8 August 2013Philippians 2:5-11
"Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus." (v. 5)
The original recipients and hearers of this letter were the members of a growing church in Philippi, Macedonia, established by Paul. Paul was writing his letter from prison, to a group of people he knew well and loved. The Philippians had supported Paul in his ministry through their prayers and gifts, and were rightly very concerned about his imprisonment and what this might mean for the future of both Paul and the gospel (good news about Jesus). However, Paul was more concerned about them, as he had heard news of possible divisions and factions among the believers there, and was aware of the dangers such disunity brought with it. Like Paul himself and all the emerging churches at that time, the Philippian Christians would face some degree of suffering. Paul was aware that they needed to endure their suffering bravely, have a certain single-mindedness and learn to trust Christ for everything.
Our passage comes within the main thrust of the letter: an appeal to unity within the church. Paul urges the Philippians to see through the petty prejudices, preferences, and pride, and points them to the big picture - most powerfully using the example of Jesus: given in the form of a beautiful and poetic hymn that has become one of the most important, moving, dynamic and memorable passages of Scripture ever. And in the build-up to this (verses 2-5), we see very clearly the context in which it was intended.
Our passage sings of God - the real God. Jesus Christ (God the Son) who existed before he was born, and was on a par with the rest of God, but wasn't big-headed about it. He was in the highest place with all the power in the world. But no exploitation. Exploitation is for the weak, the insecure. Only humans feel the need to exploit their power when they get in positions of authority or leadership. Jesus had the authority, the power and the glory and he gave it all up for something more important. And he "emptied himself" (v. 7). What could this mean? When we think of a bottle of water being emptied, we can think of it in a negative way (being emptied down a sink - a great waste) or a positive way (being emptied into a glass to be enjoyed). With the second option, the vessel would be different, but the contents would still have their essential refreshing and life-giving characteristics.
Jesus did not empty himself of all his Godly characteristics and become an empty vessel. Rather, God the Son, in all his heavenly splendour, being "in the form of God" (v. 6), emptied himself into another vessel - leaving behind his divine 'bottle', in favour of an earthly 'glass'. Thus Jesus lost nothing of his character or righteousness. And yet the Greek word that is used in this instancemeans 'to deprive or lessen'. The NIV Bible translates the phrase "made himself nothing". This is not true in the experience of Christians, where Christ is the opposite of nothing. But perhaps "nothing" was the best way to describe Christ's new vessel, compared to his previous one. Asking not 'Of what did Christ empty himself?' but rather 'Into what did Christ empty himself?', Paul gives the answer:
- He took "the form of a slave" (v. 7) - a vessel of obedient service, and yet slaves were seen as 'nothing' by society in general. Slaves were given few rights or privileges in a household, and were treated as disposable commodities, sub-human. Unlike the children, that is, who were honoured heirs to the estate.
- He was "born in human likeness" (v. 7). The creator becomes the created. From the eternal heavens, where God's love rules supreme, to the depths of the earth and human life, exposed to sin, temptation, aggression, oppression and death. And yet within this 'nothing' of a vessel, there was room for the wonderful contents he brought with him. Jesus filled his earthly glass to the brim with his life-giving water, his divine nature and being.
His "form" was that of a slave, a servant, in every observable way - he healed, he brought comfort, he washed his friends' feet, he suffered. His "likeness" was that of a man, in every physical, chemical and biological sense. Yet within that vessel, there was still the capacity his divine nature to shine through: most uniquely in his relationship to God - out of which flowed his faithful obedience which led to his death on the cross.
The hymn goes on to describe Christ's reward: "Therefore ... God has exalted him to the highest place above" (v. 9). It takes to the extreme Jesus' words that "the last shall be first" (Matthew 20:16), where the one who made himself least of all, purely out of love, should be placed in the premier position. This final part of this great song of Christ's glory has a future dimension that points to a time of God's choosing when we will see Jesus the Lord of all face-to-face, and the world will bow, in trembling adoration to the One who gave his all, to the glory of our God of love.
Perhaps (like many churches that become consumed by their own internal wrangling and power-struggles), a step back and a look at the big picture was needed to put things in perspective for the Philippians. After considering the mind or attitude of Christ, Paul goes on to urge his readers to forget about their complaints and arguments and to "shine like stars" in their generation (Philippians 2:15). Is not a similar message needed for us today?
- Can you think of examples in the Bible, or in the world today, where humans have tried to make themselves 'like gods'? What answer does Christ give us about the nature of true greatness?
- How can this passage help us, in our churches today, to get things into perspective when our pride, prejudices or preferences take priority?
- Spend some time reflecting on these words from Charles Wesley's
great hymn, "And can it be" (STF 345):
"He left his Father's throne above -
so free, so infinite his grace -
emptied himself of all but love,
and bled for Adam's helpless race."