Editor’s Note:

The purpose of this series is to help our readers this holiday season to think through the doctrine of the person and work of Christ.

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What Does the Bible Teach About the Incarnation?

Philippians 2:5-11 describes the ultimate example of humble service—Jesus left his throne and became like us in order to serve us. This passage is often referred to as the “hymn of Christ”. In these verses, Christ’s example of service is depicted through a stirring poem that traces His preexistence, incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of God. Paul wrote this magnificent theology to encourage the Philippians to consider other people’s interests first (v.4). Jesus is the paradigm of genuine spiritual progress; not a self-aggrandizing struggle for supremacy, but a deep love for God and neighbor shown in deeds of service. Verses 6-11 have some clear indications of poetic structure, leading some to believe that this is a pre-Pauline hymn adapted by Paul. It is just as likely, however, that Paul composed the hymn for this setting. In view of the myriad theological questions that arise in these verses, it is critical to keep two things in mind: 1) these verses were written not to spur Christians to theological debate, but to encourage greater humility and love; and 2) the summary of Christ’s life and ministry found here is not unique to the book of Philippians. The same themes are evident throughout the entire New Testament.

Prior to the incarnation, Christ was in the form of God (Greek, morphe theou). Despite the assertions of some scholars to the contrary, this most naturally refers to the “preexistence” of Christ—he, the eternal Son, was there with the Father (John 1:1; 17:5, 24) before he was born in Bethlehem. “Form” here means the true and exact nature of something, or possessing the characteristics and qualities of something. Therefore having the “form of God” is roughly equivalent to having equality with God (isa theo), and it is directly in contrast with having the “form of a servant” (Phil. 2:7).

The Son of God is and always has been God.

Form could also be a reference to Christ being the ultimate image of God, “the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3). It might also refer to the fact that he is the visible expression of God’s invisible glory (Col. 1:15). Remarkably, Christ did not imagine that having “equality with God” (which he already possessed) should lead Him to hold onto His privileges. It was not something to be grasped, to be kept and exploited for His own benefit or advantage. Instead, He had a mind-set of service. “Christ did not please himself” (Rom 15:3). In humility, He counted the interests of others as more significant than His own (Phil. 2:3-4).

“Made Himself Nothing”

Made himself nothing” has occasioned much controversy. The Greek word, keno, can mean “empty”, “pour out”, or also (metaphorically) “give up status and privilege.” Does this mean that Christ temporarily relinquished His divine attributes during His earthly ministry? No. The theory of Christ’s kenosis or “self-emptying” is not in accord with the context of Philippians or with early Christian theology. Paul is not saying that Christ became less than God or “gave up” some divine attributes; he is not even commenting directly on the question of whether Jesus was fully omnipotent or omniscient during His time on earth. Nor is he saying that Christ ever gave up on being “in the form of God.” Rather, Paul is stressing that Christ, who had all the privileges that were rightly His as King of the universe, gave them up to become an ordinary Jewish baby bound for the cross. Christ “made himself nothing” by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. While He had every right to stay comfortably where He was (in a position of supreme power and authority) His love drove Him to a chosen position of weakness for the sake of sinful man (2 Cor. 8:9: “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich”). In other words, the “emptying” consisted of His becoming human, not of His giving up any part of His true deity.

Above Arrogance

It is remarkable enough that God the Son would take on human form (Greek schema, “outward appearance, form shape,” a different term from morphe, used in vv.6-7 for “form of God” and “form of a servant”), and thus enter into all the mess of a fallen world. But Jesus went much farther than just condescension, He also became obedient even to the point of death, even death on a cross (Romans 5:19). Crucifixion was not simply a convenient way of executing prisoners, it was the ultimate indignity, a public statement by Rome which said that the crucified one was beyond contempt. The excruciating physical pain was magnified by the degradation and humiliation. No other form of death, no matter how prolonged or physically agonizing, could match crucifixion as an absolute destruction of the person (Matthew 27:35). The cross was the ultimate counterpoint to the divine majesty of the preexistent Christ, and thus was the ultimate expression of Christ’s obedience to the Father.

Jesus’ humiliation and humble service became the foundation for His exaltation. By humbling Himself on the cross out of love, He demonstrates that He truly shared the divine nature of God, who is love (1 John 4:8). For this reason God raised Him to life and highly exalted Him, entrusting Him with the rule of the cosmos and giving Him the name that is above every name. In the Septuagint, God’s personal name is translated as “Kyrios”, which means “Lord”, which is the name specified in Philippians 2:11. Paul indicates that the eternal Son of God received a status and authority (Matthew. 28:18; Acts 2:33) that had not been His before He became incarnate as both God and man. The fact that Jesus received this name is a sign that He exercises His messianic authority in the name of Yahweh.

While Christ now bears the divine name Yahweh (Hebrew for “Lord”), He is still worshiped with His human name, Jesus. The astounding union of Jesus’ divine and human natures is reinforced by the allusion to Isaiah 45:23 in the words, “every knee should bow and every tongue confess”, which refers exclusively to Yahweh (Isa. 45:24). The fact that these words can now be applied to God’s messianic agent—Jesus Christ the Lord—shows that Jesus is fully divine. But the worship of Jesus as Lord is not the final word of the hymn. Jesus’ exaltation also results in the glory of God the Father. This identical pattern is found in 1 Corinthians 15:23-28, when God gives Jesus messianic dominion over all creation and declares that everyone will one day rightly give praise to Him as their Lord. In this passage, we learn that when Jesus’ kingdom reaches its fullness, He does not keep the glory for Himself. Instead it says, “The Son himself will also be subjected to him who puts all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all…” (1 Cor. 15:28). Even in His exaltation, Jesus remains the model of loving service to God.

One Last Glance

Throughout this article, we have examined what the Bible says about the Incarnation and what influential theologians have said about it. The Incarnation is vital to a robust understanding of the gospel as we have seen. In the Incarnation, God became a man and was born from a virgin in Bethlehem. Above, all the Incarnation proves to man that God is not disinterested in the affairs of sinners, but rather he came to deal with the problem of man’s sin. This flies right in the face of the modern belief that God is “disinterested in mankind”.

The doctrine of the Incarnation demonstrates that God doesn’t simply “talk a big game”, but actually offers a solution to man’s problem of sin. God, in His love, sent Jesus into the world. Jesus lived a sinless life as a man, all the while experiencing all the temptations that mankind faces. And yet, He lived a sinless life in the midst of people who constantly criticized Him, but begged Him for miracles. The people during Christ’s ministry spit in His face and ridiculed Him, but all the while Jesus demonstrated that He cared for people by teaching, healing, setting the captives free, raising the dead, and so much more. All of this disproves the modern notion that God is not interested in man. By becoming a man, God demonstrated that He was interested in mankind through His own willingness to step into our time and space and die for our sins. So when we consider the doctrine of Incarnation, let us worship the God of the Bible—the Creator of all and the Redeemer of sinners who alone is worthy of all praise, honor, and glory.

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1 Denney, James, The Death of Christ, ed. R.V.G. Tasker (Chicago: Intervarsity Press, 1964).