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The Spirit of Christ (Philippians 2:1-13)

This week I was afforded on of those rare occasions when I experienced the exhilaration of the sensation of power. At first I did not even realize it was there. My telephone had been out of order. I could neither receive nor make calls. Only the answering service was receiving my calls. My telephone was dead. Ironically, both Ma Bell and the private vendor we were doing business with agreed on one thing--the answering service had been disconnected.

In a moment of frustration I called a friend who worked for the Bell system, intending only to determine who I was to contact to seek a solution to the problem. I never really knew what his position in the company was. But even though I had called him at home, while he was on vacation, things suddenly began to happen. He kept me on the line and located someone who could help. I was assured that things would begin to move--and they did. Even though it was after 6 p.m., a telephone company supervisor arrived, not to fix the phone, but to assure me that someone was on the way to do so. Within a few minutes the repairman arrived. Slowly it began to dawn on me that this was no ordinary treatment. The supervisor assured me that when "the people upstairs" give orders to fix something, they drop everything else to do so. I was impressed. The paperwork was no longer an issue. That, I was assured, would be dealt with later. Now the only concern was to fix the problem.

The next day the phone was fixed. My only regret is that things cannot always be handled so forcefully.

The reason for the hasty solution to my telephone problem was really quite simple--power. Not my power, but the power of someone whom I knew who had the authority to get things done. Most of us find ourselves on the other end of the spectrum, frustrated by the bureaucracies all about us, governmental and otherwise. When we deal with the government, there is always some other department which is responsible. When we have an error in our billing, it was the computer's fault, and it just doesn't seem fixable. Travel outside our borders only amplifies the problem.

In stark contrast to men, who are striving to gain power and prestige, we find the Second Person of the Godhead, who was willing to lay aside self-interest in order to save men. We can hardly imagine what a concession it would have been for our Lord to have left Heaven, where myriads of angels not only were occupied with praising Him, but eager to carry out His every command, only to descend to earth as a man, and a poor one at that, so that He would become the object of ridicule, and eventually the victim Who was hung upon a Roman cross. This is precisely what happened in the incarnation of our Lord, but the passage which we are dealing with is not found in the gospels, but rather in the epistles, in the Book of Philippians, chapter two.

In our last lesson we considered the "spirit of Christmas" which was evidenced by those godly few to whom Christ's coming was revealed, and who responded in obedient worship and praise. In this message we shall consider another aspect of the "spirit of Christmas," focusing now upon the spirit of the Christ who came to the earth as man, in order to redeem men and to reconcile them in such a way that they will be able to be forgiven of their sins and citizens of His kingdom.

In the second chapter of the Book of Philippians, the apostle Paul calls upon the saints of the city of Philippi to imitate the attitude of our Lord Jesus Christ at His incarnation. The spirit of Christ at the incarnation is thus specifically applied to the Christian life. We will seek to understand and apply the "spirit of Christmas" by considering what is said to have actually occurred, then the attitude of Christ which resulted in His incarnation, and then the application of this attitude in daily Christian experience.

The Attributes of Christ and the Incarnation

The change which occurs at the time of our Lord's incarnation is of great theological and practical importance. Because of this it is necessary for us to begin by noting what Paul says of our Lord's state before He took on human flesh:

Who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped (Phil. 2:6).

The word "form" used in verse 6 does not merely mean to be God-like. Dr. B. B. Warfield has captured the essence of this expression:

. . . the phraseology which Paul here employs was the popular usage of his day . . . and . . . was accordingly the most natural language for strongly asserting the deity of Christ which could suggest itself to him. . . . "Form" is that body of qualities which constitute Him God, and without which He would not be God. What Paul asserts then, when he says that Christ Jesus existed in the "form of God," is that He had all those characterizing qualities which make God God, the presence of which constitutes God, and in the absence of which God does not exist. He who is "in the form of God," is God.22

Paul is therefore stating that prior to His incarnation our Lord was fully God, possessing all of the attributes of God. This claim is consistent with the teaching of the New Testament:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (John 1:1).

And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power (Heb. 1:3a).

Rightly, then, can Paul also say in verse 6 that He was equal with God.23

We learn, then, that our Lord our Lord pre-existed His incarnation (John 1:1-5; 8:58; 17:18, 24; II Cor. 8:9; Col. 1:16-17). In this state, He was fully equal with God the Father so far as His deity was concerned (cf. Isa. 9:6; John 1:1; 10:30, 33).

Our text indicates that at the time of His incarnation, something changed. This change is referred to by the word "emptied." The Greek word which the translators of the NASB rendered "emptied" is transliterated Kenosis. This term is translated "made Himself of no reputation" in the King James Version. The NIV renders it "made himself nothing," in my estimation the worst of the three versions. The critical issue for us is what is meant by the term here? What did our Lord "empty" Himself of? What changed when He was "made in the likeness of men" (v. 7)?

Until the last century, there was little question what was meant. It was agreed by Christians that Paul meant the Second Person of the Trinity had added perfect humanity without in any way diminishing His deity. Jesus was no less God (as though He could be), but was now man as well.

A very problem arose, however, which changed matters significantly. Skeptical higher critics came along who concluded that the Bible contained numerous errors. This "scholarly" viewpoint overturned the position of the church held for centuries, namely that the Bible was the inspired, inerrant, word of God. More than this, it directly contradicted our Lord's view of the Old Testament scriptures. These scholars could not dispute the fact that Jesus believed the scriptures to be verbally inspired and wholly true, that David wrote Psalm 110, and that Moses was the (one) author of the Pentateuch.

It was a standoff between the new view of 19th century higher critics and the Lord Jesus. A new interpretation of Philippians 2:5-8 was created, which became known as the "kenosis theory,"24 which was believed to solve the problem. It should be clearly understood that the principle reason for the "kenosis theory" was the need to explain why it was our Lord who was in error, and not the higher critics:

In England, the kenosis theory was first broached by Bishop Gore in 1889, to explain why our Lord was ignorant of what the nineteenth-century higher critics thought they knew about the errors of the Old Testament. Gore's thesis was that in becoming man the Son had given up His divine knowledge of matters of fact, though retaining full divine infallibility on moral issues. In the realm of historical fact, however, He was limited to current Jewish ideas, which He accepted without question, not knowing that they were not all correct.25

As Packer skillfully points out, this "theory" only appears to solve one problem (which didn't need to be solved in the first place), at the cost of creating several others. By following the "kenosis theory" of Gore and others we must conclude that Jesus was not, in His earthly life, fully divine. And, if our Lord abides forever as the God-man, then this "diminished deity" is eternal. Worst of all is the fact that Jesus claimed to be speaking for God (cf. John 7:16; 8:28, 40; 12:49f.). If He was wrong in some of His declarations, why was He not in error in all of them? Packer therefore concludes,

If the kenosis theory is used for the purpose for which Gor used it, it proves too much: it proves that Jesus, having renounced His divine knowledge, was fallible at every point, and that when He claimed that all His teaching was from God he was fooling both Himself and us.26

From the gospels we can see that our Lord did possess all of the attributes of deity, even though He did, at times, choose not to make use of them. Jesus claimed to be divine (John 8, 10), and His disciples regarded Him as such (Luke 9:20; John 6:69; 20:28). Our Lord demonstrated His omniscience when He revealed the condition of Nathaniel's heart and what he was doing before they met (John 1:47-48). He knew the sordid details of the life of the woman at the well (John 4:17ff.). He knew that Lazarus was dead before they arrived at his home town (John 11:11-13). He also knew the unspoken thoughts of His critics (Mark 2:6-8).

If our Lord did not empty (the word kenosis) Himself of His divine attributes, of what did He empty Himself? What did our Lord lay aside in the act of His incarnation? While this is a marvelous and mysterious subject, and one of considerable discussion, I believe that we can identify at least three things which our Lord set aside.

First, our Lord laid aside position. He was and continued to be God, but at His incarnation our Lord stepped down, as it were, from His exalted position beside the Father in glory. Now, instead of assuming the position of the Supreme Ruler, He took the position of the most humble servant.

Second, our Lord laid aside possessions. The apostle Paul spoke of this when he wrote,

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich (II Cor. 8:9).

All of His life our Lord was borrowing things. He was born in a borrowed cattle trough. He rode into Jerusalem on a borrowed beast of burden. He was buried in a borrowed grave. Our Lord, who created all things, laid aside what was rightfully His. Servants are, by the very nature of their position, poor.

Third, our Lord laid aside privilege. A servant does not possess privileges. The master eats first, the servant later. The master has one entrance, the servant another. The master has one dwelling place, the servant one substantially inferior. The master is free to do as he wishes, but the servant has little freedom. All of the privileges which our Lord could have rightfully claimed (such as the praise and worship of men),6 He was willing to set aside.

It would be easy for us to excuse ourselves from applying the truths of these verses by appealing to the chasm of contrast between our Lord and ourselves. After all, we can rationalize, we are not God, so we do not have the position, nor the possessions, nor the privileges which He chose to lay aside. That is quite true. The application to our lives comes in our willingness to lay aside what we do possess and what we are inclined to protect, rather than to put aside.

The "kenosis" of our Lord had application in those areas of our lives in what we have a position of authority--a higher position than others. The kenosis principle instructs us that leadership is not exempt from the servant spirit. In point of fact it is the ideal place to manifest it. After all, who had a greater position of authority than our Lord?

Our Lord's disciples continually sought for the position of power and prestige. Our Lord taught that the way to greatness was through service and self-sacrifice:

And calling them to Himself, Jesus said to them, "You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall become your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many." (Mark 10:42-45)

Thus Peter could later write to church leaders,

. . . nor as Lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. (I Pet. 5:3)

In the Christian life, leadership is a place of service, not of dictatorship. While servanthood may be viewed as a weakness for a leader in the world, it is not so in the church.

Husbands, take note! We do not exercise leadership over our wives by demanding that they serve us, but by serving them. Biblical leadership is never dictatorship. The ideal king and the ideal husband is the servant, who uses his position and power for the benefit of those under his authority, rather than for selfish gratification.

The kenosis principle as applies to those areas where we have equality. Note that it was equality with God that our Lord did not cling to (Phil. 2:6). Our society is absolutely obsessed with equality. Women want equal rights with men. One race wants equal treatment with another. It is true that in the body of Christ all are equal in God's sight. It is likewise true that in our country both sexes, and all races, creeds, and stratas of society should be treated equally. But the kenosis principle instructs us that what we might demand by virtue of our equality, may be that which we are to relinquish in order to be obedient servants.27

The kenosis principle applies to our possessions. For example, you and I do have certain possessions, which may be used for a variety of purposes. We may horde them for a future time, we may use them now for the purpose of our personal pleasure and enjoyment, or we may use them for the benefit of others. You and I also have a great deal of privacy in our society. Our homes are sometimes fortress-like, with fences which build walls between us and our neighbors ("Good fences make good neighbors"). Privacy is a privilege which we possess. You and I may cling to it, or we may lay it aside, so that we can minister to the needs of others, many of whom desperately would love a share of our love and hospitality.

Then, too, we have certain privileges. One of the most obvious is our Christian liberties. We have the freedom to drink wine and to eat meat (cf. I Cor. 8; Rom. 14). Like Adam and Eve, who had a whole garden from which they could freely eat (except for the fruit of the one tree), we have the freedom to enjoy the blessings which God has showered upon us, so long as we do not disobey His word. Yet, as Paul teaches us, these liberties may need to be laid aside, not because they are wrong, but because they fail to achieve what is in the best interest of a brother or sister in the Lord (Rom. 14:13-23).

The Attitude of Christ and the Incarnation

Paul's purpose in referring to the incarnation of our Lord was not to teach or to defend the doctrine of the incarnation, but to apply it.28 In order to do so he focused these verses on the attitude of our Lord which resulted in the incarnation, and ultimately in His crucifixion. It is the attitude of Christ which Paul urges us to imitate. What then is this attitude?

The attitude of our Lord which we are to imitate is the attitude of a servant. Our Lord was willing to be a servant, indeed a bond-servant (Phil. 2:7), because He possessed the spirit of a servant. His servanthood was evident in two areas.

First, our Lord was the Servant of The Father. In Isaiah 53:13 the Messiah is called "My servant." The Old Testament referred to the Messiah as "the servant" of the Lord (cf. Isa. 53:11; Zech. 3:8). One of the principle duties of a servant is to obey His superior. Thus our Lord obeyed the Father's will in coming to the earth, and especially in dying on the cross (cf. Phil. 2:9; cp. Mark 14:36; Heb. 5:7-8).

Second, our Lord became the servant of men. This is seen in the Lord's words to His disciples, who were more eager to be served than to serve:

For even the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).

The most striking illustration of this was when our Lord girded Himself with a towel and washed the feet of His disciples (John 13). This task, considered too menial by the disciples, the Lord did, for He came as a servant. No event in the life of our Lord more pointedly illustrates the attitude of the incarnation as the washing of the disciples' feet.

The servant attitude places the interests of others above that of the servant. The translation of verse 3 in the King James Version wrongly suggests, however, that we are to serve others because they are better than us:

Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves (Phil. 2:3, KJV).

Certainly we cannot say that those for whom our Lord died were better than He? The attitude of a servant does not act on the basis of who is most important, but whose interest is most important. There is a world of difference.

I would like to suggest that the servant spirit, the spirit of our Lord which Paul urges us to imitate, is the key to obedience. Satan was once a glorious angel, beautiful in splendor. But rather than obey God as His servant, he sought to make himself more powerful and more prominent. In doing this, he fell (cf. Isa. 14:12-15; Ezek. 28:12-19). Adam and Eve were placed in the garden to serve God by obeying Him and ruling over His creation. Rather than to obey God, Adam and his wife desired to become like God--to elevate themselves--and thus fell. We, too, have to determine whether or not we will serve God. To serve God means not only that we must obey His will by serving others, placing their interests above self-interest. This, my friend, runs contrary to the spirit of our age. Shirley MacLaine has states this spirit very well:

"The most pleasurable journey you take is through yourself . . . the only sustaining love involvement is with yourself. . . . When you look back on your life and try to figure out where you've been and where you're going, when you look at your work, your love affairs, your marriages, your children, your pain, your happiness--when you examine all that closely, what you really find out is that the only person you really go to bed with is yourself. . . . The only thing you have is working to the consummation of your own identity. And that's what I've been trying to do all my life."29

The servant spirit may be foreign to our culture, but it is foundational to our Christian live and service. It was the servant spirit of our Lord which resulted in His incarnation, and ultimately in His death on the cross of Calvary. I believe that the same is true for us. Until we have the servant spirit we shall not find much taking place in our lives. The servant spirit leads to the servant role, which results in obedience to the will of God and service to others.30

The servant spirit is foundational because the basic reason for our reluctance to unconditionally surrender to God's will is that we are afraid of what it will cost us in terms of position, possessions, and privileges. What comes to your mind when I challenge you, at this very moment, to pray that God's will will be done in your life, no matter what that might be? If you are like me, you immediately think of something you do not wish to give up, something which you do not want to do, somewhere you do not want to go. The mind of Christ begins with a very simple decision, leading to a life-changing commitment. The decision is that nothing in the whole world matters more than being obedient to God. The decision is that in obedience to Him, you will seek from now on to place the best interest of others ahead of self interest, of position, possessions, and privileges. The commitment is that you will do what He wants you to do, be where He wants you to be, give up whatever His will and service to others requires. This is the beginning point for a life of obedience to God and service to others.

Is this not the essence of what the will of God is all about? Did our Lord not teach that the whole Old Testament could be summarized by two statements? We are to love God without reservation, and we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. That is the commitment to a servant's spirit. To serve God by serving others.

I urge you, my dear reader, do not read on without making a decision, without a commitment. Do not make the decision lightly. But do not make it by default either. The primary reason for our stunted growth and service is right here: we have not surrendered self-interest to God.

I urge you to do so now.

The mind of Christ is diametrically opposed to what the world calls success. To the world success is gaining power, prestige, and possessions. Significance is measured in terms of how far above others you can get and how many are below you. In the Bible, success is measured in terms of how much you have given up and how many you are willing to serve.

The mind of Christ also flatly contradicts the means which the world employs to become successful. Assertiveness and aggressiveness are highly valued, especially in the world of business. No wonder the words of our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount sound so strange to our ears:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God (Matt. 5:3-9).


May God give us the mind of Christ, the servant spirit, which leads to obeying God and serving men. That, my friend, is the Christmas spirit--the spirit of Christ.

22 B. B. Warfield, The Person and Work of Christ (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1950), pp. 566-567.

23 There is disagreement among some scholars about this matter of equality. Those who would deny the deity of our Lord would have to conclude that equality was not something possessed by our Lord which He could have clung to as His possession, but rather something which He did not possess but might have sought to grasp. The original term which is rendered "grasped" by the NASB could, in some contexts, mean "to grasp in order to gain" as well as "to grasp in order to maintain." The context, along with other passages makes it clear that it is the latter meaning which is intended.

24 The doctrine of the kenosis is to be differentiated from the "kenosis theory." The doctrine of the kenosis deals with the whole question of the meaning of the Greek word which is translated "emptied" in the NASB and transliterated kenosis. The "kenosis theory" is the relatively recent view which seeks to show that at the incarnation our Lord set aside at least some of His divine attributes. In other words, the "kenosis theory" enables men to view some of Jesus' views as human, but not divine. This enables them to attribute error to Him in His view of the Old Testament scriptures.

25 J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), p. 52.

26 Ibid, p. 53. Packer goes on to show how the gospel narratives refute the "kenosis theory," pp. 54-55.

27 There were times when the Lord Jesus was openly worshipped, but very few.

28 It is important to point out that liberals such as those who authored the book, The Myth of God Incarnate basically believe that the claim that Jesus was God was only the mistaken notion of the apostles and the early church, which was attached to the true gospel message. Jesus did not really believe this, or teach it, they would insist, but the New Testament writers simply wove this myth into their writings. It is interesting to note the in Philippians chapter two, Paul's purpose was not to prove the deity of Christ, a task which would have been required if the liberal theologians are correct. Philippians 2:5-8 is hardly an apologetic passage, but rather is applicational. This strongly implies that Paul felt no need to convince early Christians of the deity and the humanity of our Lord, but could safely assume this belief as universally held.

29 Charles Colson, Loving God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983), foreward.

30 I must say here that there is a crucial difference between what is our right (equality, Christian liberty, etc.), and what is right. While we should always be willing to surrender our personal rights, we dare not surrender what is right. Thus, Paul had Timothy circumcised (although he had the right to remain uncircumcised) in order to enhance his ministry (Acts 16:3). Titus, on the other hand, he refused to have circumcised, because the Judaizers insisted that circumcision was necessary for his salvation (cf. Gal. 2:3-5). Paul had certain rights as a Roman citizen. When the surrender of these rights would be a surrender of what was right, he refused to surrender it (cf. Acts 16:35-40). Especially in the area of civil rights, we must be careful to determine if what is right is also insisting upon one's rights.

Related Topics: Christology