But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men.
— Philippians 2:7
Today I want to give you a little insight into what it’s like to live in two worlds — the Western world and the Eastern world. When you live in the West, Christmas is celebrated on December 25. But in Russia and in the former countries of the USSR, religious holidays typically fall two weeks later than the western celebrations.
For example, Russian Christmas is celebrated on January 7 — two weeks after Christmas is finished in the West. So while the western world is putting away its decorations, Russian Christmas hasn’t even started. In fact, if December 25 falls on a weekday, that date is nothing more than a regular workday in Russia. So while the western world is celebrating Christmas, we — that is, our family and our church in Moscow — are mostly going about a normal workday with no special festivities.
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You might wonder how all this “confusion” began. As you probably know, the entire world once operated according to the Julian calendar — but in 1582, the world switched to the Gregorian calendar. Secular Russia changed to the new Gregorian calendar with the rest of the world.
However, the Orthodox Church — because the new calendar was Catholic-based — rejected it and decided to stay with the old Julian calendar. As a result, Russia has two calendars: a secular calendar (Gregorian) and a religious calendar (Julian), the latter of which is honored by the Russian Orthodox Church. Believe me when I tell you this can create holiday confusion!
That means when people are done celebrating Christmas in the United States and western Europe, and they’re getting ready for the New Year’s celebration, Russia is still 14 days away from Christmas. Then when the West is done with their New Year’s celebration, and everyone moves past January 1 on the calendar, Russia also has a second New Year also 14 days later, according to the Russian Orthodox calendar. Furthermore, when western Easter is done and decorations are being put away, Russia is just preparing for its festivities, for Russian Easter is also typically two weeks later than this holiday on the western calendar.
Do you see what I mean by my phrase “holiday confusion”?
Let me give you an example of how this affects our personal lives. Having grown up in America, Denise and I are accustomed to celebrating Christmas on December 25. That is a very strongly ingrained tradition in us. But our sons and their families, having grown up in Russia, are accustomed to celebrating Christmas 14 days later on January 7. In fact, they are so acclimated to life in Russia that they don’t recognize December 25 as Christmas. To them, it’s not a holiday; it’s just another day.
That puts Denise and me in quite a dilemma: How do we celebrate Christmas? We often end up looking strangely at each other on December 25, feeling that something is seriously missing or out of sync! Since our sons and their families celebrate Christmas on January 7, along with the rest of the Russian people, it leaves Denise and me to figure out what to do by ourselves on December 25. Sometimes it’s very lonely, so we have to get creative about what to do.
One year, Denise and I bought tickets to the circus so we’d have something to do on December 25 while most Russians were engaged in a normal workday. Another year, Denise and I went to the ballet. Still another year, we invited friends over for a special dinner on December 25. It was not Christmas to them, but they joined us to honor our invitation.
Of course, when January 7 rolls around — the traditional date for Christmas in Russia — everyone here in Moscow is finally ready to celebrate this holiday! But while our Moscow office is closed for the Christmas holidays, the Tulsa office is open because Christmas has already been celebrated in the West. (And by the same token, while our Tulsa office is closed for the Christmas holidays, the Moscow office is brimming with activity and the daily work of the ministry. Consequently, whether in Moscow or Tulsa — no matter who’s celebrating their Christmas around the world — Denise and I are still very much engaged in the everyday work of the ministry!)
I know this probably sounds confusing. Trying to make sense of it and work around these various dates can be very convoluted. Although we’ve lived in Russia for decades, we still have to work hard to navigate this holiday confusion.
But regardless of the date on which Christmas is celebrated, the fact remains that Jesus was born! Whether that momentous event is celebrated on December 25 or January 7 — or some other date — Jesus’ birth is what is most important. In Philippians 2:6 and 7, Paul wrote, “Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men.”
Let me talk to you about these miraculous verses. Paul began by describing the preexistence of Jesus before He came to the earth as a man. Paul said, “Who, being in the form of God….” The word “being” is a translation of the Greek word huparcho, a compound of the words hupo and arche. In this case, the word hupo means from, and the word arche means first, original, or ancient. When they become the word huparcho, it depicts something that has always existed.
By using this key word that means to eternally exist, Paul was declaring that Jesus had no beginning, but rather had always existed. This also explains Jesus’ statement when He declared, “…Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). Thus, Philippians 2:6 could be translated, “Who, eternally existing in the form of God….” In other words, Jesus’ human birth in Bethlehem was not His beginning, but merely His manifestation to mankind, a brief appearance in His eternal existence.
Paul wrote that Jesus always existed in the “form” of God. The word “form” is the Greek word morphe. This word describes an outward form, which means that in Jesus’ preexistence, He looked just like God. He was not just a component of God, nor a symbol of God. In reality, He was God. And as the eternal God Himself, Jesus possessed the very shape and outward appearance of God — a form that includes great splendor, glory, power, and a Presence so strong that no flesh can endure it.
God existed in glory more wonderful than the human mind can comprehend and more powerful than human flesh can endure. Yet He desired to come to earth to purchase redemption for man. Therefore, God had no choice but to “reclothe” Himself in a manner that could be tolerated by man. This is why He “…made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men.”
This is the true story of Christmas — minus the confusion!
The phrase “made himself of no reputation” comes from the Greek word kenos, which means to make empty, to evacuate, to vacate, to deprive, to divest, or to relinquish. Because it was impossible for God to appear to man as God, He had to change His outward form. The only way He could make this limited appearance as a man was to willfully, deliberately, and temporarily let go of all the attributes we usually think of when we consider the characteristics of God. For 33 years on this earth, God divested Himself of all His heavenly glory and “…took upon him the form of a servant…” (Philippians 2:7).
The phrase “took upon him” perfectly describes that marvelous moment when God reached out to lay hold of human flesh and take it upon Himself so that He might appear as a man on the earth. The words “took upon him” are from the Greek word lambano, which means to take, to seize, to catch, to latch on to, to clutch, or to grasp. This word lets us know that God literally reached out from His eternal existence into the material world He had created — and took human flesh upon Himself in “the form of a servant.”
Not only did God become man, but a “servant.” This word “servant” is from the Greek word doulos, which refers to a slave. Paul used this word to picture the vast difference between Jesus’ preexistent state and His earthly life.
Paul goes on to say that Jesus “…was made in the likeness of men.” The phrase “was made” is the Greek word ginomai, which means to become, indicating that this was not Jesus’ original form but it became His new form. This clearly describes the miracle that occurred when God became a man. Jesus had always existed in the form of God, not the form of man. But taking upon Himself human flesh, He was formed in the womb of the Virgin Mary and became a man.
God literally took upon Himself the “likeness” of a man. The word “likeness” is the Greek word homoioma, which refers to a form or resemblance. This refers not only to Jesus’ being made in the visible likeness of men, but also in the human likeness of men. In other words, when Jesus appeared on this earth, He came in the actual form of a man and was just like man in every way.
Jesus was so completely made in the “likeness” of men that Hebrews 4:15 declares He was even tempted in every way that men are tempted. It says, “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.”
So we see that when God the Father sent His Son into the world, Jesus left His heavenly home and took upon Himself human flesh. And because of this great exchange, He has stood in our place; He has felt what we feel. Even today, He is touched with the feelings of our infirmities, and He intercedes for us with great compassion as our High Priest.
At this time of the year — whether we celebrate on December 25 or January 7 or some other day — we are prone to think of Jesus as a little baby in a manger in a Bethlehem stable. Certainly this is true, but we should never forget that His birth in Bethlehem was not Jesus’ beginning. It was merely the moment of His brief appearance in His eternal existence.
Out of His deep love for you and me, Jesus was willing to leave His majestic realms of glory to enter the realm of humanity. Shedding all His visible attributes that were too much for man’s flesh to endure, He dressed Himself in the clothing of a human being and was manifested in the flesh. That little Baby in Bethlehem was the eternal, ever-existent God Almighty, who came to us in human flesh so that He could dwell among men and purchase our salvation. He was and is the only “constant” in a world that is chaotic and confused!
MY PRAYER FOR TODAY
Father, I thank You that regardless of what day it happened — Jesus took on the form of a servant and was made in the likeness of men. He stooped to the level of His creation and died the death of a Cross, all because He loved me and wanted me to become a part of His eternal family. Help me not to get stuck on “what” day it actually happened, but rather to rejoice in the fact that it did happen! Because Jesus came to earth in the form of a man and died for me, today I am a child of God. For this, I can say thank You for the greatest gift. I am so glad I am redeemed!
I pray this in Jesus’ name!
MY CONFESSION FOR TODAY
I understand that the exact day on which Jesus’ birth occurred is not so important — but what is important is that He put aside His glorious attributes and took on the form of a human being and a servant, and humbled Himself to die the death of a Cross. Because of the price He paid, I have been permanently saved and set free. For this, I declare my thankfulness at Christmastime!
I declare this by faith in Jesus’ name!
QUESTIONS FOR YOU TO CONSIDER
- Have you ever thought about two different sides of the world celebrating Christ’s birth at two different times on the calendar? Can you name someone who celebrates Christmas on a different day than December 25?
- When you think of Jesus’ birth and the fact that He laid aside His glorious appearance as God to take on the form of a man, how does this affect you? If you were to describe it to someone else, what would you say?
- What is most meaningful to you about the celebration of Christmas?