Following the Suffering Servant
The Kenosis Proclamation of Philippians 2 and a Choice Before Us
The word kenosis, which you may or may not have heard before, is significant to reading Philippians 2:5:-11 and our formation as disciples of Christ. It matters because what we read about Jesus Christ in this biblical text is prefaced by saying that we ought to have the same mindset as Jesus Christ. Here is the full text:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.1
Kenosis derives from the Greek verb kenoō, which is usually rendered as “emptied” (v. 7) in its past tense form. The Common English Bible and English Standard Version as well as the New American Standard Bible and New Revised Standard Version all use the word “emptied.” Whereas the New International Version, which reads “he made himself nothing,” and the New Living Translation, which reads “he gave up his divine privileges,” are a little more interpretative in their translations (though I believe they are correct).
The biblical text leaves us with the question of what it means to say that Jesus “emptied” himself. There are three basic options:2
Jesus Christ empties himself of his divine nature.
Jesus Christ simply displays his human nature.
Jesus Christ fulfills the Suffering-Servant prophecy of Isaiah 53.
I believe the third option is correct, as we create other theological problems by claiming that Jesus gave up his divine nature. There is more going on with the crucifixion of Jesus than simply being a human being. So Paul is pointing to Jesus as the Suffering-Servant, but in doing so, Paul describes Jesus as having “emptied” himself by becoming a slave and humbling himself to the point of death upon the cross.
The kenosis proclamation of Philippians 2 says that Jesus did not make himself equal with God but instead gave up his right to be treated as God, submitting himself in humility as a slave to the will of his Heavenly Father through obedience — even subjecting himself to death on the cross. In other words, instead of exerting his divine power to defeat his enemies with his might, Jesus allowed himself to be wronged by suffering the ultimate humiliation of being crucified on a Roman cross. Instead of exerting his rights and the right to be right, Jesus allowed himself to be afflicted and numbered with the transgressors (cf. Isa 53: 7, 12). Furthermore, by emptying himself, Jesus revealed the glory of God upon the cross.3
This kenosis proclamation matters because it reminds us that God’s way of winning was to become the Man of Sorrows on the cross rather than a warrior with a sword. God’s way of winning was by becoming the slaughtered Lamb rather than proving himself right through the exertion of worldly power that forces his way upon the world.
However, as I I write about the kenosis proclamation of Philippians 2, I have another concern. At present, there seems to be a growing number of Christians lauding the idea of Christian nationalism amidst concern for the placement of Christianity in American society. If you’re unsure what I’m talking about, do a quick search online. Religious nationalism merges the tenants of religion with the identity of a nation. In the case of Christian nationalism, we see an attempt to enforce a Christian ethos through state political power.
There are numerous problems with the idea of Christian nationalism that I won’t get into with this post. I want to point out that the kenosis proclamation cuts right against any notion of enforcing any Christian ideology through state political power. Suppose we, as Christians, are to have the same mindset as Jesus. In that case, our embodiment of the kenosis proclamation means emptying ourselves of our rights, assumed privileges, and power — trust God to exalt us in Christ rather than exalting ourselves.
Philippians 2 says that the example of Jesus is our example to follow. My fellow Christians, please hear what I am saying as a pastor: We can try winning our placement on top in society, and we will lose every time. Or we can let go of conventional wisdom for the wisdom of God that prevails through the humility of following the Suffering Servant even to death on the cross. That choice is ours to make, so let’s choose wisely.
Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition Bible, copyright © 1989, 2021 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and are used by permission. All rights reserved.
Moisés Silva, Philippians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1992, 2005, 104.
Stephen E. Fowl, Philippians, The Two Horizons New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 91.