Celebrating the Birth of Christ: Emptying of Self
The following article by Prof. David J. Engelsma appeared in the Dec. 15, 2000 edition of the Standard Bearer.
There is profit in our celebration of Christ’s birth—great spiritual profit. Reading, hearing, and taking to heart the gospel of the birth of Jesus Christ are of benefit to the church.
This is why Holy Scripture proclaims the birth. And it does. The Old Testament rejoiced in the birth of the coming Messiah: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son … ” (Is. 7:14); “… unto us a child is born … ” (Is. 9:6).
So also does the New Testament make something of Jesus’ birth. The modernists, bent on calling into question the account of the virgin birth in Matthew and Luke and the confession of the incarnation in the gospel according to John, are mistaken when they allege that the apostles show no further interest in the miraculous birth of Jesus.Galatians 4:4 declares that in the fullness of the time, God sent forth his Son, “made of a woman”—the birth of Jesus. II Corinthians 8:9 reminds us that our Lord Jesus Christ, though rich, became poor for our sakes—the birth of Jesus. Philippians 2:7 teaches that Christ Jesus, who is in the form of God, “made himself of no reputation”—the birth of Jesus.
Each of these references to Jesus’ birth (and there are others) announces the benefit of His birth for the church. Jesus was made of a woman, to redeem us (Gal. 4:5). He became poor, to enrich us (II Cor. 8:9). He made Himself of no reputation, in order to die the death of the cross in our place and thus privilege us to share in the honor of His glorious name through His resurrection (Phil. 2:9).
The proclamation of Jesus’ birth in the epistles invariably has an intensely practical purpose in the life of the child of God. The profound truth of the incarnation and virgin birth of the eternal and natural Son of God is applied to the behavior of the adopted children. Indeed, the Holy Spirit raises the truth of the birth of Jesus, not so much that we will wonder at it as that we will practice it. (But, of course, if we do not wonder at it, neither will we practice it.) Galatians 4:4 wants us, once and for all, to reject the false gospel of righteousness by our own works and unconditionally to embrace the one, true gospel of righteousness and salvation by grace alone. II Corinthians 8:9 has one, very practical purpose in view: that the Corinthians will dig deeply into their pockets and bank accounts when the collection plate comes around for the poor in Jerusalem.
In His incarnation and birth,Philippians 2:5-7 sees the mind of Christ. From the incarnation and birth, the passage draws the lesson of a selfless life on the part of the members of the church. “Made himself of no reputation,” as is the translation of the King James Version, was the act of the Son of God in the womb of Mary uniting the human nature of the baby Jesus to Himself. That act makes known the mind of Christ as a mind that does not consider His own advantage, but also the advantage of others. His is a mind that looks on the things of others, even though to His own great disadvantage. And this mind is exhorted upon the members of the church, so that we will live with each other selflessly.
The message of Christmas is the truth of self-emptying.
The call that goes out to the saints from the gospel of the birth of Jesus is that of living a life of self-emptying.
The mind displayed by the one who was born in Bethlehem takes form in every one for whom He was born. Still today, it reveals itself in a life of self-emptying.
Self-emptying is the lesson, the call, and the life of Christmas by virtue of the fact that in Philippians 2:7 the Holy Spirit inspired the word “emptied” to describe the birth of Jesus. “Made … of no reputation” is in the original Greek the one word “emptied.” In the womb of the virgin and in the stable, Christ Jesus emptied Himself. The exhortation drawn from this birth is that we be of a mind to empty ourselves.
What a strange message and exhortation in our society! Not self-emptying for the sake of others, but self-fulfillment at the expense of others is the reigning philosophy.
How necessary for us is this Christmas-lesson with its imperious call! We retain a nature that is aggressively self-seeking, a nature to which seeking self is as natural as burning is to fire.
Is not the call from Mary’s womb and Bethlehem’s cattle shed to a life of self-emptying an urgent one at this hour? Is it not an urgent call to Reformed churches, including the Protestant Reformed Churches? Husbands and wives seek personal fulfillment by divorcing each other. The divorcing parents seek their own pleasure at the expense of the misery of the children. Women fulfill themselves by pursuing careers outside the home, to the neglect of the family. Married couples in the covenant refuse to have children because children are expensive and exhausting. Ministers scorn a sacrificial life of service to the congregation (and denomination), busying themselves with work and play that interfere with, spoil, or, at least, crimp the labor of the ministry. Able men refuse nomination to the offices in the church because caring for Christ’s blood-bought flock is too demanding of their time and energies. Young people leave a true church to make their own life richer with a husband or a wife, an education, or a job, regardless of the grief of their parents and the blow to the church. And just as in the days of the apostle some members of the church do things through strife and vainglory, esteeming themselves better than others, so that the congregation is embroiled in schism.
Let this mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus at His birth!
He emptied Himself.
His birth was loss—loss of riches; loss of bliss; loss of power; loss of honor (“made himself of no reputation”); loss of life.
It was total loss. He emptied Himself completely, emptied Himself so that when He reached the end of His birth—the cross—there was nothing left of riches, bliss, power, honor, or life. There was only poverty, wretchedness, weakness, shame, and death—the death of damning wrath.
This was His own thoughtful act. As the one who is in the form of God, He brought about His own birth. Behind the act was His mind, the “mind of Christ.” That mind concerned itself with the welfare of others. If His beloved, but guilty church is to be filled with the riches, bliss, power, honor, and life of salvation — with Himself in the Spirit — He must empty Himself.
His self-emptying had a reason in the welfare of others. It was not a senseless act, as though Jesus took pleasure in the misery of emptiness for its own sake, or as though the life of lack is inherently virtuous.
For Christ Jesus, the emptying was not His loss of His Godhead, or His voluntary surrender of His divine perfections, or His voluntary surrender of some of His divine perfections, or His voluntary surrender of some of His divine perfections for a time.
How can God cease being God? How can God give up even one of the perfections that constitute Him God? How could God the Son in our flesh save us by His self-emptying, if He does not in His emptiness remain the fullness of Godhead?
But He took to Himself a human nature that was object of the curse and wrath of God from the moment of Jesus’ birth. In His human nature, Jesus hid His divine riches, bliss, power, honor, and life. “The abasement of the flesh,” writes Calvin on the emptying of Philippians 2:7, “was like a vail by which his divine majesty was concealed.”
That was a real and emptying hiding!
He hid His divine fullness from the human race, with the result that they mocked, rejected, and killed Him.
He hid His glorious fullness from the Devil and his demons, with the result that the hordes of hell tempted Him and bruised His heel.
He hid His almighty fullness from His heavenly Father, with the purpose that the Father would make Him a curse, smite Him, and forsake Him.
He hid His blessed fullness from Himself, so that in His human nature He might truly know and fully experience the poverty,wretchedness, weakness, shame, and death of sin in the judgment of the holy God.
This was the birth of Christ Jesus: self-emptying for us.
This, therefore, is the true celebration of Christmas, now and all the days of our life: self-emptying for the benefit of the other members of the church.
Let this self-emptying mind of the baby of Bethlehem be in us!
It is no easy thing to celebrate Christmas.
Let the husband deny himself, to please His wife. Let the wife lose herself in the help of her husband. Let the husband or wife whose marriage is unfulfilling, indeed positively burdensome, choose the way of personal, lifelong loss, for the good of mate and children.
Let husbands and wives whose marriages are so troubled that they teeter on the brink of divorcing deny themselves, painfully resigning themselves (as they fear) to a life of unhappiness, for the sake of the happiness and salvation of their children and grandchildren.
There is in you the mind of Christ, is there not?
In a just-published bombshell of a book on the devastating consequences of divorce on the children, the purely secular author demonstrates that a bad marriage is far preferable to divorce as regards the children. She pleads in her own (hopeless) secular way, that parents who are unhappy in their marriage maintain the marriage for the sake of the children (Judith S. Wallerstein, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25 Year Landmark Study, Hyperion, 2000).
Let mothers especially sacrifice their very lives in the bearing and rearing of children.
Let ministers (surely, with special zeal, ministers of this Christ) offer themselves on behalf of the congregation and its members, not for pay and prestige—”filthy lucre”—but with the mind of Christ.
And let the members, every one, deliberately take into consideration the other members of the church. Where it is possible, and when it is necessary, let every one deny his own will and give up his own advantage for the good (not merely the carnal pleasing) of the other and the peace of the church.
“And so it was … she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”
Let us celebrate.