A sermon by Dr Donald T. Williams - donaldtwilliams.com

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Presented at University Church, Athens, GA on 12/16/2001

Philipians 2:5-11

He Humbled Himself

The passage before us today is not usually thought of as a Christmas text, but it ought to be, for it speaks most eloquently of what we celebrate during the season of Advent: the incarnation of our Lord.

"Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking on the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore also God highly exalted him, and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those who are in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (NASB). INTRODUCTION

One thing you can say about Christmas without fear of contradiction is that it is many things to many people. The ancient pagans of northern Europe held at the Winter Solstice, the darkest day of the year, a festival of light to express their defiance of the darkness and their faith in the return of the Sun in the Spring. It is perhaps not wholly inappropriate that the medieval Church chose to transform that feast by co-opting it for the celebration of the coming into the world of the true Light that enlightens every man. For modern Americans it is a time of tradition, of family, of the indulgence of their commercial impulses; for those who are believers it is above all a time to remember the birth of our Lord. Even that story has many facets: it is a tale of love, a tale of wonder, a tale of redemption. We usually focus on those aspects of the story, but this passage presents to us one more: the story of Christ's birth, of his incarnation in human flesh, also provides us with a critical and important example. We are to have in ourselves this attitude that Christ had when he emptied himself, took on the form of a servant, and was born in a barn to a lower middle class couple who used a feeding trough as his first cradle.


In order to understand this stooping, this emptying and humbling which the Apostle holds up to us as our example, we must first contemplate the position of glory and exaltation from which our Lord stooped to us. He existed in the "form" of God. The word translated "form" is the Greek MORPHE, a root which appears in English in scientific words like "metamorphosis" and in very unscientific form in the "Mighty Morphing Power Rangers." But the English word "form" can be misleading, for it may make us think merely of shape or outward appearance. The Greek MORPHE is much closer to the Aristotelian or even Platonic idea of form as "inner essence," that which constitutes any thing to be the thing it is.

The best illustration I can think of for this idea is the human body, when we consider the remarkable fact that, as we ingest nourishment, burn fuel, and excrete waste, all the matter that makes up our bodies is replaced every seven years. Craig is not looking at one single atom that he saw in the early '80's when last I preached as a member of University Church. Yet he seems to treat me as if I were the same person he remembers from those days. And rightly so, in my opinion! Why? Because, while the stuff is different, and even the outward shape not absolutely identical (with a bit more fat and less hair), the form is the same. The formula "form of X" means "what makes it X"--whether it be Don Williams, God, or a servant.

The word translated "being" is also interesting: not ON, the participle of the verb "to be," but a different word, UPARCHON. It seems to relate to ON in something of the same way that Spanish ser relates to estar: it connotes a more permanent, more essential form of being than simply what one happens to be at the moment. The present participle gives the idea of "already existing." So we could paraphrase Paul's statement something like this: "Although he already existed with full possession of everything essential to deity."

What did this existence in the form of deity entail? The pre-incarnate Christ experienced perfect blessedness and fulfillment because he was totally self-sufficient, needing nothing, enjoying a perfect harmony of love with the Father and the Holy Spirit. He possessed and exercised all the attributes of God, including omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence. He enjoyed the worship and adoration of myriads of celestial beings of unimaginable power and splendor: angels, archangels, seraphim, cherubim, etc. Now hear verse 6b: He did not consider this equality with God a thing to be grasped, but rather emptied himself. "A thing to be grasped" translates HARPAGMON, whose original meaning was booty, plunder, hence anything to be held on to or treasured. Here it probably means not "didn't need to seize (because he already had it)," but rather "chose not to hang on to or cling to." Instead, he "emptied" himself, probably an allusion to Is. 53: 12, which prophesied that he would "pour himself out" as a propitiatory offering unto death. Now he takes on the form, the essential nature, of a servant, as the allusion to Isaiah 53 continues. The one who had an inherent right to rule becomes a servant; the one who had life in himself became obedient even unto death, and the ultimate shame of death on a cross. Surely this is a stooping to match the height from which he began!

Think then what the Bethlehem experience must have meant to the Lord Jesus Christ. This stooping, this descent, is dizzying! He went from total self sufficiency to total need, becoming the baby of a family that couldn't even get a motel room and eventually a criminal buried in a borrowed tomb. He went from omnipotence to total helplessness, needing to suck at his mother's breast to survive. He went from omniscience to almost total ignorance, for though he still possessed the form and therefore the attributes of God, he laid them aside and did not exercise them, but forced his infinite mind to function through his finite human brain, so that he had to learn to talk, to walk, to read. He went from omnipresence to the confinement of being limited to a finite body bounded by a stable, and before that, a womb. It is hard to give up what one thinks of as one's own. My father is facing in the next few years the possibility of not being able to drive any more, and he finds it very frustrating indeed. But Christ gave up infinitely more when he was born of the virgin Mary for us and for our salvation.


Well, then, we are supposed to think like Christ did when he gave up all of that to share our life with us. PHRONEITE in v. 5 is translated "let this mind be in you" (KJV) or "have this attitude" (NASB). "Have this attitude" captures better the active sense of this verb than the more passive sounding "let this mind be" of the King James. It means, "Actively decide to adopt the same mindset that Jesus had, specifically the one he showed when he chose not to cling to his divine privileges but took on the form of a servant and poured himself out as an offering for us." This then is really the Pauline equivalent of Jesus' own formulation: "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me." That is what it means to be his disciple.

What this means is that when we understand the mind of Christ toward us--when we understand the true significance of that manger scene in Bethlehem--then there can remain nothing in our own lives that we count a thing to be grasped. We must sit lightly to property, family, health, pride, dignity, reputation, even life itself, if by emptying ourselves of any of these things we can serve the One who gave himself for us or serve his people. We use these things and enjoy them as good gifts from him as we pass through this life. But once we start to cling to any of them, we no longer have the mind of Christ.

This means that I should be a man without possessions, a man with no rights. (We have these things in a sense with reference to human society, but not with reference to God.) It is not just that I should be willing to lay down my life (or my goods or my position or my dignity or my reputation or anything else I have) for the brethren or for the cause of the Gospel. Rather, I should not even consider it a thing to be grasped. I do not cling to it, because I have already given it up in principle, in advance. It is the Lord's, not mine, to be used for his glory and disposed of at his convenience. That is what it means to "die to self." That is not how in fact I naturally do think, but it is how I must learn to think if I am to be obedient to this commandment. And I must practice such thinking now, in advance, before the actual pouring out is needed, if I expect to do it freely and joyfully when the time comes.

Now, this is a high example and a high calling. It is utterly beyond me. So we must ask one more question as we consider this text. How is it that Christ was able not to grasp, hold on to, cling to all the privileges that were his? How is it that he was able to let them go? Two factors seem to me to go together to make up the answer to that question. First, there was the over-riding power of his love for us. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son; and having loved his own, he loved them to the end. But there is also the fact that he was supremely confident and secure in the love of the Father for him. That is how he was able to trust him with his life and his glory when his very consciousness was all but extinguished for a while as he became an embryo, a fetus, a baby lying in a manger. He showed the same trust when he said, "not my will but thine be done," and became for a while a corpse in a borrowed tomb. We cling and grasp because we do not feel secure. So how can we have the same mind, the same attitude that Christ did? By remembering that we have the same Father, who did not allow his flesh to see corruption but exalted him and gave him a name that is above every name. We are called to the same radical faith and trust because we have the same Father, and therefore we may believe that if we submit ourselves under his right hand, he too will exalt us in due time.


From now on, when you see a nativity scene at Christmas and think of the birth of Christ, may it remind you of the mind of Christ, who did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but poured himself out as an offering, taking on the form of a servant. And may it challenge you to have this mind in you which was in Christ Jesus. I have it very imperfectly myself, but I would like to think I have a bit more of it than I once did, and I see more clearly than ever the necessity of having more of it. Let us use our Christmas meditations this year to further our journey down that path, so that we may humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God, that with our Lord and Savior we too may be exalted in due time.. For that is what it means to be his disciple.

Here endeth the lesson. Dr. Donald T. Williams