The apostle Paul commenting on the perfect deity and humanity of the Lord Jesus wrote “And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh…” (1 Tim. 3:16) W.E. Vine defines the word “mystery” as being “outside the range of unassisted natural comprehension and can only be made known by divine revelation…to those only who are illuminated by the Holy Spirit.”1
It is therefore with unshod feet that we venture to consider what is meant when we read that Christ “made Himself of no reputation,” otherwise translated “emptied Himself” (Phil. 2:7).
The apostle John begins his gospel by stating “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God” (John 1:1-2). Again, the writer to the Hebrews describes the pre-incarnate Son of God saying, “Who being the brightness of his glory, the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3). Likewise, we read “Who being in the form of God…” (Phil. 2:6). W. E. Vine indicates that the word “being” is a present participle, and establishes the pre-existent, unoriginated, deity of Christ prior to His birth, and its subsequent continuity.”2 These references, and many others, clearly establish, that the Lord Jesus, as the eternal Son of the eternal God, retained all the essential attributes of deity, even in humanity. The question then remains—in what sense did He empty Himself when He assumed humanity? It must be said unequivocally, that in becoming man, He retained His essential deity, but that, He became something He had not been before—a man. However, in becoming man, with all the essential characteristics of deity intact, W.E. Vine differentiates between the Lord “being in the form of God” and His “equalities with God.” “The former relates to His Godhood, whilst the latter refer to equalities with God such as His majesty and glory which are not part of the essential attributes of deity.”3 The hymn writer puts it so succinctly when he wrote:
Son of God, Thy Father’s bosom,
Ever was Thy dwelling place,
His delight in Him rejoicing,
One with Him in power and grace,
Oh, what wondrous love and mercy.
Thou didst lay Thy glory by,
And for us did come from heaven
As the Lamb of God to die.4
Now, speaking about the things that the Lord Jesus laid aside when He came into humanity, the Lord Jesus speaking to the Father prior to the Cross said “And now, O Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was” (John 17:5). Clearly, in assuming humanity, the Lord temporarily laid aside glories that had previously been His, and here He is asking the Father to restore that preincarnate glory to Him. To understand of what the Lord divested Himself, we will the examine the downward path of the Lord Jesus as shown in our subject text, which culminated in His “being obedient to death, even the death of the Cross.”
Took Upon Himself the Form of a Servant
We have previously noted that prior to His incarnation the Lord was in the “form (morphe) of God.” The word “morphe,” meaning “The divine nature, actually and inseparably subsisting in the person of Christ.”5 In other words, all the special characteristics of the Godhead were present in Christ from eternity. The word “morphe” is used again, when we read about Christ being in the “form of a servant.” In other words, in humanity, He assumed, without exception, the special characteristics of a servant.
Lower Than the Angels
Concerning angels, we read “Are they not all ministering spirits…?” (Heb. 1:14). They were in the past, and still are now “ministering spirits”—servants. Yet wonder of wonders, the eternal Son of God, the Lord Jesus, took a place that was lower than these heavenly beings, and required their support in times of crisis. We read “And he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him” (Mark 1:13). Again, during His agony in Gethsemane, we read “And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him” (Luke 22:43).
What condescending grace, that the Lord Jesus would voluntarily take a position where He required the ministry of angels that He had created.
Servant Among Men
During His earthy ministry, the Lord took the place of a servant amongst men. We read, “Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister…” (Matt. 20:28). But surely, one of the most graphic displays of His servant character is seen when, in the Upper Room, He laid aside His garments, girded Himself with a towel, took a basin of water, washed the disciples’ feet, and wiped them with the towel. This was the task of a household slave, yet the Lord stooped to this humble task in the service of His own.
Servant of Jehovah
But surely above all, the Lord Jesus was the Servant of Jehovah. He said, “For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me” (John 6:38). Indeed, the ultimate expression of His servanthood, is seen in Gethsemane, when, “being in an agony,” and the blood-like sweat falling to the ground, we still hear him saying “Saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless, not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42).
“Though he were a Son yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered” (Heb. 5:8). When we speak about Christ learning obedience, we must not confuse this with learning to be obedient, or that there was some resistance on the part of the Lord to being obedient. No! What this means is that in coming into humanity, the Lord voluntarily placed Himself in a position where He was under subjection, something that had never experienced before. We see this especially in His obedience to the will of the Father during His life and ultimately in His death. We read “And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:8).
We read “For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). The poverty of the Lord Jesus can only be understood in contrast to how rich he was before He stepped into this world, and our human minds lack the capacity to do so. We know that He left the side of His Father in Heaven, where He sat upon His throne, “high and lifted up” where seraphim covered their faces and feet, and chanted His holiness (Isa. 6:1). But He came into a world where He was “despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3) and where “His own received him not” (John 1:11). He was born in a stable, cradled in a manger, and raised in the home of a humble carpenter. Men replaced heaven’s chorus with their curses, and finally, they stripped Him of the only thing He possessed at the end of His life—His clothes—and nailed Him to a Cross. Truly He was that merchant “Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it” (Matt. 13:46).
In considering the important subject of the self-emptying of Christ when He came into humanity, and the wonder of His condescending grace, we realize that the limitations of our humanity make it impossible to grasp the immensity of the fact that the Lord Jesus, the eternal Son of the eternal God, stooped to the depths that we have rather been considering. As the hymn writer wrote, “This too vast to comprehend,” and it is therefore with humility of mind and heart that we offer the thoughts expressed in this article, in the earnest hope that this will promote the worship of our adoring hearts.
1 W.E. Vine, The Collected Writings of W.E. Vine, Vol. 3 (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996), p.170
2 W.E. Vine, The Collected Writings of W.E. Vine, Vol. 2 (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996), p.299-300
3 W.E. Vine, The Collected Writings, Vol. 2, p.300-301
4 James George Deck, Lamb of God Our Souls Adore Thee
5 W.E. Vine, The Collected Writings, Vol. 2, p.300
by W. H. Burnett