Every Sunday I stand up here and tell you that the passage we’ve just read is so important. It’s one of the dangers of listening to a preacher: they think that every passage is the most important.
But this morning, this passage is in fact one of the most important when it comes to understanding Christmas. This is one of the richest passages in Scripture about who Jesus is, and in fact what God is like. Somebody has said that it is the greatest and most moving passage that Paul ever wrote about Jesus. If you understand this passage, you will understand not only the meaning of Christmas at its deepest level; you will understand the very nature of God. So it is very important that we look at this passage today.
But there’s more than that. Most Christmases, we look at the gospels. The gospels relate the events surrounding the birth of Jesus, about Mary and Joseph, shepherds, angels, and wise men. But this passage is different. Instead of describing what happened at Christmas, it describes what Jesus was thinking at Christmas. If you ask someone what they were thinking when they were born, they won’t be able to tell you. They can’t remember. They weren’t in control of the events, and it’s ludicrous to even think about the mindset of someone who’s being born.
But when Jesus was born at Christmas, this passage tells us exactly what he was thinking. More than that, verse 5 tells us to “have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had.” You can know the very attitude of mind that Jesus had at Christmas, and if you understand this, you will understand the meaning of Christmas, and you will understand the true nature of God, and your life can be changed as a result.
So this morning let’s see from this passage who Jesus is; what he did; what this tells us about God; and what this means for us today.
First, let’s look at who Jesus is.
Verses 5 and 6 in this passage are some of the most helpful verses in all of Scripture to help us understand who Jesus is. In just a few words, Paul packs a tremendous amount of teaching. Verses 5 and 6 say:
In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage…
One of the most important questions we have to deal with is who exactly Jesus Christ is. I was looking at an American calendar the other day and noticed that they celebrate a lot of birthdays: Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Washington’s birthday, Lincoln’s birthday. If you asked what each of these days celebrates, you would hear a little about each of these men and what they accomplished. The bottom line is that Americans celebrate their birthdays because they were great men.
If you asked why we celebrate Christmas, you may expect the same answer: that we celebrate the birthday of Jesus because he was a great man. But Scripture doesn’t let us away with this. He was more than a great man. This passage tells us that he was in his very nature God. How you answer this question makes all the difference in the world, and you can’t be neutral.
In his excellent little book Basic Christianity, John Stott writes:
The only place to begin is the historic person of Jesus of Nazareth…The crucial issue is this: was the carpenter of Nazareth the Son of God?…The person and work of Christ are the rock on which the Christian religion is built. If he is not who he said he was, and if he did not do what he said he had come to do, the foundation is undermined and the whole superstructure will collapse. Take Christ from Christianity, and you disembowel it; there is practically nothing left. Christ is the center of Christianity; all else is circumference.
Tim Keller, a pastor in New York, explains how people come to him with all kinds of objections and problems with Christianity. He responds, and he does so very well, but at some point he says to them: the question you need to answer is, Who is Jesus? Because if Jesus is God, and he came to earth and rose again and ascended to heaven, that changes everything. That is such a critical question that every other question fades to the background. You can ask questions about God and evil and the Bible and science, but those are all secondary questions that aren’t even important, relatively speaking, until you ask the primary question: Who is Jesus?
We could answer this question in many ways, by looking at the gospels and the historical evidences. But this morning let’s focus on this passage, and let me tell you why it’s so amazing. The book of Philippians was written within 30 years of Jesus’ life. This means that there were still people around who knew Jesus. Sometimes people argue that it took many decades, even centuries, for beliefs to develop that Jesus was God, but here you have a very early claim that Jesus was God.
What’s even more, most scholars Paul here is quoting something – maybe a hymn, poem, or confession – that was written before he wrote Philippians. In other words, it predates this book. It was written even earlier than thirty years after the life of Jesus Christ, showing that this is what people believed right from the beginning.
And even more amazingly, this confession of Jesus took place within the Jewish faith. Greeks and Romans may have been comfortable with the idea of a god becoming human, but not the Jewish faith. This would have been blasphemy.
But here Paul says that Christ Jesus was in the form of God. Now we have to look at this carefully. This is one of the boldest claims for the identity of Jesus Christ in all of the Bible. There were two words that Paul could have used here. One means form as we normally think of it, like if I say that you formed an opinion. It’s changeable. It’s sometimes superficial. That’s not the word that Paul used. Paul uses a different word that means “correspondence with reality.” What Paul is saying here is that Jesus existed as God, that everything that makes God God was true of Jesus Christ; that in his very nature Jesus Christ is truly God. When you look at Jesus, the true nature of God is revealed, because he is God. This is one of the boldest statements of the Christian belief about who Jesus is, and if it’s true, it changes everything.
But secondly, then, let’s look at what Jesus (as God) did.
Verses 6-9 say:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a human being, he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death– even death on a cross!
Verse 6 says that he “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage.” Some of your translations may say “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped.” A recent article in England says:
It’s time to redefine class. In modern Britain your social position has little to do with what your dad did for a living or where you went to school…We have become a nation of those who enjoy perks, and those who do not. Perks are the little extras that grease your way through modern life – bonuses, expenses, allowances and inflation-protected pensions. The vast majority of the workforce faces higher tax, higher national insurance, higher VAT, shorter hours and frozen pay. But it’s so different for a small privileged group – top executives, high-ranking public servants and MPs, who all benefit from these nice little extras whether they do anything to deserve them or not.
It’s human nature to grasp at all the perks and benefits that come your way. A Cadillac commercial tells us we should celebrate the success we’ve earned by buying ourselves a Cadillac. It’s our nature to grasp at recognition and honor and money for our own benefit so we can enjoy it for ourselves. One of the strongest characteristics of our fallen nature is selfishness. We love to gratify ourselves. Even our most selfless actions, when we look at them carefully, often have some traits of selfishness hidden in there somewhere.
But Paul says that Jesus did not grasp at the perks or the privileges of being God. He is God, but he does not use his equality with God for his own advantage. Instead, as God, “he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” This is amazing. John Calvin wrote, “Christ’s humility consisted of his abasing himself from the highest pinnacle of glory to the lowest ignominy.” He laid scepter, crown, attendants, and throne aside, and as God became human. Paul says elsewhere, “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9). Jesus Christ became God in the flesh.
Adam – the first man – was not God, and yet grasped at the privileges of being God. Jesus was and is God, but didn’t grasp for those privileges, even though they were his. Instead, he laid them aside and became a servant.
A pastor I know was asked to attend the changing over of the Lord Mayor of London, England. The ceremony dates back to at least the seventeenth century. At the heart of the ceremony is the stripping of the old Lord Mayor of all the badges of office. His mace – the symbol of authority – is stripped off. The Lord Mayor’s chain of office is taken from him. He arrives with pomp and ceremony, but leaves like everyone else. This pastor watched all of this and it caused him to think of Jesus who, being in the very nature of God, also became in his very nature a slave – no rights, no privileges, no power, no significance, no status other than one who is there to serve. As God, Jesus stepped from the throne of glory in heaven. As God, Jesus entered the stable as a baby boy and as a servant.
What’s more, Jesus became killable. When Jesus became human, he chose the path that would lead to his own death, the death on the cross.
In 1964, Kitty Genovese was stabbed near her apartment in Queen’s New York. She cried out for help. Lights went on, and the attacker backed off. Reports differ on who saw what and what happened, but when nobody came down to help her, he continued the attack and ultimately killed her. For whatever reason, nobody came down.
But at Christmas, Jesus came down. And he came down not at the risk of his life, but at the cost of his life. He laid aside all the advantages of his Godship, and instead, as God, became a slave, choosing the path that would cost him his life.
What does this tell us about God?
If Jesus is the very representation of God, then this tells us something about the very nature of God.
One of the questions I hear sometimes is why God wants us to worship him. People can’t understand, because to them it seems selfish, like God needs something from us.
This passage helps us see that at the very heart of God’s nature is other-centeredness. God, who deserves all praise and worship and all of the perks of being God, willingly set them aside for the very people who shook their fist at God in rebellion against him.
The fact that Jesus existed as God points us to one of the greatest truths. The Father, Son, and Spirit existed from eternity. This means that before anything else existed, love existed. It means that God is, in essence, relational. The Father, Son, and Spirit have lived in eternal relationship with each other from eternity, in a radical other-centered relationship. They are the opposite of being self-centered. They exist in relationships of mutually self-giving love. “Each voluntarily circles the other two, pouring love, delight, and adoration into them. Each person of the Trinity adores, defers to, and rejoices in the others. This creates a dynamic, pulsating dance of joy and love” (Tim Keller).
As one scholar put it:
The Father…Son…and Holy Spirit glorify each other…At the center of the universe, self-giving love is the dynamic currency of the Trinitarian life of God. The persons within God exalt, commune with, and defer to one another…Each divine person harbors the others at the center of his being. In constant movement of overture and acceptance each person envelops and encircles the others. (Cornelius Plantinga)
The early Christians used to have a term for this which meant something like “the dance of God”. It means that we are not the product of blind impersonal forces. It means that at the very center of reality is love. Father, Son, and Spirit have been knowing and loving and deferring to each other from eternity.
What is God like? He is relational. He is self-giving and other-directed.
Philippians 2 tells us that this dance of eternal love has been expanded to include us. It means that God, in the person of Jesus, has moved toward us and encircled us with an infinite, self-giving love – a love that let go of all the privileges that were his, a love that embraced becoming a slave, becoming human, so that we could be part of that eternal dance of love.
When we see Jesus, we see the very nature of God. We see the very nature of this universe. And when we see Christmas, we see the lengths that God went to in order to encircle us in his love.
So what does this mean for us today?
If you see and understand Christmas, you are seeing and understanding what is at the very heart of the universe. Don’t rush by this passage. Don’t rush by Christmas. Meditate on what this passage teaches us about God. Think about a self-giving God who went to this length to invite us into the heart of love.
Friends, this is a fact to be believed. It may be that until know you’ve never understood this about Christmas. Today may be the day that you realize for the first time what God is really like, and that when we didn’t deserve it God himself came down. God himself became other-centered so that we may be brought into relationship with him. Believe it. Understand who Jesus is. And marvel at it. If Jesus is who he says he is, it changes everything.
Then let this change you. Paul wrote in this passage, “have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had.” The more we grasp what Jesus has done for us, the more we will be moved to have the same attitude, the same mindset of Jesus. It will change us from the inside out.
So Father, thank you for this passage. Thank you for showing us clearly that Jesus is God. Thank you for showing us in this passage what he was thinking when he came to earth. He didn’t use his position as God for his own advantage. Instead, he was born in human likeness, fully God, fully human, giving up his rights so that he could die so that we could be saved.
I pray that this would help us understand you, and that we would respond in faith. I pray that we would believe, and that knowing this would transform us. In the name of the one who came as a servant, the name of the one to whom every knee shall bow, we pray, Amen.