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Christ 'emptying himself' is a neglected doctrine. We must reclaim it this Easter
The Bible contains many different metaphors that explain what Jesus achieved on the cross. But David Instone-Brewer says this doctrine is special
If you want to bring a misty-eyed contemplative smile to a Christian from the Orthodox Church, mention the theology of kenosis – Christ “emptying” himself. The doctrine is found in Philippians 2:6-11 where Paul writes that Jesus “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” (ESV).
This is a source of wonder and worship to believers from this tradition because they regard it as not only the way of salvation but also a guide to the Christian life. It has become the centre and focus of their Christian faith, while the rest of us have more or less ignored it.
Some charismatic theologians have recently picked up this doctrine to help us understand that the Holy Spirit works within us just as he worked within Jesus. Christ said that ordinary believers would be able to “do the works I have been doing” (John 14:12) – which would be an exaggerated promise if he was a super-being. But the kenosis doctrine reminds us that although Jesus was God, he really did empty himself of his omnipotence and omniscience.
For example, Jesus didn’t know when he would return (Matthew 24:36), and it was the Holy Spirit who gave Jesus supernatural knowledge (Mark 2:8), and the power to do miracles (Matthew 12:28; Luke 4:14,18). Crucially, he also had to resist temptation (Luke 4:1; Hebrews 4:15). As Charles Wesley wrote: “he emptied himself of all but love”.
It really happened
This is undoubtedly a special and neglected doctrine, but why does the Orthodox Church give it such significance, regarding it as more precious than other ways of considering the cross? What about Jesus as a sacrifice, or Jesus paying for our sin, or bearing the punishment for our sins? Aren’t they just as important, if not more so?
Actually, there’s one fundamental difference between Christ “emptying himself” and these other descriptions: Paul described it as something that actually happened, whereas the other ways of considering the cross are given to us through metaphors or pictures of what happened.
Jesus’ death can be likened to a sin offering in that it dealt with sin. But it was also totally unlike a sin offering. Animals killed in the temple were killed in a way designed to minimise pain by slitting an artery just under the skin so that they would quietly lose consciousness. And the blood was all poured away – it wasn’t left to accumulate in the lower part of the body, as in crucifixion. Also, sin offerings were eaten by priests or burned – they weren’t hung up and then buried.
Although Jesus was God, he really did empty himself
Moreover, Jesus’ death for our sins can be likened to a payment because God’s gift of his Son was precious. But no payment was made to anyone, and sins can’t be dealt with by fines. His death can also be likened to taking our punishment for sin. But sin isn’t punished by death – death is a consequence. Sin is punished in hell, and Jesus didn’t suffer in hell.
We aren’t told exactly how Jesus’ death removed our sins – presumably because we wouldn’t be able to fully comprehend – but we are able to understand these pictures, which is why they are so precious to us.
In contrast, the kenosis, the “emptying” of Christ’s glory, is not just a metaphor or representation – but a report of something that happened as described: Jesus did have glory in heaven, which he gave up. We can, perhaps, imagine the humiliation of becoming a spider and having to live in drains and feed on flies, but Jesus descended far more than that. He became like a “slave” (doulous in Philippians 2:7). Most Bibles translate this as “servant” out of respect, but the Greek word refers to individuals who could be legally bought and sold. Jesus wasn’t born a slave, but he let himself be treated like one, because only slaves could be crucified.
A strange term
Jesus regarded this terrible death as the height of his glory on earth. In John 12, he announced: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (v23). Then he said: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (v32) – which clearly refers to the cross. Jesus emptied himself of heavenly glory for the ‘glory’ of the cross.
We may not understand the extent of his heavenly glory, but we can see the extent of Jesus’ humiliation. ‘Humiliation’, though, is the wrong word, because that implies something done to you, whereas Jesus did this to himself. The words “emptied himself” are so strange that it actually sounds wrong in Greek. The Greek verb keno, translated here as “empty”, means to be deprived, wasted, stripped of honours or respect, fruitless, destitute, bereft.
A daily commitment
I can understand why Orthodox believers have recognised something special in this doctrine. If Jesus emptied himself prior to being exalted through resurrection back to the throne of heaven, he provides us with a pattern we can follow.
We can’t emulate Jesus in being crucified for the sins of the world, but we can emulate his emptying, debasement and suffering. In fact, Jesus invites us to follow him down this road: “anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me” (John 12:25-26). Following him with our cross is an attitude of life, not a manner of death, because he says it is something we do “daily” (Luke 9:23).
The pull of worldly glory is strong. Even many of the monastic movements that were inspired by the doctrine of kenosis succumbed to the lure of privilege and riches. But you don’t need to hide away from the world in order to reject its glory.
Anyone can decide to live in humility and in hope of future glory. Sadly, we have got so used to ignoring this precious calling that we end up living as though health and fortune or fame in this life is our goal. But rather than stocking up with perishables, whose best-by date will soon expire, we can, like Christ, gain real wealth and glory: we have the privilege of following Jesus’ example and the joy of an eternity with him.
David Instone-Brewer is senior research fellow in Rabbinics and New Testament at Tyndale House, Cambridge