The christological hymn in Philippians 2:6-10 is certainly profound. However, the phrase ‘but made himself nothing’ (Phil 2:7) has given rise to much speculattion. The Greek phrase literally means ‘but he emptied himself’ as CEB puts it. However most English translations avoid the literal meaning. The English Standard Version has it as ‘but made himself nothing’ and KJV has it as ‘But made himself of no reputation.’ The original word comes from the Greek word KENOW which means ‘empty.’
The resason why the translations avoid the literal translation is to avoid a debate called Kenosis Theory. This theory was propounded in the beginning of the 19th century with good intentions. It proposed that Jesus in his incarnation was limited in omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence. Then there were many variations of the theory down through the centuries. This theory tried to explain why Jesus in his human form seems to have limited in his knowledge—he doesn’t know the times and days appointed by the father. Seems to have limited power—he did not resist the arrest. He was limited by his language and culture—he lived and died as a Jew.
I have nothing more to add to this debate but would like to use insights from these discussions to understand this ‘helpless babe’ that Graham Kendricks popularized through his song, ‘The Servant King.’
The meaning of the word ‘empty’ is not in the word itself but in what Jesus revealed to us about himself in words and deeds. I want to suggest that ‘emptying’ here gets a new dimension of meaning. Just two aspects of it. In becoming man, he did not leave his divinity nor did he become less divine. But ‘emptying here’ implies two things: first of all he restrained his divine power and secondly, he veiled his glory.
On the very outset would like to make another observation. Jesus prayed in John 17:5, ‘And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.’ This does not mean a glory that was lost but a glory that was veiled.
Instead of suggesting that Jesus was devoid of his divine power I would like to suggest that he was still with the divine power but restrained it and used it discreetly. It is true that Jesus did not resist when he was attacked physically. Once they tried to push him over the cliff and kill him. It is also true that he did struggle with hunger pangs. At Jacob’s well in Samaria we find him thirsting for water.
But the Gospels also present another side of Jesus’ power. He exercised his power over domains where humans have no authority over. This is evident in his exorcisms and nature miracles. Here his power over the domain of Satan and the nature as the creator is evident.
The Jewish and Hellenistic excorcists of his day used means to drive out demons. For example in the Book of Tobit the demon called Asmadaeus was destroyed using a strange mixture fish gall and other herbs which angel Raphael prescribed. But Jesus did not drive out demons by the helpe of any means. They just dreaded his presence, and they were driven out by the power of his word. As creator God he exercised his power over the nature—over the waves and the wind. He was not powerless but in his incarnation he just restrained his power and used it discreetly.
This power he did not gain through training, as he grew up. He did not cultivate these skills, but he was born with it as the Word became flesh. The babe in the manger was not a helpless babe. But he was born with power to help the helpless and hopeless. However, he took the form of a helpless babe.
Secondly in his incarnation Christ did not give up his glory, but he simply veiled his glory.
However, a plain reading of John 17:5 may suggest that he was devoid of his glory in his incarnation. Here he prayed: ‘And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.’
What does this mean? Does this mean that he was devoid of the divine glory while he was on earth? I think the emphasis of the passage is on two different aspects. First of all, the emphasis here is on ‘glorifying’ than on glory. Glorifying simply means acknowledging the glory that is already there than bestowing the glory. Secondly, we must also note that the emphasis is on the place than on the state. It has to do with being in a glorified position in heaven, after his resurrection, ascension and session on God’s right hand. It doesn’t imply that he was without glory on earth.
The evidence that he was with glory on earth but veiled and not devoid of it is narrated than stated. The Gospel accounts provide us with enough evidence to this fact. Just as he restrained his divine power in his incarnation, he veiled his glory within the flesh that he chose to put on in his incarnation.
However, it had at times broke through the thick cover of human flesh that he put on. One such instance is the Transfiguration that we find in Mark 9.2-3.
And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them.
Every miracle, especially the nature miracles, in particular the one where he walked defying the wind over the waves was display of his glory and power as the creator of the world.
This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him. (John 2:11 ESV).
So, his closest disciple would later reflect on their life together on earth in the following words.
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14 ESV).
He was born with this glory; it is not gathered over the years. The baby in the manger was not a helpless babe! He was God in all glory but a veiled glory. It was not glory to dazzle feeble human eyes but to be revealed very discreetly.
There were people who were touched by his glory and power throughout his period of incarnation! They are the disciples who witnessed his miracles, those who experienced his power, those who testify that they saw his glory.
He maintained that power and glory even at the height of his physical weakness and shame. The soldiers who came to arrest him in the Garden of Gathsemene are witnesses to this. They saw him when he was at the lowest of his human state. He was holed up in a garden at night, spent the whole night pleading with God to avoid that moment, however failed. He was sleepless and hungry, deserted by his own dear friends. It was at that moment the soldiers came to arrest him. However, when he said ‘I am he’ they experiened the divine power of those words and his presence and ‘drew back and fell to the ground’ (John 18:6).
Another example is the Roman centurion who was in charge of Jesus’ execution. He recognized in the bleeding, weak, dying Jesus the Son of God. The Gospel of Mark records:
And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he 1 breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son 2 of God!” Mark 15:39 ESV.
So we conclude that the baby was cute, weak and adorable. However, he came with to us in a manger restraining his power and veiling his glory. He did not cultivate power and glory through a tapas or training. This our king, born in a manger. Looked helpless. But full of divine power and glory!