How Did Christ Empty Himself?

Dr. Kevin DeYoung, Senior Pastor

Philippians 2:6-7 | April 7 - Holy Week,

Holy Week,
April 7
How Did Christ Empty Himself? | Philippians 2:6-7
Dr. Kevin DeYoung, Senior Pastor

Philippians chapter 2. We’ll begin reading at verse 5.

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by 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. Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Good Friday is one of the high holy days, we may call them, in the church calendar. It can also be one of the high heretical days, because whenever you try to talk about what happened on the cross, from the cry of dereliction to this passage in Philippians 2, and try to understand how Jesus Christ, fully God, fully man, how Jesus Christ, the second person of the trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, how do these things all hold together?

So sometimes with the best of intentions, pastors or theologians or just Christians, will try to understand and explain what takes place on Good Friday and before you know it, you have the trinity blown apart and torn asunder and you have Jesus somehow not upholding the universe by the word of His power because the Son of God is somehow no longer operative or there’s some sort of cosmic rift between the Father and the Son, or we have the two natures somehow conflicting with each other. There are lots of difficult, theological questions when it comes to the incarnation and the crucifixion.

This text in Philippians chapter 2 presents one of those questions. I want to focus on just verse 7, though we’ll have to understand the context to try to answer the question, and the question is simply this: What is meant by verse 7, that Christ Jesus emptied Himself? What is meant that Christ Jesus emptied Himself?

There’s a theological debate, at least 150 years old, and it’s sometimes referred to as kenosis. Not Obi Wan Kenosis, doesn’t have anything to do with Star Wars. But it comes from the Greek word in this text, emptied Himself. Emptied there is a Greek word ekenosen. So kenosis simply means emptying. In this context, self-emptying. Or sometimes it’s referred to different kenotic theories, k-e-n-o-s-i-s, kenosis. How do we understand Christ’s self-emptying?

The controversy was particularly poignant in the 19th century because a number of liberal scholars were trying to square in their mind what they considered to be the assured results of higher criticism with the depiction of Christ in the Bible. So these liberal scholars had in their mind that Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch; that Jonah in the belly of the great fish, surely that didn’t happen; and that whole timeline and chronology laid out in the Old Testament, that books were probably written at various different times and not as they appeared to be and there must have been more than one Isaiah, two or three different Isaiahs.

So these have these in their mind as conclusions, and yet they see, well, Jesus really seems to assume that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, and that there’s one Isaiah and that Jonah really was in the belly of a whale. How do we reconcile these two things?

And one of their ways to go about it was with this kenosis theory. Ah, Christ emptied Himself so of course Christ was ignorant, of course Christ didn’t understand the Old Testament as well as we understand the Old Testament because He didn’t have, perhaps, some of the divine attributes. So a number of different theories have been raised under this banner of kenosis.

Some argue that Christ emptied Himself of relative attributes, like omnipotence, omniscience, while retaining essential attributes, like holiness and love. Of course, that’s a rather arbitrary division. Who’s to say which ones are relative and which ones are essential.

Others argue Christ divested Himself of His attributes at the point of disrupting the whole life of the trinity and suspending the Son’s cosmic function. So, it’s almost tantamount to a denial of Christ as the incarnate, fully divine Son.

Some have simply argued that in His life, He lived, everything in His earthly life, entirely within the conditions of His humanity.

Now the key to this theological debate, we’re not talking simply about whether Scripture at times speaks according to Christ’s human nature or according to His divine nature. Jesus says on the cross, “I thirst.” You wouldn’t say the divine nature is thirsty, it’s not in keeping with the divine nature to thirst. Jesus there speaking according to His human nature, thirsts. I and the Father are one, Christ speaking according to His divine nature.

So there must be a way to say that Christ is all-knowing and yet He learned things, He is omnipresent and yet in His body localized, all-powerful and yet to some degree in His earthly life embraced finitude. All of those are the difficult Christological questions. We’re not denying those. Certain activities of the God-man Christ Jesus can be said of His human nature and some of His divine nature.

But the question here is what exactly is meant by the self-emptying that Christ undertakes.

In order to understand this, we need to see the larger argument. It’s very simple to lay out. We have three things that Christ did in His humiliation, and then two things that we are told God did in the state of exaltation. Humiliation to exaltation. You can see this very clearly in the text.

What three things did Christ Jesus do in His humiliation?

One – He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.

Two – He emptied Himself.

Three – He humbled Himself.

And as a result, in exaltation, what did God do? Two things.

One – He highly exalted Christ.

Two – He bestowed on Him the name that is above every name.

So whatever is meant by that “emptying of Himself” must make sense with the totality of what Paul is saying in this famous Christological hymn. And in this hymn, we have Jesus Christ described to us in the most exalted, deified language.

For example, and you can see this perhaps in a little footnote in your Bible, that verses 10 and 11 are taken from Isaiah 45. In Isaiah 45, we read “The Lord,” and there it’s the divine name Yahweh, “The Lord, who created the heavens (he is God!),” and then later in Isaiah 45, ““I am the Lord, and there is no other”” and then He swears, “To Me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.”

Now we can hear that’s the text that Paul is referencing, and that text is given on the lips of Yahweh declaring He is God, there is no other, and every knee will bow and every tongue confess. So amazingly Paul chooses that passage, on the lips of Yahweh, the most exalted expression of His deity, and he gives all of that to Christ.

So clearly he refers to Christ in the most exalted language as one who is this God of the universe. So we must have that as an anchor conclusion when we try to understand what is meant by His humiliation.

Just look at each of these.

“He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” That’s a hard passage in itself. Equality with God. It says that He was, verse 6, in the form of God. Don’t hear the word “form” and think, oh, a costume. Some sort of masquerade. Don’t think masquerade, think manifestation. Christ was the visible manifestation of everything God is in His essence. He was the glory of God come to earth.

The Greek word there “form” is “morphe.” We don’t want to read English words back into it, but here I think our word “morphology” does help us to explain what “morphe,” the sense that it has. In morphology you study the structure of something, usually words or some living thing. You analyze what it is, what it looks like, how it works. So the morphe, the form, the person of Jesus, we’re speaking of His structure, His appearance, what sort of being is He? And it says clearly He had the form of God. That’s who He was and is, God. And He did not count this equality with God a thing to be grasped.

Now again there’s a helpful footnote in the ESV. It says, “Or a thing to be held onto for advantage,” and that gives us the sense. So don’t think “grasp,” like Jesus Christ was God and sort of let that go, I’ll come to earth and I won’t be God; but “grasp” as something to use for His selfish advantage.

It’s helpful here to compare what sort of God Christ is with the so-called gods and goddesses of Greco-Roman mythology, because they too had different deities who came to earth, but why did those gods come to earth? Well, they had to settle a score, they had to seek vengeance against their enemies, or they wanted to have sex with a human being, or they were hungry and they needed food, they had some problem of their own to solve. Those gods and goddesses came to earth for their own selfish gain.

What we see here, Christ, though in the form of God, He did not hold on to that God-ness in order to accomplish some selfish purpose.

So what did He do? Number two. He emptied Himself. This is the mirror image of what we just saw. Christ was in the form of God, that is His nature, and verse 8 says He was found in human form, and actually the word “morphe” appears back up in verse 7, “He emptied Himself by taking the form of a servant.” Again “form” does not mean a masquerade, it means a manifestation. He was both, this is the miracle and majesty of the incarnation, in the form of God, the morphe of God, and at the same time the morphe of a servant. He was a servant by being born in the likeness of men, taking upon Himself a human nature, so that Christ could do the most un-God-like thing possible, namely to die. If there’s one thing God can’t do, it’s die. But in taking the one who was the morphe of God now also the morphe of a servant, He dies a shameful death on the cross.

Which is the third thing. He humbled Himself to death. God as God cannot die. The divine nature, we would not say the divine nature died on the cross. We do not say the trinity blew apart on the cross. But we do say the divine God-man, Jesus Christ, died.

That’s what this Christ hymn is saying in this nuanced, elegant language.

So you’re saying, “Pastor Kevin, you have just about used your 15 minutes. I’m not sure you answered the question.”

So here we go. What does it mean that Christ emptied Himself ?

It means that though He was fully God, Christ did not cling to His Godhood as something to be used for selfish gain. Rather He set aside some of His divine rights as God and came to earth as a servant. More than that, He came as a human being, willingly, obedient to His Father in everything, even to the point of dying a shameful death on the cross.

He was rightfully a sovereign king, but He came as a lowly servant. He was truly the Creator of the cosmos, but He came as one who was birthed by one of His own creatures. He was in the form of God deserving of all praise, but He came to be despised as a man of sorrows.

If you want this kenosis rightly understood in one sentence, here it is: Christ Jesus emptied Himself, not of His divine nature, not of His divine attributes, but of certain divine prerogatives.

A prerogative, dictionary says is a right or privilege exclusive to an individual or class.

There are all sorts of privileges that belong to Christ as one who was the “morphe theou,” who was the form of God. And He did not cling to those, all that He deserved.

Here’s another way to think about it. We might give another Greek word, not kenosis, but there’s a word “crypsis.” Think of our word “cryptic.” “Crypsis” means hidden or obscured, so that only a few could see who Christ was, and even then in His life, it was with an incomplete and fleeting faith. His glory was for a time obscured.

Or to put it another way, when we think of what Christ did by coming to earth as a man and dying on the cross, it was a self-abasement by addition, not by subtraction. By addition. The Son of God became what He was not, a man, without ceasing to be what He was, fully God.

That’s what I mean by self-abasement by addition, by assuming a human nature, by coming to earth as a man, not by subtraction. He was not less than what He had been, even in becoming something that He had not been.

So that the cross becomes and is for all time the turning point in human history, because it was the turning point in Jesus’ history.

Paradoxically, it was in that moment of defeat and shame, at precisely that moment that God won the victory. It was the moment were humiliation was going to give way to exaltation. It was the hour in human history where God’s purposes and God’s character were finally and fully revealed for all to see. Christ in His humiliation doing those three things. God in His exaltation giving Him a name and a status above all so that in the logic of humiliation to exaltation, all that remains, verse 11 and 10, is worship.

The question then is not whether every tongue will confess, but whether your tongues will confess. And our knees will bow, now while it is the day of salvation, or at the end of the age when it is too late. Now is the time to enter into the purpose of all of human history, that the One who came as a servant, who emptied Himself of all that He had as His right, that He might be in the end exalted above all things, will you now confess Him, worship Him, and give Him the honor He so rightly deserves?

Let’s pray. Father in heaven, we given thanks for Your grace upon grace to reveal these things to us, that His glory is no longer hidden, but has been made manifest, and it is ours and our joy to fall at His feet in worship. Amen.