In the last post we introduced the idea of kenosis (self-emptying). Let’s explore this further as it relates to Jesus.
Kenosis means Christ “emptied” himself when he was incarnated to a man. But he emptied himself of what exactly?
Here is the States of Christ figure, adapted for this post.
For a quick explanation of the entire image, click here:
Note Kenosis appearing at the top left, above the start of the sweeping arrow. The whole downward process is called Servanthood. Sometimes theologians call it Humiliation, after the words, “made himself nothing” or as other translations say, “he humbled himself.”
Here are the key verses referring to Christ Jesus, the Greek word kenosis put in bold font:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing, by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:6-8, my tentative translation)
If you would like to see the following verses in many translations and in their contexts, please go to biblegateway.com.
The issue here is that Jesus gave up something, but what? He was fully God and fully man. Did he empty himself of some or all of his divine attributes? Then he was not fully God, because God does not give up his nature, and his nature or essence is, in its simplest definition, a “complex of attributes.”
What do theologians say?
Wayne Grudem says Jesus did not give up his divine attributes for these five reasons:
First, for 1800 years of church history, no one thought Jesus gave up any of his divine attributes.
Second, the text does not say he “emptied himself of power or this or that divine attribute.” Let’s not go further than the text’s silence.
Third, the text says Jesus himself did the “emptying,” but not by giving up his attributes, but he “made himself nothing” by taking the “nature of a servant” and coming to earth to live as a man. He humbled himself, even to the death on the cross.
Fourth, the bigger context sees Paul telling his readers, the Philippians, to humble themselves as servants and not to look out for their own interests only, but to look out for the needs of others. Jesus did that in the ultimate way, by becoming a man and dying on the cross.
Fifth, the entire Bible covering the attributes of Jesus do not support the claim that he gave up his divine attributes. “If it were true that such a momentous event as this happened, that the eternal Son of God ceased for a time to have all the attributes of God—ceased for a time, to be omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, for example, then we would expect that such an incredible event would be taught clearly and repeatedly in the New Testament, not found in the very doubtful interpretation of one word in one epistle” (p. 551). Then Grudem continues to say that the New Testament does not teach this.
Therefore the best understanding of this passage is that it talks about Jesus giving up the status and privilege that was his in heaven: he “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (or “clung to for his own advantage”), but “emptied himself” or “humbled himself” for our sake, and came to live as a man. Jesus speaks elsewhere of the “glory” he had with the Father “before the world was made” (John 17:5), a glory that he had given up and was going to receive again when he returned to heaven (p. 551, emphasis original).
But then how do we account for the humanity and deity of Jesus in the four Gospels, where the humanity seems to dominate? Surely he gave up something, or did he?
Here is how Millard Erickson answers the question:
Jesus did not give up the divine attributes, but he freely surrendered the ability to act on them on his own accord. He exercised them only in dependence on his Father. “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does” (John 5:19). Whenever he exercised his divine power to perform miracles or reading thoughts, for example, he called on his Father and the power of the Father-directed Spirit. Both his Father’s will and his will were necessary, but his will was submitted to his Father. (p. 705)
Then Erickson uses the illustration of a safe-deposit box. Two keys—the banker’s and the depositor’s—are needed to open it. When Jesus exercised his divine attributes, both wills had to agree to it.
So there is divine cooperation between the Father and the Son—and I add the Holy Spirit. Jesus is the Messiah or Anointed One. He was anointed by the Spirit (Acts 10:38). His miracles were done by his divine nature through the power of the Spirit, by the Father’s and the Son’s will. So the Triunity (Trinity) was working together during the Son’s humiliation.
Erickson concludes our study about Christ’s humiliation:
The humiliation entailed all of the conditions of humanity. Thus Jesus was capable of feeling fatigue and weariness, pain and suffering, hunger, even the anguish of betrayal, denial and abandonment by those closest to him. He experienced the disappointment, discouragement, and distress of soul that go with being fully human. His humanity was complete. (p. 705)
My favorite theologian, J. Rodman Williams, writes:
In nineteenth-century, so-called Kenotic theology, there were various attempts to define the kenosis of Christ. in terms of a surrender of such divine attributes as omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence … However, it seems unlikely that Paul in Philippians 2:7 is speaking of such attributes. It is far more a matter of his eternal glory. Philippians 2:9-11 suggests this also, stressing His exaltation to the glory of God the Father (vol. 1, p. 323, note 103)
The self-emptying of Christ, “He emptied Himself,” (Phil. 2:7) … His kenosis should not be understood to mean that Jesus emptied himself of divinity, of such attributes as omnipotence, omniscience, or omnipresence … In regard to these attributes, it would be better to say that there was a limitation in their use by Christ in his humanity. Millard J. Erickson calls such “functional limitations” (vol. 1, p. 342, note 184, emphasis added).
In other words, Jesus did not “lay aside” or “set aside” or “lose” or “give up” his divine attributes when he became a baby in Bethlehem. Rather, a human nature was added to his divine nature. Now what happened to his divine nature and those powerful attributes with omni- in front of them? They were hidden behind his human nature, not lost or set aside. His use of them was limited, by his Father’s will.
To say that Jesus was fully God while a human yet he lost or set aside or lay aside or gave up these powerful omni-attributes or other ones does not work. God cannot lose attributes and still remain God. It is best to say that Jesus took them with him at his incarnation, but they were hidden behind his humanity–yes, even when he was a baby lying in a manger. So, for example, if the Father had willed, the divine attribute of omnipotence could have manifested in the baby Jesus and flattened the soldiers whom Herod sent to kill him. Since the baby did not have a fully developed will accompanied by knowledge, the Father alone could have done this through his Son. But the Father wanted Jesus to experience his full humanity and Joseph and Mary to learn how to be good parents and take care of his Son, who was on loan to them. Instead, the Father sent an angel in a dream, who told him to flee to Egypt (Matt. 2:13).
So how then did Jesus work his miracles? Three options.
First, Jesus was anointed by the Spirit at his baptism, and many Bible teachers say that he worked miracles–even calming the water on the Lake of Galilee or walking on water–by the power of the Spirit and the will of the Father, and of course by Jesus’ will, too, since he wanted to do this. He did not work his miracles by his divine attributes.
Second, on the other side, some theologians believe that he worked his miracles–even all of them–by his divine attributes.
Third, one could say that the miracle of calming the storm (and a few others like walking on water) was his omnipotence at work, since the disciples worshiped him the moment after he did it.
32 And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. 33 Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matt. 14:32-33)
The other miracles were accomplished by the power and anointing of the Spirit. So the third option combines the first and second ones. Millard Erickson favors the combination of his divine attributes and the Spirit.
My interpretation: the dominant image of Jesus’s ministry and miracles is by the power and anointing of the Spirit, and this gives us courage to work similar miracles, by the power of the Spirit.
Then why didn’t Jesus know the day or the hour when he would return (Matt. 24:36 and Mark 13:32)?
I answer this question and others, here:
So how do I get to know Jesus more deeply?
We can get to know him better when we realize what Jesus did for us when he left his heaven and became a man.
Look at it this way. Jesus gave up the perfect, pristine environment of heaven: the light, the glory, the beauty, the visible angels, the perfect music and praise, the sinless beings, the total purity (absence of pollution and conniving and cheating and lie and degradation, etc.), and even the perfect “weather.”
Most of all, to come down to the watery dirt clod called earth, he even gave up his session (seating) on his exalted throne, his place of highest honor.
However, he did not give up his divine attributes, but he did give up the independent use of them and cooperated with the Father and Spirit to live a godly, divine and human life of power and miracles and love.
The Father willed that Jesus’ humanity should appear and be real, so he and Jesus could fully sympathize with humanity’s daily routine of sleeping, eating and drinking and getting dusty and even suffering a criminal’s death (falsely accused) on the ignominious cross. The Father and his Son loved people—and still love them—that much.
ARTICLES IN “DO I REALLY KNOW JESUS?” SERIES
4. Do I Really Know Jesus? He Took the Form of a Servant (the Kenosis Doctrine)