Understanding And Applying The Kenosis

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Theology is life, or so it says on the t-shirts. But the real truth is that theology must impact life, any theology, no matter how orthodox, that doesn’t shape the way life is lived is worthless. R.C. Sproul put it this way in his helpful basic systematic theology, Everyone’s A Theologian:

The purpose of theology is not to tickle our intellects, but to instruct us in the ways of God, so that we can grow up into maturity and fullness of obedience to Him. That is why we engage in theology.[1]

Perhaps no passage in the New Testament  has so tickled intellects and been the subject of more idol theological curiosity than Philippians 2:5-8, often called the Kenosis of Christ.

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

It is easy to see why this passage arouses such curiosity, questions like what does it mean that Jesus was in the form of God and what does it mean that He emptied Himself jump out from the text. And that is why there has been so much written about these verses and there has been so much thought and speculation about these verses.

And quite frankly, these verses frightened me. From the time I headed to seminary, I worried about preaching these verses. I knew that, in all likelihood, the day would come when I would stand in the pulpit and preach these verses to God’s people, and I didn’t want to get them wrong. I had read so much about these verses, how one misstep or misspoken word results in profound Christological heresy, about whether these verses were part of a hymn, and whether Paul wrote or simply appropriated the hymn and if he appropriated it did he modify it (and how and why). All of this had me afraid to preach these verses out of fear that I would somehow mishandle them.

To make matters worse, when I started to plan preaching through Philippians other pastors started to ask me how I was going to handle the kenosis. Then an odd thing happened, I actually started to preach through Philippians.

One of the things I do as part of my preparation to preach is that I bookend my week by reading the book (or section of a book) I am preaching through in its entirety in one sitting. So by the time I was getting down to the nitty gritty of preparing to preach Philippians 2:5-8, I had read through Philippians as a whole dozens of times in recent months. And in doing so, one thing was very clear about Philippians 2:5-8; it’s not a passage, it’s part of a passage.

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. – Philippians 2:1-11

This passage is not about the hypostatic union or Christology, although certainly a very high Christology is presented, it is an exhortation to self-sacrifice for the benefit of others (or in the context of the letter, the whole of the local church).  The example of Christ’s humility in the incarnation, as well the detailing of His eschatological exultation support Paul’s exhortation to self-sacrifice and unity. Discussions of the kenosis of Christ that ignore the context, especially the command to unity and to eschew pursuing self-interest (the word “only” or “merely” is not in the original) in the body, miss the point of the passage.

The key question to ask when interpreting any text is “what did the author intend his readers to understand?” Paul (the human author) and the Holy Spirit (the divine Author) didn’t intend for the Philippians to discover deep propositional truths about Christology or eschatology, they intended the Philippians to grasp a profound truth about sanctification, pursuing Christlikeness means laying aside the pursuit of self-interest and that selflessness results in divine reward.

As far as what it means that Christ emptied Himself we don’t have to puzzle over or theologize or speculate, the text itself tells us. He emptied himself by 1. taking the form of a servant, 2. being born in the likeness of men and then 3. humbling Himself in obedience to the point of death, 4. even the death of the cross. And all of this is the opposite of counting equality with God a thing to be grasped.

I think it all boils down to how Christ stepped off of the high throne of heaven to be born in a stable, for the purpose of going to the cross. The one who was high and lifted up in Isaiah 6:1-5 was lifted up on the cross and subjected to the most painful and humiliating death the Romans had to offer. The one who owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Ps 50:10) had to cry out for mother’s milk. And all of this according to His own will.

And when it comes to application, when you are seeking to rightly apply any passage of Scripture the first question to ask is, “is there a command to obey?” And in this case, there is, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” In other words, think like Jesus. The recounting of the incarnation from Christ’s perspective answers the question “how did Jesus think.”

Paul commanded the Philippians to lay aside self-interest and to count others as more important than themselves. They might well have wondered how to do that. Paul answers “Think like Jesus!”

Paul’s command is a command for us too. And you know how to lay aside self-interest, consider others as more significant than yourself, and to pursue radical Christian unity? Think like Jesus!

(For my full exposition of this text click here.)

[1] Everyone’s a Theologian p. 13

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John Chester

About John Chester

John serves the saints of Piedmont Bible Church, a Grace Advance church plant in Haymarket Virginia, as their shepherd, a position he has held since 2012 and hopes to serve in the rest of his life. Prior to being called to ministry John worked as a lacrosse coach, a pizza maker, a writer, a marketing executive, and just about everything in between. John is a graduate of The Master’s Seminary and The Grace Advance Academy. He hails from The City of Champions, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, and is unbelievably blessed to be married to his wife Cassandra.