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Christmas is first of all about Jesus. The angel said: “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you: he is Christ the Lord.”

We traditionally turn to that passage in Luke 2 as we reflect on Christ’s incarnation as a human baby. Yet Philippians 2:6-7 (part of the Christ hymn in verses 6-11) adds something important to what the angel said about who Jesus was. And it puts that in the context of the kind of life encouraged by Christmas (and Calvary).

Jesus Emptied Himself

Scholars dispute the precise meaning of Philippians 2:6-7. One researcher identified 10 different positions on this passage. In light of recent studies, I offer this translation:

Christ Jesus . . . who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used for his own advantage, but made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant and by being made in human likeness.

Before his incarnation Jesus was truly God. He existed “in the form of God,” and that entailed “equality with God.” He was not only our Savior, Christ the Lord, as the angel said. The one who became flesh was also the one who was with God and who was God (see John 1:1).

That Jesus already possessed God’s form and divine equality becomes clear when we understand more clearly the phrase at the end of Philippians 2:6. Again the most likely meaning is, “[He] did not consider equality with God (which he already possessed) something to be used for his own advantage.” Another ruler might well have used his position for his own gain or advantage. But our Lord did not. Rather, “he emptied himself,” or “he made himself nothing.”

Some people think that Christ emptied himself of some benefits of his equality with God, such as his “divine glory,” while retaining his deity as the Son of God. But the text does not say that he emptied himself of anything. Rather, it means he gave a different evaluation of what divine equality meant. By “emptying himself,” Jesus reinterpreted divine equality to mean “self-giving love.” He took on the form of a servant. Ultimately he gave himself up to death, even death on the cross (2:8).

How Then Shall We Live?

Paul says our “attitude” or “mind” should be “the same as that of Christ Jesus” (v. 5). Just as our Lord did not consider his divine equality something to be used for his own advantage but took the form of a human servant, so we are called to live by taking the form of a servant. Paul was probably pointing to that kind of lifestyle already in 2:1-4. Those verses mention three things that illustrate this attitude of Christ:

  1. Paul encourages believers to be one in spirit and purpose. As he says earlier (1:27), the church should stand firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel. He encourages Euodia and Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord (4:2). In celebrating Christmas this year, let’s show oneness of spirit and purpose.
  2. As Jesus himself did, we are encouraged to show sincere humility, even considering others better than ourselves. In celebrating Christmas, let’s pray for such humility by rejecting “selfish ambition or vain conceit.”
  3. Our calling is to be helpful to others. In becoming human, our Lord did not look after his own interests, but also ours. We are called to do the same for others. Christmas means being helpful to others.

Let’s celebrate this year not only by remembering the gift of Jesus’ incarnation, but also by practicing Jesus’ example of self-giving love.

Have a blessed Christmas!

for discussion
  1. Bandstra offers a translation of Philippians 2:6-7: “Jesus did not consider equality with God something to be used for his own advantage.” How does this truth impact your celebration of Christmas?
  2. “Jesus reinterpreted divine equality to mean ‘self-giving love.’” What does this say about Jesus’ divinity? About his humanity?
  3. Who is your model of self-giving? What impresses you about this person?
  4. Is self-giving ever harmful? If so, to whom? Explain.
  5. Discuss Bandstra’s three attitudes that demonstrate the mind of Christ. How do you see these attitudes lived out in the Christian Reformed Church?

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