In recent times, many have become familiar with the phrase upward mobility. The term has found its way around the world into everyday corporate cultures. But don’t think for a minute that upward mobility is a new concept. Interest in personal advancement dates back to the garden days of Adam and Eve.
Questioning the concept of upward mobility causes a kind of inner turmoil that most people do not handle well. The mere mention of words like demotion, decreasing, and losing set off alarm signals in their minds. “Not me! Please! Let’s change the subject. Let’s talk about promotion, increasing, and winning. Then you’ll have my full support. Then you’ll get my vote.” If you take a deep look within, you may find – as I have – that upward mobility has a hold on you in ways you aren’t even aware of.
Through the history of Christendom, a few people have been mature enough in their faith to embrace these values set forth by the Apostle Paul:
(5) Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
(6) Who being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
(7) but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
(8) And being found in appearance as a man,
He humbled himself and became obedient to death –
even death on a cross.
Paul says in this text, “If you want to follow the example of Christ, whether you’re a technician, a homemaker, a specialist, a leader, or a student, if you want to manifest a servant attitude in full devotion to Him, it’s going to have something to do with downward mobility.”* In verse 5, Paul says something that makes me nervous because it gets to the heart of the issue: “If you want to be a real follower of Christ, then think like Jesus thought. And act like Jesus acted.”
Then Paul is going to tell us, “Do you know what the attitude of Christ was? What was His value system? It was a dedication to downward mobility for the purpose of giving God glory and serving other people.” To be great in the eyes of God is to embrace the mindset and example of Jesus. The quickest way to bring a smile to the Father’s face is to go about the task of dedicating our lives to the downward slope that lifts up people. Paul teaches the depth of Jesus’ dedication to downward mobility. Watch as this story of ultimate demotion unfolds.
Where does he start? Verse 6: “Who (referring to Jesus), being in the very nature God, did not consider equality with God . . .” Where did Christ begin his journey of downward mobility? He started at the top. This means that Jesus Christ was never an assistant to God. He was never a vice-president to God. He has never been a junior partner to God, but a full-fledged member of the Godhead, equal from eternity in every shape and way with Almighty Father. He descended the ladder, beginning at the very top.
Furthermore, “. . . “(Jesus) did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.” He did not consider his position something to hold on to. Jesus was a full partner in the divine prerogatives – yet in this first step toward ultimate demotion, he relaxed his grip on those privileges. So down the ladder he goes. He made himself nothing. He voluntarily laid aside whatever was necessary for him to be fully human. Nobody robbed him of these privileges. No one stripped him of his position under protest. He purposefully and willingly divested himself of that which would keep him from fulfilling his Father’s will.
By contrast, you and I are “clutchers” from birth. We clutch power when we’re able to obtain it. We clutch positions and titles. We clutch possessions and resources. Even the best among us resist letting go and relaxing our grip on that which we hold dear. Anyone who thinks that’s not true is not being honest. It’s very difficult to relax our grip once we get it tightened around something we value. But here’s Jesus, the one who holds all the prerogatives of deity. Everywhere he turns in the universe, creation worships him. In that kind of universe, Jesus said, “I relax my grip. I take the demotion.”
Then Paul referred to the incredible miracle we call the Incarnation: “. . . taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, . . . .” What a profane transition this must have been for Jesus. The transcendent Lord became a bondservant! He did not come as an emperor or a king, a diplomat or an investment banker, a priest or an attorney, but as a helpless infant born in a barn to a working class Jewish family. The omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent second person of the Trinity experienced the binding confines of flesh. He’s got skin around him now. He must use doors, ride animals, eat, and sleep. The God of the Universe must say, “Yes, Mother. Whatever you say, Dad.” Now the Creator rubs shoulders with the creatures – people He created. And these people say, “Get out of my way, kid.” “Hurry up, boy.”
“Who do you think you are, Jesus, someone special?” “You should know your place, son, and stay in it.”
We can only catch a glimpse of the violence of the Incarnation to the person of Christ. But from equality with God, he relaxed his grip. He took on our appearance, our likeness, and became one who teaches and helps and heals and reaches out to obstinate, arrogant people who refuse him.
Down the ladder He goes. “He humbled himself, and became obedient to death . . .” It wasn’t enough just to become a man. He humbled himself to the point of death. This One who breathes life into all that lives gave up His life. This One who initiates and sustains all life in the universe stood face to face with the power of death and said, “You win. This time you win.”
He became obedient to death – even death on a cross. How did Jesus die? Drinking hemlock? Lying back on a soft mattress with a cyanide tablet on his tongue that would assure a painless slumber into the blackness of death? The mode of execution tortured criminals slowly so that every sensation of dying would be intensified. While all that was going on, common men and women walked by, laughed, spit, picked up sticks to throw at him, and hurled accusations. And the ultimate demotion was complete. He gave up divine prerogatives, loosened his grip, emptied Himself, and surrendered to death on a cross. This is as horrible as any imagination can imagine. This is the basement of human debasement. It doesn’t get any lower than this. He started at a position that could be no higher. He ended at a position that could be no lower.
It is ironic that the best selling books inside the Christian community are the rags-to-riches biographies, the bottom-to-the-top books, the depths-to-the-heights manuals. The Apostle Paul says, “Come on, believers, wake up. You’re deeper than that, aren’t you? You’re not sucked into that, are you? You have more substance in your soul now that you know Christ, don’t you?” The most important story in the world is the story of our Lord. It’s the riches-to-rags story. It’s a top-to-bottom story. It’s a heights-to-depths story. It’s the story of our God who voluntarily demoted himself, who lost on purpose and who died so that our penalty could be paid for all time.
This is the greatest story ever told. Jesus did it out of love for you and me. And because He did it, God the Father honored him. Paul wrote: “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” There’s coming a day when the world will wake up to who Jesus is. He is Lord. And we’ll be glad through eternity and awed at His greatness.
Why did Paul tell this story to the Philippians? Was it to remind them of what Christ did for us? Yes, but that’s not the primary reason. Was it to summon Christians to do what Jesus did, to shed deity, die in shame, and be taken up to the throne of the universe? That would be an impossible feat for us in any case. Paul primarily penned this passage to call every believer to a life in which our conduct and our relationships reflects the One who, by his death and exaltation, gives us a place in His body, the church. Paul is telling us to be who we really are in Christ. We learn to follow Jesus by abiding in Him, fully dependent on Him. And as we continue to grow deeper in this transforming friendship with Him, we are changed more and more into His likeness by the power and presence of His Spirit.
The primary purpose for this story is to call me, someone who has been intoxicated with upward mobility, to get on the train, to get off the drug of personal advancement, and let Christ transform me by the work of His Spirit because of His death and resurrection. Jesus’ ultimate demotion – His decreasing and losing and dying – was for people whom He loves and for the glory of God.
(The phrase “downward mobility” was first coined by Bill Hybels and Rob Wilkins in their book Descending into Greatness (Zondervan, 1993).)