At this time of year, our minds are drawn to the wonder of the birth — the incarnation — of Jesus Christ.
Referring to Christ’s incarnation, the Bible says: ‘Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God but made himself of no reputation, taking the form of a servant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross’(Philippians 2:5-8).
What does all this mean? Consider, firstly, what Jesus was (Philippians 2:5). Even before Jesus became a man, he was in the ‘form of God’. The word ‘form’ means ‘inner, essential and abiding nature’; not shape, but character and qualities.
When Paul says that Jesus was in ‘the form of God’, he means he had those qualities which distinguish him from all other beings and constitute him as God; and without which, he would not be God.
Jesus is all that God is, and has all that God has. Jesus said, ‘He that has seen me has seen the Father’(John 14:9). He has always been God by nature; all the divine attributes were and are his, eternally (John 8:58; 17:24).
The phrases the Bible uses to describe Jesus Christ show that whatever God is in uncreated eternity — infinite, incomprehensible, all holy, all blessed — so is Jesus Christ his Son. Jesus is ‘the image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1:15); ‘the brightness of his glory; ‘the very image of his substance’ (Hebrews 1:3).
Consider, secondly, what Jesus thought (Philippians 2:6). He did ‘not consider it robbery to be equal with God’. Our Saviour knew that his equality with God detracted nothing from the Father’s own infinite glory.
When Peter, in the Gospels, said of Jesus, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God’, Jesus did not correct but commended him and replied, ‘Flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father who is in heaven’ (Matthew 16:13-20).
Similarly, when doubting Thomas confessed Christ as ‘my Lord and my God’ (John 20:28), Jesus accepted this worship from him without rebuke (even though the Jews believed in only one God). Jesus could say, ‘You believe in God, believe also in me’ (John 14:1).
When the dying thief repented while hung on the cross, Jesus opened the gate of life to him and assured him that he would be with him that very day in paradise (Luke 23:43). Jesus did not think he was robbing God to assume the right to open the gate of forgiveness and eternal life to this sinner.
God the Son did not ‘consider equality with God something to be grasped at’, as this equality was his already from all eternity. Nor was he robbing God of his glory when he called himself the ‘I am’(John 6:35; 8:28).
Consider, thirdly, what Jesus did (Philippians 2:7). ‘He made himself of no reputation and took the form of a servant’. His essential equality with God was a precious possession, but at his incarnation he took ‘the form of a servant’.
Because self-sacrificial love for sinners filled his heart, he made himself of no account, gave up the glory and riches of heaven. Remember, he had to borrow a place to be born — a stable; a house to sleep in — at Bethlehem; a boat to preach from — on the lake of Galilee; an ass to ride on — to get to Jerusalem; a room to have the Last Supper in — on the way to Calvary, and a tomb to be buried in — after his crucifixion.
Therefore, Jesus made himself of ‘no reputation’. That means he was a man with nothing. He had no land, no money and no political power. He made himself like this and planned to give up his life to atone for sin. What condescending humility and supreme love we see in Christ Jesus!
He ‘took upon himself the form of a servant’,that is, all the characteristics, marks, qualities and attributes of a servant. The New International Bible version puts it this way: ‘He made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant’. He had come to serve and not to rule. He said, ‘I am in the midst of you as one who serves’(Luke 22:27).
Jesus took to himself all those essential qualities and attributes which belong to a servant, in order to redeem us.
Consider fourthly, what Jesus became (Philippians 2:7). The Bible says he came ‘in the likeness of men’. This is what we celebrate at Christmas. It is spoken of in many parts of Scripture. Jesus was sent from God ‘in the likeness of sinful flesh’(Romans 8:3); ‘when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman made under the law’(Galatians 4:4); ‘great is the mystery of godliness, God, was manifested in the flesh’ (I Timothy 3:16).
God’s Son came into the world to take to himself flesh and blood, body and soul. He remained God, but became man. He was God and man in one person, yet with two natures. Christ was one hundred per cent God and one hundred per cent man. He became like human beings, with human nature in its present weakened state (but sinless through his virgin conception in Mary). His was a real humanity joined to true divinity, and all without sin (Hebrews 4:15).
Christ looked like a man, because he was a man! Yet all the time he was in ‘the form of God’. Think of it this way: an apple tree has a form (inner nature) that remains the same all year round, but its appearance changes with the seasons.
During the year it buds, blooms, is covered in leaves, bears fruit, and is picked clean. In the autumn the leaves fall off and the tree looks very different from spring, when it had blossom and leaves.
Similarly, when Jesus became man, he appeared to the Jews and all who saw him as a human being, having brothers and sisters, getting hungry, thirsty and weary. Yet the apostle John fell at his feet, as dead, when he saw the risen Christ in all his glory on the isle of Patmos (Revelation 1). John wrote, ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory … full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14).
Philippians 2:8 then tells us why Jesus came: ‘And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross’.
Christmas is all about Christ coming as Saviour of the world. Although he was God, he came into the world for the salvation of sinners (John 3:16). Is this not amazingly good news? Surely we should praise God for Jesus, because ‘love came down at Christmas’?
God’s purpose is clear.The baby born in the stable 2,000 years ago was born to die. ‘The Son of God became the son of man, that we, the sons of men, might become the sons of God’.
‘Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.’
Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-94)
Ian McNaughton is a retired pastor, the writer of several books, including Opening up Job (Day One).