It’s almost Christmas, so it’s time to see what the Bible says about who Jesus was and what it tells us about the character of God.
Here are the relevant verses in Phil 2:5-11 [NASB]:
5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus,
6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped,
7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.
8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
9 For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name,
10 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.
Here’s respected New Testament scholar Ben Witherington to help us make sense of it:
Incarnation refers to the choices and acts of a pre-existent divine being, namely the Son of God, that the Son took in order to become a human being. He took on flesh, and became fully, truly human without ceasing to be fully, truly divine. Divinity is not something Jesus acquired later in life, or even after his death and resurrection. According to the theology of Incarnation he had always been the divine Son of God, even before he became Jesus, a human being. Strictly speaking the name Jesus only applies to a human being. It is the name the Son of God acquired once he became a human being in the womb of Mary, a name which he maintains to this day as he continues to be a human being.
[...]When I try and explain the incarnation to my students I deliberately choose to use the phrase divine condescension. What do I mean by this? Put another way, if there is going to be a corporate merger between a divine being and a human nature, then the divine side of the equation must necessarily limit itself, take on certain limitations, in order to be truly and fully human. The next question is…. what does it mean to be fully human? It means to have limitations of time and space and knowledge and power, and of course being mortal. Jesus exhibited all these traits. He was even tempted like us in every respect, but he avoided sin. What we should deduce from this is sinning is not a necessary part of being truly human. Yes, it is a trait of all fallen humans, but no, it is not how God made us in the first place. It is not necessary to sin in order to be truly or fully human.
[...]While the hymn is clear that the Son was ‘in very nature God’ at the same time he chose before he became human not to take advantage of his divine prerogatives. What were those? I call them the omnis– omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence.
[...]And here I think is what Paul is driving at when he says ‘have this mind in yourselves that was also in Christ Jesus’. It says that he ‘humbled himself’. Now contrary to what the world may think humility has nothing to do with feelings of low self-esteem. It has nothing to do with feelings of low self-worth. If Jesus is the model of true humility, it can’t have anything to do with those things, because Jesus surely was the one person who walked this earth who did not have such feelings, did not have an identity crisis, and so on. Humility is the posture of a strong person who steps down to serve others, as Jesus did.
This IVP commentary on Bible Gateway talks more about what this “divine condescension” means to us, using that passage from Philippians:
Christ’s selflessness for the sake of others expressed itself in his emptying himself by taking the “form” of a slave. Historically, far too much has been made of the verb “emptied himself,” as though in becoming incarnate he literally “emptied himself” of something. However, just asharpagmos requires no object for Christ to “seize” but rather points to what is the opposite of God’s character, so Christ did not empty himself of anything; he simply “emptied himself,” poured himself out, as it were. In keeping with Paul’s ordinary usage, this is metaphor, pure and simple. What modifies it is expressed in the phrase that follows; he “poured himself out by taking on the ‘form’ of a slave.”
Elsewhere this verb regularly means to become powerless or to be emptied of significance (hence the NIV’s made himself nothing; cf. KJV, “made himself of no reputation”). Here it stands in direct antithesis to the “empty glory” of verse 3 and functions in the same way as the metaphorical “he became poor” in 2 Corinthians 8:9. Thus, as in the “not” side of this clause (v. 6b), we are still dealing with the character of God as revealed in the mindset and resulting activity of the Son of God. The concern is with divine selflessness: God is not an acquisitive being, grasping and seizing, but self-giving for the sake of others.
I think it’s important to be clear that Jesus didn’t give up anything of his divine attributes by becoming a man. Rather, he added a human nature to his divine nature. The humility is because he came to serve others.
I think that it is important for us to emphasize the doctrine of the Incarnation at Christmas, in order to correct the grasping and seizing that is so widespread. The really interesting thing about Christmas is the Incarnation, and what it tells us about God and us. It tells us that we have value, because Jesus loved us. But it also says that following Jesus means being humble and being a servant to others. It means pouring yourself out to others in order to serve them. And these obligations are not metaphorical – they are rooted in the historical facts. This is the way the world is as a matter of fact, although certainly we have freedom to rebel against it.
For those looking for defenses to the doctrine of the Incarnation, you can find a chapter on it by Paul Copan in the book “Contending With Christianity’s Critics“. That’s for intermediate readers. For advanced readers you can look for a chapter in “The Cambridge Companion to Christian Philosophical Theology“, edited by Charles Taliaferro and Chad Meister, and published by Cambridge University Press. I just bought that latter book for one of the graduate students I sponsor. I know that Thomas V. Morris also has a couple of books out there on the Incarnation – one for intermediate readers and one for advanced readers. The latter book is published by Cornell University Press.