He Emptied Himself

Philippians 2: 7

Philippians_2_5-7The verb “to empty” is used elsewhere in the Pauline Epistles four times (Rom 4:14; 1 Cor 1:17; 9:15; 2 Cor 9:3), and in each instance it is used metaphorically in the sense of “to bring to nothing,” “to make worthless,” or “to empty of significance.” Context should always determine the meaning; and in the present context the verb refers back to what immediately precedes and its action is explained by the words which immediately follow. Instead of holding onto his privileges, Christ gave up his divine rank by taking on the nature of a servant. The TEV rendering brings out this meaning, he gave up all he had (Goodspeed “but laid it aside”; Phillips is even more explicit, “but he stripped himself of every advantage”). What was given up is not simply the opportunity to become equal with God, but the equality with God itself, namely Christ’s divine status or rank of dignity and glory (John 17:5). Unless one is careful in the translation of he gave up all he had, the implication may be that Jesus lost completely all of his divine attributes. Accordingly, some translators prefer to use as a substitute for the phrase all he had such a phrase as “his status” or his high position.

18-kenosisAnd took the nature of a servant translates a participial phrase, literally, “taking the form of a slave.” The aorist participle denotes that the action is simultaneous or contemporaneous with that of the main verb, “he emptied.” It also has an explanatory force; that is, Christ surrendered his divine rank “by taking” the nature of a servant. The word rendered nature in this clause is the same as the one used in verse 6. Obviously, the nature of a servant is intended as a sharp contrast to the nature of God. Christ did not disguise himself as a servant; he became a servant, expressing in his deeds complete and absolute submission to the will of God. The heart of the matter is to show that Christ gave up the highest possible status and took on the lowest possible role. Christ did not merely exist in a servant’s condition; he lived in humble service. In order to make the expression took the nature of a servant contrast with had the nature of God, it is important that the two expressions be as parallel in form as it is possible. For example, if had the nature of God is rendered as “was just like God,” one may then translate took the nature of a servant as “he was just like a servant.” In such an expression, of course, one must avoid any terminology which would suggest mere pretense.

Loh, I.-J., & Nida, E. A. (1995). A handbook on Paul’s letter to the Philippians (p. 59). New York: United Bible Societies.