The mystery of faith.
Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t merely a homogenous stand-in for God. He was and is God.
This article was originally written for 1517.
Paul’s words in the second chapter of Philippians might just be the most important verses when seeking to rightly apprehend the scope of the gospel. “Let this mind be in you,” the apostle says to the Philippian churchgoers, “which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God” (Phil. 2:5–6). The affirmation, here, is that Jesus’s “original being” is “in the form of God,” that is, like God, in nature and in essence. Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t merely a homogenous stand-in for God. He was God. He is God. He is “the image of the invisible God,” Paul attests elsewhere (Col. 1:15). He is the “skin and bone” manifestation of everything God is like, “the express image of his person” (Heb. 1:3). “Jesus is the embodiment of who God is,” writes Dane Ortlund, continuing:
He is the tangible epitomization of God . . . In him we see heaven’s eternal heart walking around on two legs in time and space. When we see the heart of Christ, then, throughout the four Gospels, we are seeing the very compassion and tenderness of who God himself most deeply is. (133)
During Christ’s days on Earth, he wasn’t robbing God or “plundering heaven” when he asserted his divinity. He wasn’t operating in a place where he didn’t belong when he announced that he was Abraham’s God (John 8:58). Unlike the first Adam, the Second Adam has a rightful claim to the knowledge and holiness of the Father, seeing as he is the Father’s fullness in bodily form (Col. 1:19; 2:9). Therefore, there is no discrepancy between God and Jesus. Those who seek to pit the Old Testament Jehovah against the New Testament Jesus are in for a treat, considering they’re one and the same. “He that seeth me seeth him that sent me,” Jesus says (John 12:45; 14:9).
Before time began, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit existed in perfect, tri-unity. The Godhead’s trinitarian peace and fellowship and harmony have never been in question. Even as the Son was hours away from shouldering the weight of the world’s sin on that wretched cross, the Godhead’s glory wasn’t at risk of evaporating (John 17:5, 21). The Trinity always is, has always been, and always will be. There has never been a time when God was not, nor will there ever be. Likewise, there’s never been a moment when Christ was not, nor will there ever be. All things the Father is, so is the Son.
Nevertheless, at the Godhead’s appointed time — “when the fulness of time was come” (Gal. 4:4) — the Son of God “made himself of no reputation,” took on “the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:7). The Creator appeared among and within his creation as one of his creatures. He walked the same earth upon which we walk, felt the same things you and I feel, was afflicted in all the ways you and I are afflicted (Heb. 4:14–16), enduring the weight of our creaturely sorrow and sickness and suffering “in his own body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24; Isa. 53:3–4).
These are truths which are often difficult to grasp. We accept them without, perhaps, even contemplating them at any great length. The thrust of Paul’s words tell us, in short, that God has come down. But what does that mean, exactly? Countless words have already been published and preached and parsed concerning the precise meaning of Paul’s words in verse 7, often referred to by its Greek counterpart, the “kenosis.” What did he mean when he said that Christ “made himself of no reputation”? What does the “self-emptying of Christ” signify?
Summarily, it means that God has come down to the level of humanity while still retaining his deity. He came and lived among sinners while remaining separate from sin (2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22; 1 John 3:5). In this descent from heaven to earth, the Son of God did not give up his “Godhood.” The Son of God is still God the Son in the Incarnation. He was (is) God both as a wailing infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and as a (falsely) convicted criminal nailed to a cross. Paul’s indication of the Son’s “self-emptying” (Phil. 2:7), then, isn’t intended to extend to his deity, as if he lost something on the way down. It is, perhaps, better understood to mean that the Son consciously resisted the use of his deity to make his own path among humanity easier. All of which is tricky and technical language, the likes of which I won’t profess to have figured out. Indeed, according to G. Campbell Morgan no one has this figured out:
We have looked into it, we have attempted to understand it. We have sometimes, perhaps foolishly, attempted an explanation of it. Let us at once confess that it says something about the Christ who transcends all human explanation. No translator has yet been satisfied with his rendering of the passage . . . I am growingly thankful when I find a passage I cannot translate, and no one else can. When my attempts at exposition and exegesis are alike baffled, then I worship. (6:193–94)
I tend to agree with Morgan on this point, and I don’t mean that as a cop-out. This is one of those instances where we’d do well not dotting every theological “i” or crossing every exegetical “t,” in a feeble attempt to neatly comprehend all of the intricacies of the Incarnation. The gospel frees us to just worship. To just “stand amazed in the presence / Of Jesus the Nazarene” (Charles Gabriel, 1905), knowing that “in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 2:9). We’re better off letting this mystery remain mysterious (Rom. 16:25; 1 Cor. 2:7; Eph. 6:19; Col. 2:2; 1 Tim. 3:9, 16). After all, that’s who Christ is: “He is more than a Person that can be seen,” Morgan continues. “That Person is the Revelation of the Infinite Mystery” (6:196). He is the mystery of God come in the likeness of men.
G. Campbell Morgan, The Westminster Pulpit: The Preaching of G. Campbell Morgan, Vols. 1-10 (Fincastle, VA: Scripture Truth Book Co., 1954).
Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020).