Advent 2019: The Plan for Christmas

Sermon by David Strain on December 8, 2019

Philippians 2:6

Well this morning we continue in our Advent series looking at Paul’s use of Philippians 2:5-11. We began looking at this together last time. You remember it is sometimes called “The Carmen Christi,” “The hymn to Christ,” used in the churches during Paul’s day, and Paul is quoting it here in Philippians as an apt summary of the significance of who Jesus is and what He came to do. And we looked last time at verse 5; we called it “The Call of Christmas.” There’s a summons, a call here, to have a particular mindset and outlook that ought to be ours in the wake of the facts about Jesus’ first coming that he will rehearse in verses 6 through 11. “Have this mind,” he said, “among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” 

And now here this week in verse 6, Paul begins to rehearse for us the main facts about who Jesus is and what His birth that first Christmas really means. And immediately if you look at verse 6 you’ll see that he launches into the most profound theology. I have to apologize in advance for serving up a bit of a slab of raw beef this morning. There’s some theological depths, and rather than avoid them or be overly simplistic, I thought it would be wise for us to dive in. If nothing else, to see and sense something of the enormity and the grandeur of the faith that we profess – not to minimize its wonder but to maximize the wonder of it that we may learn to worship God with renewed joy.

You will remember that Paul is dealing with infighting and division and tension at Philippi. In verse 2 you’ll see him say that he wants them to have the “same mind and the same love and be of one accord and of one mind.” He calls them negatively to “put away selfish ambition and conceit,” verse 3, “but rather in humility to consider others more significant than themselves.” That’s the mindset that he wants them to have, to which he calls them in verse 5. And it’s interesting to notice the way that he lends force to that exhortation to a transformed mind. His ethical exhortation to think differently is grounded upon the most profound theology. Verse 5 is grounded upon verse 6. Isn’t it? “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” Verse 6 is mindblowing. A changed mind, resting on profound theology. 

We need to cultivate, I think, a holy impatience with the sentiment that says, “Less theology, more practicality.” Have you come across that sentiment? “Less theology, more practicality. Pastor, just tell us what to do. Show us how to live.” Listen, practicality without theology is like a car without an engine. It will get you nowhere, fast. And here, Paul wants you to see that the most profound theology is the engine that drives a changed life, a renewed mind. And so instead of shrinking back from the mystery and the enormity, we need to dive in and be freshly overwhelmed by the glories of the truth.

The other thing to notice before we get to the meat of our message this morning is that verses 5 through 11 aren’t simply abstract, doctrinal assertions. Remember, according to most scholars, these are the words of a hymn of praise to Christ. It’s not just theology; it’s theology made into doxology. It’s truth designed to be sung, verses 5 through 11. That means that one of the lessons a careful reading of these verses ought to teach us is the connection between what we believe, what we sing, and how we live. These things are profoundly wedded together in God’s wise, loving design. He has appointed song, not just prose, not even poetry, but poetry sung together as the people of God to drive truth down into our hearts and our heads so that we see it and feel it and taste it and wonder at it anew. Sing the great psalms and hymns of the faith. Sing them in the middle of your daily battles with discontentment. Sing them when anger wells up and grumbling begins. Sing them when disappointment steals over your heart and you feel like you’re going nowhere. Sing them when sorrow blots out the sun for you or grief drags you down. Fill your mouth with the glories of the faith once for all delivered to the saints and sing! That’s part of the lesson of Philippians 2:5-11. The highest theology is often best confessed in verse. The highest theology is often best confessed in verse.

Sometimes, I wonder if you’ve found this to be true, truths that we struggle to affirm in prose, we begin to believe again when we sing them to the praise of God. One of the best tools you can ever use in your daily fight for faith against unbelief in your heart is a good hymnbook. Sing the praise of God. Sing deep, rich truth like the great hymn that Paul quotes here in Philippians 2:5-11. He wants us to see the wonder and the mystery and to rejoice in it; not to shrink back from it but to dive into the unfathomable depths of who Jesus is and what He came to do. 

So we’re going to consider verse 6 together. We do it trembling a little bit because there really is no way for us in the time allotted. And even if we had days and days to consider it, in fact there’s no way for us to fathom and plumb the depths of it all. And yet we do want to wrestle with the truth here. So we are going to notice three things in verse 6. We’re going to think about the being of Christ – what is He, who “being in form God” – the being of Christ. Then, we’re going to think about the person of Christ. You’ll notice that on the one hand he says the form of God is the form that belongs to Christ, and then he says “He didn’t count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” So he asserts that Jesus is identical to God and then in the same line he asserts that there is a distinction to be made between Him and God. He is the only God that there is, the being of Christ – one with the Father and with the Holy Spirit in the fellowship of the blessed Trinity. And yet, He is not the Father nor the Spirit. As to His person, He is the Son. The being of Christ. The person of Christ. And then thirdly, notice Paul speaks about Christ counting, reckoning, evaluating. “He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” – we’ll think about the mind of Christ. 

Like I said a moment ago, I were serving up a slab of raw beef, theological raw beef; I hope you don’t have too much trouble digesting it, but I want you to sense and feel something of the weight of these rich truths that perhaps we don’t think about as much as we should. Before we do that, let’s pause and pray and ask for God to help us.

Our Father, please forgive us for only ever paddling in the shallows. Help us to wade in a little deeper today and to begin, as we feel the vastness of the ocean of the truth about Jesus, to sense how small we really are, to get our proportions right, to look at ourselves as we really are – little, fragile, sinful creatures of the dust, beloved by the infinite, eternal, and unchangeable God so that leaving here this morning we may wonder and rejoice in knowing You and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. For we ask it in His name, amen.

Philippians chapter 2 at the fifth verse. 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 emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”


Well they say that familiarity breeds contempt, and we may feel actually that’s part of the reason for our lack of wonder at Christmastime as over the years we have gotten older and the same old familiar story has grown a little threadbare in our eyes. We know the components of the Christmas story intimately. Don’t we? Mary and Joseph – check. Baby Jesus in the manger – check. Angels singing “Joy to the World” – check. Wise men and shepherds – check. Donkeys and sheep and cows, or if you were in the gym for the children’s Sunday school nativity, Frank the camel adoringly looking on with big watery eyes – check! That’s it! Right? That’s the Christmas story. And honestly, if that’s all there was to it, we would be right to be a little bored of the whole thing by now. I mean, it makes, I suppose, for a nice Christmas card; a cute, you know, nativity play in the gym. But, Wonder!? Not so much. Worship!? Hardly. 

But the bare recounting of the dramatis personae, the list of characters who attended at the birth of Jesus, is hardly an adequate retelling of what took place that first Christmas. Is it? This is not really simply a story about a young mother too poor to find anywhere better to have her baby than a stable. Stories like that are doubtless moving, but rather mundane. We read them, we’re moved by them, and then we just move on. But the real significance of the facts we celebrate at Christmas can never really be adequately comprehended. We never get past it. We never move beyond it. We never fathom the depths of it. Paul’s point in verse 6 is threefold, as we listed it a few moments ago. 

The Being of Christ 

The first of the things he has to say to us to reignite wonder in our hearts is about the being of Christ. If you’ll look at verses 5 and 6, “Have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God” – now stop there for a moment. Paul’s talking about Christ Jesus and he tells us about His being, His nature, His essence. He was “in the form of God,” he says. He’s going to go on to talk about how He was “born in likeness of men.” He was born! But his point here in verse 6, do you see, is not that with the birth of Jesus He somehow began to exist. Rather, He existed in the form of God before He was born of the virgin and laid in the manger. And this existence, notice is “in the form of God.” 

The word “form” there, you may know, is the Greek word, “morphe.” We sometimes talk about the morphology of a word or maybe something morphing from one shape into another shape. We typically understand the word “form” to be the opposite of substance. Don’t we? And sometimes we would say that, if you listen to a political candidate’s speech, or hear the pundits saying, “It was all form and no substance!” meaning it looked good, it sounded good, but there was nothing to it. 

That’s not how Paul is using the word “form” here. He’s not saying Jesus looked like God but isn’t really. No, he’s saying the form that is uniquely and exclusively the form of God, that is the form that belongs properly to Jesus Christ. There’s no one else it could be. The contours of deity describe the contours of Jesus Christ precisely. If you’ve ever been in our Foundations Class you will have heard me use this analogy before now. Paul is suggesting almost as though there was someone backlit. You know, you see their silhouette in the window and you know them well enough to be able to identify them just from their silhouette. You see their contours. Imagine it’s God, identifiably God in the window who’s silhouette you see, unmistakably so. And then the lights go on and the one who’s form is uniquely the form that belongs and can only belong to God, that is the form we now see that belongs to Jesus Christ. All that can be said of God must be said of Him. There is nothing in God that is not in Christ. The whole undivided divine essence subsists in Christ without any remainder. Deity is not some other thing, some distinct thing back of Christ, more fundamental than Christ, that Christ merely participates in. God is Christ; Christ is God. There is no other deity than Jesus Christ. He is the only God that exists. He is in form God. The being of Christ – He is God.

The Person of Christ

But then notice what we’re told here about the person of Christ. You see how Paul distinguishes Christ from God. Having identified Him with God, he distinguishes Him from God. Look at verse 6 again. “Though he was in form God” – that’s what the Greek says literally – “Though he was in form God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” We’ll get to what that statement means in just a moment. For now, simply notice the one whose form is identical to God is now being spoken of as one who is equal with God. In other words, in being, Christ is God, but in person, He is distinct. Here at least, in embryo, is the doctrine of the Trinity. Can you see it? The Scriptures tell us that the Father is God and that the Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God, and yet these are not three Gods, but one in the same God. 

Listen to The Shorter Catechism. “There are three persons in the Godhead, the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.” The substance, the being, the morphe, the form of God is single and undivided. But this one, undivided, divine being subsists in three distinct persons. These persons are each the whole Godhead. God isn’t divided into thirds with a piece each for the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. God, without remainder, dwells in the Father. All that God is, is the Father. But the same is also true of the Spirit, and likewise of the Son. And yet, the Father is the Father and not the Son or the Spirit. The Son is not the Father or the Spirit. And the Spirit is not the Father or the Son. These three are one, the same in substance, identical in being. The Godhead is numerically one, not three gods. And yet as one divine being exists in three coequal, coeternal, distinct persons. He’s not sometimes the Father and then sometimes the Son and sometimes the Holy Spirit. He is Father, Son, and Spirit, distinctly, simultaneously, and eternally. This is how the Son can be God and yet equal to God. Or as the apostle John puts it in the opening verse of his Gospel, this is how the Word can be with God and be God at the same time.

Alright, now before your heads explode or your eyes roll any further back in their sockets, let’s stop and ask, “Why does this all matter?” As you’re chewing away busily on that slab of raw beef I’ve been serving, let’s think about why this matters. It matters because this is the One who took the form of a servant and was born in the likeness of men. Not a mere messenger from God, not a man who was uniquely close to God, not an especially inspired prophet, not another in a long line of holy men. The One who’s first coming we remember and celebrate at Advent is absolutely unique, incomparable. He is the living God who said, “Let there be light,” and there was light; this man, Jesus Christ. He is Yahweh, the great I AM, who met Moses in the burning bush. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who, with a mighty outstretched arm, led His people out of bondage in Egypt through the Red Sea passing through as on dry land. He is the Lord who spoke to Job, you remember, from the whirlwind; who keeps the snow in His storehouse and has carved a channel for the rain. He, Mary’s boy, wrapped in swaddling cloths, nursing at her breast, tiny and dependent, is the Lord, high and lifted up, the train of whose robe filled the temple, before whom the seraphim must veil their faces as they sing, “Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord God Almighty! The whole earth is full of Your glory!” 

This is the One who came, not in glory and splendor, not in thunderclap or whirlwind or burning bush, but in the vulnerability of a baby nursing in His mother’s arms. Please don’t be content with familiar Christmas tropes, with a mere recitation of the cast of characters around the manger. That’s just not going to sustain the bright fires of worship. Instead, stoke the embers of wonder in your heart by pressing into the mystery, the enormity of the truth of the One who came for us and for our salvation. He is the God-man, the second person of the blessed Trinity, our Maker and our Redeemer. He is the living God. There’s no other like Him. He is not the Father, nor is He the Spirit. The Father was not born of a virgin. The Holy Spirit was not found in likeness as a man. But the Son took flesh and dwelled among us and “we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth, that from His fullness we may all receive.” The being of Christ and the person of Christ. What is the main use of these extraordinary truths? It is to make you say, “God is great!” and to buckle your knees and to fill your heart and make you adore. The being of Christ. The person of Christ.

The Mind of Christ 

Then finally, the mind of Christ. Look at verse 6. “Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” We are here being invited to consider the mission that the Father gave to the Son in eternity before the world was made. He is equal with the Father and with the Holy Spirit in the bonds of the blessed Trinity. He is the living God. He is God the Son who dwells in the bosom of the Father. Angels adore Him. The redeemed around the throne worship Him. He will judge men and angels at the last day. But in order to secure our salvation, in accordance with the divine plan, He must humble Himself. He must “take the form” – the word literally is, a “slave” – the form of a slave and be born as a man. He must – think about this – the King, the Lawgiver, must come and obey His law, and then die under the condemnation of the law he never broke and could not break, that we broke, that condemns us. The mission upon which He is being sent entails that the Creator walked the dusty streets of Palestine a creature. It would demand His rejection, His shame, His humiliation. He is to be brutalized and beaten, despised and rejected of men. He would be as one from whom men hid their faces. One considered stricken and smitten by God and afflicted, crucified, dead and buried. 

And yet Paul tells us the prospect did not cause Him to shrink back. He does not fear to embrace the mission upon which He is sent, as if by becoming man He might somehow forfeit deity, or by humbling Himself in obedience, even to the dreadful cursed death of a cross, His equality with God might somehow be lost. Instead, in the perfect security of His equality with the Father, in the fellowship of the Trinity, He submits Himself cheerfully to the plan of God. If we can speak of the single divine mind in this way, the divine mind as it subsists in the Son, this passage imagines Christ the Son, the preincarnate Christ, weighing all that He must do, reckoning all that His obedience would require, counting it all and weighing it against the equality He enjoys with the Father and with the Holy Spirit. And He knows that none of it can imperil His dignity and glory and equality with God. And so He came, born that first Christmas, as one of us. “He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,” clutched at as though afraid that it might sift through His fingers like sand. When He is born of the virgin and suffered under Pontius Pilate, instead, in complete security, cheerfully He came, concurring with the Father and with the Holy Spirit in their design to save us and to rescue us. 

That means that Christmas, that the coming of Jesus Christ, was not Plan B. Right? Here we are thinking about the mission the Father gives to the Son that the Son gladly embraces in eternity. What are we being told? We are being told that all the persons of the Godhead – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – concur in this one great plan to make you their child by means of the cross. It’s not that you came along and really threw God for a loop. “I was going this way, but now that you’ve sinned, I don’t know what I’m going to do! I guess I’ll have to scramble some sort of plan together and send Jesus!” That’s not it at all! No, before He hung the stars, Father, Son and Holy Spirit purposed your deliverance by means of the birth and life and death and resurrection and reign of Jesus Christ. You are that loved. You’re loved before you were lovely. Newsflash – some of you are lovelier than others! The truth is, actually we’re all unlovely. Aren’t we? Wicked in the sight of God. And despite our unloveliness He loved us with an everlasting love. 

That’s the central mystery, the great mystery. Why? Why would He love us when our sin is such a stench in His nostrils, yet He loved us and gave His Son for us? Now what should you do with that? First, in simple, humble faith, embrace the truth. You don’t win acceptance with God. You don’t need to. He loves you already. Trust in Christ and be welcomed in to the fellowship of the triune God. And then bow down and worship. Bow down and adore, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. May the Lord grip your heart and mine with the vast enormity of the glory of the plan of the triune God who has loved us and sent Jesus Christ for us. Let’s pray together.

Lord our God, we bow down and we confess our impatience with profundity. We’ve been schooled by our culture to think that plainness and simplistic thinking is more wholesome. And that distortion has led us sometimes to make You less than You are and to make us bigger than we are, to want to find a way to fit You into something comprehensible. We’ve drawn analogies, we’ve squeezed You into our own molds because we’re afraid of mystery. Well here, on the brink of the chasm of ineffability in these verses, would we repent. We don’t want a God who’s a bit like us, only bigger and better. That’s not what we need. Our hearts realize it now. We know we need the infinite, eternal, unchangeable triune God of Scripture who sent Jesus Christ, the God-man for us and for our salvation. So have mercy on us and draw us to Him and then buckle our knees and ignite our hearts till we are altogether lost in wonder, love and praise, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

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