Philippians 2: The “Kenosis” and What it Means To Say “Christ Emptied Himself” In The Incarnation

tough-questionMost Christians accept that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior for all of mankind. He came into this world through an incarnation as a baby and lived a life in human flesh. The concept of the incarnation itself is quite difficult to grasp. In John, believers are assured that Christ is God when John opens his writing with “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.”[1] The Word would become flesh and dwell with all of man revealing God’s glory[2]. There is little doubt in the minds of the majority of Christians that Christ was God and therefore had various elements of deity within Him.

Yet, Christ chose to limit Himself and live a very human life alongside man. Evidences are ripe throughout the New Testament of the human attributes which Christ displayed. The Gospel of John is a great place to see them on full display. Christ is shown to have family relations in John 2:12 and this is further evidenced by his attendance at a wedding with His mother in John 2:1, brothers who instructed Him in John 7:3-5, His love for Martha, Mary and Lazarus in John 11:5 and His concern for Mary even as He hung on the cross in John 19:26-27[3].

Jesus’s display of human weakness continue in John. The prospect of death deeply troubled Him in John 12:27 and He contemplated praying to be spared from it[4]. In fact, the verb used in this instance is tetaraktai which translates to being “agitated or disturbed” and shows that Jesus had an emphasis spoken here, “I have been troubled and continue to be troubled.”[5]In John 4:6 and John 7 He was tired and thirsty and in John 11:33-35 He was troubled in spirit and even wept[6]. In John 6:66, Jesus is shown to be unable to prevent any of His followers from falling away and His spirit was said to be troubled in John 13: 21 as He contemplated on the soon coming betrayal of Judas[7]. While John is not the only Gospel to make reference to these human qualities, it is nonetheless a great picture of the human nature which Christ displayed in His ministry. In light of these passages, it is easy to see that Jesus was fully human within His ministry, but He was also said to be fully divine. The issue for the believer becomes grasping how Christ could have lived a full human life when He was God and full of deity.

There is also no doubt that Christ made sure that He taught and performed miracles which alluded to who He is. In John 18:36, Jesus exclaims, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Jesus alluded to Himself in eight different “I AM” statements in John (the way, the door, the resurrection, ect), claimed to be Adonai in Matthew 22, identifies Himself with God in baptism in Matthew 28 and claims to be one with God in John 10:30[8]. Simply because He chose not to force man to subject to His authority does not mean He was absent of His deity, it simply means He restrained the rightful dominion He held. Further, He seems to have veiled His deity by choice if He lived a full human life.

The issue gets a bit closer to a solution in Paul’s writings regarding Christ in Philippians 2:6-7. Here he states of Jesus, “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.”[9] This segment by Paul has fueled intense debate. After all, if Jesus displayed elements of His deity in His ministry through miracles and teaching, how could He have possibly “emptied Himself” of anything? The answer lies within the phrase “emptied Himself” and what exactly that entails in regards to Jesus and understanding Him and His ministry.

This brings us into the realm of Christology. Christology is an area of study that focuses on Jesus and His nature. That is, was Jesus truly God’s Son? Was He the Messiah? Was Jesus truly divine? After all, the entirety of Christianity hinges on the truth of His claims and His bodily Resurrection as divine fulfillments of prophecy. The Synoptic Gospels themselves represent Jesus’s human attributes as an accepted fact that is seemingly common knowledge[10]. At the same time, He is reflected as sinless and different from other men through instances of miracles, His virgin birth, His power to forgive sins, and His resurrection[11].

It is here, where Christology and Philippians 2 meet, that we come to the “kenosis passage”[12] of the Bible. In Philippians 2: 6-7 we have already established that Christ is said to have “emptied Himself”. Here, Paul is alluding to the fact that Christ veiled His glory, took on human flesh completely with the strengths and weaknesses which accompany it, and dealt with the trials of life. While Christ being referred to as a “servant” references the humanity which Christ took on[13]. To Paul, it is more of a point that Christ did not desire to assert His rights and dominion over man, He instead chose to humble Himself even lower than man is[14]. This does not mean Christ ceases to be Christ or God, it means He chose a life of humility to show servitude which is pleasing to the Father.

John Walvoord notes several different elements that comprise the kenosis and what all it encompassed. Walvoord first argues that the humiliation Christ endured is evidence that he veiled His glory, but did not completely surrender it as His glory was veiled in order to allow Him to walk among men and revealed in instances such as the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17)[15]. Walvoord argues his second point when he says, “the union of Christ to an unglorified humanity unquestionably involved divine condescension and was a necessary factor in His ultimate humiliation on the cross. The humiliation was not the initial step of incarnation, but was involved in the whole program of God leading to His shameful death.”[16] Christ’s humanity was not glorified until after His return to glory (resurrection) and His original union with unglorified humanity is a distinct element within the kenosis[17].

While Christ did not surrender the attributes of omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence in the incarnation, He did submit Himself to a voluntary nonuse of these attributes in an effort to realize His objectives[18]. Walvoord notes that Christ did not use any of these attributes to His own advantage as He lived His life in the disadvantages of the human experience alongside man despite His ability to change the course of actions that were to occur[19].

On two distinct occasions (Matt 12:28 and Luke 4:14-18), Christ reveals that His miracles were possible by the power of the Holy Spirit which indicates that in His miracles, He chose (in these instances) to be dependent upon the power of the Holy Spirit and God to do His miracles[20]. Christ did reveal His own power when He chose to in instances such as the resurrection of Lazarus, but the anointing of the Holy Spirit in Luke 4:18 shows that many of His miracles were done by the power of the Holy Spirit[21]. The fact that he also performed miracles on His own accord shows that His deity was still with Him and that His choosing to veil them was completely voluntary and not a full surrender[22].

Not everyone is in agreement over what kenosis really means. For instance, W.F. Gess and H.W. Beecher argue that Jesus was not God while He lived on earth because Jesus gave up all of His moral and comparative attributes and that made Him less than God[23]. Ebrard suggests that Christ emptied Himself of the “glows of the attributes” and in turn, His right to be worshipped as His attributes remained hidden and never revealed[24]. Hans L Martensen proposed that Jesus surrendered divine self-consciousness having the attributes of God but being unaware of it[25]. Thomasius argued that Jesus abandoned the absolute attributes of God (omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience) but kept His essential attributes such as love, truth, holiness, etc[26].

These views represent an area of Christology known as the Kenotic view which holds to the idea that Jesus set aside everything that was inconsistent with being a human being in the incarnation and He temporarily gave up His ability to use any of His divine attributes[27]. This view allows believers to attest to an infinite God becoming a finite human being with one mind and one set of attributes (attributes consistent with personhood) and any notion of two minds or two sets of attributes means that Christ would have to be two different people[28].

The main strength of the kenotic view as far as this writer is concerned is that Christ did display the inability to know of the prophetical end times. In Mark 13:32, He notes that only the Father knows when these things are to occur, not even Jesus has knowledge of when they will take place. Yet, it is possible that Christ spoke from His human vantage point instead of His divine one. If the disciples were to be told the day and hour, perhaps they would have been under motivated to begin kingdom advancing work when Christ called them to it.

To refute these theories, we can once again turn to John and that statements made in his gospel in regards to Christ. On the attribute of omniscience, John 2:24-25 says that Christ knew all of man and what was in them; John 18:4 shows that Jesus knew all things that could and would happen to Him[29]. Omnipresence is found in John 3:13[30].Omnipotence is referenced in the many miracles He did[31]. William Lane Craig notes in regards to the miracles Jesus performed:

For Jesus’ claim to be able to heal miraculously all diseases and infirmities also contains an implicit claim to divinity. As Howard Kee, a New Testament scholar from Boston University who has specialized in the study of the Gospel miracles, explains, for Old Testament Judaism God is the one who heals all Israel’s diseases. In this light, Jesus’ claim to heal miraculously, without use of any medical means, takes on a new significance: Jesus in effect takes God’s place as the healer of Israel.[32]


Craig continues, “Jesus assumes the place reserved for God in the Old Testament. So his claim to perform miracles is not only amazing in itself, but actually has a deeper significance in implying Jesus’ divinity.”[33]

Perhaps the best rebuttal to these theories comes from Walvoord. He uses the example of sunlight to counter the idea that Jesus surrendered any attribute He had, “To rob sunlight of any of its various colors would change the character of the sunlight. To rob God of any attribute would destroy His deity. Hence, if Christ sis not possess all the attributes of the Godhead, it could not be said that He possessed a true deity.”[34] Morris also contends that the division of absolute and essential attributes is unjustified as they are both equally essential to Deity[35].

It becomes very obvious at this point that the kenotic view is simply false. It is noble in its efforts to help man wrap their heads around how God could put Himself in human form and live among men, but it robs Jesus of the deity He has from the authority of God. It does not seem entirely necessary to imply that the human and divine attributes cannot exist in the one person of Jesus Christ. After all, is it not apparent that Christ is still far different from a normal human being? Kenotics seem pressed with the task of explaining away the miracles and authority Jesus exhibited. Take for instance Jesus walking on water in Matthew 14. Jesus was able to overlook the elements and command mastery over them while Peter fell victim to the fear of men and the limitations man has. Here specifically, man cannot walk on water, yet Jesus can.

Even if Jesus did call on the Holy Spirit for a portion of His miracles, it is necessary to acknowledge that the Holy Spirit both received the plea and responded in the presentation of a miracle before Jesus died. It is important to note the common held theological point that the Holy Spirit was only able to enter man when Christ resurrected. This means that the miracles were done in unison between Christ and the Holy Spirit as far as this author is concerned.

The paradox will always remain as man continues to grasp how God became man.  Christians are obligated to acknowledge that Christ became fully human without ceasing to be fully divine[36]. When Christ stated that He would sit at the right hand of the Father He addressed His role as Messiah as David calls Him in Psalm 110[37]. The Pharisees tried to convict Him of blasphemy when Jesus states “If David calls Him ‘Lord’, how is He his Son?”[38].  The only reconciliation to this question would be one that the Pharisees avoided and as H. Wayne House and Dennis Jowers point out, “The only answer is that the Messiah would be divine and human. David’s son and David’s Lord.”[39]

There are many instances within the Scripture where Christ both addresses sin with authority and forgives them with authority. John 3:16 is a perfect basis for this concept. Belief in Christ and the acceptance of His sacrifice is the catalyst for forgiveness of sin. It is therefore necessary to acknowledge that Christ was divine as well as human in perfect harmony. The sacrifice of a mere human being is clearly not sufficient for the atonement of all mankind.

The debate will rage on in the realm of Christology over the kenosis and what exactly it means to say that Jesus “emptied Himself”. Yet, the solution to the issue appears to be quite obvious. Christ chose to veil His divine attributes and reveal them in only special instances. This does not take away from the fact he lived a human life and willingly encountered human limitations. Even the kenotic view must acknowledge that Jesus both addressed His own authority and performed several miracles aside from the ones in which He engaged the Holy Spirit. The fully human and fully God Jesus was both sufficient to die for sins and resurrect for atonement. Jesus was a servant and the Savior for all mankind.




[1] John 1:1-2. NIV.

[2] John 1:14.

[3] Leon Morris, Jesus is the Christ: Studies in the Theology of John, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012): p. 63.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Elmer Towns, John: Believe and Live, (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2002): p. 124.

[6] Leon Morris, Jesus is the Christ: Studies in the Theology of John: p. 63.

[7] Leon Morris, Jesus is the Christ: Studies in the Theology of John: p. 64.

[8] Elmer Towns, Theology for Today, (Mason, OH: Cengage Learning, 2008): p. 155.

[9] ESV.

[10] Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology 2nd ed., (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001): p. 239.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Elmer Towns, Theology for Today: p. 191.

[13] Gary M. Burge and Andrew E. Hill. The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2012): p. 1383.

[14] Ibid.

[15] John F. Walvoord, Jesus Christ Our Lord, (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1969): p. 143.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] John F. Walvoord, Jesus Christ Our Lord: pp. 143-144.

[20] John F. Walvoord, Jesus Christ Our Lord: p. 144.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Elmer Towns, Theology for Today: p. 192.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Elmer Towns, Theology for Today: pp. 192-193.

[27] Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy.  Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology.  2d ed.  (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009): p. 118.

[28] Gregory A. Boyd and Paul R. Eddy.  Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology: p. 120.

[29] Elmer Towns, Theology for Today: p. 193.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd ed., (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008): pp. 324-325.

[33] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics: p. 325.

[34] Leon Morris, Jesus is the Christ: Studies in the Theology of John: p. 142.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ed Hindson and Ergun Caner, The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics, (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2008): p. 143.

[37] H. Wayne House and Dennis W. Jowers,  Reasons for Our Hope: An Introduction to Christian Apologetics, (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2011): p. 135

[38] Matthew 22:45, Luke 20:44, Mark 12:37.

[39] H. Wayne House and Dennis W. Jowers, Reasons for Our Hope: An Introduction to Christian Apologetics: p. 135.


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My name is Charlie Tinsley and I blog about The Bible. I post theology and have leaned towards an emphasis on domestic violence and forgiveness. I serve as Ambassador for the state of Virginia in the National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse. I hold a Masters of Divinity from Eastern Mennonite Seminary and Bachelors Degree in Science in Religion Summa Cum Laude with a Biblical Studies Minor from Liberty University. I have studied in the two “major fields” of theological thought. I am married and have been for several years and I currently reside in Virginia.

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