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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: What Everyone Needs to Know about Jesus

Don Stewart :: In What Sense Did Jesus Empty Himself?

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In What Sense Did Jesus Empty Himself? (Kenosis, Condescension of Christ)

What Everyone Needs to Know about Jesus – Question 19

In the second chapter of the letter to the Philippians the Apostle Paul wrote about Jesus Christ and His coming to the earth. He explained it this way:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8 NIV)

The passage speaks of Jesus Christ “emptying Himself.” The Greek word for this is kenosis. The question is what did Jesus empty Himself of when He came to earth? There have been many attempts to explain exactly what was meant by this term. It is important that we have a proper understanding of what Paul is teaching.

Answer: Jesus Emptied Himself in Three Ways

The best answer seems to be that Jesus emptied Himself in at least three different ways. First, He voluntarily accepted the limitations of being a human being. Second, His glory was hidden from the people. Third, He gave up the independent use of His relative attributes (all-knowing, all-powerful, everywhere present, etc.).

1. He Experienced the Limitations of a Human Being

It is clear that Jesus is the eternal God. John’s gospel begins by explaining the relationship of God the Father to the Word, God the Son:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1 KJV)

The Word, Jesus Christ, not only existed with God in the beginning, He was Himself God!

John also wrote that Jesus, God the Son, became a human being at a particular point in time. He put it this way:

So the Word became human and lived here on earth among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the only Son of the Father. (John 1:14 NLT)

God the Son, Jesus Christ, was still God while He was here upon the earth. However, He took upon Himself an additional nature; that of a human. Jesus had a body like other men except it was without sin. He did not set aside any of the attributes that were rightly His.

However He voluntarily limited Himself to being a human being. With genuine humanity came certain restrictions. He could only be at one place at a time. He needed to eat, rest, and sleep. He could feel pain, bleed, and die. Before He became a man He had no such restrictions.

The self-humbling of God the Son, Jesus Christ, was certainly not against His will. He willingly took on the limitations of humanity. He never used any of His divine attributes to relieve Himself of the limitations of being a human being. The Bible consistently emphasizes this all-important truth.

2. Jesus’ Glory Was Veiled

We also find that the glory of Jesus was hidden from humanity during His time on the earth; although it was revealed at certain times. The glory of God was such that no human could look at it and live. This glory that belonged to Jesus was veiled. At the end of His life He prayed to His Father to restore His former glory. We read Him saying,

I have glorified You on the earth by completing the work You gave Me to do. Now, Father, glorify Me in Your presence with that glory I had with You before the world existed. (John 17:4, 5 HCSB)

After His Ascension the glory of God the Son was no longer veiled. We read in the Book of Revelation,

When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last...” (Revelation 1:17 NRSV)

When John saw Jesus in His glory He had to fall at His feet as one who was dead.

Jesus had to veil His glory in order to accomplish His mission upon the earth.

3. Jesus Did Not Independently Use Certain Attributes

There is something else. Jesus chose not to independently exercise of His relative attributes. This includes His ability to be all-knowing and all-powerful. His moral attributes, such as love, holiness, and truth were not set aside in any sense. He did not give His perfect morality but He did give up any independent use of His mighty power.

The key word in this understanding is “independent.” On many occasions we find Christ exercising His attributes of omniscience and omnipotence. Therefore, they were at His disposal to use whenever the situation called for it.

The New Testament stresses the fact that Jesus chose rather to live the life as a servant who put His trust in His heavenly Father. The following statements from Jesus illustrate this truth:

Therefore Jesus answered and was saying to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner.” (John 5:19 NASB)

Jesus said that He only did things that pleased God the Father.

In another place in the Gospel of John we find Jesus saying that He did the will of the One who sent Him:

“I can do nothing on My own. I judge only as I hear, and My judgment is righteous, because I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” (John 5:30 HCSB)

He sought to do the will of God the Father.

Jesus also said that He came to earth to do the will of God the Father. John also records Him saying this:

“For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” (John 6:38 NKJV)

Jesus chose to submit to the will of God the Father in every word and in every deed. Therefore, any independent desire on Jesus’ part to act apart from God the Father was emptied, or laid aside, while here upon the earth.

Indeed, there are a number of things we find in Scripture to support this idea of Jesus’ limitations.

A. Jesus Did Not Know Certain Things

The Bible does teach that there were certain things that Jesus did not know. For example, Jesus did not know the time of His Second Coming:

“Now concerning that day or hour no one knows—neither the angels in heaven nor the Son—except the Father.” (Mark 13:32 HCSB)

At this particular time, Jesus did not know when He would return.

On one occasion, Jesus did not know who it was from the crowd who touched His clothes. Mark records what occurred:

At once Jesus realized in Himself that power had gone out from Him. He turned around in the crowd and said, “Who touched My robes?” His disciples said to Him, “You see the crowd pressing against You, and You say, ‘Who touched Me?’” So He was looking around to see who had done this. (Mark 5:30-32 HCSB)

Jesus did not know who touched Him so that power would go out from Him. This further illustrates His limitations as a human being.

When He was here upon the earth Jesus was all knowing, or omniscient, yet He did not know the time of His Second Coming. Although He was all-powerful, or omnipotent, He prayed to God to raise Lazarus from the dead. Jesus, as God, was everywhere present, or omnipresent, but He could only be at one place at a time. These attributes were always with Him but He simply chose not to use them apart from the will of the Father.

B. Jesus Was Continuously Self-Limited

The self-limitation of Jesus was something that He continually practiced. This being the case, He had to consciously and continuously rely on the Father instead of His own divine attributes. Jesus Himself said,

Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead man was lying. And Jesus lifted up His eyes and said, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. And I know that You always hear Me, but because of the people who are standing by I said this, that they may believe that You sent Me.” (John 11:41, 42 NKJV)

He knew that His Father always heard His prayers and was constantly with Him. In other words, Jesus was always aware of His Father’s presence.

C. He Was Always Guided by the Holy Spirit

As a human being, Jesus chose to be guided by the Holy Spirit rather than by His own will. Scripture speaks of Jesus being filled, or controlled, with the Spirit after His baptism. We read in Luke,

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness... (Luke 4:1 NRSV)

Jesus allowed the Spirit of God to lead Him.

Consequently, we find that Jesus performed His miracles by the power of the Holy Spirit. He stated this when He was in a discussion with the religious leaders:

“But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you.” (Matthew 12:28 NKJV)

His miraculous works were a result in His trust in God the Father through God the Holy Spirit.

He placed His faith in God the Father. He was able to live a sinless life by trusting the Father at all times. Consequently believers are told to “walk as He walked.” John wrote,

Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Christ did. (1 John 2:6 NLT)

This could only be possible if Jesus walked in faith as a human being.

D. Jesus Is Able to Understand Our Needs

Jesus willingly limited Himself while here upon the earth. Consequently He understands what happens to humans. The writer to the Hebrews acknowledged that Jesus realizes our own needs and human limitations. He wrote,

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. (Hebrews 4:15 NIV)

He knows our needs, our struggles.

Because He has experienced the same problems as humankind, He can comfort us. The Bible says that God is the God of all comfort:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation. (2 Corinthians 1:3 NRSV)

He comforts us because He knows what we have been experiencing.

Finally we come to the reason why Jesus imposed these self-limitations upon His Person. He did it because of the love of God.

In sum, it was the love of God that caused Jesus to voluntarily humble Himself and lay aside some of the rights that He had as God.

Summary – Question 19
In What Sense Did Jesus Empty Himself? (Kenosis, Condescension of Christ)

The Bible speaks of God the Son, Jesus Christ, emptying Himself when He came to this earth. This has been called the “kenosis” of Christ after the Greek word which means “emptying.” It is also referred to as the condescension of Christ.

While Scripture says that Jesus Christ emptied Himself when He became human it does not specifically say what He emptied Himself of. While there has been much speculation as to what this consisted of, there are three things which seem to answer the question.

First, God the Son restricted Himself to a human body when He came to earth. He became a fully functioning human being with all its limitations. In doing so, God the Son gave up the position He has enjoyed for all eternity. Indeed, until the time of His coming to the earth, He only had only nature, a divine nature. That divine nature was now joined to a human nature with all the restrictions which come with it.

Second, God the Son veiled or hid His glory from the people. Therefore, He emptied Himself of the glory, or majesty, which He has had since before our world was created. In His prayer to God the Father on the night of His betrayal, Jesus asked to have that former glory restored. Consequently, it seems that part of the emptying of Christ concerns the glory He had before becoming a human and coming to the earth.

Finally, Jesus emptied Himself of the right to exercise certain of His divine attributes when He became human. These attributes such as being all-powerful, all-knowing, were exercised by God the Son at certain times in His public ministry it was only done through the will of God the Father.

In other words, it was never on His own initiative. Indeed, His entire life as a human being was lived in obedience to the will of God the Father through the power of God the Holy Spirit. Thus, in this sense, He emptied Himself of any right to independently exercise His own will.

While so much about the Son of God coming to our earth is a mystery, it does seem that these three points help us answer the question as to what He emptied Himself. We must be careful, however, to believe that we have all the answers to this question because there is so much about God and His workings which we do not know because it has not been revealed to us. Therefore, it is best that we give tentative answers to this question.

How Could Christ Be God and Human at the Same Time? ← Prior Section
What Are Some Common Misconceptions about Jesus Emptying Himself When He Came to the Earth? Next Section →
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