Economist Gordon Tullock once observed that “the average human being is about 95 percent selfish in the narrow sense of the term.” We know intuitively that this is true when we consider just how much of our daily routines are devoted simply to meeting our own needs. We humans indeed are inescapably self-seeking creatures.
So when the apostle exhorts us to do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit (Philippians 2:3), our natural response is to ask, Nothing at all, Paul? This reflexive question may be followed by the thought, Can you even cite an example of this way of living?
Paul does have such an example, and he need look no further than the Lord Jesus Christ himself. He instructs his readers: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (v. 5)—or, more accurately, “which was also in Christ Jesus” (KJV, NASB). Throughout our lives, we are told to “mind our manners” or “mind our own business”; here, Paul literally says to “mind” that which Christ himself minded.
To flesh out his example (literally), Paul turns our attention to the incarnation of the Son of God. Verses 6-11 comprise what scholars often call his Carmen Christi or hymn of Christ. Opinions vary as to whether or not Paul composed these lines here on the spot or if he is citing an early hymn already sung in the early church; either way, the verses’ poetic quality is clear—as well as their definitive teaching regarding the two natures of Christ.
Christ is first presented as being “in the form of God” (v. 6). We tend to use “form” to refer to an outward appearance that does not match the true substance, but the word here does not carry such an implication. Christ was in the form of God because he was and is truly God. Here is a remarkable testimony both to Christ’s eternal preexistence and his divinity—assertions made in this early Christian song within a few short decades of the original events, long before any mythology could grow up around the historical facts.
This Christ, though possessing the fullness of deity, “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (6). The idea of grasping is not that of chasing after something beyond one’s reach, like the proud king of Babylon’s boast: “I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High” (Isaiah 14:14). Rather, grasping here refers to clinging to that which one already possesses. The divine Son was eternally face to face with God (John 1:1), himself the perfect expression of the divine nature (Hebrews 1:3), yet he did not desperately cling to the outward glory of his divine status but was willing to lay that glory aside.
Next, we read that Christ “emptied” himself (v. 7). But we are not permitted to conclude by this that the Son somehow lost his divine nature itself (the false assumption made by various kenotic theories, drawing from the Greek verb “to empty”). A divine essence that can be discarded or downgraded is no divine essence at all. Instead, Paul himself frames the way in which Christ’s self-emptying is to be understood in the next clause: “taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” Whereas Christ’s outward “form” was that of God, being in fact God, now he was taking to himself a different “form”—adding a second, new nature to his single person. And not only was this nature a lowly human nature, marked by weakness and finitude (cf. Hebrews 5:2), but the meanest of human natures: that of a servant.
The word “servant” doesn’t fall on modern ears with quite the force with which it originally fell on Paul’s readers. But when we consider the most literal rendering of the Greek doulos, the word slave, we sense the depths of Christ’s humility. True, Jesus did not literally occupy the social station of a slave or even of a servant per se. But he led a meager lifestyle, often with minimal food and housing and reliant on others (cf. Matthew 8:20), and assumed the position of a slave in his entire course of ministry (Luke 22:27), even washing his disciples’ feet as demonstration (John 13:4-15). This Jesus did without ceasing to be God, yet emptying himself of the full, visible manifestation of his rightful divine glory, power, and privileges, so that he might truly be one of us.
In the missionary world, many speak of “incarnational” ministry as a form of Christian service that is tangible, compassionate, and marked by one’s willingness to be physically present alongside others. There is no doubt that Paul calls Christians here to model Christ’s humility in such ways. Famously, the Moravian Johann Leonhard Dober (1706-1766) expressed that he was willing to sell himself into slavery if that is what would be required to evangelize the slaves in the West Indies under Dutch subjugation. Oh that we today would have but a fraction of this missionary zeal!
At the same time, no mere human can fathom the depths to which the Son condescended in the act of his incarnation. He whom myriads of flaming angels adored enfleshed and enclosed himself in the dark womb of an obscure virgin named Mary. He who named the stars and numbered every grain of sand traipsed Judaea’s rocky wilderness as a beggarly Rabbi. Let us take heart knowing that, no matter how low we may stoop in our Christian service, we will never stoop as low as did our Lord.
I adore you for your humility. I thank you that, though you were and are eternally divine and equal to your Father, you chose to set aside your glory and veil yourself in human flesh. I praise you that you took upon yourself such a lowly position so that you could serve and save your people. Keep me in that same mindset so that I would serve others in love, fueled by your own perfect love demonstrated in your incarnation.
In Jesus’ name,
- Pray for you, your household, and your church to be gripped by Christ’s mindset of humility.
- Pray for new churches in developing parts of the world to understand Scripture’s teaching regarding Christ’s deity and his humanity.
- Ask God to equip current missionaries with the mind of Christ, such that they would be willing to humble themselves in ministry for the glory of God.
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