Praise and humility, these seem to be two key features of the Palm Sunday procession, with the Son of David entering His capital city to resounding cheers but riding on a beast of burden on His way to the cross. Praise and humility, these key features also show up in the epistle lesson assigned for Palm Sunday. You can only begin to grasp our Lord’s humility by looking at the high place from where He came down. You can only begin to imagine our Lord’s exaltation by looking up from the depths to which He descended. Praise and humility, exaltation and emptying, these two themes from Paul help us understand Palm Sunday better. For Paul, they are also an invitation to lean into our lives as emptying/exalted members of our emptying and exalted Lord.

Paul begins this beautiful stretch of poetry with Jesus “in very nature God” (New International Version; NIV), that is “in the form of God” (English Standard Version; ESV), enjoying the “equality with God” which was His from eternity (the Greek word morphé in verse 6, form or essence, is repeated in verse 7, “very nature/form of a servant,” and refers not merely to an outward resemblance but to an essential unity).

Indeed, Jesus shows us exactly what God’s nature is like when He refuses to treat His position of exaltation as plunder or booty to hold for Himself (harpagmos in verse 6). Rather, He does what is central to God’s own essence: Jesus lives out the self-giving nature of God.

From the height of equal majesty with God, the only begotten Son of God (very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father), Jesus, for us and for our salvation, came down from Heaven, and was incarnate. Jesus “emptied” Himself, took on the very nature of a “slave,” was born in the likeness of all humanity, and was made man, and was crucified also for us (under Pontius Pilate). This entire process counts both as obedience and as Jesus humbling of Himself for the sake of others. The self-giving love which takes Jesus to the lowest point of brutal death on a cross is, at the same time, the epitome of God’s self-giving nature and the living out of who God actually is.

The result of that downward journey is an upward trajectory which begins in a tomb but ends with Jesus exalted, glorified, acknowledged, and acclaimed as Lord over all. It is a final status that includes Jesus’ resurrection on the third day in accordance with the Scripture, Jesus’ ascension into Heaven, and Jesus’ sitting at the right hand of the Father. An exaltation which will finally be realized in an ultimate way when He will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead.

The self-giving love which takes Jesus to the lowest point of brutal death on a cross is, at the same time, the epitome of God’s self-giving nature and the living out of who God actually is.

Paul has given us a summary story-arc of the emptying and exaltation of Jesus, from before all worlds to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. In the middle of the cosmic, creedal story, Paul places us, you and me, and all of those who belong by faith to Christ.

This is the story we are to have in mind. This is the way we express our essential unity with Jesus: We do not grab and hold what makes us look better in our own eyes. Paul calls us to a particular mindset or way of thinking (phronéō, to think or set your mind to) in Jesus Christ (verse 5) that embraces the humbling (from tapeinóō, to make lowly) attitude lived out by Jesus (verse 8). Indeed, this is Paul’s exact purpose, expressed in verse 3: That we would operate with each other in this same humble mindset (tapeino-phrosýnē, from tapeinóō, to make lowly, and phronéō, to think or set your mind to).

Praise and humility, exaltation and emptying, these extremes capture a process or movement defining not only the story of Jesus, but the story of those who now belong to Jesus. We are crucified with Christ, says Paul (Galatians 2:20). We have been raised with Christ (Colossians 3:1) and indeed, are seated with Christ already by faith in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 2:6). Our stories are being shaped into the image of the story of Christ. And, like the story of Jesus, our stories will not find their ultimate denouement until every knee bows and every tongue confesses Jesus Christ, the humble and crucified King, is Lord over all.

In the meantime, we continue to be formed into that cosmic, creedal story of our humble and exalted King. We also learn both obedience and humility as the Spirit shapes Jesus in us. As Paul says in the next verses: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (verses 12-13; ESV).

We are obedient. We hold a mindset of humility. Like our Lord, we display the essence of the Godhead by giving ourselves away. Yet, we work all of this only under an umbrella of grace. For it is God who works both the desire and the ability to give ourselves selflessly away. Jesus’ humility and self-giving love are not the example we are to follow or the moral bar we are to reach. Rather, Jesus’ selfless, emptying mindset is the design the Sculptor Spirit has in mind as the Spirit shapes each of us (and all of us together) to look more and more like our humble and exalted Lord.

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Additional Resources:

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in Philippians 2:5-11.

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Philippians 2:5-11.