If you were to ask ordinary people in the first century what greatness looks like, chances are people would point to someone like Alexander the Great. At 20, he succeeded his father as the king of Macedonia. He solidified his power, mastered all of Greece, and then he went to war and conquered the rest of the known world at the time. He was 33 when he died, but he accomplished so much in his lifetime that people thought he was divine.
The Apostle Paul and the earliest Christians saw greatness differently. Alexander the Great’s conquest of the world by the age of 33 was nothing compared to Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection at the age of 33! So, how is the Christian understanding of greatness different? Consider one of the earliest hymns of the church, as recorded in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, and we observe a different vision of greatness.
1. Greatness is Jesus giving up his status. (Phil. 2:5-7)
Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity.
The hymn starts out by saying that Jesus existed in the form of God but did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. Instead, He emptied Himself. There’s an artistic contrast between two ideas: exploitation versus emptying.
Exploitation is when you’re grasping for power at the same time you are ensuring that your power always works to your advantage and never against you. It’s trying to have authority without vulnerability. And exploitation always comes at the expense of someone else.
This grasping for status and reputation is common to all humanity because we’ve inherited a sinful nature from Adam and Eve. When Eve took the fruit from the serpent, she and Adam ate because they wanted to become like God. They weren’t satisfied in the joyful relationship they had with each other and with God. They wanted more.
This hymn shows how Jesus Christ undid the sin and curse of Adam. Instead of grasping for status and exploiting His position, Jesus humbly gave up His status and took the role of a servant. The King of Kings would rule by serving.
Most of us these days measure greatness in this world by the authority we gain. We think of greatness based on the size of our bank account, or the experience we have in our career, or the stuff we accumulate. The world says, “Greatness is measured by how much you gain!” God says, “Greatness is measured by how much you give!”
Next, the text says that Jesus emptied Himself. A. W. Tozer said: “Jesus veiled His deity, but He did not void His deity.” The point isn’t that He stopped being God. No, when He emptied Himself, Jesus was saying: This is what being God looks like. To be equal with God doesn’t mean you hold on to your rights. It means you give yourself up for the world.
This song is subversive in a world that measures everything by status. To have the attitude of Jesus, we hold loosely to whatever “rights” we imagine we have. When given authority—in church, at work, in the home—we should always look for ways to use that authority for the benefit of others, not ourselves. Jesus showed how in giving up status, giving up rights, in taking the towel and the basin and washing His disciples’ feet, greatness is achieved by being the servant to all.
2. Greatness is Jesus going to the cross. (Phil. 2:8)
And when he had come as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death — even to death on a cross.
Humility leads Jesus downward, to put aside His rights, His status, His reputation, and then leads Him up the hill toward Golgotha. Jesus became obedient to the point of death, even to death on a cross. Why is that addition there? Because death is one thing, but a crucifixion is another.
In a culture built on a code of honor and shame, the cross was the most shameful, most embarrassing way to die. Most depictions of the crucifixion show Jesus clothed. But crucifixions almost always involved stripping the person completely naked, so that they hung there, exposed and vulnerable. Crucifixion was meant to be a long and drawn-out death. People would suffer for days, slowly suffocating in their blood, while wild dogs circled below waiting to leap up and tear off their flesh.
Imagine the humility it took for Jesus to die there. Here he was, nailed to a cross by soldiers whom He created! The Creator was slain by His creation. The shepherd was slain by His sheep. The Creator of life submitted to death. This is ultimate humiliation.
And so, Paul says we are to make our attitude that of Christ Jesus. We are to be humbly obedient to the point of death. There’s nothing we should think too humiliating or too hard or too difficult. The revolutionary humility on display in Jesus’ death is to be on display in the Christian’s life.
3. Greatness is God-given because of our character, not our charisma. (Phil. 2:9-11)
For this reason God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow—in heaven and on earth and under the earth—and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The end of the hymn starts with “For this reason.” Because of Jesus humility and servant’s heart, the Father chooses to give Him honor and glory. God is the one that exalts and bestows greatness to people.
The song says, “At the name of Jesus every knee will bow.” It takes a line from an older song found in Isaiah 45:23––“Every knee will bow to me, every tongue will swear allegiance” ––and reveals that the One who did not exploit His equality with God is God Himself.
Here we have the ultimate ascension. God the Father exalts Christ because He left the throne of heaven and came to earth and descended to the utter depths of humiliation by dying on the cross.
C. S. Lewis describes it this way:
“In the Christian story God descends to re-ascend… One has the picture of a strong man stooping lower and lower to get himself underneath some great complicated burden. He must stoop in order to lift, he must almost disappear under the load before he incredibly straightens his back and marches off with the whole mass swaying on his shoulders.”
The God of self-giving love, who came humbly in Jesus, will reign in majesty for all eternity, and He will make the world right. Jesus’ lordship will be seen and recognized by all because the Father will make it so and because it is all for His glory. Because Jesus does not exploit His status but empties Himself, and is obedient to the cross, the almighty Father lifts him to greatness.
Are you trying to achieve greatness by your own victories and accomplishments? Jesus shows us that true greatness is not found in promoting ourselves, but in demoting ourselves. Do you want greatness? Strive to have the same attitude of Christ Jesus, giving up status, going to the cross, and resting in His seal of approval.
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