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Learning Humility from Christ’s Humiliation

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Philippians 2:5–11 is one of the Bible’s great passages on Christ’s person and work. Writing to the first-century church in Philippi, the apostle Paul urged believers toward unity in the Gospel message (1:27). Though the apostle’s letter isn’t primarily a theological treatise, he nevertheless grounded his call in the deep doctrines of Jesus’ identity.

Aware that unity isn’t possible without humility, Paul called the Philippians to humble themselves by looking “to the interests of others” (2:4). And rather than framing his exhortation as some abstract ideal, he invited them to consider this perfect example: Jesus “humbled himself” (2:8).

Paul’s message isn’t hard to understand. We may balk at it, resist it, or even avoid it, but we can’t plead ignorance as to its meaning: the Christian’s attitude should be the same as that of Jesus Christ. Specifically, Philippians 2:5–8 emphasizes four dimensions of Christ’s humiliation from which we may learn humility.

Christ Was and Is Divine

The extent of Christ’s humility is most obvious when we consider His nature. Who is it, exactly, that’s being humbled? The answer is in verse 6: Jesus, who “was in the form of God.” He was divine before ever coming into the world; there was never a time when He was not God (John 1:1). A brief history lesson will help us grasp the importance of this truth.

Soon after the New Testament was penned, questions emerged concerning Jesus’ identity. For example, Christians would read passages like John 1 and Philippians 2 and wonder how it could be that the eternal God would subject Himself to the forces of His creation. How can God Almighty humble Himself? In response, the church organized councils—gatherings where various pastors and theologians could weigh these ideas against God’s Word. The councils met to correct error and establish truth.

Unity isn’t possible without humility.

A number of groups featured prominently in the first few centuries of the church, each with their own views about Jesus. One group denied Jesus’ divinity. A second group denied Jesus’ humanity; they maintained that Jesus had a phantom body, only appearing human. Still a third group rejected the integration of the two natures in Christ; they taught that rather than Jesus being truly God and truly man, He was neither God nor man but something else entirely. Others went a step further, suggesting that Jesus wasn’t one person with two natures but was actually two distinct persons.

After a few centuries of debate over these issues, the Council of Chalcedon convened in AD 451 and laid the matter to rest. Their statement, known as the Chalcedonian Definition, reads in part as follows:

Our Lord is truly God and truly man, of a reasonable soul and body, consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days for us and for our salvation born of the Virgin Mary, the mother of God according to the manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably, the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved and concurring in one person and one subsistence; not parted or divided into two persons but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God, the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ.1

When Paul urged the Philippians to “have the same mindset as Christ” (Phil. 2:5 NIV), he was calling them to emulate not the humility of a good man but of the God man, the eternal Son incarnate. Learning humility from our Lord means considering both how He lived among us and what He left in coming to us.

Christ Prioritized Redemption

Continuing on, Paul highlighted a second dimension of Christ’s humiliation: though truly God, Jesus “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Phil. 2:6). Heaven was His by sovereign right, yet He exchanged it for the muck of our world. Why? Because Jesus had a greater plan and priority than His own uninterrupted glory on high.

It’s as if Paul tells the Philippians, “If you live only to your own glory, extolling your virtues to others, then you’ll never understand true unity. Consider Christ. He didn’t cling to His prerogatives as God. He laid them aside to prioritize the redemption of sinful men and women.”

What we have in Philippians 2 is the fulfillment of a plan that flows from the mind of the triune God. In eternity, the Father, Son, and Spirit communed and wrote a story of unfolding redemption (Eph. 1:3–11). The Father said, “I will purpose their redemption.” The Son said, “I, by My obedience unto death, will procure their redemption.” And the Spirit said, “I will come and apply their redemption.” Remarkably, this plan involved God the Son deliberately setting aside His divine rights—interrupting a glory that was His own—to come to us. In His humiliation, Jesus left the joys of eternal communion with Father and Spirit in order that He might live among us and die for us.

Christ Set Aside Privilege

In seeking sinners, in walking the streets of Judea, our Lord “emptied himself” (Phil. 2:7)—not by subtraction of His divinity but by addition of His humanity. This is why B. B. Warfield, the nineteenth-century theologian, could say, “The Lord of the world became a servant in the world; He whose right it was to rule took obedience as His life-characteristic.”2

The language in verses 7–8 explains what went into this divine emptying. First, Jesus became as much an earthly servant as He had been a heavenly sovereign (v. 7). Having every right to rule, our Lord served (John 13:13–16). Further, Paul acknowledges that Jesus was “born in the likeness of men” (v. 7). In other words, if we had seen Jesus in the streets, we would have seen an ordinary man. He didn’t have a beatific glow that distinguished Him from the rest. He was “found in human form” (v. 8).

Upon a closer examination, however, we would realize with His disciples that there’s more to Jesus than what is immediately apparent (Mark 4:41). Being more than a mere human, He was not less than human.

Christ Obeyed unto Death

Having left heaven’s glory to serve, Jesus’ humiliation wasn’t yet complete. Paul wrote to his readers that Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). Strictly speaking, He wasn’t obedient to death itself, for death had no mastery over Christ. He was, as the ESV has it, obedient “to the point of death.” His obedience was to the Father, whose plan was for His Son to bear our sins.

Having every right to rule, our Lord served.

While Jesus’ humiliation serves as an example to us, make no mistake: His death is much more than an example. His dying is a substitution for sinners. When Adam, the first man, sinned, his disobedience brought God’s judgment crashing down on the entire human race. But when Jesus, the second Adam, died, He carried the weight of divine judgment in the place of sinners (Rom. 5:12–21). Jesus’ substitutionary death makes us able to sing with the hymn writer,

O loving wisdom of our God!
When all was sin and shame,
A second Adam to the fight
And to the rescue came.3

Being divine, Christ became man for the sake of our redemption. And laying aside His privileges as God, He became obedient, laying down His life for our own. In light of Christ’s humiliation, who can evade the staggering challenge of Paul’s message? What a task we’re given when we read, “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5 NIV)!

This article was adapted from the sermon “The Attitude of Christ” by Alistair Begg.

The Definition of Chalcedon, quoted in David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Great Doctrines of the Bible, vol. 1, God the Father, God the Son (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003), 281–82. ↩︎

Benjamin B. Warfield, “Person of Christ,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, eds. James Orr, John L. Nuelsen, Edgar Y. Mullins, and Morris O. Evans (Chicago: Howard-Severance, 1915), 4:2340. ↩︎

John Henry Newman, “Praise to the Holiest in the Height” (1865). ↩︎

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