Text: Philippians 2:5–11
Topic: How to live like Christ
Christlikeness; Humility; Imitation of Christ; Incarnation; Self-denial; Servanthood
The phrase "upward mobility" has found its way into the everyday vocabulary of most Americans in the last decade. But don't think for a moment that upward mobility is a new passion in people's lives. Interest in personal promotion and personal advancement dates back to the garden days of Adam and Eve. In the same way that a compass always points north, the instinctual human needle always points up.
Questioning upward mobility causes a kind of inner trauma that most people do not handle well. The mere mention of words like "demotion," "downscaling," "decreasing," "losing," and "dying" send off danger signals in people's minds. Blood pressures and pulse rates skyrocket. "Not me. Not me! Please! Let's change the subject. Let's get back to promotion, upscale, increase, winning, and living. Then you'll have my full attention. Then you'll have my enthusiastic support. Then you'll get my vote."
Friends, look deep within your soul, because I have a sneaking suspicion that upward mobility has a hold on many of us in ways we aren't even aware of. This passage of Scripture and its implications are going to be unsettling. I can say without hesitation that downward mobility messages don't sell in large numbers. Compass needles point north, not south. Human needles point up, not down.
Through the history of Christendom, few people have been mature enough in their faith to embrace the values set forth in this passage. Embarrassingly, few Christians appreciate the beauty of the example of Jesus Christ set forth in this section of Scripture. Few people follow the principles of this passage with a joyful spirit. Philippians 2:5–11 is perhaps the most countercultural passage in Scripture, especially for young, white-collar suburbanites.
I'd like to remind you of Philippians 1:21. "For me to live is Christ," Paul says. That is: the focus of my affection is going to be Jesus Christ. For me to live is to live for Christ, honor Christ, proclaim Christ, obey Christ, serve Christ, and advance Christ's cause.
Paul could say that and not lie. He had a well-defined life goal: Christ. Paul added that to die would be even better. It would be gain because dying would allow him to be with Christ. He would be relieved of the crushing weight of kingdom concerns and responsibilities. To die would be gain. He was homesick for heaven, but he said, "For me to live is Christ." Sometimes we can teach all around certain subjects and never get to the heart of an issue. The question begs to be asked: What does living for Christ mean? We talk a lot about being fully devoted followers. What does it mean? How do you do it? How does a fully-devoted follower of Jesus Christ manifest that commitment in his or her daily life? Paul says in this text: If you want to manifest full devotion to Jesus Christ, it's going to have something to do with downward mobility.
In Philippians 2:5, Paul says something that has given me nosebleeds for almost 20 years: If you want to be a real follower of Christ, then express your Christianity the same way Jesus did. Think like Jesus thought. Act like Jesus acted. Have the same attitude, or mind, that Jesus had. Paul goes on to tell us in verse six and following what the mind of Christ is, and what attitude it is he wants us to adopt. It's a dedication to downward mobility for the purpose of giving God glory and of serving other people. The secret of being great in the eyes of God, the quickest way for you to bring a smile to the face of your heavenly Father, is to mimic the mindset and follow the example of Jesus Christ. We must go about the task of dedicating our lives to the downward slope that lifts up Christ and lifts up people who are coming to know him. Verses six through eight teach us the depth of Jesus' dedication to downward mobility. Watch as Jesus signs up for seven demotions. Watch as Jesus voluntarily descends the ladder into greatness in the eyes of God. Where does he start? He starts at the top.
Demotion 1: Christ did not hold on to his equality with God.
Verse six reads, "Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God . . ." Stop there. Where does Christ start this decent into greatness? Where does he start his trek toward downward mobility? He starts at the top. Being in the form of God means a spiritual being equal with God. Jesus Christ was not an assistant to God. Jesus Christ has never been a vice president to God. Jesus Christ has never been a junior partner to God, but rather a full-fledged member of the Godhead, equal with the Almighty Father in every way, shape, and form, from eternity past.
In Isaiah 6, when the prophet saw a vision of God with the angels hovering about and bowing before God singing, "Holy, Holy, Holy," the angels were glorifying Jesus every bit as much as they were glorifying the Father and the Spirit. Three in one—the mystery of the Trinity that no finite mind can master. Yet it's true. You do realize that Jesus was present and involved at the creation of the world, don't you? And that he has ruled and reigned from eternity past? You do realize that all of the divine prerogatives were his equally with the Father and the Spirit? Why do I stress this? Because the first and subsequent demotions that we're going to talk about in this passage lose a bit of their significance without a thorough understanding of the point of origin. When Jesus descended the ladder into greatness in God's sight, he started at the very top.
And I want you all to come to terms with the fact that we're talking about Jesus who existed in the form of God from eternity past and was fully equal with God. Note that little phrase in verse six: "did not regard equality with God something to be grasped." He did not regard a position of equality a thing to be held on to. Can you understand the impact of that statement? Jesus, enjoying the worship and adoration of the universe; Jesus, fully God; Jesus, full partner in the divine prerogatives, voluntarily relaxed his grip on those privileges.
I want to ask you a question: How willing are you to relax your grip on your prerogatives and privileges? How loosely do you hold your positions and possessions? Most of us would put up a real fight before we would part with something precious to us. We'd scream, "Mine! Mine! I don't care who wants it, needs it, asks for it, or calls for it. What's mine is mine!" We're clutchers, aren't we, friends? We clutch power when we're able to obtain it. We clutch positions and titles. We clutch possessions and resources, time and energy. Even the most mature Christians among us wrestle constantly with letting go and relaxing our grip on that which we hold dear for Christ and the kingdom. Anyone who thinks that's not true is not being honest. We're clutchers by human nature. It's terribly difficult to relax our grip once we get it tightened around something we value. But here's Jesus, the holder of all the prerogatives of deity. Everywhere he turns in the universe the cherubim and seraphim are crying, "Holy, holy, holy. Worthy is the Lamb. The whole world is full of his glory!" In that kind of heaven, Jesus says: I'll relax my grip on all that. I'll take a demotion if in so doing I can please God the Father and serve people whom I love.
So down the ladder he goes. Watch him go.
Demotion 2: He made himself nothing.
Demotion number two is simply described this way in verse seven: "made himself nothing." He emptied himself. Demotion number one was just loosening the grip, becoming willing to downscale and decrease and demote.
Demotion number two is more concrete: it's the carrying out of demotion number one. Jesus "empties" himself, the text says. This does not mean for a moment that he became any less divine. He does not divest himself of an ounce of deity. He is still fully God. The text simply means that he laid aside, or put off, those divine aspects that would have kept him from becoming a man. He voluntarily laid aside whatever was necessary for him to become a man. Nobody robbed him or stripped this away; he didn't do it under protest. He purposefully and willingly divested himself of everything that would have kept him from becoming human and fulfilling his mission.
Demotions 3, 4, and 5: He became man.
Demotions three, four, and five all pertain to the incredible miracle we call the Incarnation.
As I studied this text, it struck me for the first time what a violent and profane transition this must have been for Jesus, the second person of the Trinity. Look at demotions three, four, and five as they appear in the text in reverse order: Demotion number three—take on the appearance of a man. Demotion number four—be made in the likeness of man. Demotion number five—accomplish the purpose set before him by becoming bondservant among humankind.
It boggles my mind when I think about how the transcendent Creator took on the appearance and likeness of the creature and became fully human. He did not appear on the landscape of this planet as an emperor or king, a statesman or an investment banker, but as a fetus born in a stable to a blue-collar, Jewish worker. Scripture tells us that he was fully human, like us in all ways except without sin. The omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent second person of the Trinity, Jesus, was fully God, enjoying all the divine prerogatives from eternity. Now Jesus feels the binding confines and restrictions of flesh. He's got skin around him now. He must use doors, ride animals, eat, and sleep. Think of the God of the universe saying, "Okay, Mother. Okay, Dad. Whatever you say, Dad." Now Jesus rubs shoulders with the creatures—people he created. And these people say, "Get out of my way, Jew-boy. Move it, buddy. Who do you think you are, Jesus, somebody special? Well, you're not. You should know your place, Jesus, and you should stay in it." Can you catch a glimpse of the violence of the Incarnation to the divinity of Christ?
I've heard speakers try to give illustrations of what it must be like for the second person of the Trinity to take on human flesh. I've heard people wax eloquent, saying, "Well, it would be like a man condescending to the position of an ant, crawling around and living among ants." The main problem of that analogy is that it is nowhere near as cataclysmic for creatures to condescend to a lower rank of creation as it is for the transcendent Creator to become a creature. There's really not all that much distance between humans and ants. But there is an enormous chasm between the transcendent God and human beings like you and me.
From equality with God, from this lofty and high position, down the ladder Jesus goes. He relaxes his grip. He lays aside equality with God, takes on our appearance, our likeness, and becomes a bondservant. He becomes one who teaches and feeds and serves and heals and helps and saves obstinate, arrogant, sinful people like you and me, who refuse most of our lives to even tip our hat his way.
Demotion 6: He became obedient to death.
Jesus isn't done with his demotions. He's got two more to go. Look in verse eight: "He humbled himself and became obedient to death." It wasn't enough to just become a man. He humbled himself to the point of death. Jesus, who breathed life into all that lives; Jesus, who not only initiates all life in the universe but sustains it each and every second of each and every day—this Jesus stood toe-to-toe with the power of death and said with a quiet and controlled voice: You win. This time, you win.
It's high noon at the OK Corral, and the guy in the white hat refuses to draw. He drops his holster to the ground and says, "Go ahead. Shoot me. I'm better than you, but shoot me." The eternal life-giver is giving up his life. That's just about far enough, isn't it? I can almost hear the angels crying out, "That's far enough, Jesus. That's just far enough. Six demotions are plenty. No more!" But there is one more.
Demotion 7: He accepted death on a cross.
Verse eight says Jesus not only became obedient to the point of death, but even death on a cross. Jesus didn't die by drinking hemlock or lying back on a soft mattress, taking a cyanide tablet that would assure a painless slumber into the blackness of death. The seventh demotion must be read with reverent, trembling voices. The God of the universe, giving up the divine prerogatives, loosening his grip, emptying himself, taking the likeness of a bondservant, now acquiesces to death on the cross.
Crucifixion didn't simply kill men, but rather tortured them slowly so that every macabre sensation of dying would be intensified and experienced in the fullest measure. While all that was going on, common men and women could walk by, laugh, spit, pick up sticks to throw at him, and hurl ugly accusations that made the hellishness complete. This is just about as low as any imagination can conceive, isn't it? This is the basement of human debasement. It doesn't get any lower than this. We started in a position that could be no higher. We end in a position that can be no lower. It's ironic that the best selling books in this country, inside and outside the Christian community, are the rags-to-riches books. The apostle Paul says to believers: Come on, believers, wake up. You're deeper than that, aren't you? You see the issues more clearly than that, don't you? You're not sucked into that, are you? You don't run off that fuel, do you? Your needle doesn't point that way. You have more substance in your soul now that you know Christ, don't you?
The most important story in the world is the story of our Lord, our Savior. It's the riches-to-rags story. It's a top-to-bottom story. It's a height-to-depth story. It's the story of a God who voluntarily demoted himself seven times—the story of a God who decreased and downscaled, who lost on purpose and who died so that the penalty of your sin and mine would be paid in his blood for all eternity. That is the greatest story you have ever heard or I have ever told, and it's true. It happened in history, and there were eyewitnesses, and there is a written record. Jesus did it out of love for you and me.
Christ's self-demotion is rewarded with ultimate promotion.
Because he did it, look what God the Father did to honor him. Verses nine through eleven make up one of the most majestic pieces of Scripture: "Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 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." There's going to be a day when the world will wake up to who Jesus is. He's Lord. And those who don't wake up in time are those the Book of Revelation says are going to cry out at that moment of great awareness. They're going to cry for the mountains and the cliffs to fall on them because there is going to be a depth of regret that Scripture says will be manifested by weeping and gnashing of teeth throughout all eternity. People will clench their teeth and scream, "Oh! He was who he said he was. He was Lord, and I never honored him. I never yielded my life to his lordship. I never honored his rule. I never bowed in his presence." There will be eternal regret, and those who, at the second coming of Christ, know Christ as Lord are going to crash into thunderous, high-volume verses of, "He is Lord! He is Lord! He is risen from the dead (and returned for his church!) and he is Lord. Every knee shall bow, every tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord." We will be glad through all eternity and awed at the greatness of Jesus.
Listen carefully. Why did Paul describe these seven dramatic demotions of Jesus? Was it to remind us of what Christ did for us in becoming our Savior? Yes, but I don't believe that's the primary reason he penned this passage. It's clear from the context that Paul is saying to the church at Philippi and to the church at Willow Creek that the primary reason he penned this passage was to call every Christian to a life of downward mobility. That means me, and if you call yourself a Christian, that means you. Paul introduces this whole passage with verse five by saying: Jesus is going to do something. I'm going to describe what Jesus does. It's going to be like something you've never heard when I describe it. I want you to go back to why I'm describing it in the first place so that you develop the same mindset and follow in his steps.
The primary purpose for this passage is to call me, someone who is intoxicated with upward mobility, to get off that drug, and have Jesus' attitude, Jesus' dedication, to decreasing and demoting and downscaling and losing and dying for the advancement of the cause and for the glory of God.