When the Real Jesus Confronts Us
Some years after Jesus was raised from the dead, the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Philippi and he told them to have the same way of thinking that Jesus had. I’m going to read to you the way that Paul puts that here in Philippians 2, beginning in verse 3.
 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.  Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,
[have the same way of thinking that Jesus had]
 who, being 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.
 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.
And right away there are three things I want to show you in this passage.
First, there is the Incarnation of Jesus.
Incarnation is the Christian word that refers to when Jesus, who is God the Son, became a man. That’s what is happening in verse 6. Jesus, being in the form of God, did not white-knuckle the status of his divinity but instead he made himself nothing. He humbled himself and became human.
Second, there is the Humiliation of Jesus.
That is what’s happening in verse 8. Not only did Jesus humble himself as God become man, but he also was a man who died. And not only was he a man who died, but he died in the worst possible way. He died on a cross. Then . . .
Third, [in this passage] there is the Resurrection of Jesus.
That’s what is happening in verse 9 when Paul says that God the Father has “highly exalted” Jesus. When Jesus was raised from dead it was the great vindication of his identity. It’s when Jesus was declared to be the Son of God in power, as Romans 1:4 tells us. For Jesus to be exalted means that he is resurrected.
So Incarnation, Humiliation, Resurrection. These three things about Jesus are all in this passage, and my main point in this sermon is that if you want the real Jesus he must be this whole Jesus.
What I’m Trying to Say
So if you want Jesus — if you want to be like him, if you want to know him — if you desire Jesus he must be the whole Jesus which means he must be Jesus of Incarnation and of Humiliation and of Resurrection. And if you have anything less than this whole Jesus, you don’t have the real Jesus. We either get all of who Jesus is in his Incarnation, Humiliation, and Resurrection or we don’t get him.
And this matters because so often we’re tempted, I think, to pick and choose the parts about Jesus that best suit us. Paul tells us in Philippians 2 to conform our lives into Jesus’s way of thinking, while a lot of times really we try to conform Jesus into our way of thinking.
And here’s the thing with that: we can’t do him that way if he’s the whole Jesus. If we have the real Jesus, the whole Jesus of Incarnation, Humiliation, and Resurrection, then instead of bending him to affirm our ways of thinking, he will confront our ways of thinking at every turn. And that’s what I want us to look at today.
So here’s the plan: we’re going to look at each of these three pieces about Jesus in Philippians 2 and we’re going to see how the real Jesus — the whole Jesus — confronts us as modern people living in the Twin Cities in the 21st century. So that means we’re going to look at . . . three things . . .
- The Incarnation of Jesus Confronts Our Cynicism
- The Humiliation of Jesus Confronts Our Religion
- The Resurrection of Jesus Confronts Our Ambition
1. The Incarnation of Jesus Confronts Our Cynicism
So I’ve just mentioned cynicism (and religion and ambition), and I should probably start each point by making a case for why I think these are issues we deal with, which is easy to do that with cynicism.
Cynicism is to have a skeptical, bitter view of meaningful things. Cynicism in the dictionary is explained as “an inclination to believe that people are motivated purely by self-interest.” In another place its defined as “an attitude or state of mind characterized by a general distrust of others’ motives.” Cynicism assumes that everyone is selfish and dishonest and that even the smallest bit of good is too good to be true. Cynicism is that thing in us that is always trying to find another angle on things, always trying to find the real reason, always doubting what is said first.
When we think about it this way, cynicism is one of Satan’s greatest weapons against us. Or at least, cynicism was the first weapon he used against us. Because in the Garden of Eden, after God had told Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because it would make them die, what did Satan say?
Satan came to Adam and Eve as a serpent and he said, “Did God really tell you not to eat of these trees?”
And they said, “No, we can eat of any tree we want, just not the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Because if we eat from that tree, we’ll die.”
And Satan said, “No, you won’t die. God only told you that because he knows that if you eat from that tree you’ll be like him.”
And we can see what he did here. He was cynical about God’s command, and he led Adam and Eve to be cynical about God’s command. He convinced them that God had not commanded them from the motive of love, but from the motive of greed. They questioned God’s motive. God told them not to eat from that tree, and they thought God told them that not because he loved them, but because he was trying to keep back something good from them.
Now they knew God; they had walked with him; they had heard what he said; they heard him say he loved them; but they thought, “That’s not really what he means.”
And this problem — this problem of thinking that God is actually different from who he says he is — this is our problem. We tend toward cynicism about God — that he doesn’t really love us; he’s not really for our good; he doesn’t actually care. We tend to think this way, but then there’s the incarnation of Jesus.
There is God who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, and he humbles himself, in the person of Jesus, to become a man, which Paul says in Philippians 2:7 means he “made himself nothing.” It’s hard to wrap our minds around this, around the distance here.
One analogy that might help is to think of it like if we humans were to become a flea (now this is an analogy; it will break down; but work with me here for a minute).
Now fleas might not be a big deal in Minnesota, but down in the South, in those thick and sweaty summers, you can meet a few fleas. Growing up we had four dogs out in the yard, so in the summer we had to deal with fleas. And there’s one story about fleas that stands out to me, and it was from a pastor in our area. He and his family had bought a new house, and when they got into the house, I guess because the family before them had in-house pets, they discovered the house was infested with fleas. There were fleas everywhere. And, in case you’re interested, you can get these big smoke bombs and you detonate in your house and it’s supposed to kill all the fleas. So this pastor goes out and gets several of these smoke bombs and puts them in every room of the house and he is going to let all these things go at once. And then he asks: Suppose I wanted to tell these fleas about what was about to happen? Judgment was coming. Suppose he wanted to tell the fleas about a way out? How would he tell them?
Well, the only way that we as humans could get a message like that to fleas is if we become a flea. But of course we’re not going to do that because we’re not trying to rescue fleas. We only want to rescue what we love.
And so, because God wants to rescue us, because God really cares about us, because he really loves us, he became a flea. He became a man. “He made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” So maybe, if he’s just saying things, maybe we could be cynical — but not if he becomes a flea. The Incarnation of Jesus confronts our cynicism.
2. The Humiliation of Jesus Confronts Our Religion
Now by religion I mean the common ideas that people have about God and how it’s all supposed to work. Another way to put what I mean by religion is to say our principles and our expectations when it comes to a higher being. Everyone, I think, tends to have this cookie-cutter idea of who God is and how he should act and what we should get for it. And in most cases it’s something like: if you do good you get good; if you do bad you get bad.
It’s a primitive idea, but we tend to think, in a simplistic way, that if we want to experience God’s blessing then we must work hard and earn it. And if we ever experience suffering, it’s because we’ve done something bad to deserve it. This is everywhere in America — it’s our default religion. And it was everywhere in the First Century world, for both Jews and Gentiles.
So if you were a Jew in the First Century world we can understand why you would have thought this way. In one sense, it’s not totally wrong. In the law, in Deuteronomy 28, God lays out for the people of Israel a list of blessings and curses. He tells them they will experience blessing if they are faithful, but that if they are faithless and disobedient they will experience the curses. So as a Jewish person, you would have known these things, and you could have seen their evidence in your history, and along with these blessings and curses you would have known Deuteronomy 21:22–23 which says:
If a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God.
So part of the Jewish understanding of God and people and how it all works is that a man killed and hanged on a tree means that the man is cursed by God. Which means that when they saw Jesus hanging on the cross on Good Friday, him being on the cross was the sure symbol in their minds that he was not who he said he was. Because in their minds, in their religion, there is no way that God’s Messiah would suffer God’s curse.
You can even hear this in how the Jewish leaders mocked Jesus. They stood around him as he was dying as a cursed man and they said, “Well, here’s your chance to prove who you are. If you are the Christ, if you are the Son of God, reverse the curse that you are experiencing and come down. Because we all know that the Christ will not be cursed.” So they thought.
And then for the Gentiles in that day, they also had their own way of seeing things. The Gentiles in Jerusalem would have been Romans steeped in Greco-Roman culture and stories, and for them, when it came to their buffet of cults and all their different gods and goddesses, the hero for them — the protagonist, the good guy, the savior — he doesn’t die shamefully by crucifixion. For things to go that badly for a man on earth, to them, was the sure symbol that the gods were against him. For the Romans, the Greek-minded people, when they saw Jesus hanging on the cross on Friday, in their minds, in their religion, it was impossible that anything good could come out of that, and to say otherwise, to imply that the crucifixion of Jesus meant anything good was absolute foolishness to them. It would have been insane.
We know this because the apostle Paul tells us this later on, in his first letter to the Corinthians. He says that when it comes to Jewish people, the cross of Jesus is a stumbling block. It contradicts what they know about God because a man on cross means he’s cursed, and they can’t get past that. And then when it comes to Gentiles, to Greek-minded people, Paul says that to them the cross is foolishness. It was ridiculous to them that these Christians were going around saying that a crucifixion accomplished salvation.
So when it comes to religion — Jewish, Gentile, whatever — when it comes to our common principles and expectations about God, the cross doesn’t fit. It doesn’t make sense, not to religion. When it comes to religion, the cross is irreligious. When it comes to how we think about God, the cross is absolutely godless. And Paul wants us to get this. That’s what he doesn’t just say in Philippians 2:8 that Jesus died. But that Jesus was obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
And to the extent that crucifixion is not a big deal to us it shows us how much we don’t understand what it is. Crucifixions in the ancient world were the most brutal and horrible form of execution. And the brutality wasn’t only in the torture and execution part, but in the shame that it brought.
Crucifixion was a form of execution that was designed to humiliate criminals. The criminals’ clothes would be stripped completely off and all of their skin would have been exposed to the public. And the executioners would take a sign and on it they would write the offense of that criminal and they’d post it above him. Crucifixion was a spectacle for the crowds. Crucifixion wasn’t just meant to kill you; it was meant to dehumanize you. It was meant to say that this scum hanging on the cross is worst than human. It was meant to say that this thing on the cross is not even fit to be considered human, and many times, the bodies of the crucified would have been left on the cross, and the birds would come and eat them. The cross was the ultimate shame; it is the ultimate shame — especially to the religious.
And Jesus was crucified. Jesus died that way, and in his dying, in his humiliation, God made foolish the wisdom of the world. Jesus took upon himself our sin and our punishment, and as he was being crucified he was being cursed by sin to break the curse of sin; he was being conquered by evil to conquer evil; he was being shamed by his enemies to shame his enemies; he was being defeated by death to defeat death. In the cross of Jesus God turned our religion upside down. The humiliation of Jesus confronts our religion. And the cross, this icon of greatest shame, becomes the way to greatest glory.
And this leads us to the last point.
3. The Resurrection of Jesus Confronts Our Ambition
And this last point is really just an extension of the one before it. Because of all the ways that we are tempted to pick and choose the parts about Jesus that we prefer, we tend to want his glory, but not his shame. And one of the clearest places to see this is in our ambitions.
When we, as those living in the Twin Cities in the 21st century, when we think about our lives and our goals and our dreams, one thing in common with us all is that we do not desire burdens. Nobody has ambitions for hardship and difficulty. We don’t want our lives to be entangled with frustration. We want our lives to be free from struggle. We want what’s good and right and easy. We want what’s bright and new and glorious. Or in other words, we want resurrection. We want victory.
And of course it’s not bad; it’s actually good, as long as we remember that the real Jesus, the whole Jesus of Resurrection, is also the Jesus of Humiliation, and when we get him we get all of him. See, it’s easy to want the Jesus of triumph; everybody wants the Jesus of triumph; Donald Trump wants the Jesus of triumph; but nobody wants the Jesus of suffering. Nobody wants that lonely, twisted, loser hanging on the cross.
See, I feel this in my own heart: we can think that the resurrection of Jesus means that now we’re all done with the cross. We can think that because Jesus is raised that the cross doesn’t matter anymore. Well, the resurrection of Jesus confronts our ambition because we never get just resurrection; but it’s always resurrection after humiliation. It’s not just victory, it’s victory through defeat; gain through loss; joy through suffering.
And when all we want is just the glitz; when we just want the action and the high-fives and the yippie-do-da’s; when what we expect is a kind of rah-rah Christian life, it’s because we don’t have the real Jesus.
The real Jesus, the whole Jesus, is the Jesus of Incarnation, Humiliation, and then Resurrection. He’s the Jesus who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but he made himself nothing; who took the form of a servant; who was born in the likeness of men. He’s the Jesus who, and being found in human form he humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross. And therefore, therefore, therefore, because of that, 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.
And when Paul tells us to have the same way of thinking that Jesus had, he’s talking about the Jesus who became a man, who was humiliated, and then who was raised. That’s the whole Jesus. That’s the real Jesus. He’s the one we need. He’s the only one who can give us not a shallow kind of joy, but a deep and tested joy that will change our lives.
And I want to close this way: I know several of you are here and you’re not a Christian, but you’re still checking things out and looking into Jesus. I want you to know that’s a good place to be. And also, the paradox of Jesus and his cross that I’ve talked about today, it can be confusing, so let’s keep talking. And, sometimes Jesus and his cross go from confusing to compelling, and that might have happened for you today, and if it did, let’s definitely talk. I want to hear about it.
And now for those of us who have already trusted in Jesus, for those of us who have been united to him by faith. I want to close with this invitation. As we glory in the resurrection of Jesus and want to live in his power, let us remember that it’s his resurrection power that makes us say with Paul in Galatians 6:14, “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”
That is our boast, and that is what this table says. This table is the broken body of Jesus and his blood poured out for us. And Jesus invites us to eat and drink. . . .