“Christ Emptied Himself”
“Christ Jesus, 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.”
Paul’s phrase “emptied himself” has caused much controversy and confusion for people of faith. It can mean “to pour out” so as to make empty or void or to render useless (Rom. 4:14; 1 Cor. 1:17) or it can be used metaphorically to “give up status or privilege.” Some have interpreted this verse to mean that Christ relinquished his divinity when he became human but this would contradict Paul’s writings elsewhere and is not even consistent with his portrait of Christ in his letter to the Philippians.
To gain a better understanding of the phrase we must allow context to determine its usage. In Philippians chapter 2, Paul calls upon the Christians to unite in love and humility (1-4) which is exemplified by Christ’s humble service (5-11). He draws on Old Testament texts like Adam’s rebellion (Gen. 1-3) and Isaiah’s poems of the Suffering Servant (Isa. 40-55). This poetic explanation of Jesus’ humility, self-giving love, and submission to the Father is meant to inspire the Philippians to follow in Christ’s footsteps.
The command for unity (1-2) — “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.”
Paul is not doubting that any of these are so. Rather he uses the condition (“if”) to provoke the Philippians to unity and love. He is saying, ‘Because all these graces are a reality in Christ’ “complete my joy” by being unified in love. Remember, Paul was writing from jail (1:12-13). Although he maintained his joy through his trials, to hear that the Philippians were behaving like Christ would “complete” his joy or bring it to perfection (3 Jn. 4).
Being “of the same mind” and “of the same love” does not imply a boring uniformity, like a hive of bees or a group of robots. Rather, the Philippians were to retain their individual identities and diversity of gifts and employ them in a cooperative spirit for the glory of God and the good of others (cf. 1 Cor. 12; Rom. 15:2).
The command for humility (3-4) — “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.”
Rather than looking to advance their own agenda through self-centeredness and self-promotion (like Paul’s opponents, 1:17; 2:21) they were to be humble. “Conceit” is looking after oneself exclusively while humility does not merely apply the same level of concern for self to others but counts others as even “more important” than oneself. It must be said that humility is not thinking less of oneself but rather thinking more of others, raising their esteem in one’s own mind. But who possibly live in such a way?
The perfect example of humility (5-11) — “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.”
To motivate this radical way of life, Paul traces the Messiah’s journey from heaven to earth and back again. Jesus set the pattern for spiritual maturity: the Christian life is the opposite of a selfish power grab, it is the selfless surrender of power for the love of others. All Christians should possess this way of thinking (“have this mind”).
Before his incarnation, Jesus pre-existed in a state of glory and “equality with God” (Jn. 1:1; 17:5, 24). He shared the “form” of God, his exact nature (Heb. 1:3) and became the visible expression of his glory (Col. 1:15). Amazingly, Jesus did not think that possessing this equality should lead him to hold onto it at all costs. Instead of holding onto it he let it go all for the benefit of others (Rom. 15:3). This is love and humility par excellence.
Unlike Adam who tried to seize equality with God, a thing he had no right to do (Gen. 2:16-17; 3:5), Christ, who rightly possessed equality with God, gave it up to become human. He “emptied himself,” that is, he relinquished the status and privileges of heaven but not his divine nature. This dual nature of Jesus as both divine and human is one of the great mysteries of our faith. Instead of trying to explain it, Paul assumes its truth and argues from it.
From there, Paul shows the great depths of humility to which Christ willingly and lovingly lowered himself. Not only did God become “human” but he took on the “form” (cf. v.6) of a “servant.” Not only was he a servant but was perfectly “obedient” and his humble obedience led him to “the point of death.” This was not just any death but the worst kind of death, “even death on a cross.”
Paul takes us from the divine majesty and perfection of heaven to the ultimate form of degradation and humiliation. But Christ’s humiliation serves as the grounds for his exaltation. For his demonstration of perfect love and obedience (“Therefore”), God raised him from the dead and entrusted him with the highest name and authority (Mt. 28:18; Acts 2:33; Rev. 19:16). Not only this, but Paul quotes Isaiah 45:23 to show that the one true God of Israel (YHWH) consists of God the Father and the Lord Jesus. In the day of judgment, all of creation will universally recognize his Lordship.
Paul gives this robust Christology so that we would be like Jesus and serve others in humility. If we strive for love, unity and humility we will be exalted with Christ (Rev. 3:21; 22:4).