But when he “emptied himself by taking the form of a servant” and “being found in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:7-8) he voluntarily suspended the use or exercise of those divine attributes that would have made it impossible for him to live a genuinely human life. He didn’t forsake such attributes as omniscience and omnipotence, but for the time of his earthly sojourn chose not to avail himself of their power or to conduct himself on the basis of their conscious operation in his life.
Some have misinterpreted and misapplied this text as if it spoke of cosmic level spiritual warfare (i.e., territorial demons). “Strongholds” and every “lofty thing” (NASB) have been taken as referring to demonic spirits who have been assigned by Satan to specific territorial or geographic regions. We then, according to this view, are called to identify, engage, and, as it were, pull them down (ostensibly through prayer, fasting, proclamation, etc.). But the enemies in view are ideas and arguments and philosophies and excuses that are antithetical to the kingdom and glory of God. This isn’t to pass judgment on whether there are territorial spirits, but simply to point out that this isn’t what Paul had in mind when he penned this passage.
This text does not assert that the eternal Son of God gave up or surrendered any attributes of deity. Jesus “emptied” himself by becoming a man, not by ceasing to be God.
We now come to the all important statement in v. 7 that the Son “emptied himself” (NASB) or “made himself of no reputation” (KJV) or “made himself nothing” (ESV).
The verb used is kenoo, and is found in the NT only in Paul’s writings: Romans 4:14; 1 Cor. 1:7; 9:15; 2 Cor. 9:3; and here in Phil. 2:7. A crassly literal rendering, “to empty,” (as is found in the NASB), inclines us to ask the question: “Of what did Christ empty himself?” In spite of the fact that the “it” or “content” of which Christ allegedly “emptied himself” is nowhere stated in the text, many have insisted on supplying an answer.
The argument has often been made that he emptied himself of the divine nature or the “form of God” (v. 6). Others point to his position or status of “equality with God” (v. 6) as the content of which he emptied himself. H. A. W. Meyer, for example, writes: “Christ emptied himself, and that, as the context places beyond doubt, of the divine morphe, which he possessed, but now exchanged for a morphe doulou” (88).
The theological implications of such a view must be noted. It would mean that by virtue of the incarnation, the second person of the Trinity ceased to be God. This view, known in history as the doctrine of Kenosis (hence Kenotic Christology), entails a form of divine suicide. More on this below.
A slight variation (and, in my opinion, improvement) on the Kenosis doctrine is the assertion that it was the “glory” or doxa of God of which he emptied himself. I.e., the Son divested himself of the visible splendor and outward radiance of deity by clothing himself with human flesh. He remained God, but the glory of his deity was obscured and hidden “by the dark lantern of His humanity” (Taylor).
Clearly, however, Paul intends us to interpret this verb in precisely the way he uses it elsewhere in his epistles. In each of the other texts the meaning is “to make void,” “to render of no effect,” “to nullify,” “to despoil,” “to make of no reputation,” or the like. The point of the word is not to specify some content of deity or divine glory of which Christ emptied or divested himself. Rather, it is designed to emphasize the radical and far-reaching dimensions of his self-renunication.
Again, not surprisingly (if we keep in mind the crucial role of context), the meaning of this verb is in vv. 7-8. He “emptied himself” by taking the form of a bond servant and by being made in the likeness of men and by being found in appearance as a man. In other words, Christ did not divest himself of any divine attributes or in any sense become less than God. Rather, Christ “emptied” himself, paradoxically, by taking something to himself. Simply put:
THE INCARNATION IS THE KENOSIS!
That which constitutes the self-renunciation or self-emptying of Christ is the assumption of human nature. The second person of the Trinity “made himself of no reputation,” not by ceasing to be God, but by becoming man!
You’ve probably never heard of “Scythia,” but that was the name given by the Greeks and Romans to the lands between the Black Sea and the Volga basin. In 465 a.d. a man was born there by the name of “Dionysius”, the ancient form of Dennis. In order to distinguish himself from all the other Dennis’s of his day, he took the additional name of “Exiguus”, which means “small” or “insignificant”. Dennis the Small, as we shall affectionately call him, became a monk. At the age of 35 he traveled to Rome and soon became one of the most influential figures in world history. If you’ve ever wondered who created our calendar, the one that everybody has gone nuts over these past few weeks and months because of the arrival of the year 2,000, it was Dennis. But bless his heart, he got it wrong! Certainly we should honor Dennis/Dionysius for his desire to structure history and the way we mark time by the coming of Jesus. Jesus is, after all, the Lord of history. But the fact remains, he got it wrong!
In the first place, Herod the Great, the king who was responsible for the slaughter of the innocent male children in his ill-fated attempt to kill the baby Jesus, was himself born in 73 b.c. He was named king of Judea by the Roman Senate in 40 b.c. In his final years he suffered from paranoia, as well as sin! He murdered his wife and at least two of his sons. By all accounts, Herod died in 4 b.c. Therefore, Jesus must have been born sometime in either 5 b.c. or 4 b.c., according to the reckoning of the calendar that Dennis the Small created. What that means, as noted earlier, is that if you wanted to celebrate the 2,000th birthday of Jesus, you’re 4-5 years late! Sorry.
Another point to remember is that when Dennis proposed his calendar for the western world he didn’t designate January 1st as New Year’s Day. Neither did he select December 25th. Rather, he went back nine months from Christmas to the day when Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary. New Year’s Day for Dennis, therefore, was March 25th, known to the church ever since as the Feast of Annunciation. It is called that because the angel Gabriel “announced” to Mary that she was to be the mother of the Messiah (see Luke 1). In fact, March 25th was observed as New Year’s Day for nearly 1,000 years until Pope Gregory XIII changed the calendar in 1582 to make it January 1st.
Although our (so-called Gregorian) calendar is now the standard civil calendar used throughout the world, a variety of religious groups have adopted their own. For example, our year 2000 on the Christian calendar is the year 5760/5761 in the Hebrew calendar, 1420/1421 in the Islamic calendar, 4698 in the Chinese calendar (the Year of the Dragon!), 1716 in the Coptic calendar, and 2544 in the Buddhist calendar!
It’s possible for two people to have radically different ideas about someone but still to be referring to the same person. Someone who talks to Superman is talking to the same person a co-worker of Clark Kent talks to, though the latter has no notion of Kent’s superhero identity. In the same way, Muslims and Christians have different ideas about God but nonetheless worship the same God.
But this argument is question-begging. The analogy assumes there is one being, the same being, with whom Muslims and Christians are both in contact, even if they don’t realize it. But isn’t that exactly what was supposed to be proved? At most, the Clark Kent/Superman analogy shows there are possible situations in which persons can have radically different ideas about someone with whom they are both in contact. In some cases, radically different ideas may still mean the two persons are referring to the same being, but in other cases they will not. It’s not a trivial thing to conclude two groups are referring to the same entity when there’s plenty of reason otherwise.
Why should we think Christians and Muslims are like the acquaintances of Superman and Clark Kent? After all, Christians presumably don’t believe most Muslims, when praying to Allah, are experiencing real contact with the one true God. And Christians definitely shouldn’t believe Mohammad had a genuine encounter with God that led him to found Islam. The Clark Kent/Superman analogy, then, doesn’t contain any special insight requiring us to believe Muslims and Christians worship the same God.
The love of God, writes Charles Hodge, “does not descend upon us as dew drops, but as a stream which spreads itself abroad through the whole soul, filling it with the consciousness of his presence and favour.” God wants your heart to be inundated by wave after wave of His Fatherly affection, so effusively poured out that you feel compelled to request that He pull back lest you drown is His passion! Paul is not talking “of faint and fitful impressions,” says Packer, “but of deep and overwhelming ones.”
The famous evangelist Dwight L. Moody (1837-99) knew precisely what Paul meant. Moody was always reluctant to speak of what occurred, but conceded to give the following brief account:
“. . . one day, in the city of New York — oh, what a day! — I can’t describe it, I seldom refer to it; it is almost too sacred an experience to name . . . . I can only say that God revealed himself to me, and I had such an experience of his love that I had to ask him to stay his hand. I went to preaching again. The sermons were not different; I did not present any new truths, and yet hundreds were converted. I would not now be placed back where I was before that blessed experience if you should give me all the world — it would be small dust in the balance.”