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The Panorama of the Gospel and the Practicality of Serving Others

Some statements in the Bible leave you scratching your head, asking: “What could this possibly mean?” Other texts leave you wiping tears from your eyes, wondering: “Did God really do that for me?” Then there are those passages that blow your mind and leave you shouting: “Wow! I can’t believe what I just read!” And finally there are some things in the Bible that leave you gasping for breath, struggling to maintain your composure, texts and statements and stories that quite literally drive you to your knees, in awe and wonder.

Philippians 2:5-11 is one of those rare biblical texts that does all those things, all at the same time. I read it and scratch my head, wipe tears from eyes, shout aloud, gasp for breath, and fall to my knees in wonder and worship.

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so 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” (Philippians 2:5-11).

There are three things about these verses you need to understand.

First, some things in the Bible are very narrow in their focus. They hone in like a laser beam on a particular event or person at a particular point in time. Not Philippians 2. Paul doesn’t use a laser beam in this passage but rather something along the lines of a search light that casts a broad and sweeping brilliance across the evening sky. This passage is panoramic in scope. It spans eternity past into eternity future. It begins in v. 6 with the eternal glory of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, God the Son, in fellowship with the Father and Holy Spirit, and then dives directly into the nitty gritty of history and the death of Jesus. From there we are led to his resurrection and exaltation and the declaration that for all of eternity future he will be praised and honored as Lord over all.

Second, and this is crucial, we must not lose sight of the fact that the reason why Paul speaks of Jesus Christ in this way is to provide us with an example of how we are to humble ourselves and go low in serving one another. Think about it: this gloriously panoramic portrayal of the glory and humiliation and death and resurrection and exaltation and adoration of the Son of God is primarily designed to teach you and me how to serve one another!

In other words, this is not an isolated theological statement about the person and work of Christ. The previous paragraph (2:1-4) contains Paul's appeal to put aside selfish ambition and the pursuit of empty glory and to embrace self-sacrificial humility out of concern for the interests of others, all with a view to unity in the body of Christ. Verse 5 is a transition from the exhortation in vv. 1-4 to the premier example of such a life in vv. 6-11. When Paul says in v. 5a, "Have this mind [or attitude] among yourselves," he has in view the mindset or attitude just described in vv. 1-4. The most perfect illustration of "this" way of thinking and acting is Jesus himself ("which is yours in Christ Jesus"), whose self-giving for the sake of others is explained by Paul in vv. 6-11.

The supreme example of humble, self-effacing, self-sacrificial, self-giving service for the sake of others is found in Jesus. Imitate him. Follow his lead. This is quite stunning: none but God would ever have thought to direct our attention to the most transcendent and exalted of divine realities as a way of enforcing on our hearts the importance of serving others!

Third, some have suggested that Paul constructed this hymn on the basis of his familiarity with a famous incident in the life of Jesus: the foot-washing episode in John 13. Although the verbal parallels are few, the conceptual and theological similarities are striking:

  • In John 13, knowing he had come from God, Jesus rises from the table and lays aside his outer garments (v. 4). Likewise, in Philippians 2, from his position of eternal, pre-existent equality with God, Jesus, as it were, lays aside the garment of his visible glory (vv. 6-7).
  • In John 13, Jesus clothes himself with a towel. In Philippians 2, Jesus clothes himself with human nature.
  • In John 13, Jesus performs a menial task often assigned to slaves (washing the feet of others). In Philippians 2, Jesus takes the form of a slave and serves others.
  • In John 13, when Jesus finishes, he once again takes his outer garments and puts them on. In Philippians 2, after his work on earth is finished, he returns to the visible glory with the Father that was his before time.
  • In John 13, Jesus resumes his place at the table, from which he had temporarily departed. In Philippians 2, Jesus is exalted by the Father and sits down again on his heavenly throne.
  • Jesus concludes by saying, "You call me teacher and Lord (kurios) and you are right, for so I am" (v. 13). In Philippians 2, every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is “Lord” (kurios) to the glory of God the Father (v. 11).
  • The story in John 13 is an example of humble service. In Philippians 2, Paul uses the incarnation and humiliation of Christ as an example of humble service (see vv. 1-5).

There are also potential theological lessons to learn from what appear to be parallels between the first Adam, in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 1-3) and the last Adam, Jesus Christ (Phil. 2).

  • The first Adam was made in the divine image. So, too, the last Adam is the image of God (v. 6; also Col. 1:15).
  • The first Adam thought it a prize to be grasped at to be as God. But the last Adam thought it not a prize to be grasped at to be as God.
  • The first Adam aspired to a reputation. The last Adam made himself of no reputation.
  • The first Adam spurned being God's servant. The last Adam took upon himself the form of a servant.
  • The first Adam sought to be in the likeness of God. The last Adam was made in the likeness of men.
  • The first Adam was found in fashion as a man (dust). The last Adam was found in fashion as a man (cf. Rom. 8:3).
  • The first Adam exalted himself. The last Adam humbled himself.
  • The first Adam became disobedient unto death. The last Adam became obedient unto death.
  • The first Adam was condemned and disgraced. The last Adam was highly exalted and given the name of Lord.

Whether or not Paul had in mind either John 13 or Genesis 2, or neither at all, this is, to say the least, a remarkable passage and deserving of our close and attentive study. We’ll return to it in our next post.

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