Like many Middle Eastern countries to this day, ancient Hebrew culture was based on honor and shame. Status is everything in honor-shame cultures. Your status doesn’t necessarily come from how much money you have, what neighborhood you live in, or the profile of your career like it does in the Western world. It is defined, instead, by what family you come from and whether they (and you) are reckoned as honorable according to the norms of that society. There is no way to exaggerate how important it was in ancient Israel that you had a good and respectable reputation. This perspective is like a key that opens the door for us to read the New Testament rightly, and to most deeply appreciate the weight of this song. Hear these words carefully:
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to His own advantage, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)
Do you see it!? The mystery of Christ that might first strike us is found in the existential questions of how God could possibly become a human being. We take the attributes we associate with divinity and then compare them with the frailty of humanity, and our minds short-circuit. Yet for the apostles, and all of the early followers of Jesus, the vastness of the mystery of the Son of God was not primarily intellectual. It was about status. The former overwhelms our minds, but the latter overwhelms our hearts. And this mystery of the contrast of glory (or honor) and shame is exactly what Paul is describing in this early Christian hymn from Philippians that our song so closely parallels.
Jesus existed in the form of God. He shared all of the infinite, incomprehensible glory and splendor of the Father. Yet adorned with majesty and radiant brilliance, He did the unthinkable! He made Himself of no reputation. Jesus emptied Himself of His matchless status and all outward honor. Instead, He took on the form of a slave - a Man who started His life with questions and insinuations about the scandal of His birth, a Man who grew up in total obscurity, a Man who even at the height of His popularity was radically unrecognized and misunderstood. He was a Man who would go lower still and descend to the dregs of shame: dying as an accused criminal at the hands of those who subjugated Israel.
We are so familiar with the language of the death of Jesus that it endears us and touches us from time to time, but it doesn’t pierce us. It doesn’t wreck us with an overwhelming sense of its injustice. However, this unthinkable, dizzying juxtaposition of rightful glory and undeserved shame would have completely torn the Hebrew soul apart – either unto offense or adoration. And it would have elicited the cry of “Why!?” What would compel the unsearchable, eternal Son of God to divest Himself of His glory so unreservedly that His blood would drip down from hands pinned to a cross?
Jesus chose to use His equal status with God – His honor, power, and glory – not for His own advantage, but for ours! Love compelled Him to the cross so that our sins could be forgiven once and for all, and our everlasting reconciliation secured. Oh that we could join the apostles and the saints throughout history and stand astonished at what God has done in Christ – that with tear-stained faces we could behold the slain Lamb and declare, “this is the greatest love I’ve ever known!”