“The Son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God.” CS Lewis.
Who is Jesus? That is the most important question we will ever answer, and Jesus didn’t give us the option of a fence to sit on. He made it clear that a person is either for him or against him (Matthew 12:30, Luke 11:23). He said categorically that we either serve him as Lord and Saviour, or we will face Him as Judge. (Matthew 25:31-32; Acts 17:31).
Was Jesus just a moral, wise teacher or perhaps a prophet of God who gives us the golden rule to live by? This option isn’t available to us either.
Trilemma: Bad, Mad or God
In 1859 the Scottish Christian preacher “Rabbi” John Duncan (1796-1870) formulated what he called a “trilemma” which was later popularised by CS Lewis:
Christ either  deceived mankind by conscious fraud, or  He was Himself deluded and self-deceived, or  He was Divine. There is no getting out of this trilemma. It is inexorable. (Colloquia Peripatetica p. 109)
Put simply in Lewis’ words: Jesus, who claimed to be God– was either a liar, or a lunatic or Lord. There is no option of saying He was just a good man. The eyewitness accounts in the Gospels paint Yeshua (Jesus’ Jewish name) as an extraordinary miracle worker and much more than a Jewish carpenter and rabbi. But could Jesus really be the God-man, fully human and fully God, the Creator, Saviour and King, which is what He claimed to be? Today we will focus on the second part of Philippians 2:1-11, an ancient hymn recited by the early followers of Jesus, which captures the essence of who the earliest Christians believed Him to be. The central message of Christianity is the incarnation (God becoming man), and on this miracle everything stands or falls:
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
“Equality with God”
In Philippians 1, Paul is actually quoting an ancient hymn or confession which dates back to the first years after Jesus’ death. The incarnation was no legend that arose centuries after Jesus walked the roads of Palestine and performed miracles and wonders never seen before or after. Today there are some people who insist that Jesus himself never claimed to be God, and it was only in later centuries that His deeds and claims were exaggerated. The facts of history prove this to be untrue, as Philippians was written around 61AD, and this poem/hymn was being used in the first decade after Jesus’ death by people who had known Him personally in his lifetime, many of whom had witnessed His miracles, heard His teachings and seen His death and resurrection. Jesus also had many enemies who had every motive to expose him as a fraud and just an ordinary man.
“In very nature God”
We can deduce from the ancient confession that the earliest of Jesus’ followers believed He was not just a good man, but the God-man promised in the Old Testament. He claimed to be God with his own mouth. That is why the Jewish leaders picked up stones to kill Jesus on more than one occasion. They understood exactly who He was saying He was, and in their understanding, it was blasphemous for a mere man to speak like that. However, Jesus proved He was not merely a man, but also fully God by His miracles and resurrection (v 9- 11). The signs were so spectacular, no one even tried to deny His power.
“Made in human likeness”
Yet, Jesus did not grasp onto what was rightfully His. What could be more humbling than for a holy God to be born as a helpless baby and to willingly give himself up to be arrested, spat on, mocked, whipped, accused falsely, stripped naked and crucified as the vilest criminal (v 7 & 8)? Yet, He took on our humanity because he was sure of His Father’s love for him, He was sure of where He came from and where He would return and He was sure of His mission to save the world. Jesus was secure in His identity and His Father’s approval. That’s why He willingly submitted to becoming a servant and to experience the full spectrum of human emotion, needs, temptation and suffering. His mission was to redeem the world by taking the punishment for all sins through His death on the cross. Only because He was fully human, could Jesus live the perfect life we could not and pay the price to atone for our sin. Only because He was fully God, could He forgive our sins.
The incarnation is unique to Christianity
“… the Christian story is precisely the story of one grand miracle, the Christian assertion being that what is beyond all space and time, which is uncreated, eternal, came into Nature, into human nature, descended into His own universe, and rose again, bringing Nature up with Him. It is precisely one great miracle. If you take that away there is nothing specifically Christian left. There may be many admirable human things which Christianity shares with all other systems in the world, but there would be nothing specifically Christian.” (CS Lewis, Miracles, chapter 14).
Hundreds died for this belief that Jesus was God in the flesh. The oldest surviving declaration of a Christian martyr in the first century states unequivocally:
“It will be impossible for us to forsake Christ…or to worship any other. For him, being the Son of God, we adore.”
The oldest surviving pagan report about the church described first century Christians as gathering before sunrise and “singing a hymn to Christ as to a god.” Jesus was not just a teacher or prophet to these early Christians. They worshipped Him as God.
“God exalted him to the highest place”
If you are in any doubt about whether the incarnation is myth or legend, just read through the New Testament. Every time I pick up my Bible and engage with the actual texts, I am struck by more examples of Jesus being explicitly or implicitly called God. Last night I was reading Luke 1 and 2, the story of Jesus’s birth, with my thirteen year old daughter, Hannah. As we read the words out loud (without a formal carol service to anaesthetise us), we were both emotional and full of wonder, picturing the angel Gabriel delivering his message to Mary, an ordinary Jewish teenager:
“He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:32-33).
Doesn’t this everlasting kingdom sound a lot like Philippians 2:9-11?
As if this isn’t enough, a whole host of angels appears in the sky to herald Jesus’ birth to a group of shepherds! What a meeting between the divine and human, between the supernatural and the common!
No ordinary baby
The New Testament writers wrote from eye witness accounts and make it impossible to conclude that Jesus was just an ordinary baby. He is heralded as a King, and right from the moment of his birth, it is as though an invisible ceiling is lifted and heaven literally bursts into earth’s atmosphere! “Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn King!” Do we realise what profound words we sing so blithely at Christmas time, as if God stepping down to earth from heaven is an everyday natural event? Perhaps it’s so wonderful that we are inclined to file it away in the same category as Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.
It blows my mind to pieces, but I absolutely believe the incarnation happened, in real time and space. Even Mary and Joseph “marvelled at what was said about Jesus” (Luke 2:33) and they knew his destiny as Messiah from the angel’s message. The incarnation is the greatest gift the world has ever been offered. All we need to do is receive it by believing in God’s Son. I love this song by Aaron Shust, “This is what we believe.”
Light of the world
God’s only Son
Emmanuel has come to live with us
The Son of God
Who takes away the sins of the world
This Man is the Lamb
The Lamb of God
Who takes away the sins of the world
This is what we believe
The Truth and the Life
You came to change
Our wrongs to right.
No ordinary man
The ancient hymn quoted in Philippians 1, leaves us in no doubt as to who Jesus is: Jesus is God in his essence. He is not just like God in some general sense as some people say we are all ‘gods’. He is not just made in God’s image as we are. We can change our appearance or re-invent ourselves, but this hymn is absolutely specific: Jesus is “in the very nature God”; He is “equal” to God.
Here are a few other examples where Jesus is explicitly called God, the Creator and King of all:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)
“No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” (John 1:18).
“Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”” (John 20:28).
“Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.” (Romans 9:5).
“…while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ.” (Titus 2:13).
“But about the Son he says,“Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever; a sceptre of justice will be the sceptre of your kingdom.” (Hebrews 1:8.)
“…To those who through the righteousness of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours.” (2 Peter 1:1).
The way up is the way down
For me, the greatest news about the incarnation is that God came down from heaven and became a human just like me. He wasn’t a stoic ice-man with an iron will, but a compassionate, fragile person who cried at the grave of his friend Lazarus and sweated blood in the Garden of Gethsemane. I find my rest and peace in a servant king who is not aloof from my human brokenness. As a human, he faced betrayal, injustice, grief, lack, exhaustion, humiliation, shame and a painful death beyond what I could experience in a hundred lifetimes, yet he was completely innocent and pure. In my life or death, I know that there will never be a pit so deep or dark that I will not find Jesus there. Personally, I experience the greatest intimacy with Jesus when I am in my deepest personal pain, because I know He cares for me and has been there himself.
A final word on crowns and ladders
Jesus was heralded as King when He was born. Jesus wore a crown of thorns as He died. But at his resurrection, he traded the crown of thorns for the eternal crown of the supreme King. One day every knee will bow to King Jesus, even those who reject or ignore His gift of life.
He was born in a stable and earned a living making household furniture. Yet, He died on a wooden cross to bring us life and an eternal home. He showed the futility of climbing ladders of success and pointed to Himself as the stairway to heaven, the bridge between sinful, lost people (like you and me) and the Father who made us. He showed us the way to fellowship with our heavenly Father. Jesus was not just a good man. He was the God-man.
I’m over the moon with Jesus as my Saviour. But, I’m not sure I fully embrace Jesus as my Lord and role model. I like the idea of being a daughter of God, having the comforts and privileges of royalty, but I’m not too keen to be a sister of Christ, especially when it comes to suffering.
But as Jesus wore a crown of thorns, so must I. As he served and put others first, so must I. As He died physically, so I must take up my cross and die to myself every day.
The way up is the way down. That is not the way my natural mind thinks!
I can no longer be at the centre of my universe. That goes against every human instinct!
I can no longer wear the crown. It is firmly on the head of King Jesus who will return to make all things new!
The song, Lifesong, by Casting Crowns expresses my heart as I long for my life to imitate my Saviour’s.