The Incarnation: Mystery of Mysteries Philippians 2:1-11


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Philippians 2:1-11

We began our Advent series on the incarnation of God the Son last Lord’s Day morning with a consideration of the evidence for the incarnation as an event in history, something that happened in time and space. Today we move on to the mystery of this event.

“Carmen Christi” or “hymn of Christ” is the traditional title for vv. 6-11 and that for two reasons.  First, it has long been thought that these verses were not original to Paul, but are, in fact, the citation of an already existing Christian hymn or of a selection from that hymn. Of course, it is possible that, even if these verses stand alone as a hymn, Paul was the author. Luther was a preacher, theologian, and hymn-writer; perhaps Paul was as well. Second, as the editors of the NIV indicated by placing the text in poetic form, which the ESV editors did not, while it is not possible to prove beyond doubt that the text of vv. 6-11 constitutes a formal poem or hymn, it is difficult to deny the strongly poetic qualities of the passage.  [Silva, 93]

Text Comment

v.6

The idea is that the Son, being equal with the Father, the Son being fully God and having in his possession all the attributes and the prerogatives of Almighty God, did not hold on to those prerogatives and did not regard his equality with God as something to use to his own advantage. [Silva, 103-104; O’Brien, 215]

v.8

The addition of “even death on a cross” emphasizes the extent of the Lord’s emptying of himself, for death by crucifixion was the most degrading and repellent form of execution known to the ancient world.  J.B. Phillips captures some of the sense when he renders the phrase “and the death he died was the death of a common criminal.”

v.11

Two matters deserve brief comment.  First, this last statement does not suggest that the confession of all creatures that Jesus is Lord is necessarily offered willingly and cheerfully.  As Calvin rightly points out, the submission of the devils and of unsaved men will not be voluntary.  But all will acknowledge the Lord’s supremacy.  It is helpful to note that Paul cites the same text from Isa. 45 – whence comes the phrase “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess” – in Romans 14:11 in reference to the Day of Judgment. So both the doomed and the saved will make this confession. Second, the phrase “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess…” in Isa. 45:23, is found in the midst of one of the most powerful affirmations of the uniqueness of the one living and true God in the entire Bible.  For Paul, monotheism – belief in only one God – is not compromised by the confession of Jesus Christ as God.  Jesus is Yahweh!  And so to confess his Lordship to the glory of God the Father can only be done on the assumption of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity: the one living and true God who exists in three persons.

Probably no passage in the New Testament, apart from the first eighteen verses of the Gospel of John, is as important to the doctrine of the incarnation as these six verses in Philippians 2.  And the reason is not difficult to find.  We have the entire doctrine here, all its major parts.  No details, to be sure, but the entire doctrine in six parts. 1)  First, we have Christ’s pre-existence, his life as God the Son before he came into the world. Remember the Lord’s remark in the Gospels, “Before Abraham was I am.” Well here we have, “who being God, made himself nothing.” 2) Second, we have a strong, unmistakable affirmation that Jesus of Nazareth is no else than and nothing less than Almighty God himself. “Who being in very nature God…,” which is the sense of the word “form” in v. 6.  3) Third, this God became a man. The person who was in the very form of God, the person who made himself nothing, he is the same person who died on the cross.  There are not two, but one. This is the doctrine also known in Christian theology as the impersonality of Christ’s human nature. Christ’s human nature was added to a divine person who already existed. There never was a human person of Jesus Christ apart from that eternal person to whom a human nature was added. So we do not have two persons, one human, one divine; but one person with two natures; one original, one added later.

The first three parts of the doctrine so far given in the Carmen Christi is nowhere more beautifully summed up than in Milton’s immortal lines from his poem On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.

That glorious Form, that Light unsufferable,
And that far-beaming blaze of Majesty,
Wherewith he wont at Heav’n’s high Council-Table,
To sit the midst of Trinal Unity,
He laid aside; and here with us to be,
Forsook the Courts of everlasting day,
And chose with us a darksome house of mortal clay.

Fourth, God becoming a man was not the end of the Son’s journey downward.  He must go lower still. To become a man, a mortal creature was itself humiliation and debasement for the Almighty. That the creator of heaven and earth should move among men unrecognized for who and what he was and should be thought by many not only not to be God but not even to be a good man, that is abasement indeed! But there is more. God became a man not to prove that he could do it, nor to have some mythic adventure that would be the stuff of tales for ever after, nor to interfere willy-nilly in the affairs of men as the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses were supposed to do. The living and true God became a man to suffer and to die for men because nothing less would avail to reconcile sinful men to a holy God. The incarnation had a specific purpose and that purpose was the salvation of men.

Many men have been put to death.  Many men in those days were crucified.  Life was cheap in the Greco-Roman world of the first century as it is in many places of our world today. When, in the previous century, the rebellion against Rome led by the slave Spartacus was finally put down, thousands of his followers were crucified as an example to others and those unfortunate men remained in agony on their crosses longer than Jesus remained on his. But you cannot measure the suffering of Christ or the enormity of the punishment he endured by the pain of the nails in his hands and feet or the terrible thirst that was perhaps the worst feature of crucifixion.  His suffering can be measured only by the distance that separated that ignominy, that shame, that mockery, that desolation, and that physical torture from the perfection, the glory, the honor, and the infinite love and joy that was the life of the Son of God in heaven and in the fellowship of the Triune God before he came into the world.  To travel from the paradise of Trinitarian joy and glory to Calvary to be spit upon and murdered by profane and evil men, one’s own creatures, that is the humiliation of the Son of God.

Fifth, having completed his work of making atonement for our sins, the Lord rose from the dead and returned to heaven. This was his Father’s reward for his having perfectly fulfilled his assignment and accomplished his Father’s will. He is now in heaven – the God-Man – and his glory as God the Son is no longer hidden. And 6) sixth and finally the Son of God continues to be the incarnate Son. It is Jesus of Nazareth whom the world will confess on the great day, Jesus the man who is also God. He will not lay aside his human nature or ever cease to be the man he became when he was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary. He has gone to heaven and will come from heaven, Paul says here, as the God-Man.  It is Jesus of Nazareth to whom God has given the highest place and the name above every name.  The incarnation never ends.  God the Son will never return to his pre-incarnate life as the Second Person of the Godhead in his deity alone.

There is the doctrine of the incarnation in outline. And you nod your heads in agreement. You are familiar with this doctrine. You understand it; or so you think. But I want you to appreciate this morning how little you really do understand this; how little anyone understands or can understand these remarkable assertions regarding God the Son becoming a man for us and our salvation. There is more here, much more, than meets the eye.

And I suspect the reason so many Christians do not realize this, do not realize that when the incarnation is explained as I have just explained it, they are speaking of things utterly beyond their comprehension, is because they do not fully grasp what it means to say that Jesus Christ is both God and Man in his single person. Indeed, most of us, I include myself, are in this matter, heretics at heart! We don’t mean to be, but our view of Jesus Christ, because we hardly know how to think otherwise, is often fundamentally incorrect. Most of us are, in fact, even when we don’t intend to be, Apollinarians or Eutychians! I’m sure you have never been accused of being a Eutychian, but there is a first time for everything, and it is time we faced facts about ourselves!

We happily confess, with our Shorter Catechism that

“The only redeemer of God’s elect is the Lord Jesus Christ; who, being the eternal Son of God, became man, and so was and continues to be both God and man, in two distinct natures and one person forever.”

But what does that mean: two distinct natures in one person? This was the great question the church struggled to answer in the 4th and 5th centuries.

Apollinarius lived in the 4th century, dying in A.D. 390, a friend of the great Athanasius, the champion of the deity of Jesus Christ against the attack of the Arians.  Eutyches’s life overlapped that of Appolinarius, but he lived well into the 5th century. As you may remember, the progress of the church’s understanding of the person of Christ in the 4th and 5th centuries, if charted, makes for something of a steady zig-zag advance. After the defeat of Arianism, the church’s mind was settled as to the full deity of Jesus Christ. He was indeed God himself, come in human nature. But then another question was forced upon the church’s mind: if Jesus is Almighty God, equal with the Father, how is he man at the same time and, if we are to worship Christ, are we to worship him as God only or also as a man?

Apollinarius, seeking to defend the Lord from the charge that he is, because of his human nature, now a mere creature, held that the Lord’s human nature was taken up into his divine nature. That is, his human nature was deified through its union with the Lord’s deity. That teaching, in turn, provoked the inevitable reaction of Nestorius who wished to protect the full integrity and completeness of the Lord’s human nature, that he was a man like us as the Bible says. But Nestorianism seemed to suggest that, in the effort to protect the Lord’s true humanity, we were left with two Christ’s, one divine and one human, not just two natures, but two persons as well. Eutyches then, in an effort to defend the unity of the Lord’s person, argued that there was but one nature in the person of Jesus. Out of the divine and human natures, once united in the person of Christ, had come a third thing, a nature in which divine and human were mingled together. From all of this back and forth, came finally the balanced settlement of the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451. Over a century the pendulum of thought about Christ’s person and natures had swung back and forth in every decreasing arcs until it found rest. [Warfield, Person and Work of Christ, 216-217]

As to the doctrine of the person of Christ – his divine and human natures and his single person – there has been little advance beyond the great statement of that council that Jesus Christ is

“to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly [that is, without confusion or mixture], unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably, the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person…not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son…”

In other words, as one correction followed another, the church finally saw clearly that taking the biblical evidence together there was in the one and the same person of Jesus Christ a complete deity and a complete humanity, and that their union in the one person of Jesus happened without prejudice to the integrity of each of the two natures. The one and the same Jesus was actually and really a human being and, at the same time, actually and really God the Son, the creator of heaven and earth, and those two natures existed in him without confusion, without change, but also without separation.

As John Bunyan has Mr. Greatheart say, in Part II of Pilgrim’s Progress:

“He of whom I am now to speak is One that has not his fellow.  He has two natures in one Person, plain to be distinguished, impossible to be divided.”

The problem is: this is so completely a mystery, so utterly beyond our comprehension, that it is unnatural for us to think of Jesus in such terms; we can’t imagine what they mean and so we easily and persistently fall into thinking of him in ways that make more sense to us. If he is only one person, if in him there is but one center of self-consciousness, if he is but one individual, can he possibly be a human being as you and I are? And without intention or thought we tend to mix his natures in our view of his person; that is, we slip into Appolinarianism or Eutychianism. And Jesus becomes, both in our reading of the Gospels and in our thinking of him, not the God/Man so much as Superman, a man with godlike powers. We think of his human life as everywhere and in every way supported by his divine life.

Let me give you some examples. You remember how the Lord called Nathaniel and Philip. We read that account in John 1. He greeted Nathaniel as he saw him coming toward him, “Behold an Israelite indeed in whom there is no deceit.” And Nathaniel replied, “How do you know me?” You remember the Lord’s reply, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” The almost inevitable tendency is to assume that Jesus could have said such a thing because, being God, he knew all things; he is omniscient. So of course he knew where Philip had been at any and every point beforehand. You know very well how often the Lord is said to have known things that would have been otherwise impossible for him to know. And it is our tendency to attribute that to his divine knowledge; his omniscience.

But this is a mistake, a form of Eutychianism, a mixture of the natures in the one person of the Lord. In the Gospels, apart from the Transfiguration, we are virtually always and only seeing Jesus as a man. We see him in his body, the emotions on his face, from smiles to frowns, from fears to tears. Everyone who knew him knew him as a man whose life was the life of a man. To be sure, he had supernatural knowledge. He knew that Judas would betray him. He knew that he would rise on the third day as early as John chapter 2. He knew that the woman at the well at Sychar had had five husbands and was then living with a man who was not her husband. He knew that Peter would deny him three times. But how did he know those things?

It was not by his divine omniscience. If it were then we have no way of explaining how and why the Lord Jesus didn’t know so many other things. Indeed the impression of the Gospels is that he rarely knew more than anyone else might have known about the details of life. In Mark 11:13 we read: “Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves…” In other words, he didn’t know until he looked. That is the knowledge of a human being.

Even more remarkably, given that this “ignorance” concerns a miraculous healing, he didn’t know who touched him when the woman with the issue of blood sought healing from him. He had felt power go out of him (Mark 5:29-30) but didn’t know to whom. He had to ask and look about until the woman admitted that it was she. More remarkable still is his confession in Matt. 24:36 that only the Father knows the day of the Second Coming; he did not. Well, of course, as God he did know; if he didn’t he wouldn’t be God, but as Jesus of Nazareth in his human nature – the nature in which we encounter him in the Gospels – he did not know. As a man he didn’t know most things, just as you and I don’t know them.

We tend to attribute all of his supernatural powers to his being God. But that is a mistake, an important mistake, and it violates the distinction of natures in the one person of the Lord. Jesus Christ was not a superman. He was an ordinary man, at least so far as his humanity, his human nature is concerned. He had no powers that other men did not.

To be sure, he was a prophet of the Lord. He was given knowledge of the future, how we do not know. He performed miracles. But then Moses and Elijah and Elisha had performed miracles and were given knowledge of the future, and his apostles – who were certainly ordinary men – would have the same powers as well. Those powers were given him from on high to accredit him as the Messiah and the Savior. Indeed, remember how Peter put this on the Day of Pentecost:

“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know…”

The same thing could have been said of Moses or Elijah. God was working through them by his mighty power.

He knew things because God revealed them to him, as he had to Moses and to Elijah and Elisha. He did mighty works of power because God enabled him to do them. But it was a man to whom these things were revealed and a man to whom these powers were given. He was, to be sure, God himself, let there be no doubt about that, but we encounter him in the Gospels as a true man. If we slide into Eutychianism because we can’t get our minds around the mystery – two natures in the one person, two distinct natures, umixed and unconfused existing in the same individual – we miss the glory and the wonder of the incarnation.

We fail to appreciate the personal history of the Lord Jesus because we imagine it all to have been easier, simpler than it was. After all, he was God! We think his afflictions less severe and his triumphs less remarkable because we imagine the divine nature coming in to help the human, the divine knowledge making up for what was wanting in the human, and the divine power being added when the human was not enough. We think of his sinlessness as almost a given, hardly an achievement. But it was the most remarkable human achievement in the history of mankind! Adam had a sinless nature and lived in a perfect world. The Lord Jesus had a sinless nature but had to live in a sinful world and withstand 33 straight years of the Devil’s most subtle and powerful temptations and do that as a man.

We are taught in the rest of the New Testament to respect the integrity of our Lord’s human nature and never to mix the natures in our assessment of the life and work of the Lord Jesus. In Hebrews 2 and 4 we are taught that apart from what had been revealed to him as a prophet of the Lord, what he knew he had to learn and figure out for himself and he had to make his way through this world in the way we must: knowing very little and almost nothing of what tomorrow would bring. His character was formed through the experiences of life, as we read there. He had to deal with his temptations in precisely the same way in which we must deal with ours. He didn’t best the Devil in the wilderness or in Gethsemane  because he was God but because he was a faithful man who knew the Bible virtually by heart and because he applied it as a weapon in his spiritual warfare and because he was a believing man who counted on the promises of God. He was a man of prayer who counted on his heavenly Father to hear and answer his prayers. His resources were the same as ours are but he made such faithful and effective use of them.

No don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that I understand what I am explaining to you; I certainly do not. I am simply reminding you that it is the testimony of Holy Scripture that our Savior was a real man, who lived our life by the same means by which we must live it. He was the living God but, at the same time, he was a true and authentic human being. This is as fully mysterious, as fully beyond our comprehension, as the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. How can two separate and distinct natures remain unmixed in a single personality? How did he keep his divine knowledge from his human ignorance so that his ignorance was real, personally real? How did he keep his divine power from nullifying his human weakness? How was his divine omnipresence kept from his human confinement to one place and one time? I haven’t the foggiest idea and you don’t either. But that is the Christ and the incarnation that Holy Scripture teaches us to believe: the God/Man. Man so that he could take our place; God so that his life and death would have the infinite value to cover all our sins.

Isn’t it interesting and revealing that the Bible draws a veil so completely over all of this. Not once, anywhere, is there even a hint given as to how the Lord himself experienced the reality of two natures in his single person. Not once is there any reflection on how the natures – so utterly different from one another – related to the single person, the one self-conscious being. The Scripture tells us that Jesus was both God and man but it never tells us how he is so or what it meant for him in his own self-conscious to be so. Not once are we given even a glimpse of how Jesus as a self-conscious individual knew himself within as both God and man. How were the natures kept distinct? How was it possible for him to live the life of a true human being without the divine nature making of that human life something utterly un-human? We cannot say. It is all a terrific and wonderful and unfathomable mystery.

You will never touch bottom in sounding the depths of the love and the power and the wisdom of God in the incarnation of God the Son. And I hope and trust that that fact will make the Christmas story and the incarnation that it relates still more wonderful and amazing to you. I hope it will cause you to love and worship the Lord Jesus still more and stand amazed before him for who and what he is.

He had to be God and had to be man if he were to save us from our sins and lead us to eternal life. And so the most utterly amazing, mysterious, incomprehensible, baffling, and wonderful thing was done; something only the infinite, personal God could do: a divine and a human nature were made to exist in a single individual and in the life of that individual the integrity and the authenticity of each nature was preserved in distinction from the other.

It is utterly fabulous what God did to save us from our sins!