Philippians 2:5-11, “5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,[a] 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,[b] 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,[c] being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Paul gives us some of the most profound reflections on the incarnation in the entire New Testament. Philippians 2:5–11 tells us that the Son of God did not consider His equality with God as something to be used solely for His own advantage at the expense of others; instead, He voluntarily condescended and took the form of a servant and became “obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross” (v. 8). In this condescension, our Savior did not surrender any divine attributes such as omniscience or omnipotence, though He did veil His glory. Without giving up His glory, He chose not to fully manifest it to all who saw Him as He walked the earth. But this veiling was only temporary. On account of His work, God exalted the God-man Christ Jesus, rewarding Him for His obedience and revealing Him as the source of eternal salvation for all who believe (vv. 9–11).
The incarnation is a deep mystery, for we cannot fully understand how God could take on our humanity without giving up any of His deity. We can, however, understand that the incarnation reveals God’s infinite love and grace. He did not leave us alone in our sin but entered into the misery of this fallen world without becoming a sinner Himself in order to rescue us from eternal damnation. We will never tire of thanking and praising Him for this throughout all eternity.
Thanks in no small part to the efforts of Athanasius, the Arians were cast out of the church, and the orthodox, biblical view of the deity of Christ prevailed. After decades of exegetical and theological arguments against Arianism, a church council was called in AD 381 at Constantinople. There, church leaders reaffirmed the decisions of the Council of Nicea on the deity of Christ, and the fact that the Holy Spirit is also truly God was also clarified. The end result was the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, which Christians around the world confess today, usually referring to it as the Nicene Creed.
Christological debate and discussion continued, but the humanity of Christ became the new center of theological controversy. The crucial players in the initial phase of this argument were Nestorious, the bishop of Constantinople, and Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria. Nestorious, driven by a concern to preserve the full deity of Christ, began speaking of Jesus as two persons, one human and the other divine. This view has two major problems. First, it ultimately ends up presenting a Savior with a divided personality—a being divided against Himself. The second issue is that it gives us a Redeemer who did not truly become incarnate. God the Son, did not truly unite Himself to humanity, which means that God the Son cannot offer a satisfactory atonement. That which is of infinite worth, the divine person, cannot give infinite worth to an atonement made according to finite humanity if the human nature and divine nature are not truly united in one person. Cyril argued that there had to be a true union of humanity and deity in Christ that preserved the distinctive attributes of each nature while making the divine person able to save human beings. An ordinary human being is finite, and his sacrifice cannot do anything for anyone other than himself. But a divine person with a true human nature is of infinite worth, so He can save the world. Cyril’s position was affirmed at the Council of Ephesus in 431.
Yet the Christological debates were not over. A variety of other heresies had to be addressed, including monophysitism, which held that the divine nature swallowed up the humanity of Jesus. That finally produces a Jesus who cannot save us because He is not fully human. In 451, the Council of Chalcedon reaffirmed the decisions at Ephesus and condemned monophysitism and other heresies. That has left us with the orthodox belief that says Christ is one person with two natures, each nature retaining its particular attributes.
The Christological debates of the early church can be hard to keep track of, but there is a critical conclusion from them that we can easily remember, namely, that Jesus’ humanity is as vital to our salvation as His deity. Because He was and remains truly human as well as truly divine, Jesus atoned perfectly for our sin and helps us in our temptation. He can save us and sanctify us because He is one of us without sacrificing any of His deity.
At age eighty-six, Polycarp, the second-century bishop of Smyrna and disciple of the apostle John, was brought to the Roman authorities and ordered to confess that Caesar is lord. Though doing so would have saved his life, Polycarp refused and was murdered, inspiring others to remain faithful.
Considered apart from Polycarp’s story, it was not unusual to refer to Caesar as kurios, the Greek term for “lord.” In the original Greek, kurios can mean simply “sir” as a polite and slightly exalted way of referring to another human being. Or, it can refer to a master of many slaves or servants. However, neither of these meanings were in mind when Rome applied the title kurios to the emperor. Instead, kurios signified divinity when used of the Caesar. Faithful Christian that he was, Polycarp could not call Caesar lord without violating the most basic tenet of the faith (Ex. 20:3).
Sometimes, the New Testament may have the less exalted meanings of kurios in mind when it addresses Jesus as “Lord,” but the title is undoubtedly used of Him in the highest possible sense as well. The old Greek version of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint translates the Hebrew Yahweh and adonai as kurios. Yahweh is the revealed name of God in Hebrew, and Adonai is one of His titles; thus, kurios, or “Lord,” is the most crucial title for God in the Septuagint, which is quoted throughout the New Testament.
When kurios is used in this sense, it conveys the idea of “one who is absolutely sovereign.” It is a majestic title, conveying God’s sovereignty and divine power, and it is a remarkable proof of Jesus’ divinity when it is applied to Him in this manner. Philippians 2, in which Paul discusses the humiliation and exaltation of God the Son, calls Jesus “Lord” in the highest sense. “Lord” is the name above all names that is given to our Savior when the Father exalts Him (vv. 9–11).
Of course, Paul is not saying the Son of God was unworthy of this title before He became incarnate on our behalf. No, Paul is proclaiming that the Son’s perfect obedience, followed by His death for sin and His resurrection, reveals all the more clearly that Jesus indeed is worthy to be Lord of all.
Early Christians like Polycarp were martyred because they refused to confess Caesar as lord. They knew that Jesus alone is divine and would have no one usurp His status. These Christians knew the New Testament is not merely being polite when it calls Jesus “Lord”; rather, it is teaching that Jesus is God Almighty. Idols of sex, money, power, prestige, and so on can become lords if we are not careful; therefore, let us always confess that Jesus Christ alone is Lord.