A humble God

Quick: what adjectives would you use to describe God?

“Holy”? Of course. “Gracious”? Thankfully, yes. “Righteous”? Absolutely. We might be able to generate a whole list, all grounded in Scripture.

But would the word “humble” make the cut?

It should.

Paul has been urging the Philippians to maintain their unity in the face of social pressure from their neighbors. To do this, they need to adopt a humble mindset (Phil 2:1-4). As I suggested in the previous post, that means he doesn’t just want them to do as Jesus did, but to think as Jesus thought. The Christian life isn’t about following rules for their own sake, but being transformed from the inside out, learning to reinterpret our lives and relationships through life and teaching of Jesus.

Thus Paul writes, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (vs. 5, NRSVUE), and then proceeds to explain what he means:

[Jesus], though he existed in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    assuming human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a human,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross
. (vss. 6-8)

Jesus “emptied” himself. It’s not necessary to speculate over questions like, “Emptied himself of what?” We could, after all, use another metaphor to say “He poured himself out” without having to ask what, exactly, was poured; we can say “He gave his all” without having to make a list. Moreover, I suspect that Paul wanted to contrast this with the “empty glory” of verse 3. Jesus emptied himself, and only then was he glorified; how then can his followers pridefully pursue earthly “glory” for themselves, which in truth is empty?

Jesus “humbled” himself; literally, he made himself low. As a human being, Jesus could have been born in a palace; instead, he was born in humble circumstances and lived a life of service. That service culminated not just in death, but in crucifixion, the most inglorious death imaginable. For the Romans, it was not just a means of execution but of humiliation. To the Jews, it was a symbol of shame and accursedness.

But I think here not only of the crucifixion but of the Last Supper, in which he took the role of a menial and washed his disciples’ dirty, smelly feet. I imagine them still struggling with their discomfort and astonishment when he brought home the lesson: “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14). In other words: Follow my example of humble service. Paul, too, is using the example of Jesus to teach the Philippians the same lesson.

Again, though, let’s not forget that the humble actions of Jesus arise from a humble mindset: even though “he existed in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped.” That’s not exactly a sentence that trips off the tongue in English; what does it mean? We need to get hold of two words here: “form” and “grasped.”

“Form” could be translated as “shape,” which in this context would hardly make sense. Instead, we might think of the way the word was used in the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, uses that would have been familiar to people of Paul’s day.

Let me illustrate with a strange question: what is a chair? We’ve all seen chairs of different shapes, sizes, colors, and materials. What makes these things all “chairs”? They are all specific and potentially unique instances of some more general idea or principle, some “essential” quality of chair-ness (“chairity”?). This is what Plato and Aristotle meant by “form.” Thus, to say that prior to the Incarnation, Jesus existed in the “form” of God is to say that he was of one essence with God, sharing whatever it is that makes God God.

What about the word “grasped”? This is the only place the word appears in the New Testament. In other contexts, it can be translated as “robbery” (as in the King James Version). But this is because at root the word suggests seizing something, typically by force. Jesus, therefore, was of one essence with God, but did not hold fast to the rights or privileges that belong to God alone. This is in stark contrast to how people in power, particularly in the Roman Empire, would do anything to hold onto that power.

That is not God’s way.

We’ll explore some of the implications of this in the next post. For the moment, though, ponder what this means for our understanding of God. Jesus didn’t serve merely because he had to in order to help the Father solve a problem. He served in costly humility because this is what it looks like when God takes human form (note that the word “form” in the passage is the same whether Paul is talking about the “form” of God or the “form” of a slave). We cannot simply take our earthly understandings of power, magnify them, and project them onto God. It is in the nature of God to be humble.

And if that is the case, Paul seems to say, how can we still cling to the things that only bring us empty glory?