What glory did the Lord Jesus set aside in incarnation?
Let’s start by identifying what the Lord Jesus Christ could not have set aside. These include His divine place, His divine attributes, and His moral nature.
He is the Eternal Son. This is His Person in the Godhead and is immutable.1 Scripture tells us:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,Colossians 1:15-19.
In John’s gospel, He declared His one-ness with the Father when he said “I and the Father are one.” (Jn. 10:30) At this point, the Jews picked up stones to stone Him for they could see clearly what He was saying and to them it seemed to be blasphemy. Hebrews 1:1-4 and Colossians 2:6 also declare His divine person. His divine Person He could not set aside.
His divine attributes are necessarily associated with His divine person. These include Omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence. We have examples of each of these in the gospels. Although the question of His omnipresence is a bit tricky. The gospels show that He knew the thoughts of those around Him. (Lk. 6:8) His creatorial power was also shown by His command over nature by the various miracles He performed. (Matt. 8:23–27; Lk. 5:9) These miracles were recognized by the disciples as showing evidence of supernatural power. The one verse that seems to clearly indicate His omnipresent is John 3:13 (NKJV). There he states “No one has ascended to heaven, but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of man who is in heaven.” However, the last part of this verse is missing in many of the oldest manuscripts leading scholars to question its authenticity. ESV includes it as a footnote. However, the very reason it is questioned is perhaps the best attestation to its authenticity. The reason is that there seems to be no good reason for adding it if it were not present in some way while there is much reason to drop the phrase as incomprehensible if it were present. For our purpose, what we know of Jesus as the Person of the Son is sufficient support for the inclusion of all the divine attributes.
One passage that seems to limit His divine knowledge needs comment. In Mark 13:32, the Lord Jesus says, “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” The clear specification of “the Son” would seem decisive and many commentators have taken this to indicate a limitation of His knowledge. But, does it really? We need to remember that the Lord Jesus took a place of subjection in His manhood. (E.g. Jn. 5:30; 6:38,54; Rom. 8:3; 1 Cor. 11:3; Phil. 2:7; etc.) In this regard, a note from a 19th century Biblical scholar is worth repeating.
It is perhaps for this reason that it is said in Mark 13 that the Son Himself knoweth not the day nor the hour, because He Himself was the object of this decree of Jehovah. He will receive everything from the hand of God, as man and servant, as also God has now highly exalted Him (Phil. 2:9). Speaking as a prophet, Christ announced His coming as the terrible judgment which was to fall upon an unbelieving nation; but the counsel of God as to this judgment, or at least as to the moment of its approach, was contained in those words, “Sit thou at my right hand until. …” Christ as a servant waited (as always, and this was His perfection) upon the will of His Father, and to receive the kingdom when the Father would have it so. It is worthy of remark that Psalm 110 and Mark 13 refer exactly to the same subject. The enemies are the Jews who rejected Him (Luke 19:27).J. N. Darby, The Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, Volume 2, (Oak Park: Bible Truth Publishers, undated) 285.
Other characteristics that might be considered are His “Moral Glories.” These could not be diminished otherwise we could have no true savior. From his birth it was declared that “the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.” (Lk. 1:35) At His baptism “a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’” (Lk. 3:22) He could challenge the Pharisees, “Which one of you convicts me of sin?” (Jn. 8:46) In Hebrews His moral perfection is given as the basis of His acceptance as a sacrifice. (Heb. 5:7) So, no aspect of his personal righteousness can be questioned.2
If we turn now to His humbling Himself we probably have no better place to start than the familiar passage in Philippians 2.
[Christ Jesus] who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.Philippians 2:6–8.
We might be able to comprehend the last part of this verse. We can perhaps imagine ourselves totally innocent of any crime being turned over to suffer the most excruciating and unjust punishment. But, what of the first part of the verse? Can we even imagine the distance?
Some have imagined this step of humiliation similar to one becoming an ant. But, this is both inadequate and misleading. We at least share creature-hood with the ant. The marvel of our own being is that the creator could become one of us. Here mysteries compound. But, more than incarnation, He, the Supreme One, the Creator, (Col. 1:15) would take such a humble guise that even His most ardent follower would dare to rebuke Him. (Matt. 16:22) We usually take this incident as evidence of Peter’s impudence, or perhaps even arrogance. But, let’s turn this around. Peter would not have said such a thing to Herod, Pilate, or Ananias. Why? Because they had the austere presence of great and powerful men. Was the Lord Jesus not infinitely greater than they? Yet, in the humble guise that He assumed as the “servant of all” (Mk. 10:45) Peter felt no fear of rebuking Him. I think this speaks volumes about the character and appearance of the “friend of sinners.” How else could the worst of men approach Him for their deep need?
This is the gospel and really there could not possibly be any other. Job recognized the significance of this need when he pleaded for an “arbiter.” (Job 9:33) Who but Immanuel Himself could “lay his hand” on God and at the same time the “chief of sinners?” (1 Tim. 1:15)