Philippians 2:5-8. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (ESV)
Do you have certain places in your Bible that you visit more often than others? Passages to which you’ve returned again and again, the way you would to the observation deck at the Grand Canyon—to take in the view of something greater than you can grasp and more beautiful than you have words to express? Philippians 2:5—8 is one of those places for me.
Paul’s in prison when he writes to the Philippian church, where there appear to be “issues.” Those issues range from anemic unity (1:27; 2:2), to selfishness (2:3—4) to actual unresolved conflict in specific relationships (4:2—3). Our passage, 2:5—8, is Paul’s comprehensive prescription for these ailments, and his counsel boils down to this: have the mind of Christ Jesus. Addressing the entire church, made up of many and diverse individuals, Paul first tells them to be of “one mind” (1:27), and then makes clear which “one mind” they’re to have: the mind of Christ (2:5). In other words, Paul isn’t interested in unity for unity’s sake; unity is not the absolute value of the Gospel. The unity Paul urges upon the Philippians—the unity of the Gospel—is the fruit of the mind of Christ Jesus. The singlemindedness that Paul exhorts them to pursue is Christ-mindedness.
All right, then, what does it mean to have the mind of Christ? What would it look like for the Philippians to obey the apostle’s command in verse 5? Anticipating this question, Paul goes on to explain the answer in verses 6—8, where he defines the mind of Christ in terms of 2 downward steps.
The first downward step that defines the mind of Christ is between verse 6 and verse 7. This step describes how the Son of God stewarded His full deity. What He did with His full deity was to enter full humanity in His incarnation! We shouldn’t miss how deliberately Paul describes the incarnation in verse 7: [He] “made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” I get the feeling as I read this verse that Paul wants to slow the minds of his Christian readers down so that we don’t race past the fact of the incarnation of our Lord as merely a means to the end of our redemption. The mere fact of His incarnation is so stunning, Paul wants us to dwell on it, and in this one verse he gives us 3 reasons to do so: (1) in His incarnation, the Son of God “made Himself nothing,” meaning, not that humanity has no value, but that, in comparison to the infinite glory the eternal Son of God possessed, becoming incarnate was a great and willing emptying of what rightfully belonged to Him; (2) in becoming incarnate, the Son of God was “taking the form of a servant,” referring not, I think, to His lowly station in life as a carpenter’s son, but, once again, to the mere fact of His incarnation, since God the Son was now before the Father as one of His created servants—a man; and (3) the way in which the Son of God willingly became incarnate: “being born.” In other words, the Son became a human in exactly the same way that every one since Adam & Eve becomes human: by being born, by being small, entering the world through a birth canal, weak, vulnerable, dependent, through the very process that had been under the curse since Genesis 3. He did not spare Himself this humbling. Astonishing!
But as astonishing as this first downward step conceived by the mind of Christ was, it does not exhaust the wonder of our Lord’s mind. Verse 8 deepens the wonder. If verses 6—7 show us that the Son of God stewarded His full deity by taking on full humanity, verse 8 shows us how He stewarded His full humanity. Once again, Paul employs a three-fold description to slow us down long enough so that we’ll linger over the wonder: “He humbled Himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
“He humbled Himself….” Isn’t this redundant, Paul? Haven’t you already made this point by telling us how our Lord “made Himself nothing”? This is not a statement about our Lord’s incarnation (i.e. the first step from deity to full humanity described in vv.6—7), but instead describes what He did with His incarnate existence: “And being found in human form, He humbled Himself.” After the first downward step of the mind of Christ in vv.6—7, this is breathtaking to me. Having emptied Himself and “made Himself nothing” (v.7), having begun His incarnation at the same low place the rest of us have, He nonetheless willingly found—and entered—space beneath Him: “He humbled Himself.” Not, “He was humbled,” but “He humbled Himself.” He did this willingly and freely, even after all He had already laid aside in order to take on human flesh. He continued to descend, because for His mission to succeed it was not enough for Him to be a man like the rest of us; He had to become, and had to do, what none of the rest of us has ever been or ever done before God—He had to humble Himself as a man.
How did He humble Himself? “…[B]y becoming obedient to the point of death.” The wonders continue. The eternal Son of God who was over all, willingly lived under the law of God in obedience to God, something, again, that none of us has ever done. Don’t miss the irony of His obedience: it carries Him “to the point of death.” Our disobedience has rightly earned death (Romans 3:23; 6:23), but His “becoming obedient” should have spared Him death. It did not. Here, we see that His incarnation was designed as an identification with the curse of our disobedience against God. The mere fact that the Son of God’s mind would willingly embrace a mission in which He would enter humanity and experience death—of any kind—is a wonder, to be sure. But Paul still has one more wonder about the mind of Christ to set before us: the manner of Christ’s death.
To become incarnate, the Son of God emptied Himself and “made Himself nothing” (v.7). Once incarnate, “He humbled Himself….” (v.8). He did this by becoming obedient to the point of death. And how is it that this high and exalted One experienced death, Paul? The apostle now supplies the third wonder of how the Son of God stewarded His humanity for our redemption: “…even death on a cross” (v.8). A death by torture. A death of open shame. A death of weakness. A death of curse. A substitutionary death He hadn’t earned but was willing to die because of the mind that was in Him.
This is high theology, indeed. And not only the Apostle Paul, but the Holy Spirit believes it is necessary for healthy, Gospel-displaying relationships between Christians inside the church and Gospel-displaying mission outside the church. And it begins with the exhortation to have the mind of Christ Jesus (v.5).
May the Lord continue to form this mind of Christ in each of us throughout this Advent season and beyond.