A Total Downer
Sometimes there’s a Bible passage that is so grand, so incredibly holy . . . that it seems almost wrong to lead in with a childhood illustration where I lost my roller skates or a recent headline from CNN and the Fox News Network. But let me dip back into the history books for this one.
In the late 1970s, President Carter had to regularly deal with fairly hostile negotiations with his counterpart in the U.S.S.R., a General Secretary named Leonid Brezhnev. Carter, of course, sat in his oval office in the White House. Brezhnev ruled over Communist Russia at the height of the Cold War, and probably had a similar office in the Kremlin in downtown Moscow.
Carter struggled to bring about détente, as he tried to hold onto a fragile peace with all those nuclear missiles pointing in both directions. Our two countries held to a concept called M.A.D.—“mutually assured destruction.” We had enough ICBM’s to destroy Russia; they had enough to annihilate us. Those twin facts were supposed to be enough to ensure that neither side would push the button.
But Carter writes in one of his many post-Presidency books about sitting quietly in his Washington office and trying to imagine that he was Brezhnev. This vast Soviet empire extended across something like eight time zones. There were many people groups; poverty was rampant. They had a huge but creaking military machine to feed. There were tensions everywhere, with young people wanting freedom and the liberty to buy CDs of western pop artists. The gulags were full of political prisoners, but protesters were fomenting discontent.
What must it be like, Carter wondered, to be wrestling with Brezhnev’s challenges? This hardened Russian leader wanted the best for his people too. They wanted education and bread to eat and a warm place to sleep at night—just like we did. They wanted a secure retirement. Many of them wanted to know that a God in heaven loved them and had a heavenly mansion waiting.
And so Carter, despite being resolutely American and pro-democracy, tried to go through the exercise of “having the mind of Brezhnev.” He tried to see things through a Russian prism, to tap into the angst and the frustrations of trying to hold together a failing Communist system. Even in 1980, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and our President had to reluctantly prevent our American athletes from going to Moscow and rewarding the Soviets with a successful Olympic Games, he still tried to see this troubled world through his counterpart’s eyes.
Now, here in God’s Word, we find a much more holy and breathtaking example of this same thing. And right here in Philippians chapter two, as we continue with our extended time of serious Bible study, we come to an incredible moment. Philippians 2:5-11 is one of the most precious, powerful pieces of sacred literature you’ll ever find on this planet. Seven verses that take us from the heights of heaven, down to the very lowest place in the universe, and then soaring back up to the highest mountaintop, the most lofty pinnacle, the holiest throne any of us shall ever see. And it starts off with a challenge that seems impossible before we even read the good part . . . and then goes forward from there. Because verse five says this: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Jesus Christ.”
And right there is such an overwhelming commission. You and I, as followers of Christ, should have the same attitude that He had. What does this mean? Well, so many things—all of them both holy and humanly impossible. But we are to love as He loved; live as He lived; work as He worked; sacrifice as He sacrificed. Think holy thoughts as Jesus always thought holy thoughts. Our attitude is to be the same as Jesus’s. Elsewhere Paul puts it this way: “But you have the mind of Christ.”
I guess right away these 11 words hit us with the overpowering realization that the Christian experience, while it is a free gift, is not then a free ride as well. Would you agree with that? There is more to being saved than simply saying, “Amen, I believe.” No, we then begin a lifelong journey, sometimes joyous, sometimes tortuous, always demanding – of having our minds and hearts changed as mandated here in verse five. To be a Christian is to accept the possibility and the necessity of having the same attitudes that Jesus had.
And now we very solemnly continue into this absolutely inspired discovery of what that attitude was and is. What was it like for Jesus? Paul tells us.“Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”
Now right here comes some of the most important theology of the Christian Church. I have to speak humbly here because we are talking about things that are mysteries to foolish humans. But verse six tells us something vital, and that’s this: Jesus Christ was God. In every respect and in every aspect.
In the King James, where it says that Jesus was “in the form of God,” we find the Greek word morphē, which means to have all of the essential characteristics and attributes. In every way you can think of, we’re told, Jesus was God. Fully God. Completely equal with God the Father.
Have you ever had a friendly visitor come to your front door, and they have a magazine to share with this title on it: “Watchtower”? They came by at Christmastime one year, and the booklet for that season had to do with “What is the Jesus of Christmas really like?” And the theology of our friends, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, is that Jesus Christ is not fully God. Their own literature states this.
“The true Scriptures,” they say, “speak of God’s Son, the Word, as ‘A god.’ He is a ‘mighty god,’ (small “g”), but not the Almighty God, who is Jehovah. . . . In other words, he was the first and direct creation of Jehovah God.” Elsewhere they write: “The Bible shows that there is only one God. . . . ‘greater than His Son.’ . . . And that the Son, as the First-born, Only-begotten and ‘the creation by God,’ had a beginning.” And finally: “Jesus was ‘the Son of God.’ Not God himself!” A careful study of Mormon teachings reveals the same deficiency: that Jesus is not fully and eternally the pre-existent God.
In all fairness, we have to humbly concede that our own Adventist church also struggled, in our early formation, with the false teaching of Arianism or a belief that Jesus was not fully divine, or that he had a “beginning” at some point in the distant past.
So we want to be kind, especially when grappling with great mysteries. But it is a foundation truth, a necessary truth, to believe that Jesus Christ is fully and completely God, that He has the form, the morphē, every essential characteristic of God. Otherwise Philippians chapter two is robbed of its great power and grandeur in describing the sacrifice and the obedience of Jesus.
Sometimes even we who are Christians struggle with the plain fact that Jesus is described as the Son of God. And that Jesus is also named as the “only-begotten Son of God.” Did God make Jesus or “have” Jesus, as a male parent on earth fathers a child? Was there a honeymoon time when God the Father existed but not Jesus Christ? No. These things are mysteries to us, but we’re clearly told in the Bible that God the Father and God the Son and God the Holy Spirit have always existed from eternity. They said together in the very beginning of our Bibles: “Let us make man in our image.”
In his book, Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis very carefully wrestles with the difference between “creating” something and “begetting” something. To beget is to be the father of, to beget something like yourself, like a father and a son. On the other hand, when you create, you make something different from yourself, as when a composer creates a song or a carpenter builds a set of bookcases.
Now, God the Father never “make” Jesus. And no, He did not go through some parenting process of producing a Son through any experience like what we know. There was never a time when Jesus didn’t exist with the Father. There’s no time machine you can use to travel back to an era where the Father was here but not the Son.
Lewis then uses an illustration we can easily understand: two books lying on a table. One book is on the table, the next book on top of it. And the first book is what gives the second book its position. The second book is where it is because the first book is where it is. There is no need for the first book to be there first; both books could have just always been there. But the second book derives its position, its place, from where the first book is.
And then Lewis closes by saying: “The Son exists because the Father exists: but there never was a time before the Father produced the Son.”
I don’t want to get sidetracked here, especially in this most beautiful of Bible passages. But I want to tell you, straight from my heart, that it is so huge, so vital, for you and me to daily accept the truth that Jesus has always been God, and is God right now, and will always be God. Nothing less . . . ever. Here in our Seventh-day Adventist Church, the doctrinal statement about this is something I take very much to my own heart. Here it is: “Christ is the pre-existent, self-existent Son of God. . . . There never was a time when He was not in close fellowship with the eternal God. . . . He was equal with God, infinite and omnipotent.”
And here in verse six this truth is reemphasized. Jesus had equality with God, but didn’t hang onto it. He didn’t “grasp” at it, clutch selfishly to it. But it was clearly there as His possession, His divine right. He had it.
The Message paraphrase puts it this way:“[Jesus] had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of Himself that He had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what.”
And now we see why this doctrine is so absolutely paramount. Because Jesus lays it all aside. Voluntarily, He takes all these attributes of God-ness, this morphē—every single aspect of His divinity—and He puts them away. The Bible tells us: “He made Himself nothing.”
Now’s where we just have to fall on our knees. Because Jesus, right here, makes the most incredible trip down. There’s no other way to describe it. He came down. Way down. More down than we can comprehend. True, we always think and say that He came down from heaven to earth, and we’re thinking geographically, where earth is down here and heaven is up in the sky somewhere. Listen, that’s the least of the ways He came down!
We just sang last Christmas about how His coming down included things like barns and mangers and cows and shepherds and lowly flocks by night. And you know, that’s the least of it too. The fact that He was poor is not it. The fact that He was born under questionable circumstances, virgin-wise, is not it. The fact that He was born to two poverty-stricken humans, a carpenter and a teenaged girl, is not it. The fact that they put Him in a feeding trough instead of a $200 bassinet is not it. What is IT is that He came down here from being God. He was God up there! And He laid all of that aside to become a crying human Baby in a manger.
But it’s even more than that. Because Paul goes on to tell us that Jesus, in coming down, in setting aside His divinity, took the very nature or form of a servant. And incredibly, here’s that same word, morphē, again! He took on the essential attributes, the characteristics of a servant. Check that: a slave. He morphed Himself, if you’ll pardon the adaptation of that word, into a slave. He went that low. He descended that far. As I read through this miracle passage of the Bible, and think about the down of this story, I’m struck again by the holy truth expressed in a recent book title by Pastor Bill Hybels and Rob Wilkins: Descending Into Greatness.
And these two authors write in amazement: “Once His life on earth began, Jesus never stopped descending. Omnipotent, He cried; the owner of all things, He had no home. The King of kings, He became a bondservant; the source of truth, He was found guilty of blasphemy; The Creator, He was spit on by the creatures; the giver of life, He was crucified naked on a cross—bleeding, gasping for air. With His death, the descent was complete—from the pinnacle of praise in the universe to the ultimate debasement and torture of death on a cross, the innocent victim of human wickedness.” He went from the highest to the lowest . . . and He did that on our behalf—yours and mine.
Well, you know, despite verse five, I don’t know how well you and I can copy that. But we certainly can fall on our knees . . . and be thankful for it.
But now, as we continue through this powerful passage of Scripture, I want to flash a warning light of sorts. Every time the Bible teaches us something true, the enemy of this world will try to veil it in falsehood. Over the past twenty years or so, there has been a heresy come into our midst, and it’s part of something commonly called the “Word-Faith Movement.” And an integral part of their teaching is to state that the essence of Jesus’ punishment was to actually go into hell itself and be tortured there.
Let me share, word for word, from a prominent Los Angeles television preacher of the past two decades, who is a major proponent of this teaching. And this is a direct transcript. “Do you think,” he asks, “that the punishment for our sin was to die on a cross? If that were the case, the two thieves could have paid your price.” That’s an absolute falsehood, but let’s continue. “No, the punishment was to go into hell itself and to serve time in hell separated from God. . . . Satan and all the demons of hell thought that they had Him bound and they threw a net over Jesus and they dragged Him down to the very pit of hell itself to serve our sentence.”
Isaiah chapter 53, that magnificent prophecy about Jesus, and borrowed so beautifully by George Handel for his oratorio, The Messiah, makes it perfectly clear that the cross was the punishment Jesus bore for us. That is indeed where He was pierced for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities. And yet, despite the unbiblical nature of this aberrant Word-Faith teaching about descending into hell, God’s Bible students here can still learn from this mistake and come to appreciate the great sacrifice Jesus DID make on our behalf.
Because those three words, “He humbled Himself,” even though they don’t speak about descending into hell to be punished by Satan, do contain in them the fullness of what Jesus sacrificed. Remember that crucifixion was the most painful, most shameful death any person living could face. The New International Version’s text notes contain this observation: “Crucifixion was the most degrading kind of execution that could be inflicted on a person.”
And really, we see this same consistent, powerful example of humbling in every aspect of Jesus’ life, don’t we? His birth: one of deepest humility—in a manger, to poor, unmarried parents. No money, no palace, no friends. Then His life: one of poverty and grinding hard work. No place to lay His head. No far-flung media empire or limousines, no first-class plane tickets, no huge following, no web sites. Just 12 ragtag, fumbling, bumbling guys, all with their own “me first!” plans. Jesus was the only humble one in the group. And His whole life was characterized by such humility.
And then crucifixion. Death on a cross—the most shameful, ignominious way evil men have ever invented to kill the worst among them.
And this brings us to a second pivotal moment as we stand in awe and gaze at this journey from highest heaven to the shame of Calvary. Because Paul goes on here in verse eight to say this about Jesus: “He humbled Himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!”
The Clear Word paraphrase by Jack Blanco puts it this way: “As a human being, He obeyed God in everything, even when God led Him to Calvary to die on a cross for us.”
In The Message paraphrase: “He lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death.”
And now let me ask this: what kind of obedience was this? Did God the Father want Jesus to do certain things different from what Jesus wanted to do? You and I don’t consider it obedience, really, when our kids say to us, “Yes, Dad, I’ll accompany you to Magic Mountain. Sure, Dad, I’ll accept your gift of a free car.” “All right, Dad, I’ll watch TV all evening on this new flat-screen, hi-def set you just got me from Best Buy.” We only praise obedience when it involves setting aside your own desires to follow the orders of another person. So is there nobility in this verse, is there goodness, in Jesus obeying?
There’s a huge piece of heresy—in fact, let me use the word blasphemy—to be found in the soundtrack of the Broadway rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar. Now, despite its many faults, and its secular premise, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice captured well the agony of the Cross, the horror Christ faced in Gethsemane. But as this very human Jesus looks up at the dark sky on Thursday night, He cries out at this unseen, invisible Father who is Out There somewhere: “Show me there’s a reason for Your wanting me to die. You’re far too keen on where and how, and not so hot on why!”
The implication being that a Father in heaven is telling His reluctant Son: “You’re going to do this because I say so. I’m the dad; end of discussion.” Is Paul telling us here in Philippians chapter two that Jesus was obeying this way, falling into line against His own plans and desires?
Well, the answer is yes . . . and it’s no. On that Thursday evening in Gethsemane, the Bible paints a very plain picture of Jesus in despair. Remember, He was God—the Son of God—but He was also Man—the Son of Man. He had flesh and blood; nails would hurt Him just like they would hurt us. The agony of torn flesh, the asphyxiation caused by being stretched on those crossbeams, the relentless waves of pure pain . . . that was scary to Him as a human being. He shrank away from it. The worst Friday in history was less than 24 hours away.
Even more, the shame of being exposed, of bearing our sins was a terrible thought to Jesus. To feel rejected was painful. To feel separated from His Father was going to be a mental and emotional nightmare beyond His comprehension. That’s why, in the darkness of that Garden, even Jesus prayed: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from Me.”
And yet, over and over in God’s Word, we find the clear testimony coming from Jesus Himself that His plans and the Father’s plans are one and the same. They are never once, not ever, at cross purposes. God never once has to order Jesus around, because their desires are identical. John 3:16, the greatest verse in the Bible, tells us that God gave His Son; He didn’t force Him. God was “in Christ,” we’re told, “reconciling the world unto Himself.” And Jesus had every intention Himself of going to Calvary; He said so on many occasions. “If I be lifted up,” He told His disciples in John chapter 12, “I will draw all men unto Me.”
Hollywood actor Bruce Marchiano once had the privilege of playing Jesus in a four-hour movie, The Gospel According to Matthew. In his book, In the Footsteps of Jesus, he marvels at some of the Bible scenes, the confrontations Jesus had with enemies, with politicians, with powerful, fallen religious forces. Why did Jesus say the things He did, Bruce wondered. Why did He perform the very kinds of miracles that would get Him killed? And of course, Bruce was right there in the dust and the dirt, with mobs all around and movie extras, screaming “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”, and the emotional punch of being the center of this drama. And all at once it hit him how Jesus was in control of His destiny.
“Suddenly I saw a Jesus,” he writes, “who was not a victim at all, but who was actually controlling the situation every step of the way, a Jesus who was intentionally pushing the specific buttons that would drive them to execute Him! He knew the fulfillment of His mission, and He knew what He had to do to get there.” He came to this world to make that sacrifice and nothing was going to stop heaven’s salvation plan.
You know, we see here this incredible, marvelous, mysterious blend. Only Jesus was all man . . . and all God. Again, that Greek word, morphē, teaches us that He was completely divine, and then also completely human, like a servant or slave. On the one hand, as a man like us, a brother, He wants to turn away from pain and rejection. What hurts us, hurts Him. And yet this unique Man, this Lamb sent from God, is so much one with His own Father, that when the Bible tells us Jesus obeyed, it’s simply expressing how Jesus turned away from His fears and the upcoming agonies, and embraced, or RE-embraced the joint plan He and His Father had made together before the birth of our world. He obeyed His own perfect plan.
And what a picture for us: to walk so closely with Jesus, to identify so completely with God, our Father, that obedience turns out to be what we want too. As Augustine once wrote: “Love God . . . and do as you please.”
Because we’ll be pleased to do what pleases the God we love. Shall we pray?
Father, today we want to seek the mind of Christ, to have the same attitudes of obedience and the same willingness to serve that Jesus had. To wash feet as He did, to forgive our tormenters and want to save our detractors as He did. Thank You for lifting up Your own Son to the highest throne; we want to join in inaugurating Him as our eternal King. In Jesus’ saving name, Amen.
Submitted by David B. Smith. Better Sermons © 2005-2009. Click here for usage guidelines.
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