Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8, ESV)
Water is scarce in the Sudan, and the African people have to dig deep wells in order to find it. These are not the kind of wells you might think of – with stone walls, a pulley, and a bucket on a rope. They are 100 feet deep narrow shafts, and tribes men have to climb all the way down with a water skin to obtain the scarce and precious water. A man carrying water once fell to the bottom of the well, where he lay with a broken leg. But no one had the strength to carry a man on his shoulders up the long, narrow shaft. So, the chief of the tribe was summoned. When he discovered the situation, he removed his massive headdress and ceremonial robe, climbed down into the well, took upon himself the weight of the fallen and injured man, and carried him up to safety. The strong chief became a servant and did what no other man could do.[i]
This is what Jesus has done for us. Though he was in the form of God, he assumed the role of servant, laid aside his honor and glory, and climbed down into the pit of human misery, where he took the weight of human sin onto Himself. Paul says that “being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” What amazing humility and sacrifice! Just trace the steps which Jesus took.
First, he who was “very God of very God,” became a man. He “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” but “was born in the likeness of men.” He took on human nature. He never ceased being God, but like the chief who laid aside his headdress and robe, so Jesus laid aside the insignia of His deity – the full display of His glory and the full exercise of His power. As Paul says elsewhere, “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might be made rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). Or as the Apostle John wrote, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). This is what we call the incarnation.
Then he took another step. “He took the form of a servant.” He didn’t come as a mighty king with soldiers and servants at his call. He came as poor Jewish peasant, a carpenter. He didn’t wait on people to serve him. Rather, he voluntarily took on the most menial task of the household slave, by girding himself with a towel and washing the feet of his disciples. This would be kind of like the President of the United States coming to your house to clean your toilet.
But Jesus didn’t stop there. He also “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,” and not just any death, but the violent and shameful death of a criminal, “even death on a cross.” Why did he do this? What was going on here? The Scriptures answer: “For our sake he [God] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). To put it simply, Jesus was taking our place. In being crucified, Jesus became sin for us. He didn’t become sinful himself, but he was treated as if he was. God was dealing with Jesus as if he had lived the life of a sinner, so that he could then deal with sinners as if they had lived like Jesus. Jesus was bearing the weight of our fall on his shoulders. No greater humility has ever been displayed than this. Jesus is the Greatest Servant.
But that is not the end of the story. God promises to exalt those who humble themselves. And so he did. “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so 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 (Philippians 2:9-11).”
[i] Adapted from Bryan Chapell, Using Illustrations to Preach with Power (Wheaton, IL.: Crossway Books, 2001) 11-12.