The Mind of Christ—- A Sermon in Estes Chapel March 24

This sermon is also available streamed on Asbury S

eminary’s website.

THE MIND OF CHRIST—– Phil. 2.4-11

A man was thrust out into the Judean desert by God’s Spirit.  He says he fasted for 40 days and 40 nights, and that then he had a vision of Satan,  a vision that among other things involved being tempted to turn stones into bread.   One can understand why a man might be tempted to do that when he had not eaten in so many days.    Now the thing that is odd about this vision the man had is that he says he was tempted three times to use his divine power, and he resisted the impulse.   He says that what the Devil said was “if you are the Son of God, then turn these stones into bread, or throw yourself off the pinnacle of the Temple, or bow down and worship me as a short cut to ruling the world,  for Satan was called by this man ‘the ruler of this world’.    You will notice that Satan did not say ‘if you are the Son of Man, then…’ and  in fact none of these temptations are temptations mere mortals have.    I have known ordinary mortals who could turn bread into stones, but I have never met one that was tempted to turn stones into bread, as it is not humanly possible.   In other words, the temptations of this man in the wilderness are temptations that a divine person faced, a person who was tempted to push his God button to accomplish his aims, but he resisted such temptations. Instead, he chose the route of living a fully and truly human life drawing on the very same two resources that we all can draw on when facing temptation— the Word of God and the Spirit of God.    Notice that this man in the desert keeps quoting the Bible to resist temptation.   And this whole episode got me thinking.

You see when I was a child I had a lot of Sunday school teachers, including my father.  And one of the repeated themes I remember from those days was— ‘be like Jesus, be like Jesus’.  Now there was a little voice in the back of my impish young head which said— ‘Yeah right.  Jesus had a God button, which he could push whenever he got in a tight spot.  Me, I don’t even have an easy button.   I can’t be like Jesus.

But what if Jesus, while being both divine and human,  practiced the art of divine condescension as a human being, and lived a fully and truly human life in this world, so he could indeed be an example to his followers?   What if the Son of God resisted the temptation to push a God button which he had?  What if he put the omni’s on hold— and accepted the natural limitations of time and space and knowledge and power we mortals all face every day?   What if he was like us, and tempted like us in all respects, save without sin?   What if his human life was not a charade where he just pretended to be human?    What if he performed his miracles as he says he did, by the Spirit of God,  a power we all have access to?    What if Jesus resisted the temptation to push his God button and that is exactly what those temptation stories at the beginning and the end of Jesus’ ministry are about?   I realize Jesus had ordinary temptations as well.  Hebrews says he endured the full gamut of temptations we humans face.  But that is not what is at issue in that wilderness temptation story.

It has occurred to me that Jesus did precisely that, did indeed resist the temptation to draw on his divine nature and power, and that we have a profound reflection on this very fact, on the very depths of the divine condescension involved in the Incarnation of the Son of God in Paul’s Christ hymn which we find in Phil. 2.4-11, our text for today, which we must read now.

READ THE TEXT HERE.

One of the things that most irritates me about some translations of the NT is when the translators feel they must insert words into the text that are not there in any Greek manuscript.  Take for example Phil. 2.4—it does not read “think not only of your own concerns, but also of the concerns of others”.   Rather it simply says “thinking not of your own concerns, but rather of the concerns of others,  have this mind in yourself which was also in Christ”.     The mind of Christ as it turns out  involves a truly totally self-sacrificial approach to human life.   It does not involve enlightened self-interest which allows room for concern for others as well.  This is precisely what Phil. 2.4 does not say. We, as the followers of Christ, are called to follow the truly and totally self-sacrificial behavior of Jesus, and live our lives drawing on the same two divine resources Jesus drew on to live his life— the Word of God, and the Spirit of God.

Let us consider exactly how Paul describes this divine self-abnegation.   First of all he affirms emphatically that the Son of God was in very nature God and was equal to God the Father—equally divine, equally omnipotent, equally omniscience, and so on.   But the text goes on to say that the divine Son of God chose to not take advantage of these divine prerogatives.   Instead of doing so, he chose to do something else.   He, the pre-existent and divine Son of God,  chose the Incarnation.  And what does a real Incarnation entail?   The text says this— “rather he emptied/stripped himself (of his divine prerogatives) and took on not merely a human nature, though that is true, but ‘the very nature of a slave”.    He not only had the visage of a human being, he was fully human and he chose to approach his life as the lowest of all humans that existed in his age— a slave.   As he was to later say— ‘the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for the many’.  It was slaves who ended up on crosses most often in antiquity, so much so it was sometimes called the slave’s punishment, and sure enough that’s how Jesus’ life ended as well.

Sometimes we Evangelicals have distorted image of the two natures of Christ.  We kind of assume he was 90% divine, and 10% human.  No,  he was 100% divine and 100% human and the only way that corporate merger of the divine and the human works is through divine self abnegation,  divine self-limitation.  And that is precisely what we see in the Gospels.  When Jesus says he knows neither the day nor hour of his second coming in Mk. 13.32, he means—- ‘I don’t know.’   Could he have drawn on his divine access to all knowledge?  Yes, but he refused to do so, precisely because he would have ceased to be fully human had he done so.   We, do not have God buttons.   Notice as well that Jesus does not perform his miracles by his divine nature.  He performs them by the power of the Spirit.   Why?  Because he intends for his disciples to be able to follow his example when it comes to both drawing on the Word of God and the Spirit of God to do what God wants us to do!

Vs. 8 of Philippians 2 goes on to say that Jesus bearing the very nature of a human being and taking on the role and approach to life of a servant,  ‘he humbled himself’.  This word translated ‘humbled’ is in fact tapeinophrosune and it is normally a pejorative term.  It means something like ‘to be based minded’   or ‘to have the mind of slave’.   This was no compliment in the Greco-Roman world, and frankly ‘humility’ taking on the form and roles of a servant was not seen as a virtue in the Gentile world at all.  It was seen as cowardly, craven, bad behavior for a higher status person, much less for a god.   Gods did not become slaves and serve others.

The phrase ‘servant leadership’ would have been seen as  as much of an oxymoron as the phrase ‘Microsoft Works’  today.   If you do a study of the verbs  in the first half of the Christological hymn here you will discover that we have active and middle verbs telling us what the Son of God chose to do, and did.   He did not take advantage of his divine prerogatives and powers.  He did not take advantage of his equality with God.   Instead he stripped himself of his heavenly frequent flyer privileges.   Instead he took on both a human nature and became a servant among human beings.  He humbled himself, and was obedient to God, even to the point of submitting to a slave’s death on a cross.

Now if Jesus is our chief example of humility, and he is, then humility has nothing to do with feelings of low self-worth.  It has nothing to do with a negative attitude about oneself.   Humility here is an action word— he stepped down.  Humility, if Jesus is the example of it, is the posture of a strong person, a person strong enough to not have a problem with stepping down and serving others,  a person who doesn’t see himself or his worth diminished by such sacrificial service.  Rather he sees himself as fulfilled in such service, obeying God in such service.

One of the things that characterizes the Christological hymn fragments in the NT is that they have a V pattern—  the first half has to do with divine condescension, the second half with divine exaltation.   In the first half of  Phil. 2.5-11 the verbs are all active or reflexive, but in the second half they are passive.   Therefore God has highly exalted him, and God has given him the name which is above all names.   Notice that the ‘therefore’,  the beginning of the upward slope of the V pattern comes only after ‘obedient even unto death on the cross’.   Anytime you see a ‘therefore’ in Scripture you need to ask what is it therefore.  It is precisely because Jesus totally humbled himself, totally served others, was totally obedient even to the point of dying on the cross that God chose to exalt him.    And trust me,  when Paul says ‘have this mind in yourself that was also in Christ Jesus’  he has all of this Christological hymn and its pattern in mind.   Paul writes this from house arrest in Rome, facing possible execution.  He knows perfectly well he must be prepared to face persecution, prosecution, even execution, indeed he had already experienced all of this except the execution part.    Are we ready for such an outcome in a world increasingly hostile to Christ and Christians?    Are we prepared/ready to die, rather than to rumble?

What is most significant about the second half of this Christological hymn is that it is God the father that does the exalting of Jesus— he did not raise himself,  he did not exalt himself, he did not give himself the divine name.  God the Father and the Spirit did all that for him.   There is no place in following the pattern of Christ for self-exaltation.    We need to leave the exalting, if it ever comes, in God’s hands.  There is no place in Christ for narcissism, for self-centered, self-seeking, self-aggrandizing ministers of God.   No place at all.   Tell the story of the two ministers playing golf with my district superintendent  Dr. George Robinson.

Notice that God give Jesus a name he did not have before at the resurrection— namely LORD,   namely the OT name for God KYRIOS  in the LXX.   No George Beverley Shea, the name above all names here is not the name Jesus— he already had that name.   No it’s the throne name he got at the resurrection, it was the earliest Christian confession—- Jesus is the risen Lord.     And some day whether willingly or unwillingly, whether wittingly or unwittingly  every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Notice that such glorification of the Son doesn’t subtract from the glory of the Father, it only adds to it.   God the Father is not threatened by the sharing of his glory, despite John Piper’s claims and misunderstandings of the theology of glory in the Bible.   God is not a glory grabber, he is glory giver.   God is not a self-centered narcissistic being all in lather about not being glorified enough.   God is rather like the Son of God, who stripped himself and humbled himself and went the way of the cross.  At the heart of God is self-sacrificial love, not self-centered preoccupation with his own divine reputation and acclamation.   Any theology which turns God into a self-centered being is bad theology, and antithetical to the very presentation of this Christ hymn which reminds us that God is like Jesus, and in particular like Jesus as portrayed in this Christological hymn.

So then what does it mean to be a Christ-bearer, to have not only the mind of Christ, but to reflect his image to the world by our actions?    Let me tell you the story of Carl.   I met Carl one Easter weekend in the 1960s.  I was serving as a VISTA aid in the mountains of North Carolina.  Carl, was dirt poor.  Carl was the five year old who was the youngest of 12-13 children of a strip miner and a woman no more than 30.   Carl lived so far back in the mountains he had yet to glimpse another child other than his siblings.   Like so many poor children, Carl had no idea he was poor.  He didn’t know there was any other way to be.

On Good Friday I drove a truck back a long dirt road into the hills to talk to Carl’s Mom to try and convince her to let me take Carl to an Easter egg hunt early the next morning.   After I gained the mother’s confidence, she agreed, and I told her I would pick him up at 6 a.m. as I had others to collect as well.   When I got there the next morning as the sun was coming up over the mountain, there was Carl, his face scrubbed raw wearing the only decent clothes and shoes he had sitting on that wooden clapboard porch.   He was holding something in his hands. I could see that when I drove up.  When I got out of the truck, Carl came right up to me, and handed me a goose egg.  Now as it turns out,  a goose was Carl’s one and only prize possession.   “Here” said Carl in his good mountain twang, “this is for the children who ain’t got no Easter eggs.”   I blinked and looked into this little thin boy’s face and realized I was staring at the self-sacrificial face of Jesus.   You never know when and where you’ll get a glimpse of his face.

“Have this mind in yourself, that is also in Christ Jesus”.   What Paul meant was not merely take on an attitude like Jesus had.  What he meant was— go and be like Jesus, because you can, and who knows— maybe if you turn and become like Carl, a little child will show you the way.  Amen

  • http://blogforthelordjesus.wordpress.com Mike Gantt

    What a precious meditation! And how wonderful it is to see the lofty language of Philippians 2 brought down to such practical use in our lives.

  • http://www.christmyredeemer.wordpress.com Daniel Levy

    Dr. Witherington,

    You haven’t the slightest clue as to how timely (again) this was. I come here daily to see what God has in store for me.

    Today I prayed and prayed for God to bring light to me regarding the Philippians 2:6-11 passage. Furthermore, I’ve been trying to understand the practical implications for it as followers of Christ.

    I’m currently doing a directed research project under a specialist in the book of Revelation at Southeastern University (Dr. Robby Waddell) in early Christian devotion to Jesus. And today, filled with stress after doing nearly five hours of research, with about three and a half devoted to the 2:6-11 passage, I came to your blog and wham!

    Even though this gave me such insight, I’d love to poke at you for your thoughts on a few things.

    1) What are the implications of Jesus not having the divine name prior to it being given? Does this mean that in the incarnation He gave it up? Or does it mean that within the Triunity of God, Jesus was given some new role?

    2) What are your thoughts on Gordon Fee’s provocative rejection of this being a Pauline hymn?

    Thanks again so much,
    Daniel.

  • Marc Axelrod

    A truly triumphant exposition. I love this sermon. I also think the Carl story is a beautiful image of the self sacrificial Christlike mindset Paul says we are to have. Your translation of verses 4-5 and explanation of tapeinophrosune cracked open the meaning as well as the closing anecdote.

    This sermon is very timely with the Lenten season, and so I think after the Carl illustration, you could share some hands on things we can do to do what Paul is commanding, (sacrificing a Saturday to visit with seniors in a nursing home, doing a day of chores for one of the widows in the church, taking some of your best Christian paperbacks and donating them to the local jail, going to the pound and giving a sad and lonely pet a happy home, etc). The sermon does a great job at expressing “What does this mean” and the examples could help withe question what shall we do?”

    I will be mining this message when I hit Phil 2 in the Potter church if that’s OK because it helps me to better understand what we are told to do. God bless
    Marc

  • Marc Axelrod

    And nice job wIth the name above every name verse. I think I have made Sheas mistake most of my life

  • Phil N

    I listened to it yesterday as well as a much older chapel from Dr. Lyon (97) speaking on Jesus nature as well. It was interesting to compare and contrast, just luck that they both made my ipod yesterday.

    Phil

  • Barry passmore

    Very fine sermon to be sure, with the exception of what I believe is a mischaracterization of Dr. John Piper’s position.


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