The Lord's Day Morning
January 20, 2008
Fighting for Joy, Growing in Humility,
Knowing Christ and the Peace that Passes Understanding: A Study of Philippians
“The Obedience of the Death of Christ”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Philippians 2. We’re going to be looking at verses 5-8 today. We've been studying this great letter for a number of weeks, and we have been in this section of this great letter from Philippians 2:5-11, in this great hymn to Christ, this song of Christ, which celebrates His humiliation and His exaltation.
Paul, in Philippians 1:27, has opened the whole middle section of this letter up with an exhortation that we would conduct ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel; that is, that we would live a life that fits the gospel. And he elaborates and deepens on that exhortation in Philippians 2:5, when he calls on us to “have this mind among [ourselves], which was also in Christ Jesus” (or, which is ours in Christ Jesus). In other words, Paul is calling us, within the help of God's Spirit and by God's grace, to emulate Jesus’ humility…the selfless love that we just heard about in song…to emulate Jesus’ humility and selfless love manifest in His humanity and servanthood.
Today we want to specially look at what He says about how the humility of Christ was made manifest in His obedience to the point of death, even the death of the cross.
Before we read God's word, let's look to Him in prayer and ask for His help and blessing.
Our heavenly Father, this is Your word. You mean it for Your glory and for our edification. We acknowledge, O God, that this word is harder to obey than it is to understand, and yet we also acknowledge that there are deep, deep truths in the passage which we are about to read which we can only understand by the help of Your Spirit. And so we ask that the Holy Spirit would enable us both to understand and to follow these exhortations and examples of Your word. We ask this through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Hear the word of God:
“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 made himself nothing, 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.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
Let me ask you a question. What do you think that the Apostle Paul means when he says that Jesus was obedient to the point of death? Do you think that he means that Jesus was obedient until the time that He died? Or does he mean something else, something more?
Well, keep that question in the back of your mind and listen closely, because we won't be able to answer it until we've heard each of the four points that Paul is pressing home on us in Philippians 2:8 today, because Paul is showing us here different ways in which Jesus humbled himself for us, and there are four of them that I want to draw your attention to.
Jesus humbled himself by obeying His whole life long for us. Paul emphasizes that in Philippians 2:8 and its surrounding context.
Secondly, Jesus humbled himself by embracing the humiliation of the cross. That's what Paul means especially by the last words of verse 8.
But Jesus also humbled himself by obeying for our sanctification. It was for our maturity in Christ that the Apostle Paul tells us that Jesus obeyed.
And finally, Jesus humbled himself by being obedient to death in the sense of accepting death for us. Those are the four things I want to explore with you today.
I. Jesus humbled himself by obeying His whole life long for us.
Let's begin with the first one: Jesus humbled himself by obeying His whole life long for us. What I mean by that is that Jesus, by obeying His Father's will, in embracing God's saving but personally costly and incalculably painful plan, by obeying His Father's will and embracing God's saving plan for us His whole life long, from birth to death, from womb to tomb, Jesus humbled himself for us.
Paul emphasizes that in the words of Philippians 2:8 — “He became obedient to the point of death.” Paul's not just saying that He was obedient in the death that He died for us, although that is true. Paul could have said “He became obedient in the way that He died,” but that's not what he says. He says that He was obedient to the point of death, indicating that Jesus was obedient over the whole course of His life. All of His life and ministry, up to and including His death on the cross, culminating in His death on the cross, Jesus was obedient. Paul is echoing a truth that we find in Hebrews 5:8, where we're told that our Savior learned obedience through that which he suffered.
Now, if you go back and look at Hebrews 5:7, you’ll see that the context there is speaking to the whole life of suffering that Jesus endured on our behalf. And so Paul's point here is that Jesus obeyed His whole life long for us, all the way up to the point of death. It's not just His death on the cross in which He obeyed for us, but it is in His whole life — actively obeying God's law, actively embracing God's saving plan. Even though at great personal cost and enduring incalculable pain, Jesus humbled himself for us by obeying His whole life long.
In other words, Paul is stressing that Jesus’ obedience involves the whole course of His life and ministry, all the way up to, including, and culminating in the death of the cross.
Do we adequately appreciate that, that Jesus’ obedience for us was not just on the cross of Calvary, but includes the whole course of His life? And it is not just that Jesus was obedient to the law of God, though He was. He kept the law of God in a way that no human being before Him had ever kept the law of God. He kept the law of God in a way that no human being since Him has ever kept the law of God. And He kept the law of God in a way that no human being will ever keep the law of God, until we are made perfect in glory.
But not only did He do that, He did more. He did something that none of us are able to do in our obedience: that is, that none of us are able to undertake a plan whereby we can save a multitude that no man can number. He undertook, in willing, voluntary love, to embrace the Father's plan of our salvation, which involved Him living under the curse of the law and enduring suffering the whole course of His life and ministry on our behalf. And the Apostle Paul is saying, ‘Christian, you need to celebrate the humility of Christ in embracing this kind of lifelong obedience; obedience to a course of suffering, obedience to a course of humiliation. And He did it because of His love for you and His desire for your salvation.’ And so the first thing that Paul is drawing our attention to in this verse is that Jesus humbled himself by obeying His whole life long for us.
II. Jesus humbled himself by embracing the humiliation of the cross.
The second thing we learn, though, is this: that Jesus humbled himself by embracing the humiliation of the cross. Notice how Paul puts it in Philippians 2:8 :
“He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.”
Paul's emphasis is not simply that Jesus willingly died for us, but that He embraced the painful, shameful, cursed, humiliating death of the Roman crucifix — a death filled with pain, shame, curse, and humiliation. And He embraced it for us. In other words, by emphasizing that He died “even death on the cross,” Paul is saying that Jesus willingly embraced the most shameful, humiliating death conceivable in both the Gentile and the Jewish world.
You know that had a person been a citizen of Philippi, and thus a Roman citizen, and if that person had been found guilty of a capital crime, as a Roman citizen the means of execution would have been beheading. That is, it would have been relatively quick and painless because of your privilege as a Roman citizen. But crucifixion was reserved for those criminals who were non-citizens and deemed the vilest of human beings. It was a long, torturous, drawn out, painful, cursed, shameful, humiliating death in which a person for days might linger in mortal agony while others watched his travails. The very mention of crucifixion struck fear into the hearts of all those who had ever seen one administered. And the Lord Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul says, has willingly embraced that shameful death — a death feared by Roman citizens.
But not only that. You remember Moses tells us in the Book of the Law that “cursed is he who hangs on a tree.” And so Jesus not only embraced a death that was shameful in the eyes of the Gentile Romans, but He embraced the death that was shameful in the eyes of Jewish people. Well, the Jewish people knew that one who was hung upon a tree was being given a sentence and a punishment that indicated that that person was outside of the believing community, cut off from the promises of God, unloved by any in the family of God's people, cut off from the inheritance promised to God's people. It was a shameful, painful, humiliating death. And Jesus embraced this death on the cross. Jesus humbled himself, in His humanity and servanthood, all the whole long course of His life and ministry, embracing obedience to His heavenly Father for us and for our salvation, but He also embraced the humiliation of the cross that involved pain and shame and curse.
Peter thinks about that, doesn't he, in I Peter 3:18, where he says that
“Christ suffered for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.”
Peter is drawing our attention to the pain and suffering which Christ once for all endured on His cross. But that pain was not merely physical pain. It was the moral and spiritual and relational pain of being isolated and abandoned by His Father, of bearing the awful weight of sin, of being considered guilty, though there was no guilt in Him; of being treated as a sinner, though there was no sin in Him; of having the curse of God poured out on Him, though He deserved God's blessing. Did you hear Kristen just sing:
“Oh, to see the pain written on Your face,
Bearing the awesome weight of sin;
Every bitter thought, every evil deed,
Crowning Your bloodstained brow.”
This is the pain which He willingly chose for us on the cross.
But there's not only pain, there was shame. You remember the author of Hebrews says in Hebrews 12:2 that Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith …
“Jesus the founder and perfecter of our faith, for the joy that was set before him endured the cross…”
“…despising the shame.”
In other words, He knew that by bearing the cross He was inviting shame. And He did it anyway. And He despised the shame that He knew that He would bear for us, for the joy set before Him.
And the Apostle Paul quotes that passage from Moses in the Book of the Law in Galatians 3:13, and reminds us that Christ embraced the curse on the cross when he says:
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. As it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’”
And Christ embraced humiliation. Do you remember that Ethiopian court official who was in his chariot reading Isaiah 53 one day? And he had just come across the phrase “in His humiliation, justice was denied Him.” And suddenly there was Philip the evangelist. And he says to Philip, ‘Sir, could I ask you a question? Who in the world is Isaiah talking about when he says ‘in his humiliation justice was denied him?’’ And Philip says, ‘I am so glad that you asked me this question, because I want to tell you about the Lord Jesus the Messiah, who, in His humiliation, had justice denied Him so that mercy would be shown to you, if you will receive and trust in Him alone for salvation.’
And Jesus in His obedience embraces all of these things on the cross. He embraces the pain and the shame and the curse and the humiliation of the cross for our sake, and for our salvation. And in this He humbled himself, and Paul is pointing to the Jesus who served us in humility, in His obedience all His life long, and in the Jesus who humbled himself by embracing even the pain, shame, curse, and humiliation of the cross.
But there's something else that we see here. In Philippians 2:5 and in Philippians 2:12, it's very clear that Paul is sharing with us about what Jesus does in Philippians 2:6-11 in order to encourage us in — what? In order to encourage us in maturing as Christians; in order to encourage us in growing in grace, in order to encourage us in becoming more like Christ–what theologians call sanctification. In other words, Paul is telling us the truth of [Philippians] 2:6-11 in order that we might grow in grace, that we might become more like Christ, that we might be sanctified (to use a theologian's word for it).
III. He obeyed for our sanctification so that we could be made holy
Well, in telling us that Jesus became obedient to the point of death, Paul is telling us that He obeyed for our sanctification so that we could be made holy. It's so important for you to understand that it is not only your justification that is by grace, but your sanctification is by grace.
God is at work, Paul will say in verse 13, both to will and to do his work in you. And so, by obeying for our sanctification Jesus has not simply given us an example, but He has established the basis of our sanctification. This is a mind-blowing truth, so let me say it to you again in another way: Jesus humbled himself in His humanity and in His servanthood all along the whole course of His life and ministry by embracing obedience — obedience to the will of His heavenly Father…an obedience that entailed personal pain and incalculable suffering, shame, curse, and humiliation; and He did this for your sanctification. Not only did He do this so that you would be justified; not only did He do this so that you would be accepted; not only did He do this so that you would be forgiven; not only did He do this so that you would be counted “not guilty” on the last day; but He did this so that you would be made like Him…so that on the last day He would stand in the assembly of His brethren and He would say, ‘These are my brethren, and they are without spot or blemish or wrinkle. They are perfect.’ So that on the last day when the accuser points his finger and says, ‘But that man, that woman, is a sinner!’ Jesus will say, ‘Not any more. There is not any sin in him. There is no sin in her.’ His work not only forgives us, but it sanctifies us. The Apostle Paul in Romans 5:19 says,
“For as by one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.”
And so in His obedience Jesus is providing not simply an example for our growth in grace, not simply an example for our sanctification, He is providing the very basis for our sanctification. And the Apostle Paul is saying to us, ‘Look at the humility of the Savior, in His willingly obeying for your sanctification. How costly is the growth in grace that God has purchased for you at the price of the blood of His own Son, and of lifelong suffering.’ Do you think God is serious about believers being like Jesus? He is willing for His Son to suffer His whole life long, if you will just be more like His son.
IV. Jesus’ humility is manifested by obediently dying…by agreeing to die…by consenting to death.
Fourth and finally (and this is perhaps the most mind-blowing truth of the whole passage), Jesus’ humility is manifested by obediently dying…by agreeing to die…by consenting to death. What does Paul say in Philippians 2:8? “…Obedient to the point of death.” In other words, Paul is saying that Jesus’ obedience involved His voluntarily giving up His own life.
Now you’re going to have to think hard about this, because it's like nothing that you've ever seen in this world. You and I have seen brave people who were willing to say I will do something in order to rescue others, that may cost me my life. This is what Jesus is saying, for instance, when He says, “Greater love has no man, than that he lay down his life for his friends.” It might be a man in the military who sees a hand grenade in the midst of his platoon and he throws himself and his helmet on top of that hand grenade, sacrificing his own life so that others will be saved. That is a great and a noble thing. But I want you to understand Paul is saying more than that here about Jesus. Paul is not just saying that Jesus voluntarily gave up His life in order that you and I might live; he is saying that Jesus voluntarily chose to give something that nobody could have taken away from Him. Do you understand that not all the armies in this world of all the greatest world powers in the history of this world could have taken the life of Jesus? He was life incarnate. No one could have taken His life from Him; only could He set it down himself.
Now you’re saying, ‘Ligon, you’re crazy!’ No, I'm not! Jesus himself said this in John 10:17-18. What did He say?
“For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life, that I may take it up again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of My own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from My Father.”
Do you see what the Apostle Paul is doing? He is elaborating on that very point in John 10:17-18, that Jesus, in dying for us, chose to give up something that no one could have taken from Him. He is the only man in the history of the world for which the phrase “chose to die” makes sense. All of us in this fallen world will die one day, unless the Lord Jesus comes back before.
Death and obedience is never found in the same sentence for us. Death isn't an act of obedience, it's an act of necessity. It's going to happen! It's just a matter of when, if the Lord tarries.
But for Jesus to die, He had to choose to die. He had to willingly give up something that nobody could have taken from Him. And He tells us in John 10:17-18 that He willingly lays down His life, and no one can take it from Him. That's why, on the cross, when Jesus says, “Father, into Your hands I commend My spirit,” He is doing something that no other human being has ever been able to do: He is choosing to give His life to God; He is choosing to die. For the rest of us, death is a necessity. For Jesus, it was a choice. And the Apostle Paul is saying you see the matchless humility and selfless love of Jesus Christ in that on the cross He chose to give what no one could take from Him: His life, for you.
And in all these ways we see the humility of Jesus. This is why John Calvin, having meditated upon this passage, comes to the end of verse 8 and says,
“This is assuredly such an example of humility as ought to absorb the attention of all men, because it is impossible to explain it in words suitable to its greatness.”
That's so true. It is impossible to describe in words (this humility) in a way that is appropriate for the greatness of what Jesus has done. He has obeyed for you all His life. He has embraced the humiliation of the cross for you. He has obeyed so that you would grow in grace and become more like Him. And, He has laid down a life that no one could have taken from Him for you and for your salvation, and for your growth in grace.
And Paul puts these things before us, why? In order to move us, in order to motivate us to what? Verse 5: To have this same attitude of selfless love and serving humility which was in our matchless Savior, and which is ours by grace.
May God bless His word. Let's pray.
Heavenly Father, we literally cannot adequately describe the glory of the humility of Jesus. It is more than simply that He obeyed all the way until the day that He died. It is that His humility is manifested in marvelous ways that boggle our minds. Lord, so move us and change us by this truth and reality that we become more humble, more self-displaced, self-giving, other-serving, joyful disciples of Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.
Now let's sing about this great gift of Christ's love, taking our hymnals and turning to
No. 261, What Wondrous Love Is This?