Through the years, some theologians have used Philippians 2:6-7 to defend the idea that the second Person of the Godhead, at the time of the incarnation (when “the Word became flesh”—John 1:14), “emptied Himself” of deity. It has been alleged that whereas Christ existed in the “form of God” prior to the incarnation, He “emptied” himself of that status while on Earth.
Despite the popularity of such ideas in some religious circles, they cannot be proven by citing Philippians 2:6-7 or any other passage in the Bible. In Philippians 2:7, Paul wrote that Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men.” Exactly what did the apostle mean by the phrase, “emptied himself”? Because it is assumed that the verb “emptied” (Greek ekenōsen) requires an object (a genitive qualifier), then Christ must have “emptied himself” of something. However, as Gordon Fee has mentioned in his commentary on Philippians, “Christ did not empty Himself of anything, the text simply says that He emptied himself, He poured Himself out” (1995, p. 210, emp. added). The NIV seems to have captured this sense by stating that He “made himself nothing” (emp. added). The Greek word kenόō literally means “to empty; to make empty; or to make vain or void.” This word is rendered “made void” in Romans 4:14, where Paul stated that “faith is made void.” Faith did not empty itself of anything, rather faith emptied itself. Similarly, commenting on Jesus death as if it had already occurred, Isaiah wrote: “He [Jesus—EL] poured out his soul unto death” (Isaiah 53:12). What did Christ pour out? Himself.
But how does Philippians 2:7 say Christ emptied Himself? “Grammatically, Paul explains the ‘emptying’ of Jesus in the next phrase: ‘Taking the form of a servant and coming in the likeness of men’” (Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary). Unlike Adam and Eve, who made an attempt to seize equality with God (Genesis 3:5), Jesus, the last Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45), humbled Himself and obediently accepted the role of the bondservant. As N.T. Wright stated: “The real humiliation of the incarnation and the cross is that the one who was himself God, and who never during the whole process stopped being God, could embrace such a vocation” (1986, p. 346).
Although this text does not instruct us regarding of what Christ emptied Himself, we can be assured that there was no change in His divine nature. While Jesus was on Earth, He claimed equality with God the Father (John 10:28) and allowed others to call him “God” (John 20:30; Matthew 16:16). He also accepted worship, even though He plainly taught that only God is worthy of worship (Matthew 8:2; Matthew 4:10). If one contends that Jesus was not divine while upon the Earth, then they make Him either a fraud or a madman.
Philippians 2:7 does not teach that Christ emptied himself of His deity. Rather, to His divinity He added humanity (i.e., He was “made in the likeness of men”). For the first time, He was subject to such things as hunger, thirst, pain, disease, and temptation (cf. John 19:28; Hebrews 4:15). In short, He came to Earth as a God-man.
Barnes’ Notes (1997), Electronic Database, Biblesoft.
Fee, Gordon D. (1995), Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary (1986), Electronic Database, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Biblesoft.
Wright, N.T. (1986), “αρπαγμός and the Meaning of Philippians 2:5-11,” Journal of Theological Studies, 37:321-52, April.