Jesus: His Self-Effacement

The Mind of Christ   Philippians 2:5-11    

This portion of Scripture is so dynamic, it has taken on its own title: The Kenosis. The word is derived from the Greek ekenosen, meaning “to empty,” for these verses place emphasis upon the self-emptying of Christ—how He divested Himself of His heavenly glory and stooped to take on the form of a human being—for the sake of all human beings.

“Have this same attitude in you that Jesus had; think as He thought, Who, existing in the form of God, did not reckon equality with God as a prize to be grasped and retained, but emptied and impoverished Himself, divesting Himself of all prerogatives and privileges, consenting to take on the nature of a servant. He appeared among us as a man, abasing Himself in obedience, even stooping to die a criminal’s death on a cross.”   (paraphrased)

There is no passage where the opposite extremes of Jesus’ magnanimity and humility are brought into such sharp comparison. The contrast in this passage is between what He was in His pre-incarnate state and what He became during His days on earth. Paul shows the difference between Jesus’ inner character and how He appeared in the eyes of men. 

Paul had been pleading for unity among the Philippians. Their need provided him with the opportunity to launch into what is perhaps the greatest Christological passage in the entire Word of God. To the church to whom Paul most endeared Himself, he sets forth Jesus as the supreme example of obedience and selflessness. The humility which Paul urges upon them finds its perfect illustration in the Person of Jesus Christ. Paul makes practical use of the Incarnation and Calvary to show how humility is essential to unity. All attempts to explain the combination of Jesus’ deity and humanity will ultimately fail us for words. Since we cannot understand our own human nature, how can we hope to comprehend the nature of God Himself?

Commentators have toiled in the dark for centuries, attempting to explain the depths and riches of this single passage. No hasty translation can do justice to this text. Praising God in other tongues is the only way to express our gratitude to God for what this portion of God’s Word means to believers.

“Let this mind”

“Mind” (phroneo) refers to our inner thoughts—what we think deep in our hearts. Our evaluation of circumstances, as believers, must be with the same attitude Christ had as He faced challenges. We must think “WWJD” – What would Jesus do?

Jesus willingly divested Himself of His royal robes of divinity and put on the sackcloth of humanity. Since we have the “mind of Christ” (I Corinthians 2:16), we must strive to think as he thought, and be controlled by an attitude of selflessness.

What mind was in Jesus? The mind of a servant.

“be in you”

Be “in your hearts.” Paul desires the church at Philippi to see things through Jesus’ eyes, to take on the characteristics of Christ. Jesus exemplified servant hood when He cleaned 120 dirty Palestinian toes on the feet of His disciples the night before He died. Although the Son of God never kissed anyone’s feet, He did wash them. Peter said, “You will never wash my feet!” ( John 13:8). John the Baptist said in John 1:27, “I’m not worthy to loosen His sandals,” as if in preparation to wash His feet. Jesus came to minister, not to be ministered unto (Matthew 20:28). He did not let His divine nature get in the way of His servanthood. Since part of God’s nature is to serve others, how can we do less? As Jesus set aside His privileges and prerogatives to serve others, so must we.

“which was also in Christ Jesus”
This worldview of servanthood was in the heart of Jesus, for it is part of His holy character. Servanthood defines Messiah-ship.

Meditate on this passage and pray about what it means to empty yourself of yourself. Selflessness is not popular in the 21st century nor was it popular in the first century. It is part of that narrow road that His true servants must walk.

Philippians 2:6 expresses the manifestation of the glory of Jesus in His pre-incarnate state, while verse 7 expresses the manifestation of His godly humility in His incarnate state. The nature and substance of the Father was perfectly manifested and epitomized in Jesus’ earthly life.

“Who, being in the form of God”

The term “form of God” is en morphe theou, and refers to His original, pre-incarnate, pre-temporal state. Morphe (form) does not refer to a disguise, nor the outward appearance or bodily form or to shape (as does the word “fashion” in verse 8), but rather expresses the inner, essential, abiding nature and character of God. He is “the image of the invisible God” (II Corinthians 4:4).  As He possessed the real attributes of deity, so He took upon Himself the real attributes of servanthood .

“thought it”

“Thought” here refers to “a judgment based on the facts.” Here we have insight into what Jesus is actually thinking, for His attitude is described. Paul takes us back to Christ’s pre-incarnate state as expressed in John 1:1-10, where John tells us that the “Logos became flesh and tabernacled among us” (John 1:14). Jesus never viewed His mission as competing with the Father, but as complementary to the Father’s will. Jesus calculated that our salvation was more important than the glories of heaven and the agonies of the Cross.

“not robbery”

“Robbery” (harpagmos) does not carry the concept of theft, but usually means “to snatch violently, to cling to; to seize; to hold fast.” However, here it is used in the passive sense concerning “a thing seized.” He did not regard His equality with the Father as something obtained dishonestly. Jesus did not regard His deity as a treasure or “a piece of good fortune” to be clutched and retained at all costs—a prize which must not slip from His grasp.

Jesus didn’t need to clutch what He already possessed. In taking human form, He simply temporarily renounced His equality with God. Harpagmos is here interpreted as the holding onto a privilege which might be to one’s advantage if the possessor chose to exploit it. But He steadfastly refused to use His position for any selfish advantage. Christ didn’t concern Himself with retaining the outer manifestations of deity which He had prior to the Incarnation. Jesus was not stealing honor from God when He accepted the honor men gave to Him. He did not exploit His position and privileges, for that would have been at cross-purposes with His Father’s will. 

“to be equal with God”

Although Christ already possessed the dignity of His position within the Godhead, He did not assert His rights, but rather waved His rights. Jesus surrendered certain aspects of His deity to embrace the will of the Father—to accept both the Incarnation and the Crucifixion. “They sought to kill Him, because He made Himself equal with God” (John 5:18). In His pre-incarnate state, Christ already possessed His unique place within the Godhead, but chose to shroud His glory within His humanity. But in divesting Himself of the prerogatives of heaven, Jesus neither detracted—nor sought to detract—anything from the Father’s glory.  Jesus only did those things which pleased the Father ( John 8:29). He states that He and His Father “are one” (John 10:30) and “He that has seen Me has seen the Father”( John 14:9).

We must dare to consider and compare the self-effacement and humility of Jesus with our own.   

Embodied in verses 7-8 are all the aspects of Jesus’ 33 years on earth:

His birth – “made in the likeness of men” – verse 7
His Life – “form of a servant” – verse 7
His death – “the cross” – verse 8

“but made himself of no reputation”

Whereas humans often struggle to gain a good reputation, the Son of God did not.Reputation is keno which means “to deprive oneself; to be of no value or effect; to be made void.” Jesus accepted the consequences of the renunciation of His rights, thereby opening Himself to all the hell on earth Satan could heap upon Him during His days here. “He emptied Himself” (heauton ekenosen),  a phrase found no place else in the New Testament. It carries the idea that He made Himself as nothing. Jesus voluntarily divested Himself in order to fill the subordinate position as the Lamb of God.

However, the question prevails: Exactly what did Jesus empty Himself of?
He divested Himself of something…but specifically what we are not told.

We can only assume Paul is referring to Jesus’ rights and privileges, not His deity. He emptied Himself of opportunities to fully use His divine attributes and powers although He did many divine miracles during His sojourn here. What He willingly emptied Himself of is best interpreted in light of the verses which follow.
Jesus didn’t see His reputation among man as important. The Lord did not use His divine powers for His own benefit. He performed no self-serving miracles. Jesus surrendered none of His divine attributes, only His external manifestation as God. In becoming a human being, He did not empty Himself of deity—just the form of deity. For example, the young king in “The Prince and the Pauper” was still the king, though in a peasant’s clothing. Catch a glimpse of Jesus on a mountain with His disciples. He allowed His Shekinah glory to shine briefly only once prior to His resurrection on the Mount of Transfiguration (Luke 9:32). There the outward expression of His deity was manifested. Had He chosen to do so, Jesus could have made one small step upward from the Mount and returned to heaven, yet he returned from that mount to climb Mount Calvary to die for us.

It should be noted that Scripture indicates no point in time when a “Trinitarian decision” was made that Jesus should incarnate – become a human being. The “self-emptying” of Jesus was in the heart of the Father since time immemorial. Jesus did not become a servant when He came to earth, for servanthood is an inseparable part of God’s nature.

“and took upon him the form”

The term “form” (morphe) is a key word in this passage. This is the same word used of Jesus being in the “morphe” of God in verse six. The meaning is the same. “Form” refers to characteristic attributes—not mere external similarities. It is “the outward expression of the true inner nature and character; the essence actually subsisting in an individual.” Whereas “form” refers to what He was, “fashion” (v. 8) refers to what He looked like to the human race.

Jesus did not shun His mother’s womb. He accepted His Father’s will and incarnated. But Jesus did not “become” God at the Incarnation. He was God manifested in human form (I Timothy 3:16). His deity predated Bethlehem. He told those who mocked Him that He existed prior to Abraham (John 8:58). Though He temporarily lost the appearance of God, He never lost His essential nature as God. Jesus could not have achieved His earthly purpose had He walked among us in His effulgent glory as He appears in the book of Revelation. Exactly what the Son of God will look like in heaven can only be imagined. It is a portrait that can only be painted in the heart of each individual believer.

“of a servant”

From this we learn that a fundamental aspect of God’s nature is service to others. Jesus demonstrated this by taking a servant’s place. The words “the form of a servant” is a concise description of His humanity. Although He was God, He did not insist on being served. Jesus moved from sovereignty to servant hood. And service characterized the entire life of Jesus (Isaiah 53). The Son of Man came into the world, “not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Note how low the Son of God stooped! He became human!  It was this attitude of humility that lead Him to the cross as the Lamb of God.

“and was made in the likeness of men”

“Likeness” (homoiomati) means that although He did have the appearance of other men and had all the essential attributes of humanity, He appeared in normal, human form as an ordinary man to ordinary men. Becoming man didn’t affect His deity, it only demonstrated it to human beings. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. A.T. Robertson states, “He was the Son of God before He was the Son of Man and He continued to be the Son of God after He became the Son of Man.”

Note that the plural “men” is used here, for Christ didn’t represent one man but the entire human race. Jesus came, fulfilled His mission, ascended, and will return to carry us back with Himself to the very heart of God. 

“and being found in a fashion as a man”

Fashion is schemati, and it is from this Greek word that our English word “schematic” has evolved. The term “fashion” refers to how He appeared in human form. Both words (form and fashion) are used in the single verse of Romans 12:2. The Christian is not to fashion (schemati) himself after the world, but rather to be transformed (morphe) in his inner nature. The contrast here concerns what He actually was (God) and what He appeared to be (man). He wore the clothes of His generation and spoke Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic. Isaiah said that there was nothing in his appearance that made Him stand out in a crowd (Isaiah 53:2). These three words morphe (form), homoiomati (likeness) and schemati (fashioned) all serve to show that, although Jesus was Christ incarnate, He walked among us in appearance as just another human being.

“he humbled himself”

This form of the word “humbled” (tapeinoo) is used only three times in the New Testament: here and in Luke 14:11 and 18:14. Both times it is used by Jesus in the same phrase: “He who humbles himself will be exalted.”  Jesus exercised His rights to wave His rights and emptied Himself of the prerogatives of His deity. He deliberately and voluntarily divested Himself, not of His divine nature, but of the privileges of His deity.

“and became obedient unto death”

Obedience (kuperoos) is Paul’s operative word in this passage. This term verifies that Jesus did not “obey death,” but obeyed His Father’s will by dying on the Cross. Obedience to the cross is the absolute proof of Jesus’ deity, for only the obedient Son of God could chose this death as His destiny. Such a death was the outward sign of His inner devotion to His Father. The cross of Christ illustrated His mastery over death, for when Jesus died, no aspect of His divine nature died. Although the film “The Passion” gives only a brief glimpse of the resurrection, the fact that Jesus lives today is the entire point of His crucifixion.

“even the death of the cross”

Paul points out that dying as a human was not Jesus’ lowest degradation, for He died the death of a condemned, crucified criminal slave. In emphasizing “even the death on the cross”, Paul stresses that this was no ordinary death, but one of intense suffering, shame, ignominy and humiliation. A death so horrible it was reserved for the scum of humanity. Cicero, who lived in the era of Christ, said concerning crucifixion, “Let it never come near the thoughts, eyes nor ears of a Roman.”  Paul, as a Jew, knew that crucifixion meant that that a victim was excommunicated from God’s covenant and is why the cross of Christ was a “stumbling block” to the Jews (I Corinthians 1:23). But Paul boldly asserts that the reason for the kenosis was to purchase our salvation for all who put faith in Jesus.

The bottom rung of the ladder reaching to the throne was the cross of Calvary. How could God stoop so low? He could not have gone any lower. If we refuse to shoulder His cross, to take the same path of shame and spitting, to wash one another’s feet, then we have not allowed “the same mind to be in us which was also in Christ Jesus.” How small our sufferings, acts of unselfishness and forgiveness seem when we compare ourselves to our wonderful Lord Jesus Christ.

“That is why God raised Him to the very highest place, and has conferred upon Him The Name which is above every other name, so that in adoration and veneration of the Name of Jesus, everyone should kneel—beings who dwell in heaven, in earth or in the underworld, and that every tongue should openly declare, that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Paraphrase)

Beginning with verse 9, Paul changes focus. Whereas these last verses leave us at the foot of the Cross, the following ones take us into heaven with Jesus. The previous verses focused on Jesus’ incarnation and death; the following verses emphasize His ascension and glorification. When he wrote to the Ephesians, Paul makes a statement very similar to this:

Take a moment to read and compare Philippians 2:5-11 with Ephesians 1:18-23.

In the previous section (vv. 5-8), Paul gives the contrast between what He was within Himself and how He appeared in the eyes of men. The contrast in the following verses (vv. 9-11) is between what He was from the beginning and what He became after His earthly life.

“Wherefore God hath also highly exalted him”

“Wherefore” – Because of Jesus’ voluntary acts of humility, suffering and death, Jesus has been exalted to the highest possible majestic rank in the universe. It was a long way down from a throne to a cross, but because of the subordinate position which Jesus voluntarily, obediently assumed, the Father has made Jesus’ name glorious. He who stooped so low is now restored to His prior equality with the Father. Though He was exalted prior to the Incarnation, now Jesus’ supremacy over all created beings is manifested by the Father.

“Highly exalted” is huperupsose in Greek and is used only here in the New Testament. Because of Jesus’ work on earth, God has lifted Him even above (huper) the glory which He enjoyed prior to His incarnation. Jesus returned to the Father having purchased salvation for all mankind. Thus, Jesus was not merely restored to His former glory, but in recognition of Jesus’ work of redemption, His name is made famous through the Father. Jesus was spit upon by humans, but promoted by God. Jesus did the work on Calvary, so the Father did the exalting—above all others. Humans performed His execution, but the Father performed His exaltation.

“and given him a name”

The term “given Him” is charisato, and means “to grant, show favor and freely bestow in kindness.” At the heart of this Greek word is the word charis which means grace. The Father has graciously conferred upon the Son an uncontestable title. The word “name” here refers, not to a personal name, but to the office, rank, honor, dignity and achievements of the Person which the name represents. The Greek term does not indicate “a name” but “The name.” His is the ultimate name worthy of all the glory and honor which resides within that name. In the following verse, Paul shows who has earned this special “name” that the Father has reserved for His only begotten Son.

“which is above every name”

Jesus has no competition. No name has ever become as famous. Paul clearly tells us that the name is Jesus. His precious name embodies and represents everything that Jesus truly is. The name dearest to God Himself is the name of Jesus.

“that at the name of Jesus”

A better translation would be “in” the name of Jesus. This is consistent with what Jesus said about the power and authority of His name when He said in Mark 16:17, “In my name they shall cast out devils.”

As if to leave no doubt as to whose name he is referring, Paul gets specific. Jesus received his personal name prior to his birth. The angel Gabriel announced His name would be Jesus (Matthew 1:21), but he did not name baby Jesus. Angels are not sent to name babies. Neither did His mother Mary or Joseph name him. That the name of the Messiah would be Jesus was in the heart of the Father always; and His name, by interpretation, represents everything that Jesus is. The name Jesus, in Hebrew, is simply “Joshua” and means “savior.” The Greek equivalent was “Jesus.” The name Jesus was common, for there were thousands of persons living at the time of Christ named Joshua. But the Father has made the ordinary name of Jesus into a title of honor—a name that will one day be recognized by all created beings as supreme over all others. Paul’s point here is that this Jesus, who is the Christ, is our Lord. It is this specific Jesus, the Son of God, that deserves the worship of all human beings. Only believers can fully appreciate the preciousness of the holy name of Jesus. We must live and die by that wonderful name. “Whatever you ask the Father in my name, He will give to you” (Luke 24:47).

“every knee should bow”

This is an expression Paul borrows from Isaiah 45:23, written seven centuries before the incarnation. A person on his/her knees is one in subjection to another. This phrase was quoted by Paul a few years earlier when He wrote Romans (14:11).

The term “every” is a comprehensive word, encompassing the entire human race, as well as angels and demons. This doesn’t mean that all beings must bow when His name is mentioned, but that ultimately and futuristically, all will recognize who He is and why He incarnated. There is no hint of mere genuflection here, for the term “bow” indicates an open and full acknowledgement of Jesus as Lord and Master.

“of things in heaven”

Hebrews 1:4 states that Jesus has, by inheritance, obtained a better name than the angels. Revelation 5:1-14 depicts a similar heavenly scene of Jesus majesty.

“and things in earth”

Paul refers here to the entire human race, past, present and future. The statement cannot include animals, for animals do not bow and confess Jesus’ Lordship.

“and things under the earth”

The term “under the earth” is katachthonion, referring to departed souls and is a synonym for all who have died. This phrase completes Paul’s summation: all created beings will one day ultimately submit to Jesus’ Lordship.

“and that every tongue”

A better rendering is “that every tongue should thank.”  That is, every person should have a joyful, grateful acknowledgement and proclaim with thanksgiving the Lordship of Jesus. Every peasant and pope and every Hindu and hippie will one day acknowledge Jesus for who He really is—the true Master of the universe.

“should confess”

To confess is “to agree with; to openly admit and acknowledge something.” One day the entire universe will agree that Jesus was who He claimed to be—the One the Father has exalted. Every human, saved or lost, and every angel and demon will verbalize the fact of Jesus’ Lordship. All beings, either on judgment day or sooner than that, will acknowledge that “the truth is in Jesus” (Ephesians 5:21).

“that Jesus Christ is Lord”

Jesus, Christ and Lord are the three primary names and titles of the Son of God. Jesus is His personal name; Christ indicates His Messiahship and Lord refers to His supremacy of all. His Lordship is based on the expressed intention of prophets, hundreds of years before the Incarnation. Jesus said, “I am…the truth” (John 14:6), and “they who worship, must worship…in truth” (John 4:23). Because Jesus is Lord of all, He alone must be the focus of all true worship.

“to the glory of God the Father”

Just as it was the Father’s purpose that His Son be glorified, Jesus’ aim was both to please and to glorify the Father. In John 17:5, Jesus prayed that the Father would “glorify Him with the glory which He had with Him before the world existed.” Jesus’ exaltation to the right hand of the Father was the direct answer to that prayer.

This passage promises great rewards for obedience. As the Father has exalted Jesus as the ultimate example of obedience and humility, we must come to understand that these are the characteristics the Father honors in us as well. “Humble yourself therefore under the mighty hand of God, that He might exalt you in due time” (I Peter 5:6). God enthrones those who are selfless – as He has enthroned His dearly beloved Son. As we exemplify His characteristics of humility, our reward is eternity with Him.


Maxim of the Moment

A problem is a chance for you to do your best. - Duke Ellington