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For centuries, theologians have spoken of the work of Christ as being carried out in two different states. Of course, not states like North Carolina and South Carolina, state in this sense refers to Christ’s position as determined by His relationship to the law and then the condition that follows from that state. These two positions are called the state of humiliation and the state of exaltation.
The state of humiliation is the state wherein Christ laid aside His divine majesty, allowing it to be hidden, at least in part, assumed human nature in the form of a servant, and became voluntarily subject to the demands and the curse of the law.
The state of exaltation is the state wherein Christ passed from under the penalty and the burden of the law with the covenant of works, and came to possess all the blessings of salvation and was crowned with glory and honor.
Typically, there are five stages that go with the state of humiliation and four with the state of exaltation. You probably already know what they are, and you didn’t know it, because they track exactly with the language of the Apostles’ Creed. The five stages in the state of humiliation are usually considered incarnation, suffering, death, burial, and descent into Hell. You can hear that in the Creed: Born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, died, buried, descended into Hell. That’s the state of humiliation.
Then there are four stages, typically, in His exaltation: Resurrection, ascension, session (which means being seated at the right hand of God), and then His return and judgment. Again, you can hear this very plainly in the Apostles’ Creed: On the third day He arose again from the dead, He ascended into heaven where He sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.
There’s probably no passage of Scripture where we see these two states more clearly side by side with one another than this passage in Philippians chapter 2. And what I’d like to do for these brief few minutes is to look at Christ’s state of humiliation from these verses and then in a little bit Bill will come and we’ll preach on Christ’s exaltation.
So follow along as I read Philippians 2:5-8.
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
This is such a rich passage, and there’s so much that we can talk about, but what I want to focus on for these moments is on that phrase in verse 7, “but He emptied Himself,” He emptied Himself. The Greek word is “ekenosen,” which is why theologians sometimes talk about “kenosis,” it comes from that Greek word “ekenosen.” Kenosis theories of the incarnation.
Little bit of theological history for you, in particular in the 19th and 20th century, a number of German and British theologians began to speculate and come up with some new understandings of this “kenosis,” and they were motivated by a desire to show that Christ maybe could have been wrong about, say, Darwinism or higher critical theories of the Bible. He could have been wrong about that because He somehow did not have access to divine omniscience and therefore this kenosis theory helped to explain and helped them to find ways to keep Christ sort of up to date.
Some of these theories argued that Christ abandoned the relative attributes of deity they called His omnipotence, His omniscience, but He retained the essential attributes. I would say there aren’t really relative and essential, they’re all essential, but they said He set aside those while He retained holiness and love, those are the really essential ones.
Others said Christ divested Himself of relative and essential attributes, to the point of disrupting the life of the trinity and He somehow suspended His own cosmic functions for a time, that’s an extreme. Others, not wanting to go that far, said Christ simply ceased to exercise His divine functions, He abandoned certain divine prerogatives so that He lived His earthly life entirely within the bounds of His human nature.
The central point in all these theories is that Christ somehow set aside something of His divine attributes. He emptied Himself.
Well, you can see how they might have concluded that from verse 7. So what do we do with this phrase? In what way did Christ empty Himself?
Here’s the key, I think, to understanding the emptying of verse 7. Let me give it to you in a sentence: Christ’s self-abasement came by way of addition, not by subtraction. Christ’s self-abasement came by way of addition, not by subtraction.
Okay, what does that mean? It means that when the Son of God took on human flesh, He became something He was not without ceasing to be all that He was. He became something He was not, He had not been a man, without ceasing to be all that He was, He did not cease in any way to be the fully divine Son of God. He did not empty Himself of divine attributes, He did not divest Himself of deity. He emptied Himself in that He willingly submitted Himself to human pain and for a time allowed His glory to be veiled and the full extent of His deity to be obscured.
On the Mount of Transfiguration you have the unveiling, no mistaking who this man is, but for a time having taken upon human nature and in His earthly existence, He allowed that glory to be at least partially veiled and obscured.
If you look at verse 7 and 8, notice briefly three ways in which Christ emptied Himself, according to this text.
Number one, He took the form of a servant. That is, He did not insist upon His rights. He who was in the form of God, verse 6, took the form of a servant. In other words, He who should have been served by all men on earth, said in Mark 10:45, He came not to be served, but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many.
Two. He emptied Himself by being born in the likeness of men. Now in one sense there is nothing inherently demeaning about being born a human being. I said that Christ’s incarnation is a part of His humiliation. Well, that’s only true in a certain respect. To possess a human nature is not by itself humiliating, lest how could we make sense of the fact that Christ continues to have a human nature. The incarnation is perpetual. For the rest of history, in this life and forever and ever, ages unending, the Son of God is fully human and fully divine. So it isn’t just the fact that He took upon a human nature, but rather that being made in the likeness of men, He was subject to all of the weaknesses and infirmities of fallen humanity. He knew privation, grief, limitation according to His human nature. In particular, He submitted Himself to all the prescriptive requirements of the law and He gave Himself over to suffer all of the penalties of the law.
So to live on earth in His condition meant the partial veiling of His identity, and in that way the incarnation was self-emptying. So He took the form of a servant, He was born in the likeness of men, and number three, He humbled Himself to the point of death, even death on a cross.
That’s why we gather on Good Friday. And we’re familiar with the death of Christ on the cross. It’s almost the first thing that you teach your children. You say Jesus, and it’s like when the doctor hits that spot on your knee and it kicks out, “Jesus died on the cross to save me from my sins.” They know that.
But don’t lose sight of the mystery and the amazement that the Son of God died. We sing it in the hymn, ’tis mystery all, the Immortal dies. That’s the mystery. The Immortal dies.
There was no act of self-emptying more pronounced than Christ’s willingness to die the bitter and shameful death on the cross, so that as the God-man He endured the most un-God-like humiliations; helplessness, derision, death. And that was but the climax of His suffering, but it was not the beginning. We must not limit Christ’s suffering or His humiliation simply to Good Friday or to Passion Week, or even to the years of His public ministry. His whole life, from human birth to human death, was a life of suffering. Christ’s suffering began even before His baptism; born in poverty, underwent circumcision on the eighth day, had to flee as a refuge to Egypt when Herod tried to kill Him, labored as a carpenter, earning His bread by the sweat of His brow.
Christ’s suffering then contradiction from His baptism to Gethsemane, tempted, assaulted by the devil. He was hated by the Pharisees, scribes, and rulers. They sought to trap Him in His words. They forbade anyone to provide lodging for Him. They commanded people to make known His whereabouts. Everywhere He was held in contempt, reviled, contradicted.
They tried to throw Him from a cliff. They tried to kill Him with stones. He suffered hunger and thirst. He had nowhere to lay His head.
Christ’s suffering was seen most clearly in the hours from Gethsemane to Golgotha. He fell on His face and sweat drops of blood. He was betrayed by one of His disciples. He was forsaken by His followers. He was captured by His enemies. He was accused by false witnesses. Struck upon the mouth by a servant. Condemned as a blasphemer. Mocked, spit upon, struck on the face. A twisted crown of thorns upon His brow. He was ridiculed and tormented, scourged with a whip of bone and glass. Led out to bear His own cross and there He hung between two criminals. He was jeered by all who passed by. He was given vinegar with gall to drink. For three hours, He hung in darkness. He died having experienced the wrath of God.
As one writer puts it, “Behold the man of sorrows. Can any manner of sorrow, contempt, and ridicule be imagined with which the Lord Jesus was not afflicted? In this manner, the Prince of Life was killed and the Lord of Glory was crucified.”
Make no mistake. No one who ever suffered, suffered more unjustly than the Lord Jesus. No man who ever suffered, suffered in more excruciating pain, bearing the wrath of God for the sins of the world, than the Lord Jesus. No human existence was marked by such undeserved and unrelenting humiliation as the life and death of the Lord Jesus.
But of course we don’t focus upon His suffering and His humiliation, because we gather to feel sorry for Jesus. Jesus rather unsentimentally rebuked the crowds, saying to them, “Don’t weep for me. Weep for yourselves and the judgment that is coming if you do not believe and repent.”
No, Christians are not gathering in this city, in this country, and around the world today so we can simply feel sorry for a man who died 2000 years ago and suffered unjustly. Many men have suffered unjustly.
His suffering by itself is not the story. Rather, Christ suffered as one of us that He might suffer for us. The righteous for the unrighteous. The just for the unjust. The undeserving of punishment for the deserving.
Jesus Christ suffered for sinners like you. He was cast low that we might be lifted high. That we might look upon Him as the serpent of old was raised in the wilderness and so by looking upon Him, by His wounds we might be healed, so that all who are joined to Christ by faith can know the forgiveness of God. And not only that, but Hebrews tells us He cast aside the derision and the scorn of the cross, looking forward to the joy that was set before Him.
For Good Friday, we know, is not the end of the story, but Sunday is coming. And humiliation is not the end of the story for us, and it was not the end of the story for Christ. He was humiliated so that in turn He might be fully exalted.
Let’s pray. Father in heaven, turn our minds, our hearts, our thoughts, to this Christ, humiliated and exalted, and give us faith to worship. In Jesus we pray. Amen.