Philippians 2:1-11: Empty Yourself
Philippians 2 is one of the most profound passages on the deity and work of Christ. Because of its poetic structure, some scholars believe Paul’s words in verses 6-11 are quoted from an earlier Christian creed, providing evidence that Christians very early on believed Jesus to be God incarnate. This is most plainly stated in verse 6: “For though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself…” What’s even more striking is that the culmination of the hymn in verse 10 is a direct quote from Isaiah 45:23 where the LORD speaks in the first person: “To me (Yahweh) every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess to God.” Paul, however, ascribes this lofty refrain referring to the lordship of Yahweh ultimately to Jesus. In doing so, Paul is essentially making the grand finale statement: “Jesus is Yahweh.” It was Jesus who raised up the great Persian king, Cyrus, to set Israel’s exiles free (45:1), it is Jesus who “forms light and creates darkness” (45:7), it is Jesus who “made the earth and created man on it” (45:12), and it is Jesus who brings salvation (45:22). To Him belongs all sovereign authority and power, and every knee shall bow. Ultimately Paul presents Jesus’s exaltation as the fulfillment of Isaiah 45.While these verses make profound statements about Christ’s person, it’s important to recognize that Paul is not writing these verses primarily as a doctrinal creed to defend the deity of Christ, but as an encouragement to follow
While these verses make profound statements about Christ’s person, it’s important to recognize that Paul is not writing these verses primarily as a doctrinal creed to defend the deity of Christ, but as an encouragement to follow after Jesus’s example of selfless humility. Paul assumes the deity of Christ already but then reflects on Jesus’s role as the humble servant in light of his exalted status in order to spur us on to walk in the same manner- that we might share this mindset of Christ, which is already in us who believe. Paul appeals to the Philippians, “if you have any encouragement from Christ, any comfort from his love, any affection, and sympathy, then make my joy complete” by sharing the same love and being united in mind with one another. But what does it mean to be united in mind? One way to answer this is to consider the opposite for a moment. A people with divided minds have divided interests. When each person in the group is looking out for #1 and trying to take center stage- when every person is trying to be the star of the show, the play turns into a shambles. But to be united in mind is to share the same common interest with one another. Only when each actor in the play shares the director’s vision can the play be truly excellent. In the same way, the people of God are united in mind only when we share the mind of Christ. And what is this mind? Paul tells the Philippians to “count others more significant than yourselves” with each person looking not to his own interests but to the interests of others. The word “count” here is key. Upon first reading this, you may think “how is this practical?” After all, there are obviously people who are better at some things than others. Why would you treat the lesser person as though he were the greater? One person sings better than another while the other does math better. One is more responsible with their money, while another is more generous. One is prettier while another is smarter. And still, one has a great many obvious sins, while another has fewer. We measure ourselves against each other in all sorts of ways and pride ourselves in our gifts and accomplishments while “counting” others less worthy than ourselves who don’t measure up to our own specific gifts. In regard to holiness, maybe it’s legitimately true that you are more mature in some ways than this “sinner” over here, but this isn’t the point. It’s not about what others are; it’s about what you “count” them to be. Do you count others worthy of your service, worthy of your love? Even though you could probably think of multiple reasons why that man on the street corner is not worthy of your time or money, why your spouse is not worthy of your love and respect, why your boss is not worthy of your honor – do you still “count” them as worthy? Jesus did…He treated unclean sinners as though they were beloved children of God, and he treated himself, the king of the universe as if he were a servant. Though he’s the only one who had a legitimate reason not to count anyone worthy of his service, he is the one who emptied himself more than anyone else. To be emptied requires that you must first be full. We might think we’re “full” due to the honor and respect we have because of our gifts, accomplishments, and status, but compared to Jesus’ glory and majesty we are pitifully empty. We might feel we are emptying ourselves of our rights and privilege when we serve others in ways they don’t deserve and when we suffer for others in ways we don’t deserve to suffer, but Jesus emptied himself infinitely. Even though he was equal to God in every way, he did not “count” this as a thing to be grasped, that is, he did not act on his rights as God, but instead willingly chose to deprive himself of this privilege. Though he was worthy of all service, he “counted” himself a servant by humbling himself even unto death on a cross- the most humiliating form of death in the ancient Roman world. The infinite and powerful God became a weak, finite man. The Holy One was counted a sinner and the wicked was counted as righteous through his blood. Indeed, we serve a very strange God who sets aside his glory to be clothed in shame, who gives his life for unworthy sinners as though they were worthy, and who gladly embraces humiliation in order to turn it into glory. This is the love of God. Jesus both disrupts and surpasses our expectations, but in the end, his glory is not tainted by the humiliation he endured. Instead, God vindicated him to the highest place, for in the end it is God who ultimately exalts and humbles all people.
What does it mean to have the mind of Christ? It is to count others, though they are not as if they were – worthy of your service – so much so that it leads us to willingly empty ourselves for the sake of others, just as Christ did for us. He laid down his privilege in order to privilege others. But how do we use our own privilege and status as bosses, parents or spouses? Everybody has some level of status and power in their life, regardless of how small; but do you use it to bolster your own position or to empower and serve others? At this point, you might say, “yeah this is a great model. Now I just need to try harder to focus my mind on thinking about other people before myself.” But this is where you will fail. One cannot attain this mind of Christ merely by spending hours in self-deprivation and spiritual discipline through sheer willpower. How you treat others will ultimately depend on where your affections lie. Paul says this mind of Christ only comes from “participating in the Spirit” which wells up into affections for Christ and comfort in his love. Only in this state of worship – when you finally rest in the finished work of Christ accomplished for you – only out of this rest will you be able to walk in his footsteps of joyful, willing service. God’s ways are contrary to the flesh. The flesh is always self-seeking while God is always others-seeking. Jesus seeks to glorify the Father and the Father seeks to glorify the Son, but the sinful heart always seeks to glorify the self. This is why fleshly attempts to follow after Christ based on willpower will always fail. Human religion always fails because trying to obey God in the flesh is forcing the flesh to do something it inherently hates. Only when you’re led by the Spirit can the mind of Christ become yours. Only through resting in the Spirit’s work in you, transforming your heart, will selfless service toward others become a joy, rather than a forced burden. Just as Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before Him, just as his food was to do the Father’s will, so you will find yourself becoming more like Christ- willingly emptying yourself for others and living in the joy of the Father’s pleasure.