What is meant by the phrase “Christ emptied Himself” in Philippians 2:7?

January 18, 2019
George Ferrier

This Christmas we have contemplated again the eternal Son’s incarnation. But what did it mean for the transcendent One to draw near? In Philippians 2:7 we read that He “made Himself of no reputation and took upon Him the form of a servant.” The word translated “no reputation” literally means “to empty or abase.”1 In becoming a servant, the Son humbled Himself.

Clearly this does not mean that He stripped Himself of His divine attributes. In the previous verse we read, “who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God.” The word “being” indicates that He continued to be fully God in time as He always was in eternity. For God’s attributes include His immutability: “For I am the LORD, I change not.”2 The word “form” means to outwardly express one’s inward nature.3 Therefore giving expression to the essence of Deity implies the possession of Deity.4 His incarnation was not a subtraction but rather the adding of a human body with a human nature. A song writer once wrote, “a sign shall be given, a virgin will conceive, a human baby bearing undiminished deity.” On earth Christ continued to fully possess and communicate His divine nature. In the gospels we see Him demonstrating His omniscience5 and omnipotence.6 On numerous occasions He would even override the properties of His Own creation.7 Even while on earth He continued to be the omnipresent God.8

Instead, Christ’s emptying is illustrated in the Old Testament drink offering which was to be entirely poured out to God. The word translated “robbery” can mean either to unlawfully grab something, or to hold onto an already held possession at all costs.9 Considering the context of humility and submission in Philippians 2, it is best to understand it in the latter sense10 – that Christ did not consider His “positional equality” with God something to tightly grasp. It was not a treasure to be held fast (Gifford). As to His person He remained equal to God. As to His position He descended to a lower place. He was willing to temporarily relinquish His position by becoming a servant. God’s faithful Servant emptied Himself of self.11 Focusing solely on doing God’s will, He completely poured out His life to Him.12

Just as He temporarily laid aside His outer garments to take a towel and wash His disciples’ feet13, so in His incarnation He temporarily took the form of a bondservant. Waiving His right to manifest His majesty, He veiled it in human flesh, temporarily laying aside His outer glory. He lovingly relinquished the “legitimate and natural desire for deity to be glorified.” An incalculable gulf existed between heaven’s glory and His earthly sojourn. Though still possessing the prerogatives of deity, He restrained Himself, only exercising His divine power when it was His Father’s will. He utilized it only to serve others, never for His own comfort. He temporarily gave up heavenly joys for normal human conditions like hunger and fatigue. He temporarily gave up the renown of heaven for the shame of the cross. Truly He made Himself of no reputation.

However, after His death, resurrection and ascension, the Father returned Him His glory.14 He also seated Him at His right hand, giving Him the name above all names.15 Someday Christ will return to earth – this time to rule. At that time His name will be known and honored over the whole earth.

1. Strong’s Comprehensive Concordance of the Bible (Iowa Falls, IA: World Bible Publishers, Inc., 1986)
2. Malachi 3:6
3. Wuest’s Word Studies from the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), vol. II, p. 62
4. Ibid., vol. II, p. 63
5. Matthew 12:25; 22:18; John. 1:48; 2:4; 13:1, 11
6. Matthew. 4:23-24; Mark. 5:25-34; Luke. 4:30; John. 18:6
7. Matthew. 17:27; Mark. 4:39; John. 6:11-13, 19
8. John 3:13
9. Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc. Publishers, 1985)
10. Wuest’s Word Studies from the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995), vol. II, p. 64
11. Isaiah 42:1; Luke 22:42
12. Isaiah 53:12; Heb. 10:7
13. John 13:3-12
14. Luke 24:46; John 17:5
15. Psalms 110:1; Ephesians 1:20-22; Philippians 2:9-11

If you have a question for this column please submit it to gferrier@cornerstonemagazine.org.