Taking the form of a slave: brief thoughts on the Incarnation and God’s life with Israel

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February 27, 2014 by jmar198013

One of the more well-known Christological reflections in the NT–and probably the first breadcrumbs along the trail of the development of the doctrine of Incarnation–is the “Christ hymn” of Philippians 2.6-11:

Though he was in the form of God,
        he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
        by taking the form of a slave
        and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
        he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
        even death on a cross.
Therefore, God highly honored him
        and gave him a name above all names,
    so that at the name of Jesus everyone
        in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
        and every tongue confess that
            Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Now, this passage has much to teach in terms of the person and work of Christ, and even more to say about discipleship. I may comment more at length on those aspects of interpreting this passage, but just now I want to consider how this passage looks backwards into the history of God’s life with Israel–a seldom-noted feature in most considerations of this passage I have encountered.

This look back into Israel’s experience with God is found in the claim that Jesus emptied himself by taking the form of a slave. This evokes a flashback to the Exodus, when God took the form of a slave by identifying himself with an enslaved people. It seems that to liberate them, he had to bind himself to them–and then, bind them to himself. What a paradox!

The Incarnation accomplishes in flesh and blood what God did by pillars of fire and cloud during the Exodus. The Cross and Resurrection of Christ overturns the powers of sin and estrangement and death as God exposed the powerlessness of Pharaoh and wiped out his army by means of plagues and manipulating the Sea of Reeds. To liberate us, Christ had to bind himself to us, in order to gather us safely into himself.

The Gospel of Matthew has Jesus assert:

Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them. (Matt. 5.17)

Jesus fulfills the Law and Prophets, not by acting according to a set of discreet predictions, but by embodying the full sweep of Israel’s history with God–the Law and Prophets–in his own person.

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