The Kenosis Conundrum

Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to hold onto.  Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men” (Php. 2:5-7).

When Paul says Jesus emptied Himself, what does he mean?  Debates about this center on the Greek word kenaoh (kenosis is the noun form), a word whose meanings include “empty,” “make void,” and “make of no effect.”  But what does that mean when it comes to Jesus becoming human?

Some have gone so far as to say that Jesus ceased being God when He became man.  He emptied Himself of divine power, attributes, etc.  When Jesus did miracles, He was completely human but trusted God perfectly.

Moderates might say Jesus gave up knowing everything and being everywhere at once, states that are natural to God.  But He did not give up being all-powerful.  Jesus lived with the limits of a human mind and physical body, but could raise the dead or command storms to be still.  These things He did as God and not as a human being.

At another extreme are those that believe Jesus gave up nothing except the form of God (pure spirit).  He accepted the limits of a physical body but remained all powerful, all knowing, and the rest.

These views all have merits and faults.  But they might all miss the point.  As I have processed kenosis, Christ’s emptying of Himself, I have concluded it has little to do with any ratio of God to human.

Consider these verses from John together:

“So the things that I speak, I speak just as the Father has told Me.” (John 12:50).

“For He will not speak on His own, but He will speak whatever He hears” (John 16:13). 

The first verse is Jesus speaking of Himself.  He doesn’t speak on His own; He only speaks what the Father tells Him.  The second verse is about the Spirit.  Like Jesus, the Spirit doesn’t speak on His own, but only what He hears.

Whenever Jesus limits Himself in the gospels, we assume it’s because of His humanity and some version of kenosis.  But the Spirit was never human.  We can’t explain His self-limitation that way.  Perhaps Jesus’s limits have nothing to do with His humanity either.  Perhaps kenosis, or the emptying of self, is simply how God functions.

What do I mean?  Simply this: each member of God—Father, Son, and Spirit—is continually emptying Himself so that another member can fill Him.  No member of the trinity functions based on His own power or prerogative as God.  Instead, there is a dynamic of perpetual selflessness.  This isn’t the same as unselfishness.  It is to say that self is never the motivation or source of any member within God.  

Jesus described this same dynamic in John 5:19–“I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing out from Himself.  He can only do what He sees the Father doing.” When Jesus says He can do nothing out from Himself, we wrongly assume He is talking about being human. In fact, He is describing the divine nature and how it operates.  

Viewed from this perspective, the verses in Philippians two take on new meaning.  When Jesus emptied Himself to become human, He was functioning the way He always had in relationship to the Father and the Spirit.  He was emptying Himself to be filled and empowered by another member. The only difference was He had a physical body.  I don’t mean to make that sound like a small change.  It was monumental.  I’m just saying that emptying Himself to become human fit perfectly with the divine logic Jesus was already flowing in. 

This is the divine dynamic every Christian is called to.  Jesus put it this way: “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 9:23).  Jesus leads us into God’s way of functioning—kenosis.  If we follow Him into God’s way of functioning, we must deny self by definition, just as every member of the Godhead does.  As we learn kenosis as a lifestyle, we will also see God pour His life and power into us.  In this way, we will be one, even as they are one (John 17:21).

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Dennis M Patrick says:

    Teague, this illuminates the dynamic of “Christ in you.” Good explanation.

    1. mrteague says:

      Amen, thanks 🙂

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