Philippians 2: 1-11
Who is Jesus Christ? Of all the questions that might be posed to modern men and women, none is more important than this. It is no exaggeration to say that this is the central question of history and the most important issue anyone will ever face. Who is Jesus Christ? Where did he come from? Why did he come? And what difference does his coming make in my life?
In the end, every person must deal with Jesus Christ. No one can escape him. You can avoid the question, or delay it, or postpone it, or stonewall it, or pretend you didn’t hear it. But sooner or later you must answer it, whether it be now while on earth or later after death.
It’s certainly not a new question. It’s as old as the coming of Christ to earth. Once when Jesus took his disciples on a retreat to a place called Caesarea Philippi, he asked them, “Who do people say that I am?” They offered four responses: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets (see Matthew 16:13-16).
Across the centuries the discussion has continued. Visit any Internet religious chat room and you’ll find a bewildering array of opinions regarding Jesus. Here are some contemporary answers to the question “Who is Jesus Christ?” A good man … The Son of God … A Prophet … A Galilean rabbi … A teacher of God’s Law … The Embodiment of God’s Love … A Reincarnated Spirit Master … The Ultimate Revolutionary … The Messiah of Israel … Saviour … A first-century wise man … A man just like any other man … King of Kings … A misunderstood teacher … Lord of the Universe … A deluded religious leader … Son of Man … A fabrication of the early church.
It is said that in the days before Elvis Presley died, he had been reading a book called The Many Faces of Jesus. That title stands as a fitting symbol of the confusion surrounding Jesus in our time. Two thousand years have passed and still we wonder about the man called Jesus.
That takes us back to Caesarea Philippi. After Jesus asked for the opinions of others, he turned to his men and asked for their answer: “But you, who do you say that I am?” In the end, each of us faces the same question. We can’t get away with quoting the opinions of others. You have to make up your own mind.
So let’s go back to the original question. Who is Jesus Christ? Thankfully, we don’t have to wonder what the Bible says about Jesus. Our text contains a remarkably clear answer to the question “Who is Jesus Christ?” Verses 6-11 are a short course in Christology. Nearly all the truth about Christ is found in these verses—his eternal pre-existence as God, his voluntary taking on of human flesh, his coming to earth as a servant, his humiliating death on the cross, and his exaltation in heaven.
So let’s look at these verses and see who Paul tells us Jesus was and what he did.
- Verse 6 – What He Was
“Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped.” Paul begins by stressing the eternal pre-existence of Jesus as God. Before Jesus came to the earth he existed as God in heaven. This is Paul’s version of John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
The phrase “being in the form of God” is nothing less than a direct assertion of Deity. In Greek philosophy the word translated “form” means “the real essence of a thing.” In this context it means that Jesus possessed “the specific character of God.” Whatever it is that makes God God, Jesus possessed that same essence. Whatever you can say about God, you can also say about Jesus. He was all that God is and possessed all that God had. He was 100% God and nothing less. God’s omnipotence was his, God’s sovereignty was his, God’s holiness was his, God’s eternity was his, God’s wisdom was his, and God’s justice was his.
He was truly “equal” with God, which makes the next statement all the more remarkable. He did not regard his position as God as something “to be grasped.” He didn’t try to hold on to his glory but willingly laid it aside. He did not assert his rights although he had the right to claim his rights. This forms the foundation for everything else Paul will say about him. It also tells us what Jesus was thinking before he was born in Bethlehem. There was no compulsion, no argument, no claiming his prerogatives, no pleading with the Father to “send someone else.” He voluntarily travelled the distance between heaven and the bloody cross. He did it willingly and without hesitation.
- Verses 7-8a – What He Became
“But made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man” (vv. 7-8a).
This is concerned with the “Incarnation”—God coming to the earth in human flesh. Four phrases tell us how it happened. First, Christ “made himself nothing.” Some translations say, “He emptied himself.” In contemporary terms the eternal Son of God “became a nobody.” When Christ came to the earth, he laid aside his “divine insignia.” Imagine a general taking off his uniform and dressing as a man on the street. You wouldn’t know the difference. Is he still a general? Yes. Is he in uniform? No. Christ came wearing the uniform of a common man while bearing within himself the high rank of Almighty God!
Second, he took “the very nature of a servant.” That is, he entered humanity at the lowest level—as a humble slave. Notice the word “form” again. He didn’t merely appear as a servant. He took on himself all that a servant is and does. He didn’t stop being God when he became a servant. He “put on” servanthood without “putting off” Godhood. He laid aside his outward glory without laying aside his deity.
Third, He appeared “in human likeness.” He became a man fully and truly without ceasing to be God. The word “likeness” means that to all outward appearances he was merely a man, but in reality he was more than a man. He was God in human flesh.
Fourth, he was “found in appearance as a man.” If you and I had seen him in the first century, we wouldn’t have said, “There goes the Son of God.” He didn’t look any different from anyone else. He was a man—but the rest of his identity was hidden from view.
Some years ago Josh McDowell wrote a fine little book called, “More than a Carpenter” I like that title because it sums up a huge spiritual truth. Jesus is always “more than.” He’s more than a teacher, more than a healer, more than a miracle-worker, more than a rabbi, more than Mary’s son, and more than a man. He is God in human flesh.
III. Verse 8b – What He Chose
“He humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross!” (v. 8).
We’ve forgotten what crucifixion was like in the first century. It was a punishment so barbaric that the Romans reserved it for the very worst criminals. No Roman citizen could be crucified except on direct order of the emperor.
Death on a cross is hard for us to understand. We’ve sanitized the cross and domesticated it. We gold-plate it and wear it around our necks. We put it on earrings and on our stationery. We hang ornate crosses in our sanctuaries and on our steeples. We build churches in the shape of the cross. All of this would have been unthinkable in the first century. So terrible was a crucifixion that the word was not even spoken in polite company. If we want a modern counterpart, we should hang a picture of a gas chamber at Auschwitz in front of our sanctuary. The very thought sickens us. But that’s what the cross meant for Jesus.
Why did he do it? Why did he shed his blood on the cross? This week I learned where the vaccine for yellow fever comes from. In 1927 a man named Asibi, a West African native, came down with yellow fever. Unlike so many others, he did not die. Because his system had conquered the disease, Asibi’s blood contained the antibodies which the doctors used to develop a successful vaccine. That vaccine has saved the lives of untold numbers of people around the world. Each dose of vaccine can be traced back to Asibi’s original blood sample. One man’s blood has saved the lives of millions of people.
In a mysterious way we cannot understand, that is exactly what the blood of Jesus Christ did for us. His blood saves the lives of untold millions of people. His blood is the perfect “vaccine” against the disease called sin.
- Verses 9-11 – What He Gained
“Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should 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” (vv. 9-11).
Here is the final stage in the “career” of the Son of God. Having returned to heaven in triumph, God “highly exalted him.” The phrase means that God gave him back all that he relinquished when he left heaven to come to earth. In this case it means that he gained something he didn’t have before. He gained something because he came back to heaven with something he didn’t have before: his humanity. He left the Son of God and returned the Son of God and the Son of Man. We now have a man in heaven, Christ Jesus, who is our Advocate and Friend.
Verse 9 also tells us that God gave him “the name that is above every name.” What did God give him that he didn’t have before? He couldn’t give him supreme glory—he already had that. He couldn’t give him deity―he already had that? But there is one thing he didn’t have that he now has by virtue of his triumphant return to heaven. God has ordained that eventually he will be universally recognized as the Lord of heaven and earth. Many people didn’t recognize him when he walked on the earth. People today still don’t recognise him, but a day is coming when that will change forever.
When that day finally arrives, “every knee will bow” and “every tongue confess” that Jesus Christ is Lord. I think we should understand this as not merely figurative, but as sober and literal reality. All creation will physically bow before the Son of God and acknowledge his lordship. Note how universal this will be. It will include all creatures “in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” No one will be left out—all will be included in the universal declaration that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Recently a friend said to me in all seriousness, “If you ever mention Jesus to me again, I will never speak to you again.” When such moments come, we need to respond with these verses in mind, I said “I don’t want to lose your friendship but I must tell you the truth. You were made by Jesus Christ. You owe your life to him. One day you will stand before him as your Judge. Sooner or later every knee will bow before him and confess that he is the Lord. You can bow before him today as your Saviour or you can face him one day as your Judge. But you cannot escape him. The choice is yours.”
Let’s summarize what this passage is telling us about Jesus Christ.
1) What He Was — Fully and Completely God!
2) What He Became — A man while retaining his deity.
3) What He Chose — To die a humiliating death on the cross.
4) What He Gained — The highest place/the greatest name/universal honour.
This is the Christ of the Bible. This is the Jesus we worship. This is the true Christ of the Christian faith. This is the One in whom we have believed. He and He alone is our Lord and Saviour. Millions of Christians unite in worshipping him in every nation on every continent. He and He alone is the Lord.