Examining the “Emptying” of Christ in Philippians 2

Friday is for Heart Songs

A Brief Exposition of Philippians 2:5-9

Peter was right.  The apostle Paul’s letters are filled with “things hard to understand![1]  If only Paul were walking the face of the earth today and could see the confusion his writings engender. 

Perhaps no single passage of Paul is more controversial than the famous, (infamous?) Philippine 2:5-9.  What did Paul mean when he said that Christ “emptied Himself?”  Does that mean that He wasn’t really God?  How “empty” could Christ be; 20%, 40%, 80%, and still be God?  Does “empty” mean that Jesus was God sometimes and not others?  What does “emptied Himself” mean?

These are thoughtful questions deserving intelligent, biblical answers. Indeed, the apostle Peter hints that Paul can only be understood by the reverent mind. Peter says that the “untaught and unstable distort” the meaning of Paul’s letters. The implication is that those who do not fit into those categories will be unable to understand as the Spirit teaches.  This echoes the apostle’s consistent teaching. For example in 2 Timothy 2:7 Paul urges Timothy to rely on the Spirit’s illumination of truth as he considers the words of Paul. “Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this.” [2]

DEFINING THE SOURCE OF THE PROBLEM

The controversy over the meaning of these much-disputed verses centers on three important phrases:          

Being in the form of God (v 6)
Did not regard equality with God (v 6)
Emptied himself (v 7)

While other problems and points of clarification are necessary, it is clear that these three terms exist as locks on the door that must be entered if we are to understand Paul’s Christology.[3]

BEING IN THE FORM OF GOD (v 6)

The most important word in this phrase is the word “form.”  When Paul sat down to write his letter to the Philippians, he had two words to choose from in this context, morphe and schemaSchema is often translated by the word “fashion.”  Its usage suggests something changeable or unsubstantial[4] in the sense that what is seen does not “tell the whole story.”  In other words, there is more here than meets the eye.  Paul uses this word in verse eight:  “BEING FOUND IN THE APPEARANCE (schema/fashion) AS A MAN.”[5]

The other word available to Paul, morphe is used in verse six; “WHO ALTHOUGH HE EXISTED IN THE FORM (morphe) OF GOD.”  “Consistently, in ancient Greek literature, morphe means the manifestation of an internal reality.”[6]  That Paul would use morphe here is worthy of note.  Used in this context the phrase can only mean that Christ existed in the flesh as God. 

This is key to our understanding.  No other interpretive options are available.  Although to all outward appearances (schema / fashion or appearance), He was a man (v 8), internally, beyond what one saw with the naked eye, He was (morphe) fully God.  Thus, one of the locks on our imaginary door is unlocked.

DID NOT REGARD EQUALITY WITH GOD (v 6)

It is interesting to survey the various renderings of this phrase in modern English translations.  The King James Version is “THOUGHT IT NOT ROBBERY TO BE EQUAL WITH GOD.”  Today, the word “robbery” is inappropriate and confusing.  More clear is the NIV, “DID NOT CONSIDER EQUALITY WITH GOD SOMETHING TO BE GRASPED.”  The NEB renders the phrase with “DID NOT THINK TO SNATCH AT EQUALITY WITH GOD.”  But perhaps the clearest of all is the Phillips translation, “he did NOT CLING TO HIS PREROGATIVES AS GOD’S EQUAL.”  It is this last rendering that we will see comes closest to explaining Paul’s meaning.

The meaning of this phrase is made clear by the prior phrase.  We have already seen that Paul clearly states that Jesus is God.  The reason he did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped was because He was already God.  Divinity was not something He had to strive for, it was something He was, intrinsically in His essence. 

The way that Christ demonstrated His humility was by “not clinging to His prerogatives as God.” (Phillips)  Thus Christ retained His deity but did not (voluntarily) exercise all of His powers which though unexercised, nevertheless remained His. 

EMPTIED HIMSELF (v 7)

It has become fashionable for some theologians to camp on this phrase and attempt to prove that Christ was not God.  “If Christ emptied Himself”  the argument goes, “then He could no longer be fully God.  Just as a glass of water when emptied is only a glass, so Jesus when emptied was only a man.”  Unfortunately, those who hold this view ignore the context and grammar of the passage.  “Linguistically, the self-emptying is to be interpreted in light of the words which immediately follow.”[7]

These phrases interpret the words in question and actually would be better understood as a parenthetical explanatory clause.  Thus, the emptying of Christ had three “stages” to it:

First:      the taking of the form of a bondservant  (v 7)
Second:  being made in the likeness of men (v 7) and
Third:    being found in the appearance of men  (v 8)

None of these stages has anything to do with what Christ was intrinsically (morphe) in his nature.  Each of them, however, does have to do with how He appeared (schema) among men.  Thus, in verse 8 Paul uses the word schema, to describe how Christ appeared to men.  He took the role of a bondservant rather than acting in the role of His divine glory.  He was made in the likeness of men, experiencing human birth and acting as a slave rather than Lord of all.  And lastly, He was found by other men to be human, no golden halo or stately manner that distinguished Him as different.  To a physical appearances and descriptions He who was fully God was also fully man.  And as a man he had to be born, have a childhood, adolescence, young adulthood.  He grew tired, had to sleep and eat like other men and bled when He was cruelly treated by Roman soldiers.  Phillips rendering is again helpful, “BY CONSENTING TO BE A SLAVE BY NATURE AND BEING BORN AS A MORTAL MAN.  AND HAVING BECOME A MAN, HE HUMBLED HIMSELF.”

CONCLUSION

When we put all these things together, it becomes clear that this mysterious passage of Scripture, perhaps the very first Christian hymn, is not that mysterious after all.  At least, what Paul is proclaiming is not a mystery. Opening the door of Philippians 2:5-9 we can now see:

  • Paul clearly calls Jesus God
  • Paul clearly states that God became man
  • That when God became a man He remained fully Divine.
  • That the “emptying” of Christ refers to the humiliation of Christ and not any loss or diminishing of His deity.
  • That the “emptying” refers to Christ’s voluntary decision to “not cling to His prerogatives as God’s equal” (cf. Phillips)

In short, a simple definition of the Kenosis of Christ is:  THE VOLUNTARY EXCHANGE OF HIS GLORY FOR THE ROLE OF A SERVANT, AND RETAINING ALL THE POWERS OF  DEITY.

What an incredibly marvelous God we serve.  What stupendous truth to proclaim.  God, the creator of the universe, the one who holds the world together by His mighty word, the God who flung galaxies into space and causes oaks to grow from acorns–this God is the God who became a man so that Paul could write “God demonstrated His love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8).  “Wonderful Counselor, Might God, Everlasting Father, Price of Peace” — this is the God we love and who loves us! What a wonder, what a joy!!


      [1]2 Peter 3:16 (NASB).

      [2]The New International Version, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House) 1984.

      [3]While this passage has immense Christological significance we must not look past the fact that Paul’s purpose was practical to the Christian life.  He used the example of Christ “to persuade…the Philippians to live a life in which disunity, discord and personal ambition were dead.”  (BARCLAY) In New Bible Dictionary, p.687.

      [4]From an uncopyrighted article by John H. Mulholland, ThD. Professor of Systematic Theology, Capital Bible Seminary, Lanham, MD.

      [5]Ibid., cf. also Vines Expository Dictionary.

      [6]Ibid., cf. also Bauer, Ardnt & Gingrich

      [7]New Bible Commentary, p.689

Marty Schoenleber, Jr. is the founding pastor of one church, the interim pastor of another and the church planting trainer/mentor of over 200 other church planting pastors. He is adjunct professor of Church Planting at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and has taught Preaching at the International School of Theology, and Evangelism at Moody Graduate School of Theology. He is also the Director of the Saint John’s Pastoral Center, a pastoral care and retreat center located in a growing number of Bed and Breakfast houses across the mid-west. Marty also serves the Southeast District of the Evangelical Free Church as a Church Planting missionary consultant. His latest book is Picking a President: Or Any Other Elected Official (CrossBooks, [late May 2012]). To enjoy a free subscription to his blog, log-on to www.chosenrebel.wordpress.com, where you can post your comments, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest reflections on church planting, Biblical Expositions and musings about church, culture and spiritual formation. Follow Pastor Marty on twitter @1Chosenrebel4JC.

One thought on “Examining the “Emptying” of Christ in Philippians 2

  1. true that Paul’s letters were difficult such that others interpreted them to their deterriment. This is where all of us have to be careful and not think that we are part of those that misinterpreted paul’s letters wrongly. I could be one of them or anyone reading this comment. It is important to look at the Greek and Hebrew scriptures to compare some of the words carrying vital meanings as interpretations lose meanings. For instance, John 1:1 in English states “In the Beiginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God”. In the original language, it says “In the beggining was the Word (Logos) and the Word (Logos) was with God (Ton Theon) and the Word (Logos) was God (Theos).” The Father is referred to as Ton Theon and can also be Theos, but the Word (Logos) is referred to as Theos which is a general terms for any God.

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