By Tom M. Roberts
Jesus said, “Except ye believe that I am he, ye shall die in your sins” (John 8:24). But who is the Jesus in whom we are to believe? Shall be believe in the Jesus of the Oneness Pentecostals who maintain that Jesus is not a separate personality in the Godhood? Shall we believe in the Jesus of the Mormons who teach that Jesus transmigrated into Godhood from manhood? Shall we believe that Jesus was just another prophet like Mohammed? Shall we believe that Jesus divested himself of Deity in the Incarnation so as to be just a man among men, giving up the divine at-tributes, powers, prerogatives and privileges? Just who is this Jesus in whom we must believe? To be sure, salvation is predicated on believing in Jesus, but as God revealed him, not as men might redefine him.
No other passage has presented brethren with more difficulty in the last few years than Philippians 2:7. As Paul revealed, Jesus “made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men” (KJV); as rendered in the ASV, “But emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men.” The key phrase before us is “emptied himself’ (ASV). How are we to understand this passage? Did Jesus empty himself of (divest) Deity? The answer will be found in a careful analysis of text and context.
What Is Deity?
When Jehovah identified himself to Moses at the burning bush, he identified himself as “I AM THAT I AM” (Exod. 3:14). None can misunderstand this reference to God’s everlasting being: no beginning or ending, but rather the attribute of being: eternal existence. One cannot be deity temporarily; off again, on again. By nature, God is everlasting.
But Jesus claimed for himself this same equality. To the unbelieving Pharisees, he asserted, “Before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58). Understanding that Jesus claimed equality with Jehovah, the Jews attempted to stone him. But the truth which they rejected, we most surely believe: Jesus is deity, identified with Jehovah, as much God as the Father or the Holy Spirit. Here is our bedrock truth which provides us with the context in which to understand our disputed passage. Whatever Philippians 2:7 means, it can-not mean that Jesus divested himself of deity. Why? Because one cannot be deity temporarily; off again, on again. By nature, God is everlasting. Jesus cannot lay aside his divinity and remain divine.
Scripture Explains Scripture
If Philippians 2:7 does not mean that Jesus gave up or “emptied himself ” of his deity, what does it mean? Here is where proper Bible study is always helpful. Let the pas-sage define its own terms. Not only does the text say that he “emptied himself,” but further explains this phrase to mean that emptying himself is to be parallel with “taking the form of a servant,” and “being made in likeness as a man.” We should not isolate one phrase in this verse from its companion (and clarifying) phrases. Thus, “emptying himself’ was not an “undressing” (a divestiture) at all, but rather a “clothing upon.” As the KJV renders it, he “made himself of no reputation.” How so? By robbing himself in the “body of humiliation” (Phil. 3:21), emptying himself by what he took on, not by what he divested. As John stated it, “The word became flesh” (1:14). Isaiah 53 (quoted by Luke in Acts 8:33) referred to Jesus’ fleshly life and death as his “humiliation.” This agrees with the fact that man is mortal and corruptible (1 Cor. 15:53), occupying a body in which we groan, longing to be unclothed, that we might be clothed upon by immortality (2 Cor. 5:4), a “little lower than the angels” (Heb. 2:7). Jesus “emptied himself’ in that he “made himself of no reputation” by taking on the fleshly form of manhood. But he did this while retaining Godhood, for he was Immanuel, “God with us” (Matt. 1:23).
Jesus’ Flesh Was A Veil
An apt illustration of this can be seen in the action of Moses who veiled his face, having been in the presence of God’s glory on Mount Sinai (Exod. 34:30ff; 2 Cor. 3:7fO. Beneath the veil was Moses, but Israel saw only the veil because none could look upon his shining face. In like manner, Jesus as the pre-existent, glorious Word (John 1:1-2) has a radiance equal to that of God (Phil. 2:6), for he is God. Had Jesus come to earth in this wondrous form, none could resist him. We know this, for when we see him in his full glory, every knee shall bow and there will be no unbelievers (Phil. 2:9-10). But, in order to save us, Jesus came, not as angels before the throne would recognize him, but as the suffering servant (Isa. 42:1), in his “body of humiliation.” It was this body which was prepared for the sinless sacrifice (Heb. 10:5). Almighty God (a Spirit, John 4:24), took upon himself a body of flesh in order to suffer (Heb. 2:9-10). This body of humiliation veiled the Eternal Word so that men, when they looked on him, saw an actual man. As man is a spirit housed in a fleshly body, so Jesus is a spirit and, for a time, was housed in a fleshly body, made “like unto his brethren” (Heb. 2:14). Accomplishing this required no divestiture of deity but rather a clothing of humanity.
The Transfiguration: The Veil is
Parted For A Moment
This analogy of the veiling of the Word in a fleshly body does not depend on speculation; it is what the Bible asserts. Furthermore, when we visit Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration, we are further assured of the truth of this when we see the veil of flesh drawn back briefly, and the radiant glory of Jesus shine forth. “And after six days Jesus taketh with him Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into a high mountain apart: and he was transfigured before them; and his face did shine as the sun, and his garments became white as the light” (Matt. 17:1-2). The three disciples saw Jesus in one form, his manhood, then he was “transfigured” (Greek metamorphoo, “to change into another form,” Thayer 405). Of this, Peter later says, “We were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Pet. 1:16). The veil was parted for a moment and Christ’s divine majesty was partly revealed. We should not believe for a moment that Jesus’ manhood robbed him of his deity for the voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him” (v. 5). Jesus was as much God while in the flesh as he was in heaven before being born of Mary. This truth must not be lost in our discussions about the person of Jesus while on earth.
Difficult passages of Scripture can be understood if we use the ancient wisdom of God: “For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, there a little” (Isa. 28:10). While the “secret things belong to God” (Deut. 29:29), the “revealed things” help us in our understanding. What is revealed about Jesus allows none to believe that he was less God on earth than he was before and after the Incarnation.
Who is this Jesus in which we believe? There can be no doubt: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6).
Guardian of Truth XL: 4 p. 6-7
February 15, 1996