The Lord’s Day Morning
“The Ungrasped Equality of Christ”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Philippians, chapter two.
As the choir has been singing about a place of joy and peace and contentment, and delight and forgiveness and love, the Apostle Paul is telling us that the place that experiences that is the place which has, in Christ, embraced the mind of Christ. And of course his answer as to where that joy and peace and contentment is found is radically different than the answer that the world gives us. The world tells us that if we want to pursue and find that joy and peace and contentment which is the hope of Christians, then we’re going to find it in self-expression and self-fulfillment; we’re going to find it when we get our way; we’re going to find it when we are able to manifest our own potentialities, when we’re at the center of all things.
The Apostle Paul’s answer is radically different from that. No, this joy is found only when we embrace the way of the cross, the way of Christ, the way of humiliation, the way of humility. Only when we are displaced from the center of the world do we find the true joy which God has in store for His people, and so this radical message is entailed here in this glorious passage, this song of Christ that we’ve been studying for a couple of weeks now.
The last time we were together in Philippians 2:5-11, last week, we reminded ourselves that the song comes to us in three parts. In verse 5 there is an exhortation, and the exhortation is for us to have the mind of Christ—to have the attitude, the outlook of Christ—to embrace the posture of Christ in His life and in His humiliation. The second part of the song comes in verses 6-8. It’s an illustration. It’s an illustration of Christ’s humiliation, and in this the Apostle Paul tells us that those who want the joy spoken of in verses 9-11 must embrace the way of Christ, even His humility and His humiliation. And then there is the motivation, and the motivation is seen in verses 9-11 in the exaltation of Christ, and the glory and the joy, and the love and the peace, and the contentment that are experienced by Him and by all who trust in Him.
Now the last time we were together looking at verses 5-6, we especially focused on that phrase at the end of verse 5 and the beginning of verse 6 that goes like this:
“…Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God….”
That is, we were considering the implication of the deity of Christ for our behavior as Christians. Now that sounds a little strange, because the first rule of theology is “There is a God.” And the second rule of theology is, “You are not Him.” So why in the world would you start an ethical exhortation to Christians by reminding them of who Jesus is? Because we’re not Jesus! We’re not divine and Jesus is, so how does that help us ethically?
Well, it helps us ethically because we’ve said all along (and we’ve quoted great Christians and thinkers of the last 2,000 years to help us see this biblical truth) that humility is about having a right assessment of ourselves. And the only way that we can have a right assessment of ourselves is to compare ourselves to one who is truly great. We were saying that Phillips Brooks reminds us of this when he says:
“The true way to be humble is not to stoop until you are smaller than yourself, but to stand at your real height against some higher nature that will show you the real smallness of your greatness.”
And that’s exactly what the Apostle Paul does in Philippians 2:5, 6. He says, ‘Consider Jesus. If you want to know what humility is, consider Jesus. Consider Him in His greatness, and then look at how far He stooped to serve you, because here’s the mind-boggling truth: You will never ever serve someone as far beneath you as Jesus did in His saving service of you.’
It’s a practical question to ask: “Lord, how do we prefer people…how do we treat people as more significant than ourselves? How do we humble ourselves in order to treat others in preference to ourselves…before ourselves…above ourselves, if we are their equal or greater? Lord, how do we go about humbling ourselves before people against whom (in comparison to whom) we are at least their equal? Their equal in intelligence or in work ethic, or in standing, and in many cases maybe even their superior? How do you go about treating those people ahead or above yourself?” And the Apostle Paul says, ‘Well, think about Jesus. Now, let’s see…who did He serve who was His equal? Amongst mankind, He had no equal…He has no equal. Who was His superior? There is none. And yet from that position of absolute supremacy, He embraced the attitude and the outlook and the posture of humble service. And if He can do it, [Paul says] Christian, how about you?’
That’s why he takes us to the deity of Jesus first, before he shows us His humility—in order that we might see His humility in the bold relief of who He is and realize that no matter how far we stoop in this life to serve, we will never even begin to approach the depth to which He has condescended in order to serve us. And that – as humbling a thought as it is, is also a very encouraging thought, because it reminds us again of that grand truth that we have encountered so many times in the Bible: that God never asks us to do what He himself is not prepared to do, and in fact what He has not already done in greater degree and dimension in time than He asks us to do.
And with that we come to the second phrase in verse 6. Our attention will move now from the deity of Christ to what Paul says next. And I want to say that this next phrase is no less startling, no less mind-boggling than the truth which the apostle has given us in verse 5 and the first part of verse 6.
Let’s pray before we hear God’s word.
Heavenly Father, this truth that we will consider now is so big and it is so counter-intuitive, it is so jarring in comparison to the mindset of the world in which we live, that we need Your Holy Spirit to open our eyes and ears and hearts if we are going to see, hear, and believe it. So by Your Spirit, open our eyes and ears and hearts to embrace the truth of Your word, and then apply it by Your Holy Spirit, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Hear the word of God in Philippians 2:5, 6:
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus; who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
There is a sense in which the whole story of the modern western world the last two centuries can be summed up as a quest for equality. There is a sense in which we could categorize and recount our history in terms of an inexorable process and assent to, and grasp for equal status. But our salvation was accomplished by a Man who refused to hang on to the equality that He had with God. The means of our salvation could not be more polar opposite than the tale – the secular tale – of salvation that is told around us at every turn today. Indeed, our salvation consists in Christ’s voluntarily laying aside His rights and His equality. And that truth has huge implications for our lives in this passage, and especially in this phrase in which the Apostle Paul calls us to
“…have the attitude in ourselves which was in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God as a thing to be grasped.”
That truth is to be controlling for the Christian life, and believe me, no one in the world, no place in the world apart from God in His word is calling you to live that way. No place in the world is helping you to live that way. This message is as opposite from that which you are hearing as anything in the Bible, and so I want to look closely at what the apostle is telling us here.
There are four things in particular that I want you to see that the Apostle Paul is saying as we break down this very short but powerful and important phrase. The first thing is this:
I. Christ has always been and continues to be God.
The Apostle Paul in Philippians 2:6 is telling you that Christ has always been and continues to be God. Christ has always been and continues to be God. Paul is telling you that Jesus is fully divine. Now I understand…for two hundred years now there have been people that have wanted to call themselves Christians and also deny the deity of Jesus Christ. I want to emphasize that the Apostle Paul could not have conceived of such a person being a Christian! And you may not like what Paul says, or you may not agree with Paul here, but what Paul is saying is absolutely crystal clear. There’s a very famous passage in Calvin’s writings where he’s interacting with a scholar in his own day who wanted to say that Philippians 2:5, 6 did not prove the divinity of Christ. And Calvin, in his commentary on this passage, says, “All the devils in the world cannot wrest this verse from me.” (It almost sounds like Martin Luther, doesn’t it?) He’s saying that Paul is so crystal clear about what he’s asserting about Jesus Christ. He’s saying that Jesus Christ shares the essence of the Godhead; He shares with the Father all of His majesty; that there is no thing in Him which is un-God-like; that He has in Him fullness of deity in bodily form. The Apostle Paul is emphasizing that Jesus has always been divine, He is divine, He always will be divine.
What he is talking about in this passage is not His divesting himself of deity: He couldn’t do it if he wanted to. And so the Apostle Paul is stressing to us that Christ has always been and He continues to be God by His very nature. But in spite of that fact, and even because of that fact, for our salvation He does not insist upon the manifestation of the majesty of His deity.
II. Christ did not insist upon the manifestation of His majesty.
That’s the second thing that the Apostle Paul wants to teach us. Not only (first) that Christ always has been and continues to be God by nature, but (second) that Christ did not insist upon the manifestation of His majesty.
In expounding this passage, John Calvin liked to use the word veiling: that when Jesus took upon himself our poor flesh and our poor blood, He did not divest himself of deity, but He veiled His deity in the flesh. Don’t we sing about that at Christmastime?
“Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see;
Hail the incarnate deity;
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus, our Emanuel.”
It is not that He is any less God, but the majesty of His divinity is hidden from our eyes so that when we look at that manger, and we strip away all of the nineteenth century Currier & Ives and Hallmark glowing halos around the babies, we realize – mothers – that the Son of God, the very incarnate Son of God’s love is lying in a feeding trough that animals ate out of, with literally billions of germs in it! And you would be offended if your own child were placed in such an instrument. And yet the One who was very God was laid in a manger, and His divinity was veiled to our eyes. Even when He was on the cross, men looked up and what did they see? They saw a condemned criminal. They saw a lunatic. His glory was veiled. And only a few times – isn’t that right? – only a few times in His earthly ministry did that glory shine forth, like at the Mount of Transfiguration when Moses and Elijah conversed with Him and something of His transfigured glory shined through; and Peter doesn’t want to leave, because he’s seen a glimpse of Christ as He is. But throughout most of His earthly ministry that glory, that divinity, is hidden from our eyes. The Apostle Paul says, ‘You know, Jesus could have insisted upon that majesty. He could have insisted upon the manifestation of His equal majesty with God, but He did not. So that’s the second thing that he’s saying here.
III. Christ did not claim His privileges and prerogatives.
But there’s a third thing that he’s saying. He’s saying that Christ did not claim His privileges and prerogatives. We have just heard Marcus tell us that from the Old Testament – that great passage in which it is declared that “Everything is yours, O Lord.” Do you know that Jesus Christ could have come into this world and said, ‘Everything and everyone belongs to Me. Hand it over. Right now’? He could have claimed everything for himself right then, because in fact we do belong to Him! Everything does belong to Him! He is Lord. He is our Maker. And yet when He came into this world, He did not claim His privileges and prerogatives. That’s what the Apostle Paul is reminding us here: that the way in which Jesus accomplished our salvation was not to stand on His privileges and prerogatives, but to give them away…to forego them…to veil His majesty…to deny himself the rightful privileges and prerogatives that were His.
IV. Christ did not cling to His equality with God.
And then, fourth, the Apostle Paul is saying that Christ did not cling to His equality with God. He did not stand on His rights. He did not claim His rights, but He poured himself out for others and He took upon himself the role of a slave. And He voluntarily set aside His rights for the salvation of His people for their eternal well-being. And the Apostle Paul is saying ‘Christian, that is how you ought to live, in that kind of radical and self-giving in the context of the congregation.’
This kind of Christ-like, other-worldly, self-giving love is to be manifest in the body of believers tangibly as a witness to the grace work that God has done in the hearts of His people.
I hasten to say quickly that the Apostle Paul is not telling you the way to be saved here. If the way to be saved is to give yourself away in Christ-like love to one another, we’re all going to hell. Every last one of us. God is showing here what Christ did to save you. (And by the way, in the very showing of what Christ has done to save you, He’s showing you that you can’t save yourself.) Who but God can divest himself of His prerogatives and privileges on our behalf and serve us? Who but God can do these things? We could not do these things to save ourselves. But having been saved by His grace, having been saved by trusting in Jesus Christ alone for salvation as He is offered in the gospel, then the Apostle Paul says ‘How is it that you know the joy of Christ in this fallen world? Not by putting “Me First, Self No. 1, world centered around Me; I’m the consumer, and all of you work for Me…looking out for No. 1.” Not that way, but by following the way of Christ, who, if anyone ever had the right to look out for No. 1, it was Him! But He didn’t. And therefore we are to take His model in the living of the Christian life.
So, what does this mean for us today?
And I want to say very briefly two ways in which this applies, first in the context of the congregational family, and then as we relate to the world as Christians.
Let’s look first at how this plays out in the Christian community. This means that in the Christian community – though we want to be loved and we want to be understood, and we want to be comforted, and we want to be esteemed and thought highly of, and though we want to be ministered to – we will have as our mindset (as our mind, as our attitude, as our outlook, as the thing that pervades the essence of who we are) an attitude that says ‘I am not here to be served, but to serve, because that was the way of my Master who saved me by grace.’ And though, yes, we do want to be loved and understood and comforted and esteemed, following Jesus means that we adopt His mind; and that our first order of business becomes not to be loved, but to love; not to be understood, but to understand; not to be comforted, but to comfort; not to be esteemed, but to think highly of others. You see how radical this is.
You know, one of the reasons…there are many reasons, but one of the reasons why people in our culture today hop from church to church, to church to church, is because they view themselves as religious consumers. And you know where a consumer is. A consumer is at the center of his or her moral universe, and everyone else exists to do what? To please the consumer. And so Church A doesn’t please the consumer, and so the religious consumer moves to Church B. And Church B doesn’t please the consumer, and so this consumer moves to Church C, and goes on and on and on. And so that consumer comes into a congregation, and there are 3,000 people there to serve him or her! And the Apostle Paul is saying not so in the body of Christ. “Not to be served, but to serve” is not just the motto of Belhaven College; it’s the motto of Jesus. Jesus said it. Paul’s spelling it out for you here in Philippians 2:5ff, and he’s saying in relation to one another you’re not here to be served, but to serve.
Let me tell you something. This is how the joy comes in! When you give yourself away, and you decide, ‘OK, life is not about me being served; life is about me giving myself away in service,’ what happens when the church collectively decides to do that? Instead of having 3100 people serving one person, what happens? There are 3100 people in the congregation of First Presbyterian Church serving 3099 other people, so that suddenly no matter how much you’re giving away, you find yourself being ministered to, because everyone gives away to be at the center of the service of everyone else; and suddenly in that very context you find yourself right in the bull’s-eye of the service of all your brothers and sisters! So that giving ourselves away in service ends up entailing the receipt of the service and blessing of all our brothers and sisters.
It’s just one of the ways that God manifests the joy that we are to experience in the life of the congregation.
What about the world? We are surrounded on all sides – religious and secular – by a self-centered culture. There are Christian TV preachers who tell us that what God wants us to have is health, prosperity, status...privilege. There are those whose approach to our culture is ‘I’m going to take back what is mine’ (both religious and non-religious), so that as we look at a culture that’s in a tailspin we see many people saying, “Hey, I want my country back!” – both religious and secular. So some religious people will have movements like “Let’s reclaim America! Let’s take it back!” and then you can find radically secular people like Michael Moore saying, “Hey, dude—who stole my country? I want it back!” Radically different visions for what they want the country to be like, but what do they both want? They want it back! They want to be right at the center of it, in charge.
Wouldn’t it be radical if, instead of taking the posture ‘Hey, that’s my right, and I want it back!’ we said to the culture, ‘How may we serve you? Yes, you’ve taken this right away from us that we once enjoyed, but how may we serve you? We want to look out for the well-being of all of these people, even though they may disagree with us, even though they may despise [us]. We want to show them good will.’ What kind of witness would that be to the world?
You see, the world looks at both secular and religious manifestations of self-centeredness, and the world looks at them and says, ‘You know, they’re all just saying the same thing.’ But what if we were to say, ‘How could we stand aside from the claims to our rights and privileges and seek your well-being? To love you, to care for you?’ My friends, the world would have no answer for that. Because there is no answer to love. There’s no argument against love.
May God grant that we show to one another and to the watching world this kind of self-denying, self-giving love.
Heavenly Father, give us the mind of Christ, our Savior. We ask it in Jesus’ name.
Would you take out your hymnals and turn with me to No. 644, and we’ll sing the first stanza of May the Mind of Christ, My Savior.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirits.