The Mind of Christ
Our text this morning is a magnificent one. It is very uplifting, awesome and inspiring. In fact it is so tremendous that the amount of literature it has caused to be written is beyond the capacity of specialist scholars to read it all let alone ordinary Christians like you and me.
The language Paul employed is rich and poetic, so much so that plenty of folk think that Paul is actually quoting an early Christian hymn celebrating the wonders of Christ. Some commentators have suggested that Paul quoted someone else’s hymn while yet others suggest that it was Paul himself who wrote it but no-one can be quite sure. And do you know what? It really doesn’t matter because the fact Paul included these words in his letter demonstrates his agreement with the truths expressed regardless of who originally penned them.
We’re going to focus our thoughts on just the first part of this hymn today. Let me read these wonderful words to you again:
“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.”
The gospel of Jesus Christ brings tremendous benefits and blessings to those who embrace it. Paul has just been reminding the Christians in Philippi of some of these blessings that every genuine believer knows the reality of in some measure. He wrote about there being encouragement in Christ, comfort in the knowledge of being loved by God the Father, and fellowship with and in the Spirit of God. No Christian who had experienced at least something of these benefits and blessings could remain unaffected and go on living as he had in his pre-Christian days. The gospel changes a person’s status with God but it does more than that, it also changes the way in which he leads his life.
And yet the simple fact of becoming a Christian does not mean that all of God’s work in our lives has been completed. Yes, a great start has been made but this start must now be followed up with a renewed and refreshed type of behaviour. Gone are the days when self-interest and self-centredness might be allowed to destructively dominate that person’s life – having become a Christian believer there is no place left for rivalry and conceit he must instead learn a new way of life, one that puts a high value on the lives and interests of others.
But how could the Christian be motivated live such a life? And what would keep them focused? How could these Philippian believers be expected to develop such a new pattern of behaviour, a behaviour that would come to colour and determine their lives from now on?
Well it is to that motivation that Paul turned next in his letter and the way he would do so would by focusing upon the extraordinary example of Jesus himself.
Some Preliminary Clarifications
The only safe way forward for these Philippian Christians would be for them to possess the same attitude that Jesus himself had adopted. Or in more familiar language – they must possess the mind of Christ. Paul was about to go on to show them what that mindset was like as he explained how it had determined just how Jesus directed his own life.
Before we turn to think about this mind of Christ in some detail it will be good for us to pause a moment and remind ourselves of a few things that are obvious when mentioned but which can all too readily be forgotten. Paul wrote this letter to a church in the first century of the Christian era. He was not directly addressing our western culture nor did the values of our culture form the backdrop to what Paul wrote. Consequently so we must be careful not to assume otherwise.
Individualism is the dominant force in our 21st century western culture and if we are not careful we will have a tendency to read such individualism back into the text. So when we find Paul encouraging the Philippians to “have the mind of Christ” we are likely to assume that he is addressing them merely as individuals. While it is true that Paul wanted each individual Christian to be involved individually he viewed this individual involvement as coming together in a congregational experience. In other words the Christian is not to imagine that he can pursue the mind of Christ on his own while living his life in splendid isolation.
This emphasis on congregational life while perhaps somewhat unusual for us it is certainly in line with the general tenor of NT teaching. Consider, for example, what Paul wrote about when he prayed for the Christians at Ephesus. He prayed that they might know more and more about the love of Christ. We are apt at turning that request into a personal desire that each of us might individually know more of Christ’s love and yet Paul put that most definitely put that in a congregational setting too. Do you remember what he prayed?
Eph.3:17-19 “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
Here in Philippians 2 Paul not only expresses a desire that the Christians in Philippi might possess the mind of Christ but that they might possess it corporately:
v.5 “Have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus”
This whole passage that we are looking at this morning is about the mind of Christ. It is about us as Christians being urged to have this mind, or rather, to let it dominate and control our thinking. The translation of the ESV in addition helps us grasp some important truths:
1. The mind of Christ is to determine our relations with others and the existence of these are simply assumed to exist
2. This mind of Christ is not something that we must manufacture or construct for ourselves
3. This mind is already in the believer’s possession – it is ours in Christ Jesus – and “in Christ” is perhaps Paul’s favourite way of describing the Christian.
What flows from this is that the Christian community does not need to reinvent the mind of Christ – it is already theirs by virtue of their being in Christ – but just as we read of the young Jesus as growing:
Lk.2:40 “And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favour of God was upon him.”
So must we grow too! The mind of Christ must grow in us and among us!
Now with one final word of caution we’ll be ready to begin to look at the example of our Lord Jesus which Paul lays before us. Paul did not write some abstract theological treatise about Jesus that makes for interesting reading if you’re that way inclines, but which has no practical application. Not a bit of it! Paul wrote a few lines of gloriously rich and deep theology but he did so in order to be extremely practical for all of us. And if we don’t realise the implications for our own lives there is something wrong with us!
The society in which the Philippians lived was very much a society influenced and dominated by the concepts of honour, dignity and status. There was a clearly recognisable social pecking order and citizens knew just where they fitted in on it. They knew who was above them and they also had a very clear idea as to who was beneath them. Honour, prestige and position were things that were highly valued commodities. Many in that society tried their hardest to climb the social ladder and they were very keen that others might be made aware of their attainments and achievements.
It was to such a society where it was widely accepted that a person would ardently pursue their own personal interests that Paul sent his letter. The Philippian believers would inevitably be affected by such thinking and Paul was about to meet those underlying assumptions head on. The gospel of Jesus Christ, founded upon the character and work of the Lord himself, would come crashing into that world as a mighty counter-cultural force that would challenge their existing way of thinking before turning it completely on its head.
Paul was about to explain how a man with the highest status imaginable chose to act in an utterly unexpected manner, going against all the natural expectations of the folk who lived in Philippi. And it was this man’s example that the believers in Philippi were going to be encouraged, urged and exhorted to follow.
We must make sure we get the magnitude of this. In a few short lines Paul was to exalt the Lord Jesus in such a way that would make the way he behaved appear as abject folly to the average inhabitant of Philippi. We are perhaps used to the presentation of Jesus that is contained in these verses along with that of his humility. Many of us have been influenced by Christian thinking that regards humility as a virtue and so we find Paul’s teaching as both normal and understandable. This same teaching was however totally mind-blowing to those who did not benefit from the Spirit’s illumination. And without this illumination the men and women of Philippi would go on thinking that what Paul was setting forth as something admirable was in their estimation the epitome of madness.
But as Paul wrote elsewhere and in a different context:
1Cor.1:25 “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
Let’s see how he unpacked that here in this context!
Paul made staggering claims concerning Jesus:
v.6 “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped”
Paul was not saying that Jesus was somehow like God but distinct from him – to be in the form of God meant that he was the outward appearance of God. The preincarnate Christ wore, if you like, the garments of divine majesty and splendour that were appropriate to his divine rank. With his incarnation Jesus was able to reveal the Father to his followers for “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,” (Col.2:9) and Jesus could say to his disciples:
Jn.14:9 “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”
The association of glory, clothing and outward appearance is further revealed in an event such as the Transfiguration. Luke described that event in his gospel account with these words, they’re found in:
Lk.9:28-32 “Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.”
The apostle John could later write concerning Jesus in his gospel narrative:
Jn.1:14 “we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
So what Paul was affirming here was that the Lord Jesus possessed exactly the same status as God. This amazing reality is confirmed by the second half of the sentence where Paul wrote that being in the form of God meant nothing less than equality with God!
If that was already an astonishing declaration to make, then the way in which Jesus used that status and rank is out of this world! All those in Philippi knew what people did with their status – they used it to further their own interests and to seek to secure a yet higher status. But how different Jesus was!
It wasn’t that he was ignorant of his true status either – he knew exactly who he was and what his rank was – and with that knowledge firmly in his possession he simply refused to cling on to his status! He didn’t desperately try to use his exalted rank to protect himself from the unwanted attention of those who were less fortunate than himself. Instead of clutching on to his privileges he deliberately and willingly refused to use them in any type of self-service or self-promotion.
No, this most highly ranked individual did the complete reverse of what any ranking official in the Roman empire would do; he now took the outward form of a slave – servant is too polite a word to describe the position that the Saviour took up by means of his incarnation. You see Jesus didn’t just stoop to make himself a little lower, he stooped so far as to make himself nothing for a slave had no rights, no power and certainly no status in Philippi.
This stooping occurred at the incarnation when Jesus started to make himself nothing. He became a human being just like the rest of us with the exception that he was without a taint of sin. And he kept on stooping until there was nowhere lower for him to stoop – our text says he humbled himself but in our Christian circles humility since the days of Christ has been considered a praiseworthy quality so the word doesn’t strike us as it would have done the Philippians so perhaps we ought rather to say that he humiliated himself as he stooped in obedience, even to the very point of death. And if that wasn’t enough the death he stooped to obediently suffer was death by crucifixion.
In the Roman Empire crucifixion was referred to as the slave’s death. It wasn’t because it was a painful death or because it was usually a long drawn out procedure. No, the reason was different – it was because it was a shameful death, a tremendously disgraceful, dishonouring and shameful death. It was a death that was totally out of line for a person of rank, dignity and honour. And this is the depth to which Christ stooped!
In the religion of the OT animals were sacrificed in religious rites to point to the serious problem of human sin. These animal sacrifices pointed to the possibility of divine forgiveness but they couldn’t secure it. The animals were unable to express their willingness to die, they were simply taken and killed as helpless victims. If sin was to be dealt with, this serious problem of sin that has infected every one of us and which is terminal if left untreated, then a more effective, a more potent sacrifice would be needed. The animals in the OT rites had to be without physical fault, they had to be pure and spotless but they could never be willing sacrifices.
Jesus was far superior to all those OT animal victims. He was not only pure and spotless but his exalted rank gave unlimited, infinite value to his life. All that was needed for him to successfully offer himself as that definitive sacrifice which could secure that forgiveness we so desperately need was his free and voluntary offering of himself; that ready and willing obedience all the way even to death itself.
And he did it!
Hallelujah, what a Saviour!
He did what no self-respecting, self-serving Philippian would ever contemplated doing. He, the highest one, stooped lower than the lowest to raise up undeserving sinners and at such a cost.
If you think that you deserve to be saved by Jesus I’m afraid you’re sorely mistaken and have failed to understand the wonderful grace of God and the absolutely astounding love of the Lord Jesus. But the exciting, comforting message of the gospel is that it is for people who don’t deserve to be saved! Jesus has done it all!!
I hope you have started to understand the wonder of the gospel. I hope you have begun to be amazed by the scintillating majesty of God’s plan in Jesus Christ. But above all I hope you have responded with repentance and faith and called upon Jesus to be your Saviour.
And I hope now you begin to see where Paul has been going as he has focused on the example of the Lord Jesus Christ.
This was the mind of Christ – he did not stand on ceremony expecting others to serve him and believe me there was never ever anyone more deserving of such service, more deserving of our worship because of his exalted status as being equal with God. No, instead he bent to serve others. He didn’t despise those below his rank and refuse to help he stooped below the lowest that he might offer salvation to the very chief of sinners.
And that is the mind of Christ that Paul urged the Christians in Philippi to adopt and work out amongst themselves.
Are you ever tempted to think that a certain task is too demeaning for you? When I went to university I helped with the chairs at the first Christian Union meeting I attended – a lowly job. Do you know in my 7th year as a university student I was still doing that! I couldn’t maintain that I’d done my bit and progressed to more important responsibilities – it was something that had to be done, so you get on and do it!
Are you ever tempted to think that a person is too unworthy for you to serve? Then stop and take another look at the example your Master left you. Stop and think about how he was willing to stoop to serve you, to lift your feet out of the miry clay and set them upon a rock, how he put a song of praise within your heart – you who are at best an unworthy servant.
Oh isn’t it difficult at times to be a Christian! Yes, there are people that we think of as beneath us but is that really a good enough reason for refusing to serve them? Wasn’t I beneath Christ yet didn’t he stoop to serve me:
In loving-kindness Jesus came
my soul in mercy to reclaim,
and from the depths of sin and shame
through grace He lifted me.
Is this possible? Well, to follow the example of Jesus perfectly, I would have to say no it is beyond us for Jesus alone is perfect. But I do believe that we can together make progress. We can encourage one another to think this way, the Jesus way. We can help each other when it all seems so difficult. And of course we can remind one another that this will not be achieved by gritting our teeth and tightening our belt but by trusting in the Lord and relying upon the enabling power of his Spirit.
May the mind of Christ control us more and more to the glory of our Wonderful Lord.