The idea of “image” looms large in this pericope, one of the great passages of the New Testament’s epistolary. The rhetorical device of image or likeness frames the entire section and should be exploited by the preacher.

People, of course, are fascinated by likenesses. Consider the birth of a child: Everyone expresses interest in whom he or she looks like. “The image of her father,” says one. “I saw her mother in her, when she was a baby,” notes another. Others set out to create a likeness. Portrait artists, particularly in pre-photographic times, would endeavor to capture a likeness. So, we think we know what Henry VIII, William Shakespeare, and Martin Luther looked like.

It seems both ideas are present in the important biblical idea of likeness. It includes the inherited similarity passed down from father to son, mother to daughter and so on, as when Paul says we have all borne the image of the man of dust. It also includes the attempt to fashion something in the image of another. For example, in the graven image, also described as the likeness of some living thing.

But there is another curious phenomenon that seems to be the onus of this passage. Sometimes, when people set out to fashion the image of another, instead, they create a likeness of their self. So, it was with God. In creating us, we read, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in Our image, after Our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth’” (Genesis 1:26). So, God the creator put something of Himself uniquely into humanity, the crown of His handiwork, made in His image and after His likeness (1:27).

God the creator put something of Himself uniquely into humanity, the crown of His handiwork, made in His image and after His likeness.

But what has become of the likeness of God in us? Here the preacher employs the Law. The likeness of God could not survive in creatures who lived contrary to what God is like – people who lived without love, without fairness, without responsibility, without the divine qualities. The most precious attribute of humanity was lost as the species spiraled into sin (Genesis 3). To be in the likeness of God would be to mirror the goodness of God. It would mean to freely choose the right. It would mean to love – like God, according to Irenaeus. And that likeness, he said, perished in the fall. No longer is the likeness of God to be seen among us, with humanity now continuing in the image of fallen Adam (Genesis 5:3). But all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). As a result, the image of God needs to be restored.

Furthermore, the scriptures tell us God Himself put this matter in hand, for only God could do it. They tell how God accomplished this great purpose. Here in the midst of our text it is disclosed how Christ Jesus, the Son who was truly God, “…though He was in the form of God… emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:6a, 7a), and here we have it, “…being born in the likeness of men” (2:7b). It means Jesus the Son really took on Himself all that was lost to us with sin. He took on human frailty and mortality. He exposed Himself to temptation and to the agonies of our existence. In only one respect was He different: He never strayed to choose what is wrong (2 Corinthians 5:23). Yet, he shared our sin because He carried our sin. He carried it to death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:8). There He dealt with the results of sin. So, the likeness of God can be ours in Him. He took on our likeness and restored to us God’s likeness. This is why baptism bears the moniker “rebirth” and “regeneration.” As Irenaeus would put it, “He became what we are, so that we might become what He is.” Or, as Paul said, “We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Jesus emptied Himself, took upon Himself our nature, obeyed in our place, and died in our place. Now God has lifted Him from the depths in which we have languished to the highest place of honor, with the name above every name, the name of “Lord.” Every creature should bow before Him, confessing Jesus is Lord (Philippians 2:8-10). This saving truth is also a sanctifying truth through devotion to His real voice and real presence in the Word and Sacraments to the end that we who follow Him are, “…being changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Considering this fact, this reality, Paul addresses the existential problem for the baptized: It does not always feel that way. In principle, on paper, in truth, we are restored to the likeness of God. But in practice it can all seem very different. The tension of simil iustus et peccator (simultaneously justified and sinner) leans heavily on the peccator side of things. As we live from day to day, we may be much more aware of the likeness lost, than of the likeness restored. It is realistic, for we all fall short of the glory of God. But that is not the point. Christ does not. Christ is the glory of God. And, when it really matters, we will be judged by His standards, and by His obedience (Philippians 2:12-13). This is what faith holds on to, which—despite appearances—transforms us more and more into the likeness of Christ.

We all fall short of the glory of God. But that is not the point. Christ does not.

Still, in the meantime, it would be nice to feel a little of the likeness of God in our lives, would it not? There is a way. Paul said, “Put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). Clearly, putting on the new nature created after the likeness of God, does entail living in the likeness of God. In other words, it is a question of being what you are.

So how can we do it? Here our text gives a simple answer. We are restored to God because Christ took on our nature and was found in the likeness of men. Now, we are called to take on His likeness. How would you be like God? By, “…[having] 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 emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant” (2:5).

Throughout the Gospels there is no quality more closely identified by Jesus with the life of His people than humility which echoes His own. “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them,” He told His followers. “But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28).

When the world sees God’s people behaving so, they are, in fact, seeing the likeness of God, as it has been shown to us in His Son, whom humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. We carry our cross joyfully (2:14-16), because we know it will give way to a crown.

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Additional Resources:

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in Philippians 2:1-4 (5-13) 14-18.

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Philippians 2:1-4 (5-13) 14-18.