“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 attempt to grasp 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 made him “Lord” over all things. Exaltation did not precede his death – it followed it.
His example of self-denial is the pattern for all his disciples to emulate. When our discussions about the passage from Philippians focus on the mysteries of Christ’s nature, we miss the Apostle’s point.
Rather than explaining his Christology, Paul presented Jesus as the supreme example of how the disciple is to conduct himself. In “lowliness of mind,” he must count others “better than himself, not looking to his own things, but to the things of others,” 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, Paul contrasted Adam and Jesus using language from the fall of Adam and the “Servant of Yahweh” described in 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,” but Jesus obeyed God and suffered the consequences.
The Son of God “did not consider being like God something to seize.” This 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 that same “likeness.” Instead, he fulfilled the role of Yahweh’s “servant” by “pouring himself out and taking the form of a slave… he humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”
In Philippians, the passage 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 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.”
Jesus fulfilled this role by “pouring out his soul” to death on behalf of others. His disciples are called to have this same mind – to seek nothing from self-interest or for “empty glory.”
His disciples imitate him 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 God’s messianic “servant” did. To be the Messiah is to serve others, not to lord it over them.
Self-denial does not mean losing your individual identity. 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 insist on fulfilling your own. To “become greatest in the kingdom of God” you must first become the “slave of others.”