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2. The incarnation of Christ (Philippians 2:5-11)

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Philippians 2:5-11 You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had, who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature. He humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross! As a result God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow – in heaven and on earth and under the earth -- and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. NET


I held back my daughter’s hair as her dinner resurfaced in the toilet. The night before we had enjoyed a local sampling of “street food” during the Zhong Qiu Jie (Autumn) Festival, and Kathryn was paying the price while her insides writhed in distress. If only I had followed my better judgment and voted against the back alley taste test… The thoughts swirled through my head as I soon found I was the one hugging the toilet. Did the King of Kings really face these human ailments, or did He just appear to be human? Did He enjoy local cuisine, only to have it turn sour inside? Or did He have super-human powers that identified food poisoning before He took a bite? Did He ever feel lonely? Cold? Exhausted? If Jesus really did experience all the physical and emotional responses of human existence, then it changes everything about the way we relate to Him today.

Suggested Study timeline:

Day 1: Read the background info and the whole book of Philippians

Day 2: Meditate on Philippians 1:27-2:4 and 2:12-18, noting the surrounding context

Day 3: Read Acts 16:12-40 of Paul’s visit to Philippi for clues about Paul’s audience

Day 4: Reread Philippians 2:12-4:20 to see Paul’s desired applications for them

Day 5: Answer the “discussion” questions

Day 6: Answer the “application” questions

Day 7: Spend a focused prayer time worshiping and reflecting on application

Background context for the book of Philippians:

Philippians is written from prison by Paul to the saints at Philippi, mostly Gentiles. Paul came to know them during his 2nd missionary journey recorded in Acts 16:12-40. It is his most personal letter, one of heartfelt joy to the believers he loved. It is thought by many to be the last of his epistles during the end of his Roman imprisonment, around 63 or 64 AD1. Paul writes, in light of his own circumstances, to encourage them to find joy in the midst of their difficulties by seeking to know Christ and be like Him. (The word “joy” and its forms are found 18 times in 4 short chapters!)

Context of Philippians 2:5-11:

Some consider this passage to be one of the most important revelations of Christ in the whole New Testament. Many also feel this passage is difficult to interpret. Beginning in Chapter 2, Paul exhorts the church to unity and selflessness as a body. Thus, 2:5-11 shows Christ as Paul’s ultimate example of the attitude he hopes they will demonstrate. Also, 2:12-18 flows naturally from this section as it expresses Paul’s hopes for their behavior in light of Christ’s example. This passage is thought by some to be an early Christian hymn.

A fancy, but important word:

Kenosis: This Greek term comes from this passage in the phrase “emptied Himself.” Kenosis is the word used to discuss what took place in Christ’s incarnation. We must seek to understand in what sense Christ laid aside His divine riches in becoming human. Historically, most in the ancient church taught that the Son laid aside only His divine appearances or rights, but fully retained all of His divine attributes. They argued that if He ceased to have some divine attributes, then He could not be fully God2. Some groups in the early church (as well as some today) argue that He not only laid aside appearances, but also divine attributes. Why does it matter what happened when Christ became a man? Let’s tackle this question!

Discussion Questions: Grasping the Meaning

1. Make a list of everything Philippians 2:5-11 reveals about Christ. (Which phrases describe Him before the incarnation, and which describe after?)

2. What is “the same attitude” that Christ had referred to in Philippians 2:5? How is humility defined in this passage?

3. Similar to last week’s Colossians passage, some mistake these verses to say Christ was created, or Christ was not fully human, or that Christ is not fully divine. The failure to hold both His humanity and His deity in tension has been the source of oodles of heresies and cults, historically and in the present. What does each phrase mean3?

  • “…he existed in the form of God…” (Could you say He was in the form of God, but not actually God?)
  • “…taking on the form of a slave…” (Could you say He was created?)
  • “…looking like other men…” (Could you say He only appeared to be human?)

4. Let’s put these phrases together now. How would you defend both the deity and the humanity of Christ from the Bible4? What is lost when one is emphasized over the other?

5. Take a stab: In your understanding, how would you explain the mystery of the incarnation (He “emptied himself”) to someone? Did He give up or lay aside any divine attributes, or the exercise of them? What if any clues does this passage or surrounding context give? What difference does it make?

6. Up for a challenge? Early church Christians wrestled with these questions long before us. These views were instrumental in helping the early church form sound beliefs about the deity and humanity of Christ. We not only gain insight from modern-day Christians who are different from us. We also have a lot to learn from the ways God’s Spirit revealed truth to the saints of history. Don’t be scared by these funky names!

  • Apollinarianism (A)- This view stated that the One person of Christ had a human body but a divine mind and spirit. What is the problem with this? The whole human person (material and immaterial) needs redeeming. It implied that being human is essentially sinful. This heresy was rejected at the council of Alexandria (362) and the Council of Constantinople (381).
  • Nestorianism (N)- This view stated that there are two separate persons in Christ—a human person and a divine person. What is the problem with this? There is no indication of struggle in Christ between two persons; His person cannot be divided. There is ONE mediator between God and man: the God-man, Jesus Christ.
  • Eutychianism/Monophysitism (E/M)- This view stated that Christ had only one nature. His human nature was ‘absorbed into’ a divine nature and thus morphed into a third nature. What is the problem with this? A third ‘mix’ of natures is neither human nor divine. He must be fully human and fully divine.

7. In 451, rising from concerns over these heresies, the Chalcedonian Council was convened and wrote the Chalcedonian creed. Ever heard of it?

“We, then, following the holy Father, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; (A) truly God and truly man, of a reasonable/rational soul and body; consubstantial (having the same nature or substance) with the Father according to the Godhead, and (A) consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, (N) to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, (E/M) indivisibly, inseparably; (N) the distinction of the natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and (E/M) concurring in one person and one subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God, the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, as the prophets from the beginning have declared concerning him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has been handed down to us.

Adapted from Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 554-556.

8. What was the outcome of Christ’s humility? (2:9-11)

9. Read Isaiah 45:18-23 and give the biblical context for the phrase, “every knee will bow.” (In other words, what is the meaning of this phrase in the Isaiah passage? How might this inform Paul’s use of these words in Philippians?)

10. Whereas we cannot exhort one another to be sovereign, this passage has a distinct ‘be like Christ’ context. What are the phrases from the larger passage (2:1-18) that show Paul’s application for the Philippians? How do these strike you personally?

11. In what ways do (or will) we share in this pattern of Christ-like humility now leading to exaltation later? In contrast, in what sense does it belong to Christ alone? (See Colossians 3:4; 2 Corinthians 4:17; Romans 8:17.)

Application Questions: Grasping the Heart

  1. Paul was not stuck in scholarly debate with this passage. He was seeking to be extremely practical. What are Christ’s ‘ethical qualities’ associated with His incarnation in this passage and why is Paul discussing them?
  2. Meditate on John 17:5 and 2 Corinthians 8:9 and write your thoughts here.
  3. What are some snapshots of Christ’s earthly life, aside from His incarnation, that best demonstrate His humility?
  4. The King of Kings condescended to take on humanity. Take some time meditating upon what it means to be human. What elements of humanity do we experience today which Christ also faced? As you meditate upon Christ becoming human, how does this inform the way you think and feel about the wonders and limitations of your humanity? In light of this, what do you want to say to Him?
  5. What value does His incarnation reflect upon human life? How does the humanity of Christ inform the way we consider and engage peoples of different cultures, religions, and languages far removed from your own?
  6. What are any of your current circumstances requiring you to exercise humility, servant-heartedness, or laying down your ‘rights’? How can the humility of Christ make a difference in your circumstances?
  7. Write a sentence that captures the mind-boggling truths of both last week’s and this week’s lessons put together. How would you explain His sovereign reign coupled together with His humility?
  8. What is one way that your reflection on the humility of Christ has made Him appear more beautiful and glorious to you this week? Write out your words of praise to Him.
  9. Share with one another what truths have been most meaningful to you.  Spend a moment writing down the insights you have heard from others during this study that have enriched your own perspective.
  10. What is your action step for today? (What do you need to confess? What conversation do you need to have? What do you need to pray? What needs to change in your thinking or what actions need to be taken? As a result of this lesson, how do you most desire to grow?)

Group prayer requests for the week:

Lord Jesus,

As we consider all it meant for you to become human, we stand in awe of your condescension. You hold the universe together by your power, yet you voluntarily gave up the glories of heaven. You forever infused dignity into our human existence that we only begin to understand. As we seek to defend our ‘rights’ we are taken back by your humility. Help us to seek to understand and consider the needs of one another ahead of ourselves, that it may cause you to look great! As we look at you, change us forever.


1Nelson’s Complete Book of Bible Maps and Charts (Atlanta: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996), 413.

2 “Kenosis” New Unger’s Bibile Dictionary, in Biblesoft Electronic Database [CD-ROM] (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988). .

3 A great reference for looking up word meaning is found online at Click on “study tools” and then “NeXt Bible Learning Environment.” Type in “Philippians 2:6” and each of these phrases are defined for you.

4 See Galatians 4:4; 1 Corinthians 15:21; Colossians 1:19; 2:9; Titus 2:13; 1 Timothy 3:16.

Related Topics: Character of God

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