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The Self-Emptying of Christ

There is an unavoidable paradox in a Christianity that calls its leaders to be humble.  This was brought home to me a few years back, on a Sunday morning after church. The assistant pastor had preached the sermon, and in the process of making his point (which I don’t recall!) he had included himself among those who needed to respond to the message. This didn’t bother me in the slightest; it is deep in our preaching tradition, and, if sincere, is very effective, to my thinking. But afterwards in the courtyard I heard a shocked reaction. Samir is a Muslim, the husband of one of our members, who sometimes attends church social functions and visits very rarely on Sunday mornings. We had gotten to know him well enough for him to share with us his honest disgust at what he had heard: how could the church foster someone as a leader who was so clearly a loser? As I attempted to respond briefly but meaningfully, my mind was suddenly spinning at the challenge of bridging the gap between a sincere and legitimate question, and the complexity of the full theological answer it deserved.

Philippians 2:5-11, a text on the short list of any consideration of Christian humility, is also a locus classicus for incarnational theology, with its dense and poignant narration of the path that Jesus took from glory to abasement and back to glory. Paul’s emphasis is not on the Christology, but on the model it provides to the Philippians of a Christian spirituality: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus “ (Phil. 2:5). Paul wants his readers to consider how Jesus followed his path, even if the Church has tended to give much more attention to the substantive issues of nature, essence, form, attributes, deity, and humanity.

Philippians is known as an epistle of joy—a recent reviewer has noted “the countless popular studies on Philippians…, many with the word joy in the title somewhere”1—but the foreground of serious distress, for the church as well as for the imprisoned apostle, is increasingly acknowledged.2 Paul commends the mind of Christ (or attitude, or way of thinking, as it is sometimes translated) because he knows that the Philippian community is struggling: God has been “granted” it to them “to suffer for his sake” (Phil. 1:29). In this extremis, Paul commends to his flock the essential mind-set that was Christ’s in the pain of his own distress: “he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death” (Phil. 2: 8).

Humility and obedience, then, go a long way in giving us the content of the “mind of Christ,” that is, the basic orientation and even motivation that governed all that Jesus said and did (and suffered to be done) during his earthly ministry. The humility is layered and textured: accession to the will of the Father, involving the relinquishing of heavenly prerogatives, the entrance into the existence of the slave rather than a lord, and finally experiencing death itself, and an ignominious death at that. The obedience is entirely strategic, accomplishing the redemption that is the will of God.3 To refuse it would entail an unholy “grasping” or “exploitation” (Phil. 2:6). So this is a humility and an obedience that have the essential character of peace and joy, as the epistle as a whole indicates, and as is clear in the depictions of Christ in the Gospels. In the “mind of Christ,” joy, humility, and obedience define each other.

Much theological effort has been expended on Paul’s observation that “Christ Jesus, being in the form of God,… emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Phil 2: 6-7). Several “kenotic” theories (from kenosis or “emptying”) have been propounded over the centuries to help explain what was laid aside and what retained in the astonishing act of incarnation. Something of a consensus is emerging on the front of Pauline studies, which understands the passage in the following way: “form of God” and “form of a slave/human likeness” point not to a mere surface appearance, but to authentic existence God and as a human.4 Further, those translations—and there are many—which read that “although he existed in the form of God,… he emptied himself” ought to be corrected to more accurate phrasing: “being in the form of God” or even “because he existed in the form of God,… he emptied himself.” That is, the self-emptying is not to be seen as a divestment of deity; on the contrary, it is an expression of deity. Jesus is able to do it because he is God. The act of incarnation is an elegant expression of what God can do that is otherwise to us incomprehensible: in the being and existence of God, he took as well the being and existence of the creature. Surely he “emptied himself” of something; above we used J. B. Lightfoot’s language, that he divested himself of heavenly prerogatives. Without ceasing to be God, he became human. As N. T. Wright has written, “The pre-existent son regarded equality with God not as excusing him from the task of (redemptive) suffering and death, but actually as uniquely qualifying him for that vocation.”5 

I suggest that there is a key here to the paradox in which Christians are called to exercise leadership in humility.6 If Paul describes deity as being able elegantly to function as humanity, it is not a stretch to understand Christian leadership as intended to function and to be empowered precisely in humble solidarity with humanity. Many are the prerogatives of the professional ministry, some of which are arguably necessary to the task. But all professional honors and privileges and prerogatives cut against the very grain of the ministry itself unless they become part of the resources by which we exercise Christian leadership in the mind of Christ: to be there for others, to listen to others, to pray for others, to exert and network for others, and to speak the grace of God to others in the diligence of obedience.  

If you've gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care—then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don't push your way to the front; don't sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don't be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand. Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself…” (Phil. 2:1-6, The Message7).

—Theopulos

To refuse to do it would entail an unholy “grasping” or “exploitation” (Phil. 2:6).



1 D. A. Carson, New Testament Commentary Survey (6th ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), p. 115.

2 See, for instance, Gregory L. Bloomquist, The Functioning of Suffering in Philippians (JSNT Sup 78. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993).

3 Romans 5:12-21 offers a further meditation on the value of Jesus’ obedience: if by disobedience the world was plunged into loss and death, “so by the one man’s obedience” loss and death are overturned decisively.

4 The progress of this discussion can be followed in contemporary critical commentaries such as Peter O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians (NIGTC. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991) pp. 186-270, or, more briefly, Margaret Thrall, “The Epistle to the Philippians,” in Keck, et al., eds, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX (Nashville: Abingdon, 2000), pp. 500-517.

5 Cited in O’Brien, p. 216.

6 Robert J. Wood, a Quaker and sometime dean of Yale University Divinity School, addresses the proclivity of many in his communion to “regard the term ‘Quaker leadership’ as an oxymoron;” he has much to say to other groups in his essay, “Christ Has Come to Teach His People Himself: Vulnerability and the Exercise of Power in Quaker Leadership,” in Richard J. Mouw and Eric O. Jacobsen, eds., Traditions in Leadership: How Faith Traditions Shape the Way We Lead (Pasadena: The De Pree Leadership Center, 2006) pp. 208-221. The citation is from p. 209.

7 Eugene Peterson, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002), ad loc.