omething about the first verses of Philippians 2 has always filled me with dread. Not because I don’t believe it—certainly not. Not because I don’t love its message—absolutely not. Not even because I don’t want to apply it to my life—most definitely not. Rather, the apprehension I’ve felt has come from the fact that this passage is so eloquent, so elevated, so exalted. It has come from the fact that here in Philippians 2 we come to holy ground
. And it’s an awesome thing to stand in the presence of what this passage states.
In fact, as Christians, the realities behind this passage are our whole story. Take these away and we have nothing to say—and in the words of Paul elsewhere, we become, of all people, the most hopeless. So as we come to this passage, we must take off our shoes and bow our heads, for we are standing on holy ground.
“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:5-11, NIV).
Humility’s Magnum Opus
You may say, “I have heard the tune of this text many times. It’s beautiful. But I don’t know about holy ground. That may be a little much. I’d like to see it that way, but I don’t.”
Well, maybe the notes in this opus are distant from your life. They’re just individual notes, just cold, hard facts, and, because that’s how you experience them, they don’t set your soul to singing.
Listen to words taken from the autobiography of Charles Darwin, words written late in his life: “I have said that in one respect my mind has changed during the last twenty or thirty years. Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds . . . gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare. . . . I have also said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great, delight. But now, for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also lost any taste for pictures or music. . . .
I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight that it formerly did. . . . My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts.”
I wonder if what Darwin here expresses is the reality of which George MacDonald speaks when he says, “Nothing is so deadening to the divine as a habitual dealing with the outsides of holy things.”
If this passage, this opus, is just facts to you—just distant, cold, hard notes—you will miss the music, miss the glory, miss the grandeur of humility’s magnum opus.
Or maybe it’s not that the notes of this opus are distant; it’s more that they are just too familiar. It’s a song you’ve heard again and again, and it’s grown old, grown tired.
Philip Yancey tells the story of his first visit to Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park. Tourists surrounded the place where the geyser would gush forth, their video cameras trained like weapons on that famous hole in the ground. A large digital clock predicted 24 minutes till the next eruption.
Yancey and his wife waited in the dining room of the Old Faithful Inn through the countdown. When the digital clock reached one minute, they—along with every other person in the dining room—left their seats and rushed to the windows to witness the big, wet event.
It was then, says Yancey, that he noticed something. Immediately, as if on cue, the crew of busboys and waiters descended on the tables in the dining room. They refilled water glasses, cleared away dirty dishes, and swept up crumbs. Just a few steps away were tourists, oohing and aahing and clicking cameras as the geyser erupted. A few even applauded.
But Yancey noticed that not a single waiter or busboy—not even those who had finished their chores—even looked out the huge windows. Old Faithful had grown entirely too familiar, and it had lost its power to impress them. Maybe the notes that Paul strikes here have grown too familiar—so familiar, in fact, that they no longer touch us.
So how can we hear the real music of humility’s magnum opus? Perhaps by pausing to hear once again a few of the chords that Paul strikes in this masterpiece.
Three Major Chords
Consider just three of the chords that Paul strikes in this passage about the story of Christ.
The first chord: About rights.
We live at a time when many people are hypersensitive to rights. We stand on our rights; we fight for our rights; we refuse to give up our rights. And there are some valid reasons and times for that. But in verse 6 Paul says, Jesus was God, but as God He didn’t claim His rights. Jesus, though He was God, didn’t assert His rights as God. He didn’t say, “Since I am God, I have the right to remain silent. I have the right to remain on this throne. I have the right to let the human race try to figure its own way out of the dilemma into which it has gotten itself. As God, those are My rights.”
“No,” says Paul, “He may have had those rights, but He didn’t assert them.”
That’s one chord in this opus. He gave up His rights. And in so doing He tells us something about right-side-up living in an upside-down world.
The second chord: About stepping down.
In a world obsessed with climbing the ladder, we are often aggressively engaged in moving upward. But then we read this passage, and we suddenly bump our heads against something, and we look up and realize that it is Jesus, and He is coming down. We’re obsessed with climbing; He is occupied with descending.
Have you read these words lately from The Desire of Ages?
“It would have been an almost infinite humiliation for the Son of God to take man’s nature, even when Adam stood in his innocence in Eden. But Jesus accepted humanity when the race had been weakened by four thousand years of sin. Like every child of Adam He accepted the results of the working of the great law of heredity. What these results were is shown in the history of His earthly ancestors. He came with such a heredity to share our sorrows and temptations, and to give us the example of a sinless life” (p. 49).
Incredible! Christ took our nature after thousands of years of moral and physical and relational decay on our part!
How long has it been since you paused to listen to that chord in this opus? Have you heard it? learned it? savored it? Once again, it’s a chord that tells us something about right-side-up living in an upside-down world.
The third chord: About Jesus beginning at the highest level and descending to the lowest.
Jesus left the chair at the head of the table not just to sit at another chair at the table. No, He left the head chair to go to the electric chair. Simply put, when He gave up His rights and stepped down, He manifested a willingness to go to whatever depths necessary to reach us.
When a Roman soldier enrolled in military service, he swore a solemn oath that he would fulfill his conditions of service even to the point of death. Taking the oath didn’t mean that death would occur. It simply meant that he gave up his rights to appeal if he faced death. When Jesus laid aside His rights as God and stepped into a human body, He knew He was giving up His rights to put Himself first and to do what was comfortable and appealing to Him.
That’s another chord in this opus.
Some Things Cannot Be Explained—
They Can Only Be Experienced
We listen to all of those chords, and the music begins to emerge. But as it plays, you begin to realize that you can’t really explain this. You have to experience it. Because some things cannot be explained; they can only be experienced. And experiencing this passage comes with a recognition that we’re on holy ground. It comes in being struck by the awe, the wonder, the majesty of it all. If we lose that, we lose the message. So let me ask you, when was the last time you did what that old Appalachian Christmas carol describes?
“I wonder as I wander out under the sky,
How Jesus the Savior did come for to die.
For poor lonely sinners like you and like I,
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.”
If you haven’t done that in a long time, you may have grown spiritually old.
This passage will never be experienced by the man who slouches in front of Michelangelo’s sculpture of David
with his hat on; or by the woman who prances down the aisle of the Notre Dame Cathedral chewing gum; or by the medical student who yawns through a baby’s birth. No, experiencing this passage requires that one be willing to wonder, to bow, to listen to the sacred chords of divine humility, to recognize that we are standing on holy ground.
Chuck Swindoll tells the story of a group of tourists visiting the house where Beethoven spent his last years. In going through the house, they came to the conservatory, where Beethoven’s piano sat. The guide spoke quietly to the group: “Here is the master’s piano.”
One young woman immediately made her way from the back of the group all the way to the front, sat down at the bench, and began to play one of Beethoven’s sonatas. After playing for a few moments, she paused and said to the guide, “I suppose a lot of people appreciate the opportunity to play this piano.”
“Actually,” the guide said, “Ignacy Paderewski was here last summer with a group, and some of them wanted him to play. And he said, ‘No, I cannot. I am not worthy.’”
Do you know when you are standing on holy ground? This passage is holy ground. And it is only in treating it as such that the music begins to emerge.
Now, interestingly enough, the music that emerges is not music primarily intended to teach us about Christ. No, it’s music primarily intended to help us experience humility and unity. So if you want to understand this hymn most fully, the key to doing so is found in the first five verses of the chapter, which deal with unity, and which end with the words “Let this mind [this attitude] be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” When this opus is played against that backdrop, we suddenly get the impact of what Paul is saying. He is saying, “If you would live in true unity, you must do it as Christ did it: by not asserting your own rights, by taking the downward path, by being willing to do all in your power for others.”
Did you notice where the opus ends up? It ends up with the exaltation of Christ, and with every created being singing, proclaiming Jesus as Lord. Every tongue confesses, every knee bows in heaven and on earth and under the earth, which is simply an ancient way of saying, the entire universe bows and worships.
Amazing, isn’t it, that Christ’s act of humility ends up uniting a fractured universe? Such is the effect on all who experience the reality of what He has done.
In Bill Moyers’ book A World of Ideas II he quotes Jacob Needleman as he remembers a most significant incident. Listen to the words:
“I was an observer at the launch of Apollo 17 in 1975. It was a night launch, and there were hundreds of cynical reporters all over the lawn, drinking beer, wisecracking, and waiting for this 35-story-high rocket [to lift off].
“The countdown came, and then the launch. The first thing you see is this extraordinary orange light, which is just at the limit of what you can bear to look at. Everything is illuminated with this light. Then comes this thing slowly rising up in total silence, because it takes a few seconds for the sound to come across. You hear a ‘WHOOOOOOSH! HHHH-MMM!’ It enters right into you.
“You can practically hear jaws dropping. The sense of wonder fills everyone in the whole place, as this thing goes up and up. The first stage ignites this beautiful blue flame. It becomes like a star, but you realize there are humans on it. And then there’s total silence.
“People just get up quietly, helping each other. They’re kind. They open doors. They look at one another, speaking quietly and interestedly. These were suddenly moral people because the sense of wonder, the experience of wonder, had made them moral.”
Paul is writing to the Philippians, and he’s also writing to us. He is writing to people who struggle with choosing humility for unity’s sake. You know how it is. We say, “It’s my right to do that”; or “This is my pew; I’ve sat here for years”; or “If it doesn’t go my way, then I’ll just resign.”
And then suddenly, wham! God everlasting, God immutable, God unchangeable, God immortal, descends from the heavens and wails in a manger, He grows to young adulthood and struggles under the burden of a cross, and we are blasted, we are blinded, we are blown away by the humility of such an act. And we stagger, we stumble, we fall to our knees. And then, as the light sufficiently fades, we say, “I don’t need to always be asserting my rights”; and “Here, take my seat”; and “Let’s do it your way this time.”
And Paul has accomplished his purpose. How does he accomplish it? By the fact that some things cannot be explained; they can only be experienced. And it is in this magnum opus that we experience the humility of Christ.
Randy Roberts is the senior pastor at the Loma Linda University Seventh-day Adventist Church in Loma Linda, California.