Taking the Form of a Servant

Sermon preached on Philippians 2:5-11 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 12/22/2019 in Novato, CA.

Sermon manuscript

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
Philippians 2:5-11

Taking the Form of a Servant

At Christmas time we remember and celebrate a grand and glorious mystery. It’s the mystery that God came to man in the person of Jesus. We call it the incarnation. God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, took on human flesh. When Jesus was born to Joseph and the Virgin Mary over two thousand years ago, he was amazingly both God and man. It was the unique event in all history – the union of a divine nature and a human nature in one person. We rightly confess that Jesus Christ is fully divine and fully human.

We find such confession in an historic ecumenical creed like Athanasian Creed. There we confess of Jesus that “He is God from the essence of the Father, begotten before time; and he is human from the essence of his mother, born in time; completely God, completely human, with a rational soul and human flesh; equal to the Father as regards divinity, less than the Father as regards humanity. Although he is God and human, yet Christ is not two, but one. He is one, however, not by his divinity being turned into flesh, but by God’s taking humanity to himself. He is one, certainly not by the blending of his essence, but by the unity of his person.”

Well, while we find such a confession in historic creeds like that, the reason we believe it is because we find it taught in Holy Scripture. This passage is one such text that contributes to our understanding of this glorious and true mystery that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is God come to man as the God-man to save us.

Notice then first today how this passage teaches us about the divine nature of Jesus. This is in verse 6. There we read that Christ Jesus was in the form of God. In context we see that this is referring to before Jesus came to this earth in the human person of Jesus. Technically, we wouldn’t even refer to that state as with the name of Jesus, because he was given the human name Jesus when he became human. But here in verse 6 Paul refers to Jesus’ pre-incarnate state by saying that he was in the form of God. In case it doesn’t come out as strongly as it should to you in English, let me comment on this word “form” in the Greek. The word for “form” here refers to not only the outward appearance but to the underlying substance. It’s saying that he was God in being and essence. That’s how the pre-incarnate Jesus existed from all eternity before coming to earth – as God; as deity.

Notice how the other half of verse 6 complements this description. It says that this pre-incarnate Jesus did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped. This language of “grasped” is a colorful expression. It’s the idea of prizing and treasuring something so much that you just cling on to it with all that you have. Here, this has in mind the incarnation. The pre-incarnate Jesus didn’t deem his equality with God something to be so valued that he wouldn’t forgo the inherent humbling involved by becoming man. In other words, if the pre-incarnate Jesus was going to take on humanity, there would inherently be a lowering of his status as it pertained to his humanity. But that wouldn’t stop Jesus from doing it.

But before we get to think about his becoming man, don’t miss the implication of this point in verse 6 with regards to his divinity. Jesus, before the incarnation, was both God and equal to God. That’s what we see in verse 6. We see one who was God and also who was equal with God. That identifies him with God while at the same time distinguishes him from God. That’s a truth very wonderfully stated as well in John’s gospel. John’s gospel starts out with the same discussion using slightly different terms. There, John says that in the beginning the “Word was with God and the Word was God.” John uses slightly different language but it’s the same truth being conveyed. It’s part of the larger doctrine of the Trinity. That the one God has externally existed in three persons – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. These three persons of the Godhead are one God, the same in substance, equal and power and glory. If we are to remember today the mystery of the incarnation – of God becoming man – we have to first remember this mystery of the Trinity. And it’s that mystery of the Trinity that is referenced in part here in verse 7. The pre-incarnate Jesus was the eternal Son of God, the second person of the Godhead. Thus, he was in the form of God and equal to God.

Let’s now look in our second point today at the way the incarnation is described here. This is described in verses 7 and 8 in several ways. First, in verse 7 it’s described as Jesus emptying himself. Some (Kenotic Christology) have mistakenly thought this meant that Jesus gave up his divine nature in order to become human. We can appreciate why someone might think that when we hear the language of emptying applied to his divinity. But the Greek word here can also carry with it the nuance of not making use of certain advantages. It’s sometimes translated as “render void.” Even that language might be confusing, so let me explain further. The idea isn’t that Jesus traded in a divine nature for a human nature. It’s not that he threw out all his divine privileges and powers in order to become human. But he does in some sense forgo certain divine advantages to voluntarily condescend to us by taking on a human nature.

The context helps to further clarify what this is getting at. Verse 7 goes on to explain that his “emptying” or “rendering void” certain divine privileges is in the specific sense of his taking the form of a servant. In other words, Jesus humbles himself in the incarnation not by subtracting his deity but by adding humanity. And so, what we to protect against is false conclusions on either side. We don’t want to say that Jesus stopped being divine at the incarnation. No, he was and always will be divine, in terms of his divine nature. We don’t want to lose his divinity to his humanity. In terms of his divine nature, he continued to be fully God, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his being and all his attributes.

On the other hand, we don’t want to lose his humanity to his divinity, either. In other words, his humanity was a real humanity with all its limitations and even obligations. His humanity could get injured – even die. His humanity was constrained to one place at one time, like all of us. His humanity had to learn and grow and was subject to the varying host of human emotions. His humanity experienced weakness and suffering as he lived in this world full of sin and misery. And in his human nature, he owed full allegiance and worship and obedience to God. That’s why when verse 7 says he took the form of a servant, he really took the form of a servant. In regard to his human nature that he assumed, he was a servant before God. By the way, some have seen allusion here to the suffering servant prophecies of Isaiah. Certainly, Jesus did come as that suffering servant as Isaiah prophesied. He came to serve the Lord God unto the salvation of God’s chosen people.

I would note that this language of a “form of a servant” uses the same word for “form” in verse 6 that referred to his divinity. He always was in the “form” of God, but in the incarnation he also took on the “form” of a man. This further brings out the mystery. In the incarnation, Jesus had both natures – human and divine – but united together as one person.

Going back to verse 7, note that it ends with the language of the “likeness of men.” Jesus came into the likeness of men. This language of “likeness” is the same used at the creation to talk about how humans were created in the likeness of God. So, I love how things go in reverse her. In the beginning when Adam was created, God made Adam in the likeness of God. Now, Jesus, being the eternal God, comes down and takes on humanity to make him as God in the likeness of man! What a mystery. Of course, think of that creation reversal in contrast. Adam’s first sin was ultimately about humans not being content with their standing and wanting to make themselves equal with God. Here, Jesus, in order to save such fallen humans doesn’t cling to his equality with God but humbles himself to come down to man’s standing. I love how this passage paints the glory of how God has gone about saving us!

The last thing to note about his incarnation in our second point is that language of verse 8 that he was found in human form. While in the English it’s the third time in this passage that the word “form” appears, it’s actually a different Greek word than the previous two usages. While the first two usages were more along the lines of the substantive nature of something, this word in verse 8 is more about visible appearances. It’s speaks of the result after the incarnation. In the incarnation the one who was substantively both God and man could then be found in the visible appearance of a human being. Or to use the words of John’s gospel in John 1:14, the God-man pitched a tent among us humans in the tent of his humanity. That’s how the God-man manifested himself among us: in the flesh as a man.

Verse 8 then serves as a transition to speak in terms of Jesus’ humility and subsequent exaltation. And we’ll use that to transition our sermon now to our third point for today to think about these things. Verse 8, “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” The point made there is that Jesus humbled himself before God as an act of obedience to God. But notice that this is put in the context of the incarnation. Being found in human form, that’s when he humbled himself by obeying God. This is making the point that by the Son of God taking on humanity he put himself in a place of obligation to God as an incarnate man. As mentioned before, he became a servant in going from simply God to becoming the God-man. In touching his humanity, Jesus was a servant in subjection to God. That’s the nature of the creator-creature distinction. All creatures owe obedience to their creator. That mean’s the God-man Jesus Christ, in virtue of his created humanity, owed obedience to God. This is again getting at in what sense he “emptied himself”. He set aside the equal standing that he has as God with God. Instead he actively humbled himself in the incarnation which then required ongoing humility as a creature giving obedience and submission to his creator.

Notice two important aspects of Jesus’ obedience to God. First, the grammar emphasizes Jesus’ humbling himself. It was a voluntary act of the will when the Son of God took on a human nature. And it was a voluntary act of his will when Jesus then obeyed God as he lived here on earth. The text doesn’t speak of God forcefully coercing Jesus’ obedience; rather, it speaks of Jesus personally humbling himself. Second, it emphasizes the full and complete nature of Jesus’ obedience. It does that by saying “to the point of death” – even to the horrible form of death on a cross. That is to say that his obedience was obedience without limits. You could imagine how someone might generally be a faithful servant to a master. They might serve their master through thick and thin, but you could also imagine that service having limits. They’ll gladly serve their master as long as they don’t ask them for this or that thing. But here Jesus’ obedience has no limits because his obedience would even go all the way to the point of sacrificing his life on the terrible death of a Roman cross.

Yet, here is where things get interesting. Because in Jesus’ act of humble obedience God exalts him. Notice how the subject changes in verse 9. The person acting goes from Jesus acting to humble himself to God acting to exalt Jesus. God rewards the humble obedience in the full by exalting Jesus in the full. Notice how this goes the opposite of what the God-man Jesus had done. The God-man Jesus had humbled himself and put himself below his position of being equal to God by taking on humanity. But notice that in God’s exaltation, Jesus is being raised back up.

It is amazing what this exaltation of Jesus entailed. Arguably the translation doesn’t do justice to the Greek here when it says that God “highly exalted” Jesus. Arguably a better translation would be that God “exalted him to the highest place”, (such as in the NIV translation). That coincides with what else is said in the verse that God has bestowed on Jesus the him the name that is above every name. Do you understand what name that is? What is the name that is above all names? Realize it’s not talking about a name in the sense of what you call someone. It’s talking about a name in the sense of glory, honor, and reputation. Well, what is such a name that is most high? What’s the highest name of all names? None other than the name of God.

Realize how this brings things back full circle. The preincarnate Jesus held the name above all names before taking on humanity. He was by nature God alone and therefore had the name above all names. But then he humbled himself by taking on humanity. He took on the nature and appearance, and even the name, of a servant – of a humble human in subjection to God. But in exalting Jesus to this highest place he puts his own name back on him. But realize the difference. It’s not the preincarnate Son of God getting the name above all names. It’s the incarnate God-man Jesus whose getting the name above all names.

This understanding is confirmed when we note that the language in verses 10-11 about every knee bowing and every tongue confessing is a reference to Isaiah 45. There, God is speaking and says that he is God and that there is no other. That’s when God in Isaiah says there will come a day when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess him as Lord. But here, Paul takes that passage that is clearly referring to God and says that this is what has been bestowed on Jesus. Again, not specifically on the eternal Son of God, but on the God-man Jesus the Christ.

We might pause and ask why such an exaltation? Well, it’s because we know that Jesus’ obedience wasn’t simply about a relatively godly person who obeyed and gave up his life in service to God. Nor was it even because he was a perfectly righteous man giving up his life in service to God. But it was such a person doing so in order to bear the sins of God’s elect and purchase them out of death and damnation. It was obedience to accomplish God’s plan of all the ages to redeem the chosen of God. Jesus accomplished that plan of salvation through his humility and sacrifice. God’s grand plan of all the ages finally happened. It glorified God in the highest, and it was accomplished by Jesus’ obedience. That sparked such divine reward. That warranted God to exalt Jesus to the highest place.

As we celebrate then again today the incarnation of God coming to man in the person of Jesus, we remember that it was for our salvation. The good news of Jesus Christ is that we can be saved from the wrath of God due to us for sin. We can be saved from going to hell when we die because of his sacrifice of the cross to deal with sin. To receive this salvation, we are called to repent of our sins and turn and put your faith and trust in Jesus Christ and the cross. Become a follower and disciple of this one who has the name above all names. Bow in allegiance to him now today and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the father.

Well, as I finish up today’s sermon let me point you back to the specific application given in this passage. Verse 5 says that these glorious words about the incarnation are related to verses 1-4. There Christians were being called to humbly serve others and even to put others ahead of ourselves. Christ’s incarnation shows how Jesus did that in the highest way for us. So, verse 5 says that we who are in Christ ought to have an similar attitude toward others. Verse 5 specifically says that we who are in Christ already have such a mind available to us. But we’re called to live that out. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus. That reminds us that if we’re going to have this kind of Christ-like humble service toward others, then we need to first be in Christ through faith. You don’t become saved through good works toward others. Yet, for those who are saved Christians, we are called to humbly serve others.

Therefore, for us who are in Christ, let us humbly serve others in light of how much Christ has served us. Let us be ready to lay aside our own sense of “rights” to empty ourselves in putting others ahead of ourselves. This is, of course, something that tends to be on our minds especially during Christmas time. It’s often said during this time of year that it is “better to give than to receive”. Our selfish flesh might sometimes not actually think that. But as Christian’s with the mind of Christ we should be able to acknowledge that to be true and something to live out all year long.

Let us pray for grace from above this Christmas season as we seek for God to continue to form the mind of Christ within us.


Copyright © 2019 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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