How Did Jesus “Empty” Himself? (Phil. 2:5-7)

In the late 1800’s a group of theologians examined Philippians 2:5-7 and began to teach that Jesus gave up some of His divine attributes while He was here on earth. Twisting the words of Paul, these scholars said that when Jesus became man, He temporarily “emptied” (Phil. 2:7) Himself of some divine qualities like omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. This new and dangerous teaching became widely known as the “kenosis” theory, from the Greek word kenoo – “empty.” Jesus, these theologians argued, voluntarily limited Himself by ceasing to be fully God for a time in order to carry out His work on earth.

There are several problems with this view. First, the Bible teaches clearly that Jesus, whether in heaven or on earth, has always been fully divine in all His attributes (cf. John 1:1-3). Paul, the very author of Philippians 2:7, said in another passage: “In Him [Jesus Christ] dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 2:9), and that, “it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell” (Col. 1:19). Scripture very consistently teaches that Jesus has always been fully God, even when He dwelt on earth in bodily form (John 1:14). Had He given up any part of His divine nature, these passages would be misleading at best.

A second problem with the kenosis theory is that it includes some thoughts and ideas that are simply not present in Philippians 2:7. The passage never states, nor does it even imply that Jesus emptied Himself of any divine powers or attributes. It explains that He, “emptied Himself,” through humility, obedience, and service to others. It is profoundly dangerous to ignore the context of a passage by forcing a meaning into it that the original author may never have intended.

Third, the kenosis theory seems to completely ignore Paul’s purpose in arguing that Jesus emptied Himself. The main idea of Philippians 2:1-11 is that Christians are to promote unity through humble and selfless service to others. As an illustration, Paul writes that Jesus did not count equality with God, “a thing to be grasped” (Phil. 2:6), but instead He, “took the form of a servant,” and, “humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death” (Phil. 2:7-8). Thus, the passage itself clearly indicates that Jesus emptied Himself by leaving His rightful status and privilege in heaven to come and serve mankind in a sin-sick world. The command to, “have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5) likewise involves emptying ourselves of our own rightful privilege and status for the good of others. It does not, as the kenosis theory would imply, involve emptying ourselves of our essential abilities and attributes!

Jesus Christ the Creator did what no created thing in the universe could do. For our sake, He left the joys of heaven itself and came to this world to save us (2 Cor. 8:9). Though He was (and is) worthy of all praise and worship, He said that His purpose on earth was, “not to be served, but to serve” (Mark 10:45). Jesus emptied Himself when He gave up what was rightfully His – a place in heaven – in order to be born in a stable, endure the pains of this life, and finally to take up the lowly cross and carry it to Calvary. Let us always seek to possess the self-emptying mind of Jesus Christ! —JB