Philippians 2:5-7 “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing.”
If ever Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones was justified in saying at the beginning of a sermon, “I am sure we will all agree that this entire passage is one of the most magnificent in the whole Bible” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “The Life of Joy”, Hodder, London, 1989, p.148) then it was when he thus introduced a sermon on these verses. He often made remarks like that and we loved him for doing so. If a preacher does not feel that passages before him are tremendously relevant and important for the congregation then he is going to preach very flat sermons. This section of the letter to the Philippians is certainly one of the mountain ranges of the Bible. It must in fact be considered the Mount Everest of the New Testament concerning the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. All Scripture is equally God-breathed but it is not all of uniform importance. These verses, from verse six to verse eleven, are amongst the most significant half a dozen verses in the Word of God. Let me raise and answer two questions by way of introduction:
i] Is this an early Christian hymn? It is often said that this is actually a hymn being quoted by Paul, and this guess has influenced the NIV translators because they decided to lay out the text in their translation of the Bible, beginning with verse six, in the form of poetry. I am sent an unsolicited weekly E-mailed sermon from an organisation in America. In fact it is the first half of the sermon. Subscription is necessary to obtain the concluding half. It is sent to thousands of preachers. Friday’s half-sermon happened to be based on this passage so I read it. It began with the preacher saying when he was 17 with a crush on a girl that he had difficulty in telling her that he loved her, but that he had a friend who could do that for him and his friend was called . . . Barry Manilow. So he would put a record of Barry Manilow singing love songs on the turntable to communicate to his girl-friend what he felt unable to say. In a similar way, this preacher said . . . wait for it . . . Paul was finding it difficult to tell the congregation about loving one another and so he hid, as it were, behind one of the hymns they used to sing, and that is what we have in these verses.
That was the most contrived introduction to a sermon that I had heard for some time, and it is also questionable whether this actually is a hymn. Its structure certainly doesn’t remind us of any kind of ‘hymn’ with which we are familiar. For example, the lines are all most irregular in length, quite unlike the poetry of the psalms and the prophets. Look at the first two lines: one, “Who, being in very nature God,” and, two, “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,” and so on. That’s not very credible as an example of a hymn is it? It happens to be a coincidence that exactly a hundred years ago today the Scottish poet William McGonagall died in Dundee, he being the man who elevated doggerel to a new height.
It is taken for granted that they wrote and sang hymns in the early church, and I am sure they did, but it is curious there is no example given in the New Testament of a congregation singing a hymn. Certainly it cannot have the importance some congregations give it today. Whenever you have teaching about the incarnation of the Son of God you are going to meet sustained contrasts – heaven and earth, eternity and time, God and man, and that leads to balance, contrast and wonder, in other words to some of the basic elements of poetry. More than that, the true gospel preacher is bound to become moved by what he is saying. This week I turned to my book of lecture notes on the doctrine of the incarnation taught by John Murray at Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia, and scribbled down frantically forty years ago. I read again these words of Mr Murray’s teaching on this theme: “the Infinite became finite: the Eternal entered time and became subject to it: the Immutable became mutable: the Invisible became visible: the Creator became created: the Sustainer of all became dependent: the Almighty became weak; God became man.” You have heard me often repeating those glorious truths. I know them by heart. Those words are more ‘poetic’ than Philippians 2 in the NIV; but psalm-singing Professor Murray wasn’t quoting a hymn. He was a man of God being caught up in the wonder of the incarnate love of God. That is what we have in these verses; there is little hard evidence that this is a first century hymn. That is an academic theory which gets men Ph.D.s.
ii] What is the purpose of these verses? The congregation at Philippi are being reminded of the message of the incarnate God because of divisions within the church. “Consider Christ’s great humility and condescension. How can you act in this egotistical manner when you are joined to Jesus and he indwells you?” Paul is urging them in this context to make his joy complete by all of them having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose, considering others better than themselves, looking out for the interests of others. There were some forming little ginger groups, the self-appointed watchdogs, disaffiliated from the church. There was fragmentation ruining the fellowship, so Paul pulls back this curtain and reveals the wonderful enfleshment of God. “See! Look at this!” he is crying to us, and he shows us the incarnate Lord and he is doing so for the sake of the well-being of the Lord’s people.
The apostle takes the same approach in a number of places. Let me give you some examples: there are his words to the church at Corinth, “For you know the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. That though he was rich yet for your sakes he became poor.” Paul was concerned that the Corinth congregation should not fall behind the churches in northern Greece in organising a collection and sending it out to Jerusalem where Jewish Christians were experiencing poverty and hardship. It seems so mundane and yet Paul constrains them to act as Christians by adducing the example of the self-impoverishment and the self-beggarment of the Lord Jesus Christ. We have a similar situation in Peter’s first letter where the apostle is speaking of the forbearance of Jesus under his suffering, and he says, “He has left us an example that we should follow in his steps.” Then our Lord himself does the same thing in the foot-washing recorded in John’s gospel. “I’ve left you an example,” he says to them. He shows them what brotherly love is all about. Again, some husbands in the church at Ephesus were not caring for their wives as tenderly as they should, and Paul counsels them by making appeal to the Saviour’s cross, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives” (Ephs. 5:25-28).
So here in Philippi there is a problem of sub-Christian conduct in the congregation, and to deal with it Paul releases the highest Christology. “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (v.5). Think this! Bring this into your daily reckoning. Christ did not grasp at equality with God though he was in the very nature God. Be sharing this truth among yourselves. Rehearse it to one another often, “Think of it . . .” you say to one another. By that means the fellowship problems and the fragmentation can be dealt with. In other words for there to be Christian unity and church unity such Biblical doctrines as the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ and the relationships of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit in the Trinity are essential. You cannot have a lowest common denominator creed of a few sentences and think you can achieve unity, peace and harmony between Christians. Theology exists not to divide believers, but for the very opposite reason, to further fellowship, and to reconcile warring Christians. It exists for the day-to-day problems of the Christian church. Every doctrine has its application. If you whittle down the doctrines you believe or what your church is to believe to a basic few then your options in dealing with church differences and problems will shrink fearfully. Your future will be one of ecclesiastical internecine strife. Thus it is practically and ethically essential to have a grasp of great truths. When Paul is dealing with a husband not getting on with his wife, and tensions within a marriage, he has recourse to the most massive theology.
Theology as the queen of the sciences is being enthroned here by the New Testament. “It’s not only that you have the emphasis on the unity between theology and practice but you have the emphasis on the applicability of the profoundest theology to the most mundane and the most commonplace problems. Who would ever imagine that a response to the glory of the incarnation might be to give to the collection for the poor? Who might imagine that the application of the glories of New Testament Christology might be to stop our quarrelling and our divisiveness in the Christian church? That is what Paul is doing here. He is telling them: You have these practical problems; the answer is theological; remember your theology and place your behaviour in the light of that theology. Place your little difficulties in the light of the most massive theology. We ourselves in our own Christian callings are to be conscious of this. We ministers must never leave our doctrine hanging in the air, nor hesitate to enforce the most elementary Christian obligation with the most sublime doctrines” (D.MacLeod, “Philippians 2 and Christology”, pamphlet of the TSF, Leicester, 1976, p.2).
The first great phase that the apostle moves through as he reminds them of the nature and work of Christ is this:
1. CHRIST WAS PRE-EXISTENT.
“Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God” (vv.5&6). Paul begins by saying that before Christ took the nature of a servant he was in existence in the very nature of God. That is where the apostle starts. Jesus Christ goes right back – “Before Abraham was I am,” he said. In other words, before his birth Christ had being, and he had a real nature, and he was God. He was in full pre-conceptual existence. No other man has ever existed before conception, and Christ’s life before he came to earth was not some shadowy unreal spooky existence but one of utter vitality and high responsibility and great personal delight. He was with the Father and the Spirit from the very beginning. Before anything else had started, the apostle John tells us that Jesus was the Word who was in the beginning. When all other things began he didn’t begin because he had always been “in very nature God”. All that constituted deity, and all that enters into the definition of the Godhead, Christ was all of that. There came a specific moment, John tells us, when the Word was made flesh, that is, when Jesus was begotten in the womb of Mary – when she became pregnant – but that Word, which at that moment had been made flesh, had always been in being. He was with God, and he was in very nature God – from the beginning; he himself was without beginning or end of days. He had all the form, and all the essence, and all the substance, and all the nature, and all the being that constitutes God. That is what this term is declaring which is translated here by the words, ‘very nature God.’ It is literally, ‘he was in the form of God,’ and that is Paul’s equivalent of John writing ‘and the word was God.’ In classical Greek the word ‘form’ meant the sum total of essential characteristics. The form was what constituted a thing precisely as it was. This pulpit’s woodenness and colour and dimensions constitute it as a pulpit. Christ’s eternity and infinity and divinity and immutability and so on in all their fulness constitute him as divine. He lacked nothing that is of the form of God. Everything that defines deity is found in the Lord Jesus. Let us break this up, as Donald Macleod helpfully has done, for in all his writings on this great passage he has put the church in his debt, and me certainly in this sermon. We see that the apostle here is saying such things as these:
i] All the divine names belong to Christ Jesus. The name ‘Son of God’, the name ‘only-begotten’, the name ‘El Shaddai’, the name ‘Elohim’, the name ‘Jehovah’, the name ‘Lord of hosts’. These are all legitimately applied to the one who is gentle Jesus meek and mild, the one whose praises we have been singing today. There is no name anywhere in the self-disclosure of Lord God Almighty in the Bible that may not fittingly and most suitably be applied to our wonderful Saviour. Jesus is the God of the Bush and the God of Sinai and the God who dwelt between the Cherubim. He is the one who comes today wherever people are gathered together in his name, however small the number.
ii] All the divine attributes belong to Christ Jesus. All the qualities, the entire perfections of deity are his. I was once involved in a mission to the university in Bangor and a young man came up to me and he said with a big smile on his face, “Define God!” as though that were impossible and got him off the hook from having to bow before the Almighty. I was glad I had learned the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and I replied immediately, “God is a Spirit infinite, eternal, unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.” The smile of triumph disappeared from his face; “Oh,” he said. My point is this, that all those great terms may be applied to Jesus of Nazareth. He is uncreated. He is unoriginated. He is unbegun. He is independent. He is infinite. He is eternal. He is unchangeable, and these perfections belong to him in every aspect of his being – his wisdom, his power, his holiness, his justice, his goodness and his truth. All these qualities are found in him and they are infinitely and eternally present in him.
iii] All the works of the Godhead are ascribed to Jesus Christ, primarily the two great activities of creation and providence. Jesus is the Creator of Genesis 1:1. It is he that hath made us and not we ourselves. Without him was not anything made that was made. He is not only the Creator but he is also the Provider. He is the one who upholds all things by the word of his power. Jesus has the whole world in his hands. He preserves and governs all his creatures and all their actions. He is the one of whom we sing:
“He that formed me in the womb,
He shall guide me to the tomb;
All my times shall ever be
Ordered by His wise decree.” (John Ryland, 1735-1825).
So you have this great person to whom belong all the names of God, to whom belong all the attributes of God, and who performs all the functions of God, and then there is one more thing:
iv] All the prerogatives and entitlements of God are Jesus Christ’s. In other words, the prerogative of adoration, of love, of confession, and of prayer are to be given to him. Our total response in mind, in affection, and will, and feeling must be focused on Christ. We have no right simply to be interested in him, and to bow as courteous gentlemen, and admire, and respect, because in the presence of the Lord the only fitting response is wonder, love and praise. We must cry, O for a thousand tongues to sing our great Redeemer’s praise. The angels behold him in the midst of the throne of God, and in his presence they cover their eyes and they cry, “Holy, Holy, Holy!”
So we have the one being in very nature God, and I am saying that that means he has all the names of God, and all his attributes, and works, and all the prerogatives of God himself. All those belong to the Lord Jesus. Of course we are not saying that He is the Godhead. The person of Jesus doesn’t exhaust the Godhead. There are two other persons who are equally and eternally in very nature God. The Father is in very nature God, and the Spirit is also in very nature God. They are also both distinct persons, and quite different persons. Yet the Father is Jehovah, the Son is Jehovah, the Spirit is Jehovah. Yet these three are not three Jehovahs. They are the one Jehovah, and Jehovah the Father loves Jehovah the Son – “Thou art my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” – and the Son loves the Father in return. There was never a more loving Son and never a more loveable Father. There never was a time when there was not eternal joy between Father and Son and Spirit – the unbegun love, the unoriginated pleasure, and that unmade delight which is in the Godhead.
So that is where the apostle begins, with this pre-existent Christ, informing us that the fulness of the Godhead was found in Jesus. Now do you want to hear more of the Son of God? Leo Tolstoy tells in his autobiography of an aunt who was the first one to tell him and the other children about Jesus Christ. They were gripped by what she had said. Here is one who is God . . . and then their Aunt left off speaking and got up to go. “Tell us more about Jesus Christ!” the children said, but she was reluctant. “I must go,” she said. “No!” they cried, “tell us more, please!” So she told them more: “But why did all this happen?” they said. “Wasn’t he God?” “Be quiet now,” she said, “the clock is striking nine, and I must go . . .” “No don’t go. . . tell us more.” If he were God, then tell us more. We dare not go home to supper and return to the routine of our lives, switching on the television and losing ourselves in that escape world without some encounter with this incredible reality: “Christ Jesus, who being in very nature God” . . . so I will continue . . .
2. CHRIST DID NOT CONSIDER EQUALITY WITH GOD A THING TO BE GRASPED.
He “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing” (vv. 6&7). He was in the very nature God, and so he had equality with God. We start there. All the gospels start there, not with Jesus the man but that he is God the Son. That is the starting place of Matthew and Mark and Luke and John. So it is with Paul here, “Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God.” Then he tells us that Christ Jesus did not regard being God a thing to be grasped, something to be snatched at and clung to like a child saying, “It’s mine! No, you can’t have it. I won’t let it go. It is mine!” Christ Jesus didn’t stand on his rights as Jehovah the Son, refusing to do anything that could have a tendency of hiding his deity from view, or causing it to be questioned in any way. He didn’t say, “Well, I am hanging on to this, whatever else might happen. Let the whole world go to hell I can’t be expected not to be seen and known as the one living God, can I? I am not going to put my deity at jeopardy. What would be left for me if I did that?” No! It was not like that at all. God didn’t have to prise his Son’s fingers open as he clung tenaciously to the arms of the throne of heaven. The Father wasn’t ever forcing the Son to leave for Bethlehem. The Father didn’t cajole the Son, or threaten the Son, or plead with the Son to step down and make himself nothing.
Remember, Jesus had the whole world in his hand, and without his work there wasn’t a single amoeba made. Whatever was made had its existence and was held together – whether the stars or the atoms – in Christ. He was there before the beginning of anything else, having unimaginable divine glory and honour. He was equal with God, fully and totally, but he didn’t eagerly cling to that equality. He didn’t stand on his dignity. In other words, “God sent forth his Son, and his Son did not refuse to be sent forth. He did not refuse to be made poor. He did not refuse to beggar himself. He did not refuse to become flesh. We could go back to Milton’s phraseology: He did not refuse ‘to leave the courts of everlasting day and choose with us a darksome house of mortal clay.’ He did not say that that was inconsistent with his personal dignity. He didn’t stand upon his rights and say, ‘Father, I must insist upon and I must retain my equality and I’m not going to compromise on that.'” (MacLeod, ibid, p.8).
Or we can put it like this, that Jesus didn’t bargain with his Father and say, “Well, if I go into the world, if I must be sent forth, I insist that it be like Sinai with thunder and lightning and earthquakes and everyone terrified, or it must be like the time Isaiah saw me with the train of my glory filling the temple and the cherubim hiding their eyes from seeing me and sighing to one another, “Holy! Holy! Isn’t he so holy?” Jesus didn’t lay down any terms as to how he would have to display some evidences of his eternal divinity to a wondering world.
Or we can put it like this, that Jesus didn’t plead that his coming be like that scene on the mount of transfiguration when his garments shone like the sun shining on snow, and his face glowing with the brightness of noon, and his Father saying aloud, “I love you my Son. Hear my Son!” Jesus didn’t say, “Father, it must always be like that, or I won’t come.” Or think of his coming again, in all the splendour of his divine eminence, divine nature and divine status, coming in the clouds with great glory, and all the holy angels with him, and every eye beholding him, and many wailing and crying for the mountains to fall upon them, and every knee bowing to him. He didn’t say, “If it’s like that then I’ll come.”
The incarnation was not like that at all. He did not stand in the eternal covenant of redemption and cautiously say to God the Father, “Yes, I agree to go, but in majesty and dominion and power. I will go resplendent, in my equality with you, demonstrating that reality without a shadow of a doubt.” He did not stand on his dignity, rather he became man ‘in a low condition’ as the Shorter Catechism says. He came into the darkness. He pitched his tent where men crucify other men. He tabernacled where the blasphemies and the gambling were, where they stoned women to death for adultery. He came to be confronted by the devil and to be tempted by a full frontal encounter with Beelzebub. There was no form or comeliness about Jesus’ appearance; there was no beauty that men desired him. Christ had a willingness to become the sort of person that men despise and reject. He was in very nature God and yet he did not grasp tight hold of that. He didn’t find any tension in that. In other words, there was no incompatibility between being God and yet letting go of all the things that suggest to us the tremendousness of God in order to make himself nothing. He freely and willingly did that because he was God. That was the most godlike thing Jesus ever did. He was full of grace and truth. He was love, and his love was displayed in his glorious condescension to become man.
Now you see the relevance of all this to how we, who are followers of Christ, are to live – we in whom Christ lives – we who are in Christ. You see at once how germane it is to Paul’s immediate concern in writing this letter. “There is this Philippian church torn by strife and discord. What is the great problem? Each of them is insisting upon his rights, insisting upon the fact of his own dignity, insisting upon his gifts, his ability, insisting upon recognition. And what Paul does is almost savage. He takes the pettiness of these antagonists, these futile inter-congregational confrontations, places them in the appallingly cruel light of the incarnation and says, How can you? . . . Paul is saying, live your life in the light of this: the Son of God did not stand upon his dignity. He did not insist upon his rights. He did not parade his equality but . . . and so on” (MacLeod, ibid, p.9). Paul is taking the glory of that pre-incarnate decision and he is applying it to an average congregational problem. There were two Christian women, Euodia and Syntyche, who didn’t see eye to eye. How mundane when seen in incarnational eyes. What do our pettinesses look like as we examine them by the light of that particular standard?
3. CHRIST MADE HIMSELF NOTHING.
That is how the NIV translates the word in the seventh verse. The Authorised Version translates it, “he made himself of no reputation.” Literally the words are, ‘he emptied himself’ and the original word for empty is ‘kenosis’ and a whole theory of the incarnation has been built upon that literal translation. Teachers in the professing church throughout the last century and many today have been teaching that Christ actually emptied himself of the very nature of God. He divested himself of all the distinctives of deity. He emptied himself of being infinite and omnipresent and unchangeable. He became a child of his time. He understood things in the light of the first century A.D. He had the prejudices of his time, and the limitations of that time. His mind could not be expected to understand things that were in the 21st century. Back then they didn’t have the education and the scientific world view that we have, and so naturally Jesus had a limited understanding of things, seeing them in the light of those days in which he lived. That is the kenosis theory, the emptying theory, and that is what is being taught here, these people claim.
That view is tolerated in the Baptist Union of Great Britain. One would guess that it predominates in all modernist dominated denominations. That is why they are into such a free fall. You will remember that thirty years ago there was a trial of B.U. sentiment on this teaching. One leader, a Principal of the Northern Baptist College, preparing men for the ministry, declared in a sermon to the B.U. Assembly that one may not say unequivocally that Jesus Christ is God. In a subsequent debate there was a classic fudge of the issue. Christ was called God but this man’s interpretation was not judged to be incompatible with saying that, and he was allowed to go on teaching his views to future ministers. We then seceded from the Baptist Union at that time with a number of other churches and ministers. We did not lose our property as others did. You see the implications for Christian fellowship if this doctrine is rejected? It destroys it.
Where have these teachers gone astray? We could point out that whenever this word kenosis occurs in the New Testament it is never translated by ’emptied’ or understood to mean ’emptied.’ It occurs twice in the Greek translation of the Old Testament and it is not translated ’emptied’ in either verse. In all the places it occurs in the New Testament the word is never translated ’emptied’ even in the Revised Standard Version – except in this single verse. For example, the word is found in the phrase, ‘that the cross of Christ be made of no effect.’ No translator would dream of translating that, ‘that the cross of Christ be emptied.’ The word is always a metaphor. So in many ways the A.V. translation, “he made himself of no reputation” is the best, and the NIV translation, he “made himself nothing”, is also acceptable, but not as good. You think of the difficulty of translating metaphors from one language to another. How would you translate it? ‘He made himself a nobody?’ ‘He came utterly incognito.’ Those are not very good translations, are they? John Murray suggests, “He made no account of himself.” That’s the best. Translating from one language to another is challenging. When a man says, “I am drained,” he is not talking literally. How would you translate what he is saying into another language? If you did it literally it might sound like, “I have pulled the plug out and the water is escaping” in another language. There is the challenge of translation which is as literal as possible and as free as necessary. But the heresy of the translation of kenosis by ’emptied’ is revealed when the question is raised, “Emptied himself of what?” and the answer is given, “Jesus emptied himself of the very nature of God.”
Now that idea gives us the weirdest view of God. It is suggesting that some of the attributes of God are detachable, and that God can take a decision to divest himself of them like a boy removing some Lego bricks from a model. It is still a model but smaller and a slightly different shape. Or it sees the attributes of God like the pins of a pin-cushion. Some pins can be removed but it will still be a pin-cushion. True. But that is simply impossible to do with God. The triuness of God – the fact that God exists in three – that is something that belongs to the very essence and nature of God. It is undetachable. We may have in our imaginations that first of all there was the divine being, and then subsequently it is divided into three. Now that is not the position. The position is that it is the very nature of the being of God to be triune. That is the only way that God ever existed or ever can exist. That is his very being, that the fulness of God dwells alike in Father and in Son and in the Holy Spirit. That is not an accident of deity. It is not some option God adopted deciding to exist in this form. That is the way God is eternally and unchangeably.
The second person of the Godhead is God the Son in glory, in humiliation and in exaltation. If Mary’s boy-child Jesus Christ didn’t know everything then he wasn’t God. If Jesus wasn’t Almighty then he wasn’t God. If Jesus wasn’t sustainer of all things he wasn’t God. Those are essential divine attributes, in other words, they are descriptions of the essence of God, the very being of God. This is how the living God is, and the way that God has always been, of the way that God must always be, of the one way that God can be. If you remove the wetness from water then what you have is not dry water but something else, not water. If you took away the hydrogen atoms or removed the oxygen atoms you would no long have water – though you might call it water. The only way that God can cease to be almighty is not by removing the single brick of omnipotence or amputating that one attribute or destroying that area of his being, but by changing what God is in himself. The only way God can cease to be omnipresent is changing what God himself is. God is almighty and God is omnipresent in the same way that God is love. God must be those attributes. It is not a matter of choice with him. If Jesus Christ, unlike the Father and the Spirit, ceases to be almighty and omniscient, then the Trinity vanishes. Trinitarianism becomes Binitarianism. What we have in this kenosis theory is that Jesus coming to our world was divine suicide.
We can go further and we can ask this, according to the kenosis theory did God ever become incarnate? Because if the Son of God emptied himself the implications are he ceased to be divine. He let go of essential divine distinctives, so he wasn’t God incarnate for 33 years. You could say about him merely this, “That man used to be God.” Temporarily he ceased to be divine when he became human. So what was happening to all the things God the Son does while Jesus was living in Nazareth – if he had emptied himself of being God? The Bible says that in Christ all things consist. The Bible says that he works all things after the counsel of his own will. Who was then upholding all things? Who was then working all things after the counsel of Jesus’ will after Jesus had emptied himself of power and omniscience?
There is a wretched spirit of unbelief throughout this miserable heresy. It is saying that it is impossible for the divine nature and the human nature to exist fully in the one person. It is saying that in his state of humiliation he cannot have been absolute God because . . . he was man! But consider this question, when Jesus was raised from the dead and exalted and placed on the throne in heaven then did he cease to be man? Of course not. How precious to know that Christ is now two natures in heaven and will be this for ever. We love to sing Joseph Hart’s hymn:
“A Man there is, a real Man,
With wounds still gaping wide,
From which rich streams of blood once ran,
In hands and feet, and side.
“‘Tis no wild fancy of our brains,
No metaphor we speak;
The same dear Man in heaven now reigns,
That suffered for our sake,
“This wondrous man of whom we tell,
Is true Almighty God;
He bought our souls from death and hell,
The price, His own heart’s blood.
“That human heart He still retains,
Though throned in highest bliss;
And feels each tempted member’s pains;
For our affliction’s His. (Joseph Hart, 1712-68).
That truth is unspeakably precious to Christians, that there is at the right hand of God one who knows all about them and can hear their prayers because he is God, and yet a man – one who has been tempted in all points as men are tempted, who sympathises deeply with them. In our scorn for the kenosis theory we are contending for this comfort! As one has said, “The very presupposition that won’t allow the child in the manger to be the Lord of all will not allow the Son of Man at the right hand of the Majesty to be the dust of the earth.”
Again, we simply invite you to examine the life of Jesus Christ as it is recorded in the gospels. Do you find there simply a human being? Is he thinking things, and saying things, and doing things just as a human being? No. He doesn’t have a human being’s self-consciousness when he says, for example, “I and my Father are one”, and when he talks to his Father of “the glory that I had with you before the foundation of the world.” That is not a strictly human self-consciousness. Doesn’t the incarnation demand continuity? There were the three states of the one Son of God, the pre-incarnate Son, the incarnate Son, and the exalted Son. The Word who was in the beginning with God became flesh and dwelt amongst men and now is ascended back to God – isn’t that one person all along? Jesus himself acknowledged that he had forgotten nothing about the eternal glory he had known yesterday (as it were), and that he knew who would be with him in Paradise tomorrow (as it were). The Lord Jesus was not suffering from amnesia when he was on this earth.
“Let’s remember the pains taken by God the Father through the Spirit at several points in the earthly life to bring home to the human mind of our Lord the glory of his unique identity as the eternal Son of God. Let’s remember the baptism, ‘Thou art my beloved Son.’ Let’s remember the confession of Caesarea Philippi, ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God.’ Remember the Mount of Transfiguration, on the threshold of the passion itself, as the clouds begin to gather and the Lord moves into the shadow of Calvary, ‘This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.’ The self-consciousness of the incarnate Christ is therefore indubitably a divine self-consciousness. Let’s remember the authority of the incarnate Christ, who doesn’t say, ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ but who says ‘I say unto you.’ Let’s remember his acceptance of worship, of unqualified adoration, who is able to forgive sins while he is on earth. Let’s remember the demand for total submission: ‘let a man take up his cross and follow me’ otherwise the soul is lost. Who but the most outrageous megalomaniac could make a race’s destiny depend upon its relation to him? And yet this is what Christ does.
“And let’s remember also the miracles. This is a very special problem, for the miracles are not in themselves proofs of the deity of Christ, although they are proofs of something because they are ‘signs’. They are not proofs of his deity because other men had the capacity to perform supernatural acts. Yet there is a difference. In the miracles of our Lord, there is a difference in immediacy, analogous to the difference between his authority as a teacher and that of other teachers. The apostolic miracles were performed in the name of Jesus. The Old Testament miracles were performed largely at the direct behest and under the scrutiny and supervision of Jehovah. But just as the teaching of Christ lacks the phrase, ‘thus saith the Lord’ so the miracles of Christ lack that reliance upon another name and that invocation of another authority. They are the mighty acts of the Creator-God, the Son of God come to destroy the works of the devil” (D. Macleod, ibid, p.11).
Athanasius, the little deacon from Alexandria, is the originator of the famous dictum: “Jesus became what he was not; he continued to be what he was.” In other words Jesus continued to be what he was, and what was he? He was God, and that was never terminated. He retained his personal identity as the Son of God throughout the whole of his redemptive achievement. Who was he in the stable of Bethlehem? Son of God. Who was he when confronted in the wilderness by Satan? Son of God. Who was he when he wept before Jerusalem’s rejection? Son of God. Who was he when sweating drops of blood in the garden, lashed by the soldiers, forsaken by everyone, nailed to a cross and lifted high, crying “My God, my God why hast Thou forsake me?” Son of God. He takes himself and he breaks himself, and having loved me he gives himself for me. Who is he? Son of God. He offers himself. He is not offering his humanity, his servanthood, his human appearance, his sufferings but his self, that divine self, the divine person of the Son of God. That immolated Lord, that dissected person, that is the humanity of God, and he is offering that to God for us.
“Who is He on yonder tree
Dies in shame and agony?
‘Tis the Lord, O wondrous story!
‘Tis the Lord, the King of glory!” Benjamin R. Hanby (1839-1867).
That was as true when the soldier thrust the spear into his side as when his mother laid him in the manger. That is the only identity he had. It was the only self that he could give, and he gave his whole self as Jehovah Jesus the God-man. He is who he was. Without that there is no incarnation and no humiliation, but then in addition to what he was he became what he was not. In him there dwells all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.
Michael Taylor, thirty years ago at that notorious B.U. Assembly held at Westminster Chapel and from that pulpit, denied that the Lord could be called God. He was worried that we did not give the humanity of Jesus Christ its true place. Fine. That is important. He was bone of our bones. Where do we go from there? To be saying that all men are important? Is that the Christian message? That all men and women without exception have a real dignity in consequence of being made in the image of God and that the Son of God took this image himself? True, but there is more to the gospel than that, and that is only revealed in the purpose of the incarnation. Jesus was indeed a human being, and so he was either not a divine person, or he was two persons. There is no way that we can avoid that conclusion. Jesus was a true man but he never existed except in union with a divine person. “He is not a human person whom God adopts, not a human being whom God elevates, not a human being whom God sublimates or takes over. But for his Son, God the Father, through the Spirit, creates a human nature that is, was, and will be everlastingly the humanity of God. His is a divine ego. He retains in the process of incarnation all the distinctives and all the constituents of deity” (D. Macleod, ibid, p.12).
How do we apply this great truth? In this context in the letter to the Philippians it is about pouring contempt on all our pride. We have such an exemplary motive from our Saviour’s life that we do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, to consider others better than ourselves, to look out for the interests of others. The spirit of the One who did not grasp at his own glory is in us all who have put their trust in him, energising us to live like that.
Again, let me turn it this way, that the whole motivation of this misunderstanding of Philippians 2 is to find theological justification for ascribing fallibility to Jesus Christ, to silence him on questions of biblical criticism. He seemed to keep on insisting that the Old Testament was inspired and that certain portions had been written by certain authors. He quoted the male and female whom God had made in the beginning. He referred to the lying serpent, and to Noah’s flood, and to Sodom and Gomorrah, and to Lot’s wife being turned to salt, and to Jonah being in the belly of the great fish. Jesus said that the Scripture cannot be broken. He said, “It is written,” and that finished things for him. But the modernists wanted to know how they could get round this because they believed the Scriptures were wrong. Either God’s word was infallible or Jesus Christ was fallible. But how could you have a fallible Christ? The kenosis theory was a lifeline to keep these men calling themselves ‘Christians’ but affirming their disagreement with Christ and his apostles at a whole range of issues, the teaching on divine revelation, on origins and endings, creation and hell, the virgin birth and the cry “Why have you forsaken me my God?” So by way of contraction, kenosis, they made Christ purely human. They made him a child of his time. Empty him, and then his ‘followers’ are not bound by his pronouncements. They can disagree with him.
But we have this divine Christ, the Son of God. He was not capable of error, especially error so fundamental that could look at a book palpably full of errors and contradictions and theological blunders and say, “The Scripture cannot be broken.” The German higher critics could see the mistakes in the Bible, but not Jesus! It is to that we refuse to subscribe because he was in very nature God, and that was never laid aside. “Our commitment to the infallible authority of Holy Scripture is not the result of a process of reason but of devotion to a person. There is only one reason why I believe in the inerrancy of the Old Testament and that is because that was the view of my Lord. There is only one reason why I believe in the absolute truth of Genesis 1-3, however that truth is to be interpreted. and that is because our Lord set his imprimatur upon it. As Vos said long ago, the evangelical believer’s commitment to the doctrine of plenary inspiration is an act of personal devotion. It is a debt owed to a Saviour. It is the doctrine of Christ, therefore it is my doctrine. I did not arrive at it by reason, I arrived at it simply because he said, ‘Scripture cannot be broken.’ The personal, supreme authority, God incarnate, has said to me, If you want to hear my voice, the commandments, and the information I’ve got to give, then I direct you to two places: to the prophets and to the apostles. We arrive at our doctrine of loyalty to Scripture via our commitment to the personal authority of the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Macleod, ibid, pp12&13).
29th September 2002 GEOFF THOMAS