He Emptied Himself

Philippians 2:6-11

The glory of God fills the universe.  He is awesome and overwhelming.   Solomon knows that the newly constructed temple cannot contain him.  Even the universe is a container too small for Him.  This sovereign being, we call God, is so energized and so active that he cannot be localized anywhere.  And that is where the message of the 39 books of the Old Testament leave the matter.

But then the New Testament message begins with a stunning message.  They tell the story of how the great and glorious God chose to be compressed into a child!!  The infinite God, whom the universe cannot contain constricted himself into the womb of a teenage girl called Mary.

But that entire idea is flabbergasting.  It boggles the brain to even think that.  It is a thing hard to comprehend, and more difficult to believe.  In fact, when this message was delivered to the ancient world, it was too much to take in.  They said to the early church, “No way! You have misunderstood it.  It could not have happened that way at all.”

Early understandings

So new attempts were made to try to understand what really happened at Bethlehem.  The question persisted, “Who or what was this man Jesus?”

One of the early versions said, “God did not descend to our world and become a man.  It was the reverse.   Jesus was such a good man, that those who knew him best exaggerated his importance. In their minds, he was more than just one of the many sons and daughters of God, like you and me, he was the unique Son of God, and by the end of the first century when the Gospel according to John is written, this process has finally made him into God Himself.” This view point said, that Jesus was just a really good man.  That’s all.  After that mythology took over.  He is 100% man.  He is not God at all.

There was a fine tuning of that opinion by others. They said, “He was just a man.  But he was a very good man.  And God noticed his goodness, and adopted Him as his own Son, and promoted him to a special place, and when he died God took him to heaven and granted to this incredibly good man, a seat beside Himself.  Jesus was a man that God promoted to divine status.

There arose another view point during these early years of the Christian Church.  They said that he was not really God and he wasn’t really a man.  He was an angelic being, like Gabriel or the archangel Michael.  He was an angel, a messenger from God, to tell us what God was really like.  But he was not God.  He only seemed to be.  Neither was he a man, he only seemed to be.  He was the one whom the Old Testament called “The angel of the Lord”, the Prince of all the angels, the good equivalent of evil Lucifer the Prince of darkness.  Jesus was only an angel, though a very important one.

Others in that ancient audience wanted to offer a different solution to the question. They said “He was God inside a human body.  God used a body to disguise Himself so He could travel incognito. At the baptism of Jesus, God invaded the body of this good man.  So Jesus was God inside a human body, but he was not really a human being.  He only looked like he was. Jesus was a man “possessed”, not be an evil spirit, but by the divine spirit.

The Response of the Church

The early leaders of the Christian church gave their response to each of these ideas, with a resounding “No Way!”   They understood that the truth was too astounding to be true, except – it was true.  Jesus was not just a man.  He was not merely an angel.  He was not just God in a disguise.  In some unfathomable way, God became man, and the church says without apology, He was 100% God and 100% man.  He was “very God of very God and very man of very man.”  In the person of Jesus, God and Man were One.  Were united so inextricable that Jesus was both divine and human.  If I could use a very poor metaphor, Jesus was Son of God and Son of man in a similar way that I am the son of my mother and the son of my father, and there is no contradiction in that dual truth.

But the church wants to add something more to the truth that Jesus was the God-man. They say without equivocation that God was made man, that God came from the beyondness of our life, and became part of our life. They said that God, who had inhabited eternity, came to live down the street from where we lived.  God had decided to tip the whole evolution of the human race in a brand new direction.  So He came to live and die among people like us.

Philippians 2

Paul wrote a letter to the church in Philippi.  He wrote this letter about 30 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. But part of what we read, as far as we can tell, was not written by Paul himself.  You will notice in recent translations of the Bible that part of that passage is in poetry.  Paul is quoting from one of the hymns of the early church to get his point over.  We do not know how early this hymn was written, but the best guesses are that by Paul’s day it had become part of the hymnody of the day.  And this early Hymn is already telling the story of the what the church has called “the incarnation of God”, the time when God became man.  Let me read to you again just the first stanza of this ancient Hymn.

Though He was in essence God
He did not regard equality with God
something to be held on to,
But instead, He emptied Himself
taking the form of a servant,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
He humbled himself further
and became obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.

The passage is clear, the One who was Divine, put aside his powers, and emptied himself of his divine abilities and became a human being.

He Emptied Himself: 

Now there has been a 2,000 year-long debate over the words “He emptied Himself.”  The question has been “How much of his divine nature did he put aside in becoming a man?”

Some have said “only the glory of God” and even that was only suppressed, but shone through on innumerable occasions. That may be why some translated the Greek word “kenosis” as “he humbled himself” putting aside his glory.

Others said he emptied himself of the glory and the divine abilities of being all-powerful, and all-knowing and everywhere present.

Others said He emptied himself of the divine glory, the divine powers, the free exercise of his divine rights and even his self-identity for the first 30 years of his life.  Some think he may have had amnesia as to his true identity until the words at his baptism informed him of his true identity.

Charles Wesley, the hymn writer, goes even further in one of his hymns: “He emptied Himself of all but Love, and bled for Adam’s helpless race.” One of my old professors once said in class, “he is the incarnation of the love of God!”

If the truth be told we do not know the answer to the question, “Of what did He empty Himself when God became man?”  Except perhaps for this answer: “He divested himself of anything that would have prevented him from becoming fully human.”

But as this hymn progresses we are told that he not only emptied Himself in order to become a man.  He went even further and emptied himself to become a poor man.  Part of the underclass of his day; part of the working poor, the servant class, not the nobility.  But the hymn says he went even further.  He emptied himself further to become a dead-man walking.  He humbled himself to the point of death.  But even that was not the end.  He humbled himself to undergo the death of a criminal.   Stunning!  The Great and Mighty God constricted to a womb at Bethlehem. Confined to a 30-year experience of poverty, and crucified on a cross intended only for the worst villains.

No wonder the ancient and modern world has tried to come up with alternate ideas.  The real one is unbelievable.  That God should do that is incredible.  But, the Church said, that is the way it happened.  Who would have thought that God was like that!

In one of his earlier writings, Paul had written the same idea.  He writes to the church in Corinth, “You know the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that through his poverty we might be rich.”

Why would God do this?

The incarnation took place, not only in history 2,000 years ago.  It was also the acted-out parable of the teaching God.   He is the God who shares our life with us.

  • In our joys, he rejoices.
  • In our pain, he participates as co-sufferer.
  • In our birth, and childhood, and teen years, in our vocational choices, and in our deaths, he is a participant with us.
  • In the temptations we face, he is no stranger.
  • In the tiredness of our days, he is not aloof.
  • In our death, he says, “today you will be with me in paradise!”

The coming of Jesus was “Emmanuel” – “God with us”.  God Himself is with us, in every event of life and death, for the Holy One of Israel could never be an absentee landlord, too grand and great to be bothered with our minuscule lives.  If the whole truth be known, there is nothing that God would not give up to save us from our worst selves.  So he emptied himself, that we might be full and overflowing. Thanks be to God!