Ask Steve: Kenosis


Currently Reading:

Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians

by Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert, and Nina Shea

Category: Persecution & Conflict / General

2013, Thomas Nelson





Question: Steve, what is the kenosis? What did Christ empty Himself of? How can it be applied to statements that Christ made in verses such as John 5:30 and John 14:28? 

Answer: The study of the deific nature of Christ and how that nature was affected when He became human at the incarnation is called the kenosis. This term comes from the Greek verb kenoo, which means “to empty.” Some take this “emptying” to mean that Christ emptied Himself of His deity in some manner to accommodate His human nature. However, this is not biblical, as Christ remained both fully God and fully man in His incarnation before and after death. This essay will demonstrate kenosis by exploring the meaning of Jesus’ emptying, Jesus’ incarnation, and Jesus’ position in relation to the Father during His incarnation.

The kenosis means that Jesus emptied Himself of His heavenly privileges, which included His face-to-face relationship with the Father (Matt 27:46), the continuous outward display and personal enjoyment of that glory (Jn 17:5), His independent authority in contrast to His constant submission to the Father on earth (Jn 5:30), His divine prerogatives in which He set aside the independent exercise of some of His divine attributes and submitted Himself to the Spirit’s direction (Matt 24:36), and eternal riches since Christ owned little on earth in contrast to His heavenly riches (2 Cor 8:9).

Kenosis is not about what Jesus gave up, but rather what Jesus put on, which is the essence of incarnation. Jesus was fully God (Jn 1:1, 14; Heb 1:3) who took on, or added to Himself, a human nature (Phil 2:7-8;Col2:9). The kenosis is Christ taking on a human nature with all of its human limitations (like us), with no sin. This is absolutely necessary if Christ is to be our substitute on the cross to die on our behalf. If he is less human, then Jesus cannot qualify to be our human substitute or our High Priest (Gal 4:4-5; Heb 4:15). As previously mentioned, Jesus did not divest Himself of His deity, but the privileges that He enjoyed in heaven, and took on human nature so as to live out a fully human life to fulfill the law on our behalf (Matt 5:17). This is how Jesus could be fully God and fully man at the same time.

In relation to verses like John 5:30 and 14:28, Jesus speaks of being less greater than the Father in His humanity, not His deity. When Jesus says, “I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me,” He is not implying that He is inferior than the Father in essence. The same can be said about verse 14:28, when Jesus says, “…for the Father is greater than I.” If Jesus were speaking about divesting Himself of deity, then this would imply Jesus was less God than the Father, which is heresy. These passages speak of Jesus’ earthly submission to the Father as a human (Phil 2:5-8; Jn 5:30; 17:5), since Jesus gave up His divine prerogatives of heavenly privileges to come to earth in order to accomplish salvation for humanity. In this sense, Jesus did became less greater than the Father, which is why He, in His human limitations, was in a greater sense of submission to the Father and was empower by the Holy Spirit’s in all that He did (Lk 4:14; Acts 10:38). However, this in no way takes away from His deity or from our need to worship Him as God. Jesus is both fully God and fully man, eternally equal to the Father and Spirit in essence, but different in role and function in than the Father.

Jesus’ incarnation and limitations may make it appear as if He were less God or that He submitted Himself to the Father in an unprecedented way, but that is not the case. A right understanding of kenosis informs us that Jesus did not empty Himself of His deific nature, but of His divine privileges in the taking on the fullness of humanity (with all of its limitations). This made Him fully man yet fully God at the same time, in which He was still equal with the Father in essence but submitted to Him and could be called lesser than Him while on earth. This full picture of Christ’s nature gives us an accurate understanding of kenosis.