I was experiencing topographical whiplash. Twenty-four hours earlier I had watched black and yellow Triggerfish dance along a colorful reef on the Island of Maui. Now, I watched the tumbleweeds dodge sand-stained mesquite trees on the desert plains of West Texas. The whiplash hurt. Our Hawaiian vacation had drawn to a close and the parched West Texas desert provided a grim reminder of what we had left behind. If Hawaii was paradise, then the arid wasteland barely qualified as purgatory. As my weary eyes watched the ever-expanding horizon, an odd thought crossed my mind. “Is this what it was like for Jesus?”
Our Christmas celebrations often focus on the idyllic manger in Bethlehem. The serene scene exudes peace. We forget the wails of childbirth and focus on the tranquil child in the manger. One Christmas hymn even claims that the baby didn’t cry. After traveling from paradise to purgatory, I have serious doubts about the lack of tears. If I experienced topographical whiplash traveling from Maui to West Texas, what did Jesus experience when he left the riches of heaven to travel to earth? The Creator became the most insignificant of creation.
The Almighty exchanged the authority of eternity for the dependency of a newborn.
The Incarnate Christ left the presence of the Father to be born of a mother and held by a carpenter.
The Word that spoke the world into existence begged for milk from a teenager.
Jesus must have experienced far more than topographical whiplash when He accepted the bonds of human flesh.
Paul provides a beautiful description of the Incarnation in what is believed to be an early Christian hymn in Philippians 2:5-11.
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Paul reminds us that the Incarnation involved a temporary exchange of natures. It involved a momentary demotion for Christ that resulted in a long-term promotion for humanity. The condescension of Christ rightfully arrests our attention. However, Paul’s purpose in the passage moves beyond the Incarnation. Paul elevates the Incarnation as an example for Christ-followers. In Philippians 2:5, Paul says, “Have this mind among yourselves.” The humble example of Christ should not only be applauded, it should be imitated. Leading up to the Incarnational example of Christ, Paul instructs his readers, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil 2:3-4).
Christmas, the celebration of the Incarnation, offers the perfect reminder for Christian leaders to examine personal motivation. Jesus took the form of a servant but are Christ’s servants willing to serve others? Are they willing to set aside their own advancement for the sake of the kingdom? Are they willing to leave the plush surroundings of paradise for the barren plains of purgatory?
Many leaders struggle with subtle temptations to expand their own kingdom. They serve, speak, or sermonize to make themselves look better. They are more concerned with what people think of their actions than what God thinks of their attitude. Sometimes leaders mistake the work of the Spirit with their own accomplishment. This causes a false sense of self or, as Paul describes it, conceit. Conceit creates ego and ego fuels entitlement. Entitlement feeds on the drive for more: more salary, more members, more perks, more respect. The drive for more results in arrogance. Arrogant church leaders don’t have time for those who can’t advance their cause; this often includes their own family members. Arrogant church leaders demand much from their co-workers and offer little in return.
Arrogant church leaders often jump from one ministry position to another, seeking a “good church.” Arrogant church leaders have little regard for the interests of others because they are too busy looking out for their own interests. Arrogant church leaders have little resemblance to the man Paul described in Philippians 2:5-11. That man was willing to set aside his own interests for the interests of humanity. That man was willing to give up his entitlement in order to entitle others. That man was willing to leave behind the riches of heaven to embrace the sin-stained world.
Shouldn’t those who claim His Name be willing to do the same?
Kristopher Barnett is a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary with a Master of Divinity in Biblical Languages (2001) and a Ph.D. in theology with a concentration in preaching (2008). His dissertation was A Historical/Critical Analysis of Dialogical Preaching. His undergrad work was completed at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas with a B.A. in Communication (1997).
Prior to joining the Christian studies faculty at Anderson University, Dr. Barnett served as pastor to three different churches; Forestburg Baptist Church (TX), Ridglea West Baptist Church (TX) and most recently, East Pickens Baptist Church (SC). Prior to pastoral ministry, he served as youth minister at two churches and did a youth internship at another.
Kris Barnett is the author of What Now?, a companion guide to the Bible. He is a member of the Evangelical Homiletic Society and has twice presented papers at the EHS conference (Wake Forest, NC and Birmingham, AL). Dr. Barnett enjoys filling the pulpit for local churches and serving in an interim role for churches seeking a pastor.
Dr. Barnett is married to Kelly, who is a graduate of ASU with a Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in psychology. They have four children, Kenzie, Karsen, Noah, and Kassie.