Perhaps you’ve seen the hit film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, which tells the rags-to-riches story of Jamal Malik, a boy from the slums of Mumbai who wins the top prize on the game show ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ But you almost certainly don’t know the riches-to-rags story of Mark and Cathy Delaney, an Australian couple who gave up their affluent Australian lifestyle and moved into the slums of Delhi, India. For 13 years now they have lived and brought up their two children in a house the size of an average Aussie bedroom, with no running water, TV, refrigerator or washing machine. They share a small bathroom with their neighbours, pouring out its waste into an open sewer near their front door.
They weren’t forced into this because of financial catastrophe. Cathy has a master’s degree in pure mathematics, Mark is a lawyer. "Our main purpose is simply to experience what life is like here, to live with and learn from the poor and contribute something positive to people's lives," Mark explains. "It's a very fulfilling life."
How would you feel about giving up your comfort and ease, in exchange for such a difficult, demanding lifestyle? And yet the Delaneys’ story pales into insignificance compared to the ultimate riches-to-rags story, the incarnation of Jesus Christ. That’s how the apostle Paul describes it in 2 Corinthians 8.9: For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.
Jesus Was Rich
This verse tells us not only that Jesus had an existence before his conception, but also that it was a very different kind of existence to the one he had on earth. Paul sums it up in one word: rich. In John 17.5 Jesus used the word ‘glory’: And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed. Donald Macleod teases this out thus: ‘He possessed all the majesty of deity, performed all its functions and enjoyed all its prerogatives. He was adored by his Father and worshipped by the angels. He was invulnerable to pain, frustration and embarrassment. He existed in unclouded serenity. His supremacy was total, his satisfaction complete, his blessedness perfect.’ Before Bethlehem the eternal Son had everything. He was rich beyond anything our minds can imagine. In the first Star Wars movie Luke Skywalker promises Han Solo a reward in return for helping him rescue Princess Leia. When Solo asks how much, Skywalker replies ‘More wealth than you can imagine.’ Without missing a beat Solo comes back with, ‘I dunno – I can imagine quite a bit!’ But not even Han Solo’s imagination could come close to picturing the riches the Son of God enjoyed from eternity.
Jesus Became Poor
The truly remarkable things about this verse is not so much that the eternal Son of God was rich but that ‘he became poor’. The word Paul uses means ‘he became extremely poor – as poor as a beggar’. The Son of God went from the highest heights of glory to the deepest depths of poverty. This happened first of all in the incarnation. This eternal, mighty, glorious God became a man. His divine nature was united to a human nature in the womb of the virgin Mary. This alone would have been ‘becoming poor’, even if Jesus had been born in a palace as the greatest king ever to rule an earthly kingdom that would have been poverty. What would that be compared to reigning the universe? Think of it! The eternal Son who never slumbered or slept became a man who needed to sleep every night to restore his strength! The God to whom all power belongs, who never grows weary, needed to eat and drink to keep his energy levels up! The omnipresent Lord became a man who could only be in one place at a time! ‘He became poor’.
But he went even lower than this, for he was born into one of the poorest families in Judea. When Mary and Joseph went to the Temple to have the baby Jesus purified on the eighth day they offered a sacrifice of two turtledoves or two pigeons – the sacrificed prescribed for those too poor to afford a lamb.
And still we haven’t even come close to exhausting Jesus’ poverty. In Mark 10.45 Jesus said, ‘the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ The Son of God came into the world to spend his life for the sake of sinners. The One who had lived in eternal bliss and glory, became a man of sorrows.
And in the end his poverty was total as the time came for him to go to the cross. Gradually, inexorably everything was taken from him as he was betrayed, abandoned by his disciples, denied by Peter, beaten, scourged and slandered. He was stripped of every last garment and shred of dignity and nailed to the cursed cross. He became poor – but even so he still hadn’t reached the nadir of absolute destitution. Ultimately, during the three hours of darkness the Son of God became as poor as poor could be – for his record of perfect righteousness was taken from him and given to his people. Jesus became spiritually bankrupt as took upon himself the liability for all the infinite debts of the countless trillions of sins of every one of his people.
‘He became poor.’ Materially, physically poor in his incarnation; spiritually destitute at crucifixion.
Why did Son of God who was rich in glory choose to become poor? It wasn’t because he was bored or yearned for adventure. Paul gives us the answer in this verse in the emphatic phrase for your sakes. The rest of the verse explains this statement: …so that you by his poverty might become rich.
When the Delaneys moved to the slums of Delhi, they became poor, but they didn’t make anyone rich. Jesus did exactly that however, as he lifted a countless multitude of human beings up from the direst poverty to the heights of wealth. He became poor like us so that we might become rich like him. Here is the reason for the incarnation: that we might become rich – so that we might have the most precious possessions in universe: the forgiveness of sins, a spotless record before the holy God, a clean conscience, eternal life, adoption as God’s sons, holiness, fellowship with God, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, peace with God, resurrected bodies and a title to heaven. Here is wealth beyond our wildest dreams. And it comes to us, Paul tells us, ‘by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ’.