I still remember the Christmas when we got the hardest nut in the world. It was a Brazil nut. Mum couldn't crack it, so she passed it on to Dad. He couldn't crack it and passed it onto my brother and I. And we broke the nut-crackers. Not prepared to be beaten, we took it into Dad's workshop and put it in the vice. That didn't work, either. So we went for the final solution - the sledgehammer. The nut wasn't edible afterwards. In fact it was hardly visible. But we'd cracked it.
Well, Philippians 2 is about an even harder nut and an even larger hammer. The nut is human pride. And the hammer is the humility of Jesus - which is what vv6-11 are about. They contain some of the most mind-stretching truths about Jesus being God and man. But they're not there to be analysed by theologians and put into creeds. They're there to crack our pride and make us more like Jesus.
So, look at Philippians 2.3. Here's the nut that Paul is out to crack:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit [ie, self-importance], but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others. (vv3-4)
Pride says the universe revolves around me - that I with my concerns am more important than you with yours; that you should wait and let me through in the single-file traffic, not me for you. It's the hardest nut in the world. And Paul brings out the only hammer that can crack it. Verse 5:
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
So, firstly, WHAT THE SON OF GOD CONSIDERED (v6)
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God
something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being found in human likeness. (vv5-7)
Verse 7 is about Jesus being conceived and born as a man. So v6 must be about the decision Jesus made before that. Now none of us made the decision to be born. For the simple reason we didn't exist before we were born. Whereas Jesus did. Verse 6 says: 'Christ Jesus who being in very nature God'. And 'being' is a word that means always has been and always will be. So:
The person born at Bethlehem had always existed ('pre-existence') The person born at Bethlehem was fully God
In the picture, the crown stands for God and the box stands for space and time where we are. And v6 says Jesus was fully God, equal with God the Father, and had always existed before stepping into the box 2000 years ago. And it tells us the decision he made:
Christ Jesus, who being in very nature God,did not consider equality with Godsomething to be grasped (vv5-6)
Think of any human organisation - like a company, or school, or hospital - and the idea is that as you get promoted, you have more people under you - doing your cleaning, and your filing, and so on. The higher you go, the more you become someone to be served. And position becomes 'something to be grasped'. Ie, you hold out for your rights. 'I shouldn't have to be doing this now I'm a grade 5.' Or, 'I should be getting a bigger office (or car or salary) now I'm a manager.' Human nature sees position as 'something to be grasped' for what we can get out of it.
Whereas God's nature is to see position as something to be used to serve others. Verse 6:
[Christ Jesus], who being in very nature God,did not consider equality with Godbut made himself nothing,taking the very nature of a servant (vv5-6)
Jesus didn't look down on a world full of people ignoring him and say, 'They should be serving me. I demand my rights to be recognised.' But he decided to become a man in order to serve the very people who'd ignored him that is, us. That's what the Son of God decided.
Secondly, WHAT THE SON OF GOD DID (vv7-8)
[Verse 7: he] made himself nothing,taking the very nature of a servant,taking the very nature of a servant,taking the very nature of a servant,taking the very nature of a servant,being found in human likeness.(v7)
Ie, he became a man. And that was the first of two massive steps down that he took to serve us.
Now some people think it's nonsense to say, 'Jesus was God and man'. They say it's like talking about a man becoming an ant. If you become an ant, you cease to be a man. You can't be both.
But people who say that haven't understood what a human being is. Despite all the talk of how many genes we share in common with fruit flies, it's pretty obvious that human beings are unique. Fruit flies have not been to the moon or written symphonies or sonnets. And the Bible says what's unique about us is that we are made in the image of God - rather like we call a son the 'splitting image' of his father (see Genesis 1.26-27, 5.1-3). We are made in God's 'mould', so that his character and abilities are reflected in us. So there's nothing unbelievable at all about God the Son 'pouring himself into his own mould'. It fits him like a glove.
But then some people say, 'Surely Jesus had to lose some of his divine abilities in the process - like being all-powerful. So surely he ended up as less than fully God.' But v7 doesn't talk about him losing anything. But taking on something extra that he never was before. Verse 6 says he'd always been God. And v7 says he then took on something extra - namely, being human. He was both.
So think of when Satan tempted him to turn the stone into bread to feed himself. (Matthew 4.1-4) Did he have the power to? As God, yes he did - after all, he fed the 5000 (Matthew 14.13-21). But as well as being God, he took on being human - which involved not using those powers for himself, but only for others - for the miracles which would reveal that he was more than just a man.
One detail. Some people wonder why v6 says, 'human likeness' - does that mean he wasn't exactly like us? At least part of the answer may be in Hebrews 4.15, which says that Jesus is not
unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but… has been tempted in every way, just as we are - yet was without sin.
Ie, he was really human but unlike us, he wasn't inherently prone to sin, and didn't actually sin.
So, you can sum all that up by saying, 'Remaining fully God, he became fully human' - and the Christian jargon for that is 'incarnation'. That was Jesus' first massive step down. The second is in v8:
And, being found in appearance as a man,he humbled himself,and became obedient to death -even death on a cross. (vv5-8)
Verses 7 and 8 are like a potted biography of Jesus' time on earth. Well, what strikes you about that biography? What strikes me is that it goes straight from chapter 1 - his birth, to chapter 2 - his death without any detail in between. As if to underline that that's why he came: he became human in order to die for us.
If you're still just looking into Christianity, this is the heart of it. The Bible says that death is when God brings us into his presence to pass judgement on our lives (Hebrews 9.27). And it says none of us has lived right. We've all pushed God out of his rightful place and put ourselves at the centre of the universe (Romans 3.10-12). Which makes God offended, us proud and selfish, and the world a mess of broken relationships. For which we deserve judgement.
But though he's offended and we're messed up, he still loves us. And the coming of Jesus was the climax of a plan to forgive us and give us a chance to start over again with him back at the centre of our lives, where he belongs. But for God, forgiveness means taking away the judgement we deserve. But that judgement, or punishment, couldn't just be left hanging as if our sins didn't really matter. What the plan needed was a substitute willing to take our place and face our judgement for us. To take our place he'd have to be a man - because only a man can die under the judgement of God. But to take our judgement for us, he'd have to be God - because only God has no judgement of his own to pay. So Jesus, being fully God (v6), became fully man (v7), to become our substitute when he died on the cross under God the Father's judgement (v8).
And that's why this all matters: no incarnation would mean no salvation. No forgiveness. No hope of anything but the thumbs down on judgement day.
That's why this all matters. It's not just word games. When Muslims say Jesus never claimed to be God but was a great prophet, they make it sound like that doesn't make much difference to the message. It's the same when the Jehovah's Witnesses come knocking on your door denying that Jesus was fully God. But it rips the heart out of the message, which is that we've had it on judgement day before a holy God unless Jesus' death has saved us from the judgement we deserve.
So last time a Jehovah's Witness came to my door I said I didn't want to hear what he had to say. He said, 'Won't you even look into it?' And I said, 'No, because all you can do is rob me of my assurance that I'm accepted by God.' And he said, 'What do you mean?' And I said (something like), 'Well, I know you're about to tell me that Jesus was not really God. a) That contradicts the Bible so much that you need your own mistranslation of it. But b) more importantly, if Jesus was not God then his death on the cross did nothing to put me right with God, and I'd be left like you, desperately trying to earn my salvation. Like I said, all you can do is rob me.' That may have been too blunt. But it led to the most fruitful conversation I've ever had with a Jehovah's Witness. Because he began to realise what was at stake.
No incarnation, no salvation. Which is why all the man-made world religions - modern Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism, Hinduism offer no salvation. Just a behaviour and ritual treadmill that deceives you into thinking you're earning your way to God / Paradise / Nirvana (delete as applicable).
What the Son of God considered. What the Son of God did. Then,
Thirdly, WHAT GOD DID FOR HIS SON (vv9-11)
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. (vv9-11)
Ie, God raised him from the dead and he's now back outside the box of space and time as Lord over the universe (see picture above). It's a fact that Jesus' tomb was empty three days after his dead body was put there. It's a fact that he was seen alive after death by multiple witnesses who were prepared to suffer and die for their story (see Luke 24, 1 Corinthians 15.1-11). That being so, when we pass through the right hand end of that box in the picture, the person we'll meet is Jesus. And once history is finally wrapped up, v10, at the name of Jesus, every knee will bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Many will do that willingly - the people who began doing it in this life, who asked forgiveness for living as if they were the centre of the universe and started life over again living for Jesus. But - and it gives me no joy to say it - many will do that unwillingly, as the last thing they do before they hear those dreadful words of Jesus from Matthew's Gospel: 'Away from me… I never knew you' (Matthew 7.21-23). Please don't let that be you. It's not what he wants.
I said at the start that these verses are the largest hammer to crack the hardest nut - the nut of human pride that says, 'I am number 1, and the universe should revolve around me.'
The first 'So what?' is for those who've not yet accepted Jesus as Lord of their lives. These verses say: So you are not number 1 in this universe and nor am I. Jesus is. He's God, he's been here, he's been seen, heard, crucified and raised from the dead. Which doesn't leave us room for being atheist and saying there's no God. Or for being agnostic and saying we can't know God. Or for saying, 'Maybe you can get to God in other ways - the Muslim way or the Buddhist way or the just trying to be good way.'
Jesus is God. And he became human, in order to die, in order that we can be forgiven and start over again with him as number 1 where he should be. And can I say if you're in doubt about whether you've taken that step, or how to take it, please do take away one of these booklets, The Choice We All Face, and read it.
The other couple of 'So what?'s are for those who have taken that step and would say they're forgiven and have Jesus as Lord. The next 'So what?' is in vv3-4:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others. (vv3-4)
Notice the words that tie in with vv6-11. Verse 3, 'Consider others better than yourselves' - just as, v6, Jesus 'did not consider equality with God something to be grasped.' Verse 3 again, do that 'in humility' - just as, v8, Jesus 'humbled himself… to death.' So next time pride sees us standing on our rights, or complaining about something we're expected to do, or even doing it but boiling with resentment inside, we need in our mind's eye to see Jesus hanging on the cross. And to ask ourselves, 'Would I want to be saying this or thinking this if this was taking place under his gaze at the foot of the cross?'
And the last 'So what?' is in v12. Verse 6-11 are not a bit of abstract theology. They're sandwiched between the practical implications of vv3-4 (our attitude to others) and v12 onwards (our attitude to God). Verse 12:
Therefore [ie, this comes straight out of what I've just said], my dear friends, as you have always obeyed - not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence - continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. (vv12-13)
This time, the word that ties in with vv6-11 is 'obeyed'. Verse 12, 'as you have always obeyed… so continue to...' Verse 8: just as Jesus 'became obedient to death - even death on a cross.'
Just as pride makes us balk at serving others, it also makes us balk at obeying God. I don't know what part of obeying him is most of a struggle for you right now. What person or situation or temptation or decision or suffering makes you feel like saying, 'Lord, this is too much to ask. How far do you expect me to have to go?'
Well the answer is in v8. As far as he went. Which was all the way - 'obedient to death'. And no, it wasn't 'easier' for him because he was God. Because he was fully man as well. And he knew what it felt like to want out of the path of obedience and to pray, 'Father, take this cup from me… Yet not what I will but what you will.' (Mark 14.36) Whatever obedience we're most struggling with right now, he's not asking more than he's been through. And he knows how it feels.
Pride is the hardest nut in the world. The pride of the non-Christian still refusing to let Jesus be God. The pride of us Christians still struggling to let Jesus be God. And only the gospel of the Son of God who loved us and died for us can crack it:
'When I survey the wondrous cross,
On which the Prince of Glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.' (Isaac Newton)