Posted by: T. Boyd | February 28, 2013

Understanding the Kenosis of Jesus – “He emptied Himself”

Philippians 2:5-8 (NASB)

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

As I read the New Testament, I sometimes find a passage that puzzles me.  Many theologians believe that Jesus, in His divinity, retained His omniscience, knowing all things.  And some of them explain that in the passages where He seems to not know something, that it means that He was self-limiting Himself at those times.  Others think that He was limited by the incarnation itself to not know everything.

Here are some examples of passages that seem to show He did not know everything:

  • Mark 13:32 (ESV) “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father”
  • Luke 8:45-46 (ESV) “And Jesus said, “Who was it that touched me?” When all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the crowds surround you and are pressing in on you!” But Jesus said, “Someone touched me, for I perceive that power has gone out from me.”
  • Luke 2:52 (ESV) “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.”

Those passages still puzzle me, but the one that has my present attention is the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, which He prayed three times: Luke 22:42: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.  Nevertheless, not my will, but your, be done”.

This “cup” is explained very well by Pastor Michael Daily in the article: What is in the cup .  I am wondering why Jesus prayed this prayer.  Of course I understand in a very limited fashion the agony He was facing the next few hours, and was praying for strength to go through with it.  But surely He knew that this was the only way that redemption could be granted to mankind, that this was the reason He came from heaven to earth.

Maybe this is one of the many mysteries that the Bible does not reveal at this time.  After all, it says in 1 Peter 1:12: It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.”  If the angels are longing to understand some things, then it should not be surprising that there are many things we too long to look into.

Speaking of longing, I am in hopes that some of you will respond in the comment section below or through email or Facebook with your thoughts about it.  Thanks.


  1. I asked a friend, Doug, to comment on my questions about what does the emptying of self by Jesus mean, and to talk specifically about the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. Here is what he wrote in part:

    Phil 2, as you have probably read, gives us the theological justification for some form of “kenosis.” It says Jesus “emptied himself, taking on the form of a man.”

    The question has always been, what did he empty himself of? Liberal/critical scholars suggest that Jesus emptied himself of his divinity, becoming man only.

    Conservative scholars, rightly wanting to preserve the divinity of Jesus, have said that he only emptied himself of his glory. They cite Isaiah 53 for justification, saying that Jesus was formerly worshiped in heaven as being glorious, but he became one whom we “esteemed not.”

    I agree that Jesus AT LEAST emptied himself of the kind of glory that many conservative scholars mention. But I think we have to say that he emptied himself of something else, too. I’m unwilling to go where liberal/critical scholars go, since I don’t think Jesus did (or even could) cease being divine.

    Therefore, we are left to conclude that Jesus emptied himself of certain rights, privileges, and abilities that only God has access to. He didn’t cease being God, but he ceased using some of his divine power.

    For example, it says in the Gospels that “no one knows the day and the hour of the Son of Man’s return, except for the Father.” I don’t think Jesus was lying, so this is a very clear instance of his not knowing something. That’s only a problem, however, if you think that God is someone who, BY DEFINITION, knows all.

    A better definition of what it means to be God, however, is someone who HAS ACCESS to all knowledge. Of course, God doesn’t have to “think.” So this language isn’t the best. The real philosophical terms for what we’re talking about are essential attributes versus accidental properties. An essential attribute is a quality that someone or something MUST have in order to be that thing. An accidental property is something that someone MAY have as they kind of thing.

    For example, to be human is to be made in the image of God. Therefore, the image of God is an essential attribute of humanity. Having two arms and legs, however, are accidental properties of humanity. Humans normally have these, but if you lost an arm tomorrow in an accident, you wouldn’t cease to be human.

    So, when Jesus became man, he gave up (“emptied himself”) of certain divine properties, without giving up any of the divine essential attributes. Whatever it means to be God, Jesus has and was. But that doesn’t mean that Jesus, in his humanity, could do all that God could normally do. The obvious example of this is that Jesus was not omnipresent while on earth.
    He was “restricted” to the limits of his human body. In a similar way, he was not omniscient while on earth. He did, at times, have special access to the infinite knowledge of God. And he did, throughout his whole life, have the kind of special leading that comes with being fully dependent upon the Spirit (as Luke’s Gospel makes quite clear).

    The reason this gives us hope is that Jesus wasn’t a “superman.” He was a regular man in the same way that you and I are. He lived a life of complete trust in the Father and total reliance upon the Holy Spirit. Jesus is, therefore, the supreme example of what it looks like for men and women to be redeemed. That is why we are being conformed into his image (Rom. 8:29), through the redeeming work of his death and resurrection.

    To summarize:
    1) God is the kind of being who is able to know all things and be at all places.
    2) Jesus took upon himself certain limitations in order to be fully human.
    3) These limitations were not a denial of his divine essence/being, but they were a limitation on some divine properties (e.g., omniscience, omnipresence, etc.).
    4) Therefore, Jesus was fully and truly God and man at the same time.
    5) As a man he lived the perfect life of faith and dependence upon the Spirit.
    6) As God, he was empowered to do these things without failing, and to do them on behalf on the rest of the humankind for our redemption.

    [About the Garden of Gethsemane}:
    The key phrase is “if it be possible…”
    I’m guessing here, but it seems reasonable to conclude that Jesus, in the restrictions of his humanity, may not have known whether or not it was possible to proceed any other way. He knew the ancient stories of Israel’s God, the promise for redemption–which meant the coming kingdom and the new creation. It may be that he was asking in anguish for God to accomplish these things another way, if possible, than through his own death.

    That doesn’t offend me, because Jesus went through with it anyway. It wasn’t a reluctance that was FORCED, but a genuine reluctance of anguish, overcome by his greater desire to do his Father’s will.

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