He Emptied Himself


In his letter to the Philippians, Paul cites the 

words of this hymn:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God

did not regard equality with God 

as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave, 

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form, 

he humbled himself 

and became obedient to the point of death –

even death on a cross. (2:6-8, NRSV)    

“He emptied himself.” The Greek word here is kenosis, and theologians past and present have debated what this means. Of what, exactly, did Christ Jesus empty himself? Of course, it was some aspect of his divinity. But what aspect?

John Wesley, in his discussion of these verses in his Explanatory Notes on the New Testament, says that, although possessing “the fulness and the supreme height of the Godhead,” Jesus “willingly relinquished His claim. He was content to forgo the glories of the Creator, and to appear in the form of a creature,” even “to be made in the likeness of fallen creatures.” He became “a real man,” “a common man, without any peculiar excellence or comeliness,” and humbled himself further by dying on the cross.

Yet Wesley also says that although Jesus emptied himself of “divine fulness,” he nevertheless “remained full,” veiling “His fulness from the sight of men and angels.” He was obedient “to God, though equal with Him.”

The point seems to be that Jesus emptied himself to become fully human without losing his divinity. Thus, for both John and Charles Wesley, the humility of Jesus is divine humility, and the cross of Jesus is the death of the Son of God. 

But there is an even more critical point. Wesley is not as concerned with figuring out precisely what Jesus emptied himself of as with proclaiming why Jesus did it. In his sermon “God’s Love to Fallen Man,” he says this:

Beloved, what manner of love is this, wherewith God has loved us! To give his only Son! In glory equal to the Father; in majesty co-eternal.

What manner of love is this wherewith the only-begotten Son of God hath loved us! To “empty himself,” as far as possible, of his eternal Godhead! As to divest himself of that glory he had with the Father before the world began! As to “take upon him the form of a servant, being found in the fashion of a man! And to humble himself still further, “being obedient unto death, yea, the death of the cross!” (¶ I:5)

God is love. And whatever aspects of divinity Jesus emptied himself of, love remained full. 

Perhaps Charles Wesley says it best:

Equal with God, most high,

He laid his glory by:

He, the eternal God, was born,

Man with men he delighted to appear, 

Object of his creature’s scorn,

Please a servant form to wear.

He left his throne above

Emptied of all but love.

(Hymns and Sacred Poems, 1739)