Humiliation & Exaltation: More on the Incarnation
When we think about the humiliation of Christ, we often focus chiefly on His death and the suffering that immediately preceded it. However, in order to view things from an eternal perspective, we must also consider His Incarnation itself: the point when “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us”. (John 1:14) Because we ourselves are human and know no other existence, we are perhaps not fully cognizant of the limitations of our situation. So confident are we within our humble frames that we often envision the Creator in our own image rather than the other way around. We must understand the Incarnation as the humiliation that it was.
In a primary biblical text on the humility of Christ, the Apostle Paul does not focus exclusively on the sufferings of Christ toward the end of His earthly life, but takes us farther back. “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.” (Philippians 2:5-7)
The ancient Greek word employed in the phrase translated as “a thing to be grasped” implies that equality with God the Father was not something that Christ had to steal or seize: it was His by right and by nature. Even so, our translation says that Christ “emptied” Himself. This verb comes from the Greek root word kenos, an adjective that indicates something is empty, void, or false. One might say it is a kind of façade or veiled reality. The traditional theological understanding of this portion of the text is not that the person of Christ emptied Himself of divinity, but rather that He became veiled in human flesh, “taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.” The eternal glory of His divine nature was hidden from human eyes. This does not mean that Christ was not truly human, but rather that the glory of His humanity was not equal to His eternal glory as Creator, which no mere human can look upon and live. (Exodus 33:17-23)
Paul points to this assumption of a human nature by Christ as a prime example of humility precisely because the glory of man is as nothing compared to the glory of God. To become human required Christ to take on limitations in terms of time, space, and ability. He was forced to subject Himself to certain aspects of the curse of sin, such as illness and pain. The one who knew no sin had never been subject to such things before, for God does not suffer. Suffering is a distinctive of creatures after the Fall.
I have heard some attempt to get this point across by comparing Christ’s incarnation as a human to the hypothetical incarnation of a human as an insect. This image helps us a bit, but certainly does not capture the full extent of the humiliation that occurred when Christ took on humanity. The gap between any two creatures is as nothing compared to the gap between creatures and their Creator. That Christ was willing to become one of us, not only temporarily, but on into eternity, is remarkable. The one who has every right to pride showed not an ounce of it in what He was willing to sacrifice on our behalf.
Of course, Paul did go on to write in his letter to the Philippians that Christ became “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (5:8) It is therefore correct to focus on that moment as a key point in terms of Christ’s humiliation, which is inextricably linked with His subsequent exaltation. Yet, you could also argue that Christ had submitted Himself to such an end when He took on humanity, for He became united to a body that was subject to death and decay. Which was worse: the humiliation imposed on Him by the persecutions of human beings, or the humiliation inherent in the Incarnation itself? Perhaps it is not possible or useful to choose, but the point is that we need to appreciate that humiliation from beginning to end.
The author of the epistle to the Hebrews wrote, “But we do see Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.” (Hebrews 2:9) For the Son of God to be made lower than the angels, subjecting Himself to all it is to be human, is a chief example of humility for all of us to follow by lowering ourselves on behalf of others, even to a point some would consider degrading. For Christ did not endure this humiliation for its own sake or taste that death for no good reason. He did all this for “the joy set before him.” (Hebrews 12:2) Even so, we persevere in the face of humiliations and sufferings for a greater prize: an eternal weight of glory. (2 Corinthians 4:17)
All scripture quotations are from the 1995 New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.
Amy Mantravadi holds a B.A. in Biblical Literature from Taylor University. She is an active member of Patterson Park Church in Beavercreek, Ohio. You can read her blog at www.amymantravadi.com or follow her on Twitter @AmyMantravadi.