THE KENOSIS DOCTRINE
In this Scripture Paul's concern is with the life that Christians are to live. The mind of Christ Jesus was manifested when He became man at His incarnation and "emptied himself" or "made himself nothing," assuming the nature of a slave. Bearing the human likeness, revealed in human shape, he humbled himself, and in obedience accepted even death-death on a cross (verses 7, 8, N.E.B.). These verses present an unparalleled picture of the character of Christ. Every word and phrase is of great importance.
Fundamental to our understanding of Christ's taking human flesh is the phrase "emptied himself." The verb form of the Greek term translated "to empty" is kenoo; kenosis is the noun form. From this term has come what is known as the kenosis doctrine.
Students of the Word have been greatly exercised to understand what is actually meant by Christ's emptying Himself. Few phrases of Scripture have created more interest and discussion, from both the practical and the theological point of view. During the last two centuries in particular, much attention has been given to the interpretation of these words as a further explanation of the relation of the divine and human natures of Christ. For it was Christ's becoming a man that changed everything for our world.
As already noted, Paul's primary concern in our text is that Christians develop the same life style, have the same servant spirit of our Lordthat they be full of humility and love as manifested in Christ's incarnation and in His death on the cross.
However, Biblical scholars have not been content to rest with the practical exhortation. They have concentrated on the idea of Christ's emptying Himself when He became a man. They have centered on the words "Christ emptied himself." What do they mean? they ask. Of what did Christ empty Himself when He became man?
When Christ took human flesh He accepted the limitations imposed by His life on earth. These were part of His great sacrifice. When we consider the divine Son of God becoming man we must arrive at some idea of "kenosis," involving some change in the use of His deity. Christ did not appear here on earth in the glory which He had with the Father before the world was (John 17:5). His was no shattering descent from heaven, no sensational approach that would overwhelm us. He did not appear as God.
What did Jesus renounce in becoming one of us? To what degree did human limitations apply to the mind and being of the Son of God? Jesus entered our world as a human babe. In the emptying of Himself the Son of God adjusted His divinity to the human Jesus. God in some way limited Himself so that the deity of Christ did not overwhelm or make of none effect the distinctly human aspects of His personality.
We cannot think of Christ's becoming a man without His having in some way limited His deity. We do not find Christ walking the earth in all the majesty that He had in the eternal ages. "He hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. . . . And we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not" (Isa. 53:2, 3).
The issue is not concerning the definition of terms, but over the very center of the Christian faith. Did Christ empty Himself of His deity in any part? If the kenosis imperils or destroys the deity of the eternal Son, then Christ is no longer truly God; the Christian religion does not have a full salvation to offer to us. For Christ would then be only a man.
The inspired Word of God always makes demands upon us, upon our minds, hearts, and lives, that our knowledge of and faith in Christ may be firmly established. There are many good Christian people who believe in Jesus. There are few who take the time to understand all that the Scripture has to say about our Lord, His nature, person, and work.
The more we come to know and understand what Christ is and what He has done for us, the greater and firmer will be our faith and allegiance. There should come to every thoughtful Christian a sense of awe and deep gratitude as he seeks to understand the greatness of the sacrifice that Christ made on his behalf. Angelic hosts and those millions on other worlds who watched Christ descend from heaven to this world, who beheld His becoming a man and dying on a cross, must have stood in wonder and amazement at such a sacrifice within the Godhead.
During the Christian era various interpretations of the words "emptied himself" have arisen within the church.
Almost all interpretations of the kenosis agree that at His incarnation Christ abandoned, or "emptied himself of" something that He possessed before He became incarnate.
Some have argued that Christ divested Himself of His divine nature, or part of it, when He left heaven to become man. This position holds to a shrunken or reduced deity. In that case Christ was no longer fully God. If Christ left His deity or part of it behind, then it was not really the Son of God who sacrificed Himself for us. We have a human being substituted for the divine. We have for our Redeemer less than the fullness of God in Christ. Then what guarantee do we have that this act of God is anything more than an incident in human history?
Others speak of Christ's deity as being veiled or disguised; that Christ retained the full conscious and active deity in Himself, but that while on earth He acted as if He did not possess it. The emptying, or kenosis, it is held, consisted in Christ's living and acting as if He were only a man, when all the time He was God. His mind was still omniscient and omnipotent, which attributes He used whenever He found it necessary. But this raises certain fundamental questions regarding the reality of Christ's temptations.
Still another interpretation is that Jesus was fully God and fully man, but that He surrendered the use or function of certain attributes to His Father which became latent or quiescent in Him while He lived on earth.
However, no interpretation can be accepted that departs from the Christ of the New Testament record. No interpretation can be true that denies either Christ's equality with His Father or with men. Any interpretation that would make Christ less than fully God is contrary to the Word of God.
The Biblical text, both in the Greek and English, provides no difficulty of understanding. Paul does not say that the divine nature of Christ was abandoned or exchanged. In fact, he asserts the opposite. The theological issue is found in the interpretation of the text.
Through the centuries the Christian Church has insisted upon both the full deity and the full humanity of our Lord Jesus Christ. All the heresies that have arisen as to the nature of Christ have tended to sacrifice Christ's deity on the one hand or His humanity on the other.
Self-emptying by Christ affirms that He is free to accept the limitations of human lifeto accept suffering and deathwithout surrendering His deity. In accepting these limitations the Son of God does not cease to be God. The kenosis declares that God is not far removed from man, since man was made in the image of God. Our being made in God's image does not exclude God's being able to become man. To become man is not impossible or incongruous for God. But in becoming man Christ, as God, took a position of unceasing dependence upon His Father throughout His life on earth. Even though Christ was the very fountain of eternal life Himself, yet the glory of His character is seen in the surrender of the exercise of His deity and divine attributes. His chief delight and source of power was that each moment the Father kept charge of His life in response to His life of faith.
The Father worked in His Son to will and to do of His own good pleasure, as He seeks to do in all His followers. Christ lived the one true faith. His life on earth was the expression of man's true relationship to God.
The Form of the Son of God
Two "forms" are attributed to Jesus Christ in Philippians 2:6, 7: the "form of God" and the "form of a servant" or slave. Christ was in the form of God before He took the form of a bond servant.
Our English word form suggests merely outward appearance. The Greek word, morphé, has a much more inclusive meaning. As used to express Christ's divine nature, it includes the inherent divine character, glory, and attributes, which He may manifest in varying ways. God may change His form but not his nature. He reveals Himself to His creatures in the form He takes and in the manifestation of His attributes.
The form of a thing is the mode in which it reveals itself; and that is determined by its nature. "Being in the form of God" refers to Christ's prior, and continued, existence. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews describes Christ prior to His incarnation as "being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person" (Heb. 1:3), which means possessing and manifesting all the qualities and prerogatives of God.
A man who becomes a slave is still a man. His nature as man does not change. And Jesus, the Son of God, by becoming a man, did not surrender His deity. Before the Incarnation Christ was God; He was the very expression and manifestation of deity. Before He became flesh He revealed Himself to celestial beings in the form of God. At His incarnation He revealed Himself in the form of a bondservant. Prior to His incarnation He lived among the angels and before the universe in all the glory which He had with the Father before the world was. When He became a man He lived among His creatures and before the universe as a bond-servant.
In our text Paul describes what Christ laid aside when He became man and took human flesh. He did not lay aside His deity; His deity was manifested in another form, the form of a "slave." Christ did not come to earth for self -glorification as God. He did the very opposite . He renounced all His divine prerogatives.
When men saw Him, although they did not recognize Him as such, they saw God in the likeness of sinful flesh. All the time He was equal with God. His divine nature is unalterable and unchangeable. But in taking the form of man He changed His mode of expressing His deity. He was known and recognized by Satan and his angels while on earth as the Son of God.
When we consider the Son of God becoming man, we must arrive at some idea of kenosis. Christ accepted the limitations imposed on His divine life while on earth. Some adjustment was required for Him to become the human Jesus.
The kenosis occurred when Christ took the form of a servant and was made in the likeness of men. The emptying is the laying aside of something at the point of His taking on the form of a bondservant. Nothing is said of giving up His deity or any part of it, or of abandoning any of His divine attributes.
Christ came in the humble form of a servant at His incarnation, depicting servitude, subjection, subordination. He took a weakened human nature, not the perfect nature Adam had before he sinned. He did not come to earth as a new human being newly created in power and splendor. Neither did He come in the glory in which He now exists in His exalted state. Nor did He come as He will at His second coming, in all the glory of the King of kings. "In all things it behooved him to be made like unto his brethren" (Heb. 2:17). Instead of commanding and ruling in power and majesty, occupying a place of honor and pre-eminence among men, He humbled Himself. He trod the path of humiliation, which culminated in His death upon the cross.
This is the offense of the cross. How could a crucified man possibly be the world's Saviour and Lord? How could a condemned criminal be God? How could a man on an accursed tree be God's only Son? Here we have the climax that leaves unsanctified reasoning behind. He who was the Son of God, equal with God, died, hanging on a post of wood, the mark of being accursed.
"Himself he emptied" is the emphatic form in the Greek, accentuating His voluntariness. This is God's supreme revelation of His character. It is full of infinite merit. The limitations on His deity and equality with God were self-imposed. "The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:28).
A bond-servant's mark is obedience to the will of his master. Christ gave up His own will. All personal ambition, all self-seeking and self-glory He surrendered all without reserve in order to do the will of God. "I do nothing of myself; but as my Father hath taught me, I speak these things" (John 8:28).
Christ came manifesting a redemptive obedience in His life and death. This was God's method of substitution in order to bring the gift of righteousness in His life and to bear man's sins on the cross.
When Christ became man He did not appear in all the splendor of deity in order to win the praise and honor of men. He took a very different way, the way of humility and self-abasement. We become like Jesus when we know, and show, that we can do nothing of ourselves and allow God to be all in all. We are not to be occupied with ourselves, but with our Lord and Saviour. Nothing else will permit the Holy Spirit's control in our lives. Our need is for an entire and unceasing dependence on Christ. Only then are we able to say with the apostle Paul, "I live; yet not 1, but Christ liveth in me" (Gal. 2:20).
For Christ, the worship given Him by the hosts of angels and other created beings on millions of other worlds did not come first. He had every right to hold on to all that; but He put the will of His Father before everything else. Then, when He had finished His work on earth, God "highly exalted him, and . . . [gave] him a name which is above every name" (Phil. 2:9).
As Christians we must put Christ's will first in our lives. This means placing ourselves completely at His disposal, that God may have absolute priority with us.
When we make such a commitment Christ will test us to prove whether our decision is genuine.
Abraham faced this crucial point of commitment. God called him to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. Abraham did not hesitate. He had the mind of Christ. Paul asked, "Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?" This is the fundamental question for every Christian. To have the mind of Christ is indeed a marvelous and transforming thing.
Men are summoned by God to a different kind of life from what most of mankind lives. In the light of what Christ is and has done for us we shall answer at last for our choices, whether we have united our lives with Him or not.
Equality With God
"For the divine nature was his from the first; yet he did not think to snatch at equality with God, but made himself nothing, assuming the nature of a slave" (Phil. 2:7, N.E.B.). Absolute equality with God was the possession of Christ and acknowledged as His right by all the angels and beings of other worlds. He need not have taken the form of a bond-servant.
When the need arose for a Saviour and a Redeemer, Christ did not regard His being equal with God a thing to be grasped as a robber might grasp an object not his own. This equality with God was so surely and incontestably Christ's very own possession, that only He could lay it aside for a season for our sakes.
At any moment while on earth He could have burst upon the eyes of men with all His divine glory and power. When ridiculed, despised, and rejected, when nailed to the cross by wicked men and laughed to scorn, He could have destroyed His enemies in a moment by the revelation of His own divine glory. Voluntarily He chose not to do so.
In Christ's limiting His divine nature we have the climactic demonstration of the character of God that cannot be accounted for in human terms and understanding. Any time Christ could have moved to manifest His equality with God before the world and the universe. But He did not consider this something to be held onto at all costs, a prize that must not slip from His grasp; a treasure to be clutched and retained regardless.
No theory of the kenosis can be true that brings Christ into an earthly state where it becomes impossible for Him to assert equality with God. Room must be left for a voluntary decision not to assert that equality on the part of One who could do otherwise any time He chose to. Christ assumed a servant form and died upon the cross for us according to His own will.
Attributes in Abeyance
When we consider what it meant for Christ to empty Himself" it is logical to inquire: What happened to His divine nature, for Him to live as a man on earth? What happened to some of those attributes that openly and spontaneously display His equality with God?
Christ could not abandon any of His attributes without losing His deity. However, it follows from the very nature of the kenosis that He could surrender the active use of certain attributes. In surrendering His right and claim to equality with God, He relinquished the use and display of those attributes that would have prevented His living as we live.
Recorded facts about the life of Christ require that the function of certain of His attributes be held in abeyance, the use of them surrendered. The function was withdrawn only, not destroyed. When Jesus said, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself" (John 5:19), it is apparent that His attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence were not in operation. In some mysterious way He surrendered them to the control and direction of the Father, through the Holy Spirit.
Deity, possessing omnipotence, can do all that it desires to do. There are no limitations. But Christ was truly human. He had to walk by faith in dependence on His Father. He accepted the limitations of human mind and spirit. He found it necessary, especially in times of crises in His ministry, to spend extended time in prayer and meditation. He spent whole nights in lonely vigils and in prayer to His Father. He did not for one moment exercise those divine attributes that would have given Him the answers to anything He wanted to know and do. This was no play acting. He was not pretending to depend on His Father while all the time depending on Himself.
Furthermore, Jesus exercised no power of omniscience that made Him fully aware of His being the Messiah from birth. Only gradually did He come to realize who He was, the Son of God. Not until He was 12 years of age was this knowledge affirmed, when He said to His parents, "Wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?"
"Let This Mind Be in You"
Perhaps the most difficult task we face as Christians is to develop in ourselves the mind of Christ. It is more natural to strive to be lord than to possess the servant spirit of Christ. It is not easy to refrain from building ourselves up under the impression that we are building up the church. This problem is as old as the church itself. Love of religious recognition can be mistaken for faith in Christ; the putting of oneself across can be interpreted as the lifting up of our Lord.
Christ differs from Lucifer and from every aspect of his self-exaltation, which springs from pride. Pride is a divisive thing. It invariably comes between Christ and others who may be seeking the truth. There would have been no sin or sinners in the universe had not Lucifer set himself up against God to become an object of worship to his followers. He persuaded other angels and our first parents to follow the same course.
Christ denied Himself all the glory, power, and honor that truly belonged to Him as the Son of God.
In the councils of God, before the creation of the world, the Son of God began His descent. Step by step He humbled Himself by means of the Incarnation and His death on the cross. Thereby He vindicated God before the angels and the universe, and brought redemption to men. The self sacrificing-servant spirit is the way of God. The self-centered, self-exalting life is the way of Satana life without God.
We cannot magnify too much the nature of Christ's condescension and humility to reach us. He disrobed Himself of His glory as the Son of God and disguised Himself in the form of man. From His exalted position as King of kings He descended to earth to be born of humble parents, to be cradled in a manger, to struggle with poverty in the land of Palestine. He abandoned all the joys of heaven, left the celestial courts to become a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and took the way of the cross.
After receiving the glory and tributes of the angels He received the reproach of sinful man. He gave up that mighty scepter with which He ruled the universe for a reed put in His hand as a condemned prisoner. For His glorious diadem as Lord of all He received the agony of a crown of thorns placed in derision upon His head. He was rich beyond all that we can conceive, yet for our sakes He became poor. By no less means than His incarnation and His death on the cross could our salvation be effected.
What a contrast there is between what Christ was in heaven and what He became on earth, between the state of poverty in which He found us and the unsearchable riches which He now gives us.
To have the mind of Christ is to have an attitude such as He had, and to live the life of Christ. Here we have reached the very heart of the requirements of the gospel. Christ said of Himself, "Of mine own self I can do nothing." So it must be with us. Our sufficiency must be of God. Of what use is Christ's coming to earth in search of us if we fail here; if we still prefer to live for ourselves alone?
Jesus Christ is the living God who came down from heaven to be known and seen of all men. He is not the God who hides behind symbols or words. He is not the God who speaks to us in mysterious signs and mythological terms. He is the Lord Jesus in whom dwells the fullness of the Godhead bodily. The true and living God is not difficult to find in Christ. He is the loving heavenly Father, whom Jesus came to reveal.
The life of Christ is the only true life God offers to us. That life can be lived in us only by Christ and not by us. We are to become partakers of His life, one with Him. Regardless of how hard we try without Christ, we must always fail at last. Regardless of all our wisdom and ability, we can only end with failure.
Having, the mind and spirit of Christ means far more than most people think. Christlike living by the presence of the Holy Spirit is more than having our behavior directed by regulations. No table of commandments, no system of Christian ethics, can be framed that will make us like Christ. No imposition of rules from without can ever succeed in turning sinners into saints.
At the same time, a living faith is not without conditions. We need to maintain the true perspective of life in Christ. "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me" (Matt. 16:24). Christ draws all men unto Himself. He lived by faith, as we are to live.
God did not send a member of the Godhead clothed with humanity to impress us. He does not weary us with a God who exposes all our faults but has not empowered us to live as sons and daughters of God. Faith in Christ must witness to our having the mind of Christ in all things, instead of assuming that goodness is achieved by church membership.
The God who "emptied Himself" through the millenniums and will continue to do so, is far too loving and true to permit those who trust in Him to fail. The Lord Jesus Christ is the revelation and expression of all that God has done and all He is. And He lives as one who can give us minds like His own, and save us to the uttermost.