In our day, a fierce commitment to self-esteem and insisting on one’s rights prevails everywhere in the culture. While this would be expected among fallen people with an inborn disposition of rebellion against the government of God, it is most disturbing to see this attitude work its way into the church. How different this is than the example of Jesus, who, though He was eternal God, humbled Himself into the position of a slave to secure redemption for His people and offer Himself “for the life of the world” (John 6:51). Our tendency is to continue insisting on our rights and own way, in contradiction to the example and commands of the One who has purchased us. So, this One moves His Apostle to bring us words from heaven about the humility fitting of those who follow the Humble King.
Indeed, if Christ’s mission of advancing His kingdom and gospel in the world is to succeed, it must be done by a unified church, which is His instrument for calling out a people from the nations for the sake of His Name (Acts 15:14). And a unified church must be a humble church. Proud people are endlessly divisive! After giving us the incentives (2:1), elements (v. 2), and means (vv. 3-4) of unity, Paul gives us the greatest illustration of the humility that causes unity—the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul gives us three ways Christlike humility ought to manifest itself among God’s people.
A. Through Submission (vv. 5-6)
The glories of Christ’s humility are best seen in the heights from which He came. There is no greater example of humility than the eternal God becoming a man! Paul begins by emphasizing the attitude that was in the mind of Christ in becoming incarnate. The attitude was manifested by the actions that begin in verse 6. This verse has caused much confusion among Bible students, so it is important to dwell on it.
Recall that Paul is teaching theology with a practical goal: To inculcate this kind of humility in the Philippians. The attitude Christ had in becoming incarnate is to be ours as well. The attitude begins thus: “Who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped…” “Existed” is in the present tense, stating that whatever the “form” is, it was Jesus’ possession eternally. It was continually His. “Form” (Gr. morphe) is the key word. This carries the idea of essential nature. It is the DNA-level essence of something that makes it what it is and not something else—that which is personally possessed and can never change. For example, the morphe of a baby, toddler, child, and teenager is personhood. They all bear the essential, unchangeable essence of humanity, though their outward form and manifestation differs. Putting these two words together, we find that prior to His incarnation, Jesus existed eternally in the very essence and nature of God—which is not possible for any created being but only for God Himself! Thus, Jesus is eternal God—uncreated, sovereign, existing from eternity with all the divine excellencies and fully equal with Father and Spirit.
The next phrase expands upon this. Having just said Jesus is eternal God as to His essence and DNA-level nature, Paul says He did not consider His equality with God a thing to be grasped. What does this mean? “Equality” refers to things that are identical in shape, mass, quantity, quality, etc. The only “thing” that could possibly be equal with Yahweh must be Yahweh—for He explicitly says, “I am Yahweh, and there is none else, there is no God besides Me…I alone am God! I am God, and there is none like Me” (Isaiah 45:5, 46:9). Given the immediate context of saying Jesus carries God’s essential nature, Paul is saying Jesus is equal with God, which restates His absolute deity. But what does he mean by “a thing to be grasped”? The idea is holding onto something, clutching it to oneself. Negatively, it came to refer to robbery, where the clutching was of something not one’s own and done for selfish, evil reasons. This phrase is the bridge between this verse and the rest of the section: Though Jesus was eternal God as to His very essential nature, thus completely equal with God the Father, He did not hold onto this equality, but emptied Himself.
How does submission fit into this? Well, did Jesus not submit to His Father in becoming incarnate? The plan was the product of the Triune God, but only the Son became a man. In this He submitted to the will of His equals, the Father and Spirit, in taking to Himself a human nature. He subordinated Himself to His equals! Think of this humility! Of course, Jesus is in perfect agreement with Father and Spirit, so His submission would differ from ours! But humility cannot blossom and unity cannot be expressed if we insist on our own way. We, too, must model the humility of Crist in submitting to our peers at times, knowing that sometimes insisting on what we think is best creates division and disunity, and if that happens something much more important than what we want—namely, the advance of the gospel!—cannot happen. O Christian! Look at your humble Savior and be willing to yield, that His program might flourish.
B. Through Service (v. 7)
The point of verse 6 is that, in humility for the sake of His program, Jesus did not hold onto His essential equality with God. Verse 7 explains what this means: “but emptied Himself.” We must camp out on this phrase too, because lots of wrong understandings have arisen from this passage. Some people note the juxtaposition of this phrase with the strong assertion of deity and Jesus not retaining equality with God, and assume the emptying was the pouring out or abandoning of His divine nature and essence. This cannot be, for one who is equal with God and God in essence cannot cease to be God! But Jesus really did not hold onto His equality with God. What does this mean? In pouring Himself out, he surrendered His equality with God by adding to Himself a human nature. The text never says Jesus lost anything or gave up anything. Rather, He poured out by adding. Of course, if Jesus is a man, then as to His human nature He is not equal with God. (Indeed, Jesus’ human nature was created!) But Jesus added to His eternal divine nature a created human nature, thus becoming the glorious theanthropic Person.
“Form” is the same word used in verse 6. Just as Jesus was (and is) eternally in the essential nature of God, in His incarnation He really and truly became a man, with everything essential to humanness. Of course, the text does not merely say “man,” but “a bond-servant”—lit. “slave”! Who is this slave of God? Is it not the messianic “servant of Yahweh” about whom Isaiah sings so gloriously in the Servant Songs of Isaiah 49-53? (“Servant” in the Hebrew text means “slave” as well.) This means Jesus’ character was not merely human (though it was), and not merely an attitude of a humble slave (though it was), but also that Jesus specifically came in the identity and nature of the Suffering Servant promised in Isaiah. His was not generic humanity but a specific identity. We see the same thing with His identity as the Son of David in passages like Romans 1:1-4. “Made” means “to cause to become,” while “likeness” refers to the visible form or copy of something—at a specific point, Jesus took to Himself the essential nature (morphe) of a man and servant, and was made to become a man visibly and physically (homoioma).
Since Jesus is called a slave, it is not hard to see how His humility ought to shape our own. Jesus surrendered Himself into the Father’s hands to be His slave for the fulfillment of His will and purposes! One might initially not think much of this since, being God, Jesus’ will differs not one iota from the Father’s. But: Look at the depths to which Jesus descended to fulfill that plan—and realize in taking to Himself a human nature, He took to Himself a human will, which though sinless needed to be submitted to the divine will and purposes. He used both of His wills for the complete pleasure and honor of the Father. Will you not use your one to do the same? Submit to God and others. Offer yourself in service not of your own will and desires, but for the furtherance of God’s program and the love of others.
C. Through Sacrifice (v. 8)
“Appearance” is the Greek work schema, which refers to outward appearance and manifestation. Not only was Jesus human in His essence, but He looked like a man. He did not come with the blaze of eternal deity that was His right (I allude to Robert Bowman’s thoughts here). No, He came looking just like us. He was approachable. This man who looked like us, this man who was eternal God, humbled Himself. Think of it: He did not insist on the rights, position, and independent exercise of His attributes that were His as holy God. He did not hold onto them, but embraced human nature, subordinating Himself to His Father. Moreover, He was perfectly obedient to His Father despite the high cost. The highest, of course, was the cross. Daily Jesus offered up His human nature and will to the father for the execution of His program. And knowing that obedience would ultimately include saying “Yes” to the Father’s command that He die for sinners, Jesus did not flinch but said, “Not My will, but Thine.” The eternal God, Creator of all that is, worshipped by angels, who speaks and nothing obeys and becomes something, this One was mocked, spit upon, hated, nailed naked to a cross to become sin for the ungodly. He allowed Himself to be treated as a vile sinner for the sake of the underserving whose sins He bore. This is the apex of His humility, and it shines incomparably brightly.
Just as your Savior submitted and served, so He sacrificed Himself, and so must you. Not for salvation of souls, not as a substitute for sinners, but you must still die—to your own way, to your plans, to your preferences and dreams, for something bigger and grander and far more lasting. The vision of glory God offers is much richer than anything you could procure insisting on your stubborn way. Death truly brings life. Pouring out brings fullness—and an eternal weight of glory. Do you trust Him? Obey, as your Savior did, and be blessed!