The Lord’s Day Morning
January 6, 2008
“The Emptying of Christ”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Philippians 2, as we continue our study…as we pick up our study in this great letter: Fighting for Joy, Growing in Humility,
Knowing Christ and the Peace that Passes Understanding…today, looking at the subject of the emptying of Christ.
As you’re turning to Philippians 2, I do want to remind you that in the next Lord’s Day we will have the privilege of communing together around the Lord’s Table, and it would be appropriate for us to be preparing our hearts even today, looking forward to that means of grace in which God shows us His love for us and the provision of our salvation in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Now it’s been over a month and a half since we’ve been in this book, and if you will indulge me, I want to remind you of where we were when we left off. We were actually in Philippians 2:6 the last time we were in this book. Our focus today is going to be on verse 7, but it would probably help us to go all the way back to Philippians 1:27 for just a moment to remind ourselves that in that verse we come to the first major exhortation of this letter – an exhortation that launches us into the theme that covers the whole center section of the letter of the Philippians; and that theme is holiness: living a holy life as disciples of Jesus Christ. That first exhortation that we encounter in Philippians 1:27, 28 is simply this: to live a life that fits the gospel. It is in fact the theme of the entire middle section of this letter, the call to holy conduct, to distinctive Christian living. And that theme, announced in Philippians 1:27, carries on all the way to Philippians 2:18, and it provides the logic for why the passage that we’re studying now is where it is.
Have you ever wondered why, in the middle of this exhortation to live a holy life, that the Apostle Paul pauses in Philippians 2:5-11 to tell you about the humiliation of Christ and the exaltation of Christ? Well, there’s a reason, and you see the reason not only in the exhortation of Philippians 1:27, 28, but in the exhortation of Philippians 2:5.
The Apostle Paul is calling us to holy conduct, and he’s calling us to holy conduct congregationally. It’s very important for us to understand that though Paul’s exhortation to us here is individually applicable, it cannot be fulfilled individually. It can only be fulfilled congregationally. The Apostle Paul isn’t just calling on you, Christian, individually to pursue holiness in conduct; he is asking you to pursue Christ-likeness congregationally, to live together in Christ-like humility and service in preference of others. And so the Apostle Paul in Philippians 2:5 specifically exhorts us to have the mind of Christ.
Now any believer in his own right mind would immediately say to the Apostle Paul, “What do you mean, Paul? What does it mean for me to have the mind of Christ? What does it mean to have the attitude of Christ as I live with my fellow believers?” And the Apostle Paul is waiting for you when you ask him that question, and he says, ‘I’m glad you asked me that question. Let me explain.’ And Philippians 2:6-11 is his illustration to explain what he means when he asks you to have the mind of Christ.
Now you will remember (if you’ve allowed yourself to peek back to Philippians 1:27, 28) that the apostle’s exhortation to us to live a life that fits the gospel comes in a context where the Apostle Paul very plainly acknowledges that this life is filled with all kinds of trouble, trials, and opposition. And it comes in a context in which the Apostle Paul is saying to you as a Christian individually and congregationally that his desire for you is not simply to grit your teeth and bear it, but to actually live a life in the midst of those trials, tribulations and oppositions… a life that is characterized by gospel joy.
Now how is it that Paul says that you are going to be
able to do that? How is it that you are going to be able to experience and
express the God-intended gospel joy in the congregation of believers? It’s only
going to happen when you live together in humility, he says. And if you’re going
to live together in humility, you are going to have to imitate – you are going
to have to emulate – the Lord Jesus Christ, who himself is the paragon,
is the ultimate example of gospel humility. And so he points us to that
humiliation that displays Jesus’ humility in Philippians 2:5-11.
You’ll remember that we said that this Christ-hymn is divided into three parts. There is the exhortation in verse 5 – what’s that exhortation? It’s the exhortation that congregationally we would embrace the attitude, the outlook, the mind of Christ. Then comes his description of Jesus’ humiliation in verses 6-8. What was Jesus’ mind? What was His attitude? It is seen in the humiliation that He willingly embraced. His humility was manifest in His self-abasement, in His servitude, in His condescension, in His humiliation: culminating in the embrace of ultimate shame.
And then in verses 9-11, the Apostle Paul shows you Christ’s exaltation. What was the consequence of His humiliation? Joy…glory and joy, as Christ was highly exalted by the heavenly Father and given the name which is above every name. And so the Apostle Paul is pointing you to this example of Jesus in Philippians 2:5-11 in order to show you what it means to have this mind which is in Christ Jesus.
Now there’s a sense in which the whole story of the modern Western world can be summed up in the opposite of the exhortation that the Apostle Paul gives here. For many hundreds of years, you could characterize our culture and the culture that lies under it and has gone before it as a quest for self-importance and equality. We want to be important, and we want to be as important as the next guy, and we want to be thought of as equal with everyone else (even if we’re not). We want to be thought highly of, we want to be satisfied, we want to go for the gusto and grab all that we can get in this life, and we want our fair share. It’s about standing on our rights. It’s about getting what we deserve. It’s about getting ahead. It’s about up, up, up, up in whatever area of life it is – money, power, influence, social respect. That’s the theme of modern Western culture.
And the Apostle Paul is saying to us here in Philippians 2:5-11 that our salvation was accomplished by a man who refused to hang on to the equality that He rightly had with God, and that our salvation consists in His voluntarily laying aside His equality, and that has huge implications for our lives. We want to be loved, and we want to be understood, and we want to be comforted, and we want to be thought highly of, and we want to be esteemed. And the Apostle Paul is saying, ‘Christian, if you’re going to follow Jesus – if you’re going to be like Jesus, and that’s what I’m exhorting you to be, to be like Christ, to have the mind in you which was in Christ Jesus – if you’re going to follow Jesus and you’re going to adopt His mind, then your first order of business is not to be being loved and understood and comforted, and being esteemed; it’s going to be loving others and understanding others, and comforting others, and respecting others and esteeming others.
The Apostle Paul is saying ‘I know what it is that you want in your heart of hearts. God knows what you want in your heart of hearts. But you’re not going to experience what God wants you to have until you give up the quest of “you first” and you start thinking about God’s glory, the example of Christ, and the needs of others, and you start being concerned more about loving and understanding and comforting and respecting others than being loved and understood and being comforted and esteemed.’
This is radical stuff that the Apostle Paul is saying. This is not stuff that you find in the books that are the best-sellers on the airport book stalls. These are not the messages that you’re hearing preached by the most popular TV and radio preachers today. This is not the kind of message we want to hear. We want to hear that it’s all about us, and it’s happiness now and our way, and quick! And the Apostle Paul is saying something very different here. He’s saying that instead of following in this inexorable progress of up, up, up, he’s inviting us to join Jesus Christ in going down, down, down. And the Apostle Paul is saying ‘Yes, I know you don’t want to be offended, and you don’t want to be mistreated, and you don’t want to be isolated. But I want you to understand that the Lord Jesus Christ embraced all of these things for you. He took on your offense willingly; He bore your mistreatment willingly; He was isolated from everything that He held dear, willingly, for you. Won’t you join Him? For His glory? For the well-being of others? And for your everlasting gospel joy?’
Now what the Apostle Paul has to say to us in this passage is radical in the extreme. We’re going to continue looking at that message together today. Now I want to encourage you that our goal (having given that relatively long introduction) is fairly simple this morning. I want to draw your attention to two things, so let’s look to God’s word in Philippians 2:5-7, and before we read them, let’s pray.
Our heavenly Father, we need Your help as we come to hear Your word this morning, not because these words are so hard to understand that we need to have some sort of an advanced degree to comprehend them. They’re not hard to understand. They’re crystal clear, but they are really, really hard to believe and embrace and to live. It’s easy to say these things, Lord, and it’s easy to comprehend these things, but they cut against the grain of everything that the world is telling us in our own tendency to serve self first and to promote our own well-being, and to protect ourselves before we care for others. So by Your Spirit, we need Your help to understand and believe and embrace and live these words. And we ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
This is the word of God:
“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, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
This morning I want to look with you at two things, two little-big things: Jesus’ self- emptying, and yours. This passage tells us that the Lord Jesus Christ emptied himself, and I want us to look and understand what it means and what it doesn’t mean…that He emptied himself. And then I want us to look and understand what Paul means by saying that we too ought to empty ourselves…and understand what that doesn’t mean and what it means, because the Apostle Paul is saying something quite extraordinary here. He’s saying Jesus’ self-emptying is our pattern for life.
Now I want to say at the very outset, if you are here today and you are not resting on the grace of God offered to you in the gospel in Jesus Christ, if you are not trusting in Christ alone for your salvation, these words are impossible for you to embrace, and if you embrace these words as your way of trying to be right with God, your destination is certain: hell. Because no one could live up to this in such a way as to save themselves and to present themselves worthy and acceptable before God. In fact, when believers who are resting and trusting on the grace alone for salvation as He is offered in the gospel hear these words, we shudder at the awesome challenge that the Apostle Paul is giving us here. He’s pointing us to Jesus Christ. He’s pointing us to His matchless person and work, and he’s saying ‘You see what Jesus did for you in saving you? Well, by it He has not only saved you, He has given you a pattern of life which He expects you to follow as His disciples.’ And these words overwhelm us! So don’t think that Paul is telling you the way to be saved, because if this is the way you get saved, nobody’s saved! If this is the way you get to heaven, God’s going to be there by himself. It’s not what Paul is talking about.
Paul is talking to people who have been changed by the Holy Spirit, who have been transformed by the grace of God, who realize that their good is not good enough and only Jesus Christ can save them from their sins. And now Paul is telling them how God intends for them to live, and he’s saying that Jesus’ pattern of self-emptying is our pattern for life as believers.
I. Jesus’ self-emptying.
So let’s look at those two things: Jesus’ self-emptying, and ours.
First, Jesus’ self-emptying. And what I want you to see here is what Jesus’ self-emptying did not entail, and what it did entail; what Jesus’ self-emptying doesn’t mean, and what it means; what Jesus’ self-emptying did not involve, and what it involved.
Many people have come to this passage and they have decided that what Paul is saying is that Jesus somehow emptied himself of His deity. He somehow set aside essential attributes of His person. Very often this view is held by those who want to get rid of the deity of Christ so that they don’t have to believe what He teaches about the Bible. And you can say, well, Jesus set aside His deity, so He didn’t understand everything, and therefore some of the things that He said were wrong, and that means that some of the opinions that He held about the Bible were wrong, and we can come to our own conclusions – conclusions different from and contradictory to His. But whatever their motivations, you understand that this misses the point. It obviously misses the point of what the Apostle Paul is saying here, first of all because he has just said that Jesus exists in the very form of God, that all that is essential to deity (verse 6) is in Christ. It’s like the other passage in which the New Testament Scripture tells you that all the fullness of deity dwells in Him in bodily form. It’s what Paul is affirming in Ephesians 2:6, so he’s clearly not saying when he says that Jesus emptied himself, when he says that Jesus made himself nothing, that He divested himself of His divinity, that He evacuated himself of deity – that He ceased to be the divine person that He was.
And the second way you can see this – and look at it very closely. Look at verse 7. He says this: “He made himself nothing, taking….” Did you catch that? Isn’t that a strange thing to say? “He made himself nothing, taking….” Jesus’ self-emptying, Jesus’ making himself nothing, Jesus’ emptying of himself, Jesus’ making himself “of no reputation” as the King James Version so beautifully put it, is not a matter of subtracting something from His person, but taking onto himself servanthood. Did you hear it? “He made himself nothing, taking….” This was not a subtraction of His person; it was subtraction by addition.
The church fathers used to say of Jesus, speaking of His divinity and His humanity all in one person, that “He became what He was not, without ceasing to be what He was.” That is, that He took on himself our humanity without ceasing to be the fully divine person that He had always been, so that in His person humanity and divinity perfectly and wholly dwelled together in His one divine person. And that point that’s made about the person of Christ can be applied to this passage, as well. The Apostle Paul is saying that the emptying that Jesus did was not an evacuating of the attributes of His person, it was the taking on of this servitude, this role, this form, this practice, this attitude, this posture of a servant. He emptied himself, taking…. There was an addition to what He was, by which He manifest true humility.
Now that has very important ramifications for understanding what it means for us to follow Jesus’ pattern, and so let me hasten on to that very point. If Jesus’ self-emptying did not entail His setting aside the essential attributes of His person, but consisted in His taking on this servitude, this form of a servant, for our sake and for our salvation, what does our self-emptying entail and what does it not entail?
II. Our self-emptying.
It’s important for us to address this question, because many Christians, many fine Christians, get the heebie-jeebies when they start hearing the Apostle Paul make this kind of exhortation to servanthood. They immediately start thinking, “This will make me a doormat! I’ll be a doormat! People will walk all over me…Type-A personalities all over the world will come to me like a magnet, and I’ll be flat on the floor if I do this. This just won’t work. It’s not practical.” And, on the other hand, there are timorous persons out there who are around and in relationships with people who are self-destructive, who want to do what they want to do, no matter whether it’s destroying them and other people around them. And they think, “Does this mean that if I’m going to be a servant that I’ve got to let them do that?” And they get scared. And they say, “This will be bad for you; if you follow this exhortation from the Apostle Paul, there is disaster waiting!” No, no! Because our self-emptying does not mean that we become doormats or enablers. No, it means that, confident in who you are in Christ and joyfully delighted in the knowledge of what God has made you for, and motivated by the life of your Savior, you refuse to live merely for the purpose of self-protection and self-advancement, and you serve others for God’s glory, for Christ’s sake, according to Christ’s example, looking out for their best interests, knowing that there is glory and reward to come. And that is very different than being ruled by the wishes and whims and wills of either dominant Type-A personalities, or by those who are self-destructive.
You see, your motivation is entirely different. In your relationship with everyone, your goal is not self-advancement and self-protection, because in light of what Paul says in Philippians 2:9-11, you don’t need to protect yourself or advance yourself. Your advancement has already been planned from eternity past by your loving heavenly Father, and you will be exalted in heavenly places in Christ Jesus. And when every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord, you will be united to Him, and everything that is His will be yours, as it is now in Christ Jesus. So your actions in relation to other people are not designed to protect yourself or to advance yourself; they’re designed to glorify God and to look out for the best interests of others. You’ve just been freed from either being subservient to the whims of dominant Type-A personalities, or to the wishes and desires of self-destructive people. It’s strength manifest in weakness, but it’s not weakness. It’s strength that says in some cases to that dominant personality, “No.” Not because you’re looking out for No. 1 (because the world’s telling you that you need to look out for No. 1), but because you know that you’re not No. 1, but that No. 1 has so provided for you that you can have a strong, serving strength in the way you relate to other people. And you can give them what they need, not what they want.
It’s the same thing with the self-destructive person. You can say to that person who wants you to allow him or her to continue in ways that are destroying him or her, and you and others as well, and you can say “no.” Not because you’re serving yourself, but because you know who you are in Christ, and because you get your marching orders not by being accepted by the world around you, but because you are accepted in Christ Jesus, and you have deliberately chosen to go the way of His humiliation, so that in every choice you are making, you are making that choice for God’s glory and the well-being of others, rather than in your own self-advancement. And in a sense, you’re still looking out for No. 1; it’s just that No. 1’s identity has changed. You recognize that you’re not No. 1; you recognize that God is No. 1. And so you’re looking out for No. 1, but No. 1 is not you. You’re looking out for God’s glory, because God is already looking out for you, and it allows you to manifest a tender power, a serving strength towards others.
And the Apostle Paul is saying to us that if we are going to manifest the mind of Christ, then in our life in this community, whether it’s in our work, in our lives together in our families, in our life together as a congregation, we are going to manifest this kind of strength in weakness, this kind of humble exercise of strength and power, for the well-being of others, in the imitation of Christ.
Now the implications and applications of that are radical and manifold, and that’s why we’re taking our time working through this passage together, because there is so much to learn. And we’re going to come back to this next week, and in the following verse to see this fleshed out in our daily lives. But I want to challenge you in the days and hours to come to reflect on how God would have you empty yourself.
Our heavenly Father, as we hear this exhortation from the Apostle Paul, we quickly acknowledge that in our own strength it is impossible for us to obey this command; not because this command is too hard to understand, but because this command cuts against the deepest instincts of our sinful flesh. And so we quickly acknowledge that we need the grace of Your Holy Spirit if we’re going to live this way. For this congregation, O God, I pray that in the year to come that we would as individuals in work, in families, and in the congregation, love and serve one another with a self-emptying humility in such a way that the world sees Your grace and power and glorifies Christ; in such a way that those who don’t believe in Christ come to believe in Him; in such a way that those who do believe in Christ are built up in grace, and we are conformed to Him whose mind we are to have. We pray this prayer in humble dependence upon Your Holy Spirit, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Let’s continue to pray, and let’s pray using No. 644. We’ll sing the first and the fourth stanzas as a prayer to God.
“May the mind of Christ my Savior live in me from day to day,
By His love and power controlling all I do and say.
“May the love of Jesus fill me as the waters fill the sea;
Him exalting, self abasing, this is victory.”]
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.