What Christ gave up in His incarnation

What follows is a manuscript of my message at tonight’s Christmas Eve service.

Christmas always comes with such anticipation. For children it’s about presents and a holiday from school and special events. For adults it’s about time with friends and family, and perhaps a few vacation days and a slower pace of life, and maybe even a surprise event or two.

But Christmas is also about sacrifice and loss — or perhaps the reminder of loss. That’s the experience of a number of families in our church body this Christmas — family members have died in this year and even recently, and Christmas is a reminder of the loss of fellowship that won’t be restored on this earth. And Christmas is also a time of sacrifice — in order to give gifts sometimes we have to go without things that we desire and sometimes what we need.

The first Christmas was also a Christmas of loss — Joseph and Mary sacrificed (at least initially) the dreams of marriage that they had cultivated; Mary undoubtedly lost reputation among villagers that found out about her pregnancy; Zecharias lost his voice and perhaps respect among his peers; many people in the account of Christ’s birth were shown to be spiritually lost — the innkeeper, Herod, and the chief priests who counseled Herod; Mary and Joseph “lost” their home as they fled to Egypt for their safety; and most graphically, the children in Bethlehem that Herod put to death in his anger were lost.

But of all those who lost or sacrificed something, no one gave up as much as our Savior. We know He left Heaven behind to come to earth, but that wasn’t all that He gave up in His advent, as Paul makes clear in Philippians 2:5-8.

That passage summarizes all that Christ gave up in a single phrase — “He humbled Himself.” But the willing humiliation of Christ does not mean that Christ is not Christ. In fact, it is in His humility that His greatness is seen. And that is the very point of Paul in Philippians 2 —

The humility of Christ’s advent demonstrates the greatness of Christ.

Here we find three demonstrations of Christ’s humility and greatness:


  1. He Gave Up His Rights (vv. 5-6)

Verse 6 provides the framework for understanding these verses — Christ existed eternally as God. Now Paul uses the word form to indicate the deity of Christ — He existed in the form of God. Some have suggested that means something like, “He had the form or image, but not the substance,” as if Christ looked like God, but really wasn’t God.

But it means the very opposite — His outward display of deity perfectly corresponded to the inward reality — in other words, what was seen externally of His deity is a reflection of what He was and is internally. Rather than merely “looking like” God, Christ was and is the eternal God, possessing the essential nature of God which could not change (Jn. 1:1-4, 14; 5:20-23).

Yet despite being God, Christ was willing to stop using the rights that were inherently His as God. Notice that Paul says, He did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped. That simply means that He did not regard His position as a prize that needed to be held and clutched. That means that He did not need to use His heavenly rights to accomplish His purposes on earth. He did not exploit His eternal position as equal to God to His own advantage. He was unselfish. In fact, all the force of Satan and Hell was thrown against Christ on this very point in the temptation and failed miserably (Mt. 4:3ff). Christ would not use His divine powers to circumvent the Father’s earthly plan for Him.

And it also means that He had every right to use His privileges as God at any time, yet for the glory of God He set those aside. He did not hold onto the privileges of Heaven that belonged to Him. He had a right to be honored. He set it aside. He had a right to be worshipped. He set it aside. He had a right to be seated on His throne at the right hand of the Father. He set it aside. All that belonged to Him as God He had a right to use and enjoy, and He gave it all up.

What a contrast between Christ and us. We live in a world obsessed with maintaining our rights (when we have none); Christ had every right of glory and claimed none. Do you remember what He said prior to His crucifixion?

  • Matthew 26:53 [at His arrest] “Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?”
  • John 19:10-11 So Pilate said to Him, “You do not speak to me? Do You not know that I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You?” Jesus answered, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above; for this reason he who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.”

This is our Savior. He was eternal and infinite God, but in obedience to the Father and in service of us, He ceased to use His rights. And as He gave up His rights, we begin to see just how great He is. This is the first demonstration of His greatness through His humility. In verse 7 we see another —


  1. He Relinquished His Position (v. 7)

This is one of the most misunderstood verses about the nature of Christ and relationship between His deity and humanity.   What does Paul mean when he says that Christ emptied Himself? Well first of all, he didn’t mean something like emptying our pockets! Jesus did not divest Himself of some essential attribute of deity; Jesus did not become anything less than God (which is an impossibility).

To say that Christ emptied Himself means two things:

First of all, it means that Christ gave up His personal authority and His right to exercise His authority.  Jesus prays about this very thing in John 17:4-5. In that prayer, Jesus asks God to “glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.” That last phrase means that He set aside His glory so that when He came to earth, His true nature was veiled. Men did not see His deity (though some glimpses were offered, Mk. 9:1ff).

When Christ laid aside His glory, He laid aside some of His attributes by not always using them (e.g., He laid aside His omniscience, so that as a human being He had to learn, e.g., Lk. 2:52). This is incomprehensible to us — the One who knows all things and all potential things had to learn and develop. The One who created the universe and every living being had to learn how to use a saw and a chisel in His father’s carpentry workshop

So for Christ to empty Himself means that He gave up His personal authority (which reiterates what Paul said in v. 6). But secondly, emptying Himself also means that Christ took to Himself an additional nature. The emptying was not as much a subtraction as an addition. The main point of Paul in verse 7 is that Paul emptied Himself; and the next three clauses explain what that emptying was:

  • taking the form of a bond-servant = That is, He became a slave of God and a slave of sinners. And as a slave He willingly gave up all His rights. As Oswald Chambers said, “Our Lord crowned the words that the powers of this world detest — servant, obedience, humility, and service.”
  • being made in the likeness of men = That means He was a real man with a real mother and real siblings and real skin and real blood — as Michael Reeves said, He took on “pinchable reality.” He was a man in every way except for his ability to sin.
  • being found in appearance as a man = What did men think of Jesus’ existence? They found Him as a man — their verdict on His life was, “He’s a man” (so much so that most denied His deity). As men looked at Him, they saw He was a man. By outward appearance, He looked no different than any other man.

And then in verse 8, when Paul says, humbled Himself, He is using that as a parallel idea to emptied Himself. What does it mean for Christ to “empty Himself?” It means He humbled Himself by adding humanity. It means that everything about Christ’s advent was a downward trek. There was nothing glorious or honorable about Christ coming to earth. We tend to exalt the arrival of the baby Jesus. We say it is a point of exaltation (and it is, but that’s for tomorrow morning’s message); but Paul’s main point in vv. 5-8 is that the arrival of the Christ-child was humiliation and condescension. Christ didn’t get something wonderful; He gave up everything glorious (except His deity). Christ took on an additional nature and “emptied” Himself by adding the form of manhood to temporarily “cloak” His glory.

Sinclair Ferguson makes this point when he writes,

Imagine that the technology of the twenty-first century had been available in the first century. It would have been possible for Mary and Joseph to have seen the embryonic form of the Lord Jesus Christ in the now well-recognised fetal position, wholly dependent, lying in the darkness of his mother’s womb. He came from the burning light of glory into the confined space of the body of a young woman in her teens. He brought nothing with him except himself; he came empty-handed. [Child in the Manger, 51.]

And there is a clear implication for us from Christ’s incarnation. If He humbled Himself by giving up His rights, then we also must have the same attitude of humility (v. 5). But mankind doesn’t want that, does it? So one writer suggests,

…we pile the Christmas tree skirt, the Christmas card list, the invitation to a Christmas party over the flesh-and-blood baby. Please, someone, load on the patchwork wreath, the felt stockings. Turn on someone’s Christmas . We don’t want a God who becomes flesh.

The true Christmas story scares us.…If God undressed, we might have to join him — remove our self-sufficiency suits, pull off our health-and-well-being designer sweats. Perhaps instead of shopping we need to spend December reminding ourselves of God’s choice of vulnerability and pondering its implications. Perhaps we need to call December 25th the Celebration of the Incarnation, to greet each other with Incarnation greetings — instead of “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas” we could shout, “God chose flesh” [or] “God become one of us!”

Paul points to one final ultimate end of Jesus’ humility…


  1. He Endured Our Judgment (v. 8)

We often say of people who are prideful and not humble, “He hasn’t hit bottom yet.” But that could never be said of the infinite God. There was nothing lower or more shameful than what Paul said Christ endured in verse 8.   How far would Christ go to demonstrate just how humble He was? He would give up the rights of Heaven. He would lay aside divine attributes and position. He would submit to the Father. He would live in the lowest positions as a man.

And more than all those things, in the greatest act of humility, Christ would die (the eternal God would go to the cross and the grave!). And by dying on a cross He would die the death of a rebellious sinner. As Paul notes elsewhere, death on a cross meant dying under the curse of God as a common criminal, a most ignominious death (Gal. 3:13).

Now Jesus was not a sinner. Like the spotless lamb, no blame was found in Him. But He died as if He committed every sin of all who would believe in Him.

How willing are you to be humbled at work or home or school or in ministry? What are you willing to do without receiving credit and to serve others? What is the extent of your humility? Christ was so willing to submit to the will of the Father that He fulfilled an eternal plan that meant enduring God’s infinite wrath against Him. But the greatness of Christ is revealed by His ability to endure the wrath of God!

Death itself is a mystery to us, but we especially do not have minds to comprehend this death. Imagine (some don’t have to) that your father has forsaken you. You want to be restored to him, and you long to hear, “I love you” and feel the warmth of a bear-hug embrace. But he is resistant. And there is no reconciliation. This moves towards the separation Christ endured, but far more: because it was inconceivable that God the Father would pour out His wrath on God the Son, Christ prayed, “Let this cup [of wrath and judgment] pass from Me” (Mt. 26:39).

Yet the very reason Christ was born was to go to the cross. And so He humbly did. And thus Christmas is necessarily linked to Easter. Several years ago I went to purchase a Christmas card for a friend; I wanted something Biblical. But I found no Christmas cards with reference to the biblical story. There were no mentions of Jesus. The best I could find was a drawing of an advent wreath with a generic, “Bless you at Christmas” (not even, “God bless you!”).

Christmas has been disconnected from the cross, but it must not be. The birth of the baby Jesus is about the coming of God to go to the cross. Nowhere is Christ’s humility more evident than at the cross, yet also nowhere is His greatness more evident.

CONCLUSION: What did Christ give up in His advent? J. I. Packer rightly summarizes this passage:

For the Son of God to empty himself and become poor meant a laying aside of glory; a voluntary restraint of power; an acceptance of hardship, isolation, ill-treatment, malice, and misunderstanding; finally, a death that involved such agony — spiritual, even more than physical — that his mind nearly broke under the prospect of it. It meant love to the uttermost for unlovely men, who “through his poverty, might become rich.” This Christmas message is that there is hope for a ruined humanity — hope of pardon, hope of peace with God, hope of glory — because at the Father’s will Jesus Christ became poor and was born in a stable so that thirty years later he might hang on a cross. It is the most wonderful message that the world has ever heard, or will hear. [In Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus, 70-1.]

When we speak of humility, we think of inability. This Christmas there will be some (many) who will not be able to give what they want to give.   But never confuse the humility of Christ with inability. In His humility, Christ gave up His rights and His position and even His right to “life” by enduring the judgment of our death. Yet in one of the paradoxes of Christmas, the humility of Christ actually reveals the greatness of Christ. Yes, Christ had a humble birth, but it was the very humility of that birth that enabled Him to demonstrate His greatness as our God and Savior. He humbled Himself. Worship Him.

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