Our Bibles are littered with exchanges; Psalm 106.20, Mark 8.37, 2 Corinthians 6.13, and Micah 6.6-8, to name a few. One often overlooked exchange in Scripture is found in Philippians 2. “Wait—you say—Philippians 2 is one of the most talked-about passages in Scripture!” We read therein of Jesus taking on flesh (vv. 7-8), how He condescended to our level (v. 8a), was obedient in a way that we could never be (v. 8b), and in doing so truly showed His Divinity, power, glory, and majesty (vv. 9-11). There is so much going on there in such a rich teaching that we would be forgiven for overlooking the beautiful exchange Jesus made: heaven for here.
Writing to a church from prison1 about living out their Christian lives (1.27), Paul says that as the Philippians (and us by extension) live day by day we should have the same mindset as Jesus (2.5). Think about life and those around you like this, he says, and then proceeds to pen perhaps the richest and most illuminating teaching on Jesus in the New Testament, perhaps. This hymn, this poetic powerhouse of a description of Jesus as the model of the behaviour he wants the church to have, also lays out a beautiful and fascinating exchange: heaven for here.
Now, before we really get into it, saying that Jesus exchanged heaven for here assumes that He existed before His incarnation. He could not exchange His place in heaven for a place among us here on earth if He came into existence on that O so Holy Night in Bethlehem, right? Jesus was, and is, and always will be (John 8.58). He is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow (Hebrews 13.8). So, the exchange …
Philippians 2.6 tells us that Jesus existed in the form of God (ὃς ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ) prior to His incarnation. This does not mean that He kind of looked like God or was the next best thing, a copy ready to paste. It means that He possesses the essentials that make that person that person, nothing added and nothing subtracted.2 H.A.A. Kennedy wrote that the word Paul chose here (μορφῇ— in the form of)
“…always signifies a form which truly and fully expresses the being which underlies it…” 3
Before His incarnation then, Jesus had the role in heaven of physically and visibly representing God to those present (John 1.18, 6.46) by truly and fully expressing the being that is God (cf. Deuteronomy 4.35). Jesus was, simply, the One who showed those around Him what God was like: God in a physical and viewable form.
Joseph Henry Thayer (of lexicon notability) wrote that
“[Jesus] bore the form (in which he appeared to the inhabitants of heaven) of God.”2
“You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had,
who, though he existed in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself
by taking on the form of a slave,
by looking like other men,
and by sharing in human nature.”
(Philippians 2.5-7, emphasis added)
Philippians 2 teaches us, then, that Jesus exchanged His place representing and embodying God in heaven (v. 6) to represent and embody God on earth (v. 7).
Why did this all happen?
Why was heaven exchanged for here and what does this mean for us, now?
We read the reason in vv. 9-11 of the same chapter:
“As a result God highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee will bow
—in heaven and on earth and under the earth—
and every tongue confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord
to the glory of God the Father.”
Jesus exchanged heaven for here so that every knee will bow: everyone will one day meet Him, and the Father sincerely wants you to meet Him as Saviour (2 Peter 3.9, Revelation 20.4-15).
Jesus exchanged heaven for here so that everyone will acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord: there is no other name under heaven by which we are saved and all notions of self-sufficiency ceased in this exchange (Acts 4.12).
Heaven was exchanged for here so that, as Isaiah wrote, we who walk in great darkness can see a great light (9.2).
Heaven was exchanged for here to give you, and to give me, the opportunity, by grace alone and through faith alone, to have our sins forgiven, through Christ alone, for the glory of God alone.
Heaven was exchanged for here so that we can experience a full, abundant, and meaningful life here (John 10.10) and life eternal when this one ends (John 3.16-17).
Heaven was exchanged for here so that you and I can be brought back into right relationship with God because the barrier, our sin, has been removed (Romans 6.23).
Heaven was exchanged for here so that here could be made ready for heaven (Revelation 21.1-4).
In all of that, simply, heaven was exchanged for here, for you.
3 – H.A.A. Kennedy: The Expositor’s Greek Testament, The Epistle to the Philippians