“I will give him a portion among the great, because he poured out his soul unto death, and with transgressors let himself be numbered” – Isaiah 53:12.
Unlike Adam, the “Servant of Yahweh” did not grasp at the “likeness of God.” Instead, he humbled himself and chose obedience, even when that meant his submission to a most shameful death. For this reason, God highly exalted him and installed him to reign over all things as “Lord.” Exaltation did not precede the death of Jesus – it followed it.
His example of self-denial is the pattern all disciples are summoned to emulate. When our discussions about the passage from Philippians focus on the nature of Christ or questions about what he did prior to his “human existence,” we miss the point. Rather than explaining his Christology, Paul was presenting the supreme example of how the disciple, in “lowliness of mind,” is to count others “better than himself, not looking to his own things, but to the things of others,” thus deferring to the needs of others:
(Philippians 2:5-11) – “Be thinking this among you, that even in Christ Jesus. Who, commencing in form of God, considered being like God something not to be seized, but he poured himself out, taking the form of a slave, having come to be in the likeness of men; and having been found in fashion as man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even death on the cross. Therefore, also, God highly exalted him and granted him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, of beings heavenly and earthly and under the earth, and every tongue should confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father, even God.”
In the passage, the Apostle contrasted Adam and Jesus, using language from the fall Adam and the prophesied “Servant of Yahweh” from the book of Isaiah. Unlike Adam, Jesus did not attempt to seize “likeness” with God, choosing instead to humble himself and submit to an unjust death. Adam was created in the image of God but grasped at the divine “likeness.” However, Jesus obeyed God and suffered the consequences – A horrific death on a Roman cross.
Jesus “did not consider being like God something to seize.” The clause alludes to the story of the “serpent” tempting Adam:
(Genesis 3:5) – “For God knows that in the day you eat thereof your eyes will be opened, and you will become LIKE GOD, knowing good and evil.”
Adam chose disobedience by attempting to “seize” the “likeness of God.” The Greek noun rendered “seize” means “plunder, booty” – something that is seized by force. But, in contrast to Adam, Jesus chose NOT to grasp at the very same “likeness.” Instead, he fulfilled the role of the “Servant of Yahweh,” having “poured himself out, taking the form of a slave…he humbled himself becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”
The passage from Philippians includes several allusions to the “Servant song” recorded by the prophet Isaiah. For example:
- (Isaiah 53:7) – “Hard-pressed, yet HE HUMBLED HIMSELF, nor opened his mouth, as a lamb to the slaughter is led.”
- (Isaiah 53:12) – “Therefore will I give him a portion in the great, and the strong shall he apportion as plunder, BECAUSE HE POURED OUT TO DEATH HIS OWN SOUL, and with transgressors let himself be numbered, Yea, he has the sin of many bare, and for transgressors interposed.”
- (Isaiah 52:13) – “Behold, my Servant prospers, he rises and is lifted up and BECOMES VERY HIGH.”
The “Servant of Yahweh” – Jesus – humbled himself, choosing obedience by “pouring out his soul” to death on behalf of others. His disciples are called to have this very same mind – to seek nothing from self-interest or for “empty glory.”
Disciples imitate the Messiah by not seeking to promote or exalt themselves, and by submitting in humble obedience to their Father. Believers must conduct themselves in “humility” by serving others, just as the “Servant of Yahweh” did.
Self-denial does not mean losing your individual identity or overcoming your propensity to sin, as important as the latter might be. Rather, the self-denial epitomized by Jesus means to forego your “rights” and privileges for the sake of others; to defer to their needs rather than to insist on fulfilling your own. To “become greatest in the kingdom of God,” you must first become the “servant of others.”