“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus,
who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery [as something to be held onto] to be equal with God,
but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men.
And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. [Philippians 2:5-8]*
This is the $1,000,000 question: What were the nature and extent of Christ emptying Himself? Now, let me be clear on one thing: our salvation is not dependent upon getting the “right” answer. I’m not even sure we can fully comprehend it ourselves. I know I don’t; but I think to struggle through to some sort of understanding helps to appreciate His Person and the work He accomplished on the cross for His elect.
According to the article in the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, there are five possible interpretations of this emptying: (1) Christ gave up all divine attributes and thus ceased all cosmic functions and divine consciousness. (2) Christ did not give up His essential attributes, but only His relative attributes. (3) Christ gave up no powers as Deity, but only the independent exercise of those powers. (4) His humanity was such that Christ did not exercise His divine powers at all. (5) The divine nature united with His humanity only gradually, and His full Deity was consummated only at the resurrection. (III:784)
I think we can dismiss interpretation #5 as not being defensible from Scripture. The Scripture references to the Incarnation (Luke 1:30-35; John 1:1-4, 14; 8:58; 10:30; Colossians 1:19; 2:9), while not explicit on the issue at hand, do not, by direct statement or necessary inference, make any mention of the hypostatic union of Christ’s two natures. The verb tenses suggest, however, that this union existed from the conception. While Luke 2:52 could be suggested as possible proof of the point, I believe that is a stretch since no reference is made to His divine nature and an argument from silence is not a good procedural method for theology. At the same time, it is an argument from silence to assert the converse since there is no evidence by either direct statement or necessary inference that the two natures merged gradually. In other words, both the affirmation and the denial of this interpretation are both highly speculative–which is reason enough to dismiss it from consideration as even being relevant.
Interpretation #4 also is an indefensible position from Scripture. While it could be argued from passages such as John 5:19, 30; 6:38; 8:28; 12:49; Acts 10:38, that because Jesus did not act on His own initiative, He did not possess divine power, that is reading more into the text than is actually there. Moreover, such a position ignores other passages in which show the miracles which Christ performed were to establish proof of His power [John 5:21, 26] and identity. One incident which surely establishes His identity occurred early in His ministry:
Now when He got into a boat, His disciples followed Him.
And suddenly a great tempest arose on the sea, so that the boat was covered with the waves. But He was asleep.
Then His disciples came to Him and awoke Him, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!”
But He said to them, “Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?” Then He arose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm.
So the men marveled, saying, “Who can this be, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?” [Matthew 8:23-27]
In the Old Testament, this kind of power is ascribed only to God [Psalm 29:3-4; 65:7; 89:9; 93:4; 107:25-29]. To say that Jesus never exercised any divine power is to deny the testimony of Scripture. At the same time, being honest with the text means we must acknowledge that any display of divine power by Jesus was done in congruence with the will of the Father.
Interpretation #3 comes closer to the mark, but still misses the mark. As shall be explained, something occurred in the Incarnation which changed the Godhead.
Interpretation #1 also misses the mark because the testimony of Scripture shows Christ had full consciousness of His identity and nature: Matthew 17:5; Mark 2:3-12; 14:61-62; Luke 2:48-49; John 5:17-18, 22-23, 26; 8:58; 10:30; 14:1, 7, 9; 17:5; 20:28-29.
By process of elimination, interpretation #2 appears to be the best explanation of the emptying which occurred in the Incarnation: that Christ did not empty Himself of His essential attributes (Truth, Life, Holiness), but His relative attributes (omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence). That Christ emptied Himself of these attributes is evidenced from passages such as Mark 13:32, when He stated that at that time He did not know when His coming in power and glory to judge and rule would take place.
But the Incarnation shows another aspect of the Kenosis: while the laying aside of His divine prerogatives and attributes was temporary in many respects, in other key aspects, the Kenosis changed not just our relationship with God, but the Godhead itself. The second Person of the Trinity, at the Incarnation, forever surrendered and laid aside His omnipresence. At the moment of conception, He became limited in time and space to a physical body. Although that body is now glorified and no longer subject to the physical processes of aging and decay, He is still limited to a body.
And because of the Incarnation, the immutable Godhead changed from an incorporeal Trinity to a Trinity in which one Person from that moment on would be corporeal: God Incarnate.
So, as we enter into the season preceding the observance of the passion of Christ and His suffering, death, and resurrection, let us remember what He emptied Himself of to secure our redemption.
* Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptures are from the New King James Version. Copyright ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.