Wednesday, January 02, 2013

The Kenosis (Philippians 2:5-11): The Church's Song of Wonder



Over this season of Advent and Christmas, we’ve been examining together the songs that were sung by saints of old, recorded for us in the Gospel According to Luke, that celebrated the birth of the Savior. We looked at Zacharias’ song of praise, the Benedictus. We also examined the Magnificat, the song of Mary, an amazing, ordinary woman. Then we took up the Nunc Dimittis, Simeon’s beautiful song of salvation. And on the last Lord’s day, we looked at the Gloria, the angels’ song of glory to the newborn King. But though Christmas has passed, the songs go on. We know that music was an important part of the worship of the church from the earliest time. They sang psalms (the same Psalms you can read in the Bible today); they sang hymns (songs written to proclaim the glories of God in Christ); and they sang spiritual songs (songs that likely expressed the joy of the life of the Christian). Thankfully, some of those early songs have been preserved for us, in portions and fragments, in the New Testament and in the writings of the church fathers. One of the most well preserved hymns of the early church is this one that we find in Philippians 2:5-11. The text is known to many as the Kenosis, a Greek word that means “emptying,” which is found in verse 7 of this hymn. It is a song about how the Lord Jesus “emptied Himself,” and became one of us. Thus, though Christmas celebrations as we know them arose much later in Christian history, this song is a fitting one for this time of year, and a fitting one for us to conclude our series of messages on the Songs of Christmas. This is not the song of an ancient Hebrew who was looking forward to what the incarnate Christ would do. This is a song for the church to sing – a song of wonder at the miracle of Christ’s coming for us and for our salvation.

Soon, if not already, the gifts will have all been given, regifted, returned, or put away for time indefinite. The decorations will all disappear until next November or December. Our snowy wintery scenes will be replaced by images of the flowers of spring. But the wonder of Christmas is not found in these things. The true wonder of Christmas is a reality that abides with us throughout the year and throughout all of time and eternity. It is that wonder of which we sing as the redeemed people of God, expressed so beautifully for us here in the Kenosis hymn.

I. We sing of the wonder of Christ’s eternal existence (v6a) – “He existed in the form of God.”

In this brief phrase, the Apostle Paul tells us two things in particular about Christ’s existence prior to that holy night in the little town of Bethlehem. Though we celebrate Jesus’ birth at Christmas, we are not celebrating the beginning of his existence at this time. In fact, there is no passage in all the Bible which says anything of Jesus coming into existence. Rather we read over and over again that He is the one who brought all things into existence. “In the beginning,” John says, “was the Word,” and this “Word became flesh.” Jesus said to His critics, “Before Abraham was born, I am.” The prophecy of Isaiah 9:6 was that a child would be born, but a Son, it says, would be given. Jesus did not come into existence on Christmas day at Bethlehem. It is biblically accurate to say that He came into the world. This is the wording of John in his gospel and his letters, and it is the wording of the writer of Hebrews. Paul says that for all of eternity past, “He existed.”

Not only did He exist, but He existed in the form of God. The wording that is used by Paul here is a word that indicates a correspondence with reality. He existed in the form of God because He really was God. From the very first page of the Bible we are presented with the mystery of the Trinity. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” In the Hebrew text, God is Elohim, a plural noun; but the verb created is singular. This God Elohim speaks to Himself saying, “Let us make make man in our image.” Then in Deuteronomy, the great Shema passage, the Israelites are told that Yahweh is Elohim, and He is one. The mystery of the Trinity is this one God, existing in three persons – God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. God is three persons, each person is fully God, and there is only one God. That is a complicated truth, but it is nonetheless explicitly clear in the Scriptures.
Jesus said, “I and the Father are one.” The Isaiah prophecy about this child being born, this Son being given, says that He shall be called among other things, “The Mighty God.” John said, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, … and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The writer of Hebrews said that the Son “is the radiance of” the Father’s “glory and the exact representation of His nature.”
This is one of the wonders of Christmas – this Jesus whom we celebrate on Christmas has always existed and always will, and He is God. But consider also …
II. We sing of the wonder of Christ’s incarnation (vv6b-8a) – He “did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8Being found in appearance as a man ….”
The Incarnation of Jesus Christ is the central focus of Christmas. The word incarnation means that God took to himself a human nature; the Word became flesh; God became a man. This union of the two natures has been called the hypostatic union, meaning that the divine nature and the human nature are united in one being in Jesus Christ. He is not half-God and half-man. He is fully God and fully man. He did not stop being God to become a man, but rather manifested His divine nature in and through His human nature.

Paul details two movements of the incarnation. First, he describes the divine movement of the incarnation in vv 6b-7a. We read that Christ “did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself.” The first part of this phrase is difficult because the Greek wording that is used is rare in the Scriptures and in secular Greek. In some places it was used to describe the act of robbery, hence the KJV translates this that Jesus “thought it not robbery to be equal with God.” This, however, is a rather poor rendering of the text, because it sounds to us like it is exactly opposite the intention of the context. This sounds like equality with God was what Jesus was aiming for. But the context makes it clear, this was not His goal; it was His starting point. He was equal with God because He was God. It is helpful for us to know that the Greek word used here was often used to describe an advantage or benefit, and in the case of robbery, it was what the person sought to gain in the robbery. So the real idea here is that even though Jesus existed in the form of God, He did not see that as a benefit to take advantage of. He did not try to hold on to His deity, but He emptied Himself.

This idea of emptying is found 5 times in the NT, all in Paul’s writings, and each time it has the figurative notion of nullifying something or making it of no account. So the idea is not that Jesus purged Himself of deity. In one of my favorite hymns, Charles Wesley’s “And Can It Be,” there is a line that says, “He left His Father’s throne above, so free, so infinite His grace—Emptied Himself of all but love.” This line can be confusing because it suggests that the only divine attribute that Jesus retained in His incarnation was His infinite love. Yet that is certainly not what Paul means here, and it is most likely not what Charles Wesley meant when he wrote “And Can It Be.” Rather, Christ emptied Himself by “taking the form of a servant.” His human form “served as a temporary veil cloaking” the form of God, which He still possessed in the fullness of all of His glorious divine attributes.[1] At the Mount of Transfiguration, the fullness of His divine glory was made visible through the veil of His humanity. So it was not that He became any less God in the incarnation, but rather that He did not cling to His deity. He made Himself of no account, and took upon Himself a human nature. In 2 Corinthians, Paul says it this way, “though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor.” He gave up His glorious prominence in heaven, and came to live among us.

This brings us to the human movement of the incarnation, described in vv7b-8a. Jesus emptied Himself by taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8Being found in appearance as a man. Notice that Christ took the form of a bond-servant. The One who was the rightful Master of all that is became a servant. Jesus said in Mark 10:45 that He came not to be served, but to serve. In John 13, we read that during His last supper, as the disciples were clamoring over who was the greatest in the kingdom, the One who truly is the greatest took up a basin and a towel and began to wash the feet of the others. The One who deserves to be served by us came to serve us and meet our most pressing need – the need for salvation from sin.  

Then we notice that Christ was made in the likeness of men. He experienced a natural birth, though He was born of a virgin. He might have had his mother’s eyes, or her nose. Contrary to much of the art through the last 20 centuries, He did not have a halo around His head (and neither did His mother for that matter). He looked no different from any other person around Him. But it is not sufficient to say that Christ merely appeared as a man. In the latter first century, a group of heretics called the Docetics began teaching that Christ merely appeared to be human, but that He really did not become a man. For example, they claimed that Jesus did not leave footprints in the sand where He walked, or that if you attempted to strike Him, your hand would pass right through Him. These were some of the early forerunners of the Gnostics that get so much publicity today in the writings of biblical critics and skeptics. And the really interesting thing is that it is claimed by so many today that the Gnostics got it right, because they knew Jesus was just an ordinary man, but it was the apostles and their followers who erred by making Jesus out to be God. Well, that’s not just bad theology, it is bad history. In fact, the Gnostics did not view Jesus as “just a man.” They did not view Him as a man at all. The Docetics were one of many proto-gnostic groups that viewed Jesus as thoroughly divine and supernatural, and his humanity was merely something of an illusion. Certainly the apostles and their followers did proclaim Christ as divine, but not more divine than the Gnostics. The apostolic teaching was that Christ was fully divine, but that He was also fully human, something that the Gnostics seldom if ever claimed. He was made in the likeness of men. In Jesus Christ, God truly became one of us! Thus, the Apostle John says that one who says Christ has not come in the flesh is antichrist (2 John 1:7).  

He was fully God and fully man. Consider this: In the Gospels we read that He hungered, and yet He also multiplied the loaves and fish to feed 5,000. He thirsted, and He also turned water into wine. He slept in the hull of a ship, and yet He woke up to calm the raging sea. He wept at the tomb of Lazarus, and then He called him out from death and restored Him to life. He died. And then He rose again! All these instances point to the fact that Jesus was fully man and fully God in one being. This is His incarnation, and this is the wonder of Christmas.

III. We sing of the wonder of Christ’s mission (8b-9) -- He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name.

Often in the midst of our singing and storying during Christmas, we lose sight of the fact that this baby in Bethlehem’s stable came for a purpose. The hands and feet of this little baby would be pierced at the cross. The sacred head would be wounded with a crown of thorns. The popular Christian writer, Max Lucado, captured this reality very well in his book God Came Near as he imagines a prayer that Mary could have prayed following the birth of Jesus:

… God, O infant-God. … Sleep well. … Rest well, tiny hands. … Your hands, so tiny … clutched tonight in an infant’s fist. They aren’t destined to hold a scepter …. They are reserved instead for a Roman spike that will staple them to a Roman cross.

Sleep deeply, tiny eyes. Sleep while you can. For soon … you will see the mess we have made of your world. … You will see our selfishness, for we cannot give. You will see our pain, for we cannot heal. O eyes that will see hell’s darkest pit and witness her ugly prince, sleep … sleep while you can.

Lay still, tiny mouth. … Tiny tongue that will soon summon the dead, that will define grace, that will silence our foolishness. Rosebud lips—upon which ride a starborn kiss of forgiveness to those who believe you, and of death to those who deny you—lay still.

And tiny feed cupped in the palm of my hand, rest. For many difficult steps lie ahead for you. Do you taste the dust of the trails you will travel? … Do you wrench at the invasion of the nail you will bear? … Rest, tiny feet. Rest today so that tomorrow you might walk with power. For millions will follow in your steps.

And little heart … holy heart … pumping the blood of life through the universe: How many times will we break you? You’ll be torn by the thorns of our accusations. You’ll be ravaged by the cancer of our sin. You’ll be crushed under the weight of your own sorrow. And you’ll be pierced by the spear of our rejection. Yet in that piercing, … you will find rest. You hands will be freed, your eyes will see justice, your lips will smile, and your feet will carry you home. And there you’ll rest again—this time in the embrace of your Father.[2]

So it is that the life that we celebrate the birth of each December will eventually experience the death that we recognize each Easter. He came to die. And He came to die for us. This was the mission of His coming. Paul said in 1 Timothy 1:15 that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Notice that here, in this Kenosis song, the church sings, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death. Jesus did not exercise His divine power to escape death. He went to Calvary knowing that it was for this very reason that He was born.

Even death on a cross. This was the worst death one could experience. It was reserved for slaves, the most horrible criminals and most treacherous traitors of the Roman Empire. The death of a cross was slow, torturous, and vicious. It was a prolonged death of blood loss, thirst, hunger, and suffocation. This was the death Christ endured for us. He went from the glorious throne of heaven to the brutal cross of earth. There He experienced the most horrendous treatment humanity can inflict on one of its own. And there He experienced the wrath of God that we deserve for our sins. I deserve that cross. I deserve to die like that because of my sins. Yet Jesus took my place in that death.

For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name. In this one statement, we have the summary treatment of the resurrection of Jesus, and His ascension into Heaven, and the consummation of His enthronement in heaven as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the judge of the living and the dead. Before His death, Jesus prayed to the Father, 4"I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do. 5 Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.”[John 17:4-5 (NASB)]. The statement here in Philippians tells us that the Father answered this prayer of the Son. His mission is completed, and this is one of the wonders of Christmas.

But now we come to the coda – the final stanza. And in it …
IV. We sing of the wonder of Christ’s worship (vv10-11) -- so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Jesus is worthy of our worship because of Who He is. And the Father has given Him, along with His eternal glory, the name that is above every name. At the sound of this name, we are told every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. But this has not happened yet. Many have not uttered His name in worship. Some have never heard His name. Just a few weeks ago, we heard a missionary from North Africa and the Middle East speak of how a colleague had asked a group of refugees if they had ever heard of Jesus. They walked away from the missionary and returned a few moments later to say, “We are sorry sir, but your friend Jesus does not live in this refugee camp. You might try the next camp down the road.” Paul says in Romans 10:14, “How will they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard?” We must go and proclaim His excellent name far and wide so they can hear, so they can believe, and so they can call out in worshipful adoration that Jesus Christ is Lord!

Others know His name only as a vulgar exclamation that they vainly utter in exasperation. Some scoff at the sound of His wonderful name and mock those who proclaim Him. What are we to say of them? We say what the Bible says: Every knee will bow. There are no exemptions – those who are in heaven, those on earth, those under the earth. That is everyone! Every tongue will confess. Some have done it already, others will wait until it is too late. And their recognition of Christ as Lord will not result in their salvation, but will be a reluctant resignation to their condemnation. Standing guilty before the throne of Christ, they will recognize, as they receive their eternal sentence, that Christ is Lord, and their life was wasted because it was spent glorifying something or someone else other than Him, rather than bending the knee in worship and surrender to Him. That day is coming when they will be able to ignore or mock Him no longer.

For those who have bowed the knee and confessed the name in the here and now, they enjoy the blessing of salvation, of eternal and abundant life invested in the worship and service of the Lord Jesus Christ. These truly know and fully experience the wonder of Christmas, for they have received the greatest gift ever given. The gift of Jesus Christ, given to us to save us from our sins, and reconcile us to the God who created us, who loves us, and who has redeemed us. These are the followers of Christ – those who worship and serve Him. And these are they who can sing the Kenosis hymn in joyful adoration to Christ as Savior and Lord!

But I will remind you that Paul is not simply giving a theological discourse here. He begins this passage with a very practical admonition. “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus.” If He, being equal and of one nature with God, humbled Himself to obey the will of the Father and to serve humanity, then so should we. As we worship Him and serve Him, we should seek to be like Him, knowing that God honors humility, obedience and the servant-attitude. He opposes pride, arrogance, selfishness, conceit, and vainglory. So when we want to know how Christ would have us to live, how we should serve God, and how we should relate to others, God directs us to the stable where we behold the wonder of Christmas.

If you have never received the greatest gift ever given – the gift of Jesus Christ – then we offer Him to you today. The Christ of Christmas ransomed you from sin and death at Easter. And every day of your life can be filled with the wonder of His salvation if you know Him as Savior and Lord. Turn from the emptiness of the life of sin and trust in Him to rescue You! And when your heart is captivated by the wonder of who He is and what He has done for you, you will not be able to contain the song of wonder that will erupt from within as you worship Him!  


[1] Rod Decker, “Philippians 2:5-11, The Kenosis.” Online at http://faculty.bbc.edu/rdecker/documents/ kenosis.pdf. Accessed December 13, 2012.
[2] Max Lucado, God Came Near (Portland: Multnomah, 1987), 35-37.

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