Born in the grip of poverty and willing to identify with people at the lowest level of society, Jesus revealed the glorious truth that He came to be the Savior of all mankind. The angel's made the announcement to the shepherds in the Bethlehem fields and they were the first evangelists of the Good News.
This is significant because shepherds in general were looked upon as very common people. They were despised by the orthodox Jews because they did not keep the details of the ceremonial law. Their flocks made such constant demands on them that they could not observe all the hand-washings and other rules and regulations. (Source: William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke, The Westminster Press, 1956, p. 17.)
This sermon will highlight Paul's incomparable picture of the lowly nature and character of Christ contained in Philippians 2:5-11, assuring His identification with mankind, even those who were despised by their fellowman. The Christmas carol we have chosen for the sermon title, What Child Is This?, communicates the amazement of the wondering shepherds who followed the angel's directions to the Bethlehem manger.
The words of Paul included in this text, describing the humility and selflessness of Jesus, is the heart of the Philippian epistle. Many commentators have concluded that the literary form of this beautiful passage is that of an early Christian hymn. (Source: Frank E. Gaebelein, The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Volume 11 Ephesians - Philemon, Zondervan Publishing House, 1978, p. 122.) Theologians call this a Christology, a summary of the doctrine of Jesus Christ.
These words present in a masterful way the condescension and humility of our Lord Jesus, as well as His exaltation and glory. Just as He identified in His birth with the lowly shepherds, so He came to love and call to Himself all who would respond, regardless of their position on the human social ladder. Christmas is an appropriate time to recommit ourselves to adopt the pattern for living modeled by Jesus Christ.
I. Identify with Christ in His humility (2:5-7)
The attitude Jesus displayed was one of humility and submission. When we describe sovereignty and royalty, we usually do not include these terms. The word sovereign indicates that one has to answer to no one for his actions or decisions. Yet God determined to become a man in the Person of His Son, live among sinful people, and die for them. In order to do this, He had to humble Himself from His exalted position as Ruler of the Universe and submit Himself to the lowest servant-role among men. All through His earthly life, Jesus humbled Himself to associate with all people, regardless of their social or moral status, in an effort to save them. As He did this, He continually submitted His will to the will of His Heavenly Father.
Christ's humility was most clearly demonstrated when He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men (v. 7). Christ did not cease to be God at this point. Some would suggest that He became God at His baptism, and ceased to be God when He died on the cross. These critics would deny His virgin birth and His bodily resurrection.
However, Jesus was God when He was conceived in Mary, and He was God when He ascended from the Mount of Olives to return to heaven. Thus, the humility with which Christ was willing to take upon Himself the form of a servant was evident in the manner of His birth and in the response of lowly shepherds to come and worship Him.
Humility should be reflected in the lives of those who would become members of God's family from the moment of admitting their sin and through the continuing process of spiritual growth. There is no place for prideful self-exaltation on the part of God's people.
II. Identify with Christ in His obedience (2:8)
In a single statement, Paul described our Lord's obedience: And when He had come as a man in His external form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death - even to death on a cross (v. 8).
One of the moving pictures of our Lord portrayed in the gospels is that of His communion with His Heavenly Father. Through prayer, His relationship with the Father was constant and unbroken. Often Jesus would go apart from His disciples and pray all night. His determination was to always do the will of His Father (John 4:34; 5:30).
There is a difference, however, when we consider our Lord's obedience to the Father, and our obedience. Our struggle is with our sinful nature which is continually seeking to pull us away from God and from what we know to be His will for our lives. In a sense, every Christian is a walking civil war. The old self (the nature of Adam in us) is constantly fighting against the new nature, which is Christ in us in the Person of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus knew clearly and perfectly at all times what the Father's will was for Him, and He obeyed it. The struggle Jesus had, however, finally surfaced in the Garden of Gethsemane. There He cried out to God in great agony. His sinless humanity was about to collide with the sins of the whole world. He knew that He would take on Himself this crushing burden, for that was the reason He came to earth. He did not come to a tragic realization in Gethsemane that He was going to die for the sins of the world. He even had tried to prepare His disciples for His approaching death.
Our willingness to identify with Christ in His obedience can never come near to our Lord's obedience expressed toward His Father in heaven. For us to obey Him in the ultimate commitment of our lives may indeed be costly. Many have had to lay down their lives for their faith. Others must live in great danger because of their convictions. The reward of such obedience is the joy that comes when we know that we are pleasing God.
III. Identifying with Christ in His glorification (2:9-11)
After God had permitted man to do his worst to the Son of God, He then vindicated Jesus in the most marvelous fashion the human mind could ever conceive. God defied the natural laws of death and raised the Lord Jesus from the grave. The empty tomb, the announcement of the angel, "He is not here; He is risen!" is the glory shout of our faith. Thus, in majesty and splendor, Jesus ascended back into heaven from the summit of the Mount of Olives.
When He arrived in the presence of His Father in heaven, He was glorified, in that God gave him the name that is above every name (v. 9). We do not know for sure what this "name" was, but most likely it was "Lord," which is often the equivalent of "Yahweh," or Jehovah, in the Old Testament. (Source: Frank E. Gaebelein, The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Volume 11 Ephesians - Philemon, Zondervan Publishing House, 1978, p. 125) The exaltation of Christ was a revelation of His total lordship.
Another evidence of Christ's glorification by the Father was that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow - of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth (v. 10). The time is coming when every knee shall bow before Jesus in recognition of His sovereignty. Those who bow before Him today, in this Day of Grace, can be saved and born from above. But those who bow before Him in that future day Paul describes will not be doing so in repentance and faith, but in a mere admission of the true identity of Jesus, an admission that will be immediately followed by eternal condemnation.
Paul completed his beautiful ascription of praise with the words: And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. This Savior, born in poverty and rejected by His own people, will be universally recognized in His glory. This ultimate acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord will be expressed not only by the bending of the knee, but by word of mouth. We, too, will identify with Him in His glorification. For when we stand before Him in His glory, we will lose the last trace of the old nature of sin with which we struggle daily, and we will be glorified with Him. We will be conformed to the image of God's Son - we will be like Jesus!
What Child Is This? Indeed we stand in awe before the Son of God, born of a virgin, who first saw the light of day in a cow stall. In His earthly life, from His birth in humiliation, to His unwavering obedience to His Heavenly Father, to His ultimate glorification as the risen Lord in the presence of the Father - we know that "this Child" is none other than the Son of God, rejected by those to whom He came, but glorified by His Father, whose will He had done perfectly.
The Story Behind the Song
What Child Is This? can trace its history back before the days of the infamous Henry VIII. The melody of this carol, a tune known as Greensleeves, is often played as a guitar or harpsichord solo. In 1865, William Chatterton Dix wrote the lyrics we have today. Dix did not share with friends or family how he came to write this poem in a single day. The powerful words of this carol, which Dix initially called The Manger Throne, present a unique view of the birth of Christ.
Dix imagined that the visitors to the humble manger were wondering who the child was who lay there. Using this approach, he then wove a story of Jesus' birth, life, death, and resurrection. It was at the end of the Civil War that The Manger Throne arrived in the United States from Britain and became a well-known Christmas poem in both the North and South. Later, an unknown Englishman set Dix's poem to the melody Greensleeves. After that, the carol became very popular on both sides of the Atlantic, and soon became known as What Child Is This? Today, this is one of the most beloved and remembered of all of our Christmas carols.
"What child is this, who, laid to rest, On Mary's lap is sleeping? Whom angels greet with anthems sweet, While shepherds watch are keeping? This, this is Christ the King, Whom shepherds guard and angels sing: Haste, haste to bring him laud, The babe, the Son of Mary.
"Why lies he in such mean estate Where ox and ass are feeding? Good Christian, fear; for sinners here The silent Word is pleading. Hail, Hail, the Word made flesh, The babe, the son of Mary.
"So bring him incense, gold, and myrrh, Come, peasant, king, to own him. The King of kings salvation brings, Let loving hearts enthrone him. Joy, Joy for Christ is born The babe, the son of Mary."
(Source: Ace Collins, Stories Behind the Best-loved Songs of Christmas, Zondervan, 2001, pp. 183-187.)
The Son of God
As they relate to Jesus, two words in Philippians 2:6 are very important. The first word is existing - Who, existing in the form of God. The word translated existing describes a person in his very essence, that which cannot be changed, that which cannot be taken away from him. Paul was saying that the Jesus men and women saw, heard and touched was unchangeably God. He was not a lesser deity because He had taken on human flesh.
The other word is form. Jesus was in the form of God. The Greeks used two words for form. One means an outward appearance that changes from time to time, and from circumstance to circumstance. The other word for form - the word Paul used - describes the essential form of something that never changes and is never altered. Jesus' form was that of the unchangeable God. It was such when He was born a baby in Bethlehem's manger, and also when He ascended from the Mount of Olives to be seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven. (Source: William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary, Exposition of Philippians, Baker Book House, 1962, pp. 103-104.)
Additional sermon starters
Jesus - the Image of God (Colossians 1:15-17)
This passage provides opportunity to develop the preeminence of Christ. The word image suggests that there is an original form from which it is drawn, not merely something it resembles. We can look at the Son and see the invisible God. We can also see in the Son God's original purpose for everything He created. When the shepherds beheld the Baby Jesus in the manger, they saw far more than their minds could grasp.
The City of David (Ruth 1:22-2:2-3; 1 Samuel 16:1; John 7:42)
These passages provide three significant references to Bethlehem, the city of David. Bethlehem was the location of the field of Boaz, where Ruth gleaned corn for herself and Naomi. Boaz became Ruth's Kinsman-Redeemer, and thus a type of Christ. He and Ruth were ancestors of King David, who was born in Bethlehem and was anointed there by Samuel to be the king of Israel. Jesus, born in Bethlehem, became the ultimate Kinsman-Redeemer, King of kings, and Savior of the world.
Application idea for life stages or situations
Challenge Families to Give. In this season when the world emphasizes receiving, the concept of giving reflected in the servant role of Christ who was totally self-giving, can be effectively underscored. Every family and individual could be challenged to take part in a project in which they become unselfishly involved in sharing God's blessings in their lives with others. Families should be encouraged to create an opportunity to demonstrate the Spirit of Christ in some tangible way to those who are in need, both physically and spiritually.
Creative worship ideas
A Guitar Solo. Since the haunting melody of the title carol, What Child Is This? has been associated with the guitar, an effective way to introduce the message of the day would be to have a soloist off-stage sing the carol, accompanied by a guitarist.
A Dramatic Monologue. A man, seated at a small table, begins to reflect on the true message of Christmas, just as William Chatterton Dix did when he wrote the lyrics to What Child Is This? (Source: Ace Collins, Stories Behind the Best-loved Songs of Christmas, Zondervan, 2001, p. 184.) Random thoughts that come to his mind concerning God's decision to come to earth, be born as a man, and ultimately give His life for the sins of the world, could be expressed simply and reflectively, culminating with the recitation of the lyrics of the carol.