Philippians 2:5-8, the Kenosis
Kenosis is a theological term that comes from the Greek word for emptiness. The word is used in Philippians 2:7 to say that in the incarnation “Jesus emptied Himself”. The NIV translation says, “Jesus made Himself nothing”. During the last 2000 years this passage has been the source of great debate. It is used as an explanation of the incarnation, and an explanation of the two natures of Christ. The resultant questions are endless: How can Jesus be both God and man? Is He a mixture of God and man? Is He mostly man and a diminished God without omnipotence? How do we explain God who exists outside of time and space, but who entered time and space to become human? What did God the Son give up to become a man? Aren’t many of the attributes of God like omnipresence and omnipotence incompatible with being fully human? Was God downsized?
Distorted Views—What the Kenosis is Not
Let’s begin by answering what the kenosis is not. Christ did not give up any of His divine attributes—He remained fully divine. Most wrong views either diminish the deity of Christ or distort the union of the two natures of Christ in one person. For instance, some would say Christ laid aside His deity, then picked it up again after the ascension, or that Christ abandoned the divine existence in order to assume the human. Any of these distorted views that claim that Jesus was anything less than 100% human and 100% divine also serve to alter the gospel.
What the Kenosis Is
John Calvin wrote about Phil.2:5-7, “In order to exhort us to submission by Christ’s example, he shows that when as God He might have displayed to the world the brightness of His glory, He gave up His right, and voluntarily emptied Himself; that He assumed the form of a servant, and contented with that humble condition, suffered His divinity to be concealed under a veil of flesh.” In the ancient Creed of Chalcedon, the early church fathers decreed in 451 AD that Christ is “truly God and truly man…to be acknowledged in two natures, unchangeably, individually, inseparably; the distinction of the two natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved and concurring in one Person…” Later theologians called this presence of both human and divine natures in Jesus Christ, the hypostatic union. The Greek word hypostasis, also found in Hebrews 1:3, means “existence” or “reality”. Since the hypostatic union defies finite human comprehension, it is often called the “mystical union”.
To recap, the kenosis refers to the “emptying” of Phil.2:7 when Jesus voluntarily gave up His divine rights. Jesus did not cling to or hold on to His divine prerogatives. He refused to assert any divine right on His own behalf. He did not empty Himself of His deity, but only His rights. An example of this is found in Matthew 4 when He had fasted for 40 days and was very hungry, but He refused to turn stones into bread in order to feed Himself, but later in Matt 14 He easily multiplied the bread to feed the 5000. Jesus gave up His deserved worship in Heaven, and submitted to unbelief, insults, rejection, and crucifixion. He did not forsake His divine power to do miracles, create, forgive sins, or know the hearts of men, but He voluntarily chose to limit those powers during His earthly life. Paul put it another way in 2 Cor. 8:9, “Jesus became poor so that you through His poverty might become rich”.
God as a Bond Servant ?
Phil. 2:7 also says Jesus took the “form of a bond-servant”. Although He was God, He took the form of a slave in the sense that He owned nothing personally, and He existed only to serve others. A bond-servant owned nothing, and he existed to serve others. He carried other people’s burdens. In the same way, Jesus owned nothing and carried everyone’s burden of sin. Jesus owned no house, no land, and no business. He had to borrow a donkey, a room for His last supper, and even a tomb. The King of kings claimed nothing that He had created. Jesus explained this idea at the last supper in Luke 22:27, “Who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines? But I am among you as the one who serves”.
Intended Purpose of Philippians 2:5-8
This passage gives awesome insight into the nature of Christ, and tells us that Jesus pre-existed the incarnation. Jesus in eternity was in the form of God in heaven’s full glory, and He was worshipped by the angelic host. He voluntarily gave up this divine prerogative to take on the flesh of man and enter a sinful world where He would be mistreated, rejected, and crucified. The result of all this would be His atoning work on the cross which is the basis for our salvation. Yet as profound as all this knowledge is, Paul’s purpose here is ethical. Paul desires to motivate Christians to do as Jesus did. Jesus gave us the supreme model of humility and unselfishness. We are called to follow His example of self denial and selfless love for others. The church is told to “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus”. Following this we are commanded to “do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” As in all churches since then, the Philippians were subject to divisions and quarrels fueled by pride and self interest. Paul’s desire for the church is spiritual unity as he says in Phil.2:2, being “of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose.”
The way of Jesus is not the way of the world. Great men expect to be served, and they take the best of everything for themselves. This is why the world has never been at peace and never will be at peace until Jesus comes back. But Jesus’ way was to be born into the humblest of families and places. He voluntarily submitted to every form of humiliation, even though it was His divine right to be accepted and worshipped. It is this attitude of selflessness which should characterize all who belong to Christ. Obviously we can’t “empty” ourselves as Jesus did, but we can empty ourselves of the stuff that occupies all our time and resources and prevents us from serving to our fullest. You have rights and privileges as a child of God, but only by emptying yourself willingly can you please God.
One of the great paradoxes in the Bible is found in several passages like 1 Peter 5:5-6, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God that He may exalt you”. This is also Paul’s message to Christians in Phil.2 that the example of Jesus’ humility and self sacrifice ended in Jesus being exalted. In the same way, there is also promised to us great reward. Amazingly, the way to exaltation is humiliation and service. If that is true of Jesus, how much more so is it true for us? Paul follows up the exaltation of Christ with a purpose statement for us in Phil.2:12, “So then…work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you…”. His meaning is that Jesus has saved us by His grace, but now we in all gratitude and fear of God should get busy in growing spiritually and serving Him with every opportunity. God has not left us without resources, this is why Paul wrote that “God is at work in you”. God has indwelt us with His Spirit who is busy changing us from the inside out. He has given us spiritual gifts to serve the church with, and the Sprit of God uses the Word of God to mold us and direct us. The question is will you let Him run your life? Will you seek him with all your heart? Will you sacrifice yourself, your pride, your agenda for His?