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When we read in Philippians 2:4-7

4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 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. (ESV)

what does Paul mean by "emptied himself"? Does he mean God "puts aside" his divine attributes when he takes the form of Jesus? Do the other letters of Paul help provide insight as to what he has in mind?

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  • This could work well here, but would need reworded as this site is not interested in answering "in light of" doctrine. If you want the doctrinal answer, this question would work quite well as written at the Christianity Stack Exchange. If you want a text only answer, this is the place, but you need to significantly reword the question. Let us know which you prefer (both is also an option).
    – ThaddeusB
    Oct 7 '15 at 23:59
  • BTW, welcome to Stack Exchange! We are glad you are here. If you haven't done so already, you may want to read up on how this site is a little different than other sites around the web.
    – ThaddeusB
    Oct 7 '15 at 23:59
  • @ThaddeusB both would be great! Thank you for letting me know. Oct 8 '15 at 0:26
  • Great, go ahead and (re-)ask the question at C.SE - just specify what perspective you want (e.g. "Catholic", "Lutheran", etc. would work or "adherents to the doctrine of hypostatic union" would also work). I'll edit the Q here so it fits within guidelines - feel free to reedit it to better capture what you want to know.
    – ThaddeusB
    Oct 8 '15 at 0:37
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The Greek text of Phil. 2:5-8 according to the Nestle-Aland 28th edition states,

5 Τοῦτο φρονεῖτε ἐν ὑμῖν ὃ καὶ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ, 6 ὃς ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ, 7 ἀλλ’ ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν μορφὴν δούλου λαβών, ἐν ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων γενόμενος· καὶ σχήματι εὑρεθεὶς ὡς ἄνθρωπος 8 ἐταπείνωσεν ἑαυτὸν γενόμενος ὑπήκοος μέχρι θανάτου, θανάτου δὲ σταυροῦ. NA28

which may be translated into English as,

5 Have this mindset in you which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, originally existing in the form of God, did not consider being equal to God something to be grasped, 7 but rather, he emptied himself when he took [the] form of a servant, when he was made in the likeness of men, and when he was found in manner as a man. 8 He humbled himself when he became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

In v. 5, the apostle Paul commands the Phillipians to "have this mindset in you which was also in Christ Jesus." The lemma φρονέω does not simply refer to the momentary act of thinking, but having a relatively permanent mindset or frame of mind. A few verses earlier, the apostle Paul also urged the Phillipians to “have the same mindset”1 and mentions “having the same one mindset.”2 He elaborates what constitutes this mindset in the next verse when he writes,

3 Let there be nothing after strife or vainglory, but rather, in humility, esteeming one another better than themselves. 4 Let not each man look on his own things, but also let each man [look on] the things of others.

3 μηδὲν κατ’ ἐριθείαν μηδὲ κατὰ κενοδοξίαν ἀλλὰ τῇ ταπεινοφροσύνῃ ἀλλήλους ἡγούμενοι ὑπερέχοντας ἑαυτῶν, 4 μὴ τὰ ἑαυτῶν ἕκαστος σκοπεῖτε, ἀλλὰ καὶ τὰ ἑτέρων ἕκαστος NA28

In vv. 2-3, there are some notable words:

  • v. 2:

    • τὸ αὐτὸ φρονῆτε (“have the same mindset”)
    • τὸ ἓν φρονοῦντες (“having the same one mindset”)
  • v. 3:

    • κενοδοξίαν (n.; lemma κενοδοξία), meaning “empty pride; vain glory.”
    • ταπεινοφροσύνῃ (n.; lemma ταπεινοφροσύνη), an abstract noun meaning “humility” or “humble-mindedness.”
    • ἡγούμενοι (v.; lemma ἡγέομαι), meaning “to consider, esteem.”

The words on the left correlate to the words on the right:

+-------------------------+--------------------+
| τὸ αὐτὸ φρονῆτε (v. 2)  | φρονεῖτε (v. 5)    |
| τὸ ἓν φρονοῦντες (v. 2) | φρονεῖτε (v. 5)    |
| ἡγούμενοι (v. 3)        | ἡγήσατο (v. 6)     |
| κενοδοξίαν (v. 3)       | ἐκένωσεν (v. 7)    |
| ταπεινοφροσύνῃ (v. 3)   | ἐταπείνωσεν (v. 8) |
+-------------------------+--------------------+

Some may wish to assume the associations are mere coincidences, but I think otherwise.

The apostle Paul states that the Lord Jesus Christ “emptied himself” (ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν). The verb ἐκένωσεν is conjugated in the aorist tense, indicative mood. It is followed by three aorist participles: (1) λαβών, (2) γενόμενος, and (3) εὑρεθεὶς. The action of each of these aorist participles is concurrent with the action of the aorist indicative verb. That is to say, the Lord Jesus Christ emptied himself:

  • when he took the form of a servant (μορφὴν δούλου λαβών)
  • when he was made in the likeness of men (ἐν ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων γενόμενος)
  • when he was found in the manner as a man (σχήματι εὑρεθεὶς ὡς ἄνθρωπος)

These participial clauses specify when the emptying occurred (which basically refers to the incarnation), but they don't tell us what the Lord Jesus Christ emptied himself of. That answer I believe comes from the word κενοδοξίαν in v. 3. The apostle Paul commanded the Philippians to “let there be nothing after strife or vainglory.” The word “vainglory” is translated from κενοδοξίαν, which basically comes from two words, κενός, meaning “empty,” and δόξα, meaning “glory.” It seems to me that the apostle Paul is contrasting the manner of the Philippians with that of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Philippians were conceited with a baseless self-pride or empty glory. On the other hand, the Lord Jesus Christ, who indeed had a legitimate basis for pride and glory, being equal to God the Father with whom he had glory before the world was,3 emptied himself of such glory upon his incarnation.

The apostle Paul also commands the Philippians to let there be things [done] “after humility.” On the other hand, the Lord Jesus Christ “humbled himself when he became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” Again, the aorist participles following the aorist indicative paints the action of the participle as concurrent with that of the verb. Therefore, the humiliation occurred during the crucifixion, or perhaps, culminated in the crucifixion.

Summary: The Lord Jesus Christ “emptied himself” when he incarnated, that is, (1) when he took the form of a servant, (2) when he was made in the likeness of men, and (3) when he was found in manner as a man. He emptied himself of the glory which he had with God the Father before the world was, not his divinity or deity.


Footnotes

1 Phil. 2:2: «τὸ αὐτὸ φρονῆτε»
2 ibid.: «τὸ ἓν φρονοῦντες»
3 John 17:5

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  • I'm curious: what prompted you to use "mindset" as a rendering for the φρον- terms? Are you just following 2011 NIV, or is there something else implied? Thanks!
    – Dɑvïd
    Jul 19 '17 at 9:48
  • @Dɑvïd—Don’t exactly recall the reason, but it is not uncommon. See Fee, on this page, 11.
    – user862
    Jul 19 '17 at 18:55
  • 2
    Helpful, thanks. I'm seeing this more and more. My own sense is that "mindset" (a word that originated in 1909 in psychology, according to OED anyway) is not a good equivalence for the phron- words in Philippians, but I think I'm in a minority on that. ;)
    – Dɑvïd
    Jul 20 '17 at 13:10
  • Equivocation makes it obvious that this verse proves that Jesus is not equal to God. Jesus' own words settle the issue of equality John 14:28 but others impose on him that which he rejected. Apr 22 at 16:27
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The context suggests that it means that he divested himself of all privilege. This is also very well attested usage of the word:

κενόω fut. κενώσω; 1 aor. ἐκένωσα. Pass. aor. ἐκενώθην; pf. pass. κεκένωμαι (s. κενός; Trag., Hdt. et al.; pap; Jer 14:2; 15:9; Philo; Jos., Ant. 8, 258 v.l.) ① to make empty, to empty ⓐ of desertion by an earthly spirit, pass. κενοῦται ὁ ἄνθρωπος the man is emptied Hm 11:14. ⓑ of divestiture of position or prestige: of Christ, who gave up the appearance of his divinity and took on the form of a slave, ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν he emptied himself, divested himself of his prestige or privileges Phil 2:7 (s. ἁρπαγμός 2 and JRoss, JTS 10, 1909, 573f, supported by WWarren, On ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν: JTS 12, 1911, 461–63; KPetersen, ἑαυτ. ἐκέν.: SymbOsl 12, ’33, 96–101; WWilson, ET 56, ’45, 280; ELewis, Interpretation 1, ’47, 20–32; ESchweizer, Erniedrigung u. Erhöhung bei Jesus u. seinen Nachfolgern ’62; HRobinson, The Cross in the OT ’55, 103–5; RMartin, An Early Christian Confession ’60; JJeremias, TW V 708, holds that the kenosis is not the incarnation but the cross [Is 53:12], and defends his position NovT 6, ’63, 182–88; D Georgi, Der Vorpaulinische Hymnus Phil 2:6–11 in Bultmann Festschr., ’64, 263–93; JHarvey, ET 76, ’65, 337–39 [Adam typology]; the counter-cultural perspective in this vs. contrasts w. the view of Eteocles in Eur., Phoen. 504–9).—Cp. πολλοὶ ἐκενώθησαν many have been turned into fools Hs 9, 22, 3. ② to cause to be without result or effect, destroy, render void or of no effect (Vett. Val. 90, 7) τὸ καύχημά μου οὐδεὶς κενώσει no one will deprive me of my reason for boasting 1 Cor 9:15. Pass. κεκένωται ἡ πίστις faith is made invalid Ro 4:14. ἵνα μὴ κενωθῇ ὁ σταυρὸς τοῦ Χριστοῦ 1 Cor 1:17. ἵνα μὴ τὸ καύχημα ἡμῶν … κενωθῇ so that our boast about you might not prove empty 2 Cor 9:3 (cp. καύχημα 2).—DELG s.v. κενός. M-M. EDNT. TW. Spicq.

Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 539). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

This also reinforces my proposition made elsewhere that in Phil 2:5, μορφή means "state". That is, that though the Christ was "in the state of a god" he "divested himself of position/prestige" and "took upon himself the status of a slave".

Note that in the BDAG entry noted scholar J. Jeremiah proposes that the kenosis is "death on the cross" rather than incarnation, and I agree with that, or at least think it likely. Since Jesus was independently wealthy from his birth and surrendered it all the his ministry he leaves an example to follow. Of course, if he was in the status of a god in the sky and gave that up that would accomplish the same thing.

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The "Kenosis" (emptying) of Jesus has a HUGE literature - most of which is unnecessary because the answer to the meaning of "emptied Himself" is actually in the very following words. But first note the grammatical pivot that this verb, κενόω, in Phil 2:7 has:

(V6) Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to.

<< but emptied Himself >>

(V7, 8) taking the form of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross.

Under the entry for κενόω (which only occurs 5 times in the NT), BDAG has this helpful statement:

of divestiture of position or prestige: of Christ, who gave up the appearance appearance of His divinity and took on the form of a slave, ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν he emptied Himself, divested himself of His prestige or privileges, Phil 2:7

The NLT had adopted this into its translation of V6-8 -

Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to.

Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;

he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

Ellicott is more specific -

(7) But made himself . . .—This verse needs more exact translation. It should be, But emptied (or, stripped) Himself of His glory by having taken on Him the form of a slave and having been made (or, born) in likeness of men. The “glory” is the “glory which He had with the Father before the world was” (John 17:5; comp. Philippians 1:14), clearly corresponding to the Shechinah of the Divine Presence. Of this He stripped Himself in the Incarnation, taking on Him the “form (or, nature) of a servant” of God. He resumed it for a moment in the Transfiguration; He was crowned with it anew at the Ascension.

Barnes is helpful too -

he (Christ) assumes a more humble rank and station. In regard to its meaning here, we may remark:

(1) that it cannot mean that he literally divested himself of his divine nature and perfections, for that was impossible. He could not cease to be omnipotent, and omnipresent, and most holy, and true, and good. ...

(3) this supposes no change in the divine nature, or in the essential glory of the divine perfections. When the sun is obscured by a cloud, or in an eclipse, there is no real change of its glory, nor are his beams extinguished, nor is the sun himself in any measure changed. His luster is only for a time obscured. So it might have been in regard to the manifestation of the glory of the Son of God.

The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary is most explicit:

  1. made himself of no reputation, and … and—rather as the Greek, "emptied Himself, taking upon him the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men." The two latter clauses (there being no conjunctions, "and … and," in the Greek) expresses in what Christ's "emptying of Himself" consists, namely, in "taking the form of a servant" (see on [2384]Heb 10:5; compare Ex 21:5, 6, and Ps 40:6, proving that it was at the time when He assumed a body, He took "the form of a servant"), and in order to explain how He took "the form of a servant," there is added, by "being made in the likeness of men." His subjection to the law (Lu 2:21; Ga 4:4) and to His parents (Lu 2:51), His low state as a carpenter, and carpenter's reputed son (Mt 13:55; Mr 6:3), His betrayal for the price of a bond-servant (Ex 21:32), and slave-like death to relieve us from the slavery of sin and death, finally and chiefly, His servant-like dependence as man on God, while His divinity was not outwardly manifested (Isa 49:3, 7), are all marks of His "form as a servant." This proves: (1) He was in the form of a servant as soon as He was made man. (2) He was "in the form of God" before He was "in the form of a servant." (3) He did as really subsist in the divine nature, as in the form of a servant, or in the nature of man. For He was as much "in the form of God" as "in the form of a servant"; and was so in the form of God as "to be on an equality with God"; He therefore could have been none other than God; for God saith, "To whom will ye liken Me and make Me equal?" (Isa 46:5), [Bishop Pearson]. His emptying Himself presupposes His previous plenitude of Godhead (Joh 1:14; Col 1:19; 2:9). He remained full of this; yet He bore Himself as if He were empty.

I agree - Jesus remained God but laid aside His divine privileges and humbled Himself to become obedient as a servant to God's leading during the incarnation. Note the unmistakable parallel between "the form of God" being exchanged for "the form of a servant"!! Further, this emptying was a voluntary act because Jesus "emptied Himself".

The prologue to the Gospel of John (1:1-18) makes the same point: Jesus (= the Word) was with God and was God; but became flesh and lived for while among us.

APPENDIX - Other occurrences of κενόω

  • Rom 4:14 - For if those who live by the law are heirs, faith is useless and the promise is worthless,
  • 1 Cor 1:17 - For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with words of wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
  • 1 Cor 9:15 - But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this to suggest that something be done for me. Indeed, I would rather die than let anyone nullify my boast.
  • 2 Cor 9:3 - But I am sending the brothers in order that our boasting about you in this matter should not prove empty, but that you will be prepared, just as I said.

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