During Advent we have been working our way through what some people call “the great parabola of Scripture”, Philippians 2:6-11. The reason it is called a parabola is because the passage starts on a high note, drops to a low point, then finishes on another high note. If you were to draw this, it would look kind of like a parabola, or a U with the tips bent outward. The first week we talked about Jesus being God, which is a high point of the parabola. The next week we talked about Jesus humbling himself as a man, which is a little bit lower. This week we get to the low point of the passage, Jesus humbling himself so much that he allowed himself to die, and not just to die, but to suffer the indignity of crucifixion. On Christmas Eve Eve, we’ll get to see the upswing, Jesus being glorified.
You might ask why we would look at this passage at Christmas time. After all, Christmas is a celebration of a cute little baby born in a manger, right? Well, yes Christmas is about Jesus’ birth, but the whole reason for Jesus’ birth was so that he could die in our place. That’s why it makes perfect sense for us to reflect on the cross at Christmas, because the cross casts a shadow over the birth of Jesus.
Born to Die
Jesus was born so that he could die. That was his purpose. Sometimes you hear people say that death is a natural part of life. It’s not. Man did not die until sin entered the world. Human beings were created to live forever, but Jesus was different. Jesus was born to die—that was his purpose.
Let me read to you J. Vernon McGee’s perspective on this.
Now when the Lord Jesus came to this earth, He was a little different from the rest of us. You and I came to live. I honestly don’t want to die. I want to live. I have come to the most fruitful part of my ministry, and I want to live as long as the Lord will let me. But the Lord Jesus was born to die. He came to this earth to die. He didn’t have to die, but He “became obedient unto death” and gave Himself up willingly. I have to die, but I don’t want to. He didn’t have to die, but He wanted to. Why? In order that He might save you and me if we will put our trust in Him.
McGee hits on the real point here. Jesus didn’t have to die (like we do), but he chose to die in order to save us. That begs the question, save us from what? The answer, is that Jesus died to save us from God’s just wrath. Because we are sinful human beings and God must punish sin, he must pour out his wrath on us. Hebrews 9:22b says that without the shedding of blood, there can be no forgiveness. In other words, the penalty for sin is death. The only way that God’s wrath can be satisfied is for someone to die. Jesus had to die because it was the only way that we could be forgiven.
In our society though, this seems extreme. In your conversations with your friends and family, ask people if they think they are going to heaven, then ask them why they think the way they do. Much of the time when people say they think they are going to heaven, they say it is because, “I’m a good person.” What they mean by that is that they haven’t ever done anything that bad. They aren’t murderers, they don’t steal, they try to be nice to others. Overall, they try to live by the golden rule. Most of us think that we are “good people”. We recognize that we do things that are wrong, but in minds they aren’t really a big deal, at least nothing that should demand such a severe punishment. We really don’t understand.
[Isaac Newton] had worked for hours on his scientific inquiries into the very core of the physical universe, exhaustedly laboring by candlelight. By his side over the weeks sat his beloved dog.
On one occasion when Newton left the room for a moment, the dog jumped up to follow him and inadvertently bumped into the side of the desk, knocking over the candle and setting the papers ablaze. All that seminal work was reduced in moments to a pile of ashes.
When Newton returned to his study to see what remained of his work, his heart was broken beyond repair. Rescuing what little was left of the room, he sat down and wept with his face in his hands. Gently stroking the dog, he said, “You will never, never know what you have done.”
We don’t fully grasp the impact that our sin has. We don’t understand just what kind of pain it causes our Master. Fortunately, Jesus did, and he came to die in our place.
Jesus’ Unique Qualifications
Jesus was uniquely qualified to die in our place. The last two weeks we have looked at a couple of different aspects of Jesus’ character, and these characteristics are important because they are what make it possible for Jesus’ death to pay the penalty for our sins.
First, Jesus was God. This is important because his sacrifice needed to be valuable enough that it could pay for the sins of all mankind. No ordinary human being’s life is worth that much. You have probably heard us say before that the President is a good example of this. Imagine a foreign country that was holding a group of Americans hostage. If the president offered to allow himself to be taken hostage in exchange for the release of these Americans, do you think the hostage-takers would take the deal? How many hostages do you think they’d exchange in order to get the president? They would probably be willing to trade all of them (no matter how many there were), because of who the President was. While the President’s life is valuable, it doesn’t even hold a candle to the value of Jesus’ life, because Jesus was God. His life is of infinite value—so when he offered his life, it was valuable enough to pay for the sins of all mankind.
Second, Jesus was a man. It seems odd that it would be necessary for Jesus to be a man, but believe it or not, his humanity is an important part of his qualifications. Think about it, unless Jesus had been a man, he could not have died. Jesus had to become mortal just like we are, with the ability to feel pain and to die, just like us.
Third, Jesus was sinless. Jesus’ sinlessness is closely tied to his humanity. If he was simply God on the earth, then it would be of little consequence that he lived his life without sin—you expect that from God. It would be no big deal for Jesus to live a life without sin if he was simply God. But Jesus was also a man. Remember that when he came to earth, he set aside his divine power and became a normal man, just like we are. You do not expect men to live without sin, yet Jesus did. Hebrews tells us that Jesus was tempted in every way, just like we are, but he never gave in to sin. If Jesus had sinned while he lived here, then he could not take on the penalty of others, because he would have a penalty of his own to pay.
Think of it this way. Suppose you had a rare disease that caused you to need a kidney transplant. If someone else who had the same disease offered to give you one of their kidneys, how would you respond? Obviously it’s a noble gesture, but it’s also completely worthless! Replacing one diseased kidney with another one does you no good.
If Jesus had not lived a sinless life, it would have been like him trying to give us a diseased kidney. But it is because Jesus was not infected with the disease of sin that he is able to offer himself on our behalf.
It is important for us to understand who Jesus was in order for us to understand his sacrifice. Because Jesus was a sinless man who was also fully God, his sacrifice makes it possible for all of mankind to be forgiven and have right standing before God.
Jesus Humbled Himself
In verse 8, Paul is driving at the fact that Jesus allowed himself to be humiliated for our sake. Jesus was absolutely obedient to the Father, even though that meant that he would have to die—and not just die, but die in a way that was the worst kind of death, crucifixion.
We don’t fully understand just how shameful crucifixion was. We have heard stories about how painful it was and the agony that Jesus experienced, and it is absolutely true that crucifixion was an excruciating death, but there was also a social taboo against crucifixion. Some people have compared it to the electric chair today, but even that doesn’t really capture the indignity of the cross. Crucifixion was a penalty reserved for the vilest offenders of the law.
Crucifixion was inflicted by the Roman government, but they did not allow it to be inflicted on Roman citizens. It was as though Rome viewed crucifixion as being cruel and unusual punishment. Jesus was subjected to a punishment that the Roman government wouldn’t inflict on its own people because it was too dehumanizing.
The Jews viewed crucifixion in a similar light. Galatians 3:13 quotes the Old Testament, saying that anyone who is hung on a tree is cursed. The Jews viewed anyone who had been crucified as someone cursed by God. Jesus endured the worst, most shameful form of death on our behalf.
Of course, that really isn’t the worst part. Tim Keller writes this,
His body was being destroyed in the worst possible way, but that was a flea bite compared to what was happening to his soul. When he cried out that his God had forsaken him, he was experiencing hell itself.
If an acquaintance denounces you and rejects you—that hurts. If a good friend does the same—the hurt’s far worse. However, if your spouse walks out on you, saying, “I never want to see you again,” that is far more devastating still. The longer, deeper, and more intimate the relationship, the more torturous is any separation.
Jesus endured all of this for us. He had the right to stop things at any point in the process. He would have been totally justified in letting us get what we deserved, but he didn’t. He endured the shame and physical agony of crucifixion and the wrath of God that we deserved so that we could be forgiven.
The point of all of this is to remind us what Christmas is really all about. Yes, Christmas is about a little baby who was born in lowly circumstances in Bethlehem, but his birth reminds us of what he came to do. Jesus was born so that he could die in our place.
It would be easy for us to look at this passage and simply moralize the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection—to say that Jesus laid down his rights, so we should be willing to do the same—but if that’s all we do then we are completely missing the point.
If a man found himself thrown overboard from a ship in the middle of the ocean and began drowning, what he needs most is not a swimming instructor. He may want to learn how to swim, and indeed he needs to learn how to swim, but there is a much more pressing issue at hand. Instead of a swimming instructor, what that man needs is a rescuer, someone who will jump into the water with him and save him from dying. Until he has been saved from drowning it is pointless for him to try to learn how to swim.
The same is true for you today. The very first thing that you should do in response to the cross of Christmas is recognize that you are drowning. Jesus is our rescuer; he jumped into the water with us and provided a way out for us. The question is, have you accepted his help?
Do you even realize that you are drowning, or are you still deluding yourself into thinking that you’re a “good person”? If you recognize that you need a rescuer, have you trusted Jesus to be yours? Do you understand what He came to earth to do, and have you placed your faith in Him? Will you let him be in control of your life? This is really the most important thing you can do. We can live our lives trying to emulate Jesus (and we should do that!), but until we have trusted Him to save us, simply trying to live like Jesus is like trying to learn how to swim while drowning—it’s a good thing to do, but the order is backwards. Until you’ve been rescued, it won’t do you any good.
If you have recognized your need for a savior and have trusted Jesus to be yours, then you should be trying to live like Him. Jesus was willing to sacrifice for us, so we should do the same.
We need to recognize that sometimes we ought to lay down our rights, rather than demanding them. One of the big trends in business today is “assertiveness training.” The idea is to teach people how to stand up for their rights and make sure they get what they deserve. This attitude has trickled down to most everyone in our society, and the result is that we are unwilling to sacrifice for anything or anyone. Listen to these insights from the Life Application Commentary.
Often people excuse selfishness, pride, or evil by claiming their rights. They think, “I can cheat on this test; after all, I deserve to pass this class,” or “I can spend all this money on myself—I worked hard for it,” or “I can get an abortion; I have a right to control my own body.” Obedience, submission, and sacrifice are not popular qualities for humans, and society has little respect for those who practice them. But believers should have a different attitude, one that enables us to lay aside our rights in order to serve others. If we say we follow Christ, we must also say that we want to live as he lived. We should develop his attitude of humility as we serve, even when we are not likely to get recognition for our efforts. Jesus was willing to wait until after his death to receive his glory. Most of us want our glory right now.
So, we need to recognize that as Jesus laid down his rights for us, so we should be willing to lay down our “rights” for others. We should be willing to give of ourselves to help those around us. Practically, this may mean
- Letting someone go in front of us in line at the store
- Choosing to overlook minor annoyances (a person driving below the speed limit, taking too long in the checkout line, a waitress giving you poor service), even though we’d be justified in complaining about them
- Giving up some of our hard-earned free time to serve others
- Spending our money on others instead of ourselves
- Allowing our schedule to be interrupted in order to help someone (helping someone with their groceries, jump-starting someone’s car whose battery is dead, taking the time to listen to a person who’s going through a tough time)
If we really understand what the cross is all about and what Jesus has done on our behalf, then we should really be striving to live our lives the way he lived his. We should understand that we can sacrifice in this world, because we know that this world is not all there is.
There is probably not a better time for us to try to emulate Jesus’ humility than at Christmas. During the Christmas season, we are presented with all sorts of opportunities to serve others and to give to others in a very unselfish manner. So let me challenge you to be intentional about looking for ways to humbly give to others—to sacrifice on their behalf.
If we will live like Jesus did, people are eventually going to see that there is something different about us. There is a good chance that people will ask you about why you are different, why you are being so unselfish. At that point, you can tell them about the ultimate Christmas gift, Jesus Christ. Tell them not just about his birth, but also about his death and resurrection. I’m sure that some people think it’s strange to talk about the cross at Christmas, but I think it makes perfect sense.