The Minister’s Pastoral Letter




It is Lent.  As we prepare for Holy Week and Easter let us meditate on  Philippians 2.5-11. This very moving passage connects the great events of our Christian faith: the incarnation, the events of Holy Week and Easter, all in one fell swoop.

It begins with Christ’s eternal status.  It tells us Christ was ‘in the form of God’  (2.6).  Then it  plunges straight into what we as Christians believe about Jesus Christ.  First it says  Christ ‘did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited’ (2.6).   Adam  grasped at equality with God according to Genesis 3.5.  He had no right to do so. Christ , however, had every right to do so because it was his by right, but the great thing is he didn’t exercise this right. What Adam craved, Christ was willing to forgo.

Christ ‘emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born ín human likeness, and being found  in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.’  What could be more evocative.  Well might Charles Wesley exclaim, ‘Our God contracted to a span, incomprehensively made man’ (in the hymn, ‘Let heaven and earth combine.’).

We are told Christ emptied himself.  Scholars once thought this meant that in becoming a human being Christ emptied himself of the attributes of deity, such as omnipotence and omniscience.  But it is highly unlikely Paul had this in mind.  The Greek word we translate  as ’emptied’ also means ‘to pour out’ and the meaning very likely is that Christ poured out himself, putting himself totally our disposal (1 John  3.16). He became poor so that he might make many rich (2 Cor.8.9; Eph.1.23; 4.10). Amazing grace!

What it meant for Christ to pour himself out unreservedly for others is then    defined more precisely. We are told he took the form of a slave, that he was born a human being and he humbled himself and became obedient to death even death on a cross. The words shock us.  This is certainly not what we expect of one who shared  God’s very nature. There could be no greater contrast.  In assuming the form of a slave, that is, as one without any rights or privileges whatsoever, Christ is placing himself unreservedly at our service.  ‘The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve; (Mk.12.45; Lk 22.47).  Amazing grace. Say that again.

Christ not only died like other humans. He experienced the cruelest and most shameful death of all: crucifixion. Such an execution was reserved for the worst criminals and disobedient slaves.  For Christ to die such a death was  the ultimate  degradation and humiliation.  Two thousand years of Christian piety which have transformed the cross into a symbol of devotion have obscured its shock and horror,

What verse 8 says could not be a greater contrast with the opening words  (Christ in the form of God) or , as we are now about to see, with his exaltation.

 Halfway through the passage (2.9) the mood changes. It is totally different.  Instead of Christ’s humiliation we have his exaltation.

Now it is God  (not Christ) who acts . By raising Jesus from the grave God vindicated him and all that he stood for. His resurrection turns into his exaltation.   The contrast with the first half of the passage is remarkable.  It is made all the greater by the statement that God ‘highly exalted’ Christ (2.9).  The verb used could not be more emphatic. It is a superlative (hyperupsosen). It means ‘super exalted’. It is found only here in the whole of the New Testament.  Christ who made himself so lowly has been made so high that he is above everything. He is placed on a pinnacle, so to speak. What is more. God gave him ‘the name that  is above every name’ (2.9).

A name above every name!  This is a further reference to the great change in Jesus’ fortunes. In Biblical times the name one was given conveyed the real nature of  the individual as well as status (see Gen.25.26; 1 Sam.25.25). That name was Lord (2.10-11).

Jesus as Lord was the earliest  Christian confession (Acts 2.36; Rom.10.9: 1 Cor.11.23; 12.3; 16.22).  The one who humbled himself to the lowest level possible God has exalted to the highest position possible, so that, at the name of Jesus every knee should bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’

To conclude.  Nowhere in the New Testament do we find a clearer statement on the incarnation. These seven verses form one of the most profound expressions of Christ’s  divine and human nature.  He who was  ‘in the form of God’ did not cease to be divine.  To his deity he added humanity.

This passage challenges us no less than the Philippians.

The opening four verses of  Philippians 2 show us that what follows is related to problems within the church at Philippi.  Like the Philippians, it is all too easy for us to allow ambition to cause us compare ourselves with others and think ourselves better,  which means of course that we do not give giving proper attention to others and their needs.  ‘Do not look to your own interests but to the interests of others’ (2.4).   When confronted by our problems we should not ignore the needs of others nor attempt to exploit what we consider to be our rights.  In other words, ethics and ethical behaviour and theology are inseparably joined   Like the Philippians, are exhorted to live ‘in a manner worthy of the gospel’ (1.27).

The passage ends by declaring the universal Lordship of Christ. ‘Every tongue  should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.’ To confess Christ as Lord has direct implications for daily living. How we spend our time and our resources.

R J. McKelvey