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The First Sacrifice: The Meaning of Empty

Last week we began a series of reflections on the significance of the incarnation. The purpose of this series is to help us prepare for the celebration of our Savior’s birth. To do this we are drawing upon Paul’s letter to the Philippians, specifically Philippians 2:5-11. Last week we considered verses 2:5-6 and the significance of Jesus not laying hold of His “equality with God.” This week we will look at v. 2:7, and what it means that Jesus emptied Himself for us.

Christ Jesus “…emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.” – Phil. 2:7

In all the years running up to 2020, I can’t say I ever lived in fear of running out of toilet paper. Like many this year, it was a foreign and strange experience. But week after week of turning the corner of the aisle, still whispering prayers, and finding myself gazing upon yet another empty shelf, I experienced time and again no-TP-phobia (yes, I made that up).  Of course, I wasn’t alone. At the beginning of the hoarding, before stores had to impose limits to cabin the irrationality of the human psyche, a friend told me of an encounter with a friend at Costco, who had filled a shopping cart with the stuff.  My friend asked, “what on earth do you need that much toilet paper for?”  The response: “Well, I have a lot of bathrooms.” Hmmm.

The great toilet-paper run was truly irrational, and like all irrationality, was grounded in fear.  Fear of running out. Fear of being empty. We hate emptiness when it comes to our shelves, our gas tanks, our bank accounts, our sources of comfort or security. So we avoid it at all costs. But fear also drives us toward emptiness – to seek it aggressively. Fear of what is uncomfortable or even just downright bad for us. Whether it’s excess weight, addiction, cancer, or just bad habits, we look to rid ourselves of these things; to be emptied of them.  In other words, our inclination is to avoid empting ourselves of what is good and beneficial, while endeavoring to empty ourselves of what is bad or harmful. We avoid being emptied of strength, and strive to be emptied of weakness. And it is this natural human tendency that renders the word kenosis so strange to us.

Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, tells us Jesus “emptied Himself.” The verb in Greek is κενοω (kenoō), and can mean “to cause to be without result or effect, destroy, render void or of no effect” or “to make empty, to empty.” In the context of Phil. 2:7, the latter meaning takes hold, or more specifically, to make empty by means of “divestiture of position or prestige.”[1] It led to the English word “kenosis”, which refers specifically to “the relinquishment of divine attributes by Jesus Christ in becoming human.”[2]

Theologians have drained many a pen and ink cartridge on what exactly Jesus emptied Himself of in this passage. The clause that follows gives us a good clue – He emptied Himself by “taking on the form of a bond-servant.” In the previous verse, Jesus “existed in the form of God.”  He now empties Himself by taking on the form of servant or slave, by divesting Himself not of His divine nature, but of the glory and power that comes with it, and taking on the lowest position in society. And in doing so, He became “made in the likeness of men.” This is to say Jesus became fully human, but remained fully God. With the exception of sin (and a critically important exception that obviously is), He took on all aspects of the human condition. He took on sorrow (John 11:35); hunger (Mark 11:12); thirst (John 19:28); agony and distress (Mark 14:32-33), weakness (Mark 14:21); pain and suffering (1 Pet. 4:1) and of course death (Mt. 27:50; Mark 15:37; Luke 23:46; John 19:30).  As the writer of Hebrews put it: “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.” Heb. 4:15.

What we see in Philippians 4:7 is a form of emptiness that is antithetical to us.  Unlike our inclination, Jesus emptied Himself of what is good, the position, power and glory of His divine nature.  He set it all aside. And again unlike us, He took on much of the bad of the human condition; that is all of the negative consequences that come with it. But why? Well in one sense, so we could get exactly what we want – to be emptied of what is the worst thing in us – our sin, and be filled with the One who is the best thing for us, the Holy Spirit.  He emptied Himself of immortality, by dying on a cross, to save us from our mortal state.

But He didn’t do it so we could have lives on earth colored by self-preservation. He didn’t do it so we could horde toilet paper, build-up wealth, or live in perpetual fear of disease. He did it for quite the opposite reason, that we might live free of fear in Him.

Last week we were reminded that these verses in Philippians were not intended by Paul to be a mere exposition of the incarnation of Christ. He begins the long sentence that leads to this verse with the words “have this attitude in yourselves.” Phil. 2:5.  Which means “be like this.”  In this case, we are called to be like Jesus by setting aside or not laying hold to power, position, or privilege. We are called to be like Jesus by shedding our inclination toward self-preservation, and putting on the cloak of righteousness and love that cares for others above ourselves. I cannot think of a time when our world needed this more. I cannot fathom an hour when it was ever more critical for us to step up to the plate and be like Jesus.

The true meaning of Christmas is that Jesus gave up the very best of what He had to save us from the very worst of who we are.  My prayer this Christmas is that we might reflect His attitude and truly empty ourselves of what is good (or what we value), be it our money, our time, our energy, or our space. And that we do so to help someone else empty themselves of what is bad; be it hunger, thirst, illness, nakedness, imprisonment, loneliness, or whatever other form of suffering God places before us.  We obviously lack the divine nature required for true kenosis, but we do have the gift and opportunity to reflect it. This Christmas, and every day that follows, may it be.

[1] William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 539.

[2] Dictionary, s.v. “kenosis,” accessed December 12, 2020,