The wonder of Christmas is Immanuel: God with us. The God who eternally exists as Father, Son, and Spirit came to us at Christmas in the person of the Son. “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things” (Heb. 2:14). We call this the incarnation, from the Latin “carn-” for “flesh” (think “carnal,” which can be used in the simple sense of “human” or “embodied”). The eternal Word took on a concrete human nature, body and soul, and dwelled among us (Jn. 1:14).
The more that one meditates on the gulf between the transcendent Creator and his human creatures—frail children of dust and feeble as frail—the more wondrous Christmas appears. “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh” (1 Tim. 3:16). Most of what Christian theology has to say about the incarnation of the Word is intended to guard against two equal but opposite errors in apprehending this great mystery.
On the one hand, some view the incarnation in a way that obscures the full humanity of Jesus. It seems harmless to sing, “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes,” but it may reflect our tendency to “elevate” Christ by diminishing his humanness. The idyllic scene of a “silent night” where baby Jesus wears a halo and doesn’t cry tends to obscure that he was a real baby. Suffering people need to see a Jesus who is fully human. In fact, the same Jesus who wept at Lazarus’s tomb also cried in Mary’s lap. The little Lord Jesus, much crying he makes.
On the other hand, some treat the incarnation in a way that obscures the full deity of Jesus. This is less of a temptation for evangelicals who are generally zealous for Christ’s Godhead. But there is one common error along these lines that centers on a misreading of the beautiful Christ hymn in Philippians 2:5–8:
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Before we can address what it means for Christ to “empty” himself, we must understand what it means for him to be equal with God before all ages.
The Form of God
Verse 6 speaks of Jesus Christ being “in the form of God” and “equal with God.” We already alluded to Matthew 1:23 which plainly states that Jesus is God. Before the author of Hebrews tells us that the Son took on flesh and blood (Heb. 2:14), he refers to Christ as God (Heb. 1:8), the Son of God (Heb. 1:5), the eternal, unchanging Creator of all things (Heb. 1:2; 1:10), “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3).
Matthew records Christ’s genealogy going back to Abraham (Mt. 1:2) and Luke goes back further to Adam (Lk. 3:38), but John goes back before “the beginning” of Genesis 1:1 to show us that the Son preexisted creation and has been eternally with the Father. As Jesus himself says, “before Abraham was, I am” (Jn. 8:58), the “I AM” of Exodus 3:14. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn. 1:1). In the beginning was the Son, and the Son was with the Father, and the Son was of the same nature or substance as the Father. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14).
The Son was not created by God, nor was the Son begotten in a moment of time. He is always and forever the Son, eternally begotten by the Father. The Nicene Creed teaches us to confess faith in
One Lord Jesus Christ,
the only-begotten Son of God,
begotten of the Father before all worlds;
God of God, Light of Light,
very God of very God;
begotten, not made,
being of one substance with the Father.
Whatever is true of God is true of the Son. Philippians means nothing less when it speaks of his “equality with God.” As true God, the Son must have all the divine attributes.
Creation would cease to exist if the Son stopped sustaining it.
Consider just a few of these attributes. God is unchanging (immutable). Malachi 3:6 says, “I the Lord do not change.” Hebrews 13:8 applies this to the Son: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” In the eternal Son of God, “there is no variation or shadow due to change” (Jas. 1:17). Moreover, God is present everywhere (omnipresent) and able to do whatever he pleases (omnipotent). The Psalmist asked, “Where shall I flee from your presence?” (Ps. 139:7). This too can be said of the eternal Son, the divine Word of God. The Son fills every inch of the universe, and “he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3). Creation would cease to exist if the Son stopped sustaining it. This is what Jesus meant in John 5:17 when he said on the Sabbath, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” On the seventh day, God rested from his work of creating, but he continued his work of sustaining. If God for a moment stopped sustaining his works, they would drop out of existence.
The Form of a Servant
This brings us to verse 7. Christ Jesus “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”
Some have taken this to mean that the Son set aside some of his divine attributes to become a man. More moderate forms of this theory claim that Jesus only gave up the exercise of some of his attributes. A variety of views that interpret this passage as indicating some kind of divestiture on the part of the Son fall under the category of kenosis theology.
A familiar stanza from Charles Wesley’s beloved hymn “And Can It Be” has often been interpreted in this way:
He left His Father’s throne above,
So free, so infinite His grace;
Emptied Himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race:
“He left His Father’s throne above” seems to suggest that the Son stopped being with God in heaven, setting aside or refusing to exercise his omnipresence. In hymns, Hallmark cards, and Christmas programs, it’s common to hear that Jesus “left heaven” to come to earth. The additional phrase “emptied himself of all but love” seems to suggest that the Son set aside some of his other divine attributes—perhaps his justice or wrath, favoring pure mercy instead. Since I love this hymn, I choose to give Charles Wesley the benefit of the doubt and interpret it in a deeply metaphorical sense.
Whatever it means for the Son to empty himself, it cannot mean that he set aside some of his divine attributes.
Whatever it means for the Son to empty himself, it cannot mean that he set aside some of his divine attributes. This would be inconsistent with the fact that, as God, he cannot change. His humanness cannot limit his God-ness, because God-ness is by definition unable to be limited. How, then, should we understand this verse?
A simple reading is best. Christ “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” Christ’s “emptying” is not about losing something (subtraction of divine attributes), it is about adding something (addition of human nature). The Son eternally had the divine nature and could have grasped at it—come in glorious power to demand worship from his human creatures. But in the incarnation, he condescended in compassion, adding a second nature—a human nature—to his person. The “emptying” is an abasement or humiliation—an embracing of the “form of a servant” to die on the cross for us and for our salvation. Fred Sanders puts it well:
Actual kenoticism in Christology tends to treat the incarnation as a kind of diminishing transmogrification by which the Son stops being what he is and turns into something lesser. But of course “what he was he remained; what he was not he assumed” (Nazianzus, etc.). In classical Christology, the sense in which Christ emptied himself is not that he dumped out divine nature (or certain “parts” of it), but that he took on human nature.
Veiled in Flesh the Godhead See
In hymnody on the incarnation, I much prefer Charles Wesley’s choice of words in “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”:
Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord,
Late in time behold him come,
Offspring of the Virgin’s womb:
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus, our Immanuel.
Wesley beautifully captures the full humanity and full deity of Christ. The word “veiled” is especially important. The classic Christian doctrine is not so much kenosis as it is krypsis, which means “hiding” or “concealing” (i.e, veiling). Luke Stamps explains,
The kenotic model is a relatively recent theory of the incarnation, with roots in 19th century German Lutheranism. Older interpretations of Philippians 2 understood the Son’s self-emptying, not as an actual divestiture of deity, but as a refusal to demand that his deity be recognized, if it should interfere with the divine purpose to save. It was, as Oliver Crisp has suggested, not so much an actual, metaphysical kenosis as it was a divine krypsis: a veiling of the Son’s forma Dei (form of God) under the guise of the forma servi (form of a servant). This understanding is consistent with the oft-cited Patristic formula that the Son of God became what he was not, without ceasing to be what he was (e.g., see the Hilary quote above). It is also consistent with the so-called extra Calvinisticum: the notion that the Son of God is not limited to nor circumscribed by his human nature, even in his incarnate state, but instead continues to live out, so to speak, his immutable divine life along with the Father and the Spirit.
Stamps mentions a famous quote from Hilary of Poitiers: “He did not lose what He was, but began to be what He was not. He did not cease to possess His own nature, but received what was ours” (On the Trinity 3.16). Athanasius is a helpful guide for understanding the implications of this vital point. In On the Incarnation, he explains that the Word continued to be present at every point in the universe even as he lived and moved in his human body:
For he was not enclosed in the body, nor was he in the body but not elsewhere. Nor while he moved that [body] was the universe left void of his activity and providence. But, what is most marvelous, being the Word, he was not contained by anyone, but rather himself contained everything. … So also, being in the human body, and himself giving it life, he properly gives life to the universe also, and was both in everything and outside all. And being made known from the body through the works, he was not unseen even from the working of the universe. (17)
While the Jews of Galilee witnessed the power of the Word in the miracles of Jesus, Gentiles at the ends of the earth could still witness the Word in his works throughout the universe. He simultaneously laid in the manager and hung the stars, including the star that the wise men used to seek him. Athanasius contrasts the Word to ordinary humans who can see the sun but are powerless to move it.
But such was not the case for the Word of God in the human being; for he was not bound to the body, but rather was himself wielding it, so that he was both in it and in everything, and was outside everything, and at rest in the Father alone. And the most wonderful thing was that he both sojourned as a human being, and as the Word begot life in everything, and Son was with the Father. (17)
The Word simultaneously laid in the manager and hung the stars, including the star that the wise men used to seek him.
The divine Word was never limited to the body that he took on. He continued to be present in every nook and cranny of the universe, upholding all things by his power, as Charles Wesley gladly celebrated:
See th’ eternal Son of God
A mortal Son of man,
Dwelling in an earthy clod
Whom heaven cannot contain!
Sadly, we have lost this “most wonderful” and “most marvelous” truth through the influence of kenotic theology. In a recent email exchange with a fellow pastor, I was asked about kenosis and recommended several resources including Athanasius. He later responded,
I’m like a lot of people, thinking of “kenosis” as Jesus limiting Himself in some way(s) in order to live on earth. For example, that he was temporarily limited to being in one place or temporarily limited in knowledge (e.g., only the Father knows when Christ shall return). We have seen Him as a sort of lesser figure for the 33 years or so that He lived on earth. What you and I have talked about these last few days has been a revelation to me. The idea that Jesus walked about as a man, but at the same time inhabited eternity and continued to sustain the universe, is a phenomenal thought! Yet I see that it must be true, for, as you said, Jesus cannot cease to be fully God. I have never read any of the early theologians such as Athanasius, assuming that they would be too difficult to understand (and, indeed, following his close reasoning sometimes makes my head clog up a bit), but much of what he says has not been that hard to grasp. My world is going through a bit of a revolution.
I share this (with permission) because it illustrates the far-reaching consequences of the popular emphasis on Christ “leaving” heaven or “emptying” himself in the sense of divesting or limiting parts of his divine nature.
The divine Word was never limited to the body that he took on. He continued to be present in every nook and cranny of the universe, upholding all things by his power.
This is why the one person, two natures theology of the Chalcedonian Creed is essential for interpreting Scripture. In the name of being “more biblical,” we have often been told to set aside our theology when reading the Bible. But the church fathers presented the creeds as guides to Bible reading. These settled truths prevent a flat reading of Scripture that quickly leads to heresy. When Jesus said that only the Father knows the hour of his return (Mk. 13:22)—to use the example mentioned by my pastor-friend above—we must interpret this as a reference to Christ’s human nature. The unchanging Word is unlimited in knowledge, presence, and power.
For Us and For Our Salvation
In conclusion, consider verse 8: “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Christ’s ultimate humiliation was to die the cursed death of crucifixion, “becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13).
In light of what we know about the divine and human natures, we must conclude that the death of Jesus is properly attributed to his human nature. The divine nature cannot suffer or die. “For this reason he takes to himself a body capable of death,” writes Athanasius, “in order that it, participating in the Word who is above all, might be sufficient for death on behalf of all, and through the indwelling Word would remain incorruptible, and so corruption might henceforth cease from all by the grace of the resurrection” (On the Incarnation 9). He shared in flesh and blood “that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:15).
All of this is intended to humble us: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (Php. 2:5). In Immanuel, we see the divine Word—unchanging in power and presence—embracing the form of a servant. If he chose a paltry birthplace, a poor family, a sorrowful life, and a cursed death, all for us and for our salvation, how ought we to live and love this Christmas?
- No matter how we describe the incarnation, our creatureliness requires the use of analogical language; however, a word such as “descended” is generally preferable to a word such as “left” (as in “left his Father’s throne above”). “Descended” is still temporal-spatial language that accommodates our finitude, but it was used by our Lord and has mostly positive content (he came down from heaven). It states what the Word did; it does not exclude his simultaneous, continued presence in heaven as the omnipresent God. “Left,” however, has primarily negative content (he ceased to be in heaven); it seems to exclude his continued omnipresence. God can do what we cannot do—”go” somewhere without leaving where he was. Of course, it is perfectly acceptable to speak of Christ “leaving” the earth after the incarnation, because this refers to his human nature which is limited by definition.