“Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself…” (Phil. 2:5-7)
“Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered.” (Heb. 5:8-9)
Philippians 2 is one of those passages we’ve all heard preached or read numerous times, because it’s the essential story of the Gospel: how Jesus left His throne in heaven, came to earth, died on the cross, and rose again. However, hearing it quoted one more time a while back the Spirit stopped me dead in my tracks on three words: “He emptied Himself.” He asked me, “Do you understand the magnitude of the meaning of this? Have you emptied yourself?” Obviously, I had never stopped to fully consider what this meant for Jesus and for us, otherwise I would not have been hopelessly stuck now after so many prior visits to the verse.
So, join me here for a moment in considering this was the One who, according to Colossians 1, Is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation through Whom, and for Whom, all things were created in heaven and earth, the One in Whom all things hold together and the head of God’s holy church. But there was a job to do, and a covenant to entirely remake so as to become everlasting for everyone. So, this One who was all Colossians says and more had to become nothing. Nothing. Only emptied completely of the power, the majesty, the God-ness Jesus would have to survive this trip of destiny to a lost and sinful people who were the object of the Father’s love. Knowing all things that were about to befall Him: losing all He had and descending into temptation, trials and death on earth, and afterwards a reservation at the very gates of hell, I must wonder if there may have been a request made that was made again in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if it be possible let this cup pass. Nevertheless, not My will be done but Thine?”
How could Jesus have “learned obedience,” as Hebrews 5 above asserts, had there been any vestige at all of the mighty God left in Him that was the Word itself, and taught us all things, not been fully emptied? Impossible. Likewise, how could He have truly “been tempted in all things as are we” (Heb. 4) without being fully as we are? Could He have let the mockers mock, the religious leaders persecute, and the Romans kill Him in the most demeaning and cruel way known to man had any vestige of the God Colossians speaks of been allowed to linger? Yes, He was God incarnate, but also so fully human [something difficult indeed to wrap our brains around]. Nonetheless, all these slings of outrageous fortune were not only allowed, they were embraced!
And how about us? Are we—am I—so fully emptied so as to follow the footsteps of my Master, “sharing in His sufferings?” Do we check our “I’m saved and you’re not” card at the door [“not regarding ourselves our equality with God as something to be grasped”], to go out to the world around us and offer salvation to them? I don’t think so. Paul says we have not yet resisted sin to the point of shedding blood (Heb. 12), much less going beyond that to fully lay down our lives for our friends and brothers (John 15). Jesus says we are to deny ourselves, take up our crosses daily to die if we are to follow Him. Are those verses more than mere words to us, or will we truly follow the One who emptied Himself?
1st Corinthians 1 says God has chosen the foolish, weak, and base things of the world to shame the wise, strong, and exalted things of the world so no man may boast. Proverbs 6 tells us there are six abominations the Lord hates, first among them are “haughty eyes.” James 4 and 1 Peter 5 tell us the humbled will be exalted and the proud will be brought down. If we want the full assurance of sanctification in this life and salvation in the next, there is no greater ally than humility and no greater enemy than pride. Likewise, there is no greater path to that humility than to be, and remain daily, emptied of ourselves.
Isaiah 53 speaks, in great detail, of everything being emptied would cost Jesus, and the results of it as well. Isaiah says Jesus’ days would be prolonged, the good pleasure of the Lord would prosper in His hands, He would be satisfied with all He suffered, He would justify many, be allotted a portion with the great, and divide the spoils of war with the strong. Philippians 2 likewise ends with the results of Jesus’ humility, saying God will highly exalt Him, give Him a name above every other name that every knee on earth will bow to, and result in every tongue confessing He is Lord. John 5 says because of His ministry on earth all judgment has been given to Him, a truth Revelations 5 confirms as He is the only One “in heaven or on earth” found worthy to break the seals and open the books of judgment. That is what being emptied to the point of utter humanity meant to Jesus.
Something else I realized as I pondered these passages was Jesus being emptied leads us in to a very dicey and dangerous arena. I have spent many years studying the concept of lawlessness, and believe it will be the final deception of “that lawless one,” the Anti-Christ, who comes in accordance with the activities of Satan, with all power for signs and false wonders, full of the deception and wickedness 2 Thessalonians 2 speaks of. Most everywhere this word is used, it is connected with the worship [by believers] of false signs and wonders. And who can argue we are seeing miracle worship throughout Christianity on a grand scale today?
In Luke 10, Jesus said He was going to give us great power for miracles, but then warned us not to rejoice in them, rather that our names would be written down in heaven. In Matthew 12, Jesus warns it is an evil and adulterous [adultery with other gods] generation that seeks after signs, as His tormentors the Pharisees did. What He said was important and what was to be sought, in that same passage, was the greatest miracle of all, the cross! As with Luke 10, it wasn’t about the miracles, but about what made it possible for “our names to be written down in heaven.” And so, it is with the grave and somber admonishment to all of us to marvel in any miraculous works God choses to do through us without seeking them, craving them, or seeing them as any measure of spiritual superiority whatsoever, I offer the following.
I have never taken literally Jesus words, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also. And greater works than these he will do, because I go to the Father” (John 14). I always felt this spoke of the time we are afforded to “lay down our lives” for others Jesus did not have in the three short years of His ministry. And, while I still believe that is true because love is the greatest miracle of all, if Jesus truly emptied Himself of His “equality with God,” then all He had on this earth is what we have now: the Holy Spirit. Remember, He said shortly before His crucifixion that it would be to our advantage that He left, for if He did He would send us the Holy Spirit (John 16).
Let’s put these two verses together. In John 14, Jesus said we would do these greater works because He was going to the Father. Then, in John 16, He says He is going to the One who sent Him, the Father! If we truly believe He emptied Himself of all equality with God, and it would be to our advantage that when He returned to be with His Father He would send us the Holy Spirit, then how can we not believe we can indeed do these greater works?! He had nothing but the Holy Spirit while here, emptied of Himself and bereft of equality with God, and so would not whatever He did have here be available to us? If we say Jesus had any more power available to Him while on this earth than there is to us, then how can we believe He truly emptied Himself and let go of His equality with God? Either He truly came to earth emptied of His God-ness, meaning we can have all He had while on earth, or He did possess that God-ness and Paul lied to us. We cannot have it both ways.
This is perhaps the greatest paradox of them all, that we are emptied to gain, humbled to be exalted, and made the least of all to obtain the greatest power of all. This, my friends, is the cross defined. This is a concept that the world, with all its worldly knowledge, cannot faintly comprehend: that the King of kings and Lord of lords truly became nothing to become “our all in all.” Will we become truly emptied? We may not be the only Jesus some ever see, but as His ambassadors we will be the first they see.