Name and Place for September 2 (’14)
There is a tremendous debate, especially in the 20th century, over what is called the kenosis theory. This odd term is the English transliteration of the Greek verb found in Philippians 2:7, ἐκένωσεν (“eh-ke-no-sen”), which means “to make of no effect” or “to empty”. The debate has centered on what Paul is trying to tell us about Jesus: did he somehow cease to become God, “emptying” himself of what it meant to be divine, or is there a more profound point he’s making?
David Wells gives a beautiful explanation in God in the Whirlwind (93-94),
We also see that Christ did not clutch onto his place in heaven (Phil 2:6) but joined with the Father in the plan to redeem lost sinners. He joyfully set aside his status and “emptied himself” (Phil 2:7). He who had been in the “form of God” took on what might be seen as its antithesis, “the form of a servant” (Phil 2:7). This, though, is an optical illusion. God, in his essential nature and as an outcome of his love, was also by nature a servant. So Christ obscured his divine attributes, putting them into abeyance, and took on the life of an inconsequential servant. He entered our life with all of its quarrels and discord, its arrogance and deceit, all of its godlessness, its self-serving spiritualities and misleading religions. He was met, not with the worship which was his due, but by great “hostility against himself” (Heb 12:3). He was also met by the full force of the lying, leering, murderous evil in Satan. You know the “grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul says as he reflects back on all of this, that “though he was rich,…he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).
Are we to suppose that in the far mists of eternity, when our calling and redemption were only in the mind of God, Christ was unaware of what this would entail? Was he caught by surprise after he became incarnate? Do we ever hear him reproaching the Father for not having told him what this mission of redemption would cost? Of course not! The point about Christ’s love is that he knew. He knew from the very start. But such is this love, this self-giving, self-sacrificing, self-abasing love that he freely and joyfully gave of himself to do what had to be done, knowing all that was entailed. Indeed, there is no other motive sufficient to account for what he did than this extraordinary love. For only this kind of love would pay the cost which this kind of mission required. He saw that his own self-giving reached a greater end by becoming incarnate than by not so doing. He willingly chose not to enjoy the worship of angels in a place of utter holiness for an uninterrupted eternity for the gain that redemption would bring.
The point Paul was making in Philippians is not what Christ stopped being, but what he already was; not that Christ “gave up” on his identity, but that he embraced it in a way completely consistent with his pre-existent identity with his Father: loving service.