But he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, becoming in the likeness of human persons; and being found as a human in form he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, the death of a cross.
The grammar here is theologically significant. (Don’t run away yet!) Jesus empties himself; Jesus humbles himself. These two phrases are parallel: they both use an active verb with a reflexive pronoun. The difference between an active and a passive verb is the difference between “Johnny loves” and “Johnny is loved.” In the first, Johnny is actively loving, he is doing the action; in the second, Johnny is passive, he is receiving someone else’s love. So here in Philippians, we see that Jesus is not emptied by another, nor is he humbled by another. (“Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” Matt. 26:53.) Rather, this is Jesus’ active decision: Jesus empties, Jesus humbles.
But there is also a reflexive pronoun here: Jesus empties himself, humbles himself. As the Lord, he could humble or empty others. At different points in his ministry he does just this: he humbles others (John 9:39), but he also lifts up those who did not humble themselves, but were humbled by others–passive voice! (Matt. 20:29-34). But the Lord also humbles himself, and not more or less but completely, to death, even to the humiliating death of a cross. “For this reason, God raised him to the highest place”–not only raised him up (hupsoō) but raised him up above everything (huperupsoō)–“and gave him the name above (huper) every name” (Phil. 2:9). The lesson here is that we should do the same: “You should think the same way that Jesus did” (2:4). “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time” (1 Pet. 5:6).