Aug 6, 2021
A five part study on the theme of salvation inspired by Charles Wesley's hymn And Can it Be
Study 3: Emptied himself of all but love
Click HERE for links to full study booklet, audio & video.
Almighty God, our Father,
as we reflect upon the words of Scripture,
we pray that you will grant us the gift of the Holy Spirit,
so that we may learn the truth that is written there,
and be able to live by that truth day by day,
for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
He left his father’s throne above,
(so free, so infinite his grace!)
emptied himself of all but love,
and bled for Adam’s helpless race.
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free;
for, O my God, it found out me.
He left his father’s throne above
Just as startling as the idea that the immortal Son of God would die by crucifixion is the idea that the eternal Word of God would become a human being. It seems that everything God does surprises us!
The following verses from John Chapter 1 are a statement of the Church’s faith (NRSV):
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being through him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
Alan Richardson, an eminent New Testament scholar, tells us that the Greek word ‘logos’, which is translated ‘word’, means ‘rational utterance’, and it can be either a single word or a message. It is a communication from one rational being to another.1
When we human beings talk to one another we communicate much more than information. We can usually tell what a person is like from what they say and how they say it.
Richardson also tells us that the fundamental meaning of the Greek word ‘doxa’, which is translated ‘glory’, is ‘the visible brightness of the divine presence’.2
All our translations spell ‘word’ with a capital letter, ‘Word’. This is because we are not talking about ordinary communication between people; rather, we are talking about God’s Word, God’s communication. God’s Word will show us God’s character – what God is like. And when God speaks, things happen, so God’s Word is God in action.
In paragraph 3 of our reading it is said that ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’. New Testament scholars tell us that the word that is translated ‘dwelt’ literally means ‘tabernacled’, so it could almost be translated as ‘he pitched his tent among us’ – a very homely picture! John does not describe the birth of Jesus; he assumes we already know about that. What he wants us to understand is what was really happening when Jesus was born.
In what way does ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us’ expand and deepen your understanding of the birth of Jesus?
If Jesus is God’s way of communicating himself to us, what does that tell us about God’s nature and character?
Where in the life of Jesus do you perceive ‘the visible brightness of God’s presence’?
There is another reason why God’s Word came to live among us: he came for our redemption. God’s purpose was and is to offer us a radical change in our relationship with him: we are to become his children.
Since we are God’s creatures, and not God’s children by any obvious right, how do we become his children?
What effect does the knowledge that God has made us his children have on the way we live?
The writer of John’s gospel is not the only New Testament writer to express the idea of ‘He left his Father’s throne above’. St Paul, writing to the Philippians, says (Chapter 2, verses 5 – 8, NRSV):
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death –
even death in a cross.
Since these studies are based upon a hymn it is worth mentioning that the scholars think Paul is here quoting a hymn that was sung in early Christian congregations. (Some also add that they think ‘even death on a cross’ was added by Paul – putting his own spoke in, as it were!) Of course we have no idea of the melody, but that scarcely matters when the words confront us with another startling idea: that Christ ‘emptied himself’ by being born as a human being.
Of what exactly do you think Christ ‘emptied himself’?
How confronting is it for you that ‘taking the form of a slave’ and ‘being found in human form’ are evidently the same thing? What limitations did Christ place upon himself by becoming one of us?
Jesus’ birth was just the first step in God’s plan for our redemption: the second was Jesus’ death on the cross.
To accomplish God’s plan, what inner attitudes did Jesus need?
‘Emptied himself of all but love’ – how does that sit as a description of the cross?
The central point of Charles Wesley’s experience: that Christ died for him
We are now at the central point of Charles Wesley’s experience; the very personal realisation that when Christ
‘emptied himself of all but love
and bled for Adam’s helpless race’
he had done it for him.
Read Mark 15: 16 – 39 in the same spirit as Charles Wesley: Jesus suffered this ‘for me’.
We read Mark’s account of the death of Jesus with awe and gratitude. In a story whose every word stirs our emotions, perhaps the most moving moment is Jesus’ cry, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
At the end of the six hours of tortured pain on the cross, Jesus, who knew the Hebrew Scriptures intimately, speaks the opening words of Psalm 22. So he may simply have been giving words to a human feeling of despair – that God was not helping him to endure his terrible suffering.
Some scholars have suggested that there is another even deeper layer to this ‘Cry of Dereliction’ – that at that moment Jesus, who had always enjoyed such a close relationship with God that he was able to call him Abba [Father or Daddy] suddenly felt the weight of humanity’s sin upon him, and discovered that it estranged him from God. In other words, he was experiencing the alienation from his Father which we human beings know very well because it is the result of our sinfulness.
It is impossible for us to know exactly why Jesus felt such pain that he thought God had abandoned him. However, if he did feel the burden of our sins, that fits in with what we discovered in Study 1: that we, together with all other human beings who have ever lived, were responsible for crucifying him.
Our readings have shown us that in his coming to live among us, and in his dying upon the cross for us, Christ truly ‘emptied himself of all but love’. That is grace, the love God gives us that we don’t deserve – and it is truth in the deepest sense of the word, because it expresses God’s heart and mind. Wesley experienced the mercy of God as immense, and free to him though immensely costly to Christ. Even more wonderfully: he did not find the mercy of God – it found him.
What is it like for you to be found by the mercy of God made real and visible in the death of Christ upon the cross?
My song is love unknown,
My Saviour’s love to me,
love to the loveless shown
that they might lovely be.
Oh who am I
that for my sake
my Lord should take
frail flesh, and die?
He came from his blest throne
salvation to bestow:
but all made strange, and none
the longed-for Christ would know.
But oh my friend!
My friend indeed
who at my need
his life did spend.
Here might I stay and sing,
no story so divine;
never was love, dear King,
never was grief like thine.
This is my friend
in whose sweet praise
I all my days
could gladly spend.
TiS 341, verses 1, 2 and 7
Samuel Crossman 1624 – 84 alt.