Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Foundation of Christian Ethics

The Foundation of Christian Ethics

“Ordinarily it is supposed that the way to obtain a more perfect conception of the divine nature is to add on as much power as possible, as much impeccable self-sufficiency, as much imperturbable sovereignty, as much unqualified majesty…However, from a Christian point of view it is possible to think of God too highly, for Christ reverses all we expect Highness to be…”
Paul Ramsey
Basis Christina Ethics

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men.  And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.  Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name, which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Philippians 2:5-11


The Emphasis of Philippians

Studying the books of the Bible, we often magnify the incidental mistaking the main emphasis with issues of ancillary importance.  This can be easily problematic in attempting to understand the significance regarding the emptying of Christ in Phil 2:5-11, what is known as kenosis (from the Greek verb kenoo, “to empty”) that is, the “self-abnegation of the Son of God in becoming incarnate.”[1]  What many scholars regard to be a hymn of the early church[2] was not an attempt by the apostle Paul to formulate doctrine or explain the mystery of the incarnation.  He desired to give pastoral counsel, to “encourage his readers to imitate their Lord”[3] in attitude and conduct towards one another.

Although the NT everywhere clearly teaches Jesus’ divinity, not by explanation but by declaration, Daane agrees the issue was not theological but ethical, stating,
…both the manner in which and the purpose for which Paul presents his assertion about the self-emptying of Christ in Phil 2:5-11 suggest that he himself did not regard his assertion as a special illumination that would throw a brighter light on the general biblical teaching about the incarnation and death of the Son of God, or as a passage of special theological interest…it is clear that the mind of Christ expressed in the kenosis has no special reference to Christ’s emptying Himself of His deity.  Rather, it exemplifies with the self-emptying of Christ’s humanity in death for sinners, the mind of Christ that must characterize all Christians…If the self-emptying of Christ refers only to His action by which He as divine became man, it and the mind of Christ could not be held up as a requirement of the Philippian Christian.[4]

It is not the mystery of the incarnation itself but the ethics implied by such self-emptying, which Paul emphasizes to the Philippian congregation; and the whole content of the Philippian correspondence supports this emphasis.

Kenosis Defined

The Greek translated variously as “made Himself of no reputation (NKJV),”[5] “emptied Himself” (NAS), “made Himself nothing” (REB), is used as such in reference to Christ only in Phil 2:7.  However, “the idea also appears in 2 Cor 8:9 in Paul’s assertion, ‘Though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.’  It may also be reflected in Jesus’ description of His death upon the cross as being ‘treated with contempt’ (Mk 9:12)”[6]

In the LXX, the Greek verb is used of Rebekah emptying water out of her pitcher (Gen 24:20) and in Jeremiah’s lamentation that Jerusalem and her gates “languish,” which may have “a metaphorical usage which prepares the way for the Philippian text” (Jer 14:2; 15:9).[7]  Also, certain scholars see the kenosis in Phil 2:7, in relation to its usage in Isa 53:12 (“He poured out His soul unto death”) not with reference to “His incarnation but the final surrender of His life…on the cross.”[8]  Although, admitting that such a view may strain the Philippian text, it does seem to properly reflect Paul’s intention when the whole content of his letter is considered.


Problems Addressed

In addition to the common reasons attributed for the purpose of this epistle (e.g. to thank them for their financial gift or to commend to them Timothy and Epaphroditus[9]), Paul also sought to correct concerns that threatened the harmony of the Philippian community.

The problems implicitly gathered from Paul’s correspondence are:
1.    Unfavorable events.  Because of their close relationship with the apostle, news of his imprisonment may have caused some discouragement (implied in certain exhortations of Paul) in their commitment, to one degree or another, to the faith (1:12,18,20,28-30; 4:4-6).
2.    Sectarianism.  The appearance of certain fellow believers who preached the gospel from ulterior motives, of whom, it is possible to conjecture, some may have preached to the Philippian congregation causing confusion, frustration, and splits among them (1:15-16; 4:2).
3.    Persecution.  The sufferings they endured because of their testimony of the gospel, may have contributed to additional tensions within the congregation and bitter feelings towards each other (1:27-30; 2:14; 3:13-14; 4:5,19).
4.  False apostles.  The presence of certain apostate preachers who may have influenced others likewise towards apostasy and contributed to the splits mentioned above (see #2) within the community (3:2,18-19).

Models To Follow

To maintain the integrity of the Philippian community, the line had to be clearly drawn between hope and despair, selflessness and selfishness, perseverance and irresolution, and faithfulness and apostasy.  The stakes were high: their individual salvation (2:12-13), their testimony of the gospel to the world (2:15-16a), and the apostle’s own efforts towards both those ends (2:16b).  Consequently, Paul admonishes the Philippians to conform their lifestyle according to three patterns:
1.    His own way of life (4:9).
2.    Those who follow his example (3:17; 2:19-30).
3.    Christ, whose example Paul and his fellow-workers patterned their lifestyle (2:5, cf. 1:27).

Above all, it is to Christ as the prototypical believer to whom the apostle calls the Philippians to give their full attention.


Essential to Paul’s mind was “their fellowship in the gospel” (1:5), which contributed to his joy amidst adverse circumstances, preserved by a harmonious attitude of deference towards each other (1:27a).  Therefore, throughout the epistle he encourages them to “stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving for the faith of the gospel” and to be “like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, and of one mind (1:27-28; 2:2).  Furthermore, they are to reverently obey God “with fear and trembling,” serve each other “without complaining or disputing,” and honor each others weaknesses as they follow their own conscience (“walk by the same rule”), and offers Timothy and Epaphroditus as living examples (2:14-30).  Paul continues this thought of unity when he gently admonishes two sisters in the faith to “be of the same mind in the Lord” and for the rest to join in and help them in their work for the gospel (4:2-3).[10]  The Philippians are to rejoice with each other instead of complain, to be gentle towards each other rather than frustrated, to pray for each other rather than argue, to think of each other in ways that edify rather than harbor bitterness, and Paul also offers himself as a living example (4:4-9).

The way to such oneness is achieved, in essence, through humility: “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind, let each of you regard one another as more important than himself” (2:3, NAS, emphasis mine).  Humility “was not highly regarded in Greek literature…the Greek concept of free man led to contempt for any sort of subjection…”[11]  In humility, here defined as valuing the concerns of others above your own, they are to conduct themselves.  Paul
does not ask that the Philippians all think alike.  Rather he asks that they strive for an inner sentiment for each other that is full of love.  He asks that they all possess a common soul, share a common affection for each other, have a common desire to live together in harmony by renouncing a party-spirit that is coupled with empty conceit and self-interest, and by adopting a humble attitude that estimates others as better than themselves.  In such a climate unity thrives, the Church grows, and the individual Christian is strengthened in the faith.[12]

This is the only “conduct worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27) because, in so doing, they follow the example par excellence, Jesus Christ: “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus” (2:5).  For a proper understanding of the text, it is important to repeat that
…Paul’s motive…here is not theological but ethical.  His object is not to give instruction in doctrine, but to reinforce instruction in Christian living.  And he does this by appealing to the conduct of Christ…the ultimate model for moral action.[13]

Having urged for oneness on the basis of the example of Christ, Paul proceeds to show how Christ is the prototype of a true disciple of God by describing the kind of “attitude” (NAS) Jesus exemplified.


From the onset, the apostle Paul affirms the divine nature of Jesus:
2:6 – “who being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal to God”

The divinity of Christ is not explained but declared.  However, we must not think that this is the only place wherein the apostle asserts Jesus’ divine nature.  Although there are many examples in the epistle to demonstrate it, space permits only three should suffice:
1.    He greets the Philippians with a peace that comes from both the “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:2).  “The position here occupied by Jesus in relation to God…appears to put Jesus Christ and God the Father on an equal basis.”[14]
2.    He alludes to the OT eschatological judgment of “the day of the Lord” (e.g. Joel 2:1; Amos 5:20) in equivalent phrases as “the day of Jesus Christ” or “the day of Christ” (1:6,10).
3.    The admonition that “every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (2:11) reflects God’s prophetic pronouncement through Isaiah where he says, “to Me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall take an oath.  He shall say, Surely, in the Lord I have righteousness and strength” (Isa 45:23b-24a).

Christ did not think it was a diminution of the Father’s glory to declare that He also possesses the selfsame divine nature.

However, neither did he “consider [divinity] a treasure to be clutched and retained at all hazards.”[15]
2:7 – “but made Himself of no reputation (kenoo, “emptied himself”), taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men.”

The kenosis consisted simply in the pre-incarnate Christ voluntarily having laid aside His divine privileges to serve mankind through the selfsame weakness in man’s humanity as created yet fallen.[16]  Any understanding of the incarnation beyond this text leads only to mere speculation uncalled for by virtue of the context within which it is written.[17]  Here we see Jesus more concerned for man’s plight than for His own glory otherwise he would have preserved His reputation as God by holding onto the glory He shared in equal measure with the Father.

For love of mankind, Jesus hid his glory behind a wall of flesh and subjected it to the weaknesses of man’s fallen condition in order to serve him in that selfsame state.  Not only did Jesus take upon Himself the “likeness” of a man but the “form” of the lowest condition in which a man may find himself, as a servant; for, as Jesus declares, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.”  Carson, commenting on Matt 20:28, says,
“He came not to be served, like a king dependent on countless courtiers and attendants, but to serve others.  Stonehouse …rightly points out that the verse assumes that the Son of Man had every right to expect to be served but served instead’.”[18]

The nature of Christ’s emptying is in this, that “God stepped down”[19] into the confines of human existence as a man and, in further stooping as a slave in order to better serve the needs of men in their fallen condition, He did so out of that same fallen plight.
…contrary to what one might expect, the true nature of God is not to grasp or get or selfishly to hold on to things for personal advantage, but to give them up for the enrichment of all.  This is demonstrated by Christ, who because he shared the nature of God, did not hold firm to the high position that was his by right, but rather stooped down from it.  That is to say, he deliberately placed himself in the humblest of positions: he who was in the form of God became a man, a fully human being, a slave even, so that he might serve others…To obey, as a slave must obey, was his delight.[20]
Yet, to even further depths than becoming a slave, Jesus stooped.
2:8 – And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death of the Cross.
In the emptying of Himself, Christ did not stop when he became a man.  He went further and became a servant.  Yet, He went beyond even that.
In the self-humbling act of the incarnation God became man and thus set himself wholly to seek the advantage and promote the welfare of his fellows.  It was never the intent of Christ to fight for his own honor and right and credit, but through self-surrender, self-renunciation and self-sacrifice to strive for the honor, right and credit of others.[21]

Jesus went from being a man to being a slave to being a sacrifice – an atoning sacrifice for the sins of mankind.  The Son of God went so far in the service of humanity that He voluntarily exposed Himself to experience the agonies of a shameful death.  He deliberately, compelled by love,[22] came down to experience what He, as God, could never experience so we can experience what we, as sinners, could never experience: the glory of being sons of God.  In other words, He came to be what He is not, sin, so we can be what we are not, God’s children (2 Cor 5:21; 1 John 3:1).

Moreover, this humiliation was not only directed towards and for the sake of others, it was an act of obedience towards and for the sake of God: “He humbled Himself and became obedient.”  It is not enough to humble oneself before their fellow man; it must be a humiliation first of obedience to God.  If death is to ensue for another’s sake, it must first be an act of obedience before God prior to its being an act on behalf of another person.  One must empty himself in service to God before he can be poured out in service to men.

The humility of the Son of God stooped, and went beyond stooping to serve and beyond serving to a vicarious, ignoble death, “even death on a cross”.

However, because of the extent to which in humility He served others, God rewarded Him.
2:9-11 – Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow…every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Because He stooped so very low, God raised Him so very high.  Going below humanity to serve, God raised Him above humanity to rule.  Disrobing His garment of glory (John 13:4), God clothed Him with garments more glorious still (Rev 1:13)..  Having “emptied Himself”, God exalted Him.  Having “loved them to the end” (John 13:1), God raised Him “above every name.”  This is the reward of humiliation, exaltation; and, to the degree, one voluntarily humbles himself in obedience to God, to that degree God exalts him.  The deeper one digs the tunnel, the further one reaches the sky.

This is the way to exaltation: the cross (Matt 16:25f; 23:11f; Luke 14:10-11; 18:11).  Note that Jesus’ act of humiliation – the emptying of Himself for the sake of the sinner – rested upon what He did.  The exaltation is something God does.

In consequence of the divine humiliation, Paul admonishes his readers to comply with the divine pattern and “work out your own salvation,” that is, work out such a life of humiliation so as to obtain exaltation.  Conduct yourself in the manner patterned after Jesus Christ and in view of God’s works “in you to will and to do” (2:12f).  The apostle exhorts them to serve each other and keep the “mind[23] of Christ” before them as the model of humiliation par excellence.


The apostle Paul writes to the Philippians with concern mainly for their conduct towards each other in the light of the challenges that threatened the moral integrity and spiritual health of the community.  He writes, not so much a theological treatise, as was Romans and Galatians, on the subject of the incarnation but a primer in Christian ethics.  In so doing, he presents himself and others as models of Christian conduct.  However, Paul sets forth as the primary and ultimate model, the incarnation, that is, the humiliation of God’s Son becoming man.

The apostle describes the incarnation as Jesus’ voluntary emptying of His divinity for our benefit.  If anything of a doctrine is being presented, it does not go beyond the understanding that God divested Himself of glory or majesty in order to go under mankind and serve him; and such service was to “the point of death, even death on the cross.”  In his love towards humanity, Jesus Christ, so to speak, voluntarily threw off all that made Him God and then went further to throw off all that made Him a man to make atonement through the cross for our sins.

In essence, the apostle exhorts the Philippians to have this same mind, laying hold of these same feelings and striving to conduct themselves in the same way towards each other as Christ has thought, felt, and conducted Himself towards them.  This only is true Christianity.  Be ready not only to bear another’s offenses and forgive, not only to concede that which interests you for the sake of others, whether friend or enemy, but be ready to physically die, if necessary, for their sake.

The admonition to humility is a call to go under men to serve them and more than that.  It is the joyful privilege of emulating Christ by emptying one’s whole self, to the point of suffering and death if need be, in order to serve God who in turn works through the one emptied to serve men.

[1] E. McChesney, “Kenosis” in Unger’s Bible Dictionary, ed. Merrill F. Unger (Chicago: Moody, 1977), 627.
[2] Albert F. Harper, The Wesley Bible, footnote on vss. 2-11 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), 1788. 
[3] W. Ralph Thompson, “Kenosis,” in Beacon Dictionary of Theology, eds. J. Kenneth and William H. Taylor, (Kansas City: Beacon Hill, 1983), 299.
[4] J. Daane, “Kenosis” in the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, revised, vol. 3, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 7.
[5] All Scripture quotations are from the New King James unless otherwise noted.
[6] ISBE.  Cf. other place in the NT where the kenoo is used: Rom 4:14; 1 Cor 9:15 – translated, “void”; 1 Cor 1:17 – “made of no effect”; 2 Cor 9:3 – “vain” (cf. Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible, “The ‘kenosis” of Christ,” NT, p.218).  
[7] R.P. Martin, “Kenosis” in The New Bible Dictionary, ed. J.D. Douglas (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 689.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.  For the various reasons Paul may have written the Philippian epistle, see Gerald F. Hawthorne’s section on “Paul’s Purposes for Writing Philippians,” World Biblical Commentary, vol. 43, ed. Bruce M. Metzger (Waco: Word Books, 1983), xlvii,
[10] Emphasis is mine in all quotations.
[11] Homer A.Kent Jr., “Philippians,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed., Frank E. Gaebelein, Vol. 11 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 433.
[12] Gerald F. Hawthorne’s, World Biblical Commentary, vol. 43, ed. Bruce M. Metzger (Waco: Word Books, 1983), 71.
[13] Ibid., 79,96.
[14] Ibid., 12
[15] Wuest Expanded Translation of the NT
[16] Yet, such human frailty as Jesus took upon Himself excluded sinfulness, cf. Acts 3:14; 2 Cor 5:21; Heb 4:15; 7:26; 1 Pet 2:22; 1 John 3:5.  “The word ‘likeness’ (homoiomati) does not bear the connotation of exactness as does eikon, or intrinsic form as does morphe.  It stresses similarity but leaves room for differences.  Thus Paul implies that even though Christ became a genuine man, there were certain respects in which he was not absolutely like other men.  (He may have had in mind the unique union of the divine and human natures in Jesus, or the absence of a sinful nature.),” cf. Kent, EBC. 11:124.
[17] However, it must be understood, ”Christ did not empty himself of the form of God (i.e., his deity), but of the manner of existence as equal to God.  He did not lay aside the divine attributes, but ‘the insignia of majesty’,” cf. Carson, EBC. 11:124.  The text clearly maintains that Jesus remained, in all respects, equal with God while he was yet, equally in all respects, human: “Jesus, who being in the form of God…and coming in the likeness of men”.
[18] D.A. Carson, “Matthew,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed., Frank E. Gaebelein, Vol. 11 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 433.  Also commenting on Matt 20:28, Maclaren observes, “When we think of our grudging services; when we think of how much more apt weare to insist upon what men owe to us than of what we owe to them; how ready we are to demand, how slow we are to give; how we flame up in what we think is warranted indignation if we do not get the observance, or sympathy, or the attention that we require, and yet how little we give of these.  We may well say, ‘Thou hast set a pattern that can only drive us to despair.’  If we would read our Gospels more than we do with the feeling, as we trace that Master through each of His phases of sympathy and self-oblivion and self-sacrifice, ‘that is what I should be,’ what a different book the New Testament would be to us, and what different people you and I would be!  There is no ground on which we can rest greatness or superiority in Christ’s kingdom except this ground of service” (Expositions of Holy Scripture).
[19] A phrase by Duncan Campbell describing the Hebrides Revival.  Also see Wuest: “And being found to be in outward guise as man, He stooped very low, having become obedient [to God the Father] to the extent of death, even such a death as that upon a cross” (2:7, emphasis mine).
[20] WBC, 95.
[21] Ibid.  Emphasis mine.
[22] The apostle Paul wrote the Philippian epistle under the experience of that love: “For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Jesus Christ” (1:8; cf. John 3:16).  Paul’s love “is a longing that is not only intense but unique in that it is rooted in a love that originates in and is fostered by Christ Jesus.  Paul loves them as Christ loves them and because Christ loves them through him…Literally it is, ‘in the viscera, entrails of Jesus Christ’,” cf. WBC, 25.  Oh, for a love for others as Paul possessed!
[23] The “mind” consisting of the attitudes and feelings as well as thought or knowledge.

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