St. Paul’s hymn to Christ, possibly a hymn in the early Church’s liturgy, is the primary source (locus classicus) for the Church’s teaching on Christ’s state of humiliation and His state of exaltation (de statibus exinanitionis et exaltationis). Although other passages teach it (Acts 2:36, 2 Corinthians 8:9, for example), none are so explicit as this one. In his three volume Christian Dogmatics, Franz Pieper spends a good deal of time on Philippians 2:6-9, due to the many false teachings which arise from these verses (see especially II:280-305). Preaching on this text requires special clarity concerning the doctrine of Christ. Besides visiting Pieper, I recommend a study of the Formula of Concord, Article VIII, “Concerning the Person of Christ” (get together with other pastors for a reading!). FC VIII offers preachers consolation and clarity on the doctrine of Christ and helps us speak sound words to our people.
Many hearers get easily confused when we preach the humiliation of Christ by only emphasizing His humanity, His suffering, weakness, etc., to the exclusion of His divinity. We can mistakenly preach in such a way that Christ becomes something less than God or we render His divine nature impotent (see Pieper on the modern kenoticists, pp. 292-296), because we want to magnify His real suffering in our place. It is an ineffable mystery how God suffers, and our preaching must bear out this mystery. One can only emphasize God is truly man and God suffers and dies because of the personal union. But we do not emphasize the suffering apart from the divine nature, or as if the divine nature was not fully His at particular moments. The personal union causes us to deal with the whole Christ. So, the divine nature is always His, even as He actively refrains at times from using His divine power. You will be able to point out how Christ does not always restrain His divine power (Transfiguration, Cana, Feeding the 5,000, etc.). As we preach on Philippians 2, it helps to remember that, rightly speaking, the humiliation and exaltation of Christ are not predicated on Christ’s divine nature, since God cannot become less God and making Him more God in His exaltation is absurd. Everything here has to do with a change which occurs in His human nature and how He can change because of the personal union.
Humiliation is not really the right term for the state of Christ in His earthly life. In Latin, we get exinanitio, which is a good translation of the Greek kenosis or “emptying.” Paul’s argument is not that Christ Jesus, who being in the form of God, became something less or emptied Himself of divinity by becoming human (ἀλλὰ ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν μορφὴν δούλου λαβών). Rather, He who was rich as the eternal Logos actively restrained the communication of His divine power to His human nature, making Himself poor, during His earthly life. It is in the restraining of His divine power He takes on the form of a servant. The context of Palm Sunday will help preachers to avoid “taking on the form of a servant” as a reference to the incarnation and instead to emphasize the King of kings who comes humble and bringing salvation.
In preaching this text, you should help your people see our life in Christ and His in ours. He shares in our humanity, so we might share in His divinity. It is really a blessed exchange! A few words of caution: Paul is not “challenging” the Church to “be more Christ-like.” He is saying we ought to have the mind of Christ, who was in the form of God. And yet he can only say this if we already possess or have a share in Christ’s exalted life. Paul is not preaching Law, but blessing: in Christ, by virtue of our Baptism and by receiving His body and His blood, we too share in His divine nature. We are already rich in Him and because we are so rich, we can gladly spend and be spent (2 Corinthians 12:15). Any sermon seeking to motivate people into being humbler as a way to attain holiness has missed the entire point Paul is making. Paul leads us to believe the promise of what we already possess in Christ. He says this very thing in the verses preceding the pericope (2:1-2).
The message of repentance will sound forth wherever conceit and boastfulness arise in the Christian congregation. Paul preaches against human pride, and so should we. Yet notice how he does it. He preaches against the old man in us, who needs to take only because he cannot and will not receive. Consider the entire Passion narrative as the destructive power of human pride on the Son of God. By contrast, consider His exaltation as the “emptiness” or “vanity” of our pride. Every knee will bow, even the sinner in us will have to finally submit to Christ who reigns. Thank God! Christians who see how haughty they can be will take great comfort in hearing Jesus was crucified to bring down the haughty from their thrones. They will also be strengthened to hear again of their lofty position in Christ and to know they too can spend as their Lord did. After all, it is He who is at work in us now. Christians will also find great joy in hearing how Christ, our Brother, has been exalted to comfort us who are still being conformed to His suffering and death, and will share in His resurrection when He comes again in glory. If Christ, then us!
Concordia Theology: Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Philippians 2:5-11.
Text Week: A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Philippians 2:5-11.