” But then, to emphasize His obedient submission, He adds, “This commandment I received from My Father.”


And that is the extent to which Christ’s obedience has taken Him: to the laying down of His life. Paul highlights the depth of Christ’s humility in verse 8 when he says, look at the text, “He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death.” Surely, as the eternal Son of the Father, Christ had always, from eternity, obeyed His Father and experienced the joy and the fellowship of that obedience. But in His incarnation, obedience to the Father meant greater and greater opposition from all those who were around Him, until they eventually would kill Him.


Here is humility shining like the sun in its full strength. “How can it be, that Thou, My God, shouldst die for me?” 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. “’Tis mystery all: Th’immortal dies!”


But it doesn’t stop there. There is another step to go before the humiliation of the Son of God reaches rock bottom. He did not humble Himself merely by becoming obedient. He did not humble Himself merely by becoming obedient to the point of death. The Holy Son of God, the Lord of glory, “humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Here, we hit rock bottom.


In that day, nobody wore a cross on their necklace. There were no crosses embossed on Bible covers. There weren’t even crosses in churches. In that day, the cross meant one thing: the most horrific and shameful kind of death. One commentator writes, “The cross displayed the lowest depths of human depravity and cruelty. It exhibited the most brutal form of sadistic torture and execution ever invented by malicious human minds” (Hansen, 157).


Crucifixion was such a horrific way to die that Roman citizens were exempted from such a fate. Roman law forbade crucifixion for citizens, and allowed it only for the lower classes, slaves, violent criminals, and traitors. Cicero, the famous Roman philosopher and orator, called crucifixion “a most cruel and disgusting punishment,” “the worst extreme of the tortures inflicted upon the slaves” (cited in Hansen, 157). He said, “To bind a Roman citizen is a crime; to flog him is an abomination; to slay him is almost an act of murder; to crucify him is—what? There is no fitting word that can possibly describe so horrible a deed” (cited in Fee, 217n13). In fact, in “polite Roman society the word ‘cross’ was an obscenity, not to be uttered in conversation” (Bruce, 47). Cicero would also say, “Let the very name of the cross be far removed not only from the body of a Roman citizen, but even from his thoughts, his eyes, his ears” (cited in Hendriksen, 112).


Why were they so exercised about this? In crucifixion, metal spikes were driven through the victim’s wrists and feet, and he was left to hang naked and exposed. No vital organs were pierced, and so the victim of a crucifixion would sometimes hang there for days as his life slowly crept away from him. Because the body would be pulled down by gravity, the weight of the 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 do that, 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.


This was the most sadistically cruel, excruciatingly painful, and loathsomely degrading death that a man could die. This is abject degradation. And there on Golgotha, 2,000 years ago, the innocent, holy, righteous Son of God died this death. God on a cross.


The Philippians got the picture. 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 all praise could submit Himself to that, can worms like us continue in selfish ambition and empty conceit? Can we continue to bicker with one another, and insist on our own rights? A wise man once asked, “How can anyone be arrogant when he stands beside the cross?”




As hard as it may be to believe, the pain, the torture, and the shame weren’t the worst part of all this. Deuteronomy 21:23 states that anyone who is hanged on a tree is accursed of God. Paul quotes this verse in Galatians 3:13: “For it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’” Along with the pain 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 what it was to know His Father’s displeasure! I can barely handle that thought! No wonder He cried, “My God, 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!


And my 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 sit here 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, beg for forgiveness on the basis of the death and resurrection of Christ, and trust entirely in His righteousness alone for salvation! And you’ll be saved! His death will have become your death. His curse, your curse. And His righteousness, your righteousness. Oh, what could be stopping you this very moment from seizing eternal life!


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 true Christian unity.